To Those Who Want to Ignore “Emerging” Terminology

There seems to be a lot of chatter around town about the end the term “Emerging”/”Emergent” Church. Folks are claiming these categories are no longer relevant to what’s happening today in American Christianity. To be honest, I’ve always had a hard time with calling myself “emergent” but I’ve always felt compelled to be friendly with all the participants. Over the course of the last 8 years or so I’ve been lucky enough to meet or befriend a lot of folks in and around emerging Christianity. These folks come from a substantially diverse spectrum and getting to know them and to hear their perspective has enriched my faith greatly.

In a way, I can truly relate to those who are find the descriptor “emerging” to be troublesome. In Jimmy Eat World, we’ve always struggled with the word “emo.” While we’ve never once called ourselves “emo” and have always loathed the term, we have continually been linked to the term by journalists and well-meaning fans. As a band, we just chose to ignore it. Our hope is that the term is sort of like a young puppy that continually jumps up your leg. If you pretend the puppy doesn’t exist, it will realize it’s efforts to get your attention is a pointless exercise. If you freak out and yell “No!!” each time the puppy jumps up, it’s learned how to get your attention.

The problem with the term “emo” is that it tends to mean everything and nothing at the same time. To a significant degree, the terms “emerging” and “emergent” have suffered a similar fate. The value of those descriptors are found in the eye of the beholder. The spectrum of differences found among the cast of characters in emerging Christianity is broad and it was only an inevitable development that a need for distinctions would arise.

The big problem with making these distinctions is that they are being made by folks that have previously embraced and benefited from the “emerging”/”emergent” terminology, some of them even being the key players who’ve planted the seeds of the categories they now want to uproot. The problem is once you attach yourself to a descriptor like “emerging” or “emergent,” there’s no going back. This reminds me of when “ska” music was huge in the late 90s and all of the sudden, ska bands were popping up everywhere, trying to capitalize on the wave of popularity. But then as the fad subsided, so did all the newly formed ska bands. Because they associated themselves with the genre, they were anchored it’s inevitable demise. It becomes extremely tricky to navigate a way out of that problem.

My sense is that many of the folks trying to marginalize all things “emerging” are doing so because the term has gotten in the way of their task at hand. It’s understandably much easier to detach oneself from whatever “emerging” or “emergent” has come to mean for folks than it is to explain what YOU mean by the word “emerging” and how that’s different from what THEY mean. From a church leader or pastoral perspective, you must guard and protect from creating confusion and misunderstanding among your church community and if for you that means hitting the eject button on “emerging christianity” then that is understandable. If you are a missionary seeking support for your ministry, these descriptors can also be problematic. You have potential supporters who see you writing about “emerging church” and wonder, “Are they talking about good kind of emerging or the heretical kind?” It might be a smart move to distance yourself from the terminology and call yourself something a bit more vague like “missional.” Or you might be a college professor who is beholden to certain articles of faith your institution holds dear and all of the sudden, the “emerging church” you’ve been writing about is doing a bit of exploring outside the bounds of what your institution deems appropriate. At that point, you might want to distance yourself as to not cause confusion among the faculty and students.

What’s interesting is that these folks aren’t just dropping the term. Instead, they insert a qualifier that they are not using the term every time they use the term. The issue isn’t so much they’ve stopped using the term because they can’t seem to avoid using it. It’s just that when they do use it, they say they aren’t GOING to use it anymore. The main reason for this is that the terms they seek to avoid are turning out to be unavoidable. In the marketplace of ideas in American Christianity, emergence Christianity is getting a great deal of attention and sparking much debate.

In many ways, I really do understand the desire to define more clearly what guides you and what kind of movements you’re participating in. Maybe this is just a failure of language. But if you want to these terms to stop bothering you, then simply ignore them like the over excited puppy. If you keep saying, “No emergent!! Down emergent!!!” then the puppy will keep following you around, nipping at your heals.

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Deep Church: Friendly Foundationalism

I recently read through Jim Belcher’s book, Deep Church which attempts to bridge the divide between traditional and emerging churches. Whether or not he accomplishes this, I’m doubtful but in the midst of his effort, I think he’s written a book that, while a bit philosophically shallow, will no doubt be helpful for the many moderate church leaders out there who feel like they’re currently lost in the wilderness.

Belcher does his best to forge what he calls a “third way” between the traditional and emerging voices. While many of his ecclesiological prescriptions appear to be valid and helpful, it seems he’s advocating not so much a third way but a kinder, gentler traditionalism. Not that being kinder and gentler is insignificant. I’d argue that it’s crucial, but is this really a “third way”? I guess it’s up to the reader to determine that. In a practical sense, yes, I suppose it could be called a third way, but philosophically, I’d agree with Tony Jones when he tells Belcher in the book that when you scratch the surface of a kinder, gentler traditionalist, you’ll still find traditionalism at their core. After a meeting with Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt, here’s what Belcher and his friend take away:

“John and I concluded that they seemed to reject any commitment to classical orthodoxy of the Great Tradition. In the quest for truth, nothing can be privileged over the community and certainly not a theology that had been worked out in the fourth and fifth centuries.”

