conversation, counter-culture, counterculture, homiletics, John S. McClure, ministry, narrative theology, pluralism, preaching, sermon, Willimon
In the current generation, the most predominant and popular image for the minister might be labeled “minister as counterculturalist.” William Willimon is perhaps the strongest proponent of this view, taking many of his ideas from the work of theological ethicist Stanley Hauerwas. (cf. Hauerwas and Willimon, 1989, Willimon, 2000). Charles Colson (2003), Walter Brueggemann, (1978, 1997, 2010), Rodney Clapp (1996), and John Howard Yoder (1994) are other prominent spokespersons with different theological perspectives who have articulated a similar view of the minister.
For those who adopt this image, the minister is a countercultural leader. Ministers are “aliens and exiles” (I Pet. 2;11) who march to the beat of a different drummer. They understand the current-situation as post-Enlightenment, post-Christendom, and post-denominational. In this situation, the church is freed from its overly comfortable co-optation by the dominant culture, and can now recover and express its true countercultural genius. The minister will not look or act like anyone else (managers, therapists, etc.) because the minister is ordained to be an utterly unique person whose actions and words will always seem odd according to prevailing cultural standards and mores. The gospel demands radically distinct forms of behavior and speech, including pacifism, non-violent resistance to principalities and powers, an insistence on the oddness of biblical language, the rejection of any attempt to translate biblical language and categories into cultural terms, and an inculturationist or catechetical approach to liturgics, preaching, and evangelism.
The idea of the minister as counterculturalist is built on a particular kind of narrative theological method sometimes called the “Yale school” of narrative theology. (Comstock, 1986). Ministers attracted to this theological method believe that all religions, denominations, and cultural worldviews are defined by the way that they narrate the world. In today’s context, larger “meta-narratives” such as the metanarratives of Enlightenment, Socialism, Capitalism, and Christianity, have been reduced in size and importance and now take their place alongside other cultural and social narratives. These narratives are like games, or “language-games,” generating very different worldviews.
In this situation, ministers are radical pluralists. They believe that the rules and concepts for one game cannot be translated into the rules and concepts of another. The world is a pluralistic arena of competing language games or worldviews, some religious and some not. In this situation, the Christian minister is obliged to represent the Christian language game as forcefully and conspicuously as possible. The odd grammar of the Christian language game, provided by scripture and tradition, must be made larger, more consistent, and more univocal.
But is this, in fact, the best way to read the situation in the world (and church) today? Instead of a situation of competing narratives, in which we must learn to compete better than anyone else and win, it appears to me that our situation, both inside the church and in the surrounding culture is one of divisive, and increasingly violent cultural-narrative entrenchment. The church’s current social and political context and its inner life has become a potentially dangerous and divisive climate of competing and mutually exclusive narratives and monologues. Entrenchment within different and competing cultural narratives is destroying the fabric of life both inside and outside the church, creating a situation in which “countering” others has been turned into a force for division across religions and cultures that has tremendous destructive potential.
In today’s popular media, countering opposing narratives has become the prevailing model for political rhetoric. Increasingly media outlets are adopting strict, consistent ideological/narrative frameworks. It is now evident that “counter-speaking” is what sells. People tend to seek out like-minded, self-referential news sources that are defined by their stances against certain others. In a nutshell, counterculture has been commodified and largely co-opted by the prevailing culture. Paradoxically, counterculturalist ministry mirrors this prevailing cultural norm, in which competing monologues vie for control and power as commodities within the marketplace of ideas. And it trains communicants in this kind of behavior.
For ministers to adopt the image of minister as counterculturalist is to adopt the predominant cultural image for courage and “authenticity” within popular culture itself.
I do not wish to wade into arguments regarding whether, in fact, it is possible to be un-tainted by other cultural currents – whether, in fact a counter-cultural posture is even possible. Kathryn Tanner has demonstrated adequately the difficulties inherent in all culturally separatist thinking. (Tanner, 1997) Neither do I wish to argue against the importance of standing up to unjust or potentially violent cultural or religious ideas of impulses. A critical posture to dangerous or violent worldviews is a crucial component of any minister’s identity.
I only wish to argue that in our present context it takes more courage, and requires more genuine Christian authenticity to adopt what may, at first glance, seem to be a less exciting image for the minister: something like “the minister as informed conversation partner.” What is needed most in this generation are not narrativists, but pragmatists. In a situation of competing cultural narratives or worldviews, what is needed are not those who are focused on further cultural-narrative entrenchment, but those who are able to relate and connect worldviews, and negotiate shared meaning and truth across differences on behalf of the common flourishing of all..
Another way of putting this is to say that we need dynamic pluralists, not radical pluralists. The dynamic pluralist, like the radical pluralist, agrees that each worldview or religion has a narrative quality including rules, practices, and symbols often shaped by a long history. Where the dynamic pluralist disagrees with the radical pluralist is on the possibility of communication and correlation across worldviews. For the dynamic pluralist, there is much to be learned from strangers who are living according to the rules, practices, and symbols of other language games. In fact, the dynamic pluralist sees all of us as constantly conversing between, correlating, and re-framing multiple worldviews. This is not to completely de-center the Christian worldview. Rather, it is to insist on the permeability of the boundaries of that worldview, and to seek to honor the way in which Christianity is, in fact, always “othering” itself – seeking its deeper identity through creative relationships with those who are different.
(THIS POST IS EXCERPTED FROM VARIOUS PARTS OF A BOOK CHAPTER THAT IS PART OF A BOOK PROPOSAL – IDEAS FOR IMPROVEMENT WELCOMED)
Patrick Woolsey said:
Maybe ministers who are more intrigued with making meaningful connections in light of the many cultural texts that shape our world are more desirous? Less, Yale and we bit more Chicago (since you were riffing off the of the linguistic philosophy debates of the 70s & 80s). A minister that might see Davidson’s ‘translation’ as more descriptive of the role than retrenchment may be up more to the task of dealing with what is present in (and out) of the pews.
John McClure said:
Nicely put, Patrick. Davidson and other post-semiotic folk – Stephen Yarbrough http://www.uncg.edu/eng/englishfaculty/facultybios/yarbrough.html for instance, are potentially helpful.
Alex Tracy said:
I think that DeHart’s analysis of ad hoc correlation in Frei’s work towards the end of The Trial of the Witnesses speaks to this. If he’s right, then Willimon, Campbell, and others who opt for the sectarian approach are using Lindbeck’s cultural approach to ecclesiology as a trump over something else that they claim to hold dear, namely Frei’s ad hoc correlational approach. But I wonder whether this does not still take place within a certain indispensable and overarching narrative. Hence theology would still need the moment of critical theology that Rowan Williams describes as a corrective to the communicative approach, asking whether we have departed so far from the narrative given in Scripture that it is no longer recognizable to us. What criteria one would use to judge such faithfulness is a whole different question.
John McClure said:
Nicely put, Alex. I think we need someone to write a book or series of first rate articles about this. Any takers? :-)
As you can see, I’m mostly interested here, in the “view from the street,” – i.e. the question of what milieu we are in as ministers, and thus what ministerial “style” is most appropriate for this historical moment.