An Open (Heartfelt) Letter to Those in the “Emergent Movement”


Dear Emergent Friends,

I hope this letter finds you well. I’m writing to you because I’m concerned about a few things within your movement and also to let you know how you come across to us non-emergents. Of course, this letter is written generally as not all emergent believers come across this way. Not all criticisms in here can be levied at all emergent believers. I’m friends with many emergent-minded folk, so obviously not all of this applies. But it is written out of love and out of some concerns I have. Before I launch into some of the problems I see, however, I want to say a few positive things.

Many years ago when I was going through a very rough patch in my life, I turned to a few books that could be called “proto-emergent” or books written in the earlier stages of the emergent movement. Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo’s book Adventures in Missing the Point, Mike Yaconelli’s Messy Spirituality, and Jay Bakker’s Son of a Preacher Man gave me the strength and grace to get through a very hard time in my life.

Obviously I’ve moved away from such spirituality, but I don’t want to simply toss it out entirely as it was very beneficial to me and prevented me from sliding deeper into an abyss. In fact, even as I’ve moved away from more “emergent thinking” I still found common ground with the emergent authors. At the time I was attending a church that I despised, mostly because of the pastor. His absolute disdain towards the poor, homeless, and nonwhites forced me to ultimately leave (that and other problems he had). It was nice to see that there were other Christians out there willing to talk about the flaws in the Christian community rather than cover them up.

I’ve always appreciated the emergent movement’s willingness to expose the flaws of the Christian community, to admit that we’ve been wrong in the past, which is why it perplexes me as to why there seems to be little self-criticism among emergent thinkers today. Perhaps I am just ignorant, but I’ve yet to see a major emergent author come out and speak about how he or the community as a whole were wrong in how they handled something. Even in terms of race relations, most emergent authors seem to think that their movement is “race-friendly,” when it’s not.

For those that think it is helping to bridge the racial gap, ask yourself this very simple question: How many popular emergent authors are nonwhite? That’s not to say nonwhites haven’t written books that could be considered emergent, but how many are best-sellers? Of the nonwhites involved in the movement, how many are lower class, or are they also middle-class to upper-class? To someone like me when I look at the emergent authors, I see a white, bourgeois revolution. The complaints and solutions generally only apply to people wrapped up in a Starbucks culture.

Now, none of this discredits the movement or the teachings at all, but what bothers me is that many in the emergent movement are seemingly oblivious to this problem! And that’s why I’m asking you, pleading with you, to please be self-critical. It was your criticisms – accurate criticisms – of conservative evangelicalism that took you out of the conservative movement of the evangelical church, but don’t stop examining everything. Examine your own beliefs, even your more progressive beliefs, for those could be wrong.

One way to help in the self-criticism is to listen to the criticisms of the outsiders, the non-emergents, specifically the conservative critics. Even when they’re overly harsh and just downright rude and mean spirited, perhaps it’s worth listening to what they have to say. If they criticize your theology or the reasoning behind what you’re saying, perhaps it’s best to look at and contemplate what they’re saying rather than immediately go on the defensive. After all, and perhaps many emergent thinkers miss this, some conservatives are still conservative even after questioning their beliefs and researching alternatives (such as myself). So we’ve been down the path of questioning as well, but came up with a difference answer than you, so don’t we have something of value to say?

And even if someone hasn’t explored their beliefs, shouldn’t they also be listened to? Certainly those who are abusive and rude can just be cast aside, but not everyone who strongly voices their opposition to what you’re teaching is being “abusive” or “rude,” they’re simply engaging you in dialogue. So why shut out their voices? You act as if there’s no way conservatives could possibly be right, which is another way of saying you have no idea how you could possibly be wrong. Isn’t that antithetical to the central idea behind the emergent movement?

Along the same lines as the above, I would ask that you stop mocking conservative Christians. Yes, they do it to you at times (not all, but some do), but does that justify the “eye-for-an-eye” mentality? “Well they do it too!” How is that turning the other cheek or even taking the high road? While there is still an emphasis on the words of Jesus among emergent believers, it seems that some ignore His command to love one’s enemies. While loving one’s enemies doesn’t prohibit strong discourse, it would prohibit mocking evangelicals or comparing them to the Taliban, which is unfair, untrue, and serves no purpose. After all, how are conservatives to be challenged by what you say if you’re simply accusing them of being heinous human beings?

