Theological assumptions of the Emergent church’s critics

Here’s a selection from my book-length treatment of the Emerging church: 

One day in 2010 I sat at my computer perplexed. What, exactly, I wondered, is behind all this vitriol against the emergent church?  Who, exactly, are the critics, and what are their theological assumptions?  So I started backtracking references and links on the websites out there who were against “the emerging church.”

What I found, if I understood them correctly, was that the emerging/emergent church’s critics fell into the following categories:

– hard core 5 point Calvinists – I don’t mean Calvinists who see themselves as one of the branches of the Christian family tree; I mean those who believe that if you don’t ascribe to the 5 TULIP points, you are dangerously deluded, and/or (some of them will say) aren’t actually a Christian at all. I am talking about Calvinists who don’t believe there IS any other legitimate form of Christian faith.

– 6 Day Creationists – I don’t mean the folks who simply believe Genesis 1 should be interpreted to mean 6 literal, 24-hour days; I mean folks who think that if you don’t think that, you also are not allowed to believe in Jesus, and you can’t be a Christian

– hard core anti-Catholics – these are folks who believe that Catholics are not Christians, and any appreciation for any Catholic practice or thought,  interaction with Catholics, or use of any practice pre-dating the Reformation is unchristian. Quoting a contemporary Catholic gets you ejected from the game. Quoting any Christian thinker before the Reformation is very questionable.

 -anti-mystics – to these folks, the use of any spiritual discipline, or practice such as meditation (Genesis 24:63 , Psalm 1:2),  contemplative prayer, lectio divina, the Quaker Richard Foster’s writings, … anything that sounds ‘mystical’ is Eastern spirituality/New Age shamanism and demonic.   Quoting an Eastern Orthodox Christian is probably not going to fly- they aren’t Protestant and they are mystical. Quoting a monastic from Christian history or renting a monastery for your youth groups’ retreat would mean you are  not really a Christian.  These folks  somehow fail to  see that Christianity is an eastern religion, and the bible calls us to meditate in many places. Somehow the mystical nature of  baptism, the Lord’s Supper and the presence of the Holy Spirit do not occur to them. They somehow imagine Christianity to be some unmystical, modern rational thought system.

-hard core fundamentalists – theologically and culturally: the kind who believe only fundamentalists are Christians: the King James Version is the only legitimate Scripture translation, contemporary music is bad, Karl Barth and neo-orthodoxy was a bad thing, C.S. Lewis was not a Christian, Billy Graham is out or at least questionable, discussions such as Could any form of evolution be part of God’s design, discussions of what Scripture means by hell other than a literal endless burning, the possibility of some sort of a wideness in God’s mercy for those who never heard of Christ – all these and more get you put outside the camp, as a non-believer.

These are the 5 categories of people I found who are against “the emerging church.” If you are not in one of these categories, it may turn out that postmodernism and the emergent Christians are not nearly as heretical as you’ve been told.

 I am not saying that there are no legitimate critiques of emerging churches, postmodernism or Emergent Village (as a matter of fact, there is plenty of dialogue and critique from within).  Every branch of the Christian family tree has it’s stuff that needs straightened out, including my own, of course. However, it is my contention that the outlandish accusations and claims made by many websites fail the test of Christian kindness and simply do not paint an accurate picture of emerging, postmodern Christianity. 

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Tornados and Creational Relationality

People often ask things like “How can God be good and allow things like tornados to kill so many people?” While traditions like Wesleyanism and Roman Catholicism, with our robust doctrines of free will, are able to explain the theodicy question of human evil without implicating God as the source of it, evil occurring in the natural world is not explained well by free will.

