There’s been a good deal of buzz around the Christian blogosphere lately about the Emergent Church, the “emerging” church, postmodernism, hyper-legalism and everything in-between. In the process, I think some folks have missed a distinction between a purely postmodern approach to Christianity, which guts it of its meaning, and a Hebraic approach, which shares many features with postmodern thought, but also holds some key distinctions.
In 336 B.C., Alexander the Great set out to conquer the known world, and fairly succeeded in doing so. Rather than try to hold all of his conquered territory with military might, he left behind leaders and soldiers to infuse the Greek culture into the cities and kingdoms vanquished along his path. This culture, Hellenism, which would eventually give birth to Western Culture, as we know it, was resented and strongly opposed by the Jews living in Palestine.
In 175 B.C., the Emperor of the Seleucid Greek Empire attempted to eradicate the Jewish religion, which had been a thorn in the side of the Greek empire since its outset. The high priest, Mattathias, declared a holy war against the Greeks. At the end of what was to become the Maccabean (or Hasmonean) Revolt, Judea had secured its religious freedom, with the new festival of Hanukkah to celebrate the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem.
By the first century, the Romans had taken control of Judea and Hellenism was again perceived as a real threat to the Jewish faith. In response to this threat, multiple responses arose, leading to the formation of five distinct Jewish political entities:
- Zealots – As part of the Hasidim (”pious ones”), they resisted the Hellenistic culture and the Romans, and were willing to use violence to bring about the Kingdom of God
- Pharisees – Also part of the Hasisdim, they resisted Hellenism and the Romans, but believed that a purity of faith and obedience would bring God to overthrow the Romans and establish the Kingdom of God.
- Essenes – Part of the priestly order, the Essenes separated themselves from the world, seeking to create a spiritually pure community.
- Sadduccees – Also part of the priestly order, they tried to have the best of both worlds, seeking to please the Romans in return for wealth and political power and holding to the strictest interpretation of only the Torah (Genesis – Deuteronomy). Some were known to spend the morning managing the goings on at Temple and then spending the afternoon in the Roman baths – a fully Hellenistic practice.
- Herodians – Non-religious Jews, often referred to as the “lost sheep of Israel”. They accepted Herod’s authority as given by Rome and sought little or no walk with the religion of their fathers.
It was upon this stage that Jesus walked at the start of his ministry, his theology clearly aligned with the faith of the Hasidim, but not necessarily their practices. He sat right at the cusp of the decline in Eastern Thought and the rise of Western Thought, amidst the tumult of a cultural war. In His teaching and earthly ministry and that of his Apostles, Christianity was initially established as an “Eastern” religion in a “Western” culture, until the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., at which time the Jewish roots of the church began to decline until they almost disappeared when Constantine declared Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Today, we may be sitting on a similar cusp, though this time it is one FROM Western Thought to “Postmodern” Thought – which holds several similarities to, but also some stark differences from, Eastern/Hebraic Thought. It is on this stage that many churches are tempering their responses to this cultural “threat” to the way things have generally been for hundreds of years.
It is against this backdrop that some churches have decided to cede to the postmodern culture (a process that began decades ago), much in similar fashion to the Sadducees of the First Century. Others have been schooled in the recent scholarly breakthroughs (made possible with the Dead Sea Scrolls and the modern state of Israel) of First Century Hebrew Thought, and have decided to use this cultural way of living, both for its similarities to, and its differences from, Postmodern Thought – for the purpose of reaching an increasingly pomo culture.
Unfortunately, rather than seek to understand the differences between these two movements and to support the latter and reject the former, critics (who might fall into the zealot or pharisaical responses to postmodernism) have lumped them all together under the label “Emergent Church”, which cheapens the debate and makes them seem “anti-Hebrew” in their view of scripture.
How can we help to better define this debate and bring it back to an even keel? After days/weeks of prayer for an answer, I believe I may have a start, albeit a possibly clunky one, since I have never been capable of brevity. Perhaps the table below can start the conversation on how our Jewish roots may or may not be able to help us breech the cultural gap to reach an increasingly postmodern culture. And so, like the disciples in 33 A.D., we are faced with the task of spreading the gospel to a culture foreign to the one we have grown up in.
