My favorite anti-Emergent book

As someone from the Wesleyan stream of Christianity, I find many things that strike me as very good in the Emergent movement. (I drew this conclusion after reading 50 of the primary books by Emergent authors and visiting some of their churches during a Sabbatical a few years ago). I find that most of the books written against them are ridiculously inaccurate and poorly researched, and thus – according the criteria attributed to Martin Luther – unChristian in their lack of accuracy.

A bright exception to the vitriol, gruff talk, and bizarre conspiracy theories pointed at the Emergent/Emerging Christians, is Dan Kluck and Kevin DeYoung’s book Why We’re Not Emergent (2008). Kluck and DeYoung have written a kind, humorous, and good-natured argument regarding Emergent things they are concerned about. They have not vilified the Emergent church, and they have written in a Christlike voice, pointing out that the Emergent Christians are not the enemy. I hold them in the highest esteem for this. Since they come from a committed Reformed perspective, and I live in the Arminian stream, many of their concerns don’t’ fit for me. However, despite disagreeing with some of their conclusions, I deeply appreciate, and celebrate, the spirit in which they write. I wish more people wrote in the spirit and tone of voice that these good men have. Their book also points out and celebrates well the faithful ways the modern church has lived out the gospel.

I have a good memory associated with that book. I read the book a few years ago cover to cover while following a group of junior high girls around Hershey Park for my daughter’s birthday. They rode roller coasters, I stood and read. They giggled and laughed and had junior high girl fun while I bought prodigious amounts of lemonade and followed along 10 yards behind reading while I walked. Amazingly, I never ran into a single person in the park during that crowded day. That daughter turned 18 the other day and she is, of course, precious to me.

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How I would characterize the Emergents

Plenty of fine books written by young emergent Christians have explained their perspectives. These books don’t get read much by their detractors, especially the ones just passing along what they heard someone else say. In fact, most Christians I know who are bad-mouthing the emergents have never read any book by an emergent author, and are simply passing along information they’ve gleaned from websites or books antagonistic to the movement. This even includes pastor friends of mine!

When I wrote about the ‘Mesa’ group’s ten commitments, someone asked if I’d say it was just the New Age movement re-packaged? (Part of my response was: “Mesa, as far as I know, are practicing Christians and understand their entire reason to exist as Gospel-driven and Kingdom-purposed. God’s will being done on earth, loving enemies, serving the poor, justice, care in how Scripture is used, churches, Christlike people, the common good, racial harmony, being good stewards of Creation, peacemaking and our relationship with God – all sound like Bible to me!”)

But the question got me thinking, how would I characterize the Emergents? Anytime you try to paint a picture of a large, diverse group, you step into a minefield of mis-characterization. However, I will simply do this:

I will describe the most common ‘type’ (using the word in the way ethnographers do) of Emergent Christian that I have personally known and talked to. So here it is:

Primarily young. Grew up in evangelical church. Believes Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of the world. Thinks the evangelical church sold out to upper middle class Republican values. Thinks the evangelical church confuses being Republican so badly with following Jesus that they can’t see the forest for the trees. Feels that the evangelical church functions largely as a religious grocery store servicing its members while ignoring the pressing needs of the world’s poor and injustices and needs a healthy dose of Matthew 25. Longs for a sense of Christian community they didn’t find in the church they grew up attending. Wants to follow Jesus and do the things he said to do in the Gospels. Isn’t nearly as taken with Paul’s theological explication of Jesus as they are with Jesus himself.  Thinks their parents’ churches are often long on doctrines about Jesus and short on actually following him in the sense of doing what he said. Wants to actually live among the poor and minister to them. Values all kinds of expressions of Christianity across the spectrum of denominations more than just settling into one.  Are often antagonistic toward 5 point Calvinism (though not all of them). Values community more than individuality. Yes, they are democrat. Yes, they are often politically liberal. Yes, like most of their generation, many of them see homosexuality as just how people are born. Their most over-powering goal in life is to live out the Gospel as Kingdom of God followers of Jesus.

These are the characteristics of most Emergent Christians I know.

The ‘Mesa’ list of Ten Commitments

Mesa is a gathering conversation, on-line and in person, of emerging/Emergent Christian leaders around the world. Their website (http://mesa-friends.org/) says “What is mesa? La Mesa is a Spanish word for table. It suggests a way of coming together in mutual acceptance, respect, and service. It reminds us of the life and message of Jesus – who used a table to tell the story of God’s welcoming and reconciling love.”

Mesa lists ten commitments (below). I find them to be characteristic of the kinds of emphases emergent Christians have been talking about for some time now. One thing in this list will probably jump out bold to those against the Emergent movement. I might talk about that next time.

