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?

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