Monday, September 19, 2005

Emergent Audio and Some Engaging Ad Hominem

UPDATE: For those who are interested, and in light of Scot McKnight's recent comment to this post, I thought I'd put a link to an interview where he spells out the features of emergent more fully.

Grand Rapids Theological Seminary has generously posted some audio links for a seminar on the emerging movement featuring Brian McLaren, Steve Wittmer and and Ed Dobson. I can't wait to listen to the debate and collegial interaction! Go check out the details with the preceding link, or simply download them here:

Session 1: The Emerging Church: Past, Present, and a Kairos Moment

Session 2: The Emerging Church: A Historical/Theological Professor’s Reflections

Session 3: The Emerging Church: A Pastor’s Reflections

Session 4: The Emergent Conversation: Present and Future & Challenges and Potential

Session 5: The Emerging Church: Reflections & Questions

Speaking of the emerging church, I just came across a rather stinging rebuke from Richard John Neuhaus on the subject (mentioned in Harbinger) - perhaps it's worth reproducing below in the hopes of generating some heated opinions.

I have to say that I've got some mixed feelings about Neuhaus' sentiments here: on one hand there is so much nauseating affected excitement within popular Christianity as to bestow the label "movement" with discrediting regularity; and so I am fairly sympathetic with Neuhaus on that score. But on the other hand he seems to dismiss the conceptual engine of the emerging movement, which is far more searchingly academic in character than the straw man he so triumphantly tumbles. To dismiss the important methodological and theological stimuli behind the emerging movement is a brash act of hand-waiving that fails to benefit either side of the issue. In any case, here it is:

The reinvention of Christianity, the most traditional of American contributions to religious history, proceeds apace. Publisher’s Weekly is excited. An article, “Pomos Toward Paradise,” breathlessly reports the pomos (postmoderns) of the “emerging church” who are rapidly moving toward the paradise of big commercial success, with many of them having arrived. Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian is a tremendous hit. McLaren “calls the emerging church a ‘conversation’ rather than a movement.” It appears that even “movement” suggests too much of an institutional commitment for “emergents” who want to float unencumbered in their spiritual fancies. Says McLaren, “They’re asking questions about what it means to be a Christian in a postmodern, postcolonial world.” Postcolonial? One waits in vain for the postinanity era in the spiritual hustling of what PW calls the world of “viral networking.” (Viral as in virus, one assumes.) A successful marketer explains, “A lot of people who fit into the postmodern category don’t want to be identified as Christian.” Christ is so much easier to take without the riffraff he has attracted over the centuries. The Relevant Media Group is near the top of the market with a “hip, twenty-something demographic that is the primary core of postmodern thinking.” For Relevant, we are told, “the ‘real world’ is largely an urban one.” “We want to be part of our readers’ world,” says a spokesman, so the company is moving from an affluent suburb to a site closer to the center of Orlando, Florida. You can hardly get more urban than that. Postmodern, postcolonial, emerging, viral networking—it’s mostly the hype and chatter of religious pandering to a neophiliac culture. In addition to cashing in on the newest new thing, I expect most of these authors and perhaps even some of the publishers think they are winning souls for Christ. Christianity Today, the mainline evangelical magazine, pays a lot of attention and is concerned about the theological vacuity and doctrinal deviations of the industry, as well it should be. But the stuff sells, as witness PW’s list of the top-forty religion bestsellers in the same issue, a list which (except for one book by the estimable C. S. Lewis) runs the gamut from lower to higher kitsch. Of course, such an observation smacks of elitism, as in having a taste for excellence. The higher elitism, however, is not scornful toward the inevitability of the popular always being popular, as in vulgar, and holds on to the hope that those who sell the fake satisfactions of being superior to Christianity as it has been believed and lived through time will, however inadvertently, lead some people to a commitment to Christ, including his mostly quite ordinary friends who are the Church. Seeing through the preening self-importance of “seeker,” “emergent,” “pomo,” and whatever is next month’s hot spiritual pretension, they might even find the courage to call themselves Christians.

Well, what do you think? Is Neuhaus full of hot gas or is he on to something?


Stephen said...

Neuhaus definitely has a point in saying that Protestants, in particular Evangelicals, especially within the emergent "conversation" have been too quick to distance themselves from the "riff raff" who have called themselves Christians through the years. Perhaps taking up the cross of Christ entails taking upon ourselves the shame of the sin of our brothers and sisters just as Christ did. At the same time, I think he is just one of many great older Christian leaders who dismiss the emergent movement partly out of a gut reaction because it is so different from the Christianity that they grew up knowing. Yes, the emergent "conversation" often invites critique, but perhaps more measured criticism ungirded by understanding than the criticism that Neuhaus offers.

TheBlueRaja said...

I totally agree, Stephen. It seems like even though there's plenty of "conversation" with the old guard who are wary of emergent, both parties continue to miss one another. I'm wondering, though, beyond the interpersonal issues, if there is a more substantive critique of the movement. Do you have any thoughts?

Incidentally, I took a peek at your profile - my children happen to be half Asian-Indian, and their mom and dad happen to LOVE indie rock and obviously I'm something of a fan of liberal arts and theology. All of that to say, if you're ever in Idaho, look us up!

Scot McKnight said...

Perhaps a good question to ask Neuhaus, whose magazine I read pretty thoroughly for 3 years -- until it sounded like I was reading the same thing over and over, is this:

How many 20-somethings are in his local church?

This is the issue for the emerging church, isn't it? And it is not as simple as pandering to the younger set. More contact with them shows that they have genuine questions.

TheBlueRaja said...