I think it would go a long way with conservatives if emergent Christians began to recognize that conservative evangelicals have actually done a lot of good in this world. They have worked against sex trafficking, racism, poverty, and the list goes on. While some conservative evangelicals have helped to perpetuate these problems, others have worked to end them, indicating that one’s theology isn’t necessarily congruent with one’s actions. But to demonize and alienate all conservative Christians is problematic; it closes down the conversation and leads to intellectual inbreeding where your ideas are only bounced off those who already agree with you.

In short, emergent Christians shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. A major evangelical church downtown decides to raise money for its new sanctuary, but chooses not to help the poor; this doesn’t mean we should eradicate all conservative doctrines. The mistakes of conservative evangelicals shouldn’t necessarily reflect on the doctrines; so while I would agree that “everything must change” on how we act, I’m not so sure that everything should change on what we think. After all, there are certain doctrines that lay a foundation to helping the poor and oppressed, even if believers don’t always follow through on these actions.

Many emergent Christians need to realize that traditionally Christian doctrine has presented an ideal, but Christians have rarely – if ever – reached this ideal. What many emergent Christians have seemingly done is change the ideal to one that is almost obtainable. You’ve adopted “worldly philosophies” that present an ideal that can be obtained in one way or another, but it removes all the supernatural elements from Christianity. Instead, refocus on the ideal. If the ideal is the problem, if it’s a bad ideal, then yes, we ought to change it. But if the ideal is good, if it is right, then we should find better ways of obtaining it rather than simply making a new, obtainable, ideal.

For all of the above to occur, however, you must begin to allow conservatives to take part in your discussions. While it is true that some conservatives will willingly remove themselves, others are more than willing to embrace you in dialogue (such as myself), but are often shut out because we’re critical of the movement and see flaws in the emergent movement. As indicated above, this isn’t helpful to anyone and will (and has) stunt the growth of the emergent movement. Beware the sound of one hand clapping.

In closing this letter, I would make three final suggestions. First, rather than attempting to reinvent Christianity, perhaps it is best to discover what Christianity was meant to be. All attempts to reinvent Christianity in the past 2,000 years have failed for one distinct reason; they aren’t products of the Holy Spirit. While certain branches of Christianity have succeeded, it is because they still held onto the idea of there being some absolutes in the Christian faith. For all the differences between Protestants, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics, all three remain viable and existent because all three still agree and hold onto the core doctrines of the faith (such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, etc). They hold these doctrines as absolute. But all other groups that have attempted to move away from these doctrines simply die out or fade away.

The above leads me to my second suggestion, which is to open yourself to the idea that you might be wrong. Maybe conservatives are right on a few things, maybe they aren’t. But the idea of abandoning absolutes as a “product of the Enlightenment” is one area where you could be (and I believe you are) wrong. However, what good does it do me to explain this if you’re not even open to the idea of being wrong? True bias isn’t thinking you’re right, instead it’s not seeing how you could possibly be wrong. So open yourselves up to the idea that all these new ideas you’ve discovered and adopted could be wrong, and the ideas you’ve left could be right.

My third suggestion ties all of the above together, which is to have humility and to act in grace towards others. Be humble in both your actions and beliefs, because in all honesty the emergent movement comes across as extremely arrogant to those of us who aren’t in it. To be told that we’re not enlightened or that we’re regressive in our thinking doesn’t exactly make us look at you and go, “Wow, such humility!” Nor does it inspire us to join you or to take what you have to say seriously. Humility would go a long way, even if those of us who disagree with you fail to show it. Humility would disarm your critics and make them look like fools. Humility would make it easier to talk with you and discuss these issues with you.