So we need to think more about the nature of the created order, and the resounding aspect of relationality intrinsically woven through it by God, whose very nature is also relational. When Hurricane Katrina came ashore and caused such damage to local human civilization, including not least the loss of human lives, one of my colleagues (ShipNazarenes’s own Rev. Rich Rotz) said to me “Hurricanes are not evil forces. They are ecologically beneficial in a variety of ways. They are just felt to be evil when humans build in places where we shouldn’t.” Rich’s observations were spot on. Hurricanes clear out silted-in estuaries, open up new marshlands, jump start ecological succession inland in ways that are beneficial to all kinds of species. Species we enjoy seeing. Species we like to eat. Hurricanes are biologically beneficial to the ecosystem. However when we build homes and cities in hurricane-prone areas, and we build them in ways that will not withstand the ways hurricanes affect tides and windspeeds, we experience the damaging results. A weekend three inch Thanksgiving snowfall would be just as deadly in Pennsylvania if we were all living in Tahitian huts and wearing nothing more than sarongs. The only reason we don’t think of a three day stint of 20 degree weather as deadly is that we dress and build accordingly.

If you spin a ball with a magnetosphere and atmosphere in orbit around a sun, you end up with global wind patterns like Earth’s: a Coriolis effect of thermal distribution of the atmosphere absorbing solar heat. (Mars has tornadoes. Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is a hurricane that has been raging for three centuries and the storm itself is larger than the planet Earth). If we didn’t want winds to operate, if we didn’t want the plate tectonics that create the Sierras to also create earthquakes, if we didn’t want gravity to cause a jump from a 5th story window to result in a broken leg, we would be arguing for a world in which there is no relationality. No interaction between one entity and another. Every relationship you cherish would be impossible. To argue for a Creation where the possibility of damage did not exist would be to argue for a Creation without freedom, without interaction and relationship between any one thing (a rock, plant, sun, person, Siamese cat) and any other thing. Whatever we imagine that Created Order might look like, it would lack interaction and relationship in any meaningful sense. Having boundaries which involve danger (don’t jump from that 5th story window) is not intrinsically evil. The relationality of the universe is the source of its most joyous glories.

And so: tornados. A civilization which wishes to build in a tornado-prone area needs to build tornado-safe structures. These are issues of aerodynamics, and perhaps in many cases, building underground.  (Dr. Annalee Newitz’ article concerning ‘death-proofing’ our cities in June 2013 Discover Magazine, is drawn from her book Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, which looks like a very enjoyable read). If we want to live (and survive with fewer tragedies) in tornadic locales, we need to build for it, just as we build houses in Pennsylvania with the structural integrity and thermal dynamics to survive snowstorms and February temperatures.

Eskimos have lived for thousands of years in climates impossible to live in Tahitian style. A universe with the joys of relationality also requires human management of our living arrangements in ways appropriate to the climactic zone we live in. It’s not that the climate, the wind, the plate tectonics are natural evil. It’s part of the reality of the possibility for relationality: a cosmos where one object can meaningfully relate to or interact with another. It is not a strike against God’s goodness.

John Wesley re: the Muslims

“According to the Christian religion, what happens to people who never heard about Jesus, after they die?” This is one of the common questions asked today by people in our culture trying to figure out if Christianity is a healthy or sick belief system. People ask me this all the time. While certain forms of Protestant Christianity circled the wagons around a forensic view of salvation and ended up saying anyone who doesn’t make a decision for Jesus is lost eternally, other forms of Christianity have offered a variety of good, grace-filled answers to that question. Wesleyan theology has offered several very well nuanced answers which take a broader view of the scope of the atonement of Jesus upon the cross. I believe these Wesleyan views to be more in line with the whole teaching of the Scriptures, (and happen to enjoy broad commonality with  views from other orthodox churches across the family tree down through the centuries). I will explore some of them in this section of the blog.  For now, a few snippets from John Wesley can get us started.