1. We believe in Jesus and the good news of the reign, commonwealth, or ecosystem of God, and we seek for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven by focusing on love – love for God and neighbor, for outsider and enemy.

2. We seek to know, serve, and join the poor in the struggle for justice and freedom … through advocacy, relationships, and action.

3. We seek to honor, interpret, and apply the Bible in fresh and healing ways, aware of the damaging ways the Bible has been used in the past.

4. We seek to reconnect with the earth, understand the harm human beings are doing to it, and discover more responsible, regenerative ways of life in it.

5. We seek the common good, locally and globally, through churches of many diverse forms, contexts, and traditions, and we imagine fresh ways for churches to form Christlike people and join God in the healing of the world.

5. We build inclusive partnerships across gaps between the powerful and vulnerable – including disparities based on wealth, gender, race and ethnic identity, education, religion, sexuality, age, politics, and physical ability.

6. We engage conflict at all levels of human society with the creative and nonviolent wisdom of peacemaking.

7. We propose new ways of encountering the other in today’s pluralistic world and we collaborate with other religious and secular groups in alliances for the common good.

8. We host safe space for constructive theological conversation, seeking to root our practice in theological reflection and seeking to express our reflection in practical action.

9. We value the arts for their unique role in nurturing, challenging, and transforming our humanity.

10. We emphasize spiritual and relational practices to strengthen our inner life with God and our relationships with one another.

Theological Immediacy Syndrome

I think those who decry current theological work suffer from a sort of Immediacy Syndrome, without an awareness of how we got our theology, and what that means for the on-going ways theology will develop in our lifetime and well beyond.  I mean by this that they imagine that their theology is a once-for-all-time message that needs protected for theological purity; a beleaguered set of doctrines that has been attacked throughout the centuries and has been successfully defended and still must be. Or, in the case of some of our New Calvinism friends, they imagine Christian theology was one certain accumulation of doctrines that was somehow lost in the early days of the church, re-surfaced when John Calvin came along in France, and now must be protected for all time, the one true expression of The Faith; and if you aren’t sure what it is, just keep your John MacArthur and John Piper books handy.

This, of course, suffers from the fact that it is simply historically untrue. All of our theologies have been through numerous revisions. All Christian theology, including Calvin’s, have accumulated, morphed, jettisoned, adjusted, re-vised and edited themselves over and over again. When people, like the emergents, start writing new directions in theology, they are simply repeating a process that has been going on for 20 centuries.  (And one that we know, from the diversity of Second Temple Judaism, was going on in Judaism during Jesus’ time as well).  Friends of mine who de-cry the emergent/postmodern Christians seem to imagine that whatever they write today might de-rail the Christian faith for all time. I think of that as a sort of Immediacy Syndrome, without a long view of history. What the historical process shows us is that, rather than crying heretic! every time somebody tries to do some work, if we sit back and let the pot simmer on the stove, it allows for the on-going work of Christian theology to develop, just like it always has. It takes a while for new iterations of Christian theology and practice to work its way out. We don’t need to rush it or stress.

Is the Bible’s Story What We Say It Is?

The way that the Bible’s story is often pitched in evangelicalism is that the point of life is that everyone has sinned, thus infuriating God and causing Him to send everyone to hell, and you have to ask Jesus to forgive you or you won’t go to heaven. So the point of life is actually afterlife, getting to heaven. Sometimes this story-line is expressed with an even more sinister tone:  a friend of mine the other day summed it up when asked, What’s the point of earth in this version: “just a testing place to see if God will let you into heaven.”

But I noticed some time ago that if you read the Old Testament you would never come away with this story line. Reading the Old Testament, the point of it all doesn’t come across that everyone is sinful and God will take you to heaven if you ask forgiveness. In the OT, the storyline goes more like this: life on earth is being ruined by violence, oppression and injustice. God wants people to live uprightly, the opposite of those things, and to follow Him and His ways for a good life here. Jesus, when asked, summed up the OT with “loving God” and “loving your neighbor.” The point is explicitly summed up in verses like Micah 6: 8

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.

This is a story about life on earth and how God wants it lived, and that the problem is the destruction of shalom here on earth. This is not a story about earth as a testing ground to see who makes it to heaven.

Consider the following books and ask yourself if their message is about making it to heaven: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy? Chronicles? Kings? The Psalms? Esther? Jonah?  The Prophets? Hmmmm.

As for after-life, in the Old Testament we get a comment about resurrection in Job, a two verse mention of the Great Judgment in Daniel, and a handful of verses in Psalms about escaping Sheol or dwelling with the Lord all my days.

