Brian McLaren’s new book (A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith) has just been released, and it’s already causing a bit of a firestorm. I’m still awaiting my copy, but plan to look through it at his ten questions and interact with those once I’ve been able to consider them in more detail. In the meantime, there are a few things upon which I really feel the need to comment, and since I have a ready-built platform, there’s nobody to stop me. I apologize for the length of the post — I went back to see if I could split it up into two parts, but it just doesn’t work very well to do that. It’s long, but I think it’s important. Thanks in advance for bearing with me, and reading on. And if you get bored, skip down — I summarize at the end.
Now, some of the early reviews I’ve seen of Brian’s latest book suggest that we should have stopped reinventing after A New Kind of Christian rather than pressing for A New Kind of Christianity. It seems the book is Brian’s most controversial one since The Last Word And The Word After That. After Last Word, he took some heavy criticism from evangelicals and other conservatives not part of the Emerging Church Movement. This time around, the criticism is starting on the inside. But that’s just lead-in, at least until I get my own copy for review and determine whether I think Mr. McLaren has gone off the reservation or not. For now, this is about the conversation itself rather than the contents of the book… though I’ll start with some of the early book reviews.
So, to bring you up to date, we have Daryl Dash’s review of Brian’s latest. He says that while the book is engaging and offers discussion on some very important questions, it is ultimately “not a minor tweak of Christianity. It is a repudiation of the church’s understanding of God and the gospel.”
After outlining his initial disagreements with the book, Bill Kinnon rounds up a list of Reviewers Reviewing McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity.
Brian McLaren’s one-question fundamentalism quiz got him in trouble with Scot McKnight. Brian’s post was based on a short video of Seth Godin describing his notion of fundamentalism. In the context of Seth’s definition, the quiz makes sense, but perhaps not in the context of the usual definition of fundamentalism. One might go as far as to suggest it’s a dichotomy between open or closed-mindedness. Brian is suggesting his book is really only for the curious open-minded person. And that’s fair.
Unfortunately, the quiz paired with a misunderstanding of some comments by Doug Pagitt placed alongside an Ooze.tv video with Brian has led a number of folks to conclude that disagreement with Brian (or other Emergent writers) meant that there was a presumed problem with the person voicing the disagreement, allowing the concern to be written off or dismissed in some way. I’m not certain this is actually happening, but based on reviews of the book and my own consideration, I’ve realized two things.
(1) Brian’s New Christianity seems to be reinventing the faith at a foundational level, that of presupposition. As Daryl Dash points out, this makes it difficult to engage with the book in a way that disagrees with its content, since the response is not built on quite the same foundation, but at best, different interpretations of it. This seems to be the case with the cross in Brian’s book, for example. And put another way (from the video), if you don’t like the book, that’s okay, you’re not the book’s audience, you’re not one of the people [they're] trying to help. I suppose that’s fine to a point, but if you have a concern about something that’s being presented to the people they’re trying to help, it can leave you feeling a little out in the cold and unable to dialogue properly. I don’t think that’s necessarily the intention, but the manner in which the faith is being re-framed from the suppositional level and the way in which the audience is defined would certainly have this effect, particularly when aligned with the perception (rightly or wrongly) that once would be entering such a dialogue with an Emergent party who thinks they simply “don’t get it”.
(2) Brian McLaren is less prone to having his ideas sound offensive when he’s speaking than when he is writing. Perhaps one mode has a more clear explanation, which would explain the apparent incongruity. If this is the case, I would want to presume that the written McLaren is more accurately presented than the off-the-cuff spoken McLaren. Some allowance would of course be necessary for spoken explanations of written work, or explanations of written work that has been misunderstood. Though after whatever number of books he’s up to by now, one would expect a high degree of accurate explanation would be found in the latest books so that spoken re-explanations would be less important.
Oh, and one other thing… in this latest book, Brian seems to be ousting every dualism you can come up with, except a few… such as the one where it’s implied that you’ll be curious or you’ll disagree with the book. Put another way, you might say agree or be closed-minded. (Uh… let’s review the problem with dualism and false dichotomies, shall we?)