“I do not conceive that any man living has a right to sentence all the heathen and Muslim world to damnation. It is far better to leave them to Him that made them, and who is ‘the Father of the spirits of all flesh’; who is the God of the heathens as well as the Christians (1 Timothy 4:10), and who hateth nothing that He hath made.” ( Sermon 125, point 14 ‘On Living without God’)

“It cannot be doubted, but this plea [lack of knowledge] will avail for millions of modern Heathens. Inasmuch as to them little is given, of them little will be required. As to the ancient Heathens, millions of them, likewise were savages. No more therefore will be expected of them, than the living up to the light they had. But many of them, especially in the civilized nations, we have great reason to hope, although they lived among Heathens, yet were quite of another spirit; being taught of God, by His inward voice, all the essentials of true religion. Yea, and so was that Mahometan, and Arabian, who, a century or two ago, wrote the Life of Hai Ebn Yokdan. The story seems to be feigned; but it contains all the principles of pure religion and undefiled.” Sermon 106, On Faith, I 4.

 And then there’s this:

Perhaps there may be some well-meaning persons who carry this farther still; who aver, that whatever change is wrought in men, whether in their hearts or lives, yet if they have not clear views of those capital doctrines, the fall of man, justification by faith, and of the atonement made by the death of Christ, and of his righteousness transferred to them, they can have no benefit from his death. I dare in no wise affirm this. Indeed I do not believe it. I believe the merciful God regards the lives and tempers of men more than their ideas. I believe he respects the goodness of the heart rather than the clearness of the head; and that if the heart of a man be filled (by the grace of God, and the power of his Spirit) with the humble, gentle, patient love of God and man, God will not cast him into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels because his ideas are not clear, or because his conceptions are confused. Without holiness, I own, “no man shall see the Lord;” but I dare not add, “or clear ideas.” Sermon 125: On Living Without God, 15.

Broad Assumptions of Postmodern Christianity

   A few years ago it become apparent to me that “postmodernism” and “the Emergent church” were getting some pretty loud, bad raps among evangelicals. Since I hadn’t seen much to be unhappy about from a Wesleyan perspective, I spent a month-long sabbatical and the following year reading 50 of the primary books written by emergent authors, and then writing my own book-length summary and analysis. I called it “40 Good things About Emerging, Postmodern Christian Faith.”  The publisher who had encouraged me to write the book and I came to a disagreement regarding the publishing details, so it never saw the light of day. Here’s a spot where I list some characteristics widely common to postmodern Christianity.

 

Postmodern Christians hold these truths to be self-evident:

 That the church in the modern era, while it accomplished many wonderful things, has gradually become less and less effective at drawing people in our changing culture to life-changing experiences with Jesus.

That the modern scientific worldview focused the church’s approach to spiritual life to the mental side, learning data and doctrines, to the neglect of other aspects. That our culture’s hunger for spirituality and connectedness to the Divine is not being effectively met by a head-oriented, institutionalized Christianity that spends far too much of its energy, time and money on internal (inside the church walls) maintenance ministry, to the neglect of the world around us.

That something new is required to meet the call of introducing people in our culture to Jesus. That modern Christianity’s assumptions, theology  and worldview are just as intertwined with the modern worldview as the medieval church’s assumptions, theology and worldview were intertwined with medieval culture, and new strides in theology and practice will be required to answer the questions of this new culture. In worst-case scenarios modern churches have even become monuments to upper-middle class values, rather than radical, subversive-of-this-world-order communities following Jesus.

That the message of Jesus (and the Bible!) is about more than getting my soul to heaven.

That God is interested in all of me (body, soul, mind, relationships) and all of His Creation (Col. 1:22,

That far too much of the evangelical church has hidden in its own subculture bubble, Christian ghetto, ‘hunkered in the bunker’,  for far too long, and Christians need to be in our communities, in our culture (not withdrawn from it), engaging, loving, interacting, dialoguing with the people all around us.

That conservative Republican politics are not the equivalent of the message of Jesus.

That no one church (Baptist, Methodist, Assembly of God, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Lutheran, Nazarene, Amish, Russian Orthodox, Presbyterian, etc etc etc) from any particular era (55 AD, 300s, 600s, 1500s, nor 1950) captures the whole fullness of the Christian faith; that only via the center common to all these iterations of Christian spirituality, enriched by the insights from each of them, do we find the full stature and beauty, value and essence of the Christian faith. That is, your denomination is not the only way to be faithful to Jesus.

