I heard the great Don Carson attempt a critique at emerging church. But he ended up spanking an early skeptical de-constructive postmodernist thought that is linked with existentialism and moral relativism. And as I listened, I felt a welt on my backside, reddening and swelling.
And for the life of me, I could not piece together why I and my colleagues from the global emerging church were getting a whippin’ from a Bible teacher. I found myself in a weird space, like getting told off by a mean uncle for something bad that one of my cousins had done. Only my cousin wasn’t around anymore and I was.
The following is a really long post and a continuation of something I posted a few days ago called Don Carson and My Sleepless Night. You may want to go back and join the conversation there, or go and see some other critiques that give a:
Thumbs Up – Out of the Woodwork, Sacred Journey
Thumbs Down – Alan Creech, Coop, Messy Christian., GatheringGrace, Maggi Dawn.
Thumbs Horizontal – Dwight Friesen
(In German) – Johannesserver.de and Mike B
The best response (much better than this) is by David Mills, PhD, who was present at the lectures and wrote The Emergent Church – Another Perspective: A Critical Response to D.A. Carson’s Staley Lectures (pdf).
UPDATE: April 05 – I wrote an Open Blog Post to Don Carson.
Thanks everyone for your comments on my sleepless night. I have taken your advice, slept on it, sent an email to Christway media requesting Carson’s email address (how i wish there was a comments section next to the tape series), and now have enough clearness of thought to piece together why i was so disturbed by Don Carson’s tapes.
Right. The Skinny on Carson. And why i was disappointed. I write these thoughts out, not so much for you or him, but for myself, so that i can have some peace of mind and move on . . .
I was disappointed because i thought we in the emerging church we about to get some good criticism. We really need this. Hardly anyone of Carson’s calibre has taken a decent shot at it. And because others of lesser calibre have tried, and tried badly, none of us really wanted to argue with them. Carson is smarter than that. And since he did some homework to give compliments and a critique, he could have given us some well-needed advice. We are open to it. I know i am.
– EC birthed out of Frustration? Pendalum swing?
Yes. We should own up to this. Carson’s critique that most of us are responding to our previous backgrounds is a good call. Chuck Smith Jnr’s book "The End of the World As We Know It" (not mentioned by Carson) is a good example.
But lets remember, as Bishop Tom Wright reminded us recently at an English event for emerging church, that what we are experiencing may also be a "breaking in of God’s future". This is a prophetic element that is often missed. When i was starting emerging church forms among street kids in San Francisco in the 90’s, i felt that we were preparing a new generation of God’s people for a very different future – one that is more dangerous, and one with far less resources. I did not see myself as reacting to my fundamentalist past.
– Emerging/Emergent Church? The name is temporary. The name has weaknesses. Yes. We agree.
But . .
a). the name is better than "Postmodern", a word that has given us a lot of problems and a word that we have tried to get rid of for a number of years. In 1998, at the National Gen X conference in Florida, Doug Pagitt and I successfully taught an entire seminar on emerging church without using the word "postmodern". We used the word "Cultural Creatives" to talk about this one third of the population who thought differently. I still use that phrase Cultural Creative. "Emerging" was better than "postmodern" which in turn, was better than "GenX". And "Emergent" was a better name than "Young Leaders" which is what we were called originally.
b) the name emergent means more than "new". It relates to emergent theory in systems and organization. Check out its use in church at Movable Theoblogical and in regards to blogs. Kester Brewin’s "Complex Christ: Signs of Emergence in the Urban Church" does a good job contrasting "emerging" with "emergent" using emergent theory.
c) We see ourselves as missional before we are emergent. None of us will go to the stake for the "emergent" term. And Carson is right – one day we will use a different word.
Yes. We have come up with slogans. We normally avoid them and offer them apologetically. We hardly ever use them among ourselves. We have been using them reluctantly due to the older folk requesting them. Apparently they didnt understand when we spoke in parables and stories and used art forms. They wanted tables, powerpoints, slogans, reductionist alliterations. And we gave in to them. Now we get flak from both the emergent and non-emergent people for sloganeering – serves us right – ha! ha! ha!
– Do we use Manipulative sloganeering?
That’s different. Them ah fightin’ words where ah come from!
Manipulative? Ma genoito! (Excuse my Greek) God forbid! May it never be! And if we have used manipulation, let someone reprove us. Manipulation in our world is wrong, sinful, mean, abusive, and as such it is rarely found in the emerging church. Manipulation is building a straw man out of falsity, creating fear and distrust of the false construct, and then appealing emotionally to foundational teachings that one’s audience is sure to agree with. And then setting up the communication cycle to be one-way only, to forbid the loop, to not allow feedback and iteration. Thats manipulative. Thats not handling the Bible accurately, as we are commanded to do. And if i am honest with myself, i might say that this is what was keeping me up. It was the tone of voice more than the actual words. And the helpless inability to speak back. No wonder so many of us in the emerging church prefer blogging.
– Tolerance? Do we really tolerate everything?
