Monday, February 20, 2012

The Emergent Church: We’ve Heard It All Before (part 2)

Tony Jones
Someone once said that trying to get an emergent church (EC) leader to clearly state his beliefs is like trying to "nail Jell-O to the wall." EC leader Tony Jones, for one, finds the Jell-O analogy amusing. It doesn’t occur to him that not being able to define your beliefs or at least answer direct questions about them is not the sign of a well-ordered mind.

But in the postmodern world, muddled thought is not a vice. So when Jones says, "We must stop looking for some objective Truth that is available when we delve into the text of the Bible," I wonder if he realizes that, using his own logic, I have no way of knowing if what he states is true and, in any case, I shouldn’t bother trying to find out? What is objective? What is the text? What is truth?

EC leaders paint themselves into a corner and don’t want you to notice. They want to tear down objective reason by telling you it doesn’t exist then replace that reason with their own beliefs (disparate as they are), which they then want you to accept as objective reason.

All this might be as important as a pimple on an elephant except for one thing: These leaders’ feigned or (God help us) real uncertainty is especially appealing to young people, who, caught up in the postmodern flavor of the times, prefer their spiritual elders to be as confused as they are.

In a play for young people, the movement’s leaders toss aside doctrine, the connection to fellow Christians through the ages, and any common sense they might have stumbled upon in their thirty-, forty-, or fifty-something years. (As an aside, there aren’t many things sadder than a forty-something man chucking much of what he knows in order to impress the young. What’s the point in being forty if you haven’t learned anything more than what the twenty year old you’re talking to knows?)

It’s no accident that the terms "emerging" and "emergent" are labels for the movement. Or that EC leaders write books with titles such as The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier (Tony Jones), Church in the Inventive Age (Doug Pagitt), and A New Kind of Christianity (Brian McLaren).

"New," inventive," "frontier." Are you sensing a theme? Can’t you just hear some TV pitch guy saying, "It’s new! It’s great! It’s better than that old stuff!" Young people aren’t interested in anything old. New is good, old is bad.

Stroking egos. It’s how advertising works, and why advertising focuses on teens and twenty-somethings, most of whom are still forming their likes and dislikes and desperately want to be different from their parents.

It’s why ages ago the Who had a hit with the song "My Generation," which told a bunch of kids born in the 1940s how cool and different they were so a bunch of much older folks could make a lot of money. It’s why the emerging church woos young people with comfy couches, candles, and pastors who look and sound like them.

I became a Christian as a teenager in the 1970s, during the Jesus People movement. We were new, too. And postmodern. We had couches and candles and guitars. We didn’t like what the old church looked and sounded like—and some said that was good.

We were going to change Christianity for the better—or so we were told when our egos were being stroked by those who were old enough to know better. Our candles and conversations and disdain for doctrine were going to batter down the tired old walls of Christianity and make it relevant again. Thank the Lord most of us became "mere" Christians, just like our brothers and sisters in centuries past.

When I’m tempted to get agitated about the EC movement, and angry with its leaders for deceiving people, I stop and consider that the emerging church is just one more passing novelty in a long history of novelties.

As people have grown weary of postmodernism in literature, so they will of postmodernism in the church. The movement is not, as Tony Jones says, destined to push the church in "new directions." Because in reality it’s nothing new, and it will not prevail.


Monday, February 13, 2012

The Emergent Church: We’ve Heard It All Before (part 1)

Doug Pagitt (photo by
Amy Anderson
I’m not a glutton for punishment, honestly I’m not, but I enjoy listening to and reading interviews with leaders in the emergent church movement. Yesterday it was a YouTube interview with author, radio host, and pastor Doug Pagitt. The guy is fascinating. A walking, talking lesson in postmodern rhetoric. So are his compatriots in the emergent church movement—folks such as Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, and Tony Jones.

The emergent church (EC) movement had its beginnings in the 1990s and came into some prominence in the first decade of this century. The movement, for those of you who haven’t heard of it, is a reaction against modernism (with its foolish certainty) and orthodoxy. It values relevance over doctrine, cultural adaptation over orthodoxy, subjective truth over objective truth, and questions over answers.

Most leaders in the movement question at least some orthodox Christian doctrine. Nearly all of them hold doctrine in low esteem. Not surprisingly, many EC leaders were once youth pastors and the movement is most popular among young people (more on that later this week).

Even if I didn’t find some of these leaders’ propositions false, I would mistrust much of what they say because I’m wary of people who play word games. Games using terms such as "old narrative," "deeply ingrained," "hegemony," and "colonial." As someone who occasionally copyedits postmodern literary studies for a living, I’ve read these words before and I know how—and why—they’re used. And I know why EC leaders ask a lot of questions they never seem to answer.

The main goal of postmodernists, including postmodern EC leaders, is to cast doubt on objective truth (and language) in order to break down "old" beliefs and create new ones. Of course, they would never state their objective in such a bald-faced way. They want to lead you to a new pasture without ever telling you where you’re going or why. They want you to wake up in this new pasture, free of your "old narrative," and never know how you got there. And their chief weapon is language.

Which takes me back to the Pagitt interview. Leaders in the emergent movement often make statements that are clearly universalist in nature without, of course, ever directly stating that they believe in universal salvation. So when the interviewer in this YouTube video asked, "I’m a good Buddhist—where do I go when I die?" the following exchange took place (note: I have no idea who the interviewer is or what he believes; I simply find this exchange instructive):

Pagitt: You know, this is not an interesting conversation to me. Is this what we’re going to do? You’re going to put together false little dichotomies then ask me to answer in one sentence then interrupt my answers?
Interviewer: Well, I don’t know what’s hard about the question. I’m a good Buddhist, where do I go when I die?
Pagitt: Well, you probably go to the funeral home, but depending on where you’re being born—if that’s what you’re talking about.
Interviewer: No, pastor, I’m a good Buddhist, where do I go when I die?
Pagitt: OK, this is not—this is just not an interesting or helpful conversation for me to be part of. So if that’s what were doing, uh, in this conversation, then, uh, it’s, it—because what you’re asking in this kind of question has to do with a place. Are you suggesting to me that heaven is actually a place? When you say, "Where do I go?" you’re suggesting to me that the reign of God, that the place of God is an individual place that you go? Is that what you’re suggesting?
Interviewer: Yes, sir.
Pagitt: Where is that place?
Interviewer: It’s called heaven.
Pagitt: Where is it?
Interviewer: We don’t know where it is exactly right now.
Pagitt: Then why would you ask a question where do I go?
Interviewer: Just because I don’t know where it is doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Besides—
Pagitt: Then why did you ask where?

Wow. Are you thinking of Bill Clinton’s "It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is"? Pagitt may have an interesting point to make over heaven not being a "where," but it’s a point he could make later. He understands very well what the interviewer’s question is. He just doesn’t want to answer it.

I don’t think that Pagitt sees this language tap dance as a bad thing. I think he’s so immersed in postmodern thought that he thinks arguing over the word "where" is worthwhile—and that browbeating someone who doesn’t speak postmodern gobbledygook is convincing. If you listen to the interview, you can almost hear a lightbulb go off in Pagitt’s head in the middle of the exchange, where he says "because what you’re asking." He suddenly sees his out, and his out is language.

Part 2 on Monday, February 20.