Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 10/23/2007 by Tim Challies.
Since there are twenty-five contributors to this volume, I do not think it fair to give a short generalized critique of the whole. Instead, I am going to critique each chapter by spreading out the review over three weeks. Since the authors want to start a conversation and dialogue, let us have at it!
Chapter 1 – “Growing Pains: The Messy and Fertile Process of Becoming” by Mark Scandrette
I’m not trying to be inflammatory here, but this initial chapter by Scandrette took eleven pages to say what we already know about all things Emergent - folks on both the inside and outside of Emergent don’t really know how to explain who or what the movement is about.
Scandrette says, “The terms Emergent and emerging church, like the word Christian, have quickly become catchall phrases to which people and groups bring their independent meanings. The result is that we are misrepresented and misunderstood. The increasing visibility, perceived credibility, and for some, scandal, or the emerging church are threats to the spirit of what we mean by emerge- the primal humility, vulnerability, and passion of a search for a way with God together in the world we live in.”
Well, yes and no. Scandrette may disagree here, but the word “Christian” actually has objective content that fleshes out the definition in historical and propositional terms. True, not everybody agrees on the definition, but there are historical and biblical lines of demarcation.
But what about “Emergent”? Can we not expect that eleven pages written by someone on the inside of the movement could begin to clear up the confusion?
The emerging church may be defined by its’ “spirit”, but Christianity itself is not a “mood”.
Perhaps an area of concrete theological discussion can take place in regard to Scandrette’s talk about “the kingdom of God”, certainly an important theological concept. Scandrette says, “The term kingdom of God has become so popular, and its usage so varied, that it is difficult to know if we are even talking about the same thing.” In reading his discussion of “the kingdom”, I heartily agree with his assessment that we might not be talking about the same thing.
Chapter 2 – “Meeting Jesus at the Bar: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Evangelism” by Heather Kirk-Davidoff
The author wants to know what metaphor works best for evangelism – “Human beings or marketing reps?”
Speaking of her own experience, she says, “The outreach work I had been trained to do focused on attracting visitors to my church with fliers, programs, and advertisements, and then following up with visits, encouraging them to become members, to make a financial pledge, and to agree to serve on a committee. Behind this work was an assumption that membership in a church was what the people in my community really wanted and needed. My job was to recruit them into the particular church I was leading.”
While agreeing with her that the work of evangelism should not be viewed in terms of marketing, I was left wondering whether she envisions evangelism as speaking theological truth about God, sin, and salvation to those who need to hear the good news of a substitutionary savior.
She says, “Despite our wildly different experiences of evangelism, the thing that connects me to many of the people I’ve met through Emergent who come from more evangelical backgrounds is that, in the end, we don’t want to be marketing reps, even if we are marketing a wonderful Savior or membership in the nicest community you’ll ever meet. We want to be human beings, and we want to build relationships with other human beings. Because of that, we’re willing to give up just about everything we’ve ever learned about how to grow a church or spread the gospel. But we won’t give up on relationship.”
She desperately wants to include actual friendship with those in need of evangelism, and to this, I heartily concur. But once the friendship is established, what is the “evangel” of the evangelism? Is authentic friendship the desired end, or will there be eternal salvation because Word and Spirit combine to change the sinner into a saint?
Chapter 3 – “What would Huckleberry Do? A Relational Ethic as the Jesus Way” by Nanette Sawyer
For many reasons, this was the most troubling chapter of the first five. Sawyer opens with a personal experience wherein she was singing “Gloria in excelsis Deo” and had a profound religious experience during the lengthy word “Gloria” of the chorus.
She says, “Singing with no holding back, looking up into the all-embracing lights, sound emanating from the very vibration of my body, nearly touching but not quite touching the other bodies around me, my mind, my heart, my body, and my being all opened out and turned toward something greater than me, greater than that room and all the people in it. I wasn’t trying; it just happened. God was there, infinite beauty and joy and happiness, which surrounded me and rushed through me and embraced me. I knew then what the word glory meant. God was gloriously present with me, for just a moment, a moment that I have never forgotten.”
On one hand, why argue against someone’s religious experience? But according to her testimony, this religious singing experience of divine glory happened at the end of a lengthy period of her life in which she says she had “long rejected Christianity”.
She says, “My explicit rejection of Christianity happened when our family minister implicitly rejected me.”
