Saturday, April 29, 2006

Where Emergent Goes Bad (8) - Too Many Words

The Bible does have some interesting things to say about our words. First off, too much talk leads only to trouble.

Proverbs 10:8 A babbling fool will come to ruin.

That being the case, a wise person will learn to speak less than he will listen. There is wisdom in learning to keep your mouth closed.

Proverbs 21:23 Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue / keeps himself out of trouble.

Proverbs 13:3 Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.

Proverbs 10:19 When words are many, transgression is not lacking. but whoever restrains his lips is


Proverbs 17:28 Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed


The sheer volume of EC materials in books, web sites, blogs, podcasts, and emails, along with the overemphasis on dialogue at the expense of proclamation has created a library-sized collection of words. Some of these words aren’t even real words (“missional,” “emergent,” and “liminal” all come to mind), just made up phrases and verbal adjectives that make the outsider wonder if EC isn’t just really a collection of angry artists and English majors.

I am all for expressing ideas in fresh and riveting ways, but this might be better done by EC with fewer and more precise words. I know this may sound petty, but I believe this to be one of the foundational problems with the movement as a whole. In all this talk about meditation and silence and listening and dialogue and friendship, you think somebody would get the idea that actually not speaking or writing for a few minutes might be a good thing.

This becomes all the more frustrating when one is trying to study the movement and figure out what it is really saying. I am sure some will read this paper and say, “That is not what we are saying. You are not representing us fairly. What about this or that author/blogger/talker?” That makes for a nice out, but how can any one person possibly read all there is to read about EC?[1]

[1] Then again, maybe that is just my “out!”

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Where Emergent Goes Bad (7) - Turtling

Warning: for non-Canadians this illustration may not make sense. In the code of honour in hockey, it is the duty of Player B to stand up and fight when challenged by Player A. Player B may not be a fighter, and may even be injured in a way that makes fighting nearly impossible, but the one thing Player B must never do is turtle.[1] Turtling is when Player B crumples into a little ball on the ice and lets Player A punch him in the back... and get all the penalties.

Turtling happens in theological debate, too. An author writes a book and the critiques and criticisms begin to appear. Rather than answer those criticisms, learn from them, defend his views or bring forward more proof, the author issues statements like this: “You haven’t taken the time to understand me.” Or, “You must not have read my book.” Or, “How could I even dialogue with you when you don’t understand anything to begin with.” Not exactly the spirit of “the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.”[2] Consider these examples:

I often hear people saying we deny the existence of truth (which is, frankly, ridiculous) or that we reject the Bible (again, ridiculous). Some say that we show no respect for Church tradition and others that we pay too much respect to tradition. Some reduce everything we're talking about to a rather esoteric and un-nuanced debate about epistemology. Some are concerned about me because they know that I am unhappy about the Religious Right's narrowing of the gospel's social impact to two or three issues, and I think the rhetorical strategy of the Religious Right has made evangelism harder here in America and around the world. If they think the Religious Right is the leading edge of God's work on the planet, they see me as someone who isn't with the program.[3]

Or this example in a reply he makes to Chuck Colson:

Many of the people who think they understand postmodernism and write or speak about it lack the time, energy, or historical and philosophical understanding to begin to understand what they don’t understand about it, so it’s fruitless to even try to dialogue with them. It’s better just to let things slide.[4]

How convenient! This is not answering the arguments. It is true McLaren is writing to Colson based on Colson’s original document, but he makes no reply (that I can find) to Colson’s follow-up letter to this open letter. To paint your opponent as “just too ignorant to discuss matters with” is a cop out. If EC is serious about “having a conversation” then this continual “You don’t understand me!” caveat needs to be dropped. Many have tried to engage the issues presented by EC only to find no response, vague mumblings about what this or that person said, or an ad hominem attack.[5]

[1] Turtling is especially offensive to the code when Player B has been provoking Player A through unfair stick work, trash talk, or cheap shots. If Player B makes a habit of, for instance, skating by Player A and whacking the back of his knee with his stick, then he ought to be ready to drop the gloves!

[2] 2 Timothy 2:24-26. The only time we seem to be free to run from a dispute is when they are “foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.” (verse 23). But, if McLaren and others feel critiques are foolish and ignorant controversies, then they ought to at least say as much.

