Critical Review of Emerging Prophet: Kierkegaard and the Postmodern People of God by Silas Morgan

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A Book Review of a recent and very important book in Kierkegaard Studies
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   1 Silas Morgan Comments on Kyle Roberts’s Emerging Prophet: Kierkegaard and the Postmodern People of God  . 2013 Baylor Symposium on Faith and Culture Reading this book was a bit like catching up with a very old and dear friend. My own theological imagination was birthed in the discussions, lectures, close readings, and seminars that preceded this book, through which its ideas were first generated, incubated, and expanded. I was fortunate enough to study under Kyle at Bethel Seminary, and in those early days, the main theses in this book had their embryonic emergence in the midst of the discursive workroom of graduate seminars. So with the same kind of nostalgia and the ease of familiarity that one enjoys when encountering an old friend, I read this book in its final form with great joy and anticipation. But as it often goes with old friends, when there is this familiarity that lends itself to a kind of intimacy that comes with long and hard friendships, one also become easily annoyed by the little idiosyncrasies, those minor “ qwerks ”  that often go undetected. My experience of reading this book was much the same. See, in those early days, I learned, not only so much about the work of Søren Kierkegaard, but also about how to think theologically  –  indeed how to think like a Christian. Indeed, it is truly ironic that of all the possibilities, it was Kierkegaard that taught me how to be a theologian! I am indeed quite certain that Kierkegaard would consider this a bit more of an insult than a compliment. And so, in what follows, I will try to leave Kierkegaardian details to the true Kierkegaard scholars that sit here with me, those whose books have taught me a great deal, not only about Kierkegaard, but also about Christianity. My comments then will be on this notion of Kierkegaard as a prophet, which I think amounts to a distinct hermeneutical strategy, a type that produces a particular “Kierkegaard”, one that may indeed prove to be quite different from the “historical” Kierkegaard –  if there is such a thing. At the risk of showing my hand, I will state my concern plainly and then hope to complicate it further in my comments: so much attention in Kierkegaard studies has been given to how best to read Kierkegaard. Those familiar with his oeuvre know that Kierkegaard was astonishingly self-conscious about his work and about his readership, coupled with his equally as complicated ideas about authorship. To read Kierkegaard as a prophet, not for Christianity generally speaking, but a prophet of a specific and particular theology, and for a specific group and religious identity, one that is rather unique and idiosyncratic to North American Christianity, and even more specifically, to American Protestantism. (My Catholic colleagues at Loyola know nothi ng of “the emergent church”, for example, and see very little of themselves represented in the theological and practical concerns listed in this book as essential to both K’s theological project and to that of the emergent church  –  the postmodern people of God). This book carefully and skillfully outlines the promise of reading Kierkegaard in such a way so as to align his theological interests with those of the emergent church, but what is the cost of this approach? What does one have to overlook in Kierkegaard in order to do so? It is important, I think, to heed the great Albert Schweitzer’s warning about the “well - gazers”  where in the 19 th  century “ life of Jesus ”  scholars looked into “ the well ”  of scholarship about Jesus and conveniently discovered there a Jesus whose life and ministry took a rather opportune shape: one that very closely resembled their own. In other words, I want to register a concern about   2 the kind of reading represented here, in that I think it produces a version of Kierkegaard that handily affirms contemporary theological sensibilities, perhaps in contradistinction, both to the historical Kierkegaard (if there is such a thing) and the effective Kierkegaard. Even while the book seems to be aware that the prophetic nature of Kierkegaard ought to leave us all a bit unnerved, even if we find ourselves in large agreement with the theological, cultural, and religious perspective broadly identified with the emerging church, this, I think, remains the danger of the contextual approach to constructive theology that Kyle clearly works from here, and one that ought to be on the table if we are going to discuss the relevance of Kierkegaard “for our time.”  