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The Road Goes On

Monday, May 23, 2005 at 3:39 PM

Losing Our Religion?

I recently wrote, in a fairly detached and abstract way, about those times when we can no longer repeat, without substantial qualifications, phrases that once defined Christian faithfulness for our predecessors. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (and Soren Kierkegaard before him) experienced this with regard to Martin Luther, arguing that if Luther were alive in their day he would have uttered "Here I stand" after taking up a very different position.

In many ways, this is the situation in which the “emergent” movement (and other Christians with sympathy for its themes) finds itself. At one level, there is a desire to replace key phrases and practices of 20th-century evangelicalism like “personal relationship with Jesus”, “quiet time”, “spiritual walk”, with a language more in tune with the emergent/postmodern zeitgeist and less stale and off-putting. This is done, in part and in some cases, by stressing the role of the church in our relationship with Christ, delving into ancient contemplative spiritual practices and adopting a more sacramental approach to the faith that rejects stark sacred/secular and spiritual/physical dichotomies. At a more explicitly theological level there is a profound sense of the need for a fresh re-hearing of the gospel and the length and breadth of its meaning for all of life, particularly the social and material aspects of our existence.

I'm on board with all of this. But there are a few reasons I haven't jumped into the "emergent" movement with both feet. First, I'm just a cranky contrarian. When I want to be lazy and rely on stereotypes, I see "emergent" as a label signalling that one has trendy and cool spiritual sensibilities. Just as I held out for years before buying a cell phone, priding myself in my refusal to follow the herd; just as I took years to read Stanley Hauerwas because it just seemed too much like the thing to do in some of my circles; I'm skeptical just to the extent that the emergent phenomenon gives off the vibe that it's simply the "cutting-edge, postmodern" version of Christianity. (The flip side of this, of course, is the fear that I'm ultimately not cool enough to mesh with the "emergent" folks and churches I've known, when it's all said and done. I've never seriously considered getting a tattoo or anything pierced. I know (and rejoice!) that Van Morrison has just released his 37th(?) album, but I'll rarely know about the hottest new guitar-oriented singer-songwriter or alt-rock group until they're passe. I wasn't hip in high school either, unless Paul Simon, Wynton Marsalis and Boyz II Men are your idea of hip.)

The thing is, I know there's a lot more to emergent than that, and I appreciate Brian McLaren's attempts to clarify what's going on by insisting that this is a conversation, not a "movement."

I find myself somewhat in agreement with Andy Crouch's "The Emergent Mystique" -- an article that stirred up quite a bit of discussion and understandable defensiveness on some emergent blogs I visited a few months ago. Crouch is a free-lance writer who does a lot of work for Christianity Today. Here's one of his opening 'graphs:
Gentlemen, start your hair dryers—not since the Jesus Movement of the early
1970s has a Christian phenomenon been so closely entangled with the
self-conscious cutting edge of U.S. culture. Frequently urban,
disproportionately young, overwhelmingly white, and very new—few have been
in existence for more than five years—a growing number of churches are
joining the ranks of the “emerging church.”

Crouch frequently notes that most of the prominent "emergent" folks he encountered or interviewed were distinguised by their carefully textured and often colored or bleached hair (thus the reference to hair dryers). I thought his use of this feature was funny and was primarily tongue-in-cheek. (I forgot to include my woeful ignorance of the proper use of hair product on my list of reasons for keeping me off the hip list.)

Crouch was editor of Re:Generation Quarterly -- a magazine started in the late 1990s featuring thoughtful writing by and for young Christian professionals. (Unfortunately, RQ folded when the economy tanked after 9-11. A group of the regulars from its message boards -- along with a few friends -- started the online journal The New Pantagruel.) RQ's vision statement was "communities transforming culture" and its content echoed many of the concerns of the emergent conversation: frustration with the predominance of individualistic Christianity and its domestication of the gospel and discipleship; a desire to see Christianity have as much to do with our neighborhoods, with the way we consume (or don't consume) pop culture and all the other items of our society, as with interior spiritual matters.

The tone of RQ was a bit more highbrow and contrarian, more inclined toward making careful distinctions and emphasizing the importance of historical perspective and tradition. In short, it was more "conservative", but not in the sense of right-wing politics or economics. RQ's readers shared the deep sense that Christianity in Western modernity is in need of great reform but were more likely to look to older traditions for an alternative. It frequently featured articles from Catholics and Orthodox.

There was and is some overlap between these groups. My sense, though, is that the defining feature of someone who unabashedly identifies with the "emergent conversation" is that they're someone who's emerging from evangelicalism. I suppose I fit that description, but I'm also convinced of the importance of institutionally embodied expressions of Christianity that self-consciously place themselves within a particular sub-tradition of the larger Christian tradition of teaching, thinking, and mission (tradition= an argument extended through time). At some point in my journey, I made the fateful step of trying to see from the inside what it means to be Christian from a non-evangelical perspective (i.e. when Christianity doesn't reduce at its heart to when I, or you, "got saved"). My life as a Christian hasn't been the same since.

In other words, I'm not yet convinced that what's needed is some entirely new form of Christianity to emerge in contempoary America, but that we already have many of the resources at hand -- especially as we see members of various historic Christian groups joining together in things like the Ekklesia Project .

Crouch concludes his piece with similar comments and a very positive statement about why emergent is worth watching.

Catholic journalist Colleen Carroll Campbell has documented the rise of “the new
faithful,” a growing group of young Americans, often drawn from the same
locations and vocations as the emerging church, who are embracing orthodoxy
without McLaren’s qualifiers.

Implicitly responding to Emergent’s disaffection with modern evangelicalism, in March the National Association of Evangelicals attracted more than 200 “young evangelicals” to the inaugural meeting of a network led by Carolyn Haggard, the niece of NAE president Ted Haggard.

The 23-year-old Wellesley College graduate says, “The Bible has been
relevant for 2,000 years, and popular culture isn’t really going to change that.
Saying that we’re cooler than the generation before, we’re more savvy, and we’re
obviously more intellectual than the generation before—that’s not something we’d
be at all interested in promoting.”

So Emergent has no lock on the next generation. In this respect it may prove no different from the previous Christian movement characterized by male hair, the Jesus Movement. It coexisted, often uneasily, with more cautious expressions of church, was animated by a combination of beautiful ideals and foolish ideas, and ultimately merged into an evangelical mainstream that had adapted to its presence.

But the Jesus Movement, largely composed of converts, was generally unconcerned with theology. Emergent, whose leaders are evangelicalism’s own sons and daughters, may yet contribute something more profound than one more fleeting form of cultural relevance.

At least that’s what Rob Bell hopes. “People don’t get it,” he
told me. “They think it’s about style. But the real question is: What is the

That question, of course, is not new. It was asked by, among
others, a devout young German monk named Martin Luther who found church
increasingly dissatisfying. His answer, rooted in Scripture, changed the
direction of Christian history at a moment of epochal cultural change.

I agree that the general discontent with contemporary evangelicalism as expressed by Emergent represents much more than simply generational conflict and signals possible major changes on the ecclesial horizon. As I said in a previous post, I feel this same sense with regard to my own Baptist tradition -- another important aspect of my heritage.

BTW, Brian McLaren's annotated version of Crouch's article is here. I enjoy reading both Crouch and McLaren's writing and his response is a definitely worth a look.

Come to think of it, if I had the means, I would probably try to attend some of the emergent gatherings. I think I'd have a place at that table, and I believe in much of what they're doing.

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