In the end, I hope you take all of this well and take it to heart. Certainly I’m wrong on some of what I perceive and I’m okay with that. But at the same time, perhaps you should ask what caused me to perceive you in this way. In the end, I hope this isn’t simply ascribed to bias or bigotry and subsequently ignored, as this would truly be sad and completely miss the point. Continue standing up for what is right, but also please evaluate yourselves and see if this letter is at least partially true.

Sincerely,

Joel

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An Impractical Solution for the Southern Baptist Convention


Last week it was announced that the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has dropped in numbers of baptisms and membership. While some have attempted to offer up reasons as to why and potential solutions (many of which have been good), what ahs been far more typical is the SBC response. Either a person will sit in denial and say that this is simply a trend or he’ll offer up more methods and programs. Sadly, the solution for the SBC is incredibly easy, yet impossibly difficult.

Before going into a solution, however, it would probably be best to understand the problem. To provide a spoiler for the article, while I acknowledge that the problem and solution is theological (and existential), I do not go the way of Brian McLaren or the Emergent movement in asking the SBC to reconsider or rethink some of its core tenets, but rather implore the leaders to become more traditional, more orthodox, and more true to the original faith.

Why the SBC is Declining

The reason the SBC is declining is the same reason that mainline churches have declined for all these years; they’re irrelevant, though the SBC is irrelevant for different reasons. I am not suggesting that the SBC should be seeking relevance either, but instead differentiating two types of relevance. The pursuit of relevance is a dangerous one, one where we wish to fit into the culture. We can think of that kid who just doesn’t fit in, but wants to, and so he tries his hardest to fit in. That kind of relevance is a negative kind of relevance.

The SBC is irrelevant in that it’s simply unnoticed in a positive manner. After all, in seeking out solutions for the economy, in looking on how to help the poor, when attempting to decide what environmental policies we as a nation should pursue, how many Southern Baptists are consulted? Now some might argue that this is merely symptomatic of a secular worldview, but this apologetic is quickly turned back on them when we ask how we got there in the first place. Though we can chase this line of thinking for a while, ultimately it becomes a problem of the SBC, and the Church in general, not living or acting in a manner befitting to Christ.

For the SBC the problem of being irrelevant begins with them being a primarily method-driven and program-driven denomination. Lectures on how to grow a church, success in missions, and the like are often backed up with stats, figures, pie charts, and graphs all showing how a certain method or program can achieve the goal set forth. Every problem seems to have a program assigned to it. As the advertisement for Blackberry is, “Yeah, there’s an app for that,” the advertisement for the SBC seems to be “Yeah, there’s a program for that.”

In short, we’re irrelevant because we’re too practical. In pursuing relevance we have become irrelevant because we found very practical ways to be relevant, but as it turns out Christianity and practicality don’t mix very well. We have pastors who look like modern-day billionaire CEOs; we have Mark Cubans in the pulpit, wearing their t-shirts and jeans and using the lingo of the day. They teach a message for the masses and tone it down in order to be relevant to their audiences.

In other instances we have niche churches. We have churches that cater to the young and therefore play music that appeals to them. We have churches that cater to the traditionalist and therefore they play the hymns. We have biker churches, surfer churches, cowboy churches, and the list goes on. As any marketing director will tell you, these churches are extremely successful in displaying gains in their niche market. But therein lies the problem.

If a company wants to market their product in a city they have to look to the demographics of that city and essentially alienate certain aspects of the city in their marketing. So they’re marketing widgets, which 20-35 year olds love, but 50 year olds hate. Well, they’re not going to advertise these widgets in a retirement community, rather they’ll advertise them near a college campus, which of course will alienate part of the population, but will achieve their goal.

Since the Gospel is universal it cannot, by its very nature, operate in the same fashion. Anytime our spread of the Gospel results in alienation, that is, in refusing to give the Gospel to people because they fall outside of our targeted marketing group, then we are not presenting the Gospel. Thus, in becoming practical we’ve become irrelevant.

