The Lunacy of Declaring the Emergent Movement Dead

Earlier this year, Anthony Bradley decided to write an obituary on the “Emergent Church” (which, few, if any, adherents ever called it the “Emergent Church”). Many others have done the same thing and to a certain degree, they are correct; the term “Emergent” is slowly dying and becoming far more institutional. These churches like Bell’s (as mentioned in the article) are becoming more and more like actual churches. Many conservative-minded thinkers look at this and go, “See, I told you, both Emergent Christianity and the post-modern movements are dead!” To this, I ask very gently of my conservative friends, are you so simple-minded?

One can try to put a positive spin on everything, saying that the Emergent conversation hasn’t died, but merely shucked off a stereotype, but this is wishful thinking. The stereotype still exists while the crowd who is big on being “emergent” dwindles more everyday. Yet the structure remains. The teachings remain. The questions remain. Only the name has dissipated.

The Emergent movement, (and the coming “Weakness movement” though it will possibly come by a different name or with no name at all), is evolving, but ultimately the goal remains the same; to challenge the institution of the Church. It reminds me of the line in C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair, where Rilian wonders why one of the Northern Witches, having been defeated, used different methods than the White Witch of eons before. A dwarf answers him, “…those Northern Witches always mean the same thing, but in every age they have a different plan for getting it.”

Some might cry out that my comparison is unfair; after all, who wants to be compared to an evil character? Yet, I stand by the comparison and I do not shy away from my belief that the teachings of the now defunct emergent movement (future name to be announced at a later date) are poisonous to not only the life of a believer, but to those seeking hope. While I do not provide any commentary on the people and I dare not call them evil (after all, many of these people are my friends), the beliefs are poisonous and inevitably enslave us to hopelessness, though we may not realize it.

I do believe that the term “emergent” is dying, and along with it the influence of people such as Tony Jones, Brian McLaren, and the like. But while their influence is waning, others are rising up with fervor and without a movement. One can look to Peter Rollins and his attempt to adopt John Caputo’s (now seen as a philosophical leader) “Weakness Theology” to a younger, less philosophically adept crowd. Rollins has gone further and coopted Slavoj Zizek into many of his ponderings. I find this to be incredibly dangerous.

Again, I would never speak ill of Peter Rollins as a man (after all, he has helped me on many things and we get along wonderfully in person), nor would I say that he is evil and should be avoided. I like Pete and I always look forward to opportunities where we get to chat in person. But none of this means I don’t think his ideas lack danger (and certainly he thinks the same of my own ideas).

Is the Emergent movement dead? In a word, yes, but that “yes” requires a far more nuanced understanding of what it means to be emergent. As a movement, as a ‘brand,’ Emergent Christianity is slowly dying. It will not be long before McLaren is seen as another adherent to the institution (unless he continually changes), and the same stands true for Jones, Pagitt, Rollins, Caputo, and others. But we are foolish if we think the ideas behind the movement have died as well. The ideas haven’t died and, if anything else, they have become far more prevalent among the mainstream. In an odd twist of fate, what was once “emergent” is now normal; much of the emergent movement has been coopted by evangelicals.

To some, this might seem wonderful and to many degrees it is. Churches tend to be less harsh, more rounded on their edges, more accepting of different people, less strict on a dress code, more accessible, more community-minded, and the list goes on. But I remember when this way of thinking was far more ‘extreme’ and on the fringes; now it’s common. We no longer have Sunday School, we have small groups that embrace the idea of community. This was an idea born out of the emergent movement. Even in our theology we have seen the impact of the emergent movement, in the way we are often more open-minded on doctrine, more embracing of different traditions, and more concerned about the here-and-now than what is to come or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

I am also not saying that the above things are wrong, but I’m pointing out something that has been ignored by many people (with the exception, perhaps, of Rob Bell): The ‘Emergent movement’ that railed against “The Man” has become “The Man.” The 1980’s had Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson pushing the conservative agenda to the exclusion of Christian doctrine, but the 2008 election had Brian McLaren and Tony Jones pushing the liberal agenda to the exclusion of Christian doctrine. “The Man” that coopted politics in the 80’s via the Republican party simply did the same thing in 2008 via the Democratic party.

