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.