And how did he reject her? When she was still preteen, he came to her house and in the course of a conversation with her, he asked her if she was a Christian. She said she didn’t know and, “The conversation went downhill from there and ended up with my saying that I guessed I wasn’t a Christian. He told me what I had to believe to be a Christian and I didn’t believe it.”
We are led to think badly of this minister as she says, “Thinking back on that pivotal interaction with my childhood minister, I believe the whole conversation missed the mark in a big way. He was defining Christian identity as assent to a list of certain beliefs, and he was defining Christian community as those people who concur with those beliefs.”
In other words, it sounds as though he was sharing the gospel with her – a gospel contained in theological truth that she rejected.
She says that as a girl she was taught that, ‘I was inherently bad, and that I would be judged for that. I was told that the only way out of that judgment was to admit how bad I was, which only reinforced the same. All of this was light-years away from the luminous gloria moment in the high school Christmas concert.”
Did you notice what was missing though? Where was Jesus, the cross, holiness, sin, justification, faith, repentance, etc.? Noticeably absent.
So, it should not surprise us that the rest of her religious testimony shapes up like this: “It’s interesting that I can say I am a Christian today because of a Hindu meditation master. She taught me some things that Christians had not. She taught me to meditate, to sit in silence and openness in the presence of God. She taught me to love God, which allowed me to experience God’s love for me. She also taught me to honor Jesus and suggested that Jesus could teach me. She provided the divine touch through a human hand and showed me how to be an active participant in my own spiritual life. Sitting in meditation, in a technique similar to what Christians call Centering Prayer, I encountered love that is unconditional, yet it called me to responsible action in my life.”
Did you catch that? A Hindu taught her how to love God and honor Jesus.
What God? What Jesus?
Then, she speaks of going into a church in Boston: “The minister there invited me into the community by serving me communion without asking if I was a Christian. He embodied the radical welcome of Jesus at the supper table, introducing me to Jesus in a way that no one else had. He didn’t ask, “Are you one of us?” He didn’t say, “Do you believe?” He simply said, “Nanette, the body of Christ, given for you.” This was the amazing bit. The bread was for me and he told me so. The bread was for nourishment, and Jesus was offering it to me.”
Her religious experiences, including the Hindu meditation master, now had led her right into partaking of the Lord’s Supper. There was no requirement to come to the table, not even belief. Just partake of Christ with no strings attached.
Soon she was heading into vocational Christian ministry, taking with her the idea that all people are “children of God” salvifically, or at least that we are not supposed to try and make distinctions between those who are and are not. She says, “Even if we could answer the question of who is and who isn’t a child of God, it wouldn’t help us be better followers of Jesus; it would only help us divide people into categories.”
Struggling with the “already/not yet” tension reflected in the fact that Christians are changed but not yet changed all the way, she decides to see it not as tension but instead as “paradox”. And since she concludes that because nobody who is called the “child of God” is perfect, then it is foolish to talk about some people NOT being a “child of God”.
She concludes by saying, “So rather than using the first letter of John, or any other biblical text, to segregate people into the good/bad, children of God/children of the devil, saved/unsaved categories, we embrace the unknowability of a person’s eternal status and instead strive to walk the love-talk and not just talk the talk. We want to invite everyone to the table [and by this she means the Lord’s Supper] and feed them regardless of identity. If we can come together and eat and live and serve together, then we will be changed.”
I failed to see any evidence of the real saving gospel of Jesus Christ in this chapter.
Chapter 4: “The Postmodern Parent: Shifting Paradigms for the Ultimate Act of Re-Creation” by Carla Barnhill
This was the best chapter of the five, simply because Barnhill did give accurate description to some problems in the church today relating to Christian parenting.
She says, “I’ve spent a decade studying Christian families, and in that time I’ve learned something interesting: most Christian families spend an inordinate amount of energy trying to become Christian families. They read books and attend seminars and listen to sermons and radio programs that are essentially built around the assumption that Christian parents don’t know how to be Christian parents.”
I would agree in her assessment of the wide river of information about how to be a Christian parent. She says that so much of what is taught is designed to produce well-behaved children instead of Christ-followers.
She also finds blame in the Sunday schools of her childhood: “ Sunday school was no help; nothing sucks the life out of spiritual formation faster than treating it like a math class. I memorized all of Luther’s Small Catechism, I knew all the Bible stories. I watched some great filmstrips. I learned a lot about Christian history, but I didn’t learn much about Jesus or why his life should matter in mine.”
When I read those words I think of my own sons and remember that teaching them the catechism and church history and Bible stories will not by itself bring them to relationship with Christ. Indeed, this is an important word to hear.
