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Wednesday, July 12, 2006 

Emerging From Criticism?

Recently I have been taking a break from blogging in order to enter the world of the blogosphere. This may sound strange, but what I mean by this is that I have been blog-hopping -- commenting here, reading there, assessing so-and-so's arguments, and critically evaluating my own views in light of what I have been reading. Over the past couple of weeks I have been visiting Brent Thomas's site, Colossians 3:16 quite often as he has been commenting about Emergent and the greater Emerging Church movement (ur...conversation). As usual, someone who is a part of the "conversation" stopped by to attempt to set Brent straight and remind him that "when a criticizm [sic] seems to resurface over and over in the same tired fashion, it doesn’t mean that that criticism is somehow more valid." Now, Brent is a smart guy. He holds a Master's from Southern Seminary and Bachelor's from Grand Canyon University, two schools that are anything but lightweights academically. But somehow guys like this just seem to speak as if Evangelicals who criticize Emergent are backwoods rednecks who need a good "edumacation." And that, to me, is terribly irritating, especially given my natural Southern drawl.

But, what I find most irritating is that it seems that Emergent-types folks are always disturbed by criticism. Brian McLaren loathes it. He wrote a whole chapter in A Generous Orthodoxy entitled, "For Mature Audiences Only," in which he shined a light on every potential weakness of his book in what seemed to be an attempt to "head [criticism] off at the pass." And just recently he wrote an article that appears on his website called, "A Friendly Note to My Critics" in which he criticizes the way his critics have criticized him (I shall now refrain from using that word for the rest of this paragraph). He asks his detractors to be fair and consider eight ways of doing so. Even the entire leadership of Emergent has responded to their naysayers in a June 2005 article posted on virtually every Emerging Church website in the free world.

So, why does it irritate me that these guys can't seem to stand being criticized? It's because the very nature of the Emergent movement is a criticism of Christianity in its present forms, most notably, Evangelicalism, from which virutally all the leaders of the Emerging "conversation" originate spiritually. Take, for example, these two paragraphs from the EmergentVillage.Com under the heading, "EXPLORE: THE EMERGENT STORY":

This complex and many-faceted transition calls for innovative Christian leaders from all streams of the Christian faith around the world to collaborate in unprecedented ways. We must imagine and pursue the development of new ways of being followers of Jesus … new ways of doing theology and living biblically, new understandings of mission, new ways of expressing compassion and seeking justice, new kinds of faith communities, new approaches to worship and service, new integrations and conversations and convergences and dreams.

In recent decades, a small number of Christians across the globe have begun taking on this challenge, and now they are beginning to find one another to share insights and encouragement and hope. Growing networks in Africa, Latin America, Asia, Europe, and North America are coming together in person and online for thoughtful conversation, prayer, worship, and action as part of this transforming mission.

To rip out of context the words of the author of Hebrews in 8:13 (but only to borrow the logic behind them), "When He said, 'A new covenant,' He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear." Whoever wrote this clearly points out that there must be something "new" in Christianity. The "old" is just not cutting it apparently in their opinion and thus is "obsolete." And notice that in the second paragraph, the writer says, "a small number of Christians across the globe have begun taking on this challenge" (emphases mine). It seems clear that these guys think they hold the key to the future of Christianity. Even Brian McLaren, the humble pied-piper of Emergent reflects this attitude in his writing. In the introduction to A Generous Orthodoxy he writes,

The real purpose of this book, and much of my writing and preaching, is to try to help us relign our religion and our lives at least a little bit more with Someone. Doing so, I believe, will be good for us and good for our world. Christianity is the biggest and richest religion in the world, and if it goes anemic or compromised, backward or confused, aggressive or passive -- everyone loses. Christian and non-Christian. If its heart is right and its vision clear, everyone wins. In my own feeble and flawed way, I hope I can contribute to the church's health and vision . . . with your help, and of course, God's.
Clearly, McLaren think that something is amuck in Christianity and needs to be fixed. Like any good writer, he makes clear the problem and hints at the solution. To be fair (as McLaren asked in his "Friendly Note"), let me post his next paragraph, which balances what he says, but still reveals his belief that Christianity, in its current expression, is flawed and, as such, must be in some way "re-formed":