The problem for the SBC and the cause of its decline, however, goes much deeper than having programs and methods; it also extends into how the majority of its members and leaders live. The old adage “actions speak louder than words” is absolutely true. A person can spend years saying the same thing, but if one thing he does contradicts it then all those years of speaking are unwound. Likewise, if our actions back up what we say then our words have life. As it is, the SBC says quite a bit, but it lacks the action to back up those words.

While no one should expect any congregation to be perfect, the problem for the SBC extends well beyond the pew and goes to the pulpit. Having spent time in an SBC seminary, I can say that the SBC simply hasn’t caught on to the fact that there’s a giant dissonance between what is taught in the classroom and what occurs in the real world. Consider the following:

We’re a denomination that puts an emphasis on preaching methods, but not on how to reach the poor. We require our seminarians to agree that the Bible is inspired and infallible, but don’t require the same out of their own lives. We’d rather rip each other apart on whether or not God chose us or we chose God than help eradicate the world’s ills.

Now to be fair, the seminaries have been working on this problem by hiring more professors with a true heart for the world. Sadly, however, it seems that it’s simply not taking with the students; they’re rather debate over who wrote the book of Hebrews than live the precepts put forth in that same book. We have pastors who tell their congregation how abortion is wrong, how homosexual marriages are dangerous to our society, and how we should pray for our troops, but won’t chastise them for neglecting the poor, for abandoning the widows, or for withholding food from the hungry. For many pastors, such sermons would result in being fired. Thus, for all the positive change that is occurring in the seminaries, the congregations are still light-years behind.

An Impractical and Idealistic Solution for a Practical Problem

When I say my solution is impractical or idealistic, I mean that it’s impossible. It can never be achieved. It can never be fully enacted. It will always have flaws. So why work for it? I turn around and ask, why not?

God calls on us to be holy as He is holy, which is simply impossible. We can’t be holy like God is holy, but we’re to strive towards it. That’s the whole point of placing an ideal as your goal; even if you don’t reach it, you’re still a lot better off than you were. Thus, our goals should be impossible, we should have a 0% chance of achieving them, that if we do, when we do, we’ll know that it wasn’t by any work of our own, but instead by the Spirit who lives in us.

Now, the above isn’t to say that we should sit around and wait for the Spirit to work. We should be working towards the ideal, but we should also recognize that methods and programs place parameters around the ideal, which limits how the ideal can be achieved. So what is the ideal towards which we should strive?

The ideal of the Christian faith is two-fold and hierarchical, yet tied together. Jesus stated the ideal when He said,

And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27)

For the Christian, all of life boils down to loving God and loving others. That’s the entire direction of Christianity. We could say, “It’s to display God’s glory” or “to enjoy Him fully,” but all of this simply falls under the greatest commandment. The end goal of Christianity isn’t the “Great Commission” because even this falls under the two commandments. The end goal of Christians is to love God with their entire being and to love their neighbors as themselves. Under such an ideal we should realize that more is involved than just missions and evangelism.

Many in the SBC leadership have commented on how the congregation at large is seemingly apathetic if not outright opposed to missions (both domestic and foreign). I have experienced this in my own life, where my church was questioned by some of the members on why we would “waste money” helping support a church in Mexico. But this attitude isn’t caused by a lack of proper programs, but is indicative of a larger spiritual problem. Namely, it’s indicative of a people who have lost sight of the Christian ideal.

If one is close to Christ, how can one be apathetic about Christ? Growing in faith naturally leads to growing in works; if our congregations aren’t growing in works, they aren’t growing in faith. Thus, programs don’t solve the problem of apathy, but only begin to exist once the problem of apathy has been overcome.

We should overcome the apathy prevalent in the SBC by emphasizing the things Christ taught us to emphasize. How this is carried out is beyond me and I don’t think there can be a universal method or program. After all, how we display our love to a person living on the Upper West Side of New York City is going to be completely different from how we display our love to someone living in Harlem. Thus, there isn’t a program or method to enacting the ideal, there is just the ideal.