I think you touched on why the emerging movement has . . . emerged. It is yet another indictment on the institutional insensitivity of the Church. Sincere questions are handled with a dogmatic club, and the disillusioned faithful congregate into a "movement" outside the mainstream. It's an old story, characteristic of contemporary sects such as Pentacostalism as well as old heresies, such as Arianism. Responses like that of Neuhaus fail to see the moral indignation and theological disaffection behind the postmodern turn. That's not to say there aren't serious contributions on behalf of emergent folks, as if they're simply "rebellious teenagers who need to be understood" - but it is to say that mutually edifying dialogue is impossible when the only mode contemporary gate-keepers know is indiscriminate chastisement.

Aaron Shafovaloff said...

There's a developing page on the emergent church here:

TheBlueRaja said...

Thanks, Aaron! The audio links look interesting.

Stephen said...

In case you were wondering how I found your blog, I saw a comment you left on The Ben Witherington's blog and for some reason that I can't recall was impressed enough by it to visit your blog. If I'm ever in Idaho I'll have to track you down, although I've spent 99.99% of my life in New England, so I'm not sure of the likelihood of that.

Substantive critique... If you really want that, you could ask someone like D. A. Carson who knows what he's talking about, as opposed to a kid who sometimes talks more than he thinks and writes more than he reads. Also, I am not a pastor by any means and have little real experience in actual emergent church contexts. However, I'll keep on pointing out the obvious...

Firstly, one problem with Neuhaus' criticism is that it seems to miss the mark. When he talks about marketing and shallow books, I feel that he is mis-guiding his criticism of perhaps the wider evangelical church. The emergent movement (which is obviously not one easily defined movement) has actually largely been fueled by such shallowness within mainstream evangelicalism. I suppose the emergent church should be defined more as a mindset than a movement.

As for a more subtantive critique of the emergent movement, I feel that the emergent church should not be merely mocked, but that constructive criticism is in order. For example, it could be gently pointed out that there really is nothing new under the sun, that the emergent church is not so much a special phenomenon as simply one generation's sometimes flawed expression of what being the church means in their context. (Just as Neuhaus did somewhat more caustically.) Another major weakness is the tendency of some in the emergent church to accept ancient practices and lifestyles without actually holding to or appreciating the underlying belief structure. "Catholicism is cool, but what's this thing about the authority of the church's teaching?" "Individualism is a bad thing, but why do I have to submit myself to traditional authorities?" There is a tendency to deplore the way things have been done in the evangelical church, yet fall into the same traps while giving them different names. It could also be said that the emergent movement tries so hard to relate to our culture oftentimes that it runs the risk of forgetting that the gospel is neither a post-modern nor a modern message. When one becomes trendy, one also quite often becomes proud and forgets that even the most tolerant and open worldview is intrinsically self-absorbed. Pride comes from all directions; one may feel superior to traditional evangelicals because of intellectual ability or openness; one may feel pride in restoring ancient traditions; technology may give one a feeling of superiority. In spite of missional and intellectual strength, the emergent church often falls prey to obvious weaknesses.

TheBlueRaja said...

Thanks for your comments, Stephen, and for taking the time to read what I've posted here! And as far as asking for opinions on the issues, I don't know why you wouldn't think yours are more valuable than anyone else's - you seem like a pretty thoughtful guy to me! Moreover, if Scot McKnight is right about emergent being a phenomena arising out of 20 somethings, it seems like you're opinions may be more relevant than many. Your comment about the "tendency to deplore the way things have been done in the evangelical church, yet fall into the same traps while giving them different names" is interesting. I remember listening to a conference series in which Stanley Hauerwas was the keynote speaker, and certain incongruities came up during his introduction that were hilarious - and the ironies weren't lost on those attending. Asking people to buy products from the conference in a "non-consumeristic way" and the reticense to acknowledge a speaker's authoritative expertise (in order to maintain the "conversation" feel) are a couple of examples that stood out to me. That's not to discredit any contribution of emergent - but it does highlight what you're talking about.

TheBlueRaja said...

I should also point out that it seems to me that for a lot of emergent folks D.A. Carson's contribution seems to not be hitting the mark, which I think is a shame. Even though he can be a bit misrepresentative at times, I think some of his criticisms are very astute and well-formulated.

But what do I know!

Jonathan Moorhead said...

Sharad, you should consider posting your "emergent" thoughts at the TMS Alumni blog. I think it would be a great discussion.

TheBlueRaja said...

Thanks, Jonathan - my thoughts on "emergent" are mostly limited to 1) the common conservative response to it which seems to eschew a real understanding of what drives the popularity of it 2) the academic (theological, hermeneutical and literary) theory which influences and undergirds the movement. That said, my thoughts on those topics are pretty pedestrian as well. If TMS folks are interested in the arguments involved on both sides, there are probably better sources for stimulation than me! I will be posting some more book reviews in the future, though.

Rose~ said...

The wonderful world of blog has brought this thing called "the emergent church" to my attention. (Here in my small world, the closest thing to it I have heard of is the "seeker friendly church".) I used your resources in this post to figure out what it is and I also went to my church's association website and saw an article there.

Interesting this generation x.

I missed being in generation x by about one year, I think.

My thoughts: I think they may throw the baby out with the bathwater. That being said, I do think it is interesting .... coming from a catholic background myself ... hearing all the "protestants" speaking against the traditionalism found in catholicism ... some folks in the "protestant" church covet their own non-biblical tradtions quite strongly too. (e.g. - nearly two decades ago when I first was a Christian, many in the church were up in arms over "styles" of music in the worship service.)

Thanks for your help in my education to the controversies swirling around in the larger church. Bless you, fork man!

TheBlueRaja said...

My pleasure, Rose! I'm glad you found something useful here!