Kester Brewin Speaks Up ~ BitterSweetLife

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Kester Brewin Speaks Up

I have to give it to the guys who associate themselves with the Emergent Conversation. Sincerely. They tend to be willing to interact about theology, even with guys like me who are not high fliers with thousands of readers or forthcoming book deals. So while I typically disagree with their theology (or what I take to be their theology since it is not often spelled out to my satisfaction) I applaud their willingness to--well, you know--converse. Some solidly "Reformed" types could learn from them.

Awhile ago, Spencer Burke commented on a post I made about him. And today, Kester Brewin had some thoughts on my review of his book, Signs of Emergence. Here's what he had to say (will make more sense if you read my review first):

You jerk!

Kidding, kidding. Here's what Kester actually said.
Thanks for reading the book and taking time to review it. Someone just sent me a link...

I think your comment that those "who use statistics and scripture deliberately to support their reasoning" is perhaps a good summary of your position.

Actually, I very deliberately didn't try to set out to convince people intellectually. I think doing so can lead away from action, rather than toward it. And in fact, I think we see Jesus doing this very little.

Scot McKnight had a similar criticism: "give me something concrete brother" was his way of putting it. But the whole point of an emergent system is that it is locally grown. There is no model to buy into, and thus the temptation to set out concrete examples needs to be resisted, as people often follow them, rather than the underlying principle.

I'm sorry if you're not sure if we're playing on the same team, or if you consider my view of God and Scripture slippery. The book is clearly for those of robust faith, whose knowledge of Scripture I felt didn't need patronising with footnotes on every nod to a passage... And for those who I felt could handle some different perspectives on faith, from some very different sources. Hopefully that doesn't mean we're on different sides, or I'm just trying to please everyone ;-)

I think Kester Brewin's response was fair enough, and points up both what I liked about Signs and what I found problematic. I'll respond briefly.

I agree that story and suggestion are often more powerful than syllogism. I'm a story guy. I read them and write them, even (especially) during final exams. C.S. Lewis is my favorite author, and it's obvious that sometimes people need to be inspired and sometimes they need a blueprint. Brewin thinks that evolving forms of church (ecclesiology) fall into the former category, and I pretty much agree. Churches in different cities and cultures and centuries can and should look different. So detailed prescription is not helpful.

However, biblical doctrine (theology) is not an evolving animal that changes color and grows new limbs to suit its changing environment. Therefore, while timeless truth can be embodied in story (parables), it is also spelled out explicitly, argued overtly, and defended relentlessly in scripture, and we're encouraged to do likewise.

It's vital to distinguish between what changes and is culturally informed and what is nonnegotiable and timeless. That's why I object to semantic games where theology is concerned.

This is where Kester and I differ, I think. He writes: I'm sorry if you're not sure if we're playing on the same team, or if you consider my view of God and Scripture slippery. The book is clearly for those of robust faith, whose knowledge of Scripture I felt didn't need patronising with footnotes on every nod to a passage...

Problem is, I can't assume we're playing on the same team. How could I? If I knew Kester Brewin personally, if we talked theology over coffee, maybe I would know where he was coming from. As it is, passing comments about God's evolution aren't exciting or stimulating--just puzzling.



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7 comments:

daniel said...

You had me at "biblical".

Will Robison said...

I understand the authors argument, but at the same time, I have to agree with you. I think the tendency to "do church" can get in the way of being a Christian. If this book helps people be a better Christian and do church less, then it has achieved its goal.

Not every book has to be everything to everybody. But, on the other hand, there are four gospels and one history in the New Testament, and everything else is a letter trying to explain how to be a better Christian. The gospels are indeed truly good news, but the letters form the backbone of our church - the whys and hows we can get along and continue doing the work of the Lord.

Getting away from some sort of basic understanding of being a church to run off on some Christian experiment is exactly the sort of thing the early church fathers argued against. While we need to be always mindful of Jesus Christ and live to follow Him, we must also be mindful of each other and work to be better in communion with one another. And there is no grey area when it comes to loving one another - either you do, or you don't. That part of the equation can never be changed.