This is an old argument. It came up in the 1930’s by the Prague School Linguistic Circle that criticised structuralism (Saussurean structuralism was informing Russian formalism in the 1920’s and many Russians moved down to Prague, including Ramon Jakobson) as unable to make value judgments. Its a good argument, but we have already been there and moved on. At least the Europeans have.
May I suggest a tolerance test?
a) Dump your old car oil on the beach and see if emerging people tolerate it.
b) Use the names on someones group email to sell your book, and see if the emerging people you are spamming tolerate it.
c) Dress up as prosperity preacher, fly to the poorest country in Africa and offer to preach in their churches. Take up an offering at every church. Tell the young believers that God will reward their generosity. Keep doing it until you have $20,000. Fly home on a first class flight and buy a new car with your profits. Then tell the emerging church people what you have done and see if they tolerate it.
Reality check: If i say something on my blog that is not right, judgment will come swiftly and harshly upon me, within hours, within minutes. We believe in right and wrong. We make value judgments based on right and wrong. We do not tolerate evil. Must not. I am not tolerating wrong teaching by standing up against it.
– Don’t believe in sin?
Then there should not be a problem with dropping bombs in Iraq.
I suppose that by focusing on the differences between emergent church and traditional/residual church, we do create an artificial and momentary division, if only for sake of illustration. This is regrettable. But then we have also received the criticism that there is nothing new at all in the emerging church. This also is partly true. Most models of emerging church (house churches, underground publications, coffee shop, club, intentional community, monastic orders, etc) all have their parallels in 1968, as an ecclesial response to the counterculture.
But our aim is to help build the body of Christ in unity. I personally believe that modernism has produced a disunified church that has been fragmented and is in need of unity.
We belong to One Church (1 Cor. 12:27) and would rather slit our own wrists than see division in Christ’s body.
– Is the emergent church movement only 10 years old? Well. I see 1968 as the watershed year for new church models. I started my first EC model (a lame coffee shop/comedy club environment) in Portland, Oregon in 1989 – but thats not too important.
– "The emergent church movement is really American"
Lets forgive him on this one. He might not get out much.
Hey you English – we know you have been informing EC in USA since the 80’s (yes, you guys downunder also) but lets just let this one go.
– Rational Truth? Do we really hate it?
What i am doing and appealing to right now as I write this?
– No hierarchy in chatrooms?
Maybe Spencer sees this differently, but there is hierarchy in my chat room. When you visit Suddenly Seminary, my visual chatroom, you will see that it is my room and i am in charge. When my 13 year old kicks you out for bad manners, you know that the organizational structure is actually quite complicated. Even more when certain people (older and wiser) get to speak uninterrupted and a newbie does not.
– Postmodern Critical Theory?
We do not [all] get excited about books from French deconstructionists written in the 1970’s. If you are going to find parallels to the emerging church movement and postmodernism, then look at postmodern architecture, postmodern fashion, postmodern art, postmodern cuisine – these can be quite helpful, despsite that the movements are probably all over and have given birth to new forms.
But postmodern critical theory can be a dead end. New media theory and emergent theory in organization, and complexity theory – these things have more parallels and are a much more valuable read than deconstructionist thinking. Postmodern aesthetics (which was over in the 1980’s) was another good source for understanding postmodernism. But postmodern aesthetics (darkness, shading, smudging) is radically different from today’s computer aesthetics. Opposite, actually.
I felt that Carson’s compliments were condescending.
1. "They are trying to read the times . . they are trying really hard to understand the surrounding culture" Racial integration is given as an example.
2. Authenticity – "their push for authenticity is not a bad thing"
3. "They do recognize at least some of the parameters of the changing culture bound up with this category "postmodernism". They are not all wrong in what they perceive as the front edge of the culture. Now in my view some of their analysis has to be questioned. . . Moreover, whether or not they have the appropriate response to it at every juncture is another question that has to be raised."
Ahhhh, that’s a compliment?
Regarding the front edge of the culture – i would not say that postmodernism is at the front edge of culture. It might have been before. Certainly in the 1984, as i mentioned, postmodern aesthetics could have informed us a lot about culture back then. But it is now 2004 and the world is very different. The front edge has moved on and so have we. Suggesting that we dig around in the critical theories of the 70’s and 80’s is actually an insult, and not a compliment.
Regarding our exegesis of the culture, you don’t need Jesus to read the culture or to have different ethnic groups together in a room. That happens everyday in a movie theater.
We are called not only to read the culture but to transform it with the presence of Christ. We are missional before we are emergent. We are called to change the times.
A new breed of missionaries are starting emerging churches in the darkest areas of the world, and with far less resources than previous generations of missionaries have enjoyed. There is no retirement fund for these young missionaries, and dying of natural causes may not be an option either. Still, they crucify the idea of a career, or real estate, or a steady income so that new churches might be started in the postmodern cultures of our globe. They are delivering people from darkness, expelling demons, setting people free, explaining the story of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in an understandable way, starting ministries with creativity instead of budget, they are exceeding the prayerful hopes of past generations.
A huge hat tip to the unsung heros of emerging church who are living out the command of Christ and presenting the Truth to a skeptical world.
