Emergent Voices

This month I want to tell you about two brand new books which, even before their publication, have quite a publishing history. Due to their controversial nature, a few publishers bid for, acquired and then dropped a new series called emergent. This series intends to call forth stories and resources for doing innovative, postmodern ministry and some of their work can now be seen at www.emergentvillage.com.
Now published by Youth Specialties and Zondervan, the first two of the series have been released: Stories of Emergence: Moving from Absolute to Authentic edited by Mike Yaconelli, and Adventures in Missing the Point: How the Culture-Controlled Church Neutered the Gospel, a joint project written by Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo.
I loved both of these in this cool emergent line even though I had considerable frustration, especially with the first (Stories of Emergence). The second ought to have “best-seller” written all over it, since both of these well-known evangelicals are nearly Frodo-esque in their passion and integrity and quest. More on that later.
Stories of Emergence is a simple book to read, despite the topic, which is often painful and harsh. It is a collection of stories with each chapter the tale of the author’s own story of waking up to the new things God seemed to be calling them to. They are moving stories of pain and confusion, feelings of betrayal, of frustration, of new insight, hard-fought battles, conversion, emergence. To say I resonated with some of the concerns of these earnest servants of God is to understate my appreciation. In a few of the chapters, I found myself smiling knowingly. Oh yeah. Yes! Of course. Amen!
But here’s one of my largest frustrations. With all due respect, I wanted to shout at these knuckleheads as they described their fundamentalist or charismaniac or legalistic frenzy prior to their emergence. “What were you thinking? Of course you get burned out with that kind of toxic faith. Why did you put up with that stuff for so long? Didn’t you know that not all Christian traditions and churches fostered such weirdness?”
It isn’t rocket science to know that shallow theology leads to shallow discipleship, that overblown, super-spirituality becomes inhumane, that a lack of appreciation for the arts will devolve to a hard, prosaic faith, that a holier-than-thou disengagement with popular culture fosters self-righteous Phariseeism. And, supremely (CCO staff know what’s coming, eh?), that the unbiblical separation of life into the so-called sacred and the so-called secular is in many ways the root of much of this spirit-crunching, world-denying, culturally-ineffective weirdness that these authors confront. They rant and rave, criticize and revolt, and they are usually right. It just seems a bit late in the game to be suggesting (as the whole publishing brouhaha and controversial image the series seems to emanate does) that this is really new stuff. (Even a well-known and highly-respected author has a blurb on the front of the book, wishing he had read this stuff five years ago. Hmmm.)
In case you haven’t read our column here in past years, Brian Walsh & Richard Middleton’s Transforming Vision: Developing a Christian Worldview is a classic text on these matters, followed up with what I still insist is the best book on postmodernity, Truth Is Stranger Than it Used to Be. Transforming Vision explores the rise of unbiblical sacred/secular dualism, exposing a root cause of the “culture-controlled church that neutered the gospel,” as the McLaren/Campolo book puts it. Drawing on sources such as the philosophy of Francis Schaeffer, the art criticism of Calvin Seerveld, the social ethics of Jim Wallis, the biblical imagination of Walter Brueggemann, the Reformed neo-Calvinism of the descendants of Abraham Kuyper, it shows how the Bible refuses to be compartmentalized or privatized. It shows that biblical faithfulness means honoring the Lordship of Christ over every zone of culture and “thinking Christianly” (in light of themes such as creation and incarnation) in ways that evoke a new construal of things.
TV brilliantly (and indispensably, I think) documents how a dualistic worldview–one that pits redemption against creation, spiritual against material, church against culture–leads to accepting false gods and idols which became the driving force of the Enlightenment project. The modernism that emergence authors so resent is prophetically discerned and biblically denounced as TV invites readers to resist the idols and ideologies of the North American way of life. Walsh & Middleton wrote this in the early ’80s long before, it seems, most of these authors came to grips with the struggles they tell of in this book. (And, as Walsh & Middleton would be quick to point out, recording artists such as Bruce Cockburn and Mark Heard were writing extraordinary music about just this stuff in the late ’70s!)
