This past Sunday evening, I read a great deal about the Emerging Church (EC). My interest was sparked by a comment on the “My Orthodox Journey” weblog. Following the trail around, I finally ended up on the quiz, whose results I posted. Apart from some stray comments on Simon Cozen’s blog, this was my first exposure to the EC. In my first real bit of online research on the EC movement or, as I’ve now learned to call it, “Conversation” — it isn’t quite yet a movement — I jumped around a little, found a few more pages, and bookmarked them. Two things stood out to me: the critics of EC don’t seem to have a very good basis for their criticism, and, while I may be of the group (“Cultural Creatives”) that was the target for EC, the EC didn’t appeal to me. Ms. magazine’s article on the recent spat of marriage myth TV shows (“Desperate Housewives”, “Trading Spouses”, “Wife Swap”) and their near relatives (“Supernanny” and “Nanny 911”) has a great quote that if “we’ve mythologized the past, we’re equally apt to misinterpret the present.” This is exactly what both the EC movement and its critics have done. It became concrete for me when I read John’s assessment of A New Kind of Christian by Brian McLaren. His first concrete complaint is that “A sound book of Christian doctrine will make frequent references to the source of legitimate doctrine — the Bible.” When someone points out that there are numerous allusions and references to scripture, he repeats his assertion that there are only two direct quotes. John’s required formula (which he applies to “sound book[s] of Christian doctrine” — so I suspect he is misapplying it to ANKoC) is only a part of the problem. He has some legitimate complaints. And I suspect that these complaints are a part of why neither his more fundamental Methodist approach nor the post-modern approach of many in the EC conversation appeal to me. Both are mythologizing the past and misinterpreting the present. John says that the book asserts that the Bible, taken by itself, “a guide of questionable reliability.” He quotes McLaren:
So the real authority does not reside in the text itself, in the ink on the paper, which is always open to misinterpretation — sometimes, history tells us, horrific, dangerous misinterpretation… In other words, the authority is not in what I say the text says but in what God says the text says.
Now, McLaren comes to this conclusion by way of a post-modern-inspired philosophy, but the conclusion is older than that. The ancient Orthodox recognized this — that an individual reading scripture by himself could come to some wacky, heterodox conclusions. Which is why they encouraged Christians to seek out a spiritual director. Whether that was a village priest or a more remote monastic, Christian’s were encouraged to not only read scripture, but to listen to the Holy Spirit (as McLaren suggests) with the aid of their spiritual director. John has so mythologized the (recent, modern) past, become so steeped in a thoroughly rational viewpoint that he sees contradiction where there is none. He quotes McLaren “But I am saying that truth means more than factual accuracy. It means being in sync with God” (emphasis John’s) and then says that this contradicts “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrew 13:8). Enough about John. I see the same tendencies in other EC critics. For example, on the Emergent-No weblog, when Carla claims that Rob Bell of Mars Hill (an “emerging” church in Grand Rapids, Michigan) isn’t “Biblically Sound” and only offers a newspaper article about Bell that doesn’t show anything definite one way or the other. At the most, there are these two statements:
- For half an hour, Bell talked about the wondrous nature of breathing, borrowing from Jewish, Christian and Hindu teachings.
- Homosexuality? Bell tells gay people the same thing he tells everyone who walks through the door. It’s a powerfully affirming line that he repeated in his sermon on Sunday: “God loves you exactly as you are. Period.”
I’m not sure how anyone could conclude that Bell isn’t Biblically sound based only on this article. I suspect that what is going on is that those of a more fundamental bent become suspicious anytime someone makes a statement that isn’t doesn’t have a Bible verse to back it up. Larry Crabb is criticized because he espouses contemplative prayer (evidently evil because people borrowed techniques from Buddhists) and spiritual direction (the Orthodox practice I mentioned above). And Brian McLaren is rejected because of a statement of uncertainty: “I don’t think the liberals have it right. But I don’t think we have it right either. None of us has arrived at orthodoxy.” It is hard for me to understand exactly what the concern of the EC critics is. The EC does concern me because I suspect it will result in even more schism in the church. However, schism isn’t a concern of the critics. They seem ready and eager for it. “Let’s get rid of these loosy-goosy Emerging Church folk!” Many seem to have a more magical attitude towards Christianity. That is, anyone who talks about using breathing as a spiritual exercise or “Contemplative” anything is using the wrong juju. They see some “magical” property associated with it. If you find some technique or practice in, say, Buddhism useful, you can’t use it because there is this magical Buddhist property associated with it. Is it just me, or is this is this just plain superstitious? Others fall into the trap of the super-rationalist who is stuck on the current, modern forms of Church. Anything else is, somehow, non-biblical. Too much of those above. I haven’t talked too much about what I see that is wrong with the EC people here. Partly, that’s because I’m rambling. Partly it’s because it’s late in the night (or early in the morning). Partly, it’s because I appreciate where they’re coming from, but they seem to be still searching and I think that, because of the very nature of movements in the protestant church, they’re going to be the cause of more schism. And, partly, because I think they’re missing out on what Orthodoxy has to offer. Yeah, I know we have our problems, but its a good paradigm.