Why I Am Not Jumping Ship with the Emergents

OK, so in that previous post apparently I took too long to explain why Jesus had red hair and when I did get around to it, I did it so obliquely that it was easy to miss. My primo rule of writing is clarity. So here you go, only three sentences in: The reason I am not jumping ship is because I don’t believe the ship exists, and even if it did I’m not too sure I want to jump into a boiling sea of flailing humanity.

Oh yeah, right… clarity. What I mean to say is; I am really uncomfortable these days with such volatile nouns as “Christian”, especially when you tack amorphous adjectives like “Emergent” onto them and expect it to mean the same thing to everyone involved. Words are inert things, collections of letters that lie dead on a page or in the air until someone reads or hears them through the complex filtration system of their mind/heart/soul and makes of them something perhaps wildly different than intended by the person who first brandished them.

The ship doesn’t exist for me because I question if the ship the Emergent Christians are jumping off of really exists, or if it is rather a construction of their minds, a word or group of words (like “traditional North American Protestant Evangelicalism”) they’ve formulated in order to be able to do what everybody is trying to do everywhere – be different, and special, and important. When you start grouping large groups of incredibly complex people into the boxes of drastically simplified terms, you are essentially hating them.

I am, of course, being ridiculous. First, because I’m pretending that I am not the sort of person yearning to feel different and important. Second, because I’m pretending that these words of mine are the sort that are actually communicating something. And third, because I am expecting you to believe that when I put something in a box, it both belongs and stays there.

So let’s pretend.

Let’s pretend I can actually define something in a way that actually means something.

First, words themselves. In an equally true sense, words are NOT dead. Words are perhaps the most alive, organic things we have. They are vibrant and juicy and bloody. They change and grow and shrink and kill and create and are the very medium of our being as creatures, a mysterious gift of the divine, a window into each other’s souls. Words are a metaphor for God, or at least for how God interacts with people. They are a glorious paradox, a tool that can rend earth for planting or hearts for destruction. They allow us the ability to name and thereby emasculate the ugliness and fears and frailties we live with, while simultaneously enabling us to murder to dissect, diminishing and destroying in a never ending, ever rending effort to cram God and God incarnated into one little cage of a word – “God” – that we can hold safely in a tattered cardboard box.

Admitting all that, it is scary to try to define anything as broad and confusing as “Emergent Christianity” and whatever it is from which it is emerging. One of the reasons it’s so confusing is that it is still going on, and another is that it is an expression of postmodernity, which is the most scatterbrained theory you can imagine. Everybody talks about it, but no one is exactly sure what it is.

I guess it’s pretty obvious from my overall direction that I have been reading some emergent-type books, but I think you’d be surprised at what a small percentage they comprise of my total reading. The influence is broader than the input, I think, because emergent thought has had an extremely wide-reaching effect on North American Christian thinking – even among its detractors.

I liken it to the Reformation, which wasn’t intended to actually attack or break with the Catholic Church, but ended up both swinging wildly away into mad excesses AND serving as a sharpening tool for the Catholic Church. It forced it to realize both (somewhat) the errors of its ways and (perhaps more importantly) that if it didn’t change some things it was going to lose all that carefully accumulated power. In some ways it’s all a big, horrible, ruthless, funny game in which adult children play idea wars and use their amazing new ideas to gather power and justify treating everybody who disagrees with them like night dirt. This is funny, but only in the same disturbing sense that it’s funny to watch small children put on airs and act like little demi-gods.

It seems like we play this game over and over with different variations, pretending that we’re in charge, that we decide what is true, and that we can dictate the terms of our existence. Nonetheless, it is also true that the Catholic Church DID need a major kick or two in the pants, and that the Reformation DID redirect the church catholic (in the real sense of that term) back in a very loose sense to where it needed to go. Inquisitions are not very Jesusish. So what are the excesses in the North American Protestant Evangelical “Church” that the emergent movement is reacting wildly to?