I realize that I am remarkably blessed to have affiliation with the Coalition for Christian Outreach, who train their staff using Walsh & Middleton. Although it is in vogue to criticize the flaws in Francis Schaeffer, as I reread his newly-reissued early study of Jeremiah, Death in the City, or his wonderfully clear Art and the Bible or his mid-’70s call for Christians to care for the Earth, Pollution and the Death of Man, I realize how grateful I am to have been introduced to these sorts of authors. I praise God to this day that helpful publishers released books like this–man, where would I be if I had not seen, in the midst of my own emergence into left-wing activism, Os Guinness’ epic The Dust of Death? Or John Alexander’s spectacular The Secular Squeeze (still, to this day, one of the most helpful guides off the horns of the modernist-postmodernist dilemma). How grateful I have been to have been involved in good Christian organizations like Ron Sider’s Evangelicals for Social Action to alternative Christian journalistic endeavors such as Radix or Vanguard.
In the ’70s, already these folks spoke out clearly about the issues of the day in a way that was real, authentic, uniquely faithful, more about integrity and relevant witness than absolutistic formulas. Nowadays, there are classy magazines like re:generation quarterly and the brainy Mars Hill Audio Journal which continue to raise questions of whole-life discipleship, human and humane sorts of authenticity in matters of faith, life and worship. More and more religious writers cite cultural critics like Wendell Berry and approve of edgy memoirs such as the wonderfully quirky Traveling Mercies by Jesus-lovin’ bohemian, Anne Lamott. The writers of Stories of Emergence surely are not alone, even if they seem to think they are”¦
And so, I wondered, why is it that these incredibly gifted emergence writers didn’t seem to know of all these questions (and all these resources) earlier? Why were they so wedded to modern, rationalist, inhumane, quantitative, hierarchical sorts of ministries, structures and practices? Why hadn’t these guys “caught the vision” of a radical and intregal and integrated and meaningfully transformational way of doing ministry before their near break-down or burnout as described in this book? (Geesh, in the very moving forward, Mike Y tells of reading Henri Nouwen and discovering a more contemplative style of spirituality less than 20 years ago. I find it astonishing that a leader and writer of his age and stature claims to have never heard of the notion of “intimacy with Jesus” ’til later in life. (Tell me he never heard of Thomas Merton!)
Such a story pierces my soul as a bookseller–how can I get the word out that there are such life-saving resources so widely available? Why do guys like Yac need such revolutionary crises to come to a more normative and normal faith? Despite my hint that there has been a better, more prophetic way proclaimed clearly in some circles, things must be bad out there. And that is what this book is about.
Nearly all of these stories are passionate and insightful. Many tell of serious sacrifices made and costs paid dearly. Earth-shaking struggles and confidence-rattling winds blow–a few of these stories are literally the sort I “couldn’t put down.” Each testifies to how people of authentic faith are always and everywhere on a journey. And the journey route is not always clear.
Stories of Emergence is organized into three sections, each documenting different sorts of transitions. Part one tells “Stories of Ministry Crisis.” The second reports “Stories of Worldview Crisis” while the third shows “Stories of Faith Crisis.” Within these stories there is some overlap, much diversity (even though nearly all the authors are white men, a deficiency the editors should have been postmodern enough to see), and tons of earnest struggle. Some were or are mainline denominational folk, but most are Pentecostal or evangelical. One grand story is of the conversion of a communist, one tells of a hippy feminist’s slow shift in thought, another, a deeply moving memoir by a Lutheran who learned to stand in solidarity with his brother who was dying of AIDS, therein learning the meaning of the phrase “remember your baptism.” All tell of the ways in which the authors were led to reject that which was unhelpful or hurtful in the tradition in which they were steeped. For some, this took immense courage and I would guess that the publishing of these honest and raw testimonials will occasion further discomfort.
