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.


Nicole said...

You know, Karin, these guys never fail to make me mad. This isn't "new" "narrative". It's as old as the angel turned demon being thrown out of heaven. I pity their conclusions and their choice of "words".

Karin Kaufman said...

Nicole, I think part of the deception of this whole emergent church thing (the word "emergent" denoting something new and therefore, supposedly, better) is the false idea that it's new. There are pastors in every generation that think they need to rewrite Christianity to make it "relevant." And I agree with you, it goes back to the first prideful revolution. The sad thing is how this affects young people, who haven't been around long enough to have defenses against this nonsense. (I'll be covering that in part 2.)

Nicole said...

I'll look forward to it, Karin.

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