The thesis of EP  –  at the most elemental level  –   is that Kierkegaard’s theology ought to be re ad in conjunction with the emergent sensibility, so as to apprehend how it is that this intertextuality might lend new resources for postmodern ways thinking and acting Christianly. Kierkegaard is a prophet for and of the emerging church: heralding the challenges and prefiguring the critiques that the emerging christianities level against both the conservative and liberal sectors of American Protestantism. Indeed that there are similarities between Kierkegaard’s theology and the postmodern people of God; Ky le is quite convincing on this point. So much so that this book ought to become the  place to go for those eager to better understand these parallels and integrate the dynamics of this important relationship, not only in terms of understanding this very important movement within American Evangelical Protestantism, but also in terms of understanding the contemporary salience of Kierkegaard’s theology. This book represents both in such a manner that it can serve as an introduction to both key aspects and theme s in Kierkegaard’s theological and ethical thought but also an introduction to the theologies of the emergent church. Indeed, I find this thesis to be convincingly successful  –  and this is what bothers me. The Kierkegaard I read here is too familiar, too digestible, too agreeable. Furthermore, to elaborate a bit more on this point, it strikes me that Kyle offers here is both a particular reading of Kierkegaard as  a proto-emergent theologian, and amounts to a rather strategic use  of Kierkegaard and his theology in service to the emerging forms of postmodern Christianity that as they try to find their unique way of articulation within the fractured and polyphonic landscape of American Protestant Christianity. I read this project as an attempt to leverage a particular “take” on Kierkegaard’s oeuvre  for the sake of a specific cultural and religious formation, both in order to illuminate the significance of Kierkegaard FOR this contemporary sensibility (e.g., the influence that Kierkegaard has had on leading figures of emergent churches), but also the role that Kierkegaard CAN and SHOULD play for these communities of faith and their collective. I do think unfortunately that what ends up happening is that the critical aspect of the prophetic voice gets lost a bit too much here, that the specific way in which Kierkegaard gets put to use articulates the relationship a bit too closely, that it overlooks the ways in which if Kierkegaard as a prophet functions a bit like a critical theorist in relation to emergent theology, and as such, would probably land a bit more distant from emergent theology than presented here. The point here is not that Kyle gets Kierkegaard wrong, but that the deployment of  prophet    as the description of Kierkegaard’s r elation to the emerging church might be a bit of a misnomer.   3 Perhaps we have all gotten a bit too comfortable with thinking and reading Kierkegaard as blatantly theological. Interestingly, one of the strong features of ‘Emerging Prophet’ is that its axiomatic point of departure was once not such an obvious designation: Kierkegaard as  theologian. As is well known, the idea of reading Kierkegaard as a self-consciously religious figure is a relatively recent idea in the reception history. Not long ago, this book would have been greeted with mild to moderate suspicion, not because of the quality of the scholarship (which is actually quite exemplary) but rather the characterization of Kierkegaard as unapologetically theological. I wonder if we have become too accustomed, so comfortable with this, that we find it all too easy to find Kierkegaard “at home” with the theological. We do find a very particular “Kierkegaard” here, one that is only conceivable after landmark texts in the field (not only the early Dupre, but also David Gouwens, Sylvia Walsh, Lee Barrett, C. Stephen Evans, Amy Laura Hall) wherein we all discovered in Kierkegaard a theological voice that had for a long time been overlooked and therefore underutilized. “EP” is not merely an attempt to read Kierkegaard as a conversation partner for postmodern forms of Christian faith and practice, (as this move is altogether too easy, and also too frequently made in sessions like this, and so cliché). Its strongest point  –  especially for us this weekend as we struggle to articulate well what it is that Kierkegaard means “for our time”, is to  suggest that Kierkegaard can, and indeed must, be read as a prophet  . This decision  –  to read Kierkegaard in and through such a modality  –  affords emergent Christianity an opportunity to not only use Kierkegaard’s  work to aid their own theological and ethical goals, but also to continue to think more  –  and in some cases more thoroughly  –  about key matters. But, what exactly? It seems too often that Kierkegaard ends up dovetailing all too cleanly with the ideas of leading emergent figures, that the critical uneasiness, the restlessness, the interventionary scandal that Kyle seems to see precipitating at a result of Kierkegaard’s  prophetic interlocution, hardly registers amidst the frequent citations of resonance, congruence, and partnership. What does it mean to read Kierkegaard as a  prophet  ? What are the hermeneutical complexities with such a reading  –  