For some reason my name is often associated with a book I wrote, A New Kind of Christian. That title might suggest a claim to understand and even exemplify a *New! and ***IMPROVED!!! kind of Christianity. In this book I hope to people will understand how a new kind of Christian is also an old kind of Christian, a person who knows and embraces our shared Christian history (the sweet, the spicy, the sour, and the smelly), and who seeks to move forward into the future resourced by the church in all its many current and past forms.
I think what I am most perturbed about when someone like Zach (the "defender of all things Emergent" on Brent Thomas's blog) writes what he did in an attempt to discredit Brent's critique or deflect attention away from glaring problems in some of the Emerging Church's theological positions (or lack thereof), is that I agree with Brian McLaren and the other Emergent guys quite a bit. In fact, I think they are on to something, especially when as it relates to the practical exhibition of the Gospel in the postmodern culture. I think they are right-on to criticism an Evangelicalism that associates itself more with the Republican party than it does with the persecution of the saints in North Korea or when it boasts more about helping to elect a President than in helping provide for the poor. But, I am critical of the movement (read "conversation", for those who are sticklers about this) when it dismisses historical tenets of the faith or at least reduces them to mere non-necessities for fellowship or even salvation. And unfortuntely for those like Zach, who seem to want to dismiss such criticism, there are plenty who are smack-dab in the middle of the "conversation" who at times feel the exact same way as Brent or I do. Guys like Mark Driscoll, Tim Keller, Joe Thorn, Steve McCoy, and Ed Stetzer have all critiqued the Emergent conversation (or at least a participant or two in the conversation) at one time or another because of something theological that they believed was mishandled or irreverently pushed aside.

So maybe I am that dumb backwoods redneck who just doesn't get it, but shouldn't a group of people drawn together, intent on being "A New Kind of Christian" by calling for reform among fellow Christians be mature enough spiritually, Biblically, and philosophically to handle criticism and answer those who question their theological positions and praxis without resorting to tactics of dismissal and avoidance? I think we will know that the Emergent conversation has arrived at maturity when it can indeed deal with such criticism and even begin to critique itself.

I wish there was someway that more emergents could get the fact that guys like you and I actually like part of what they stress, but simply want to hold their feet to the fire on issues of doctrinal fidelity. Yes some evangelicals are critical of the ecm as a whole, but I want to continue to learn from emergents and I want to agree with them more and more but I am not willing to forsake biblical truth just to be invited to the Christian lunch table that seats all the cool kids.

My observation, though small, is that the emergents have broken from the Evangelicals for the right reasons (as you point out, Republicanism, bla bla). They have seen that the Evangelicals have horded themselves too closely together and forgotten their first Love and His command, they have forgotten the Great Comission. They have even forgotten what their name is, 'EVANGEList'. They have forgotten the gospel.

SO, the emergents then attempt to correct this error by going into the world and becoming a part of it (not in the sense of being in the world AND of it, but just associating with the world, BEING HUMAN with their fellow HUMANS!). They have opened up their living rooms and coffee shops to conversations with people that normally are not allowed to talk with Christians. The Muslims are invited to give their perspective of life. The Wiccans, the buddhist. EVERYONE is invited to come and 'dialogue'.

Everyone except the Evangelicals that is. The emergents pride themselves on being completely for discussion and conversation. But in their criticism of the Evangelicals, they have completely shut them out to the conversation. When an Evangelical decides to enter the conversation, they are passed off as being 'modern' or simply attempting to tear down the body of Christ that is called emergent.

It is a hypocrisy of greatest proportions. The emergents have criticized rightly the Evangelicals, but they have allowed themselves to become blinded by their criticism and are now unable to see that not everything done by an Evangelical is incorrect.

That is my perspective.

sean, you can always sit at my table. And my daughter thinks i'm cool.

but only if you bring seamus, cuz he's got all the coolness in the world.

Do emergents have conversations with members of the Illuminati?

I smell a conspiracy...

I don't know McClaren and am not really part of this emergent stuff, but I think McClaren has a point and it's validated by your response, DR.

You said:

why does it irritate me that these guys can't seem to stand being criticized?

