My new monthly review column explains why I’m interested in the emergent conversation

new christians.jpgI’ve posted one of my long columns at the website’s “review articles” page, the one for March.  It starts with a link to a fun and helpful little piece in Publisher’s Weekly where the writer wonders if Christian publishers, in their desire to jump on the emergent bandwagon, will so over-use the term that it will become meaningless, co-opted.  You can visit that good essay here.

My column, though, goes on for pages sharing my interest in theological dialog and cultural reformation, telling how the North American students of Dutch Calvinist philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd—a behind the scenes influence upon Francis Schaeffer, actually—taught many of us in the 70s to deconstruct the Enlightenment project and the alleged autonomy of Reason long before anyone heard of postmodernism, let alone the emerging theologies.

Ironically, being schooled in this conservative Protestant tradition which critiqued secularized rationalism, and which honored honest questions, and which insisted upon robust, Biblically-guided cultural involvement, has made me more open to the emergent questions, not less.  I know some of our readers and friends worry about this, so I make my case, sharing how we’ve come to appreciate their basic impulse and publishing agenda.  I tell about some of my favorite books that set me up for this recent firestorm of new authors, hip book imprints, e-zines, clever ministries and the missional call to reinvent faith in ways that are different than middle American Christianity as we know it.

I hope my column explains our eagerness and concerns for the emergent conversation, lets you in on more of our past journey, and alerts you to some of the recent history of the emergent movement by highlighting some of the most important books in this field over the past five years or so.  The best new book that tells the story of the leaders of the new movement is doubtlessly the page-turning delight The New Christians: Dispatches From the Emergent Frontier by Tony Jones (Jossey-Bass; $22.95.) Jones is doubtlessly the one to tell this story, currently the coordinator for the Emergent Village. It has garnered rave, rave reviews from everybody from McLaren to Phyllis Tickle to Mark Oestreicher.  If my rambling whets your appetite, read Jones next, and then some of the other books I cite.  If my rambling turns you off, forget it, and read Jones.  And, wherever you are, join the conversation!

New Kind of Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier
Tony Jones
$5 off
now $17.95
Hearts & Minds 234 East Main Street Dallastown, PA  17313  717.246.3333

10 thoughts on “My new monthly review column explains why I’m interested in the emergent conversation

  1. So, I just finished reading your “novelette” on your thoughts on the emergent conversation/movement. Wow. Thanks for your honesty and for the bibliography! Thanks for being willing to engage in these important issues while holding on tight to the strong message of Christ.

  2. Josh,
    Thanks, man, you are such a faithful reader and supporter of our ministry here. We’re glad. I will reply a bit in an email, too, but just wanted to again note that my own journey is reported here in tedious fashion, not because I think I’ve got this all figured out, but just to suggest, especially to those who wonder, that there are other theological traditions that equip us and encourage us, and give us a framework for, thinking about all this stuff. Of course we want to be faithful and true, but we always needn’t fear and fight quite so much. Thanks.

  3. For the 5+ years I have been involved in the emergent conversation I have said to many of the leading voices in Emergent that much of what is being discussed and attempted to live out is Kuyperian Reformational World view. As I have gone to conferences and conversations around the country and even in the UK our hearts are filled with gratitude for the CCO and this world view. Many of those in the Emergent conversation are emerging from a fundamentalist evangelicalism that has a truncated theology and a disembodied spirituality and world vie. It is important that we understand that, that is where the majority of Emergent folks are coming from. That is not my story nor my heritage and I feel as though we have an important voice in the conversation. Now the interesting and exciting part about the emerging conversation is that others are joining from the equally truncated and fundamentalist left mainline. Their short- sightedness is their ecclesiology and how the structure of the church and worship has impeded incarnational ministry and the missional heart of God. You see folks emerging from this place like Diana Butler Bass and the GOCN folks like Guder from Princeton. Once again this is not my story. Although a part of the mainline (PCUSA) i have participated and served in mostly missional congregations with an incarnational understanding of worship and mission. What I find invigorating about the emerging conversation is this cross-pollination that is happening between the left and the right. Emergent is offering a third way of doing church. There is no emerging church. There are only emerging churches. Emergent has a deep ecclesiology that spans house churches to high liturgical Catholic. And what is exciting is that a midst theological differences people are coming together around the mission of the whole Gospel – i.e. Cultural reformation or all of life redeemed.
    So my one critique of CCO, Kuyperian and you Byron my good freind and mentor is that it is still rationalistic and modern in its epistemology. I think that at the heart of what draws me to the Emergent conversation (other than what I stated above) is an openness to non-Foundationalisitic, experiential, subjective epistemology. (See Grenz and Franke Beyond Foundatinalism for this.) This for me does not need to relativism but a humble recognition that all of us stand at a particular place in the world in a particular time and our conception of truth is fundamentally situational. For example at the Jubilee conference this year, I loved 80% of Closon on Saturday at Jubilee but he is still bound to a strictly rational apologetic and epistemology. Which was ironic b/c all his “verification” for his ministry was found in experiential story telling of the lives of people transformed.
    Well I must get to organizing a postmodern, experiential based emergent worship gathering for Palm Sunday.
    I would LOVE to have more conversation, not typing (I Am not full pomo) about this. I think the CCO has a VERY important voce in this conversation. Seriously!!!