And then there’s Jeremey Bouma’s post, Goodbye Emergent: Why I’m Taking The Theology of the Emerging Church To Task. Of course, we note he’s not the first nor will he be the last, though in that genre, the posts by Andrew Jones and Sarah Bessey are certainly worth reading to get a flavour of what’s going on. Although most of these partings are theological (“new theological emphases and sectarian attitudes towards church emerge”), some have to do with praxis (“So much for flat hierarchy, community and transparency”). At the end of the day, it’s a case of those representing/represented by Emergent Village morphing into something other than what was hoped for by those who are now distancing — “other than” in terms of either theology or praxis. Most if not all of the departers are framing it as not being a break in relationship — which is a point to keep in mind for a minute or two.
You can follow the comment threads on most of the recent posts that I’ve just linked and find that they are long and at times heated. Following on those comments, The Ooze‘s Mike Morell has written a thoughtul post On the McLaren Nay-sayers and David Fitch has offered some thoughts on The Incarnational Approach to Leading in Our Disagreements. And you don’t have to dig very deep into the comments to discern that we’ve got some pretty big disagreements on hand. And it’s so bad that even the anti-emergents have noticed. Maybe we really do need to watch what we say or how we say it. Jamie Arpin-Ricci tackles the subject very well, and Jordon Cooper wonders about Theological Debate as a Blood Sport. Yes, there ought to be a better way to handle this… and but we might begin with thicker skin, less defensiveness, respect for the party being critiqued, and a much more cautious way of saying it.
One thing that would help is some clarification concerning the relationship of the Emergent Trinity — that is, Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, and Tony Jones — to the Emergent Village organization. While none are listed as current EV board members, all have been in the past, and all remain associated with EV in the public eye. When one of them proffers a theological idea, it extends through that association to EV — rightly or wrongly. While it may be said that they don’t formally speak for EV, the fact that EV has historically not responded to affirm or deny such ideas leaves a de facto association with their theology firmly intact. Despite the fact that this “first generation” of EV leaders isn’t listed as formal board members, it would be difficult to imaging the cessation of important friendships, conversations, and mentoring relationships between the past and current generations (with the exception of some of the first generation who seem to have distinctly become a little distant from the current one).
So does the theology of this Emergent Trinity fairly represent the majority of people associated with EV? We don’t know. Although characterized as a conversation, it must be noted that there are precious few voices within EV who are publicly disagreeing with any of the theology being promoted by this Trinity. If one were to gather up the theological threads that have been found objectionable and roll them into a single package, it would indicate that Emergent™ denies original sin and the concept of sin in general, doesn’t hold the Bible as fully authoritative (or inspired, really), denies hell, doesn’t fully articulate a model for atonement (as long as it isn’t penal substitution), is panentheistic, and cannot affirm the traditional creeds — to name a few. To be clear, this wouldn’t be a valid codification of Emergent™ theology… but stringing it together like this makes it (a) obvious why there’s increasing push-back to the varied theologies that are being offered, and (b) much more glaring that there’s no discussion that includes push-back from within the Emergent Village association.
While not specifically stated, this confusion must be a complicating factor among those who have left their association with EV, and the exodus has left many people asking if the emerging church is dead. It would seem evident that the answer is no, not yet — the point that Jonathan Brink attempts to make on the EV blog. He says that, in fact, it is maturing. I think he’s correct in the bottom line of that assessment, mainly because it’s precisely what I began to see at the beginning of October 2008 (Emergent Terminology: It’s Not About Terminology) and outlined more clearly in April 2009 (Emerging Fractures & the Great Emergence).
So yes, you heard it here first. And yes, we’ve got fractures happening, which yes, reflects a maturation process for the emerging church. It shouldn’t have to get ugly though, and some of the lines are being drawn a little heavily with a quick labelling of the parties. I suppose it should be carefully noted that it’s a separate question to ask whether the emerging church is dead (no) than to ask whether Emergent™ is dead. People may tire of the emerging church conversation, but for the most part it’s Emergent Village that they’re distancing themselves from, even as they continue in an emerging/missional vein of theology and praxis.
It leaves me thinking, “Just call me Neo.”
Nickname for a character in The Matrix trilogy of movies. Thomas A. Anderson (Neo) was born 11th March 1962 in “Lower Downtown, Capital City, USA,” son of John Anderson and Michelle McGahey, he attended Central West Junior High and Owen Patterson High. Thomas Anderson is one of billions of humans neurally connected to the Matrix, unaware that the world he lives in is a virtual reality only. In his legitimate activities, he is a programmer, but he is also a computer hacker (cracker), in the course of which he learns of “The Matrix”, later described as a vague notion that Neo has felt his whole life that “there is something wrong with the world”.