To those in the Emergent movement who already held incredulity towards the institution of the church, such actions were a betrayal of the fringe elements of the emergent movement in its early days. It was fragmented early on, but now it’s an organization that, in reality, could be considered its own denomination (though it lacks an official structure).

But we are fools to think the assimilation of the emergent movement into the structure of the modern organized church is the death of the ideas behind the movement. The ideas live on, the anti-structural and anti-institutional sentiments have only grown stronger. Whereas in 2000 almost any emergent author would tell you he held to relatively orthodox ideas about God, in 2010 one only need to read Caputo’s Weakness of God or Rollins’ The Fidelity of Betrayal to learn that the anti-institutional sentiment has now gone beyond the Church and been applied to God. And therein lies the future of the emergent movement.

The future of the movement is far more subversive and far less organized. It is a future that I don’t see organizing since it preaches against such organizations (unless the followers begin to embrace cognitive dissonance in their organized incantations against organization). Whereas the emergent movement of the 90’s simply asked questions about the Church and if she was serving people properly and the 2000’s simply asked questions about our doctrine and whether or not one needed to be a Christian and what it meant to be a Christian, the 2010’s will see a vast questioning of God, far beyond, “Shall we call God ‘He’ or ‘She’?”

We are bound to see a rise in Christian atheism. Rollins was ahead of the curve in 2006 when he published How (Not) to Speak of God and even in 2008 when he published The Fidelity of Betrayal. Now he is poised to be THE author of the now defunct emergent movement (future name to be announced at a later date) though he pulls from men such as Caputo, Derrida, and Zizek. What we will see, then, are people who are existentially Christian, but metaphysically atheists. They will agree that God is not strong; God is not omnipotent, that metaphysically God doesn’t exist. But he does exist in our actions, he exists in our love, and he exists in our obligation to the ‘Other.’ And this is the future of the emergent movement that few (both proponents and opponents) recognize. Instead, many proponents of emergent thinking are so busy attempting to justify themselves that they’re missing out on where their (former) adherents and discussion mates are heading. Many opponents sit comfortably in their Ivory Towers or behind their massive church desks and say, “Even this movement will pass!” And they are right; at some point in the not-too-distant future Rollins’ ideas will be outdated and ignored. But what does our ignorance cost us?

Orthodox Christianity has been around for 2,000 years. During that time we have seen movements come and go. In all cases we evaluated those movements. But around the 1700’s, we stopped evaluating and put our heads in the sand saying, “This will pass!” We see a storm brewing and say, “It’ll pass!” as we hunker down in our storm shelters. But in an act of cold-hearted maliciousness (whether intentional or unintentional I do not know) we leave the ignorant and the weak out in the midst of the storm. So the storm passes, killing many, and we emerge saying, “See, told you it would pass!” We ignore the dead bodies and go about our business looking for our next fad.

I whole-heartedly believe that the coming Weakness movement will eventually pass. But I also believe such a movement to be something that sucks the hope out of Christianity and leaves one little to no reason to consider the true Christ at all. Such a belief leaves behind casualties. And if we are okay with that, then may we never call ourselves Christians. For those that have read C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, think of Ginger and Rishda, compelling people to serve both Aslan and Tash (for they are one in the same) for their own benefits while never believing either exists. In such a climate, slaves are made, bitterness ensues, skepticism wins the day, and the light of hope fades even more.

As Christians we must be ever vigilant of what goes on around us. All movements will die, but we do not know the speed at which they will die or who will be claimed in the process. Yes, this movement or that movement may die out, but many will turn from Christ in that movement.

In our vigilance we should live the Truth and preach the Truth, all in love. We should reach out to those in these movements and lovingly show them the error of their ways, hoping that they will turn away or upon the collapse of the movement, think long ago to the time when someone told them something was amiss. We should also pay attention to why people turn to these movements, which is often because an error in our own ways is being exploited (a legitimate error I might add). We should then thank our critics and work to correct our error, all the while encouraging the Truth to be told.

The emergent movement as a movement is defunct, but the teaching still exists and it’s getting darker.  Should we follow in the steps of Christ, let us brave the storm, forgo our shelter, and rescue as many people as we possibly can, even if we believe the duration of the storm to be short. For one life saved from the hopelessness of the storm is well worth any effort.