[3] Criswell Theological Review CT n.s. 3/2 (Spring 2006) 8. Accessed online at,2%20InterviewwithBrianMcLaren%28Streett%29.PDF on March 31, 2006. See also his Open Letter to Chuck Colson in the first few lines.

[4] From his “Open Letter to Chuck Colson” accessed March 31, 2006.

[5] I am sure negative things have been hurled both directions, but it really is shocking to read comment strings on blogs like EmergentNo. Name-calling, straw-men and false testimony seem to abound. Is this indicative of the youthfulness of most participants in the movement?

Monday, April 24, 2006

Where Emergent Goes Bad (6) - Should Belonging Precede Believing?

Some have argued that EC is fundamentally an off-shoot of the seeker-sensitive movement so popular in the last decade.[1] This is no where more clear than in the EC desire to allow people “in” before they “believe.” In other words, this is taking the seeker model of “making church inviting to unbelievers” to a new level (its logical conclusion?). Now the goal is not conversion, but belonging. And that belonging, in some cases, becomes the Gospel. This is why events like S3K[2] make so much sense to EC and so little sense to people like me. McLaren is very big on this point and promotes the idea in nearly every chapter of A Generous Orthodoxy and the Secret Message of Jesus:

No wonder this third way seems paradoxical: to be truly inclusive, the kingdom must exclude exclusive people; to be truly reconciling, the kingdom must not reconcile with those who refuse reconciliation, to achieve its purpose of gathering people, it must not gather those who scatter. The kingdom of God has a purpose, and that purpose isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

Martin Luther King Jr. learned what happens when you preach an inclusive message of reconciliation... On the one hand, if you start expanding the borders and working for a God-centered inclusive and reconciling network of relationships, you will quickly find that there are plenty of people willing to insult you, imprison you, torture you, and kill you. They prefer the rigid boundaries and impermeable walls of their narrow domains and constricted turf, not God’s purposefully inclusive kingdom that calls the least “the greatest” and welcomes the outcast.

On the other hand, if you try to include those people who oppose your inclusive purpose, then your kingdom is divided against itself, and it will be ruined. So what do you do? If you’re Jesus, you take whatever space you are given and let God’s kingdom be made visible and real there.[3]

[1] “I think its [sic] a mistake to see the emerging subculture as nothing more than the next generation's version of the ‘seeker sensitive’ church. It is that, but only in a certain sense. In some ways, the ‘emerging church’ is a reaction against and a departure from the shallow, mass-movement professional showmanship of the slick megachurches like Willow Creek and Saddleback. Emergent types tend to value authenticity over professionalism. Many of their churches—perhaps a majority of their churches—are home churches or otherwise small-group gatherings that are informal and unorganized almost to an extreme.” Phil Johnson’s thoughts on the matter from

[2] S3K refers to Synagogue 3000. For more information on this and the participation of Emergent/US in this event, see Appendix One: Does Emergent Embrace Practicing Jews as Fellow Believers in God? [TO BE POSTED SOON]

[3] Secret Message, 169.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Where Emergent Goes Bad (5) - Confusion Over Homosexuality and Post-Modernism

In January of this year, a controversy surrounding the sinfulness of homosexuality erupted between Driscoll and McLaren. The first part of the issue is summarized in this posting by Driscoll on the Leadership Journal’s “Out of Ur” blog:

Well, it seems that Brian McLaren and the Emergent crowd are emerging into homo-evangelicals...

For me, the concern started when McLaren in the February 7, 2005 issue of Time Magazine said, “Asked at a conference last spring what he thought about gay marriage, Brian McLaren replied, ‘You know what, the thing that breaks my heart is that there's no way I can answer it without hurting someone on either side.’” Sadly, by failing to answer, McLaren was unwilling to say what the Bible says and in so doing really hurt God’s feelings and broke his heart.

Then, Brian’s Tonto Doug Pagitt, an old acquaintance of mine, wrote the following in a book he and I both contributed to called Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches edited by Robert Webber and due out this spring:

“The question of humanity is inexorably link [sic] to sexuality and gender. Issues of sexuality can be among the most complex and convoluted we need to deal with. It seems to me that the theology of our history does not deal sufficiently with these issues for our day. I do not mean this [sic] a critique, but as an acknowledgement that our times are different. I do not mean that we are a more or less sexual culture, but one that knows more about the genetic, social and cultural issues surrounding sexuality and gender than any previous culture. Christianity will be impotent to lead a conversation on sexuality and gender if we do not boldly integrate our current understandings of humanity with our theology. This will require us to not only draw new conclusions about sexuality but will force to consider new ways of being sexual.”

