emergent oscars

In my first annual Oscar preview (if I start watching movies again I’ll do a second), I want to share a couple of quotes from past Academy winners that appeared in a recent Newsweek.

Here’s Meryl Streep:  “…I mean I guess I’m in awe of and in love with what I don’t know.  All the certainties that are embedded in doctrines—I understand the solace they provide, but in a way, they also, for me, form a kind of fence that divides us from each other.  I am pulled toward the ineffable and I’m trying to conceive why we exist and is there a greater purpose.  But I’m a mother, and I have a purpose, and I have a place, and I deeply resent the idea that if you’re not a member of a church, temple, ashram, synagogue or—what else is there?—that you are somehow denying your children the meaning of life.  I feel I’m a deeply moral person.  But often religion is a club out of which people are excluded.”

 And Will Smith: “I love the nature of humanity’s search for meaning.  For me I’m certain about my relationship with the model of perfection of human life that’s laid out with the life of Jesus Christ.  I’m certain of that.  So I’m at home and not fearful when I sit in a mosque or a synagogue or a Buddhist temple….  I like anywhere people are searching for the truth, and I respect their path and I’m intrigued by their path.  I think when you are certain in and of what you believe in, you can open your mind to seeing the ways of others.  I’m not bothered when someone says ‘Allah’ because they’re talking about God—we are talking about the same person.  I was in India recently and my hotel was near the Taj Mahal.  Five times a day there would be a call for prayer, and it was the most beautiful thing.  I was lying in my bed thinking, no matter what your religion is, it would be great to have that reminder five times a day to remember your Lord and Savior.”

…“My grandmother raised me to be a do-gooder in the church, that it was about doing what you can to help your community.  So whatever religion does that—Jewish, Muslim…it’s cool because the end result is the same.”

My initial thought when I read these is that these quotes could have been said by any number of Emergent authors.  I’m not saying that secular culture is always wrong, but it’s generally not a good sign when the church is moving in sync with it.  In the history of the church, such enmeshment in the culture has never ended well.

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  1. I don’t quite understand what Will Smith means when he says he’s “certain about [his] relationship with…Jesus Christ,” but it seems he may not be aware of a contradiction: between a certainty that Jesus is the Christ, and the belief that the “end result” of all religions is the same.

    That said, I’m trying to put myself in his shoes. If I were asked about my faith, and particularly my view of the exclusivity of Christianity, I don’t know what I’d say.

    Dr. Wittmer, could you point me in any directions here? This reminds of a recent conversation with an atheist friend who asked why I thought Christianity could be more true than other religions. I began by saying, “It has to do with the nature of truth. If some things are true, then things which contradict them cannot be true.” His next question was, “How then can a human being judge these things? And don’t you think it’s an awfully big coincidence that you’re arguing for the religious tradition that you were born into?” I didn’t really know how to respond. Any thoughts?

    Do you talk about this in “Don’t Stop Believing”? I have it, but I haven’t started it yet.

  2. Adam:

    I address the question of how I know in chapter 10 and the exclusivity question in chapter 8 of “Don’t Stop Believing.”

    The short answer is that I know that there is a God because of the sense of divinity he has placed within me, the fact that I am made in his image, and the fact that everyone else knows this too–as Paul says in Romans 1:18-32. I know that Scripture is God’s Word because it is self-authenticating (evidence is helpful but alone can’t do the job).

    This epistemological foundation informs me about Jesus, who is pretty exclusive when it comes to God. Try reading the book of Acts as if the apostles were inclusivists. It doesn’t work.

    To answer your atheist friend, as I state in chapter 10, while it’s true that I am a finite and fallen human being who knows what I know from my unique and limited perspective, it is also true that what I know I know truly. In short, my limited perspective is able to accurately, though incompletely, grasp truth.

  3. Dr. Wittmer: Thank you for your response, and I will check out the extended discussion in your book.

    If you ever ask me for a blurb on your future books, I think I will say, “Wittmer’s limited perspective is able to accurately, though incompletely, grasp truth.”
    🙂

  4. Mike –

    It is indeed disconcerting to hear the universalistic harmony between “Emergent” voices and those from culture at large. That being said, if we are to disagree with the quotes from Will Smith in your post (and I think we clearly should), it’s important that we realize why we are in disagreement with him.

    Smith says that he was raised to understand religion to be “about doing what you can to help your community.” If this is indeed the role that people are looking for religion to fill, then Smith is dead-on correct when he says, “whatever religion does that—Jewish, Muslim…it’s cool because the end result is the same.”

