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Christian History Home > 2008 > August > Grateful to the Dead: The Diary of Christian History Professor

Grateful to the Dead: The Diary of Christian History Professor
#1: Emergents, Meet Saints!
Chris Armstrong | posted 8/08/2008 12:33PM

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Grateful to the Dead: The Diary of Christian History Professor

Since the day he discovered what he calls "the whole mystical, historical massiveness of a church that had been around for 2000 years," Chris Armstrong has had a passion for connecting modern Christians with their roots. (See his past articles "When Theology Comes Alive" and "Top Ten Reasons to Read Christian History.") A graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Duke University, Chris served as the managing editor of Christian History & Biography for almost three years before taking his historical enthusiasm into the classroom. He is now associate professor of Christian history at Bethel Seminary in Minnesota. Chris will be sharing his passion with us in what we hope will become a regular online feature, "Grateful to the Dead."

Dear folks,

Lately my days have been taken up with preparing a book and a course titled "Patron (and Matron) Saints" for Postmoderns (see my blog, The book, course, and blog feature the lives of Gregory the Great, Margery Kempe, John Comenius, John Newton, Charles Simeon, Amanda Berry Smith, Charles M. Sheldon, and Dorothy L. Sayers.

So the question has haunted me: "Why should Christians today read biographies of 'dead Christians' from ages past?"

One particularly forceful answer has hit me from (what some evangelicals might consider) "left field"—the young movement of Emergent Christian thinkers and leaders.

Emergents are folks dissatisfied with the way a lot of evangelicals have been doing church, and they are exploring and suggesting captionernatives. From the Emergents' perspective, the church today has become culturally stale and bland—speaking an out-of-touch conservative language to a post-Christian generation of young people who have never darkened the door of a church in their lives.

This generation, say the Emergents, doesn't need to hear the old platitudes of a leftover Christian establishment. They need instead to hear the trumpet call of the gospel—a new song for new people. To really reach them, we must re-tool church for the new realities of a postmodern world. We must re-translate the gospel for a different breed of unbeliever.

Not only that, warn the Emergents, but we can't impose a one-size-fits-all approach on this new evangelistic situation. We need to find new ways to translate and transmit the gospel. New gospel translations. The need is as old as Christianity itself. It crops up in almost every generation, from the first century to this week. Andrew Walls launches his justly acclaimed The Missionary Movement in Christian History (Orbis, 1996) by giving us a thrilling "aerial survey of church history," in which we see Christianity's two-thousand-year odyssey not as a single story neatly tied up with a bow, but as a series of radical, almost cataclysmic cultural translations.

The church, says Walls, translated itself from a Jewish to a Roman "idiom" after the fall of Jerusalem; from Roman to German after the fall of Rome; from Irish to English through the savvy mission of Augustine of Canterbury and Gregory the Great; and so down to today. Today, the indigenous theologians of Africa are facing and addressing questions completely beyond the ken of the Western missionaries who first brought word of Jesus to that continent—and indeed of most Western Christians today. Questions like "can I approach the communion table after sexual intercourse?" "What do we require of a man with several wives who has converted to Christianity, when any wife he divorces will face extreme economic hardship?" And so continues the process of "gospel translation."

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