Book Reviews, Defending the faith

An Emergent Conversation

In this first decade of the new millennium, there has arisen within western Christianity a discussion that has become “the emergent conversation”.  I am reluctant to call it a ‘movement’, because its (non-) spokespeople refuse to see it as a movement, or a new denomination, or anything more than a conversation in the literal sense of the term. 

The emergent conversation’s de facto (non-) spokesman has become Brian McLaren.  You can google his name and find out lots about him, including the several books he has written to generate discussion in the church.  Granted, much of what he and others have written is mostly germane to those based in evangelicalism, but it also speaks to those in other expressions of Christianity.

I have read some of McLaren – not as much as I would like to – and some of Dan Kimball, perhaps one of the more conservative of those who affiliate themselves with the emergent conversation.  My first introduction to sincere critique of the discussion came through reading Becoming Conversant With the Emerging Church by D.A. Carson.  I picked it up because I have immense respect for the work of Carson, a Canadian New Testament theologian who teaches at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School near Chicago.

Carson’s book is an expanded version of several lectures he gave on the subject of the emergent conversation (the terms emerging and emergent are often used interchangeably, not always with the approval of all concerned).  It is full of footnotes and is, in my opinion, an excellent but laborious read.

More recently, I have read Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be) [Moody, 2008], written by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck.  I saw their promotional website and read the first chapter online – which compelled me to find and purchase the book as quickly as I could.  DeYoung is a Christian Reformed Church pastor in Lansing, Michigan, and Kluck (a member of DeYoung’s congregation) is a staff writer for the American sports network ESPN.  These two guys are in their early thirties, and involved in an evangelical Protestant American church – thus the sub-heading, “(By Two Guys Who Should Be)”.  DeYoung is, predictably, more theological in his writing style, and Kluck is more experiential in his.  But each is an excellent writer in his own right and both complement each other (by writing alternate chapters).

These men have done their homework.  They have read the source material on which they base their book with a thoroughness that would make their university professors proud.  And while I don’t see relying on someone else’s reading of source material as a long-term substitute for reading it oneself, it gives the reader of their book some useful knowledge when conversing – ahem – with the conversation.

Their goal was to have written in such a way that if either of them met an emergent conversation (non-) spokesperson at a conference, they’d be able to have a friendly conversation.  I admire this, since there is much too much polemic among writers in the church today who critique (or criticize) other writers and thinkers with whom they disagree.

At 256 pages, it’s not the quickest read in the world, but it is a very worthwhile read.  It’s not often that one picks up a theological volume and finds it hard to put down, but that’s how Why We’re Not Emergent was for me.  Kluck’s chapters read faster than DeYoung’s, predictably, but both were well worth the read.

It would take more bandwith than is fair to offer all the highlights of the book I found salient, but suffice it to say I believe this book needs to be read by anybody who has read or heard of people like Brian McLaren, Dan Kimball, Doug Pagitt, Rob Bell, Spencer Burke, Donald Miller, Erwin McManus, Tony Jones, and others affiliated with the emergent conversation.  Here’s one reason why, in the words of DeYoung:  “Being a Christian – for Burke, for McLaren, for Bell, for Jones, and for many others in the emerging conversation – is less about faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ as the only access to God the Father and the only atonement for sins before a wrathful God, and more about living the life that Jesus lived and walking in His way” (page 120).

To be sure, it is crucial (and I choose that word carefully) to live the life that Jesus lived and walk in his way.  Not to do so is to miss a significant part of what it means to be a follower of Christ.  But to boil down the Christian faith to an ethic based on carefully selected passages from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is to miss an equally significant part of what it means to be a follower of Christ!  While pointing out some of the perceived weaknesses of the emergent conversation, this book is more about a call to theological clarity – to knowing what and why we believe what we do – as a basis for living and walking the Jesus way.

Like every other movement (or non-movement, or conversation) that has emerged (!) in the history of Christianity, the emergent conversation will leave a legacy to the church.  The desire of the authors of this book is that its legacy be positive and biblical, that it build up the church rather than water it down.  The great fear of many is that ’emergent’ could, if left uncritiqued, leave the church merely with a new-old liberalism which will not build the kingdom of God.

Ultimately, the desire of all involved – emergents and critics alike – is, I trust, to give glory to God and to make him known to all and loved in the hearts of all people, and to make God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, through our living out of that glory we give to God.

I’d love to hear from others – personal experience of the emergent conversation, reading of emergent writers, and both laud for what they do and criqitue of their shortcomings.  What are you thinking?