And on January 23rd McLaren wrote an article for Leadership that is posted on this blog. In it he argues that because the religious right is mean to gays we should not make any decision on the gay issue for 5-10 years.[1]

Driscoll later repented of the manner and wording of his rather sarcastic rant.[2] But to my knowledge, other than one posting on the Out of Ur blog, McLaren has done little to clarify his position. In that post, he repeatedly made statements similar to this:

Please be assured that as a pastor and as someone who loves and seeks to follow the Bible, I am aware of Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and related texts. Believe me, I have read them and prayerfully pondered them, and have read extensively on all the many sides of the issue. I understand that for many people, these verses end all dialogue and people like me must seem horribly stupid not to see what’s there so clearly to them. I wish they could understand that some of us encounter additional levels of complexity when we try honestly and faithfully to face these texts. We have become aware of as-yet unanswered scholarly questions, such as questions about the precise meaning of malakoi and arsenokoitai in Paul’s writings, and we wonder why these words were used in place of paiderasste, the meaning of which would be much clearer if Paul’s intent were to address behavior more like what we would call homosexuality.[3]

In other words, he continues to refuse to make clear whether or not he understands the Bible to teach that homosexuality is a sin.[4]

Emergent’s Analysis of Post-Modernism[5]

Perhaps the most contentious area between EC folks and those who study them is determining what exactly is post-modernism. Judging by the blog comments, Carson’s treatment of this aspect of the EC seems to have received the greatest amount of flack from his opponents. I will not go into much detail on this aspect of the debate, since this work has already been done. The interested reader should examine chapter 5 of Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church and follow that with a Google search on “Carson and emergent.” You will have “links-a-plenty” to choose from. For a brief synopsis of his assessment, consider this description from Carson:

The majority view, however, is that the fundamental issue in the move from modernism to postmodernism is epistemology—i.e., how we know things, or think we know things. Modernism is often pictured as pursuing truth, absolutism, linear thinking, rationalism, certainty, the cerebral as opposed to the affective—which in turn breeds arrogance, inflexibility, a lust to be right, the desire to control. Postmodernism, by contrast, recog­nizes how much of what we “know” is shaped by the culture in which we live, is controlled by emotions and aesthetics and heritage, and in fact can only be intelligently held as part of a common tradition, without over­bearing claims to being true or right.

Modernism tries to find unques­tioned foundations on which to build the edifice of knowledge and then proceeds with methodological rigor; postmodernism denies that such foundations exist (it is “antifoundational”) and insists that we come to “know” things in many ways, not a few of them lacking in rigor. Mod­ernism is hard-edged and, in the domain of religion, focuses on truth ver­sus error, right belief, confessionalism; postmodernism is gentle and, in the domain of religion, focuses on relationships, love, shared tradition, integrity in discussion. In my view, it is this epistemological contrast between the modern and the postmodern that is most usefully explored, as it touches so many other things...[6]

[2] “I have come to see that my comments were sinful and in poor taste. Therefore, I am publicly asking for forgiveness from both Brian and Doug because I was wrong for attacking them personally and I was wrong for the way in which I confronted positions with which I still disagree. I also ask forgiveness from those who were justifiably offended at the way I chose to address the disagreement. I pray that you will accept this posting as a genuine act of repentance for my sin.” first published March 27, 2006 and accessed on April 1, 2006.

[4] This was verified at the Richview Baptist Church event when McLaren suggested that each local church would have to determine their view on the matter and that much of this would be based on the culture they were ministering to and that this was really for the best.

[5] Chuck Colson, in an open letter to Brian McLaren had this to say about the nature of post-modernism: “Let me clarify also what I believe can be said about postmodernity and postmodernism which you seem to think people have difficulty understanding. In one way, of course, they do, because vacuums are never easily described. But the fact is that postmodernity is not something to argue about or engage in passionate debate for. Postmodernity simply means that we have emerged, for better or worse, from the modern era and we are in whatever comes after it (which I would submit is largely an intellectual vacuum which leads to nihilism.)” accessed March 31, 2006.