and is there enough evidence that the Dane would welcome such a reading? Brueggemann. Would Kierkegaard have seen himself in this characterization  –  and does such a question even matter for evaluating the relative merits of Kyle’s work here? This further specifies my question about the relationship between the critical and the prophetic, especially in reference to the relation between Kierkegaard’s  theology and that of the emergent church. I think there are some ways that Kyle privileges an idea of the prophetic as a kind of anticipation or foreshadowing that predicts the course of events and ideas prior to their fruition. Again, the argument, that Kierkegaard anticipates of many of the theological questions raised by the emergent church’s challenge to both  the conservative and liberal corners of American Protestantism, seems quite right in my judgment, and yet I am not particularly certain this captures the textured complexity of reading Kierkegaard as a prophetic voice, namely its critical   and negative  aspects. Is there is a sense in which Kierkegaard ca n also and must also be ‘used’ in order to critique and challenge the emergent communities? Is is true that we see glimpses here and there (I am quite certain that Kyle has examples [e.g., chapters, page numbers) all ready to go!) but they appear more or less to be rather slimmed-down attempts to anticipate   4 this objection, rather than actually respond to it. I wonder how Kyle would respond if given the opportunity to say more. Can we not also discern threads and layers of Kierkegaard’s  work that present a rather stiff threat to the veracity of emergent narcissism and self congratulatory practices, to the heterogeneity, the way that postmodern Christianity is likewise branded, packaged, and solid in ways that are surprisingly “cultural”, in the sense that emergent Christianity is often arranged, promoted, and structured in order to ‘reach those who have been turned off’ by more ol d-school or traditional approaches to religious identity and practice (e.g., on the conservative side or the liberal mainstream side)? If we are going to embrace the prophetic voice in Kierkegaard, is there not a sense that Kierkegaard has something to say about the ways that emergent Christianity has not avoided the monological trappings that accompany bourgeoisie cultural formations? The way that emergent Christianity, while it may not be “Christendom” proper, has also fallen prey to its form of ‘cultural’ establishment –  with its own rituals, practices, and narratives to which it is always already entangled. (Nb: I am currently doing some work comparing the critical modality of Kierkegaard with that of Marx, and so I see more and more that the kind of critique that Kierkegaard takes up is far more in line with the critical theory of ideology á la the Frankfurt School, and with the contemporary Zizek who would have an ideological field day with the cover image of the book, which packages and mediates Kierkegaard as an commodified object of consumption and fetishism, complicit in and benefiting from the corporate deployment of cynical aesthetics. And so, here it seems , in Kyle’s account,  as if Kierkegaard is considered less of a prophetic figure and more of a proto-emergent figure, as if Kierkegaard would be quite at home at the Wild Goose Festival or at IKON. There are times where relevancy and parallel blurs into equivalence. At this point, the “ prophetic ”  relationship between Kierkegaard and the postmodern people of God becomes more about their united struggle against predominant modes of Christianity rather than Kierkegaard in direct interlocution with the ideas and agendas of emergent Christianity itself. Bluntly put, is Kierkegaard an “emerging” prophet or is he an “emergent” patron saint (albeit from 19 th  century Scandinavia rather than 21 st  century urban North America)? This might stem from a bit of onesidedness in the bookd in regards to what the prophetic is, in that its critical modality, namely the idea of that the prophetic is a “critical theory ”  gets little attention here. Following Max Horkheimer’s classic definition in the 1937 essay “Traditional and Critical Theory”, critical theory is a social   theory that critiques dynamics rather than simply trying to understand and explain the world as a merely descriptive or normative way. Fueled by a negative dialectics , critical theory integrates Kant and Marx in their respective uses of the term “critique”, in that it examines and establishes th e Iimits of a body of knowledge, by accounting for the limitations imposed by the fundamental concepts as they are used by that knowledge regime. Marx further politicized it into a critique of ideology, linked irreducibly to the liberating praxis of social revolution; as such, critique  is always part and parcel of what a prophetic imagination affords theology. Perhaps this aspect of the prophetic gets a bit lost in the midst of Kyle’s eagerness to  make the case that Kierkegaard is a germane voice
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