That’s tough to say, due to the intrinsically fragmented nature of the postmodern discussion, but the best description I’ve read lately of the origins of the emergent movement comes from a Christianity Today article entitled “The Ironic Faith of Emergents”, written by a man named Scott McKnight – a man sympathetic to emergents but not fully convinced. In this article, McKnight explores how emergent Christians have arrived at a faith that he calls ironic, meaning that “they have deconstructed the very thing they were most committed to, and are left with what many call post-evangelicalism.”

I will shamelessly post a portion of it here without permission, making the excuse that my disregard of copyright laws is a direct result of my postmodern heritage and their fault anyway, for tempting me beyond my ability to resist by posting it on the interwebs.

Plus, I don’t know how to do those little blue-word link-thingies.

“The origins of ironic faith among evangelicals can be found in at least eight catalysts. These catalysts move disaffected evangelicals from an ironic faith within evangelicalism to a fork in the road: Either abandon traditional evangelicalism for an emergent form of post-evangelical Christianity, or abandon Christianity altogether.

First, emergents believe the epistemic foundation of conservative evangelicalism, the doctrine of Scripture's inerrancy, does not sufficiently express the truth about the Bible. Inerrancy is for them the wrong word at the wrong time, though it may have been the right word for a previous generation.

Second, emergents believe that the gospel they heard as children or were exposed to as teenagers is a caricature of Paul's teaching—what McLaren sometimes calls "Paulianity." The discovery of Jesus, the Gospels, and his kingdom vision creates an irony: "If we are followers of Jesus, why don't we preach his message?" Emergents I know are sometimes wearied or put off by Paul, yet enthusiastic about Jesus and the Gospels. When McLaren describes the message of Jesus as a "secret message," he speaks of the emergent discovery of the radical kingdom vision as really new. The political vision and the global concerns of emergents flower from the discovery of Jesus.

Third, exposure to science in public education, universities, and personal study has led emergents to disown the traditional conclusion that when science and the Bible conflict, science must move aside. Although they refuse to give the Bible the trump card in this game, they remain committed to it, but now with a different view of what the Bible actually is. The Bible, so many emergents will openly admit, employs various literary genres and shows an ancient perception of how the cosmos works. So they are both left-wing and right-wing, committed to the Bible and open to new ideas.

Fourth, emergents were burned by the lack of integrity among popular evangelical media figures. They watched or heard the stories about Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart and the fall of leader after leader both national and local. Knowing what the Bible says and what leaders are (perhaps) doing behind closed doors creates irony, if not cynicism. For some, the lack of integrity among leaders casts doubt on the whole institution of the church. Emergents compare what Jesus had in mind and what Paul saw come to pass with what is going on, and decide to start all over again as if for the first time—this time with authenticity.

Fifth, public schools drilled the messages of multiculturalism and pluralism into emergents' heads and hearts, while their churches were teaching them that all those without explicit faith in Christ were doomed. Possessing both a faith that is particular and an intimate knowledge of religious pluralism produced a tension that was nearly intolerable. For many, it results in a commitment to Jesus Christ alongside a more pluralistic view of world religions, or a broadening of what it means to be a "Christian."

Sixth, emergents sometimes exercise a deconstructive critique of the Bible's view of God. Sometimes I hear it in ways that are no more interesting that Marcion's old (and heretical) critique of the violent God of the Old Testament. Yet upon close inspection, the rumblings are subtler and more sophisticated, and the struggle is palpable and genuine. For some emergents, the Bible includes portrayals of God that cannot be squared with their understanding of a God of love. For a group less concerned about traditional understandings of inerrancy, such portrayals are interpreted as the way ancients talked about God, with later biblical revelation seen as clearly presenting a God who is altogether gracious and loving.

Seventh, homosexuality. Emergents are not so much pro-gay or pro-lesbian as they are convinced that sexuality is more complex than many acknowledge. They are committed both to the Bible, which has strong denunciatory language for homosexual practices, and to live alongside gay and lesbian friends and family members.