However, the very next sentence brought back the consternation. In contrasting what we are to believe was a terrible methodology of childhood spiritual development inflicted upon her, she says of her own daughter, “My nine-year-old daughter, on the other hand, hasn’t memorized a single Bible verse.”
What triumphant exuberance she displays in the act of non-memorization of Scripture. No catechism. No filmstrips. No Bible-memory. Just real authentic Christianity.
But, does it have to be an either/or? Who says that biblical instruction is the antithesis to authentic spiritual development within our children? I believe that the “good book” says just the opposite.
Chapter 5 – “The Art of Emergence: Being God’s Handiwork” by Troy Bronsink.
I anticipated good things from this chapter, thinking it was going to be a Schaeffer-esque explanation of how Christians should be at the forefront of displaying truth, goodness, and beauty in the creative arts.
But it wasn’t. I read it three times, and although I am not exactly sure what Bronsink was attempting to say, I am entirely sure he wasn’t trying to pick up Schaeffer’s mantle.
Instead, the chapter was about giving Christians the freedom to…well, sketch (metaphorically speaking, sort of).
If that sounds simple, allow Bronsink’s prose to muddy the water: “Like sketching and free-associating, emerging engenders divergent thinking. What if we saw the work of divergence as a generative act of fidelity instead of degenerate or disloyal? …What if emerging churches were to sketch ways of being the story in ages yet to come instead of thinking of appealing to ‘cultural relevance’ under the authorities of closed, feebly supported, tried and true rationales?”
This is gobbledygook. Can someone tell me what this means, or better yet, what this does in the life of the church? What if my church reads this and says, “Yes, we will be that church!” What exactly happens next as we cease from “thinking of appealing to cultural relevance under the authorities of closed, feebly supported, tried and true rationales”?
The next two sections of Emerging Manifesto are “Part 2, Communities of Hope: New Ways, Questions, and Outcomes for Churches of Our Day” (chapters 6-10) and “Part 3, A Hopeful Faith: Christianity and the ‘God of Good Hope’” (chapters 11-14). Next week we will finish the remaining eleven chapters of the book.
Chapter 6 – “An Ever-Renewed Adventure of Faith: Notes from a Community” by Sherry and Geoff Maddock
“Similarly, our ideas about salvation – what it means to be saved – break out of old paradigms as we move out in a mission.”
Well, depending on the paradigms (a sarcastic “thank you” goes out to Thomas Kuhn for making the word “paradigm” an absolute necessity in all post-Kuhnian discussions relating to any topic whatsoever) received in the theological heritage give to the Maddock’s, this may or may not be a good thing.
They discover that salvation includes an aspect of community. They say, “It is our contention that salvation is more than personal renewal; it is at best a collective experience.”
But when they talk about the salvation community, are they referring to the church? I don’t think so. They say, “In summary, we give the following statement of our understanding about the widening scope of salvation: Not only soul, whole body! Not only whole body, all of the faithful community! Not only all of the faithful community, all of humanity! Not only all of humanity, all of God’s creation!”
Unfortunately, the paragraph ends with out clarifying the meaning of this “statement of understanding”. But what does it mean that not only the faithful community but also all of humanity is part of the widening scope of salvation? Is there an objective difference between these two groups in there here and now? What about in the future?
Yes, salvation is more than just an individualistic experience, but it at least enters humanity through the individual.
Chapter 7 – “Jailhouse Faith: A Community of Jesus in an Unlikely Place” by Thomas Malcolm Olson
The Lord loves a broken and contrite spirit. Would it amaze you to find many broken spirits in prison? Probably not. So, the gospel has an immediate inroad within prison ministry because inmates often don’t need to be convinced of their status as sinner.
That is the basic point of Olson’s chapter. Of course, it is also the basic point of Colson’s ministry. Chuck Colson that is. Hardly a poster child for the emerging church or postmodernism (see Total Truth).
So, where is the “emerging angle” on prison ministry? I fail to see what emerging concepts bring to the table of such ministry. He says, “Inmates can’t learn Christianity through a correspondence course; it requires day-to-day, life-on-life interaction. …if Christian community can work here, it will work anywhere.”
There is a false dichotomy at play here. Who said that prison ministry is either “correspondence course” or “life-on-life interaction”? In days of “retirement”, my next door neighbor coordinates the Bible study correspondence courses for hundreds of prisoners each year, taking them through doctrinal and biblical studies. Oh, and he also goes into the prisons themselves holding worship and discipleship meetings. Both correspondence and incarnation work to meet the goal of spiritual transformation.