[6] Conversant, 27. Ther e has been so much written on this topic already that I will not spend any more time on it here. The reader should examine Carson and those who have critiqued him.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Where Emergent Goes Bad (4) - Some (like McLaren) Open the Door to Universalism

I am not aware if McLaren has actually denied being a Universalist. He certainly never comes out and states that he does believe every person will eventually go to heaven, but I will offer a few extended quotes to demonstrate why so many accuse him of this heresy.

If the Evangelical Jesus saves by dying, the Pentecostal Jesus by sending his Spirit, and the Catholic Jesus by rising from death, the Eastern Orthodox Jesus saves simply by being born, by showing up, by coming among us. In Jesus’ birth, these Christians believe two wonderful things happen. First, God takes the human life of Jesus into God’s own eternal life, and in so doing, Jesus’ people (the Jews), species (the human race), and history (the history of our planet and our whole universe) enter into—are taken up into God’s own life. God’s life, love, joy, and power are so great that all our death, hate, pain, and failures are eradicated, swallowed up, cancelled, extinguished, and overcome by being taken into God. In this way Jesus will ultimately bring blessing to the whole world, to all of creation.[1]

For the first time, through the Eastern Jesus, I began to have a glimpse of how Jesus could indeed be the Saviour not just of a few individual humans, but of the whole world. (In footnote 26 to this statement he adds: By “the whole world,” I do not necessarily mean every individual in it, but rather, I mean the cosmos, creation, the earth in history, not just beyond history.[2]

In another place, McLaren writes:

But what about heaven and hell? you ask. Is everybody in?

My reply: Why do you consider me qualified to make this pronouncement? Isn’t this God’s business? Isn’t it clear that I do not believe this is the right question for a missional Christian to ask? Can’t we talk for a while about God’s will being done on earth as in heaven instead of jumping to how to escape earth and get to heaven as quickly as possible? Can’t we talk for a while about overthrowing and undermining every hellish stronghold in our lives and in our world?[3]

Or this:

The king achieves peace not by shedding the blood of rebels but by—I hope the scandal and wonder of this is not lost because the words may be familiar—shedding his own blood.

And what is the goal of this suffering sacrifice, this self-giving to the point of blood to achieve the pax Christi? It is a new and lasting reconciliation between humanity and God, and among all the at-odds individuals and groups that comprise humanity. In another letter, Paul said it like this: “Old distinctions like Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female no longer exist, for you are all one in Christ” (see Galatians 3:28). Today, he might speak of reconciliation of the war veteran with the pacifist protester. The tattooed and pierced granddaughter / with her prim and proper grandmother. The Orthodox with the Catholics, and Pentecostals with Baptists. Christians with Jews and Muslims and Hindus. Tutsi with Hutu and both with Twa. Right-wing Republicans with left-wing Democrats. Believers with doubters.

What is this set of reconciled relationships other than the kingdom of God?[4]

McLaren includes other statements that appear to suggest (to some degree!) that he is not a Universalist, although he never fully comes out and says that he is not. But even if that is the case, I find it deeply perplexing that he would write the way he does in the first place.[5]

[1] Orthodoxy, 56.

[2] Orthodoxy, 59 and footnote 26.

[3] Orthodoxy, 112.

[4] Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth That Could Change Everything (Nashville, Tennessee: W Publishing Group/Thomas Nelson, 2006) 99-100.

[5] I will comment more on this in the appendix entitled, “Was Jesus Purposefully Confusing?” Please remember, I know that McLaren is not the official spokesperson for Emergent – but he is intimately associated with the movement and remains its “face” on a popular level. These kinds of reckless statements must therefore be addressed. And I would argue that universalism is heresy.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Where Emergent Goes Bad (3) - Historical Revisionism

Historical Inaccuracy – Purposeful Revision?

This leads us to another habit which is commonplace in EC. My own opinion is that the majority of EC authors are given to purposeful revision of historical matters to suit their own ends. There needs to be a serious work written to refute some of the patently erroneous statements made that serve as the foundation to much of the EC. One tiny example of this kind of factual error is found in McLaren’s recitation of the collier’s conversion in Kingswood in 1739.

What a great story Methodists have to tell about themselves! In 1739, Anglican priest George Whitefield (1714-1770) invited Anglican priests John and Charles Wesley to join him preaching an evangelical (see Chapter 6) gospel where it’s [sic] most needed (and accepted): not from the pulpits of a church grown complacent and comfortable, but in the streets and fields, wherever the unwashed and unchurched people were. The Wesley brothers joined Whitfield [sic]—George and John supplying the preaching and Charles providing some music. This was music the common folk could relate to—down-to-earth songs, lyrics in simple but beautiful English, with a good melody and a good beat, songs with feeling, more like the songs they sang in the pub at night than the highfalutin’ organ music of the cathedrals. Even after Whitfield [sic] left to travel to America, thousands came to hear John and Charles. People responded powerfully with tears, shrieks, groans, and trembling.