Finally, ironic faith grows out of emergents' realization that language plays a large role in our faith and our claims to know the truth. Even a first-year college course in literature or criticism exposes students to philosophers Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty, or Stanley Fish, and few students are left unchanged and unchallenged. Emergents reason that theology is language-bound; language has its limits; the Bible is in language; that means the Bible, too, has the limits of language. The Christian faith, many emergents conclude, is language-shaped and that means it is culturally shaped. Why does one language—either ancient Middle Eastern or modern Western—get to tell the whole story? Emergents by and large plead for a multilingual approach to theology, which can lead to an ironic relationship to the language of the Bible and Western theology.”


McKnight mentions eight different catalysts for the emergent approach, admitting that there could be many more. I really dig on what he’s said – it seems to identify some key points that have made it difficult for me to be comfortable in the sort of Church environment in which I was raised. I think the point could be made as well that it is his eighth catalyst that is the most telling, and that it is from this point that the other seven (and any number more that I could think of)… um… emerge.

So if I resonate with the emergent take on the world and feel so deeply uncomfortable in the church traditions of my forebears, then why do I not whole-heartedly jump ship? Am I a coward, too comfortable to take a risk? Maybe, but I think rather that it might have more to do with the fact that I don’t know if I was ever on that ship in the first place. I was raised in a more traditional Christian setting, but for the most part I went along with a lot of what I had been taught about things like, say, sexuality, not because I had deeply considered and studied on it and made it my own, but because that is what you do when you are young: you absorb.

My process of rejection of certain ideas has been a very important part of my process of becoming an adult – of taking honest stock of myself and the world and coming out from behind unconsidered barriers into a faith that is just that – faith. I have not abandoned the faith of my childhood as much as I have come into an actual, adult faith. When you are young, it is enough to trust the words of your parents and to live, unquestioning, within the context of the culture in which you have been placed. Coming of age (a rarer and more precious thing, I think, than we’d like to admit), is about owning up to what we do and don’t know and believe, and then making wise decisions about the directions in which we will then live. In so many ways I continue to believe certain things about which I have no reason to claim knowledge. Faith is not about knowing, though, as much as it is about not knowing and then going ahead and trusting anyways.

So now I feel like I haven’t jumped off something, but merely noticed for the first time that I’m adrift. I’m uncomfortable with where I started, but I also feel that many in the emergent movement are throwing babies out with bathwater, doing what many of the early protestant reformation did when they went all crazy iconoclastic nut-bar and destroyed beautiful works of art and over-absorbed the hyper-rationalism of their time, which was key in leading them to teach platonic dualism and the eternal damning torture of many unborn babies.

I have not abandoned all that I have been taught. I have not lost my faith. I have simply grown up, and all that I have done and thought and learned up to this point is still a part of who I now am. Do I think that the North American Protestant Evangelical Church has come, in many very significant ways, to resemble something more akin to an Evil League of Evil? Yes. Do I think that this opinion matters all that much? No.

For whatever reason (or unreason), I have faith that God is painting some beautiful, unending masterpiece. The word games we play are a part of that epic rainbow of colors, brushstrokes and lives, but they are not all of it. I, a blip of magenta under the nose of America, can no more see the whole picture than can the extravagant crimson bucket splash of the emergent church or the yellow ochre palette-knife swaths of the Eastern Orthodox or the long, undulating black line of the Dalai Lama. I believe in Jesus, but that does not change Jesus, nor make too much more difference than that the devils (whatever they are) believe in Jesus. What matters is how I enact that belief through love to the lonely, hurting world/community in which I, by the grace and good humor of God, have been born.

I’m still interested in playing the word games and figuring this stuff out – heck, I’m addicted to it – but my ability to think or my facility with words has very little to do with whether I am, in fact, living rightly.

I know I’m beating a dead horse here, but c’mon: let’s move beyond our boxing and naming of people and name that which needs naming more than anything else – the hurt of the world. Let’s get over ourselves. Let’s name it, claim it, and love on it. Let’s be Jesus, living and laughing and enjoying, telling stories and preaching grace and loving on people by meeting their needs and healing their pain.


Popular Posts