The Emerging Church and/as Avant Garde

In yesterday’s post, I used the artistic avant garde as an analogy to explain how progressive theology can be innovative while still remaining within the orthodox tradition.

For example, one of the most notorious pieces of avant garde art is the urinal that Marcel Duchamp claimed was an artwork. (See photo to the left of Duchamp with his urinal) What is important to notice is that without a tradition of sculpture, Duchamp couldn’t have made this claim. The title of the piece (Fountain) links it back into this tradition.

Indeed, without a tradition of professional artists, critics, museums, and even the avant garde itself, this piece couldn’t achieved the status of art. For example, even an artist as great as Michelangelo couldn’t have declared his chamber pot to be an artwork. So, while Duchamp certainly challenged contemporary understandings of the nature of art, he did so by working from within the context of a tradition of art.

Today I want to point out two more interesting features of avant garde art. First, notice that what begins as shocking avant garde experimentation often becomes assimilated into mainstream artistic traditionalism. For example, every textbook of 20th Century art today includes a discussion of Duchamp’s Fountain. More radically, remember that impressionism was once considered shocking and avant garde. Now it is considered trite and bourgeois — you can find Monet posters everywhere from college dorm rooms to dentist’s offices. Moreover, impressionistic techniques are used in advertising — and it doesn’t get more mainstream than that!

So what avant garde artists do is experiment with new ways of making art — new styles and new languages of representation — and, if successful, these elements become part of the standard vocabulary of visual artists in the popular culture. Now, as I pointed out yesterday, I want to be clear that I don’t share the modernist prejudice that only original experimentation is good art. Pop culture can be totally traditional while still being artistically excellent. The directorial work of Clint Eastwood is a good example of this. But even the most mainstream Hollywood movie owes a lot to an avant garde ancestry. Consider the way cinematic narrative language has developed: from Brecht to Goddard to Tarantino to everybody else.

Second, notice that most avant garde art is really bad art. Anyone who has been to a contemporary art gallery can attest to this. Not every artwork that makes it into a museum is worth seeing — and most of the stuff in private galleries will never make it into a museum. Most avant garde art is failed experimentation. But that’s simply the nature of experimentation. Most experiments (whether in art, science, theology, or whatever) don’t work out. And that’s why the avant garde is so important. Advertisers, Hollywood filmmakers, and other pop culture artists don’t often have the luxury of true experimentation. They are working with large amounts of money from investors who demand certain practical results. But avant garde artists are allowed, even expected, by their patrons to make challenging and controversial work. Without the avant garde’s constant experimentation, our artistic traditions would never develop any new tools.

Now I want to use these two points as an analogy to explain what the so-called emerging church ought to be about: (1) the avant garde is the source for new ideas which trickle down to mainstream outlets, and (2) the avant garde discovers these new ideas through free experimentation. The role I see for emerging church is to act as the avant garde of Christianity.

Most churches don’t have the luxury of radical experimentation. They have to be good stewards of their resources, not gambling them on schemes that may not work. And they have to be more mainstream, appealing to as wide an audience as possible. (I’m assuming here that most congregations should be as diverse as possible. Part of the point of gathering together as Church is to learn from and balance each other.) But emerging churches are made up primarily of young people who are excited about experimentation. They can try new things. They can see what works and what doesn’t work, and then what does work can trickle down to mainstream congregations. For example, an emerging congregation might experiment with dialogical sermons (i.e., replacing the traditional lecture format with a panel discussion model that, ideally, includes audience participation). It might take some practice to figure out how to make this work. But once a working model is developed, it could be taught to more mainstream churches.

This sort of experimentation can happen with theology, too. Emerging churches are currently pioneering the attempt to synthesize evangelical and liberal theologies into a single postmodern theology. If a coherent “post-evangelical” synthesis can be worked out, it could be beneficial to more traditional denominations.

In short, what’s important about the emerging church is that it has the freedom to fail. To change the analogy, emerging communities can be the laboratory of the church. What this means is that the emerging church should not be an alternative to the mainstream church: it is a ministry to the mainstream church.

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