Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Criticism and the New Paradigm: Time to Eat Some Fruit or Something

One of the great scenes in M. Night Shyamalan's film Signs takes place in a children's bedroom in an old farm house. The background for the scene is the growing tension over crop circles that keep appearing worldwide that some wonder may be a harbinger of a pending alien invasion. In the scene Mel Gibson's character is sitting on a bed with his son and daughter as they thumb through a book on extraterrestrials. They pause to look at an illustration in the book of an old farm house under attack by an alien spaceship that hauntingly resembles their own house. As they look more and more closely at the painting their tension rises, and then...the phone rings causing them all to jump! Mel Gibson's character says something very fatherly in response, something like. "I think this family needs to calm down and eat a piece of fruit or something."

It's easy to get worked up over things that we care passionately about. But if we aren't careful, our zeal for important things gets the best of us, and we end up overreacting, and perhaps jumping to conclusions and missing some important things in the process. I believe this has taken place in reaction to the growing evangelical missional (and relational) paradigm for understanding and responding to new religions. Well meaning evangelicals have misunderstood the activities of a few individuals utilizing this different approach, and as a result, they have impugned the character of good people, and missed the promise of a new approach to new religions at the same time.

Recently someone in the countercult community issued a public criticism of a respected scholar and apologist who has pursued a more relational and missional approach to Mormons and Mormonism. His efforts reached a negative crescendo (for the countercult ministry at least), and a public statement was made that linked the apologist with what was labeled "the new Liberal Apologists and their Politics of Appeasement". With this label, and some of their discussion that followed it, the concern is that some pursuing the missional model are somehow compromising Christianity in liberal fashion, and are more interested in appeasing those in new religions, such as Mormonism, who are seen as believing in spiritual "pornography" (their word, not mine).

I find this harsh rhetoric unfortunate on a number of levels, but it is not surprising. A few individuals have analyzed the countercult approach to new religions and have characterized it as placing more emphasis on boundary maintenance and a defensive reaction against perceived threats from new religions (or "cults" in their terminology), rather than proactive missional or evangelistic engagement. Of course some in the countercult have resisted this characterization, and have stated that it is inaccurate. But the reaction of some in the countercult, including the reaction referenced above, demonstrates the reality of the countercult boundary maintenance approach, and that its sights are not merely focused on new religions.

Unfortunately, I have had my integrity and orthdoxy questioned by figures in the countercult, and while it has not gone as far as the case mentioned above, I have no doubts that some may already consider me a "Liberal Apologist" practicing my "Politics of Appeasement". Nothing could be further from the truth. I and others have adhered to the countercult framework of a heresy-rationalist apologetic and have seen its limitations and problematic nature. Our interaction with a broader palette of information and perspectives, including religious studies, the sociology of religion, theology in cross-cultural contexts, and cross-cultural missions, have given us serious reasons for abandoning the dominant paradigm. But this doesn't mean we're theologically liberal, or that we would rather engage in appeasement rather than pursuasion in the way of Jesus.

Make no mistake a about it. A new missional paradigm is developing among evangelicals in response to new religions and alternative spiritualities. It has been expressed internationally by a number of thinkers, including the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. and it has caught the attention of at least one academic to be discussed briefly in a forthcoming book titled New and Alternative Religions in the United States (Praeger Publications). In response to the new model some in the countercult have expressed feelings of marginalization, apprehension, and defensiveness.

I appreciate the zeal in the countercult for doctrinal orthodoxy in response to heresy. But this zeal is clouding sound thinking and is precluding individuals from considering the merits of a new approach. The heresy-rationalist paradigm is apparently serving more as blinders, rather than as an appropriate tool for understanding and communication. We're so worked up over this issue that I think it's time to take Mel Gibson's advice: we need to eat some fruit or something.


Matt Stone said...

John. A sad situation. I think I'll have a banana.

wendy peterson said...

My uncle had three children. They lived on a remote farm in Manitoba. When he went to town he would buy 3 chocolate bars -- all different. He liked to watch his children argue over who got the favourite kind.

Since marrying a man raised as a JW and then both of us choosing to follow the Lord Jesus, I have benefited from so many people who have a passion to help and/or correct those who are being spiritually exploited and denied truth about the person of Jesus. I have also been saddened by the on-going battles over not 'who gets which chocolate bar', but whose chocolate bar is BEST. Just as my otherwise loving uncle was bizzarly amused by his children's fighting, there are many on the sidelines that smirk at us. Meanwhile our attention is diverted from our goal as we spend our time labelling each other and creating disharmony in the family == acting like children by refusing to go to conferences where "they" are. Don't get me wrong. Words are important. I would not have earned a masters in theology nor would I spend my days teaching about NRMs in Canada and Eastern Europe if I didn't think so. But surely, family, we can find a way to love each other and respect each other's methodology, even when we disagree. Isn't there something Jesus said about leaving a servant to his master???? And isn't he the creator of diversity? [Do not read 'disunity'.] I appreciate the kinder, gentler approach (cause I'm Canadian, eh) yet continue to benefit from the other as well. Both have their pitfalls. God have mercy on us all! And ... I praise him for creating diversity in his supply of fruit. Now I'll go enjoy my lemon. wendy peterson