17 October 2006

Let me 'splain myself

by Phil Johnson

     wrote, "I think every idea that makes the 'Emerging Conversation' distinctive is a bad idea, and the things I like about a few guys like Mark Driscoll and some others who have identified themselves as 'Emerging' are the very things that run counter to the basic thinking of the bulk of the movement."

Someone in the blogosphere has translated that into Klingon and back to English. Apparently, when you do that, it comes out like this: "Piper, bad! Keller, evil!"

I don't blame anyone for being dumbfounded if they read my remarks through the Klingon Phrase Translator. I certainly did not realize that's what I was saying. I'll have to choose my words more carefully in the future.

Specifically, I was unaware that on some planets the expression "Emerging" is an explicit reference to John Piper and Tim Keller. That's unfortunate, and I suppose it means we're all going to have to come up with new terminology yet again. (First, Brian McLaren and friends commandeer the expression "Emergent." Now this Klingon confusion eliminates the last vestige of clarity from the expression "Emerging" in the Conversation.)

I suppose someone's going to claim that's just another unassailable argument for the necessity of "contextualization."


Instead, let me just try again. What I meant to say was this: Line up all the religious ideas currently floating around the evangelical fringe and you'll find a lot of really bad avant-garde thinking, blended (here and there but not always) with a smattering of some sane biblical principles. Examine all the various ideas individually, and you will notice a trend: None of the good ideas are really novel, and the postmodern innovations are all bad ideas—some of them monstrously bad.

Or (in English, without Klingon) whatever things I might find praiseworthy about certain figures on the less radical side of the Emerging mudslide are the things that make them less radical, not the things that make them "Emerging."

And frankly, I still think if we want to communicate the gospel effectively, even in a postmodern culture, clarity is ten thousand times more vital than "contextualization."

Translating things into Klingon and back may be a very stylish method of contextualization, but, practically speaking, it doesn't really facilitate communication.

Phil's signature


Matthew said...

So... you're saying that John Piper is bad, right?

Matthew said...


Unknown said...

I thought Mark Driscoll considers himself sort of recovering emergent, because he now emphasizes doctrine.

James Scott Bell said...

"Examine all the various ideas individually, and you will notice a trend: None of the good ideas are really novel, and the postmodern innovations are all bad ideas—some of them monstrously bad."

That's one of the pithiest, wisest things I've read about these matters. Well phrased, Phil.

REM said...

Thanks for your own clarity and engaging yourself in the hard work of precise language to defend timeless truths. Thanks for fighting for it. Thanks also for not closing your comments section like a certain watchblog just did today.
But there question that still seems to hover: Is there an allowance of contexualization (I hate that word too) of self in order to preach the gospel (I Cor 9), rather than contextualization of the gospel itself? Is that just doublespeak? And, is it even possible for anyone now to ask that question without first dodging grenades from both sides of the arguement while providing formal interviews with people who know me to prove which camp I am in?

Phil Johnson said...

Andrew: "why don't you take the trouble to explain why you think those postmodern innovations are such bad ideas?"

That's pretty much what this blog (and its predecessor) has been about for the past year and a half. Browse through our archives. Or, for an abbreviated (2.5-hour) summary, download this and give it a listen. It's a free download.

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

RE:Emergent - all that is new and different is bad, some of it monstrously bad

In the early 90s I sat in with small group of Greek aficionados who were reading NT texts together and had a number of discussions with the group leader, went to lunch with him, a likable guy who was actually a Hebraist. About a year later, much to my horror I discovered he was leading a men's study group at his church in an evaluation of Open Theism and apparently he was very positive about it.

About the same time an old friend, a regional director for a campus ministry told me he was reading some Open Theism stuff and at first he seemed rather undisturbed by what he was reading. This led me to conclude that some evangelicals leaders had simply "lost their minds."

My response to Open Theism:

If you take Orthodox Judaism, Islam, and Orthodox Christianity and draw a circle which represents the Doctrine of God for all three, Open Theism is outside that circle. In other words Orthodox Christianity has more in common with Orthodox Judaism and Islam than Open Theism.