But we can know what to emphasize, as follows: Continue reading

The Failure of Evangelicalism: How Evangelicals are Killing Their Own Religion


To anyone who isn’t a stalwart conservative or burying one’s head in the sand, it’s quite clear that the Evangelical community is facing a drastic shift in direction. I would contend that while the shift was inevitable, it’s not a good shift. It’s trending towards a more liberal theology, a more anti-intellectual philosophy masquerading as intellectual, and growing in incredulity towards anything traditional or ancient. I’ve lamented it many times before, but it seems to be a growing problem, specifically for the younger generation.

What really hit me was yesterday when I was looking for books on deep theology concerning the Trinity and the Incarnation. It dawned on me that I couldn’t go to a Lifeway or other typical Christian bookstore (ones that are generally associated with evangelicalism). Instead, in order to find the books I needed I had to go to a store that caters to Eastern Orthodox. Once there, I looked for what I needed and of all the books I looked through, not a single evangelical author was available. This is not due to the bookstore bias against evangelicals (they had plenty of books by evangelicals and even supported some of these books…in the spirituality department), but because in order to find a qualified theologian on the Trinity who isn’t neo-orthodox or liberal you have to turn to the Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholics. In fact, the last great intellectual thinker for evangelicals who wasn’t neo-orthodox or liberal would be Francis Schaeffer, but even he claimed to be more of an evangelist than an academic (though there’s no denying that he was influential for many in the evangelical tradition). Likewise, this isn’t to say that there are no orthodox evangelical thinkers in the world of theology, merely that the most authoritative voices for the conservative movement tend to be Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox.

Certainly there are some great minds in the evangelical church, but these minds are usually geared towards apologetics (which tends to be weaker among the Orthodox), and many of these great evangelical philosophers are extremely weak when it comes to theology. Why is this? I would contend that because evangelicals have had either a fearful view of the patristics (or at least an apathetic view of the patristics), so fearful that they’ve avoided reading this essential material. For many evangelicals, Christianity apparently began around the time of the Reformation, thus ignoring a wealth of historical teachings that we need to pay attention to. When we abandon our history and tradition we begin to seek anything that is new; but truth is immortal and ancient, truth is without time, truth is before our existence, so we should never need to find anything new, for whatever is new is not truthful.

But this is merely the intellectual side of the faith. On the existential side of faith (which is a different side of the same coin), all three branches are failing, but evangelicals are failing the hardest (or so it seems). Why is it that evangelicals are trending towards a more watered-down faith? Along with the anti-intellectualism running rampant in evangelical circles (conservative and liberal), there’s an apathetic approach to holiness. Holiness seems to be a list of rules rather than a lifestyle we live. For conservatives, holiness is a matter of avoiding drugs, avoiding sex before marriage, avoided alcohol, avoiding certain types of music, avoiding saying the wrong words, and is purely individualistic and internalized. For the more “progressive” branch of evangelicals, holiness is about avoiding oppressing the poor, avoiding oppressing anyone perceived as oppressed, avoiding making absolute statements (for absolute statements are absolutely wrong), and looks more towards the community and how we act in it to determine how holy we are.

In both cases, both sides are right and wrong. The “emergent ethic of holiness” is really just an overreaction to the conservative ethic that we’ve seen for so many years. While we should be personally holy, which means abstention from certain actions, being holy is also contingent upon how we act towards our fellow humans, specifically those who are economically oppressed or oppressed by their status in life.

The failure of Evangelicalism is two-fold; it is an intellectual crisis and an existential crisis. We cannot reach the minds of a young generation, nor can we reach the hearts of a young generation. We’re still stuck offering simple platitudes of the faith, avoiding the deeper issues of the faith and casting such teachings to seminary (where many seminarians are beginning to fail to understand these essential doctrines). At the same time, we’re holding “prayer drives” thinking that if we pray for someone that it’s enough, even though the Bible says such an attitude is wrong. James 1:22-25 reads:

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

He goes on in 2:15-17 to write,

If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

When our churches raise money for bigger and better sanctuaries (or “worship centers” if your church wants to be cool), when our churches create ministries that cater to members rather than asking members to cater to those in need, when our churches become more concerned with the size of the church rather than the heart of the church, is it any wonder that young people are abandoning the evangelical church in droves? When they see people bicker over how to best fix a broken clock in the sanctuary, do we really expect them to stay? If we aren’t putting our beliefs into practice, then what value do our beliefs really hold to us?

