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.