And McClaren had clearly said:

I believe that all controversial ideas need plenty of scrutiny...So it’s not the helpful pointing out of factual errors that disheartens me; it’s the unfair, inaccurate, unreflective, and mean-spirited responses [that do so...]

In other words, he seems to be embracing and endorsing criticism of the scrutiny sort. What he is saying (in part) he has a problem with is the distorting that goes on by so many. Just as you've distorted what he had just said in the article you linked.

Amongst many in our culture, there is a failure to listen (or sometimes a deliberate choice not to listen) and then rebuttals come in the form of strawman arguments. "Well, he wants to criticize the church but doesn't want to be criticized!"

Perhaps there's more to the story than what he and you presented here, but based on these two essays, I'd have to agree with McClaren.

I think the emergents stole your template.

A lot of good stuff here guys.

And Dan, first it is McLaren, not McClaren. And secondly, I think you missed my point. I never said that he didn't have a point about the WAY people criticized him at times, I mentioned his article because he clearly states that he has a hard time with criticism. He says this over and over again both in interviews and books. He is very sensitive to criticism. And THAT was my point. Brent Thomas puts up a post on Emergent and Emergents come running to defend it. They do this all the time. I expect they will be here.

As Sean pointed out, it is true that some Evangelicals don't like Emergent AT ALL, but that is not the perspective that I come from and I don't think I have been unfair to McLaren in any way, nor do I think that everyone is unfair to him, but often he comes across as whiny and ill-tempered in the face of criticism. Go read A Generous Orthodoxy (especially Chapter 0) and you will see how McLaren tries to avoid criticism by offering himself up first. The problem is, he is right about the weaknesses of the book and they are glaringly obvious (except the thing about using too many parentheses -- there is nothing wrong with that!).

So, Dan, I think by me simply using McLaren's article as proof that he doesn't like criticism (and being fair to him in the process) does not fit into the category you have tried to place it. Sorry, but it stands that he doesn't like to be critiqued, like the rest of Emergent, fairly or unfairly.

no, really, DR, i can't see your template at all. do you want to know what it looks like? it looks like this. you should try to fix that, yeah?

Thanks for the pic, Joe. And I suspected those pesky Emergents were to blame, but I didn't want to jump to conclusions. I am glad I didn't, since it appears a much more insideous group was behind the problem -- Blogger. Yes, this is just another nail in the coffin of Blogger. Soon...very soon I am going to be out of here.

good, join the flocks of baptist bloggers migrating to wordpress!

I concur, Blogger is getting to be more of a pressing issue than Emergent, and D.R., I think you should focus some time and effort on that. ; )

The Illuminati are hijacking blogger as part of an attempt to put down the rebellion.

Mr. Anonymous,

You might can hide your identity from us, but trust me, the Illuminati know who you are. Trust no one, for none are safe.

Kevin... stop airing our dirty laundry for all to see! We will emerge into the wordpress conversation, rather we are emerging into the wordpress conversation slowly and all of the critique isn't helpful, who is to say that there really is a right way to 'do' blogging?


I don't see anything sketchy about Emergent folks seeking to defend their view of theology/ecclesiology/methodology.

And why wouldn't the Web be a good place to do that.

Response to criticism is not tantamount to being afraid of criticism. I think, rather, it's the opposite.

As someone who is manifestly not a part of the Conversation, I'd say bring on the responses. The way in which one defends a position is usually offers the best place to offer critique.

Maybe you could respond to the Emergent responses to criticism. But what's wrong with someone defending a position they believe strongly?

BTW, wanna go eat sushi this upcoming Thursday? I'm gonna be in Louisville.

Best to you, brother.


As I have found out through personal experience, the quickest way to attract a whole new crop of readers--especially critical readers--is to put "Emergent" in the title of a few posts. They positively come out of the woodwork to defend themselves.

There a number of problems with the Emergent Conversation/Church/Movement/Thingie; the most maddening one is their pernicious habit of not merely "asking questions", but of insisting that it is somehow awful to say that you know some of the answers.

While I would agree that Christianity is not a political position and therefore should not explicitly be aligned with any given political party, I also get very tired of their frequent caviling that Evangelicals now identify Christianity with the Republican Party. To take this position is to grossly oversimplify the situation and to ignore history.