One reporter described the scene outside a coal mine, here the miners stopped on their way home after a day of backbreaking, low-paying, bone-wearying, lung-destroying work. The miners were probably planning to anaesthetize their aching muscles and downtrodden hearts with strong drink, which might lead to wife beating and other sad outcomes. John Wesley’s powerful voice caught their ears. This man has passion and compassion they thought. They stopped and listened to someone who didn’t despise them for their low-life ways. The crowd grew—dirty, men, black-faced from coal dust. Wesley spoke of a God who loved them and wanted to help them even though they got drunk, though they gambled, even though they mistreated their wives and children. The reporter noticed pale, clean tracks forming or coal-blackened cheeks of these tough men, tracks formed by tears of repentance and faith.[1]

Right away we are met with several significant factual errors:

  1. Whitefield and the Wesleys were in different parts of the country at this time. First of all, Whitefield was in Kingswood (not America). Secondly, John Wesley was in London.
  2. Whitefield was the preacher and this event occurred before he had convinced John Wesley to join him in open-air preaching. As of yet, Wesley continued to preach in the established church.
  3. Organs were rarely used in public worship at this time – except perhaps for one or two Anglican cathedrals in London. More importantly, as others have shown, the Wesleys were far more interested in singing good experiential theology than they were in adapting to current musical trends... especially from the pub![2]
  4. Whitefield’s message was much more than “God loves you, lets have a conversation, I have a lot of passion and compassion and now let’s sing an old pub favourite with these new Christian words.” The tears of the colliers were in response to conviction for sin and even a cursory reading of Whitefield’s (and the Wesleys’ for that matter!) preaching would prove they dealt very strongly with sin.
  5. The account was reported by Whitefield himself (in his published journal) – not by a newspaper reporter as McLaren would lead one to believe.[3]

Some of these discrepancies might be excused as having no bearing on the point of his chapter, but they indicate an incredible lack of research and fact-checking.[4] That alone ought to alarm any reader of McLaren specifically, and of EC authors in general, for it serves as one clear demonstration of a regular blunder: post-modernism run amuck in shameless revisionist history. Here the story is re-told to suit the ends of the teller. In other words, a false-history is created upon which an entire solution paradigm is launched.

I believe this is one of the greatest dangers of EC as it is practiced by McLaren and those of his ilk.[5] It is deceptive. If history is as they present it, then perhaps their solutions ought to be minded. If the reality of what happened in the past (especially the recent past) is quite different from how they present it, then one might assume the solution is flawed.[6] What happens, though, when they have misrepresented history, but offered a solution to current problems that is genuinely good; in other words, when they have built at least one solution off of a faulty foundation? This is perhaps the worst scenario of all, as it muddies the waters and lures the pragmatic Christian of our age into a hodgepodge of good and bad... where the bad more-often-than-not outnumbers the good.

Although McLaren is an intellect, he is a dangerous intellect as he is given to summarizing historical events in a way that promotes his preconceived point. When you combine these conclusions with the “guilt-by-association statements” and new-fangled words and lots of hyphenated, thesaurus-filled adjectives – you end up reading something that sounds very convincing.

Thus, I believe EC is to be handled cautiously by Christians. Evangelicals are notoriously easy prey for “the next best thing” and McLaren writes in an especially compelling manner. This, coupled with his penchant for exposing the worst of evangelicalism, gains him a hearing for his proposed solutions. But these solutions are not a return to Scripture; rather they appear to be the ever-changing musings of a somewhat disgruntled yet very articulate intellect. More will be said about this later, but suffice it for now to say that this assessment alone ought to be enough to make us very wary of EC. Still, there are even more reasons to remain cautious.

[1] Orthodoxy, 215, 216.