If evangelicalism is to survive, then it must grab hold of the ancient faith that it has abandoned and begin to practice it as well. It must lose its love of numbers, it must abandon all hope of having a megachurch, and instead focus on truly helping people in the neighborhood who need help.

We need pastors to start preaching sermons on the Trinity and how the Trinity applies to our lives. Same with the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and other essential doctrines in the faith. We need churches that tell the members, “We don’t have a ministry to help you, but we have ministries you can help.” Will this cause our numbers to take a nose-dive? Absolutely. But that is what is needed; we need to lose some excess weight. If evangelicalism is to survive, then its adherents must begin to live like Christ, otherwise it will quickly die out. And if it can’t follow Christ both in thought and deed, then it is a death I welcome with open arms.

“I’m a Progressive/Emergent Christian, so I can’t be a hypocritical, unloving, insulting, jerk you simple-minded fool!”


"Yo, back off!" - Francis Chan (not an actual quote)

When the video of Rob Bell came out in early March promoting his book Love Wins (see my review here), controversy ensued when Rob Bell and other Reformed leaders began to critique the video. Many progressive/emergent Christians were up in arms, decrying such actions saying, “You haven’t even read the book yet!” So of course when Francis Chan wrote a book and then posted a video for it, one that is supposed to function as a response to Love Wins, you’d expect that people would follow their own advice and wait to read the book.

But no. That didn’t happen.

Instead, what many of the neo-Calvinist were accused of doing (e.g. hating Rob Bell, insulting him, going after him as a person, jumping the gun, assuming things about his theology, etc) they have actually been up to themselves. When Bell was criticized before his book was even out, many decided to say that the criticism revealed more about the critics than about Bell’s book. They were upset that people would slam Rob Bell as a person. They accused the Calvinists of hating Rob Bell in fact. Even I implicitly pointed out that we should read Bell’s book before criticizing it or uplifting it.

But with Francis Chan’s announcement of his new book, the Progressive and Emergent ground has apparently forgotten all their righteous indignation when it was Bell being attacked. For one, back during the Bell controversy, one progressive Christian went so far as to insinuate that any Christian who believed in Hell should be treated like a moron. In response to the Chan video, one emergent blogger essentially did a hit piece on the video, criticizing how Chan came across and making light of Chan’s theology (essentially treating Chan like an idiot). The same writer who compared people who believe in Hell to children also attacked Chan as a person rather than dealing with the message. He goes after the style of the video and then attacks Chan’s beliefs on Hell…even though Chan never states his beliefs and his book isn’t out yet. In essence, the same criticisms people had against the Reformed crowd concerning Bell’s book could easily be levied against the progressive and emergent crowd concerning Chan’s book.

Now make no mistake, I’m not a fan of Chan (rhyming not intended). It’s not that I’m against Chan, I just don’t know who he is. I haven’t listened to any sermons by him or read anything written by him. Perhaps it’s because I’m a closet hipster and haven’t read him because he’s too mainstream for my taste, or I just haven’t had time to read him because I’ve been busy reading other things. But this post isn’t meant to be a defense of Chan or his beliefs. I don’t know what his beliefs are. I haven’t read his book.

The bigger point I want to make is one that I’ve made numerous times before; the emergent movement is highly hypocritical and woefully lacking in its own self-criticism. How many posts can you find from an emergent author criticizing anything about progressive Christianity or emergent thinking? It seems that for all their finger-pointing and ridicule of all things conservative, the emergent crowd has forgotten to look into the mirror.

Now I don’t say this in a triumphal way or as a way to negate anything they’re saying, but instead I point it out as an honest plea to those who consider themselves emergent (or those who just want to be “beyond labels,” which is a label…). For all the criticisms the emergents have towards the Reformed authors (some criticisms I agree with) they forget or ignore how self-critical these authors are when it comes to conservative Christians or their own churches (some criticisms I agree with). For instance, the best books I’ve read about how dumbed-down many conservative evangelicals seem to be have come from conservative evangelical authorsContinue reading

Paradoxy Blog Tour: Reviewing Chapter 6


As I indicated on my Facebook page, I’m participating in Ken Howard’s blog tour for his book “Paradoxy: Creating a Christian Community Beyond Us and Them.” There are other blogs that have covered this and I encourage you to read their reviews in addition to my own.