First, I’d be really surprised if Tony and Doug would agree with Belcher’s assumption that they “reject any commitment to classical orthodoxy.” That seems like a very lazy assessment to me and something that Belcher seems to be guilty of throughout the book, especially in his treatment of McLaren’s mythological denial of all atonement theory. I really do think that Belcher is doing his darnedest to be as accurate as possible and I really appreciate that. But there are several shortcoming in his analysis of many of the folks he depicts in the book.

The other common, and very crucial, misstep Belcher seems to make throughout the book is his apparent unawareness of the fact that the Great Tradition was itself worked out in community! It’s as if pure objectivity reigned in the fourth and fifth centuries and only after the Great Tradition was established were the dirty fingerprints of community smudging up “orthodoxy.” This is a massive blind spot that really cripples the philosophical nature of the book. Maybe Belcher didn’t want to get too deep into the weeds philosophically and I can understand that to a point, but it weakens the book significantly. I think Belcher is a traditionalist at heart but is open enough to listen to the protest of emerging Christians. That in and of itself is a good posture and I appreciate it greatly but I wish Belcher could listen a little better. How do you write a book about the emerging perspective and not once mention the work of Peter Rollins? The kinds of questions Rollins is asking are crucial to the emerging perspective that to not include him at all is another massive blind spot. To boot, Belcher also ignores the influence of modern Biblical and religious scholarship which illuminates for the us that “revisionists” have been active and influential in our developing tradition. Revisionism has been and will be part and parcel to orthodoxy. To not acknowledge this is to miss something very crucial to understanding the emerging perspective and is also, at best, intellectually lazy if not a straight up distortion of the history of the Christian tradition.

All this to say, this is a book I would recommend heartily to anyone who does seem caught in between the “traditional” and “emerging” camps, looking for practical ways to navigate this tension in the midst of day to day ministry. Many of the anecdotes he shares of his own experience are surely to be very helpful for anyone committed to a church community. But if you are looking for a rich philosophical, theological unpacking of what is happening in the American church today, you might want to look elsewhere.

MLK Day: The Myth of Redemptive Violence

Jesus undercut the basis for all violent, exclusionary and punitive behavior. He became the forgiving victim, so we would stop creating victims ourselves. He became the falsely accused one, so we would be careful whom we accuse.

Any worldly system actually prefers violent partners to nonviolent ones; it gives them a clear target and a credible enemy. Empires are actually relieved to have terrorists to shoot at and Barabbas figures loose on the streets. Types like Jesus, Martin Luther King and Gandhi make difficult enemies for empires. They cannot be used or co-opted.

The powers that be know that nonviolent prophets are a much deeper problem because they refuse to buy into the very illusions that the whole empire is built on, especially the myth of redemptive violence. Like Jesus, they live instead a life of redemptive suffering.

— Richard Rohr, Things Hidden

(HT: Brian Mclaren)

Following the Trends of Religious Perspectives on Homosexuality

The Pew Research Center has recently released a poll tracking the opinions of religious Americans on the issues of same-sex marriage and civil unions. You can check out the data for yourself here. This graph in particular stood out to me:

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Based on this graph, since 1996 to the present, there has been a twelve point swing towards the direction of favoring same-sex marriage among religious Americans. Obviously, these kinds of studies should be taken with a grain of salt, especially considering the various kinds of “religious” people this poll draws data from. For instance, those who regularly participate in religious services are more likely to oppose issues of same-sex equality. But what’s more interesting to me is that it seems that from 96 to around the end of 06, the swing towards favoring same-sex marriage was only 3 points. But since the end of 06 to the end of 09, the severity of the upward swing is more pronounced (9 point). It’s also very telling that the spikes in opposition to same-sex marriage happen at precisely when our country is in the middle of a Presidential election. The election of 2004 comes to my mind when the Rovian tactics of homophobia and racism (i.e. “family values) were in full swing.

Another interesting data point in this research is that support for civil unions is actually on the rise with religious Americans:

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Again, we see the dips in favor of civil unions during the 04 and 08 Presidential election cycles. Besides that point, it seems this data indicates a possible softening of the opposition to same-sex relationships in general. Religious Americans seem be relenting when it comes to the prospect of two individuals of the same sex being in a civilly acknowledge relationship, just as long as that relationship isn’t a civilly recognized marriage. Oddly enough, this data point seems to be contradictory to the conservative platform of monogamy and committed, marital relationships and families. Go figure.

The last point that I think is worth recognizing is that, based on this research, 58% of those polled in the 18-29 age range favor same-sex marriage compared to just 38% in the 30-49 age bracket. If I were on the conservative side of this debate, I’d be more than a little bit concerned with that 20% margin. It’s in keeping with what I’ve written on this blog before; a shift is happening and the conservative side of this argument has already lost. It’s just a matter of time. Regardless of what you may believe is right or wrong, you will have to contend with this shift in profound ways.