[2] Gene Veith comments on Luther (not Wesley’s) use of “pub music.” For the record, Luther did not take "bar tunes" and put biblical words to them. That legend comes from a comical misunderstanding. Someone apparently heard a music historian referring to Luther's use of the "bar form," which refers to a stanza structure, not to what drunks sing in a tavern. Luther did borrow and adapt tunes from earlier hymns, medieval chants, and contemporary composers, but a good number of his melodies were his own original compositions.” Accessed on April 5, 2006. I could not find my source, but I believe the same is equally true for the Wesleys. In fact, Charles was a great lover of “good music” and the thought of him writing lyrics to bar ditties is hard to comprehend.

[3] “In a description which has become classic, Whitefield reports his ministry among this pitiable and neglected people. We visualize the scene — the green countryside, the piles of coal, the squalid huts and the deep semi-circle of unwashed faces — as we read his words: ‘Having no righteousness of their own to renounce, they were glad to hear of a Jesus who was a friend of publicans, and came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. The first discovery of their being affected was to see the white gutters made by their tears which plentifully fell down their black cheeks, as they came out of their coal pits. Hundreds and hundreds of them were soon brought under deep convictions, which, as the event proved, happily ended in a sound and thorough conversion. The change was visible to all, though numbers chose to impute it to anything, rather than the finger of God.’” Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield, Volume I: The life and times of the great evangelist of the 18th century revival (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1970) 263-264. And this was neither the first time he had preached outdoors nor the first time he had preached to the colliers.

[4] The point being the title of the chapter, “Why I am a Methodist.”

[5] Revisionist Emergents.

[6] I don’t have time to deal with it here, but I think this habit of misrepresenting recent history is most clearly seen in Robert E. Webber, The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 2002 - 4th Printing October, 2004). This “seminal work” to EC seems to me to be overflowing with revised history. It would be good for a more skilled reviewer to document these errors.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Where Emergent Goes Bad (2) - What Defines a "Christian?"

Naming Christ Makes Someone a True Christian

A related fallacy to this is assuming any action or person that happens to mention “Jesus” is an example of true Christianity. McLaren’s slipshod treatment of the Spanish Roman Catholic explorer Pizarro is an easy example of this. Pizarro betrayed the Incan King and killed him and thousands of his men in the name of Christ.[1] McLaren goes to great pains to repent of this action and express regret for it... as a fellow Christian with Pizarro. Of course, he anticipates that some would distance themselves from Pizarro, but having already suggested that he himself is “catholic” he sees no issue in owning this sin – even going so far as to instruct the reader to put down the book and “breathe a prayer.”[2] But there is much that is questionable in this.

First off, was Pizarro a genuine believer? There is little evidence to suggest so. Just because someone claims to be doing something in Jesus’ name does not mean they really are, nor does it mean they really have a clue who He is! The man who spray paints ethnic slurs across a storefront because, “Jesus told him to do it” is not giving good evidence of having been born again. In events like this, we are to examine the words of a person against their actions. This is obvious, but McLaren lumps us all in with Pizarro without any historical evidence to suggest he was a true Christ-follower.

Secondly, what are we to do with all the atrocities of all the Christians over the ages? Are we to repent for Peter’s denials of Christ? Saul’s murderous threats against Christians? What purpose does this serve?

More to the point, however, notice how misleading this kind of talk can be. There is no question that there was much wrong in the Crusades, in the politicizing of Christianity that began under Constantine and even in the Reformation. Sins were committed; some of them grotesque. But to simply hold up these examples and suggest that they are representative of the true Christian faith over the centuries is preposterous. Each event must be examined in its own light, with careful study into the culture and ethos of the day. Not only that, one must remember that much accomplished “in the name of Christ” had nothing to do with true Christians and the true Jesus. Just accepting all these things and repenting of them is overly simplistic and I propose accomplishes no actual good. Holding them up as proof that we Christians continually get things wrong and need to be always re-inventing, or emerging is plainly misleading.

[1] Orthodoxy, 271f.

[2] Orthodoxy, 273.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Where Emergent Goes Bad (1) - Over-generalization

The Steady EC Diet – Over-generalization and Guilt-by-Association

Brian McLaren paints with extremely wide brushes. He categorizes people and movements with the accuracy of one of those extra-wide rollers you can buy at Home Depot! This becomes absolutely frustrating in all his written work I have read. The end result is a blurring of categories by rampant overgeneralization and a redundant guilt-by-association. This becomes annoying in the extreme. Frankly, I think it makes his stated goal of “having a conversation” nearly impossible. He may assume speaking in this way provokes his readers and forces them to think through their unconscious pre-suppositions, but after a few pages the reader feels like he is trying to reason with a child.[1]