Here is how the back cover describes the benefits of reading these books:
“This diverse group of people shares in a vulnerable, uncommon way, allowing you into their doubts, fears, convictions and unanswered questions. Each takes you on a path from absolute to authentic: from a place of false conviction and thin resolution, through struggle and growing pains, to a new place that’s more about process than arrival.”
At the end of each chapter are helpful discussion questions, making this a good resource for anyone struggling with how our changing times call forth new expressions of faith. It would be ideal for an edgy and feisty young gang or–if they are brave and tender-hearted–an older, established group who wants to understand this significant portion of the church.
A special note needs to mention one wonderfully-written chapter, a testimony by Frederica Matthewes-Green. Mathewes-Green’s story (unlike most of the others) does not start in an overly efficient institutionalized evangelical subculture (granted, neither does the one about the Bulgarian communist). Hers tells of her holding the hopes and dreams of the counter-cultural revolution of the late ’60s and activist “Ëœ70s.. Her journey is one with which I deeply relate (my wife and I, too, were early supporters of “Feminists for Life”) and her simple description of her plain conversion to Christ brought tears to my eyes. Although Frederica leaves much unsaid–these are stories, remember–she sees pre-modern Orthodoxy as the most radical response to the postmodern critique of secular modernity. (Read that sentence again if you need to!) Not only is her piece the most well-crafted contribution, it goes against the general drift of the other authors in the series. Where they tend to seek postmodern ways of construing the faith, she embraces Eastern Orthodoxy with its huge hierarchy, ancient hymnody, and patriarchal authority. Even though I am not Orthodox or Catholic (I’m a mainline Presby), I commend all of her important books. Read this chapter and you will surely want to dive in to all her other work.
Space no longer permits me to describe in much detail the second new title in the new emergent series, but the subtitle says most of it: Adventures in Missing the Point: How the Culture-Controlled Church Neutered the Gospel by Brian McLaren & Tony Campolo. Some chapters are initiated by McLaren with Tony giving a brief reply. Other chapters are classic Campolo with McLaren responding. They grapple with topics such as salvation, theology, prophecy, the way to best understand the Bible. It is rich, vital content and I highly recommend it. They ask big questions about how to best live out the call to do evangelism (both have written widely on this before), social action, the role of women, how the church ought to respond to matters such as homosexuality, environmentalism, doubt, worship styles and, of course, being postmodern. (You’ve got to read that part–would that all the emergent voices do!)
Some chapters are nearly obvious–of course we should care for the Earth without worshiping it; of course the Kingdom of God is a key motif in Scripture and a central theme of Jesus’ ministry. Other topics, though, demand our serious attention and the nuances of these author’s arguments are a delight to behold. Not only are the exchanges informative and interesting, they are immensely practical.
Interestingly, it is most often the controversial Campolo who calls McLaren to a more traditional, classic formulation of the matter at hand. (When Tony is the voice of balance and moderation, you know you’ve got an interesting debate on your hands!) They struggle with the role of rational propositions in our theology, the way stories function in Christian preaching, the usefulness of Niehbur in understanding the relationship of Christ and culture. In a truly fascinating chapter which unpacks the postmodern quandary of head vs. heart, reason vs. emotion, object vs. subject, McLaren expresses things in a way Tony finds unacceptable. Campolo draws on his black church experience and offers keen and orthodox exhortation. Each author’s final reflection on being postmodern is clear, thoughtful and surprising.
I kept thinking that a book like this should have been available for the e authors to have read a decade ago. Its kindness, honesty, faithfulness, ecumenicity and urgency, I’m sure, would have been an immense blessing to those whose faith longed for such discourse. Still, even now, I predict that this book will used by God in extraordinary ways to come alongside those with big, new millenium questions, as well as those with age-old doubts. The playful title–“adventures in missing the point,” ha!—tells us clearly that these guys are not only (or even mostly) exposing the goofiness or wrong-headedness of others. It is an invitation to join in creative and liberating reflection, trusting each other and the Holy Spirit enough to ask big questions and use the gifts of head and heart to dive deep into those questions. I dare you to take your shot at that kind of adventure. These books, I am sure, will be good company on the journey.