    Where he is wrong is in his fundamental understanding of what true religion (specifically Christian religion) is all about. It is not about community improvement or even moral reform (at least not primarily/foundationally). What it is about is the fact that each and every one of us is dead in our sins and trespasses and in need of God’s gracious and salvific gift of redemption.

    I don’t know where this fits into the whole Emergent discussion, but it helps me to understand why “Christ is the only way” might not be the best conversation-starter with my non-Christian neighbor. In a sense, Will Smith is not giving the wrong answer. He’s just answering the wrong question.

  5. Pete:

    Great post, and well said. Just one note of clarification. I understand why the exclusivity of Christ is not the best conversation starter, but why did you say that Will Smith helps you to appreciate this better?

  6. Mike –

    I think Will Smith’s comments help illustrate this in that, given his framework of understanding (i.e., the purpose of religion is simply community improvement), the statement that “Christ is the only way” is, simply put, categorically false. Indeed, many non-Christians do helpful things every day.

    Once I understand his underlying ideas regarding the role of religion, I see that this is where the conversation needs to take place.

  7. Mike,
    Being an Asian, although I like what the emergent church is doing in terms of conversation and asking questions, I sometime cringe when they embrace too much of the beauty of every religion. I do understand that we can learn alot from other religions but I would not agree that we all are talking or believing about the same thing. As an Asian, (i live in malaysia), I don’t think like the notion of what Will SMith said that he can feel at home in any temple is accepted. Here we are aware that our religious affiliations are means different beliefs in God. Like the word Allah for example, recently in Malaysia there has been a debate from the Muslims that the name must be used by Muslims only. Although Christians in malaysia have embraced the word (we have it in our bibles here) we understand the name from a Christian perspective. What I am trying to convey is in Malaysia/Asia we understand that religions are not the same because our belief are poles apart. But even after noting that I do value emergent conversations and they have also broadened my perspective.

    Good post by the way. I am a recent convert to your blog and will be looking forward to read your books soon (when I manage to buy them that is!)

  8. I continue to be impressed by Will Smith…I hope he takes home the Oscar.

  9. “I Am Legend” is perhaps one of Will Smith’s finest performances. Towards the end of that film a woman and boy find him in decimated NYC just in time to save him from the “bad creatures”. In ensuing conversation the woman asserts “god” told her to go to NY and so on. Will Smith as the Dr. trying to find the cure for the man made disaster around him responds vehemently, “There is no “god”!”, but then latter near the very end of the film tells the woman there is a reason she is there and there is a mission she was sent to perform. I’d go on, but don’t want to spoil it for those who have not seen it.

    What I’ve noticed over the past several years is how some films have this sense of some kind of guiding hand that trancends the material existence of the people in the story. It is often a vague panthiesim of sorts.

    But more to Dr. Wittmer’s point. I’ve verbalized before that for Chrisitianity to remain authentic, it is and ultimatly has to be counter-cultural, and that means being counter-cultural to both modernity and post-modernity. It occurs to me that what I hear missing in the conversation is the witness concept of the church. The church is to bear witness to God and His redemptive acts in history. Evangelicals tend to lose focus on their role as witness when they get preoccupied with numbers and so forth.

    But this brings the question, how does being “emergent” bear witness to God and His historical redemptive acts; His breaking into time and history to work redemptively? How is “emergent” counter-postmodernity? If “emergent” is only countra-modernity, and not also contra-postmodernity, then I do not see how “emergent” can be bearing authentic witness to God and His historicaly redemptive acts.

    Years ago the Almighty gracious God used a “modern” evangelicalism to reach down and grab me by the scruff of the neck and bring me to Himself. (Four Spiritual Laws presentation.) And that in spite of all of that evangelicalism’s deficencies and problems and scandels, and in spite of the weakness, theological or otherwise, of the evangelistic methodology used. For in spite of all, at the foundation and kernel of that presentation was an authentic witness to God and His redemptive acts in time and space, -ie history.

    A Jesus devoid of those historical redemptive acts is a Jesus not worth wasting my time or anybody else’s time on. That’s not just my assesment, it was the Apostle Paul’s assesment in I Corinthians 15. No physical bodily ressurection of Jesus, no reason to believe at all.

    Peace…

  10. Bill:

    Great post, but were you really saved by the 4 spiritual laws? Was it because there was no way to dispute a “law”?🙂 Either way, how terrific that God brought you to himself.

    Jon:

    Thanks for your crisp insights from Asia. I also have been sharpened by my conversation with Emergents, but your comment makes me wonder if the coversation might be different if the leaders who are writing lived in other parts of the world besides America. I lived two years in China, and I agree with your perception that believers there are keenly aware of their difference from other religions.

  11. I like this word “enmeshment.” It reminds me of chewing oatmeal.

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