Note some of these examples:

If fundamentalist means other things—such as requiring belief in a foundationalist epistemology, assenting to something like a dictation theory of biblical inspiration, upholding a sectarian and elitist approach to non-Fundamentalist Christians, and identifying judgmentalism and anger as fruits of the Holy Spirit, then there’s little chance I’d be welcome in their company, which is probably for the best. And if the previous sentence full of technical religious jargon went over your head, thank God and don’t worry about it.[2]

As he so often does, McLaren paints up everyone in a certain group (in this case, fundamentalists) in what he considers to be all of their faults. He does not list any possible strengths of the group (in this statement) nor does he allow that there may be some variance within the group. He then links together these characterizations into an either/or proposition – with the bad “either” always being conservative evangelicalism. This is uncharitable at best and divisive at worst. Unfortunately, in my opinion, it is also extremely McLarenesque and often Emergentesque![3]

Another example from A Generous Orthodoxy comes to mind:

Rather than trying to capture timeless truth in objective statements systematized in analytical outlines and recorded in books and institutionalized in schools and denominations, narrative theology embraces, preserves, and reflects on the stories of people and communities involved in the romance of God—always beginning with and always returning to the treasury of stories in Scripture: the good, bad, ugly, and undetermined lives of those who have sought God and found God and lost God and served God and heard and ignored God and opposed God and betrayed God and returned to God and loved God all the more for having been forgiven much. In the process, it seeks to understand the direction and purpose and meaning of the larger narrative (the story of emergence) that these individual stories constitute.[4]

I think McLaren is too smart to not know what he is doing here. And yes, that means I am questioning his motives.[5] The baby is writhing on the front lawn even before he can be thrown out with the bath water. McLaren has decided what he doesn’t like from the beginning and everything is painted in that light. Can a believer not hold “timeless truth in objective statements” and at the same time seek “to understand the direction and purpose and meaning of the larger narrative?” This is a false dichotomy, or at least a gratuitous overgeneralization.

A recent interview of McLaren in Criswell Journal demonstrates the same tactic:

I wish people were more interested in the question of how the Religious Right has changed our evangelistic context. The name ‘Jesus’ is heard differently now than it was thirty years ago because of the amazing ‘success’ of the Religious Right. If I say ‘Jesus’ to many of my friends, they don’t think of someone who came to forgive sin; they think of people who want to shame people for their sins. They don’t think of someone who had special good news for the poor; they think of people who want to give every possible advantage to the rich because they think the poor are to blame, largely, for their poverty. They don’t think of someone who overturned the status quo, but of people who represent the status quo. They don’t think of someone who talked about turning the other cheek, but of people who defend preemptive violence. So, I wish people would seek to understand the rising dissatisfaction surrounding how the Religious Right has ‘rebranded’ Christianity, and how Emergent and other conversations like it are seeking to rediscover the Jesus of the Scriptures and fairly represent him and his message to our world.[6]

Carson summarizes this tendency in EC in this way:

...a fair amount of its heat and overgeneralizing seems to spring from the mistaken assumption that most of traditional evangelicalism is just like the conservative churches from which they came. That betrays the narrowness of many of their backgrounds and helps to explain why their rhetoric and appeals to postmodern sensitivity sound so absolutist: this is the language and rhetoric on which they were weaned.

His solution to this in part is:

...there are lessons to be learned by reading history more broadly, by becoming intimately familiar with Christians in other languages and cultures, by enlarging the frames of reference in which we can comfortably move. We are then far more likely to become self-critical.[7]

Thus, EC needs to make a more careful diagnosis. Although much of what is identified as sickness in evangelicalism is accurate, this habitual over-generalization (i.e. all fundamentalists are angry and proud of it) and guilt-by-association (lumping together straw-man definitions of good attributes with genuine spiritual ills) clouds the real issues and makes the proposed cure very suspect.

[1] By this I mean the kind of child who won’t answer the question, keeps trying to change the topic, won’t leave off until he gets what he wants, purposefully speaks in innuendo to get stabs in along the way and that type of thing. I am not suggesting McLaren himself is childish or immature, but I am saying this writing style is quite detrimental to real discussion. It is almost condescending. I did not sense this to the same degree in his public speaking, although it was certainly present.

[2] Orthodoxy, 117.