The Old Testament seems to be about life on earth. But we talk like the New Testament is about life after earth. Why the switch of subjects? Is there really a switch? Or have we simply prioritized some texts, skipped over or misread others, and assumed things about phrases like ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ which are different than what Jesus actually meant? If we assume Jesus came as an answer to the problem presented in the Old Testament, why do the New Testament answers (as we typically discuss them) sound like they are about a different problem?  Some have suggested that we have gotten this point-of-life-is-escaping-hell-and-gaining-heaven from the soaking Christian theology got via passing through Greek philosophy. Perhaps we’ve developed a Christianity focused so much on afterlife that we’ve missed the point of much of the Bible.

Earth is Not Detention Hall, Part Two

Part One can be read here  https://toddrisser.com/2013/11/12/earth-is-not-detention-hall-part-one/

The tikkun olam (repairment of the world) is a doctrine so lost in American evangelicalism, most modern Christians have never even heard of it. In fact, it is very common for life-long church-goers to say to me at funerals “I get the heaven thing, but what’s this about the resurrection of the body?” Resurrection and repairment of the world are two doctrines that go inseparably hand in hand in the Scriptures. Somehow we’ve lost track of some major parts of the Bible’s story.

I find it difficult to enumerate in a small space the vast, profound difference between believing earth is a short rehearsal before we leave forever, and believing that earth is the locus of God’s redemption, now and forever. This has profound effects on how we view the Creation, the scope of salvation, environmental and foreign policy, and a host of issues in our lives here and now, and tomorrow.

Seeing the world as God’s beloved creation, emerging/postmodern Christian faith has a stake in the state of this world. They realize atheist Sam Harris asks a good question when he asks “Can people who believe in the imminent end of the world really be expected to work toward building a durable civilization?” (Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, xii).

Rapture theology and end of the world despair is a two hundred year old rabbit trail that gained lots of traction in American folk theology, but that earlier Christians never believed. Getting back to a biblical eschatology is in itself a good thing, and of course affects our soteriology and morality here and now. Postmodern Christians, not longing to jet away to some ethereal heaven, have theologically compelling reasons to engage this world’s problems and conundrums with the Way of Jesus, and thus bring about more of the justice,  reconciliation and shalom God desires for His creation, which longs for the Day (Romans 8: 19-22).

Your theology is in its 10th revision

Or fourteenth. Or twentieth.

Some people, when they hear talk of new theology or new work in theology, start talking as if their own theology is the original, Biblical theology and all new work in theology is illegitimate. But no matter what brand of Christian theology you hold to, it’s been through many revisions. Since the earliest centuries Christians have worked, tweaked, revised, changed their theologies as their understanding of God and the Scriptures developed. For example, Calvin (16th century) used and modified Anselm’s ideas (11th century). Anselm had used and changed Augustine’s theology (5th century). Augustine was deeply influenced by many Greek philosophers (400 BC ff) and the theology of the Council of Nicea (325 AD). Of course there were hundreds of other philosophers and theologians influencing Calvin and the Reformers, not just the ones mentioned. This is the way Christian doctrine has developed over 20 centuries. In fact, Christian theology has also been influenced by Muslim and Jewish theologians across the Middle Ages (Averroes, Avicenna, Maimonides, etc). If this last fact bothers you, remember that Paul said people figure out things about God even aside from the Revelation in Jesus (Romans 1: 18ff).

No, no, some people insist, but I just hold to the Biblical theology – you know, what they believed in Jesus’ day. Really?  Within Second Temple Judaism of Jesus’ day, which theology do you mean? The Zealots’ theology, or the Saduccees’? The theology Rabbi Gamaliel  held, Hillel or Shammai? The separatist theology of Qumran or the Hellenized theology of Pharisees like Paul, who quoted Greek poets and philosophers? It’s clear that most New Testament Jewish theologies had been majorly influenced by Greek thought, and before that Jewish theology picked up many ideas from the Persians. The same thing was going on in New Testament times. A variety of theologies abounded, and they had been modified and revised as time went on.

So when Christians continue the on-going work of theology (“words about God”), we are simply doing what Christians, Jews and Muslims have done for our entire history. Theology didn’t start or end with Calvin or whoever your favorite might be. What people think of as “I hold to a simple biblical theology” is really the culmination of thousands of years of tweaking, revising and modifying. It isn’t going to end this side of the Age to Come. It’s ok. We are still learning, stretching, growing, being taught by God’s Spirit who makes the written words come alive in us.

Next time: what it’s like to be on your way to a new theology