A few weeks ago, my friend Wayne Jacobsen stayed with us. It was a great time of fellowship and we talked about all sorts of things. Our chats kept circling back, though, to the emerging church conversation, and why it seemed so important to me to express my spiritual journey in ’emerging’ ways. I told him that it wasn’t, not really–that I’ve been on a journey in, through, and toward a Christ-transformed reality before I began naming it in this way, and will likely be if and when this way of articulating things ceases to be helpful. But right now, that I do find it helpful. This was fine to Wayne–he really wasn’t trying to nit-pick–but there was still some dissonance I think, between what I mean by ’emergent’ and by what he means as ‘relational Christianity‘ (which is itself a label, but I digress…) He’s not the only bright person I esteem asking questions of emergent Christianity.
This weekend (amidst relocating closer to our house church community) I’ve been reading Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be), a lively-but-respectful critique of emergent faith expressions written by two Reformed guys. As I’ve mentioned before, I was Reformed once, a PCA assistant worship and ‘small group’ leader. But it was always a less-than-comfortable fit; I never fit into the conservative Calvinist mold, was rarely excited by the things that excited them. Don’t get me wrong–finding joy and delight in God as the center for living was (and is!) right up my alley–it just felt like their desire was continually thwarted by their reductionistic methodologies; at the end of the day, I found more spiritual nourishment and guidance from the Catholic contemplative writers.
In intervening years, being ‘Young, Restless, & Reformed‘ has become all the more in vogue among passionate semi-intellectual Christian 20-somethings–looks like I really missed the bandwagon! What I like about Why We’re Not Emergent is that the authors – one a pastor, one a sportswriter, barely out of their 20s themselves – seem to be aware of the fact that ridiculous groupie-ism isn’t only present among some emergent leaders, but amidst Reformed demigods as well. So far (I’m about 80 pages in), they kind of smirk at the John Piper, DA Carson, CJ Mahaney, RC Sproul, Mark Driscoll, etc., groupies, and some of the “Reformed cool” that’s developed. This helps me take in the even-handedness of their critique.
What I’ve enjoyed most about the book so far is its rexamination of the journey/pilgrimage motif, one that’s been around at least since ancient Catholic pilgrims and popularized in recent years by we ’emergent’ types, but perhaps best known (in the Protestant world at least) from the Calvinist pen of John Bunyan in his Pilgrim’s Progress. Now PP is not my fave–sorry–but I get it. And I get what Kevin and Ted are saying – it’s not only that the journey itself matters, but the destination itself has gotta matter too. Pilgrim (the protagonist) was indeed making progress toward life in God, and we can too. I still think Kevin and Ted need to listen to emerging/postmodern voices that exalt the value of the journeying itself–it very much resonates with Jesus’ injunctions to live in the present moment, consider lilies, and all that jazz–that the journey itself is important is biblically-rooted, thank you very much. But it’s okay to have some sort of end in mind too–like the apostle Paul, finishing that race of his.
Some of the book makes me exhausted reading it, quite frankly–during one point, I felt physically nauseous while turning its pages. And this comes right in the midst of what I like. Namely, their absolute certainty that because there the emergent conversation might be ill in places, their tradition (in this case Reformed, but it could be written by virtually anyone in virtually any tradition) held the cure lock, stock & barrel. It started with David Well’s introduction, which I found to be supremely arrogant (he even admitted that this was a possibility)–likening Calvinist doctrinal revelation to several-centuries-old buildings in Hungary that outlasted the 20th-century Communist-built buildings, Wells articulated the idea of a changeless foundationalism that is the Gospel itself, which will outlast the vain ideas of men–Communism and, apparently, the emerging church.
But back to Ted and Kevin. They really want us to see that The Journey has a Point to it, and that God’s self-disclosure in Jesus really does count as intelligible communication, therefore we should approach the postmodern skepticism of the efficacy of language with skepticism. They’re mad at what they see as a “just give me Jesus” mentality within emergent circles preferring “Jesus alone” over “beliefs about Jesus” (something I see far more of in house church and charismatic circles than in emergent ones per se, by the way), and they want us to esteem Scripture’s inspiration in the way that they do. And they don’t like the agnosticism-is-chic trend they feel is developing where not believing is cooler than believing.
Okay…points well taken. Really. I’ll think about all of this, brothers. But seriously, you can’t expect me to buy contemporary American conservative Calvinism as the answer. Been there, bought that. Got a refund. F’r instance, y’all’s critique of an aimless journey got me thinking and praying and wondering…but not in Reformed terms. Specifically, I’m wanting to put Dallas Willard and Richard Foster in conversation with James Fowler and Ken Wilber – to see what stages contemporary apprenticeship to Jesus would look like. I don’t know if anyone would be pleased with this (you, my Reformed friends, might cry heresy, and my more pomo peeps might find generating conceptual development maps as too dang modern), but I for one would be fascinated…and would be willing to give a couple years of my life to following this out in practice.
At another point, in seeking to reassert an absolutist view of Scripture (after quite rightly acknowledging that Christians everywhere love and esteem the Bible, regardless of the confessional language they adorn it with–or don’t), they attempt to call us back to a point of clarity, asserting “The Bible settles our disputes.”
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I’m sorry, brothers, if you feel like I’m about to be a postmodern (or worse yet, lib-er-al) cliche by stating that the Bible as such as never settled any disputes, and in fact often functions (as our Quaker brethren have stated) like a “paper Pope” upon which we hang our most passionate beliefs and ugliest prejudices. I treasure Holy Writ, but the only way I feel safe with it is amidst conversation with caring friends (aka by some as ‘the faith community’) where the guidance of Holy Spirit is sought and acknowledged in our midst. To me this is the only sane approach to some very volatile writings. For a pointy-headed explication of this very same idea, I’d check out fellow Reformer Kevin J. Vanhoozer‘s The Drama of Doctrine.
I hope it comes across loud and clear: While it’s not for me, I don’t wish to silence the Reformed voice. (I enjoy Tim Keller and Steve Brown and Shayne Wheeler and am looking forward to good things from Reformergent–may their tribe increase!) In fact, Ted and Kevin, I’d say your published foray makes you official participants in (dahn-dahn-dahn) the conversation. So congrats…for taking a respectful (and not shrill) tone, you’re now in this, whether you’d like to be or not. 🙂 And as an editor with The Ooze, I officially invite you to submit an article or two, and commit a little time to monitoring our discussion boards for a couple of weeks to share and converse. We’ll give you face time side-by-side with the infamous (tee-hee) Spencer Burke, ’cause he may be heretical, but at least he’s hospitable. Whaddaya say, brothers?
Update: Official website