In the table below, I am relying heavily on Ray VanderLaan’s Think Hebrew datafile and his seminar on “The Land, the Culture, the Book” for the comparison of Greek vs. Hebrew. For the comparison to pomo thought, I am relying a numerous sources, primarily internet-based, and some past attended lectures/lessons. Also realize that these are all generalizations of the “base thought pattern” (for you western & pomo thinkers)…
|Topic||Eastern/Hebrew Thought||Western/Greek Thought||Postmodern Thought|
|Ideas & words||Words & ideas are concrete and experiential, focusing on what one can experience with his/her senses. A strong focus on poetry, imagery and symbolism for the purpose of demonstrating truth. Visual art is less stressed in order to avoid creating “graven images”.||Words & ideas are abstract, focusing on logical definitions, bullet-point lists, narrative prose, and conceptual descriptions, for the purpose of demonstrating truth. (NOTE: by displaying this in a table, I’m obviously a Westerner at heart||Words and ideas are concrete, focusing on what one can experience with his/her senses. A strong focus on satire and parody and visual art for the purpose of deconstructing truth to show that no truth is universal.|
|Numbers||While numbers may hold quantitative value, they often hold just as much, if not more, symbolic value – for the purpose of demonstrating truth.||Numbers are a quantity, and that quantity demonstrates truth.||Numbers are a quantity, but the truth in those numbers is relevant to each individual’s bias.|
|God||In Hebrew thought, God is assumed to exist. He is seen as relational, with personal ties to the community and the individual as they experience Him. Faith is described by the relationship (”walk”) with Him.||In Greek thought, one seeks to prove/disprove the existence of God. God is defined (by the believer) by his attributes and descriptors. Faith in Him is described in creeds and doctrinal statements with proof texts to support each of them.||In postmodern thought, God is assumed to NOT exist, though if one chooses to believe in a god, that is acceptable (though pushing that god on others is not). If faith is expressed in a god, it is based on the individual’s experience|
|Truth||Truth is a religious and experiental process, which unfolds over time as God continually builds on His creation. The focus of scripture is on stories of who did what, and how that relates to the readers’ experiences. As such, truth can be experienced in multiple ways, rather than a single “truth” experience.||Truth is scientific, logical and rational, and typically confers a single “correct” answer. It may take time to discover the truth, but once discovered and defined, it remains static.||Truth is an experiental process, and is defined by each individual for only that individual. Multiple “truths” are assumed and accepted as normal (and often valued) in community.|
|Language||“Poor” languages (Hebrew, Aramaic), in which most words hold many meanings. These allow the speaker/writer to create multiple “layers” of meaning, where deeper levels of truth can be suggested.||“Rich” languages are valued, because they can precicely describe truth in both absolute and temporal terms.||“Rich” languages are valued, because they can be used to create new double-meanings, unique to the individual, and can more precicely describe truth, as seen by the individual.|
|Humanistic Focus||The focus of Hebrew thought is on the community first, and the individual second.||The focus of Greek thought is on the individual first, and the community second.||The focus of postmodern thought is on the individual, and communities are only collections of individuals.|
|Sin||Sin is expressed in a person (or community’s) actions. It is wrong behavior which is a product of a person’s faith.||Sin is expressed in a person’s (or community’s) beliefs or thoughts. What a person knows or believes about faith is emphasized.||Sin is expressed in a person acting in a manner that is in opposition to his/her expressed beliefs.|
|Kingdom of God||The ‘Kingdom of God’ is being experienced in the present and will continue after one’s death. It is “living life in harmony with God”, and is in evidence by how the people live today.||The ‘Kingdom of God’ is removed from the current world, expressed in the perfect life with God after this world has ended.||The ‘Kingdom of God’ (or its equivalent) only exists in the present and is represented by living life in harmony with other people.|
|Conversation and Debate||Valued for the purpose of bringing clarity to how truth is experienced.||Valued only for the purpose of defining what truth is.||Valued for the purpose of understanding how each individual sees truth.|
As you should be able to see, the similarities between Eastern Culture and Pomo Culture are much more prevalent, with the chief exception being the humanistic focus of postmodernism. Understanding these similarities and differences may help us to both strengthen our own faith by the clear examination of our roots (Revival) and to bring about the Kingdom of God as Jesus understood and taught it, so that we might reach today’s “lost sheep”.
Grace & Peace,