  4. Byron, thanks for taking the time to share that. It has and will continue to resound with me as I reflect on my ongoing, very young spiritual journey.

  5. Byron and BJ…
    This is all so interesting, early on a Saturday morning. And I must confess that I would much prefer sitting around a table with you all, cups of something in hand, seeing each other’s eyes.
    Central to my own ecclesiastical vision is the belief (to quote one of my great teachers, Lesslie Newbigin) that “the congregation is the hermeneutic of the gospel.” That has mattered to me for a long time, enough so that in the several moves that Meg and I have made in our 30+ years of marriage, “finding a neighbor before we find a house” has always been our credo. We have looked for a community of Christ’s people, first; perhaps even more so, a community of Christ’s people have called us into their life, first– and we have responded.
    So much of my life these days– the thinking and writing and teaching –grows out of this long-held commitment. It makes sense to me of my life in the church and the world. What the Church means then, has never been an academic exercise for me.
    Reading BJ’s mixture of gratefulness and critique says a lot, and I honor him for that. Life is too complex for anything to be just one-or-the-other. To see in the Augustinian/ Calvinian/ Kuyperian vision of life in the world gifts that have equipped him for understanding discipleship in the 21st-century is both generous and true. Unless we choose to be ahistorical, and therefore purposefully though perhaps naively without a tradition, all of us live on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. And for good reason; as my friend, the poet Steve Turner, says so well in his “History Lesson”:
    History repeats itself.
    Has to.
    Nobody listens.
    Sometimes I meet people, more often than not, those who are now younger than me, who do not have eyes to see this. So instead of a conscious rooting of their own faithfulness within the centuries of Christian reflection, there is a sense that “we are the first ones to ever think about these questions, and so get out of the way!”
    Reading BJ’s concern about Byron’s rationalism, I smile. Not in disdain, for a moment. But just wondering what it could possibly mean. To criticize Colson for being so, yes. I think he bought in a long time ago, as his own tutelage was under R.C. Sproul (need to admit that I spent two years at the Ligonier Valley Study Center in the 1970s). Good man that he was, Sproul was formally and officially more “rationalistic” in his apologetic than I was ever comfortable with; and yet, he has lectures that go on and on about the dangers of the Enlightenment, and critiques of the Enlightenment and modernist thinkers. So much of his own “protest” (as in being a Protestant) grows out of a push-back against that tradition within the American church, and in particular the PCUSA. He saw it killing the church of his fathers and mothers, and did so on the shoulders of his own tutor John Gerstner, whom we could say was pretty “rationalist” himself. But to read or hear Byron as “rationalistic” is puzzling to me. Perhaps it is difficult to use the words “rational” and “rationalistic” in a meaningful way, any longer. We do lose access to words over time, e.g. “gay.”
    The terms are slippery.
    From where I stand, I don’t think there is much virtue in identifying oneself as “premodern, modern, postmodern.” The gospel-of-the-kingdom tradition in which I live and move and have my being cuts more deeply, just as it does for my political allegiance, viz. even living in Washington DC as I do, for as along as I have, I refuse to identify with either the Dobson/Colson world, or the Wallis world. Lovers of God to be sure, but ideologically-rooted to partisan positions that are not deep enough, not self-critical enough, and on both sides it undercuts the witness of the kingdom.
    I wonder what BJ thinks of the Newbigin/Polanyi critique of the Enlightenment tradition; even more so, the positive vision it offers of an incarnational discipleship with necessary ecclesiastical implications? Clayfooted as he necessarily was, I think that Schaeffer’s vision was one formed by a commitment to love people and to love truth at the same time, rooted in that same kind of incarnational, communty-based witness/ apologetic that Newbigin/Polanyi argued for. When I read the “emergent” writers, I wonder what is new– even as I understand the yearning for new wineskins?
    Perhaps it is simply and only personality, though I would like it to be something more principled! But, I am just not drawn to movementism. As an undergraduate in the heyday of Peter Steen’s professor-without-portfolio years in western PA, I listened carefully, and eventually made my own pilgrimages to Toronto to sit at the literal feet of the ICS professors– even as I thought that there was something to the critique of the Westminster Sem concern (sadly, over the years, I am sure that the Westminster folks had eyes to see the nature of the Trojan horse that had been allowed into the halls of the ICS world). To the never-ending lament of some of my good friends, I just never was willing to take a side; to “get off the fence,” as one friend put it. I saw strengths and weaknesses in both “camps.” For blessing and curse, that is still true of me.
    A last thought. Every generation needs to rethink the wineskins. The Wesleyan Howard Snyder pushed me to do in my own coming-of-age years, but the image still rings true. As that happens, it is worth remembering that the Patristics were remarkably self-conscious about their desire to offer a distinctively Christian “paideia” amidst the overwhelmingly pagan cultures of the Mediterranean world. They saw the fatal flaws in the Roman and Greek “paideia” and wanted something truly different, something honestly Christian. To read them is wonderful, and sobering. When we look back on their time, we wonder, “But how did you miss Plotinus? How couldn’t you have seen the Trojan horse of his thinking, and– to switch metaphors and centuries –the ways that it would be acid-rain for your witness, and the centuries that would follow?”
    If I have anything to say here it is that history humbles all of us. The great challenge for every generation is to find a way, in imitation of Christ, to love people and to love truth at the same time. When we give up on on or the other, as the world, the flesh, and the devil, are always insisting, we lose our calling, we lose our own reason-for-being. So as we pray and labor for wineskins that make sense of our own moment– calling the effort the “emergent” church or whatever –we would all be wiser people if we listened with heart and mind to Steve Turner’s “history lesson.”
    Grace and peace to you all.
    Steve Garber

  6. Byron,
    Thanks for your lengthy article and perspective on all things emergent. I was a bit surprised you didn’t include Carson’s book, as a sort of balance. There are many streams in what is called emerging/emergent, and though Carson has been criticized for his tone, I think his voice needs to be heard. Driscoll’s recent critiques also need to be heard, and he has as much right/ability as anyone to tell the story.
    There is a great deal at stake theologically in the emergent “conversation,” and those immersing themselves in it should know that it’s not all orthodox or sound.

  7. Steve,
    Thanks for your kind words and feedback. I listed the Smith book instead of the Carson book for those wanting a hard-hitting critique of the emergent movement. I have a few serious reservations about Dr. Carson’s book—he is a good Bible scholar and important evangelical leader in many ways, but that he wrote this book, admitting in it that he should have called up or visited with these guys (like McLaren, say) and chatted with them first, is reprehensible. Most emergent leaders have invited this kind of brotherly/sisterly dialog and when an author blasts away outside of relationship, it seems to me at least unbecoming, perhaps a violation of the spirit of Biblical commands. It seems usually a model of discourse not to be commended.
    Further, I think, frankly, that Carson is just too wedded to what seems to me to be the idols of theologism (that I alluded to in my column) akin to medieval scholasticism, and Enlightenment rationalism. I’m not exactly a postmodern emergent but his response to the critique of foundationalism was pretty shallow, I think. Scot McKight’s blog reviewed it as it was coming out, day after day, and his reactions are worth reading.
    Still, I don’t despise the book the way many do, and we stock it. I just think that Smith’s book that I listed is more friendly in tone, and more helpful in navigating the debates about epistemology and doctrine.
    Driscoll, too, we carry, and I announced his new book a few weeks ago at the blog. Still, his attitude and mouth makes him a much less useful conversation partner than he might be. When he says bizarre stuff like he doesn’t like “their” Jesus (because he could beat him up) I have no idea how to respond. He did have some “right” to tell the story (as Jones says, since he was a bright and important friend of that gang early on) but he has squandered it with vitriol, immaturity and pride. Interestingly, he has confessed to some of this in recent months, and perhaps with repentance and a softness of heart he may have something really worth listening to eventually.
    By the way, on a somewhat related topic, I listed in my favorite books of the year (December 07/January 08 column) the recent John Piper book that took N.T. Wright to task for what Piper believed to an unacceptable views of justification. It was, in my view, a model of gracious and fair interaction, a very close reading, shaped in part by personal correspondence, and written with passion and as much humility as Piper could muster. I liked it for that reason alone, as an example of appropriate discourse. And, because the question is so very important, of course. And because I like both of those men. So, just so ya know, I try to keep it balanced and recommend stuff from across the spectrum.
    Thanks very much for your input and concern. We are grateful!

  8. Steve,
    I hope we talk again, face to face, or on the phone, soon, as you challenge and encourage me so, always with such cultural insight and true kindness. I wanted to thank you here in this public forum for taking the time to read my columns so faithfully, and for your insights emails and comments.
    Here, though, you’ve outdid yourself, and I hope all readers of BookNotes read your comments carefully. Your concerns are right on, and your reminders appreciated. And, as I wrote to BJ the other day, I was perplexed that he called me a rationalist, but loved that I was called a “fuddy duddy.” I love that guy, doing Presbyemergent stuff in Pittsburgh Presbytery.
    And, by the way, I was going to list Howard Synder—I reviewed “Community of the King” in Sojourners when if first came out in the 70s—as an older resource for eccesiology questions, but I felt I had name-dropped and cited too many books. Thanks for the reminder of the “new wine/new wineskins” metaphor– norms & forms, Spirit & structure. Some things are true and need not change, others are culture bound and needing to change. Yet, do new structures/forms, then shape the message? Are some forms more faithful to the norms? That is, are certain forms of doing church more congenial to the gospel and, likewise, do certain bad forms of church deform the message itself? I think there is some sense to saying that forms are not utterly neutral, and some allow us to embody the true message more faithfully. That is the “medium & the message” sub-text of that roundtable book edited by Sweet.
    Your reminder that the Patristics attempted to offer an honestly Christian approach, informed by but different than the Greco-Roman world is helpful, Steve, as many of us early on reacted to the charges of dualism which lead to world-denying Gnosticism, an unfair charge, since the Gnostics were considered heretics by the Patristics, even if they were world-denying in their own odd way. (Ahh, Plotinus being cited by Augustin without qualification. That was the sort of “accomodation to pagan culture” and neo-Platonism that I railed against.) Yet, now there is a rediscovery of these church fathers among Protestants, and we have much to learn. Just this morning I was reading a manuscript of a soon-to-be-released book by McLaren that he gave me, the first of a series of books on spiritual practices that will be coming out, and he reminds us of the need to root our insights in ancient truths and ancient ways.
    Mainline, emergent, evangelical; right, left, traditionalist, radical–you admit to not “getting off the fence” and avoiding movement-ism. Me, I put a foot down in all of ’em and love a good parade. Which makes me, often, seem rather confused. Thanks for sharing the journey, and helping so many of us along the Way.

  9. Byron–
    It was a real pleasure to meet you in DC, and to spend some time indulging in your writing around here. Most especially, your stuff about emergent/emerging (and especially your own historical bibliography) reminds me of my ongoing theory that the greatest value of emerging/emergent is the freedom it gives folks to be true to their own theological and ecclessial impulses. I often wonder if finding some freedom from denominational and theological strictures simply allows us to pursue the good seeds planted in us by many of our college and seminary professors, and by our reading companions along the way.
    Thanks for continuing to wave the flag of freedom, and thanks for the skinny Brian Walsh book you sold me– I never knew it even existed!

  10. Byron,
    A first-timer to the site and your discussion, I appreciate what you’re doing here. Good stuff.
    Just a quick note: At this point (12 April), the link to the Jana Riess PW article doesn’t work in and of itself. It needs to be reworked so that the reader is sent directly to the PW site instead of the referring site first.
    Grace and peace,

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