I think this might apply equally well to Emergent thinking, but I am no expert on that topic.

Tom Chantry said...

"I was dead. That was my 'context'."

Chris, you're going to be quoted. A lot. Wonderful answer to the whole contextualization morass: brief, incisive and biblical!

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

RE: Contextualization

Contextualization is another word for transculturalization. My favorite example from John 1:29 is "behold the pig of God ... ". Wayne Leman emphatically denies that he and his colleagues practice this sort of thing. However, I clearly recall a lecture given roughly thirty years ago about gospel transculturalization for East African tribal groups where "behold the pig of God ... " was used to illustrate a solution to a problem in contextualization.

LeeC said...

After reading BMs post I dont think he is saying that you think that of Keller and Piper Phil, but instead that he believes that Keller and Piper adhere to some of the distinctives that you denounce.

For the record, if that is what he is saying I don't agree with his assesment of them.

LeeC said...

David responded practicaly and pragmatically when he brought the Ark back to Israel, as did Uzzah when trying to right it.

We don't sit in judgment of Gods ways, but He does sit in judgment of ours.

God will persevere His church in spite of persecutions, doctrinal drift and cultural changes. All we have to do is aboey Him according to His Word.

Solameanie said...

Personally, Phil..I think Phil Keaggy should consider filing litigation against "the movement." Or, more biblically since Christians are involved, church arbitration. I think he's got a strong case here.

You see, one of Phil's early LP albums (on real vinyl) was titled "Emerging." Therefore, Mr. Keaggy has rights to the name in my view. Indeed, he should make his move quickly or he might be charged with being an originator of the ECM. (I'm kidding)

In the meantime, I wouldn't worry too much about how the Klingons mangle what you say. Simply reply:

"I know you think you understand what you believe I said, but I am not certain that what you heard is not what I meant." Or, in true EC fashion, you could adopt some of Humpty Dumpty's philosophy and say "a word (or sentence) means precisely what I want it to mean. No more. No less." (I'm still kidding)

As an alternative to the above, you could borrow Paul Lynde's old line when someone informed the comedian they had heard something negative about him through the grapevine.

"I'm afraid your grapevine has rootrot."

Solameanie said...

BTW, did I ever tell you that you remind me of a Christian version of Kurt Vonnegut? Especially your brief autobiography over at Spurgeon.

Matt Gumm said...

Translating things into Klingon and back may be a very stylish method of contextualization, but, practically speaking, it doesn't really facilitate communication.

Not even with Klingons.

Ignoring the "dead" issue that Chris brought up for a moment, how exactly do you even "contextualize" with a group where everyone wants to have a say in what's said, and few believe in any absolutes to begin with?

Don Green got it right when he said "Jesus Saves" (can't find the sermon on the site, sorry)--we need to say it loudly and often--and make sure people know what exactly he saves us from.

Mark W. said...

In academia, it is already becoming widely recognized that postmodernism is dead. Apparently it died while deconstructing its own systemic self-contradictions. RIP.

If the "emerging" church now follows into the aftermath of postmodern thought (and what is it now, 40 years behind? Contextualize that!) it will be doomed to the same eventual death...and it won't be by the wrath of Khan (couldn't resist), it will be due to exactly what Phil has stated: "really bad avant-garde thinking..."

Very witty, Phil, and how true.

Mark W. said...


You have written, “…it seems to me that the church simply has to respond creatively and imaginatively…to the collapse of Christendom and some far-reaching changes in our culture. It doesn't look optional anymore. The question is: Do we deal with this challenge well or badly?

I think we would do it much better if Christians who believe that the old ways of thinking still work perfectly well would refrain from slamming everything that looks like dangerous innovation”

In your embrace of poststructuralist theory (ala Lyotard, Derrida), you seem to have discarded the notion that the theory’s negation of universals problematizes its own presuppositions. In the field of serious philosophy, one calls this a self-refuting theory and simply moves on (as well you should). However, I’ll concede that postmodern thinking has had, as you say, “far-reaching changes in our culture.” Instead of waving the white flag for no good reason, I guess I choose to combat the flawed poststructuralist interpretation of metaphysics with one that I believe to be more useful and less despairing.

