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July 16, 2008

Contrived Mystery?

In his new book, The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World, theologian David Wells comes down harder on the emerging church than Chuck did two years ago:

[The emerging church constituency] is made up of a loose coalition of churches that came together during the 1990s and now constitute the so-called emerging church....They are... all linked together in a "conversation" live on the Web. Anyone who lived through the earlier era when Protestant liberals were so dominant in the churches recognizes all too clearly what this conversation is about. It is one we have heard before.

Emergents, as I shall call them, are about deconstruction. This is an important point. They have not sought to be movement builders because that, in a way, would defy their essential posture of pulling away from everything else. They are skeptical of power and its structures.

What they are against is often clearer than what they are for. However, they are united in thinking  that classical evangelicalism, especially in its Reformed configuration, is part and parcel of modernity. By this they mean that it is rationalistic. And by that they mean it imagines that people can actually know truth with some certainty. That, they believe, is pretentious, fraudulent, and arrogant.

Emergents--at least those who read theology--seem to have stumbled on the postliberals, and this is what is now driving this new understanding of the function of Scripture. They have taken up this fad as if it were the most current, cutting-edge expression in contemporary thought, though in the academic world it has already disappeared.

Wells says that emergents are attempting to "offset" their loss of truth, just an the environmentalist attempts to offset his carbon footprint. For instance, an environmentally conscious person worries about his carbon footprint when he's thinking of taking a vacation that requires jet travel. How to resolve this difficulty? "Easy!" Wells writes.

In Britain, for example, there are businesses that cater to those of sensitive consciences. Buy your ticket from them and they will plant a tree for you. That is offsetting.

How, among emergents, am I mistaken in thinking that a different kind of offsetting is happening? The loss of truth is being offset by increasingly adventurous experiments in worship and by various attempts at recovering a lost sense of mystery. My view is that this kind of offsetting is an illusion. There is no offset for the loss of truth. There can be only a cover-up of what has taken place. When our knowledge of God's truth is diminished, our understanding of God is diminished, and no amount of contrived mystery through ancient liturgies or gatherings in the presence of dim, flickering candlelight can compensate for this loss.

Strong words--and frankly, I agree with them. I'm looking forward to the explosion from emerging Point readers.

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Mike Perry

Perhaps these 'emergents' real problem is with commitment of any sort, with a lack of commitment to the truth merely one aspect. And can you really find meaning without commitment? I suspect it's like the hedonistic paradox that pleasure sought for no more reason than to enjoy the pleasure proves empty. You have to love something to love the pleasure it gives. In the same way, meaning cannot develop without some particularized concept of the world in which it can be framed. We can't take shortcuts with life. Pleasure requires love. Meaning requires truth.

Prof. Wells' environmental parallel is a good one. I watched the head of the Episcopal church in the U.S. speak on environmentalism at one of the loveliest venues in Seattle, with a marvelous 120-degree view of Puget Sound and the Olympic mountains. The eco-fanatics attending showed little interest in the views so close at hand and left well before a marvelous sunset. They had what they wanted, a free reusable shopping bag to replace the 'evil' disposable ones so fashionably maligned in Seattle.

--Michael W. Perry, editor of Theism and Humanism by Arthur Balfour.

Diane Singer

Well, Anne, I agree with you. I think Wells' is spot on in his analysis. His words about how the emergents are "offsetting" the loss of truth chill my soul. I followed the book link to Amazon and added it to my wish list. Thanks for the heads up!


Well, I may be a little dinominationally confused, having grown up in a non-dinominational church, gone to a baptist church in high school, and currently attending a presbyterian church, but I'm no emergent. I do, however, think that grouping the entire emergent movement into one theological belief system displays a lack of critical thinking. For instance, Erwin McMannis believes it more effective to argue for Christianity from a pos-modern standpoint, meaning you don't need to establish the existence of absolute truth to argue for our inner need for God. Rob Bel, on the other hand, believes strongly in our ability to know God and his characteristics through scriptural study, he merely thinks that knowing any aspect of God will inevitably lead to even more questions about God's character. McMannis and Bel are two of the emerging church's leading figures, but they are here shown to be fundamentally opposed in their approach to knowing God. McMannis would rather people look inside themselves and find a need for God, while Bel would rather we look to scripture and know God's existence and characteristics that way. It is only a failure to notice distinctions such as these that allow people to dismiss the emergent church as one big fluffy feel-good fest only interested in mystery and burning incense.
But I think much more important than dismissing or fighting against the emerging church is identifying and solving the problem that has led to the existence of the emerging church at all. The church as we know it has obviously become irrelevant in the eyes of many young evangelicals, who have taken to going and doing church their own way with no regard for the church that disappointed them. Why did it disappoint them? How is it that so many people within the church have come to see the church as boring or even harmful? The answer from some will inevitably be that some force outside the church (media, liberals, etc) is responsible for distorting the message of Christianity. Very well then, however we're now trying to correct those distortions is not working. What do we need to do to make Christianity relevant again? Not relevant in the sense of conforming our religion to the culture, but in the sense of showing that there could be nothing more relevant to people's lives than Yahweh. We can make our theological arguments against the emerging church all we want, and if you are convicted that they are wrong on some point, you should, but change within the "traditional" church is clearly necessary. So let's not get separated from our need to act by mere dismissal of our brothers and sisters in the emergent church.

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