Posted by: Alex | May 20, 2011

The Younger Evangelicals: Incarnation

Continuing our discussion of Robert E. Webber’s book The Younger Evangelicals.  Yesterday we examined the theme of “hermeneutics” found in the book’s discussion of the “Emerging” movement of postmodern evangelicals.

The second theme to discuss is that of “incarnation.”  This is especially significant to how the “Emerging” movement views missions, evangelism, social action, etc.  One of the major slogans Webber uses to describe this theme is “the medium is the message,” which I think points to the influence of Karl Barth and many ancient expressions of the incarnation (on which Barth drew).

All of the themes we are discussing are quite intertwined with one another, as this section illustrates:

The idea that “the medium is the message” holds important ramifications for the communication of the Christian faith.  First, the real message of Christianity is not rational propositions but the person of Jesus Christ with whom a personal relationship is possible.  Second, this personal relationship is experienced and communicated in a community- the church, his body.  Third, to communicate a relationship with Jesus Christ, the church must be an embodied presence, an authentic and real community in whom the Spirit dwells.  Fourth, the primary concern of the church is to communicate not dogma, thought it does have its place, but faith.  Fifth, the primary way of communicating faith is through a combination of oral, visual, and print forms of participatory immersed communication (or cultural transmission).  (65)

In this section we have connected together the concepts of “communication” discussed in our previous post on hermeneutics in the “Emerging” movement as well as the themes of “incarnation” and of “community,” which we will discuss next.  This section also sounds to me like a perfect outline for the postmodern equivalent to a “Statement of Faith.”  The idea is that the Church should embody God’s presence on earth and thus communicate God’s character to the world.  The church, in a way, continues the incarnation through its existence, and calls others to become part of its community:

Communication occurs when a message takes up residence within the listener’s life and heart.  When Christians live out and embody “the medium is the message,” they disclose the Christian way of being and invite the listener to participate in a new way of life in the community of God’s presence in the world, the church.  The content of what has been communicated is much more than an intellectual apprehension.  It is a communication that has taken up residence within a person and transformed that person into the image of the content.  This is much more than a person “accepting” information.  It is the person of Jesus Christ who grasps the listener.  (67, emphasis his)

We can see here, I think, quite clearly why it is that the postmodern notion of communication and this “incarnational” understanding of the Church’s mission work together.  The postmodern suspicion of systems causes a shift away from doctrinal or dogmatic proclamations of the gospel.  The postmodern emphasis on understanding through the lens of a communal or historical context via “cultural transmission” leads to an understanding of theology closely linked to participation.  The combination is a narrative theology which calls upon the Church to embody the presence of God on earth.  This “embodied presence” becomes both the Church’s theology and its witness.  It also becomes its apologetic:

The most fertile ground for rethinking the question of truth is to return to the tradition of the story.  We do not understand or verify a story by standing outside it and seeking to analyze or defend it.  Rather, we understand stories by becoming a part of them, experiencing them as participants.  (90-91)

While to me this all sounds like a beautiful way of expressing the faith, for many there are a host of inherent dangers seen in such a method.  There seems to be little sense of certainty provided by such methods of theology and apologetics.  There seems to be wide open room for various “interpretations” of the story with little safeguard against “heresy.”  To some extent, I think both of these accusations are true.  If I am honest, I sometimes wrestle with a major question- is this, in the end, just a story?  The doubt expressed by that question I think is the inevitable consequence of the “lack of certainty” this way of thinking presents.  At the end of the day, though, a good postmodern can respond to this by rejecting the questions altogether because they “impose” a modern paradigm of “objective truth” rather than the postmodern paradigm of “participation” in a community, which is naturally more subjective.  Further, postmodernism revels in diversity.  In a way, then, a postmodern faith does bite the bullet, as it were, on both of these objections, but does that seemingly quite happily and enthusiastically, not as a dreadful consequence that must be swallowed.  While to some extent I believe that some of the tempering of the “reader-response” hermeneutic that I hinted at yesterday alleviates some of the concerns critics of the “Emerging” movement will have, the basic accusations must be admitted to stand as valid.

What do you think?  Should we think of the Christian faith more in propositional terms or in experiential terms?  Or can we have both?



  1. […] book The Younger Evangelicals.  We have examined the themes of “hermeneutics” and “incarnation” in Webber’s discussion of the “Emerging” movement among evangelicals.  Now, the third […]

  2. […] Webber’s book The Younger Evangelicals.  We have examined the themes of “hermeneutics,” “incarnation,” and “community” in Webber’s discussion of the “Emerging” movement among […]

  3. […] essence, it is a movement rooted in postmodernism which seeks to “live” the gospel by being an incarnational community rather than a group which adheres to a clearly defined doctrinal statement.  As such, […]

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