“Do we deal with this challenge well or badly?” you ask. Apparently you have dealt with it by giving up (the “if you can’t beat em, join em” mentality), though perhaps you feel that you are simply trying to produce positive results from “the inside.” You seem to understand postmodernism well enough to know that working from within it is simply not going to lead anywhere.

Why shouldn’t a Christian read the bible via poststructuralist dogma? Very simple, let’s look a something you’ve explained very clearly in your own post “How Will Postmodern Evangelicals Read the Bible?”:

“Just as modernism questioned traditional religious and philosophical accounts of the world, postmodernism has in its turn pulled the rug out from under the feet of the rationalists by questioning the very possibility of knowing anything at all – at least with any measure of certainty. This amounts to an extreme form of epistemological reductionism – in the sense that meaning and truth are never allowed to take root; everything is kept up in the air by an almost obsessive suspicion of socially constructed knowledge.”

If one accepts this Derridean notion of the always already deferment of truth and meaning, then the answer to your title question would be that Postmodern Evangelicals should not read the Bible at all – as it has no meaning. In fact, the only reason that a postmodern reads any text is to draw attention to this deferment of meaning. Therefore, you are asking that “evangelicals” purposefully disallow any meaning in the scriptures.

Hopefully, at thus point, it is already obvious that any such reading of the Bible is anti-Christian in the most basic sense. So, as with poststructuralism in general, your reasoning self destructs in paradox. There are higher power struggles in play here than you may realize, for even while postmodernists continue to tout the end of meta-narratives, their own anti-metaphysical ideology is merely one meta-narrative with which to view reality – and not a very consistent one at that.

Ultimately, it would be more useful to “try harder,” Andrew, and come up with a more meaningful way to address cultural changes than to adopt whatever happens to be the current mode of pop culture today. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, postmodernism is already one the way out in the secular intellectual marketplace of ideas. Christians need not muddle through its abandoned quagmires in order to show that we are competent members of society. Again, try harder, sir…you’re a smart guy.

Bill said...

Phil, I've heard it put even more pithily (is that a word?;0):

"What's true ain't new, and whatever's new ain't necessarily true." (see also Ecc 1:9-10)

Phil Johnson said...

Andrew Perriman:

I do owe you an explanation of why I linked to your article in the context of saying I think postmodern religious innovations are "bad ideas." Time constraints have kept me from giving you the kind of detailed critique you seem to be asking for, and frankly, that isn't necessary to make the point I'm making anyway. But I will give you a shorthand justification for linking your article in that context.

First, however, let me remark on this comment from you:

"To be honest, I can't help feeling that you didn't read the article very carefully."

Since I have said nothing whatsoever about the article, aside from linking it with the words "postmodern innovations" (and suggesting that all such innovations are bad), I'm at a loss to understand why you would think I haven't read you carefully—unless you are assume everyone who reads your article will automatically find your suggestion for how to "to grow a productive postmodern-evangelical reading of scripture" simply wonderful and beyond all criticism.

Which brings me to why I think the idea your article proposes is a bad one: We don't need a new hermeneutic tailored to suit each new fad in the development of secular thought. In fact, our hermeneutic is the very last thing we ought to worry about making stylish.

Moreover, as I have argued at length (both in the recorded message I referred you to and here on the blog) the postmodern idea of "humility" has little to do with true modesty and everything to do with skepticism. It's a terrible mistake for Christians to allow a worldly and wholly novel notion of "humility" to taint our hermeneutic to the point where, in effect, we renounce the perspicuity of Scripture.

So your thumbnail defense of your article, viz.,

"What the it argues for is explicitly an 'integrated hermeneutic'. The postmodern element in it has to do largely with allowing a certain humility and caution in how we speak about truth and make use of it socially and culturally."

...is also a good thumbnail answer to the question of why I think the idea of devising a "postmodern hermeneutic" is a really bad idea.

And to be honest, I can't help feeling that if you had listened to my message or read my blog very carefully, you would have understood this.

Apart from this, I'm unclear what is left in my critique of postmodernism for you to agree with.