But the real consternation with this chapter is the subtle idea that the authentic transparency of prison ministry was birthed in an emerging church milieu.
Chapter 8 – “The Existing Church/Emerging Church Matrix: Credibility, Misional Collaboration, and Generative Friendship” by Tim Conder
At one time Conder served in leadership within both Emergent Village and a mainstream Evangelical church. I think he understands both worlds, and so his discussion about “Collisions and Conflict” seemed well grounded.
Having experienced the conflict between the “existing” and “emerging” churches, Conder desires to “move beyond the matrix of collision”. He offers “three paths of inquiry and practice” to guide us to less collision and more relationship. They are: (1) Critical analysis of culture, (2) Less selective appropriation of history, and (3) Relocation of theological dialogue.
On the second point, he makes an observation that I agree with, but am left wondering who it is that would disagree? He says, “We need to rediscover and study the genius of the Reformation (recognizing that we will certainly need to continue reforming). In some cases, we need to find our heritage less in Foucault and postmodern critics and more in formative thoughts of Reformation theologians whose battle with modernity carved our path into post modernity.”
Conder obviously has an audience in mind when he urges less Foucault, but I am amazed that it has already come to that! And the “less in Foucault” phrase plagued me because I fail to see what Foucault brings to any Christian’s “heritage”. Am I to understand that my own mind is so steeped in modernism that I cannot appreciate the deconstructionism of Foucault?
Chapter 9 – “The American Catholic Merger-Church: A Too Small Answer” by Brian Mitchell
This is an intramural discussion about different ways the Roman Catholicism could reorganize the structure of parishes to serve better the changing dynamics of current American culture. How this fits into an “Emergent Manifesto” printed by a Protestant book publisher is beyond me.
Chapter 10 – “Presbymergent: The Story of One Mainliner’s Quest to Be a Loyal Radical” by Adam Walker Cleaveland
Cleaveland gives an apologetic for why an Emergent guy like himself would choose to go to a mainline seminary (Princeton) and remain in a mainline denomination, (PC-USA).
A friend challenged him, “Why on earth are you going to Princeton? Isn’t that the most un-Emergent school there is?” Afraid that he had chosen a school that would indoctrinate him into “the system”, he explains that his denomination actually allows for his “subversive voice”.
Who really believes that the PC-USA would be hard-nosed about Emergent ideas?
Chapter 11 – “Following Jesus into Culture: Emerging Church as Social Movement” by Ryan Bolger
In a chapter resembling the thesis of Francis Schaeffer’s work True Spirituality, Bolger argues that Christianity is a gospel that changes people and communities in all areas of life. Aspects of the reign of God within movements include hospitality, freedom, reconciliation, community, and spirituality.
Chapter 12 – “Church Emerging: Or Why I Still Use the Word Postmodern but with Mixed Feelings” by Brian D. McLaren
McLaren makes no differentiation between Christianity and Christendom. Apparently, if there is historical record of evil within one, then both need radical revision. However, if you see a divide between the kingdom of God (Christianity) and the kingdom of man (Christendom), then McLaren’s pill will be hard to swallow. Of course, the same could be said for those on the right who bring the two together in praise and adulation, as if the advance of national interests is equal to an advancement of the church.
Chapter 13 – “The End of Reinvention: Mission Beyond Market Adoption” by Will Samson
Samson offers up the post-foundational screed about how the subjective nature of theology proves the existence of Enlightenment bondage on the theological endeavors of Christianity. This chapter is “Cliff Notes” for the ideas of George Lindbeck.
Chapter 14 – “Converting Christianity: The End and Beginning of Faith” by Barry Taylor
Taylor says he observes a returning to God on the cultural landscape, but he is thankful that this is not the old God preached throughout the long reign of modernity. Taylor says, “The return to God we are experiencing today is not a resurrection of the premodern God as much as it is a new iteration of concepts of the divine, based not on medieval scholasticism or metaphysics but rather on the daring and often precarious notions of postmodern culture.”
He speaks of “Christianity’s love affair with modernity” as the foundation for producing “a climate in which the general assumption has been that what constitutes Christian faith has been ‘settled,’ and therefore any challenge to the status quo is often rejected as unbiblical or unorthodox.”
But is it actually possible, within Taylor’s framework, to call anything unbiblical or unorthodox? Is the notion of heterodoxy even a viable concept within the postmodern context? If so, on what basis?