That the postmodern world is not primarily wondering if Christianity is true, nor if it works, but is it good at all? It is this last question, along with ones of beauty, redemption, justice, community and wholeness, that the followers of Jesus need to be living a visible answer to.

 

Thomas Jay Oord

I can remember a time when I knew who all the theology faculty of each of our Nazarene universities were, and the kind of work they were doing. Unfortunately, the life of the pastorate and having a family of six kids has precluded me from keeping up, as I wish I had, on who’s who currently in Nazarene theology. But I am fairly familiar with the work of one of our theologians and I want to recommend him to you. Thomas Jay Oord is a Nazarene theologian serving at Northwest Nazarene University. Tom is doing outstanding work, being widely published across a spectrum of publishers, and makes me proud he is one of ours. Much of Tom’s work revolves around  ‘love’. I would not be surprised if Tom is one of our leading thinkers, period. I heartily recommend you explore his blog. There’s plenty to catch up on there. http://thomasjayoord.com/

If you are intentionally Wesleyan in your theology, (as opposed to being a fundamentalist or Calvinist hanging out in a Nazarene setting), I’d be interested in what you think of Tom’s list of ten reasons Wesleyan thinkers are attracted to process theology: http://thomasjayoord.com/index.php/blog/archives/process_and_wesleyan_theologies/#.UbpRhvk4u0A

What do you think?

Building Bridges between modern and postmodern Christians

A few years ago it become apparent to me “postmodernism” and “the Emergent church” were getting some pretty loud, bad raps among evangelicals. Since I hadn’t seen much to be unhappy about from a Wesleyan perspective, I spent a month-long sabbatical and the following year reading 50 of the primary books written by emergent authors, and then writing my own book-length summary and analysis. I called it “40 Good things About Emerging, Postmodern Christian Faith.”  The publisher who had encouraged me to write the book and I came to a disagreement regarding the publishing details, so it never saw the light of day. Here’s a chapter One (the chapters are SHORT): 

Bridges aren’t something I usually spend much time thinking about, until there isn’t one.

I am interested in building bridges between the postmodern emerging/emergent churches and Christians and the modern Christians and churches. It makes sense to work together, learn from one another and partner, since we are all trying to spread the message and way of Jesus in the world. Friendship is a posture in which fruitful discussions can take place. Standing at a distance and calling out ‘heresy’ over microphones or in print is not an effective way to discuss theology with someone.

Have you ever noticed that virtually every time in the history of the Christian faith that a new expression, movement, or kind of church is born, the established church(es) attempt to abort it while it is birthing? Almost every denomination I can think of  has experienced attempted infanticide by the established church while it was being born. Chances are high that this is the experience your denomination had when it started. It seems that we don’t learn from history very well. Once again, here is a new expression of Christian faith and established churches (specifically, their leaders) are working hard to crush it out of existence before it can really get going.

We might do well to ask ourselves, what does the widespread appeal of titles like A New Kind of Christian mean?  Some rush to say the appeal is that people today don’t want to hear the good, old, hard truth of the Gospel. While there are certainly people to whom that would apply to, let’s ask ourselves: is it possible there is something else going on? Is it possible that the modern church and modern Christianity we have handed our children isn’t quite as satisfying as we think it is? Is it possible that the modern form of the Christian faith isn’t all we’ve cracked it up to be to someone who isn’t living with a modern mindset?  Are people today longing for an experience of the Gospel that we haven’t handed them?

Have you ever noticed that churches largely fixate on things that were issues when they were founded, even if those issues are hundreds of years ago? A character in Brian McLaren’s novel A New Kind of Christian says at one point “…most Protestant seminaries fight with vigor the battles of yesterday, largely oblivious to the issues of today, hardly thinking of the issues of tomorrow. They still preoccupy themselves with fighting the Protestant Reformation and the liberal-fundamentalist debates.” (McLaren, A New Kind of Christian, 145).

