Thursday, May 01, 2008
Book Review: The New Christians
I just finished reading Tony Jones' latest book, The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier, and I have to say that it is hands down the best book to read for a basic and yet thorough description of what the emerging church (and especially the Emergent Village influenced part of it) is all about. I resonated with nearly everything Tony said about what motivates us "emergents" and how we tend to think about things. He put these in the form of 20 short "dispatches". These are:

  1. Emergents find little importance in the discrete differences between different flavors of Christianity. Instead, they practice a generous orthodoxy that appreciates the contributions of all Christian movements.
  2. Emergents reject the politics and theologies of left versus right. Seeing both sides as a remnant of modernity, they look forward to a more complex reality.
  3. The gospel is like lava: no matter how much crust has formed over it, it will always find a weak point and burst through.
  4. The emergent phenomenon began in the late 1990's when a group of Christian leaders began a conversation about how postmodernism was affecting the faith.
  5. The emergent movement is not exclusively North American; it is growing around the globe.
  6. Emergents see God's activity in all aspects of culture and reject the sacred-secular divide.
  7. Emergents believe that an envelope of friendship and reconciliation must surround all debates about doctrine and dogma.
  8. Emergents find the biblical call to community more compelling than the democratic call to individual rights. The challenge lies in being faithful to both ideals.
  9. The emergent movement is robustly theological; the conviction is that theology and practice are inextricably related, and each invariably informs the other.
  10. Emergents believe that theology is local, conversational, and temporary. To be faithful to the theological giants of the past, emergents endeavor to continue their theological dialogue.
  11. Emergents believe that awareness of our relative position - to God, to one another, and to history - breeds biblical humility, not relativistic apathy.
  12. Emergents embrace the whole Bible, the glory and the pathos.
  13. Emergents believe that truth, like God, cannot be definitively articulated by finite human beings.
  14. Emergents embrace paradox, especially those that are core components of the Christian story.
  15. Emergents hold to a hope-filled eschatology: it was good news when Jesus came the first time, and it will be good news when he returns.
  16. Emergents believe that church should function more like an open-source network and less like a hierarchy or a bureaucracy.
  17. Emergents start new churches to save their own faith, not necessarily as an outreach strategy.
  18. Emergents firmly hold that God's Spirit - not their own efforts - is responsible for good in the world. The human task is to cooperate with God in what God is already doing.
  19. Emergents downplay - or outright reject - the differences between clergy and laity.
  20. Emergents believe that church should be just as beautiful and messy as life.

I have to confess that I fit pretty much all of these descriptors. This is very much my own journey too. I think Tony has captured where a lot of us are at. And he embeds these dispatches within a narrative of where the emerging church came from and how it evolved, along with many other first hand stories and anecdotes of people and churches on the emerging journey. This is Tony's strength as both the National Coordinator of Emergent Village (a semi-formal network/friendship among some of the original influencers of the emergent movement, as well as many others like myself who have found it to be a welcoming tribe and a help to my own journey), and as one of the people who has been intimately involved with the emerging church since the beginning. He gives us the insider's view, and isn't afraid to talk about specifics and name names.

However, one concern I had with the book is that he may be making his statements too broadly and too definitively. While these 20 statements may be true of me, I'm not sure they're are true of all emergents. Tony might have done better to adopt the strategy that many others have used of identifying various "streams" of the emergent movement, and acknowledging that different people are at different points depending on which stream they stand mostly in. (For instance I have identified three streams, Scot McKnight notes five, and Brian McLaren has seven.) I suspect that Tony's description probably does resonate the most with those who identify most closely with Emergent Village and the theological, philosophical, and political conversations typical of that stream of the emerging church. While not entirely neglecting them, he does give significantly less attention to the discussion about worship styles found among folks like Dan Kimball and the British-based alt.worship crowd, or to the structural discussion about "missional" and "organic" churches typified by Alan Hirsch, Spencer Burke, and the rest. I'm not sure if that was deliberate or not. Perhaps Tony felt like his task was to describe his particular stream and simply chose to leave these other streams for others to comment on, but if that's the case, he never quite makes that clear.

I did appreciate that Tony balanced his description to show how emergents are dissatisfied with both the right and the left in American Protestantism. It is well-known that emergents are often critical of conservative evangelicalism, but Tony gives at least as much airtime to emergent complaints against mainline bureaucracy and dogmatic liberalism. Ironically, I've already started hearing from some mainliners who seem shocked at Tony's criticisms of them. As long as we were moving away from conservative Christianity, that was fine, but I wonder if they actually thought it was just a matter of time before we landed in the mainline churches, not realizing that the emerging critique has just as much to do with restrictive church structures as it does with restrictive church dogma. I guess no one likes it when you start trying to barbecue their particular sacred cow.

However, another critique I have of Tony's approach to describing the emergent movement is that much of the time it felt too much focused on how emergents are critical of the rest of the church, and not enough about how we are also generously orthodox and strive to include multiple traditions and streams of faith. That's not to say Tony doesn't mention this at all, he does, but that's not the tone that comes across throughout most of the book. I remember when Doug Pagitt was down here in Chicago speaking to our up/rooted cohort and I asked him how his emerging church, Solomon's Porch (which Tony also attends and describes in the book) was different than other churches. I liked that he refused to answer that question, and instead told that they prefer to think about how the Porch is "kinda like" a lot of other churches (kinda anabaptist, kinda liturgical, kinda evangelical, etc...). I would have liked a little more of this attitude in Tony's book. The emerging church is not merely a movement away from something (though of course that is part of it), but it is also a convergence of a lot of different things that have been bubbling up in many different corners of the church. To fully describe the emergent movement you also have to talk about what it is that we are rediscovering and embracing in the storehouse of the church's great traditions. Instead I felt like Tony was constantly trying to set up a contrast between the emergent movement and what we are emerging from. (Though, to be fair, perhaps he felt like Brian McLaren already covered the first topic sufficiently in A Generous Orthodoxy, and besides which, Tony has never been one to shy away from a good debate, so it doesn't surprise me that he wouldn't pull any punches in this book.)

Nonetheless, overall I still think this is an excellent book and definitely the one to give to someone who wants a basic introduction to the emerging church. As long as you can handle the fact that the emergent movement does offer a critique of the existing church, and therefore may at times critique something from your particular branch of it (whether on the right or left), you should be able to appreciate the concerns that motivate and describe many emergents like myself that Tony so ably highlights.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 11:41 PM | Permalink |


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