My review is going to be split into two parts. Because I wanted to be as fair as I could in doing this review (since the author was kind enough to ask me to do this review after he and I disagreed on some things), I have split my review into two parts. The first part is a bare-boned review that covers the chapter as it is. No commentary is given, no evaluations, no judgments. This is done to encourage the reader to go read the book themselves. The second part is a critical review, giving commentary, praise, and critiques. Even there I seek to be as fair as possible, for those looking for a ‘hit piece’ against what will undoubtedly be labeled an “Emergent Book” are in for a disappointment. While I certainly do disagree with portions of the chapter (and the book), it is still a worthy read and there is a lot to gain from reading it. I fully intend to do an entire book review after the blog tour is over. But for now, the chapter will suffice.

REVIEW OF CHAPTER SIX: “THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME”

Sometimes there is simply no getting around it – the Church, as a whole, feels like it’s failing or has failed. After all, we’ve moved from what was once considered a “Christian society” to what is now being called a “post-Christian era.” What is the Church to do in the shifting sands of modern culture? That is the question Ken Howard attempts to answer in his book Paradoxy: Creating a Christian Culture Beyond Us and Them.

In the chapters leading up to Chapter Six, Howard proposes that we are enduring a paradigm shift in the Church and that the Church is in a culture that is moving away (and becoming hostile to) Christendom and absolutism, the two staples of Church theology for the past 2,000 years. In light of this, we must look to Christianities that could have been and extrapolate what made them successful in their time and place, and then make the move toward applying such principles to the modern church. Chapter Six is Howard’s attempt at giving a brief overview of how a modern church would function.

The thesis of the chapter is quite simple – all churches need to live in the love of Christ (the Incarnational Christ from the Trinitarian God) as the center of their community. Everything else is peripheral. Anticipating that both conservatives and liberals would find difficulty in such a way of thinking, he implores Liberals to see that such a shift in thinking is a progressive paradigm while explaining to Conservatives that what they see as “God’s Truth” that needs to be defended doesn’t in fact need to be defended. That is, if they fear putting Christ as the center of their church community because it would abdicate progressive ideas or conservative apologetics, neither side should be afraid; Christ is progressive and capable of defending His doctrines without our help.

The most challenging aspect of the chapter is attempting to imagine a church where disagreement is not only acknowledged, but is also welcomed and encouraged. He uses his own congregation as an example of a church attempting to live with Christ’s love as the centerpiece. He shares multiple examples of how this has worked (and sometimes failed), such as pointing out that a former CIA member who’s political view is self-described as, “To the right of Genghis Khan” has befriended and works with a disabled homosexual man. He points to a husband and wife, one conservative and the other liberal, who haven’t been able to worship together for quite some time until they discovered Howard’s’ church. Such examples serve to aid in silencing the critics who say that such an idea could never work; of course it can work because it’s working right now. Continue reading

How to Demonize Those Who Disagree: A Lesson from Tony Jones


The lesson isn’t so much taught by Tony Jones, but rather he acts as a good example. Jones apparently has closed shop for on the idea of having an emergent conversation and would now rather only discuss Christianity with people he agrees with. This is based on the fact that now anyone who supports the Tea Party is considered a “teabagger” to Jones. Now of course this is a very derogatory and grotesque term to use (especially considering the origin of the term), but that doesn’t prevent Jones from using it. Why? Because he’s no different than a Jerry Falwell or a Pat Robertson; he must demonize the opposition in order to defeat and silence the opposition.