Trying to read the culture? Dammit! Its more than that!! They are leading culture. They are pioneering, innovating, collaborating with culture leaders, offering ethical guidance for a world that is still forming, standing against millenium3 idols, bringing Jesus into the time and space of current culture, calling out prophetically against sin, willing to pay the price. These emerging church apostles need our cheering encouragement, not a paternal nod.
OK, you say, where should people be looking for a better picture of what is going on?
Here are a few links.
a. The definition of Emerging Church at Wikipedia helpfully explains that we are responding to postmodernism, rather than "catering" to it. the definition iw not perfect, and is still in process, but it is better than much of the misinformation out there.
"The Emerging Church is a label that has been used to refer to a particular subset of Christians who are rethinking Christianity against the backdrop of Postmodernism. In order to explain fully what it is, it is necessary to look at what it is moving away from. . . One definition of the Emerging Church is that it is the collective noun for individuals who are emerging from this process of deconstruction and reconstruction of Christianity." Wikipedia
b. Some things i published earlier this year onNext-Wave might be helpful on where the "front edge" of culture is moving. From 5 Answers . .
– "Check Out New Media [Theory]
It does not do much good to read Christian apologists from the 90’s summarizing French philosophers from the 70’s who were trying to explain the surrealist painters from the 20’s. That is not the most direct route to understand us, and can actually be quite misleading. Check out the new media instead. In the 1990’s, I suggested churches look at the postmodern subcultures and the rave scene to find emerging values and dynamics. But now i say new media. Take a look at the renaissance of writing that is happening in our current world of post-post-literacy. Christian bloggers (theoblogians) are a part of this movement. Charlie Wear’s blog is a good place to start.
– Its not your Father’s Postmodernism.
Take everything you have read about the emerging culture being materialist, nihilistic, relativistic, consumeristic, individualistic, and of having no ethical code or moral standard. Now, invert it. Because the opposite is much closer to the truth.You are now looking at a culture with a deeper code of ethics, greater capacity for spirituality, a desire for less rather than more, a holistic view of following Jesus and a stronger relational commitment to community. That is a real challenge for the church and requires a whole new level of faith, godliness, prayerful reliance on God and an honesty that has been previously absent."
c. Its a little long in the tooth, and probably a smart guy like Carson would find a hundred errors in it, but my article "Postmodernism and Global Worldviews has a few thoughts worth salvaging. Notice that I say "experience precedes explanation", which is very different from Carson’s view that emerging church people believe in "experience over and against explanation".
d. Similar discussions have taken place with great thinkers and great men – like Charles Colson.
e. Steve Taylor’s PhD thesis asks the question "how effective is the emerging church as a postmodern expression of faith?" I have not read it yet, but would imagine that it should offer some good critical insights. (You can buy it from him)
Kester Brewin’s "Complex Christ: Signs of Emergence in the Urban Church" offers a better analysis of emerging church than Carson read. Brewin’s table offers a 3-way contrast/comparison involving Rigid Church, Emergent/Conjunctive Church and Anarchic church.
More links? I will leave that to you in the comments section . . . but in the meantime, let me end this post by saying
1. I would love to hear Carson read a few other books, take a look at what we are being informed by right now, and take another shot at an honest critique of emerging church. The guy knows his Bible better than us and therefore we should listen to whatever he comes up with, especially since he has taken an interest in us. Doug Pagitt has invited him up to Solomon’s Porch to check out a more "normal" model of emerging church.
2. Carson challenges us to stick to the Bible. Lets take up that challenge. Lets read it more often. Lets quote the Bible more often. Lets listen more to God’s word. Lets continue to be informed by it.
Interesting sideline: I had a coffee at Scooterworks Cafe yesterday with Si Johnston who told me he was sitting on a plane with Don Carson 2 weeks ago. Si was participating at the Epicentre Roundtable for Global Emerging Church last week at Greenbelt, where he shared his challenge for the Emerging Church to tackle the social problem of human trafficking – (modern day slavery). We all agreed to it and the Protest4.com website has already gone up. Our hope is that we can significantly reduce human trafficking by 2007, the 200th anniversary of Wilberforce’s 1807 law banning slave trade. Si told me that his church base (Oasis- church.co.uk ) is where William Wilberforce used to base his ministry.
This is why i thought it amusing that Carson was using slavery as such a major point.
Another interesting sideline. The Emerging Church is not the only part of the Body of Christ that is accused of postmodern relativism. Baptist missionaries who refused to sign the Baptist Faith and Message were given the same spanking.
(Rankin) accuses those who reject the 2000 BF&M of postmodern theology which he seems to define as rejection of absolute truth as revealed in Jesus Christ and recorded in scripture," said Parks. "Let it be understood that liberal, postmodern theology was never accepted among staff or missionaries of the Foreign Mission Board (now the IMB)." Keith Parks in Baptists Today.
I agree with Parks. The missionaries (like many of us in the emerging church) have not necessarilly changed their view on Scripture. But they are more aware (suspicious) of the abuse of texts by powerful people. To be forced to sign a 1963 document written by men, even if they agree with it, is credalism and in conflict with their beliefs. In this sense, the emerging church finds itself in a large community of misunderstood believers.