[3] For example: “Catholic contemplatives, it seems, have had an easier time with joy than non-charismatic Protestants, preoccupied as they tend to be with modern rationality, abstract theory and depressing topics such as total depravity.” Orthodoxy, 177

[4] Orthodoxy, 289-290.

[5] He himself admits to be wrong-headed when he writes in the Introduction: “A warning: as in most of my other books, there are places here where I have gone out of my way to be provocative, mischievous, and unclear, reflecting my belief that clarity is sometimes overrated, and that shock, obscurity, playfulness, and intrigue (carefully articulated) often stimulate more thought than clarity.” Orthodoxy, 23.

[6] Criswell Theological Review CT n.s. 3/2 (Spring 2006) 5-14. Accessed online at,2%20InterviewwithBrianMcLaren(Streett).PDF on March 31, 2006.

[7] Conversant, 86 and footnote 32. Carson’s critique suggests that the majority of EC leaders have come out of rather aberrant, legalist, fundamentalist, almost works-righteousness churches that really had no spiritual life in them to begin with. This false representation of genuine Christianity is then assumed to be what every other evangelical church is like – hence the very narrow and over-generalized view presented by EC leaders. This conclusion is substantiated by the published testimonies of most of the EC leaders.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Where Emergent is Good

Diagnosis of One Particular Form of Evangelicalism

One of the skills of an excellent physician is the ability to quickly and accurately diagnose the illness. EC certainly has some good diagnostic skill (with several qualifications). For if EC is nothing else, it is a reaction to the sham Christianity and false spirituality that abounds in today’s church. The examples of this in McLaren’s writings are numerous and woven throughout. So, he can easily draw attention to artificial and schmaltzy church music; inattentive hearers of the Word that leave their pews to go back to living like the world; inauthentic Christian communities that breed fake and even destructive relationships; the cocooning of Christians into non-evangelistic lumps of selfishness; the false assumption that “Christian” means white-collar, suburb-dwelling Republican; and a revolting contentedness with surface answers to life’s most genuine and difficult questions. He writes:

...unfortunately so much of what we’re currently fighting against (“we” meaning the church in America for starters) isn’t the real enemy, and so much of what we’re fighting for isn’t the real prize. Largely we’re fighting to get something back—a lost status as the civil religion of the West, control (political, too often) over things that are out of our control, a privileged position as the favored religion of the Empire, protection of the middle class from the lower and upper classes, and so on. These are futile fights.

We’re also focused on fighting symptoms like abortion, promiscuity (hetero or homosexual), divorce, and profanity. We might add terrorism to the list. But these are not the disease. These are in many ways the symptoms of the very disease that we inadvertently tend to support, aid and abet, defend, protect, baptize, and fight for—a system sick with consumerism, greed, fear, violence, and misplaced faith (in the power of the Economy and the State and its Weapons).[1]

Phil Johnson goes into more detail about where EC has effectively identified weaknesses in Evangelicalism:

For one thing, they are right to reject the professionalism and big-business approach to ministry that has been popularized by most of the influential megachurches.

They are right to point out that millions of American evangelicals live lives of gross hypocrisy and narcissism, ignoring the needs of the poor while indulging themselves with entertainments and luxuries...

They are right when they complain about the way the evangelical movement has sold its birthright for a mess of Republican Party porridge...

And they are right when they suggest we have not done enough to reach the outcasts and counter-cultural people in our society. I think their approach to reaching those segments of society is all wrong and largely counterproductive, but to adapt a phrase from D. L. Moody: I like the way some of them are trying to reach those people a lot better than I like the way many evangelicals simply ignore the task of evangelism.[2]

Carson agrees, describing what he considers to be the movement’s strengths as “reading the times; pushing for authenticity; recognizing our own social location; evangelizing outsiders; and probing links with the tradition.”[3]

The fact is, most of us would agree with much of EC’s assessment of modern evangelicalism. I am equally turned off by many of the weaknesses EC identifies and agree that we need the Lord to rescue us and our churches from them. But just identifying the problem is only one part of a good diagnosis. The doctor who rightly tells you that the lump on your neck is cancer doesn’t do you a bit of good by instructing you to jump up and down three times a day shouting, “Ookey-tonga!” in order to be cured. That remedy does not match the disease – it’s not even in the same ballpark. Is it possible EC has made a similar error?

[1] Orthodoxy, 185.

[3] For a full description of these terms, see D. A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005), especially chapter 2.