Jones goes on to link to an article that accuses people who believe that America was founded upon an evangelical past – such as David Barton – for wanting an era or, “white, middle-class, pre-Civil Rights, pre-Vietnam, pre-Watergate past. An imagined day when men were men, women were women, African Americans knew their place, and Mexicans lived south of the border.” In other words, those who see vestiges of evangelicalism in the past, such as Barton, are also racists and don’t like having a black man in office. Instead, they want to go back to the days when blacks were slaves or at least knew they were lesser than the white man. What does the article offer up as proof for these allegations? Nothing, it’s simply a motive that’s ascribed to an entire movement.

I am not a part of the Tea Party movement (as I don’t place my hope in politics and I find the movement to be reactionary, wrong on many points, and uncivil) and I certainly don’t believe that evangelicals founded America (they were involved, but there were many mainline Protestants and Deists involved), but that doesn’t mean I’m going to go around calling people “teabaggers” or attempting to ascribe racist motives to an entire movement. The reason I won’t is because I try to give people the benefit of the doubt rather than demonize them.

But Jones, both in what he said and what he linked, is trying to poison the well. “Don’t listen to the Tea Party or evangelicals because they’re racist!” The sad reality is that “racist” has become the new “Nazi.” It used to be that if you could link someone to Nazi ideology, you win. That person is then ascribed as a Nazi and no one would ever listen to what the person said. Being labeled a Nazi delegitimized any point you wanted to make and stopped any hope of discourse on the issue. Now we use the term “racist” and simply try to call people racists. “Oh, they’re not against President Obama’s policies, they’re against him as a black man.” What proof is offered up to prove the biggest problem is a black man is in office? The same amount of proof offered up that a movement is akin to the Nazi Party – none. Continue reading

Is Christianity a custom fit religion?


I’ve been noticing more and more that people speak of Christianity, specifically coming to Christ, as a “journey” rather than a lifestyle that is adopted. The problem is that the term “journey” today might mean something different than it did in the past.

In ancient Christianity the idea of “theosis” was prevalent. The idea that we must begin to move towards being like God in all things except being and identity. Since that can sometimes be confused with pantheism (which the teaching of theosis is not pantheistic at all, but can be confused as such), we have used different terms over the years to describe the act of theosis. We use sanctification, Christ-like, Godly, and other terms to indicate that we are becoming more like Christ. In this way, Christianity is a journey and one where different people will be on different levels of their journey. Some of them might grow closer to Christ through engaging in music or paintings. Others might grow through books. But even though the style of our growth might be subjective, historically the journey required fidelity to Christ and His teachings.

Lately, however, the word “journey” is merely code for, “What I like in a religion.” I heard someone the other day say that he was looking for a religion that fit him. He really liked what some Christians had to offer, especially from a local church that met at a bar on Sunday nights. He said he felt that he wouldn’t have to change too much, just change his plans on Sunday nights to attend.

This is the Christianity that we’ve been breeding for some time now. We have built a custom-fit religion that doesn’t require us to change either how we act or how we think (or both). We like a religion that conforms to our culture rather than having to conform to the religion. This is one reason that the “institutional” church is facing such a backlash right now; we’re constantly told that Christianity is a relationship and not a religion. We’re told that the relationship exists, but the rules are man-made. Even those who are part of the institution of the Church tend to distance themselves away from the institution and attempt to look more “journey-friendly” than anything else. We all know of “big box” churches that tower above the landscape that when you walk it they just feel more contemporary. The stage is set up in a professional manner, the preacher will wear a polo shirt with jeans or, if he’s younger, shorts. They use terms like “small group” and “discussion group,” even if there is little discussion occurring. Regardless, no matter how much such churches may try to appear to be laid back and rule free, they still have rules, regulations, and doctrines that members must adhere to in order to be active in the church.

An unforeseen consequence of such anti-establishment thinking, however, has been the erosion of all standards and all doctrines. For so long we’ve railed against rules and conformity to a system that the younger generation has begin to move away from the rules that we did keep and the doctrines we viewed as essential. We have created a very individualistic faith, but Christianity is the furthest thing from individualistic. How have we made a communal faith individualistic? We’ve eradicated the necessity for people to conform and instead now we expect the church to conform to the people. Continue reading