There used to be enormous numbers of Evangelicals in the Democratic Party; over the last thirty years, they have almost been chased from Democratic Party ranks because they have refused to embrace that party's golden calf, Roe v. Wade, and its mindless conflation of what the Bible means by "poor" with "anybody who doesn't have money" (Of course they aren't the same.) If Emergents are tired of Evangelicals voting Republican, the blame rests not so much with faulty Evangelicalism (though it has plenty of warts, I admit) as with a Democratic Party literally Hell-bent on becoming the Party of Death and determined to buy votes in the guise of aid to the poor.

Great post and thanks for linking me. I think the keys here are in what Nathaniel Adam "Sophyst" King and the singularly named Dan Paden have said.

First, the emergents have shown great tolerance for anyone other than evangelicals and second, they have sought redefine humility as uncertainty, which excludes anyone from ever being able to say they have an answer.


I think you are right in much of what you say here, but what I find disturbing (and maybe I should have made this more clear) is the way they respond. First, they whine about having to respond (McLaren has even gone so far as saying that he refuses to defend his position intentionally). Second, they tie everything to a modernist-postmodernist discrepancy, as if that explains all the criticism away. And third, they lurk the websites, furiously commenting and then becoming irritated easily (as did Zach) when you insist that it is alright to criticize them.

I stand by my assertion that McLaren and other Emergents don't like being criticized. It just seems very suspicious in how they respond (which is rare and often in avoidance of the actual questions raised) and in how frequently they talk about being criticized, often trying to head it off by asking people not to be critical of their views. Any legitimate view must be able to hold up to scrutiny and should be willing to address it head on. I just don't see it in these guys.

Dan, some of my post was inspired by your experience with the Emergent lurkers. I have seen how frustrated you have become over the past few weeks. As for the Republican criticism, I think that the point is the reliance upon politics for change, which I think Evangelicals are prone to. The Emergents have pointed this out and I give them credit for that. Unfortunately, I think they are too lax in how they view politics and that might come back to bite them as they are wooed to the Democratic side by guys like Jim Wallis and Ron Sider.

Brent, thanks for stopping by and I agree. I appreciate you dealing with the issue and bringing some of their problems to light on your blog.

...some of my post was inspired by your experience with the Emergent lurkers. I have seen how frustrated you have become over the past few weeks.

Aye, when I've had to delete two or three entire posts written before calming down, you know I've been "frustrated."

I'm flattered that you read my little blog. That means that you know that as soon as the library gets it to me, I'll be reviewing Mr. McLaren's latest. The frustration surrounding that endeavor has largely been due to the growing obviousness of the fact that no critical review, no matter how thorough or well thought out, will be seen as "fair" by Emergents. Failure to agree with them is prima facie evidence that you just ain't got a clue.

Still, I regret having exploded online and will be trying to avoid doing so again.

As for the Republican criticism, I think that the point is the reliance upon politics for change, which I think Evangelicals are prone to.

That is true enough. I've said from time to time that we could be successful in legislating away gambling, homosexual marriage, abortion, and even that the people might obey these laws, yet it would not necessarily glorify God; it is possible for a people to be moral and yet lost. Yet it is still necessary to take a position on these issues; neutrality is not an option. Problems arise when the political arena becomes the focus instead of the natural outworking of changed hearts.

I think criticism is a hard thing for anyone to handle, not just Emergent. I see it in all strands of Christianity, whether it be the "seeker movement","fundamentalism", etc. I know that anytime I have criticized or critiqued certain figures in Reformed circles such as John Piper or John MacArthur, I get everyone and their brother coming out of the woodwork to defend them. I can comment on anyone else and I get nothing close to the responders when those guys are critiqued. So I think criticism is something we don't handle well as Christians...it's not just an issue for emergents.

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About me

Paul was not interested merely in the ethical principles of religion or of ethics. On the contrary, he was interested in the redeeming work of Christ and its effect upon us. His primary interest was in Christian doctrine, and Christian doctrine not merely in its presuppositions but at its centre. -- J. Greshem Machen.

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