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Thoughts on Emergent

Posted: June 7th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I’ve read Julie Clawson’s post, Disappointed with Emergent?, and followed the replies with a fair degree of interest. I’ve thought about what I might say in a comment and it’s never really seemed to fit the focus and flow of the discussion or be something I could say succinctly. As I’ve thought about it, I’ve decided to write my own post at a tangent to her post and the rest of the broader discussion on the topic. I’m not involved with Emergent in any way, unlike many of the others who have posted. So my thoughts will be from a somewhat different perspective.

I became aware of Emergent probably about five years ago or so. It impinged on my consciousness not through a book, a search, particular sorts of questions, or anything like that. Rather, I was introduced to this particular conversation by a friend.  That friend had grown up, I gather, within the more or less typical southern evangelical conservative culture. There are the sorts of ups and downs we tend to expect in those stories, but it does include some ways of treating fellow human beings as a young man, flowing in some ways from that particular culture, that do still weigh on his conscience. Personally, while I can listen and accept that he is telling stories from his personal history, I cannot connect that person to the man I have come to know. I suppose that’s not surprising, really. Though I see myself as continuous with the person I was twenty years ago and more, I do know that so much about me has shifted so much that in some ways I’m hardly the same person at all. To one degree or another, that’s probably true of most of us. From what I understand, Emergent and related conversations had done a great deal to remold and perhaps even preserve the faith of my friend. I don’t want to speak too strongly, but I think he encountered it at a time where trying to continue to do what he had always done was no longer really possible.

We had come to know each other well enough that he knew my background and knew it was about as far from the story of the evangelical suburban childhood as you can get within our shared American context. While the forces of modernity that shaped and formed the Reformation still largely shape both the liberal and conservative branches of Protestantism, I was molded and formed culturally, spiritually, and practically within the postmodern whirlwind. I’ve been a Christian for about a decade and a half within the context of an SBC church. I don’t have anything bad to say about them. They are great people. I love many of them. But I’ll never think, approach life, approach God, or practice the spiritual dimension of my life as many of them do. I’ve tried on a lot of it to see what would stick and relatively little has. Yet these are the people who finally brought Jesus of Nazareth to me in a way that actually took root. I will always honor that.

I think as he came to understand my background, my friend was a little curious. After all, the Emergent conversation has spoken a lot about the postmodern or post-postmodern culture and the way it relates to Christian faith and understanding.  Again, I can’t really speak to the motives or thoughts of another, but I do think he wondered how someone like me would react to things within the emerging conversation (whether people were actually associated with Emergent or not). He pointed out a few articles on the Ooze to me. (I’ve never been fond of forums, so I never have read all that much there unless someone pointed something out and asked me to read it. If it doesn’t come to me in the form of email, text, or full text in my RSS Reader, the odds of me following something over time are vanishingly small.) He loaned me A Generous Orthodoxy to see what I thought of it. He pointed out some of the main voices in the conversation and I quickly found others on my own. My cultural and spiritual shaping were deeply pluralistic and relativistic. Those have both been altered by and through Jesus of Nazareth, but they very much remain my default position. They are a constituent component of the lens through which I perceive reality. It was strange to me to hear evangelical voices at least attempting to communicate and approach God in ways that were often akin to my native mode.

I thank him deeply for that. And not really for introducing me to the specific voices that he did, as much as by expanding where I looked to try to understand the God of this thing called Christianity. I was mostly reading Athanasius, St. John Chrysostom, Brother Lawrence, St. John of the Cross and similar voices from the past. On the more modern side, the only two I read a lot of works by were C.S. Lewis and Max Lucado. (Yes, Max is the prototypical evangelical. But he’s also a great storyteller. And he tells stories about a God you might actually want to know and worship. I find a lot of people knock him simply because he isn’t other than who and what he is.) Notably, if I had not encountered this conversation, I don’t know if I would have stumbled across Dallas Willard, N.T. Wright, and Scot McKnight at all. And it was through Scot McKnight that I discovered modern Orthodoxy and that there actually were still people today who believe stuff about God and Jesus and humanity similar to what  those who lived and wrote in the first millenium of Christianity believed. I was becoming discouraged because it seemed that nobody actually still believed the stories and descriptions of God and tales of what it meant to be a human being that I found most interesting, provocative, and compelling. And it didn’t seem like many I heard today were actually describing the God I encountered and whom I thought I was getting to know.

Would I still be Christian if I had not encountered those modern voices above and others like them? I don’t actually know the answer to that question. I do know that my faith was wearing awfully thin. Even for me, it’s hard to constantly be among people who see God in ways you don’t and never will. I’m pretty used to not fitting in. That’s the story of my life. But a decade of it wears on even me, especially when the God most often described is the one that’s pretty typical in conservative evangelicalism. Further, I was questioning if I had done the right thing introducing my children to this environment and allowing it to shape them. (In all honesty, that remains an open question in my mind. You do the best that you know how to do at the time when raising kids and pray you don’t screw up too badly.) I didn’t learn anything about postmodern culture, of course. I’m as much a face of postmodern formation as any other you’ll find. But I did find a Christianity worth continuing to believe, perhaps not directly in Emergent, but certainly through the process and connections engaged in its conversation.

So am I disappointed with Emergent? No. I find it wryly amusing that some apparently expected some sort of revolutionary movement from the organization. There’s not a lot of room for revolution when threading between Scylla and Charybdis, though some engage in it nonetheless. Emergent says valuable things in a context where they often are not said. That’s useful. And it helps people navigate the fractured chaos that Christianity has become in ways that do not destroy faith. That’s valuable. Disappointment implies expectations. And expectations tend to tell us more about those who hold them than they do about the target or focus of those expectations.

Or at least so it seems to me.

2 Comments on “Thoughts on Emergent”

  1. 1 melissa said at 12:22 pm on June 9th, 2009:

    “Emergent says valuable things in a context where they often are not said. That’s useful. And it helps people navigate the fractured chaos that Christianity has become in ways that do not destroy faith.”

    Beautiful. Simply beautiful. Most of my experiences with Emergent have (unfortunately) been with folks who did not understand themselves as saying valuable things where they need to be heard, but rather saw themselves as the new wave of anti-institutionalism, whereby only a deconstructed or non-traditional church structure could ever hope to faithfully preach and live the gospel in the world. I would like Emergent a whole lot better if more of the folks I’ve encountered understood themselves in the way that you describe them above.

  2. 2 Scott said at 7:00 pm on June 9th, 2009:

    I can’t claim to have a lot of Emergent connections or to be particularly involved. My intersection has been more tangential than anything else. Nevertheless, what I wrote describes the people and voices I’ve encountered. Given its nature, I suppose I’m not surprised it also attracts those of an anti-institutional nature. Yet plenty are perfectly willing to work within and/or along with those in various existing structures — from Presbyterian to Methodist to Lutheran to Anglican to Roman Catholic. And many other sorts as well, I’m sure.

    And thanks for the compliment. That bit had just kinda flowed off my fingers. I didn’t actually really notice it until you pulled it out and quoted it.