While I can relate in many ways, that’s not the “Neo” I was thinking of.
1. a combining form meaning “new,” “recent,” “revived,” “modified,” used in the formation of compound words: neo-Darwinism; Neolithic; neoorthodoxy; neophyte [Dictionary.com].
I remember thinking it a compliment when I was first labeled “neo-pentecostal”, and I’m wondering now if the best descriptor I could adopt might be Neo-Emergent. After all, I’m asking most of the same questions as the Emergent Village crowd — it’s just that in so many cases, I’m getting different answers. Most of the answers I’m getting align more closely with the missional conversation, and it’s been this way for a while now. “Missional conversation” having now been described by someone in the Emergent Village circle as the “missional right.” And perhaps the missional conversation is generally to the right of the Emergent Village one, but it’s still left of a lot of evangelical ones… with overlap on both sides, of course. Such is the nature of a fragmenting conversation that is continuting to splinter into smaller conversations. Think of these more as “working groups,” because honestly, it was probably harder to get a lot of work done in the midst of such a large conversation. The smaller ones are often focused more on praxis… on getting some work done.
Somewhere in this mix, I guess I’ve become Neo-Emergent. I was never formally an Emergent Village affiliate, though I’ve been “in conversation” with so many who are over the past 5½ years. There are no formal ties to break, though I always said I wasn’t Emergent so much as I was part of the emerging church — or “the church that is emerging.” Later on, I began calling it emerging/missional, and this is where I still resonate most. So perhaps I’ve always been Neo-Emergent. I’ve been asking the same questions, but in a lot of cases I’ve been coming up with different answers. Maybe I’m much more convinced that we need a new kind of Christian, but not so much that we should be attempting to formally structure a new kind of Christianity. Someplace between these two books, the path I was on began to diverge a lot more from the one that Emergent seems to be on. But now by calling myself “Neo-Emergent,” I can keep some of the great terminology from emergence theory (and invent a new badge for my blog sidebar ;^))
So the Emergent/emerging church conversation is fracturing. It’s a sign of maturation as people beginning the reconstruction process and are not comfortable reconstructing their theology in quite the same way as some of the people with whom they were very comfortable deconstructing it. Deconstruction requires a lot less affirmation of the same facts than does reconstruction. Simple fact. As Mike Morell quoted me from earlier this year, I really am sad that people who shared a pulpit at the beginning of the decade won’t share the time of day at the end of it (or however I put that). I’m not particularly sad that their theology has diverged — that simply is what it is, and was always inevitable. What saddens me is the treatment of the other. The more I’m around this emerging/missional conversation and meet some of the “big names” within it, the more I find tales of sin, mistreatment, broken fellowship, and even grudges. This deeply saddens me, not because it’s in any way unique, but because it’s no different than the rest of the church, or the world. There are things in which some parts of the body of Christ fails utterly to distinguish themselves, and this is one. And it’s hard to assign blame here. Some have distanced themselves graciously and quietly from EV, while others have become vocal critics. This has left the latest round of distancers and those sympathetic with them feeling a slight cold shoulder from EV. I have nothing concrete to point to in order to justify or substantiate this feeling, but I feel it and it seems to be a feeling that resounds with people on the fringes of EV. Whether this is real or imagined, intentional or not, it’s a little difficult to fault Emergent™ entirely for any feelings of apprehension based on the track records of those who became vocal critics. No names mentioned, *cough* *markdriscoll* *cough* but feelings of betrayal on both sides wouldn’t likely be a mischaracterization, though such a conclusion is in my view just wrong.
And if I really bored you someplace along the way and you skipped ahead to the end, here’s what I’ve just said:
- Lots of emergent people are starting to argue about theology. It’s because of divergent paths, but some of the conversation feels less welcoming.
- The emerging church conversation is fracturing, but it’s a mark of its maturation process.
- I told you, like a year ago, that all this was coming. Don’t look so surprised.
- Turns out I’m Neo-Emergent.
If you want to know what each of these means, well, you’ll have to skip back up and read some more.
What do you think on each of these points? Am I on or off the mark? And are you Neo-Emergent?