In a recent Pop Culture Roundup, I reported on finishing Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christianity. In that review, I said this:
If you're already familiar with McLaren, nothing will be tremendously new here. Also, if you're familiar with 200+ years of modern Biblical scholarship and theological traditions besides fundamentalism and neo-Calvinism, nothing will be tremendously new. I understand that McLaren is writing to an audience within Evangelicalism disillusioned with the same old, same old, but emerging/emergent really are behind the curve theologically.On Twitter, somebody picked up on the comment about being behind the curve, and I ended up getting in a whole discussion about what that meant. Of course, that discussion was limited to 140-character bursts and seemed highly inadequate to my explaining myself, so I hope to offer a more in-depth explanation here.
First, Heaping Praise and Appreciation
Before I even get started, however, I think that I need to offer some clarifications and caveats right off the bat, since this is the type of post that may get passed around Facebook and wherever else and people will debate and in some cases grossly misunderstand what I'm saying. So allow me a few paragraphs to set things up.
My first brush with the emerging/emergent church was the summer after I graduated college, when I read McLaren's A New Kind of Christian. I didn't know that that was the movement it was a part of back then; the book just caught my eye. This is considered by many to be one of McLaren's foundational books, in which he tells a story of a pastor named Dan who meets a new spiritual companion in Neo (not to be confused with the Keanu Reeves movie character) who helps introduce him to new ways of thinking about God, Jesus, the Bible, the church, and so on. There's a lot of discussion about postmodernism, deconstructing traditional views that no longer work, and revisiting theological concepts in order to relate them to this new cultural moment, sometimes simply by re-reading the scripture texts in which they're based and discovering things about them that have been glossed over or ignored previously.
A passage from this book that has always stuck with me, and that I've paraphrased several times in my ministry, is one during which Don and Neo discuss Jesus and the kingdom of God:
My tone was intentionally calming: "OK then, how would you define the gospel?"Later in the chapter, Neo makes some comments that I've always loved suggesting that if Jesus had been born in a different time and place, he'd have used a different term for the same concept according to context. And the larger concept of Jesus' overall message being about the kingdom of God rather than anything solely about himself was helpful, if not familiar to me. And why was it familiar? Because at that time I'd just completed a four-year Religion degree that featured discussion about the historical Jesus and Biblical criticism that had featured extensive discussion about the same topic, including the hosting of Dr. Stephen Patterson, then professor of New Testament at Eden Theological Seminary and fellow of the Jesus Seminar, who'd been making it a point to analyze and re-emphasize Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom of God. Dr. Patterson's book The God of Jesus, which further expounds upon this theme (particularly Jesus' kingdom message), was an eye-opening book for me during those years.
Neo said that it couldn't be reduced to a little formula, other than the one Jesus used, which was "The Kingdom of God is at hand," and he didn't recommend using that exact language today. I asked why not.
"Dan, everything is contextual. No meanings can exist without context. Language only works in a context, since words mean different things at different times. In Jesus' day, the biggest issue was that the Jewish people were subordinated to the Roman Empire. This was agonizing for them: How could good people who truly believed in the One True God be under the heel of bad people who believed in a pathetic pantheon of little false dieties? Jesus' use of the expression 'kingdom of God' in that context is so dynamic and full of meaning that even though I see only a little sliver of it, I can hardly put it into words." (p. 106)
So by the time I read McLaren's book, I'd already become familiar with scholarship that had in some form been around at least since the days of Albert Schweitzer over a century ago. This didn't minimize or render pointless McLaren's point; it just helped supplement and even put into popular terms what I'd already studied.
I've gotten ahead of myself slightly. The point is that that was my introduction to emerging/emergent, even though I didn't know it. And the views presented in McLaren's book didn't surprise me much, because I'd just spent four years hearing the same thing.
Years later, I'd just begun full-time ministry in my present call. That first year was a year of disillusionment, in the sense that whatever illusions about the church and pastoral ministry I had left after graduating seminary were finally and fully demolished in that first year. It was also during that year that I began to sense that something is wrong with the way many of us "do church," whether in terms of outdated forms or an overall complacency held over from the mainline heyday, or both.
Books by authors considered emerging or emergent helped name these issues for me. I largely couldn't articulate what was wrong until reading books like Gibbs and Bolger's Emerging Churches, Mark Driscoll's Confessions of Reformission Rev, and Doug Pagitt's Church Re-Imagined, among others. These books offered images of church life that engage culture in new ways by reading this contextual moment, which includes the decline of Christendom and the assumptions that come with it. I found this stuff edifying, helpful, exciting, and refreshing, and I decided that I wanted to be a part of it.
So this is all to say that I have a great appreciation for the emerging/emergent movement, and its effect on my ministry. In fact, I consider myself one of those hyphenated types, UCCmergent. And look, I don't even need the hyphen.
So. Can we move on? You good? Okay. Because what comes next is going to include some criticism. I'm just sayin'.
First Component: Church Stuff
From where I'm sitting, there are basically two components to the emerging/emergent movement. They're interrelated, but depending on who you read he or she will likely focus on one or the other.
The first component is all about ecclesiology. That is, how to do and be the church: structure, emphasis, outreach, community-building, disciple-making, and so on. This strand, I think, is how emerging/emergent gained its reputation for being hipsters who hold Bible study in coffeeshops, hold worship in bars, sing U2 songs rather than hymns, and use movies as jumping-off points for preaching as much as scripture. It's because...well...some actually do these things. Emerging ecclesiology is largely based on reading and engaging the culture in which these churches find themselves. Since it is particularly a movement geared toward Generation X and younger (though some will push back against this point), it will reflect the culture of these generations. It embraces technology, isn't afraid of people with tattoos and/or who smoke, and often meets in places far away from white-washed sanctuaries.
This cultural engagement is one aspect of what has come to be known as being missional, as opposed to being attractional. To be attractional, the bulk of what you do involves offering programs in your church building and hoping that people just magically pull into your parking lot to attend them. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn't. On the other hand, being missional is going where the people are, engaging who they are and what they like, and building relationships.
The other aspect of being missional is, unsurprisingly, engaging in mission. Emerging/emergent greatly emphasizes service and, in some cases, social justice. Again, depending on who you read, you'll find writers and speakers advocating for the poor, the immigrant, the environment, Third World poverty, and for the acceptance of various minority groups. Parts of this movement have made the connection between the gospel and service; have discovered or rediscovered how much Jesus interacted with and helped the poor and marginalized, and have embraced his ministry as their own.
Okay. To you who are familiar with emerging/emergent, none of that was new information. You've read about it or have even participated in it. I acknowledge that, and apologize for the pedantic nature of the last few paragraphs. What I really wanted to do by mentioning all of this is to point you to all the mainliners and "liberal" Christians over there who also just read the last paragraph while mumbling things like, "Of course" and "Duh" and "Finally." You see, while they probably didn't invent a lot of the missional things you're doing, they've been doing it for decades and even centuries already. As one example, the Social Gospel movement, while admittedly a bit lacking in theology when it began (and still is hit-and-miss on occasion) is over a century old and was started and picked up by many mainline denominations, churches, and pastors very early on. It was a much earlier movement to link the gospel with social issues, to say nothing of movements before that that had no label applied to it. As a result, many mainline churches would welcome emerging/emergent's delving into this area in a more serious way, some while wondering why it took them so long.
In Tony Jones' book The New Christians, he tells the story of how emerging/emergent began. Essentially, a group of younger pastors, most from evangelical churches, got together to see how they could best reach people ages 18-35. What resulted was a major shift in a lot of their thinking in terms of how to do and be the church, including the realization that we're in a postmodern, post-Christendom world. One of the conclusions reached was that they/we probably need to do more than offering a few new church programs. What resulted was the beginning of the emergent movement, or conversation. After yelling "the Bible is propaganda!" (meaning to him that the Bible is meant in part to make the case for Christianity's truthfulness whether each story is factual or not) during a meal with these folks, Jones realized they're onto something new, or new to them:
These kinds of thoughts about the Bible had been burgeoning in me for years, but I didn't have people to talk to about them. And that was true for the others at the Dallas meeting as well. Brad [Cecil] was not quoting Jacques Derrida at the weekly staff meeting of Pantego Bible Church. New Zealander Andrew Jones, though financially supported by the Texas Baptist Convention, was doing off-the-map ministry with street kids and organizing 2:00 a.m. rave parties in warehouses during which eople danced their way through the biblical narrative. Chris Seay, an assumed future star in Texas evangelicalism--destined for one of the "big steeple" churches--had forsaken that promise to start small churches in inner cities. And Doug [Pagitt] had left Wooddale Church when it became clear that his theological adventures into things like "open theism" meant that he'd never be allowed to plant one of Wooddale's daughter churches.Here the other component to emerging/emergent thought comes up, but I want to hold off on that for a moment. Early in the story of emerging/emergent (that slash thing is annoying, isn't it?) these evangelical pastors part ways with the company line of their churches and denominations because, in part, they've discovered that the intellectual and political structures in which they used to operate won't allow for them to do what they feel called to do, which in part is to practice radical mission & evangelism and also to embrace theology that doesn't meet the higher-ups' approval.
We were, in some sense, a group of church misfits and castoffs. Surely, this was a group of competent people, convinced of their strong opinions, but many of them felt they were working without a net. They'd opted out of the systems that had nurtured them, and the relationships that would become "emergent" were the beginnings of a new way of being Christian and a new way of leading churches. (p. 45-6)
Now, let's acknowledge something. In terms of technological and evangelistic innovation, evangelicals have been light years ahead of mainliners. It has taken and is taking mainline churches an incredibly long time to realize that their social dominance from decades ago is long over. This dominance included an assumed True Way of worship (traditional, with organ, hymns, and a three-point sermon), as well as an assumption that they would always have political clout in society. More recent social justice movements such as civil rights for women and African-Americans, championed by some mainline churches, seemed to reinforce this thought, at least for a time.
At the same time, these assumptions stilted innovation. Most mainline churches didn't feel the need to try new methods of worship or outreach because they didn't think they needed to. They were the mainline, after all. That thought has persisted long after their designation as "mainline" ceased to be accurate. Meanwhile, evangelicals were the ones using Powerpoint, screens, worship bands, and so on. You may not like these methods, but nevertheless they're working for people.
I bring that up to acknowledge that these emerging/emergent churches have continued that innovation. And again, that's what I've been drawn to the most. But in terms of social justice and service, I as a mainliner am already familiar with that. On the other hand, as Brian McLaren said in a recent appearance at Malone University, emergents--largely being people who have moved on from evangelical contexts--have just recently made those sorts of connections, including its eventual exploration of feminist and liberation theologies some eight or ten years after the "conversation" began. The social justice and missional components of emerging/emergent Christianity can be celebrated, even if they're late to the party.
Second Component: Theology Stuff
The second component of the emerging/emergent movement has been theological, as alluded several times already. McLaren is probably the best-known purveyor of this part of the movement through books such as A Generous Orthodoxy, A New Kind of Christianity, and his tag-team effort with Tony Campolo, Adventures in Missing the Point. In these various books, he revisits traditional Christian doctrines and concepts and wonders aloud about their credibility in light of our postmodern age. Ultimately, he recasts some of them and holds certain others in tension with his and others' experiences, which has received mixed reviews at best from those who read him. Some have simply cast him as a heretic, while many others have credited his books for their being able to remain in the faith.
Of course, as with the movement's social justice component, some of his stuff is going to sound very familiar to certain readers.
Take McLaren's book The Secret Message of Jesus. The tagline for the book is "Uncovering the truth that could change everything." Both the title and the tagline are unfortunate: they imply that McLaren has come up with something brand new that will rock Christianity to its foundations. What the book turns out to be is a treatment of Jesus' earthly life, particularly his parables and other teachings, in order to discover that, hey, Jesus talked a lot about something called the "kingdom of God:"
Imagine a busy street crowded with people. A young man has gathered a crowd in a corner of the local market. Someone shouts out, "What's your plan? What's your message?"What follows is an analysis of what that kingdom of God is about: essentially, seeking justice and living by a different set of values in our present age, and an anticipation of the fulfillment of that kingdom at some future moment, all based on a call to discipleship based on following Jesus' teachings about how to do it.
He responds, "Change your way of thinking. The kingdom of God is available to all. Believe this good news! The empire of God is now available to all!"
The kingdom of God, the empire of God? What could Jesus mean by this? One thing is sure: he did not mean "heaven after you die." Maybe the meaning would be clearer if we paraphrased it like this: "You're all preoccupied with the oppressive empire of Caesar and the oppressed kingdom of Israel. You're missing the point: the kingdom of God is here now, available to all! This is the reality that matters most. Believe this good news and follow me!" (p. 14)
Foundation-rocking? To those who think Christianity is mostly about going to heaven after you die, yes. Brand new? Not so much. The $64,000 theological term for the concept that McLaren is exploring is "realized eschatology," popularized by Biblical scholar C.H. Dodd, and was also in some sense developed by modern liberal theologians such as Albrecht Rischel and Adolf von Harnack. In more recent times, Dr. Patterson and John Dominic Crossan, among others in the Jesus Seminar, have been proposing this view of the kingdom of God for quite some time, not to mention theologians such as Methodist Stanley Hauerwas and Anabaptist John Howard Yoder. And this is to say nothing of 2000 years' worth of individuals and movements proposing that one of the Christian's main tasks is to follow Jesus' teachings and example while waiting in hope that God will finally and fully bring a new way of existence into view. There is no "secret message" here, except maybe to those who prefer mainly to read Paul and Revelation, those who are sick of only reading or hearing about Paul and Revelation, and those who have been spiritually abused by those who mainly read Paul and Revelation, which admittedly comprise a good chunk of McLaren's intended audience. The analysis of Jesus' abundant use of kingdom language may indeed have a certain novelty to it for many, but again, such analysis precedes emergent by at least a century.
And then there's Jones. Ah, Tony Jones...over and over and over again criticizing mainline churches, pointing out their continual decline, and calling liberal theology "impotent." Consider, for instance, his critique of Marcus Borg's view of the resurrection:
Thus, since the resurrection of Jesus is his defeat of death, evil, and grief, it’s important to me that it really happened. Without a resurrected Jesus, Christianity is impotent. (Exhibit A: liberal Christianity) And I don’t mean a Jesus who was “resurrected” in the Disciples’ hearts, and in my heart. I mean a real resurrection in the space-time continuum by a physical being known as Jesus of Nazareth, as 99.99% of Christians for the last two milennia have believed.Indeed. Liberal Christianity is impotent. Congregationalists freed the slaves on the ship Amistad and threw the Boston Tea Party, the abolitionist American Missionary Association was founded by mainliners, Antoinette Brown Blackwell was the first woman to be ordained in American Christianity by Congregationalists (she later joined those even more liberal Unitarians), not to mention again liberal participation in the rights of minorities in other ways down through the centuries. Today, as in times past, mainline denominations have been striving for diversity in their community life, both in terms of radical welcome and in terms of who can lead and be ordained. And it is a theology of love, justice, and faithfulness that led them--and still leads many--to take these stands, a theology based on the type of kingdom language and notion of discipleship that McLaren writes about. Meanwhile, as McLaren admits, the emerging/emergent movement has struggled with its mono-cultural image. So who's further along here, and who's still trying to move past limited theological views?
Here's another quote from that same article by Jones:
As often when I’m with liberal groups, Marcus Borg’s name came up early in the conversation. And, as I usually do, I took that opportunity to affirm my belief in the actual, physical, historic resurrection of Jesus, something that Borg notoriously does not do. (I wrote about my experience with Borg in my book.) Many times over the rest of the weekend, I was approached by participants on the retreat who wanted to challenge me on that — why do I think it’s so important that Jesus actually rose from the grave.First off, Jones affirms some commonality with more liberal and mainline Christians in his views of the Bible, to which he alludes in that quote from his book found earlier in this post. Of course, that earlier revelation ("The Bible is propaganda") was shared in a context where it really would have been a majorly scandalous sort of statement. As he explains in the above quote, the Bible's truth can be affirmed without adhering to its facticity. And modern Biblical criticism--again, something devised by those impotent liberals--gives permission for Jones to make such a statement, to explore what it means, and to differentiate between fact and truth in scripture. So on this point once again, I and many others would say, "Welcome. You're late."
And I understand where they’re coming from, because I don’t feel the same way about the historic facticity of Adam and Eve, the Tower of Babel, Jonah living in the belly of a fish, or Job’s family and cattle being wiped out by God. So it might seem rather arbitrary that I draw the line between some accounts in the Hebrew Scriptures, which I consider mythological (but nonetheless “true”), and the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ miracles, death, and resurrection.
Jones and other emerging/emergent types affirm these sorts of statements and beliefs about God and scripture, but then some also have to take shots at the people who've held them and taught them for many, many years. He and others contrive ways to call liberal and mainline Christianity "impotent" while also lauding things like social justice and Biblical criticism as if the emergent movement discovered them by themselves. Mainliners and their predecessors have been shedding blood, sweat, and tears in these areas for centuries, long before a handful of disillusioned evangelicals finally caught on that Christian faith can be deeper and more diverse than what they were taught at Bible College.
(As an aside, Jones' experience with Borg that he mentions in The New Christians is a very brief treatment of Borg's view of the resurrection. Borg is one who believes in the truth of the resurrection without necessarily believing in its facticity, which Jones stops short of affirming even as he seems to take that line with many other Biblical narratives. In the book, Jones accuses Borg of having a "faith in reason" (p. 154), a view which a reading of The Heart of Christianity might cure, as in it Borg shows himself to be quite spiritual, deeply rooted in faith, and justice-oriented. Jones' decision to stop short of affirming other interpretations of the resurrection shows an inconsistency in his viewpoint. Unless the consistent point that he wants to present is that those liberals who helped develop the tools and permissions that he is now using are awful or less-than.)
If that wasn't enough, do you know how and why classical Liberal Christianity began? It was in response to the Enlightenment, where guys like Friedrich Schleiermacher, Rischel, and von Harnack realized that the truth claims of Christianity as conceived in pre-modern times could no longer be held in the forms known in that period in light of new emphases on science and reason, so they went about the task of re-casting many traditional Christian beliefs in ways that they thought made more sense in the new modern era. This should sound familiar, because it is exactly the same agenda being undertaken by emerging/emergent types in light of these new post-modern times. And to do it, some are incorporating methods and beliefs already proposed by liberal thinkers. And just as liberal Christians were and are being denounced for such an agenda, people like McLaren and Jones are as well. One would think that Jones might find more allies among liberals instead of accusing them of being impotent.
Conclusion and Awards for Reading This Far
As much as I can give credit to the emerging/emergent movement for its innovations and rethinking of ecclesiastical models, I'm tired of its theological component being presented as some awesome newfangled thing, especially when the traditions that gave birth to them or that have been touting them for so long are ignored, downplayed, or marginalized in the process. It's true, mainliners are behind the times on some things, and have been slow to realize some truths about themselves. But before that, they and their predecessors helped pave the way for some other things that emergents have been embracing only recently.
I fully acknowledge that emergent figureheads like McLaren and Jones are primarily writing and speaking to other evangelicals wondering if there can be something more to faith and church. As they do so, they've also caught the imaginations of many mainline liberal types like me, in part because we're already on board with many things being espoused by this new movement. There's much more room for partnership, respect, and acknowledgment than the pretense of theological novelty and air of ecclesiastical superiority that I and others sometimes detect from that corner of Christianity. Both "sides," as hesitant as I am to use that concept, have innovated some things, and have much to learn from each other.