4 thoughts on “An Emergent Conversation”

  1. Thanks for the recommend Jeff. I saw this book featured at the Parkside Church bookstore, but didn’t pick it up. Your post has me rethinking that. I also had the book ‘unChristian’ recommended to me by your boss on the plane ride home on Friday. That makes two books I need to read this summer…I mean two more for the mountain pile emerging (no pun intended!) on my desk.

  2. Though I’ve been part-way through “unChristian” for several months now, I also recommend it. The stats are American, but no less alarming for us Canadians. Taking a look at how the church is seen from the perspective of those outside is a helpful, if unnerving, exercise.

  3. Well, you knew I was gonna weigh in on this one, didn’t ya? I’m a pretty big fan of the emergent church, because of their committment to ‘walk in the way of Christ.’ I don’t think that should be (or has to be, for that matter) to the exclusion of being deeply grounded in ‘the person and work of Jesus Christ as the only way to God the Father.’ But I looooove the passion that the emergent church has for quitting all the ‘talking’ and going out to start some ‘doing.’ We (all of us who follow Christ) NEED that. Again, not to the point of forgetting who we do it for or why we do it (blessed to be a blessing, forgiven and therefore forgiving, etc.). But one of my biggest frustrations in the current church context is how much do we actually DO? Sometimes it’s tough to convince people that we should be DOING anything at all.

    That brings me to the famous Brennan Manning quote: “The single greatest cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, and then walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”

    When Christians have all their theological ducks in a row, but are mean, judgemental, hard-hearted people, we do more damage to the relationship those outside the church have (or might have otherwise had) with God. The emergent church, in my experience with it (reading Rob Bell, Erwin McManus, Brian MacLaren and listening to RB and EM preach regularly), seeks to bring people back into an honest, authentic conversation about who God is, and they seek to do so by how they live, first and foremost.

    Now, that’s not to say they do anything perfectly. That’s not to say that I agree with everything that every emergent writer or speaker has to say.

    At Orange, Andy Stanley said (something equivalent to this…in otherwords, I’m paraphrasing, but accurately, I think): why do different camps of Christianity need to spend so much time beating up on each other? Why can’t we just look at each other and say ‘hey you’re doing your best to glorify God in the ministry He’s called you to, and I’m doing my best to glorify God in the ministry He’s called me to. That’s enough.’ Neither of our ministries will be furthered by beating up on each other. And it’s okay that we don’t do everything the same way.

    I felt like standing up and chearing (except I was so busy writing that thought down, and I didn’t want to lose my place). In reading MacLaren’s “A Generous Orthodoxy”, I felt the same kind of excitement. MacLaren seeks to be generous with other folk, and I really appreciate that. I like that he’s not going around saying “you’re wrong because…, and you’re wrong because…, and you’re wrong because…”, but instead saying “here’s where I’m at, and why.” Some of where he’s at resonated deeply with me. Some of where he’s at made me go: hmmm, interesting, but I’m not there. That’s okay. That’s part of conversation.

    Having said all that, I will say this as well: I would love to read “Why We’re Not Emergent” because I think it is always helpful to hear what the criticisms are of any movement that is appealing. You have really loved anything, until you’ve examined and understood its faults.

    Thanks for the review and recommendation, Jeff!

  4. Rebekah, I commend your enthusiasm for a faith that is lived out. I commend your desire to read widely, and your willingness to read this book.

    The emergent people can’t be tarred with the same stick, just like everybody else can’t be. However, to whet your appetite, here’s a little quotation from Rob Bell:

    “Now if there’s a life of heaven, and we can choose it, then there’s also another way. A way of living out of sync with how God created us to live. The word for this is hell: a way, a place, a realm absent of how God desires things to be. We can bring heaven to earth; we can bring hell to earth.” (Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis, 147)

    One of the uncomfortable things that we have to grapple with biblically is the reality of hell – which Scripture seems to indicate is more than just the absence of God, but a real place of torment (which is, indeed, bereft of God’s presence). What do you suppose Rob Bell would say to that? I can’t predict; I’d like to think, as the student of the Bible that he is, that he’d understand the biblical reality. However, he – and many of his emergent compadres – are reticent to speak this truth to their hearers.

    I think we do well to be discerning about what we accept from the emergent conversation and what we toss away. The importance of theological orthodoxy undergirding our living, practical faith cannot be overstated. Bell, McLaren, and others can be read to say that living right is better than believing right. Frankly, the radical left of the church advocates this, too. The main difference between many emergents and the radical left is often only the instrumentation used in the service!

    Remind me to loan you the book before the next Presbytery meeting.

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