Kester said...

"Thousands of readers" - I wish! When I say at the back of the book it's a 'short book by an amateur', I'm not just feigning humility ;-)

I think the theology question is a very good one. God is unchanging: I can deal with that. Words-about-God: the very nature of language and 'means' (forgive the paradox) that they won't ever quite stay the same. They require constant work for us to stay abreast of them. Scripture isn't just a hard set of un-alterables. It is far richer than that. That's why there are still so many more sermons to give, surely?

I guess this touches on some of my thoughts about truth, that I blogged about in a little series here: http://kester.typepad.com/signs/2006/04/on_meaning_3_ab.html

To summarize: I think that absolute truth exists, it's just that I don't think any one person or group has access to it. Which is why it will always appear to us that God is evolving... When in fact it is really our understanding of God that is. I tried (and most likely) failed to make that point early on in the book. Oops.

As for the gospels vs Paul bit. Well... I think our modern minds just love Paul and his letters, and perhaps a little too much in Will's case. I find his comment slightly dangerous, to be honest.K

Ariel said...

God is unchanging: I can deal with that.

Excellent. Then we can dismiss the Process Theology allegations, and confine our disagreement to how we talk about our unchanging God.

Scripture isn't just a hard set of un-alterables. It is far richer than that. That's why there are still so many more sermons to give, surely?

Maybe this is where I'm getting hung up. True, the scriptures were birthed in various cultures and languages, and reflect this. But unalterable doctrines (communicated via culturally-informed metaphors, motifs and literary forms) are exactly what I think we need to guard.

Not merely reading verses verbatim in church, as if that was communication, but using exegesis and hermeneutics to translate Jesus' timeless truth into the jargon of evolving cultures.

I think that absolute truth exists, it's just that I don't think any one person or group has access to it...

Again, you lose me. Are you saying, Scratch Sola Scriptura? I think that absolute truth exists as well, but it's available to any person or group who prayerfully opens the Bible. Not ALL the truth, but enough to live on.

...Which is why it will always appear to us that God is evolving... When in fact it is really our understanding of God that is.

I can agree with your conclusion here (C.S. Lewis said something similar) while disagreeing with your premise. The Bible contains unchanging truth, but our perception of God changes as we grow in lived-out-theology.

Thanks, Kester.

Spencer said...

Kester,

Admit it you are a "Heretic"...

Ariel,

Thanks for taking the time to engage...

Spencer

Kester said...

"unalterable doctrines (communicated via culturally-informed metaphors, motifs and literary forms) are exactly what I think we need to guard"

Exactly. So we're back to the problem of language which, as we know, is always problematic, even without having to translate from an ancient script.

But this is the beauty of it. If it was just plain, it would have become exhausted. It is a gift that keeps on giving, because it will never be fully revealed. Yet.

And while it's lovely to think that anyone who prayerfully opens the bible will find truth, I'm afraid that many prayer groups - Rwandan Bishops, Nazis, Neo-Conservatives, Victorian Imperialists - have done just that, and shot well wide of the mark.

It can't just be sola scriptura. But scripture and the community of the spirit. It's never been sola scriptura. That's just romantic nonsense.

Ariel said...

If this discussion ends up in the realm of communication and contextualization, I'll be happy. Since the Bible continually needs to be interpreted and expressed, preaching is a task with weight and glory.

On the Sola Scriptura question. Scripture has a high view of scripture--one which justifies, I think, the kind of radical allegiance we associate with Luther.

True, Jesus' followers are called to live in the community of the spirit. But that community is energized and realized by the reality the scriptures truthfully relate.

The community of believers is a non-negotiable aspect of faith and a vital guardrail to keep us from slipping into heretical stairwells. That community, when we extend it through history, also continually points us back to the Bible as our ultimate authority.

 

Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife