Why we are open to the Emergent Conversation: My journey, and books along the way

Publishers Weekly may not have the popularity or glitz of Variety, the trade journal of the movie biz, but it is an important voice for those of us in the publishing world.  A fabulous little piece appeared recently pondering the definitions of the theological conversation (movement?) that is commonly called “emergent.” Jana Riess, a woman we know as a thoughtful follower of Christ and a fine writer herself, asks if publishers are going to get on the bandwagon, co-opting the phrase, making it so ubiquitous that it becomes meaningless.  It is a good and fun essay, and we commend it to you.  It is a very, very brief introduction to the emergent conversation, and a call for clarity about the words we’re using, and a warning about the impact of marketing in all of this.  As one who does his fair share of marketeering, I found it helpful and wanted to pass it on to our readers: here.  

Some have wondered why I am attracted to this movement/conversation, fraught as it is with peculiar over-reactions to church-as-usual and what some have called theological squishiness. (Ahh, this is not the place to debate all that, but I do think it is frustrating that some folks quote Brian McLaren’s novels—the trilogy will come out in paperback later this Spring—as if they are theological encyclopedias, compendiums of his personal doctrine.  Of course, even his non-fiction texts are tentative and emerging—nothing wrong with that—and surely his novels have to be read as the provoking stories they are, with the characters raising questions, not being his exact voice.  But I digress, only to ask for reasonableness in the debates about the faithfulness and fruitfulness of what has come to be called the emergent movement.)

Some of our best customers and friends are sure that this is a dead-end, comprised of disillusioned evangelicals who have abandoned Biblical truth in a swirl of relativism and hipster posturing.  Well, there may be some of that, but it really hasn’t been our experience.  There is a eagerness to ask big questions, an willingness to question our formulations of the enduring historic doctrines, and, truth be told, despite our pretty traditional orthodoxy, I’m all for questioning what we believe.  And why we believe it, as Paul Little advised so many years ago in his zillion-selling book of that title, Know What You Believe (And Why You Believe It.)  No lesser orthodox light than the properly esteemed Rev. Timothy Keller has recently invited us to think deeply about our most cherished assumptions, and the earlier working title of his splendid, new Reason for God (Dutton; $24.95) was to be “Doubting Your Doubts.”  He has said that he likes inviting seekers and skeptics to deconstruct their doubts, but, similarly, he feels called to push Christians to critically reflect on their convictions a bit, too.  It is pastorally wise, I think, to have a sane and good pastor like Keller to walk us through some self-reflection.  It’s that old Paul Little line, what and why, eh?  And so, I think the emergent folks are onto something helpful in shaking us up a bit.

More importantly, to understand my general appreciation for the emergent discussions and efforts, you must know that in my early days as a Christian reader, I was handed The God Who Is There, Escape From Reason, Art and the Bible, Death in the City, and other early Francis Schaeffer books of cultural criticism, not to mention perhaps one of the very most significant books of my life, Os Guinness’ stunning Dust of Death: A Critique of the establishment and the counter culture – and a proposal for a Third Way. Ahh, that first chapter, “The Striptease of Humanism,” which deconstructed–we didn’t use that word, then, yet–the privileged place of autonomous reason, using existentialist philosophers and counter-cultural prophets to expose the bankruptcy of much of the Western worldview.  It got me ready for the most important history book I read in those years, Capitalism and Progress by Dutch statesman and economist, Bob Goudzwaard, which traced the left and the right, capitalists and socialists, back to their similar secular presuppositions, rooted in the anti-Christian French revolution.  That groundbreaking book is out of print in the states, but we have a few left from a reprinted, British edition (Paternoster; $15.00) and it still reminds us that as followers of Christ, we ought not be aligned too closely with any philosophical movement that is rooted in fundamental views and values that are not compatible with a Christian understanding of life and times.  That is, we need to be critical of all ideologies, including those we are perhaps most comfortable with.  (It is interesting, by the way, that McLaren has become a friend of Goudzwaard, and cites his most recent book, as I’ve often noted on the blog, in his recent Everything Must Change.)  But I’m already ahead of myself, in this story of why I’m appreciative of the emergent authors, and why I suggest they be given a hearing.  

I’m giving you a bit of my own intellectual history, the books that shaped me, like friends–or should I say, with friends, as we read them together—all so I can explain my fascination and willingness to listen in on the emerging conversation. I must name yet a few more authors (please bear with me; I hope as a book lover you might find this not too tedious.).  Although this gets me ahead of the story, I was introduced in the 1970s to the Dutch philosopher who actually influenced Schaeffer, Herman Dooyeweerd, who, in very serious philosophical tomes, most of which I never read, exposed the impossibility of “religiously neutral” thinking, that showed that Enlightenment-based assumptions about reason and dogma and science and theology are all influenced by presuppositions that are themselves based on worldviews, which are rooted in faiths about ultimate things. All convictions and truth-claims and viewpoints, in this way of thinking, is colored and biased in light of the faith of the beholder. This was a profoundly Biblical and conservative Reformed insight, affirmed by Cornelius Van Til at Westminster Seminary, for instance, but, years later, ended up sound akin to the phenomonologists and French deconstruction schools.  As is now well known, even certain theological traditions are more built upon the edifice of secular Enlightenment thinking, and the extraordinary founders of the U.S. were deeply influenced by ideas from the French revolution—Goudzwaard reminds us that Franklin and Voltaire used to jokingly sign their letters “the anti-Christ” and “smash the infamous” (the church, of course.)  Dooyeweerd was not the first philosopher to deconstruct the autonomy of Reason and the subsequent secularization of Western thought and culture, but he presaged the insights of Thomas Kuhn and Michael Polanyi, say, and the French deconstructionists by a full generation.  His Calvinist worldview which was attentive to the idolatry of ideology, called for social reforms of a radical sort, rethinking the very notions of various spheres of culture, from media to politics, education to the arts, labor unions to scientific thinking—his 19th century hero Abraham Kuyper formed a daily newspaper and a political party and a farmers union and wrote theology and did a book as Prime Minister of the Netherlands about how to respond to the class struggle as portrayed by Marx in the late 1800s!  It was this intellectually radical, historically-sensitive, culturally-transforming Reformed worldview that Hans Rookmaaker, the art critic, taught Schaeffer, the formerly fundamentalist evangelist, who tweaked it and taught it to a generation of para-churched Jesus People in the years of the evangelical renewal of the 197

Schaeffer, Guinness, Kuyper, Dooyeweerd and his North American disciples like Calvin Seerveld or Nicholas Woltersdorff (in Toronto, Grand Rapids and Pittsburgh, mostly, and in small colleges like Dordt and Trinity) sounded to me like Amos or Jeremiah as they railed against the “North American Way of Death” with our faith in progress and science and individualism and rationalism, and churches that did their soul-saving without a whisper of resistance to racist civil religion.  When these (mostly poor, immigrant) social democrats born in Europe blazed against secular humanism, in an era before the Christian right made that a simplistic bogeyman, they sounds like Jacque Ellul, almost, with a comprehensive and deeply religious critique of the ways and means of Western culture.  Yet, these philosophically radical Orthodox Presbyterians and Dutch Christian Reformed Church scholars and preachers didn’t hold up the hippies and counter-cultural disregard for Rationalism as the answer to the problems with establishment Reason; no, Jesus Christ was the Way, Truth, Life, even for the times that were a-changin’… Something was happening in the air, and it was life-changing stuff for a young adult like me, nurtured on Sunday school stories that didn’t connect much to the real world and a good family that hoped to make the world a better place in nice, respectable ways.

 The serious neo-Calvinists I met in college who were working for a real reformation of every zone of life were inspired by an important network of scholars who were in conversation in newsletters and conferences and debates and tapes, that were, in fact, above and beyond, around and underneath the vision of the much more famous Schaeffer, whose people had their own life-long conversation going, reading books, attending events, forming communities, radio shows and such.  Nowadays, the next generations of the neo-Calvinist worldviewish reformers are doing stuff like *cino/catapult and publishing journals like Comment (from the Work Research Foundation) and publishing books on distinctively Christian views of politics, art, science and engineering and telling it all to students at events like the Jubilee conference each February.  And, like Jamie K. A. Smith of Calvin College, some are carrying on the Bible-based tradition of rejecting Enlightenment rationalism and probing philosophical alternatives that, well, seem a whole lot similar to the postmodernism of Derrida, Lyotard or Foucault.  In fact, the subtitle of his book, Whose Afraid of Postmodernism? is Taking Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to Church and were lectures once delivered at L’Abri. (Baker; $17.99) making a case for, among other things, an openness to new forms of church that might be considered emergent.  All of that in the past 35 years has been, in many ways, an emerging conversation, a reformational movement, a schooling in the ways of experiments of the Spirit in these times..

 I am not a L’Abri groupie and while I’ve read most of Francis and Edith Schaeffer’s work, don’t feel any particular loyalty to their ministry (I was anguished by their son’s mean but fascinating memoir, Crazy for God, which I briefly reviewed in January, and then blogged about last month.)  Francis was an important mentor to many that I most admire, an ally, and, importantly, a symbol; for many of us he stands for deeply Christian, evangelical cultural engagement, Biblical theology for the sake of serious piety that moves towards others in hospitality and honest apologetics.  He helped bring anti-cultural, insular evangelicals into engagement with the issues of the day, issues like ecology and racism, urban concern and film studies.  These were issues, you must recall, that, religiously speaking, at that point in the later 60s and early 70s, only liberal Protestants were writing about; except for these folks around the Dutch Reformational movement, and Schaeffer’s L’Abri folks, evangelicals were largely silent about culture, politics, society. (Schaeffer used to rent out movie halls in his Swiss village and show Bergman films and then discuss them in what he termed “pre-evangelism.”  I know from my youth group years at mainline church conferences, or at the ecumenical college group, we’d show such stuff, but not evaluate it Biblically, but just take it in.  At evangelical schools, like Wheaton College, say, they still were not allowed to show movies on campus; when Schaeffer was there, teaching them about pre-evangelistic cultural apologetics and the need to know Fellini and John Cage and Sergeant Pepper and Martin Luther King, they were debating if they could show The Sound of Music on campus!)

 I recently found an out-of-print copy of a late 60s book by liberal theologian Harvey Cox–he was into the God is Dead kind of stuff then, saying that the world must set the agenda for the church.  My eyes popped when I saw a copy of his legendary Feast of Fools: A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy, made all the more legendary because of the splendid Bruce Cockburn song inspired by it (from Further Adventures Of.)  The first edition couldn’t have looked more like a day-glo poster of a Cream album or In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, and it made me laugh right out loud; it was psychedelic, man.  Schaeffer didn’t sell out to the spirit of the times, taught us to fight for Biblical truth, in contrast to the way typical mainline Protestants got sucked in the cultural attitudes and views of truth that were popular then.  (Well, at least those that were trying to relate to the culture in relevant outreach; others, of course, stayed boring as the cities burned, the protesters dropped out, their Sunday school attendance slogged and their youth were lost, gone to Woodstock, never to come back.)  Schaeffer and other thoughtful evangelicals, from Os Guinness to Bill Pannell, from James Sire to Rene Padilla, from John Stott to Ron Sider, from Donald Drew to Tom Sine, taught Bible-believing Christians with orthodox theology not to align ourselves with fundamentalists or liberals, but to pioneer a “third way” between the right and the left, culturally and theologically.  With an emphasis on what is now called “missional” (then we heard the language of a “Kingdom vision”) we set out to develop the Christian mind, learn to discern the spirits of the age, and witness to an integrated and wholistic discipleship that was “in, but not of” the cultures around us.

We rejected an over-rigid or over-important theology to show that a God-breathed lifestyle demanded a Christian perspective and imaginative re-construal of every area of life, in light of God’s Word, not just in doctrinal matters.  Systematic theology, for better or worse, became less vital as we embrace narrative, Biblical theology.  To argue over theological arcana when we didn’t equally argue about aesthetics or politics or psychological theory seemed to be suggesting that doctrinal fine-tuning was more important than being faithful to the Lord in every field of life, as if the specialty of theologians and pastors somehow mattered to God more than the work of potters or farmers or businesspeople.  And we knew that that was to make theology itself an idol—-all of life was to be redeemed, so doctrinal disputes and denominational matters took a back seat to the big issues of the day, the concerns of lay folk in their particular callings, and the vision of a multi-dimensional, uniquely Christian world and life view.  We thought this, as I recall, not because we didn’t think theology mattered–it does–but because the Bible doesn’t itself over-indulge in rationalistic doctrinal formulations; most of the Bible is story, history, poems and laments, after all.  Scripture itself is a storied telling of God’s redemptive work in history, forming a people who live differently, filled, finally, with the love of a Risen Redeemer, a gracio
us King who is reclaiming his hurting world.  I heard 35 years ago from conservative scholars that even Paul was to be read narratively (an important insight of most emergent Bible readers nowadays, and a matter for which they are considered controversial.)  So we thought about a Christian view of life, including theology, but didn’t make theological precision the only important concern. Our dogma and creedal life was seen as part of our whole worldview and way of life, an all-encompassing, whole-life opening up of life in the Spirit in God’s good but fallen creation. We really didn’t care how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

People to this day ask why our bookstore has books on culture, race relations, science or history—most Christian bookstores do not, you know—and why we insist on being ecumenical and open-minded in our unusually large theology section, even if we ourselves embrace fairly conservative Protestant theology.  I tell “Ëœem if I can that it is because I read Francis Schaeffer as in my late teens, who wrote passionately about cultural apologetics, yet loved people and read everything he could about them; because I studied worldviews, not just doctrines; because God cares about it all–my Bible tells me so— and therefore we must read widely and generously, about all areas of life and culture, with divinely-guided curiosity.  It is nothing to brag about, but only part of the story of our journey, that we were fluent in talking about worldviews before Sire’s famous The Universe Next Door came out and we had Brian Walsh lecture on worldview formation and his The Transforming Vision not long after we opened the shop.  (We had Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo here early on, too, showing that we’ve long tried to offer a faith-perspective that took up the issues of human rights, social justice, and peacemaking.  I am proud that my first mention in a footnote was in a Paul Marshall book on human rights and our first acknowledgment in a preface was from Nancy Pearcey, in a book on science.  Both visited L’Abri early in their journey and studied Dooyeweerd in Toronto in the 70s and their fruit in solid societal transformation is tremendous.  See: all of life matters, not just theology, and understanding the Christian story equips us to interact with the world around us, even in questions of legal theory and the philosophy of science.

  In the 70s I devoured little books like C.S. Lewis’ student, Harry Blamire’s The Christian Mind,  John Stott’s Your Mind Matters or his splendid Christian Mission in the Modern World–which has a fabulous quote, still on a bookmarker in my Bible, reminding us that every career and vocation is an avenue of Kingdom service, not just the traditional missionaries.  Even though the first serious theologian I got to know back then was R.C. Sproul, a non-compromising, vigorous, five-point Calvinist, I learned from other evangelicals that it is good to stay in dialogue with others, even if we are sure of our basic convictions.  We conservative Reformed folk call it “common grace”—the doctrine behind the popular slogan of Art Holmes, “all truth is God’s truth”— and some have shown that even passionate, Puritan preachers like Jonathan Edwards held to a openness to what God can teach us from other faiths, from other folks, from nature and art and science.  Richard Mouw, now President of Fuller Seminary, wrote an excellent book on that not long ago—He Shines in All That’s Fair-— and he too has served, though books and lectures, as a generous, open-minded and politically-engaged mentor.  I hardly know, by the way, of a writer who is as clear about what he himself believes (Mouw, too, is a five-point Calvinist) and is as open, generous, humble, and eager to learn, as one can be.  I long for that blend of self-confident assurance of being in a tradition, being rooted, and yet open, learning, growing, willing to dialog without giving up one’s own deepest truths.  Rich Mouw has modeled that for me for a long time, as he was the first serious Calvinist I knew who took my beloved Anabaptist friends seriously.  The mid-70s Mouw/Yoder dialogs about pacifism, the state, and Christian engagement with social institutions (reform or revolt?) which even spilled over onto the pages of Sojourners, shaped me in deep and lasting ways.  I find it odd, therefore, that dear brothers (and they are mostly brothers) in the Calvinist camp, who worry that I am eager to engage, learn from, discuss and promote the books of the emergent group.  It was what I have been taught to do for decades.  It is a Christian practice I may not be very good at yet—-the old pride and need to be right, or the old pride and the need to be liked, simultaneously haunt these kinds of conversations.  But it is what we do here at Hearts & Minds, promote reading, and reading widely, especially so that we might be better equipped to understand our times, and respond with Kingdom mission, faithfully and fruitfully, with sharp minds and open hearts.

I tell you all of this (and I am skipping the part of my journey that includes working at the Catholic Thomas Merton Center, learning contemplative and monastic practices from the books of Richard Foster, and my life-long involvement in mainline denominational congregations) to simply say this: I find the emergent conversation, and the risky, edgy proposals, and the wild new church plants, and the missional outreach experiments and new ways of being Christian in a postmodern world, and new ways of being church and exploring contextualized ancient/future worship, to all be very much in keeping with much of what we have struggled to embody for most of my Christian life, albeit in different ways and around different issues and with somewhat different tones. I am not exactly ready to brand myself emergent and I have deep loyalties to conservative Reformed doctrine, evangelical para-church ministries and institutions, and rather mainline expressions of congregational life.  We’ve lived in intentional community, been arrested in peace witnesses, and lived in the inner city; we’ve read critiques of Enlightenment rationalism before anybody knew who Derrida was, and we’ve loved rock and roll culture even when our best friends were listening to only Larry Norman and LoveSong. Does that make us emergent?  Not exactly.  I’m not bragging at all, not even saying we’ve been right in all of this, just saying that to me, this emergent stuff makes sense to be talking about.  We’ve been talking about it—as have many others, in many places, who may never use the emergent name, and couldn’t tell you the difference between Doug Pagitt and Mark Driscoll if their life depended on it.  I guess I’m a fringe member of the conversation who feels something like an old-timer.  And we sell their books.

 I am sure there are many who are older than I—-in justice work, in cultural reformation, in liturgical renewal, in ecumenical theological conversations–who feel like they, too, have been at this a long, long, time, and are glad to see the young ones with the nose piercings joining—even leading–the discussion.  There have been fabulous folks—like the alumni of the L’Abri movement, say–who have taken people into their homes, who have endured long, long conversations, over years and years, as they’ve worked for honest expression of Biblical faith.  Mainline folks, charismatics, social action leaders, mission leaders and literary authors have taught us that to be a disciple is to be alive, to be moving, to be growing, deepening, in love for God, in love for His people, in service to others, to be a part of God’s redemptive work, in Christ, to rescue the planet.  The emergent voice is offering some stylistic and some substantive contributions to this redemptive project, and their voices need to be considered.  They have
experienced some of the less than faithful manifestations of evangelicalism, and what Marva Dawn calls Christian-dumb.  So they are calling us, with the best of intentions, to a better way.  Our interest in their postmodern critique, and their passion for outreach and mission, their willingness to be innovative in congregational life, this may seem rather new, but yet it isn’t.  I’m not sure why anyone would want to resist the possibilities of new conversations about old ideas, considering books about or by folks who mostly want to honor Christ by living out His reign in the new world we find ourselves in and a way that seems authentic and true and gracious.  I know we must be careful not to lose our moorings or to shift away from Biblical commitments.  I know we need not throw out all the old to move towards the new that God may be doing.  Still, the church is always called to a lifestyle of ongoing repentance, new life, new reformation.  We are living into a New Creation—that is the point of the Story.  Let’s at least join the conversation. 


In one of the earliest reviews of one of the first “emergent books” that appeared in North America (Stories of Emergence: Moving from Absolute to Authentic, published in 2003 by Youth Specialties), this writer–that is a modest way of saying I–wrote in a review that I wasn’t sure what the fuss was all about. Contemplative spirituality?  Rejecting false dichotomies between the sacred and secular?  Engaging popular culture?  Embracing social justice and political theologies?  Learning from liturgical churches about sacramental worship?  Being Earth-friendly, thinking ecologically?  Forming intentional communities?  Rejecting legalism?  Embracing certain postmodern instincts that offered prophetic denunciation to the idols of modernity, secularized rationalism and faith in technique?  Celebrating quality over quantity?  Having suspicions about formula religion and cheap grace, especially as manifested in the kitsch of the evangelical publishing empires?  Been there, done that.  I was astonished that these “post-evangelicals” were writing with such joy, as if they’ve discovered something in the early 90s that hadn’t been being discussed and debated and published for nearly a generation.  Where had they been, I not so graciously wondered?  (Indeed, I was baffled when dear Mike Yaconelli wrote movingly that nobody ever told him about God’s simple love that would cause him to sit in silence; I was perplexed because I sold him Henri Nouwen books years earlier.  Maybe Nouwen’s books weren’t at most Youth Specialties conferences in the 80s, but we surely were not the only evangelical bookstore that promoted him, were we?)  I suppose it was a bit pompous to say something like “where have you been?” or  “we told you so” as I was truly glad to see writers sharing their passion for Christ, rejecting the individualism and conservatism of the typical expression of evangelicalism, forming networks with others who on a similar journey, even if I didn’t think it was all that new.

For some of these guys–many refugees from the mega-church empires of the late 90s, grown weary of the religious right and the 40-day formulas, the in-fighting about doctrine and the disinterest in the angst of Generation X—this apparently was very new.  As Leonard Sweet, an early booster of this new network, put it, we are no longer on “terra firma” (a modernist metaphor, anyway) and we need a new “aqua church”—we are out to sea, sailing new waters (as it should be, he’d say.)  No more “Here I stand!” of the individualistic, propositional world of the modern age, but “There we go!”  —a more Biblical posture, anyway.   I am not sure Aqua Church: Essential Leadership Arts for Piloting Your Church in Today’s Fluid Culture (Group; $21.95) caught on as a vision for new emergent communities, but it did help more established congregations learn new metaphors for ministry, think of leadership in new ways, even a new, fluid vocabulary.  In 2003 Sweet co-authored a book with Brian McLaren and Jerry Haselmayer called A is for Abductive: The Language of the Emerging Church (Zondervan; $16.99) which was a playful (Derridaian?) messing with words, inviting new ways to say things, exploring key insights needed for the world of tomorrow/today, offering what they called “a postmodern alphabet.”  Sweet had already given us one of the most fun and feisty overviews of the paradigm shift towards post-modernity in his fabulous (and fabulously footnoted) SoulTsunami: Sink or Swim in New Millennium Culture (Zondervan; $16.00.)  Along with generational studies, we did cultural studies, looking at his clever introduction at the way cultural artifacts speak to us of our new social context—-as Stan Grenz put it in an often-cited forward to his Primer on Postmodernism (Eerdmans; $19.00) the shift from modernity to postmodernity can be seen in the differences between the old Star Trek and the new Star Trek.  Sweet couldn’t have said it any better himself.  Leaders in places like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship were rethinking the changes they noticed among the latest cohort of students—-Jimmy Long was the first to take the theories of postmodernism, the cultural changes of postmodernity, and the generational insights of sociologists like Howe & Strauss, and put them together in what is still a very useful study, Emerging Hope: A Strategy for Reaching Postmodern Generations (IVP: $16.00.)  I am not sure, with the word “strategy” in the title, if this qualifies as an emergent book, but they did issue the curriculum in a CD-ROM for PowerPoint use. Coolness, except for the ordinary churches that didn’t know what to do with the darn thing. 

I argued with Len about a few things in those days, even taught a few courses around a homemade video I had made of him.  My questions were mostly those of a Calvinist bookman who had been reading Neil Postman, fearful of losing linear logic, the habits of heart it takes to read well.  Sweet, too, was there once, and had intended to write a book rather like Postman, until a Damascus road experience (as he puts it) knocked him off his “high horse print culture” and was converted to the experiential and visual cultural mores or our screen-based era.  Maybe I was just a socially-transforming evangelical who had read Niehbur’s Christ and Culture a bit too seriously.  Still, those basic categories–do we mildly sell out,  knowingly accommodate, radically resist, fly away to heaven?—were and are helpful to evaluate how our church habits and cultural attitudes can get us to the Biblically required “in/not of” posture.

I don’t take credit for it, but a book of a fabulous round-table conversation about all this came out shortly after I video-taped Sweet about Neihbur and such, a book-length, multi-authored conversation about just how we ought to most faithfully engage the changing world in which we find ourselves.  Sweet facilitated this book (a book I later discovered not all the authors were fully pleased with) which I still think is very, very valuable.  It is called The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives (Zondervan; $19.99.) This is an extended debate by some fine thinkers on just how to evaluate and position ourselves vis a vie the culture around us—Leslie Newbigin’s missiological question, you know, and the impact of the “Faith and Culture Network” during these early emergent years cannot be overstated.  This slightly over-sized book, with cool pictures of the room and roundtable, includes various “takes” and insights into the various relationships of medium and message, from those who want to (firmly) affirm an historic Protestant position
, Michael Horton, to pre-modern Orthodox writer Frederica Matthewes-Green, an emergent voice in Brian McLaren, a big, multi-ethnic, artsy/edgy Hollywood church dude, Erwin McManus Raphael and the ever-thoughtful, evangelical journalist Andy Crouch.  What a useful foundational tool, a helpful guide, to asking good questions about our relationship to the culture, particularly this culture which we call postmodern.  And what a harbinger of things to come, as the debate about emergent churches has become one not only about doctrine and theology, but about relationship to culture, strategy, and the whole pomo ethos.

Not only did I argue a bit with Len about this question of our strategic relationship to culture (and he would quip, famously, in response to my concerns about his work leading to a new kind of cultural accommodation, “You can do ministry in the world we’ve got, or the world you wished we had”) but I would press any early emergents I could to move beyond a fairly sexy fascination with the sociology and icons of postmodernity—-the screens and experiences, the interconnectedness and double-meanings, the irony and consumerism—to the deeper questions about philosophical postmodernism.  The only really profound book on that in the first decade of conversation was Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be by Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton (IVP; $18.00).  They explain the social context, the ethos and philosophies of two current ideologies, hyper-modern optimistic consumerism, and the angst-ridden postmodern homelessness.  These reappear in deeper conversation in Colossians Remixed (IVP; $22.00) that Walsh co-authored with Sylvia Keesmat–Brian McLaren authored the first book in print to cite that stunning postmodern Bible study in a footnote—and more will be unpacked in serious depth in the Walsh & Bouma-Prediger’s Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement later this spring.)  Truth is Stranger was given a new cover recently and I am reminded just how brilliant it is, naming postmodernism better than anyone, and in insisting that the living in and telling the story of the Biblical drama is the only hope to meaningful reach true post-moderns.  Oddly, more conservative evangelical sources complained when it first came out that Walsh & Middleton yielded too much to their postmodern friends, and that their Biblical hermeneutic was too influenced by the likes of Walt Brueggemann (who they suspect is slippery on matters of Biblical reliability.)  Well, that may be, but of the other five or six evangelical books warning about the dangers of relativistic postmodernism in those years, none—none!—had any substantive Bible study in them; few seemed intent on helping us help post-moderns embrace Christ’s Kingdom, either, unless it was by way of proving their views wrong.  Is this itself a moment of postmodern irony, that the most postmodern book of the era was itself the most Biblical?  And that the most evangelical were not very evangelistic, as was Walsh & Middleton?  I know that this duo, and, later Walsh’s co-author Sylvia Keesmaat, were, and increasingly, are, being read within the emergent community; I see their footnotes, I hear of emails and conversations.  I sure hope anybody talking about postmodernity or postmodernism is reading them.

I have previously mentioned Os Guinness as a sensitive and helpful cultural critic in the early 70s; he has sustained Beth and I with personal encouragement as much as any author, and has befriended me in kind ways.  I am not sure we agree on this matter of postmodernism, but I am confident that he has three books that come close to this conversation that simply must be read by anyone seriously engaging these kinds of concerns.  I highly recommend Dining With the Devil: The Mega-Church Movement Flirts With Modernity (Baker; $15.00) which is a thoughtful–if a bit harsh—critique of the ways in which mega-churches have used the worst tools of modernity (marketing, technology, ideology, psychology and such) to grow their churches and, in his view, have thereby capitulated in unfaithful ways to the ungodly zeitgeist of the surrounding culture.  The dapper Dr. Guinness sports no tattoos and has little good to say about the theological ambiguities of the present status of the emergent conversation, but I think that most post-moderns, and most emergent folks, will agree with, even as they learn much from Os’s trenchant critical eye and deeply caring passion for the holiness of God’s people, and for the hope for reform of Christ’s church.  I commend it to all, especially those who are eager to engage in emergent village conversations or who tend to hang out at the ooze.com, fretting about the evangelical sub-culture.  Sure you know that the mega-churches are too big and too glitzy and a social construction of the waning days of the Christendom empire, etc. etc. etc.  But the insight of Dining With the Devil is more profound and vital.  Very important, and nicely concise.

Secondly, his book on the nature of truth is about the easiest way to reflect faithfully on the questions of epistemology, an inexpensive and interesting meditation on how we need to be aware of spin, manipulation, and an abuse of truth from various quarters.  A Time for Truth: Living Free in a World of Lies, Hype, and Spin (Baker; $12.99) is a very important contribution, and a good follow-up, perhaps a bit of a counter-balanced to the Walsh & Middleton Truth Is Stranger book or any of the more recent Christian books doing postmodern studies.  It does not answer the many questions about a truly faithful understanding of the role of reason and an wholistic view of truth (I wish he’d cite Polanyi or Parker Palmer just a bit) but it is a splendid reflection, and well worth owning.

Thirdly, I think that Guinness’ hard-hitting little book—a cry of the heart, to be sure—called Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance (now, sadly out of print) is mostly aimed at the excesses of the mega-church, spurred, in his evaluation, by unqualified quest for relevance.  Yet, it may be equally important to some in the emergent movement and therefore, is on my “must-read” list for oozy emergents.  It is my sense, to be fair, that the deepest emergent conversations—at least in the early days—were deeply about truth, about epistemology, and about missional effectiveness among a de-churched generation.  As Tony Jones explains in The New Christians, the early emergent gang mostly came out of mega-churches, so they were not trying to be hip or “relevant” in a shallow effort to “relate”, quite the opposite. Still, whenever Guinness writes, we should pay attention, and his prophetic critique of the idol of relevance (and his own bit of postmodern irony noting that the most relevant we can possibly be is when we bring an untimely word from another place and time.  Anybody can speak within the culture, it is the most relevant to be–excuse the play on words–(seemingly) irrelevant.  Or, to put it another way, the most irrelevant thing is to sell out to the surrounding culture, bending over backwards to meet needs and build bridges and thereby having nothing unique or transforming to say.  Guinness of course reflects more eloquently than I, and he unpacks this carefully.

Well, this “second wave” of anti-Enlightenment, post-modern, socially engaged, culturally relevant folks have made quite the mark, having publishers scrambling to get on board, if only for the marketing vibe, the aesthetic, the edge.  I think this Publishers Weekly piece that I linked above gets it right.  This conversation is important, and is in danger of being watered down and co-opted–perhaps not unlike the final days of Dr. Schaeffer’s ministry?—and I hope for
the sake of the Kingdom, that we can continue to think through what is most faithful, what is theologically wise and helpful, and how best to serve Christ in our post-Christendom, post-modern, hot-wired, perfect-storm culture.

In the PW essay, Ms Reiss cites the new Tony Jones, The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontiers (Jossey-Bass; $22.95), a book which is about as fun and interesting and important of a telling of the tale of the rise of the emergent movement as we need.  It is very, very important and, happily, a page-turner.  I highly recommend it.  From anecdotes (Jones was there when one guy explained who Derrida was; he has first hand memories of a blow-up with Driscoll, he narrates how the Bible is being used in his circles) and analysis, it is the best book to learn about the rise of the American emergent movement.  Fun.

Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures by Eddie Gibbs & Ryan K. Bolger (Baker Academic; $17.99) is the other must-read volume that give an empirical, research-based overview of the emergent movement.  These authors have done the most extensive interviews with emergent leaders all over the world–New Zealand and England are very important for this move of the Spirit—and it is the best report from their five-year journey.  Nobody has gathered as many great stories, as many multi-cultural examples, as many case studies of new ministries, emerging voices, alternative services, creative worship, missional experiments, sacred renewal, and wild theological experiments than Gibbs and Bolger.  This is data, but more than data, it is a world-rocking testimony of what God seems to be up to in these new kinds of churches, for new kinds of Christians.  Charitable and reflective in their analysis, this is a great work.  Highly recommended.

If you want a bit more diversity, more examples of the different kinds of thinking, friendships, viewpoints and perspectives that emerge out of these young missional communities, and want a bit more of what emergent folk believe and think, see the brilliant, ecumenical collection, An Emergent Manifesto of Hope edited by Doug Pagitt & Tony Jones (Baker; $19.99.)  I am sure you will find some essays worth savoring, some you will want to copy and pass on, and some that will drive you batty. There are some of the best writers in this movement here, and some surprising stuff, too.  Brian McLaren confessing he no longer wants to be seen as post-modern is nearly worth the price of the book itself, at least if you’re keeping track of such things.  That there are finally some ethnic minority voices in this conversation makes this really important too–check out Randy Woodley (a Cherokee brother, and Hearts & Minds friend) and the PostModern Negro (blogger) Anthony Smith, and Rodolpho Carrasco.  I’ve said before that Dwight J. Friesen is an intellectual heavyweight and it is good to have some voices like Samir Selmanovic, who grew up in a European Muslim family.  What a collection!  Welcome to the conversation.

Speaking of conversations, here is a book that emerged (sorry) out of a blogging conversation, and feels like a free-flowing back and forth set of emails and blogs and reactions.  This is a fabulous resource, a great study tool, full of information and fury, and one of my really great pals—Bob Robinson, of the CCO, and the only guy I know who has a “friend of Kuyper” and “friend of emergent” bug on his blog. A New Kind of Conversation: Blogging Toward a Postmodern Faith is edited by Byron Bradley Penner & Hunter Barnes and includes contributions from Brian McLaren, Bruce Ellis Benson, and a host of others (Baker; $24.00.)  Published in England by Paternoster, we sell it for just $16.99.

And, lastly, for a fair-minded and an important bit of criticism of the general theological drift of some in this movement, see the straight-arrow thinker, a kind and good man, R. Scott Smith, who has written, Truth and the New Kind of Christian (Crossway; $15.99.)  Even Tony Jones has written that Smith is his friend, that they have had good conversations about all of this and they share a respectful and collegial relationship.  A hard-hitting critique, to be sure, warnings about creeping relativism and unbiblical notions that pervade the emergent authors, but it is the one to read if that is what you want.

Many of my emergent friends are accused of being too liberal theologically, too influenced by the odd philosophical strokes of postmodernism.  They ask big questions about hard Biblical matters and want to be authentic and real, without any churchy pretense.  They want to impact the world, and are gladly moving towards social justice concerns, getting involved in human rights initiatives and social action missions.  In all of this, they seem not too dissimilar to the theologically moderate, but active, mainline churches.  This is the arguement of Diana Butler Bass’ intriguing and inspiring travelogue through some of the most robust and active denominational parishes, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith (HarperOne; $13.95.)  The ethos of a spiritually-rich but ecumenically-minded UCC church or a liturgically rich Lutheran congregation that runs a food pantry is different than the emergent places like Jacobs Well or Solomon’s Porch of Not Metal Bridge.  Still, Diana was more than being clever when she quipped that, in some ways, the best congregations she interviewed for Christianity for the Rest of Us  were a lot like the emergent villagers, engaging in ancient practices in new ways, except there were no tattoos or eyebrow piercings or espresso machines in the worship space.  

Ancient spiritual practices, food pantries for the poor and great coffee?  No I ask you, who wouldn’t want to talk about that?