Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Emergent Church: postmodern pathology

The "Emergent (or 'Emerging') Church" movement is a movement of the late 20th and early 21st century whose proponents present themselves as seeking to present the Christian message in new, laid-back conversational packaging to their postmodern unchurched and post-churched peers. Dr. R. Todd Mangum, Associate Professor of Theology and Dean of Faculty at Biblical Seminary [yes, that's its actual name], describes it this way: "'Emergent' is a loosely knit group of people in conversation about and trying experiments in forwarding the ministry of Jesus in new and different ways, as the people of God in a post-Christian context." Um-hmmmm ... You know what I'm talkin' 'bout. It's cool to be hip. Now I wouldn't want to deny for a moment the sincere intentions of some of these fine folk. Yet those with noses for the difference between chicken soup and chicken spit soon realize that the soup is in the other pot: the 'Emergent' folk have themselves succumbed to the pathology of postmodern hippification. At a steep price: a decentering loss of clarity and amorphous banality. But of course, that's part of the appeal: Who wants easy answers when the alternative is a hipster paradise of narcissistic conversation and mocha lattes?

In Why We're Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be (Moody Publishers, 2008), Kevin DeYoung, the senior pastor at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, and Ted Kluck, a sportswriter who has written for ESPN, have written a friendly critique of the Emergent Church movement. Kristen Scharold reviews the book in a First Things article entitled "The Emerging Church and Its Critics" (FT, May 14, 2008). Her review begins like this:
Order a pint of Guinness, turn up Coldplay, and meet me in the corner booth of our local pub because I want to tell you a story.

Rushing to finish Why We’re Not Emergent, I balance against the train’s jolts while furiously underlining various passages. I live in Bushwick, Brooklyn—which, according to the New York Times, is “home to a growing artists’ scene,” though “many pockets are still poor and the crime rate remains relatively high.” The train slows at my stop. I shove the book back into my purse (relieved to at least put the kitschy orange and green cover out of sight). Waiting for the doors to open, I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the subway windows and suddenly feel disaffected by the “Royal Tenenbaum” gaze that stares back at me. Once in my apartment, I collapse onto my vintage, button-tufted couch and toss aside my Bible—one of those new ESVs with a red leather cover and floral etchings. After putting some Sigur Rós on my iPod and making myself a latte, I pick up where DeYoung and Kluck left off. The end.

A story can say a lot, but it can also leave a lot unsaid. For example, that dull story—with its postmodern self-consciousness, lazy plot line, and forced cultural references—alludes to some facts about myself, but it doesn’t reveal anything about what I actually believe.

The emergent church isn’t much different. Its devotees like to tell stories and engage in discussion, but often the dialogue is not helpful and the stories are not very exciting. This is because the emergent “conversation”—“movements” are passé and narrow-minded—lacks the commentary and the narrative of traditional Christian doctrine.
"Defining the emerging church is like nailing Jell-O to the wall," say the authors of Why We're Not Emergent. Rather than simply making a case against 'Emergence,' DeYoung and Kluck argue for doctrine, conviction, and they do so, according to Scharold, with a winsome authenticity that would make any devotee of 'Emergent Christianity' proud. In their book, they counter the arguments of this movement, refreshingly, she says, with the Word of God and simple logic: "The result is refreshing."

The Musings reader who sent me the link to Scharold's article remarked that the article made him ask whether Vatican II was "the mother of 'Emergent Catholicism' of a respectable mainstream suburban American stripe?" What do you think?

[Hat tip to J.M.]

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