When evaluating the postmodern/emergent/emerging expressions of Christianity, I   believe a better question than “do they believe what my denomination believes?”   is this three-part question:

1)      Are people coming to faith/ coming to believe that Jesus is the Savior and Son of God and are they  repenting?

2)      are people being Christ-shaped more and more into the kind of person they are called to be by God,  and

3)       are people inspired to be the kind of people that God uses to bring about his redeeming, reconciling, restorative grace in the world?

I think the answer to all three of  these questions is yes. Drawing from their written testimonies and conversations with postmodern Christians,  I see this occurring in postmodern Christianity at least to the degree that it is occurring in our modern churches. If modern churches are not doing better than postmodern churches in ratio of people being conformed to the image and mission of Jesus, then how much room do we have to critique them? And, I would contend that the ‘yes’ to these questions is occurring among postmodern people far more in postmodern churches than it is in modern churches.

Dan Kimball, a conservative voice in the emerging movement, says this: “Hudson Taylor, a missionary to China in the late 1800’s, had problems explaining to his board in England why he wanted to ministry differently than the “English way.” He wanted to change everything, from his haircut and clothing to how he spent his time to his approach to missionary work.  But his board did not understand or approve of the changes. Eventually, he had to start his own missionary board. Hudson Taylor understood that he was engaging in ministry to a different culture and mindset, and God used him in incredible ways. I believe we must view the emerging culture in the same ways, taking whatever costly steps are necessary to build the emerging church.” (Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church, 65)

Here’s an Amazing Story

A year or so back around St. Patrick’s Day we spent a Wednesday evening at church talking about what we know of Patrick’s life, ministry and impact on the world. Part of our service we prayed through the Lorica, or Patrick’s Breastplate – a prayer for protection attributed to Patrick. It was a good service and all agreed the Lorica was a meaningful, good prayer.

The next week Delora, a 80-some year old saint of the church came to Wednesday night service. She was excited about using the Lorica prayer in ministry. This was her story: her neighbor was a gay man who had just broken up with his lover. She knew him to be heartbroken and she invited him over for supper that night. At supper, after the food was set, she pulled out the Lorica prayer and said to him, “I think you need to hear this.” She then commenced to read through the whole thing while their food got cold.

For me there was something precious about this 80 some year old daughter of the holiness movement, this charter member Nazarene, reaching out to a gay neighbor and sharing a 1600 year old prayer with him. Delora is a huge blessing to our church and a saint in a multitude of ways. Below is the version of the Lorica we used.

 

The Lorica  – St Patrick’s Breastplate

I arise today invoking the Trinity

Believing in the Threeness, confessing the Oneness

Of creation’s Creator.

 

I arise today invoking

The love of angels, the service of archangels, the prayers of the patriarchs, the deeds of the righteous, 

Heaven’s might, sun’s brightness, moon’s radiance,

Fire’s glory, lightning’s swiftness,

Wind’s quickness, sea’s depth, earth’s stability, rock’s fixity.

 

I arise today

With God’s hand to pilot me,

God’s strength to sustain me

God’s wisdom to guide me

God’s eye to look ahead for me

God’s ear to hear me

God’s word to speak for me

God’s arm to protect me

God’s way before me

God’s shield to defend me

God’s host to deliver me

From the snares of devils, from evil temptations, from nature’s failings,

from all who wish to harm me,

Far and near, alone and in a crowd.

I arise today in the power of Christ’s birth and baptism,

In the power of his crucifixion and burial,

In the power of his resurrection and ascension;

 

May Christ protect me today –

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me

Christ within me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me;

Christ to me right, Christ to my left,

Christ in my lying, Christ in me sitting, Christ in my arising;

Christ in the heart of all who think of me;

Christ on the tongue of all who speak to me,

Christ in the eye of all who see me,

Christ in the ear of all who hear me.

 

I arise today with God’s hand to Guide me.

In the name of the Trinity

Believing in the Threeness

Confessing the Oneness

Of creation’s Creator!