Posted by: Dan | November 3, 2006

Discomfort with the Emergent Conversation

For some time I have felt a certain amount of discomfort in relation to the “Emergent church” conversation. Now granted, the number of people who fall under that label is increasingly large and diverse and to make a general criticism of the Emergent conversation is pretty much impossible. Even to criticize the movement based upon it's most famous leaders would be misleading. Criticizing all things Emergent based upon the writings of Brian McLaren (who, IMHO, does really miss the boat a lot of the time) is sort of like criticizing the entire “New Perspective on Paul” based upon the writings of Ed Sanders. For example, people that I admire quite a lot (like Brian Walsh) also fit within the Emergent conversation, and to discard Walsh because of McLaren is sort of like discarding N. T. Wright because one disagrees with Sanders (although Walsh does misunderstand Lyotard's talk about “metanarratives” but that's an aside).

However, with this proviso in mind, let me say that there is a particular trend that seems quite common in the Emergent conversation, and I find this trend to be quite troubling. However, to speak of this as a “trend” may be a bit too strong. Let me just say that I have the impression that this trend is present across the board in the Emergent conversation… but I am open to being mistaken about this. Actually I hope I am.

So what is this trend that seems to be present? Simply stated, I am not convinced that anything terribly new is going on in the Emergent conversation. It seems to me that, for the most part, the Emergent conversation is just another generation learning how to culturally appropriate their Christian faith — it's just that this time faith is being appropriated within a postmodern consumer culture. At the end of the day, it seems as though Emergent folk are just as thoroughly grounded in contemporary culture as traditional Christianity was grounded in modern culture. We've moved from quoting Descartes to quoting Derrida, from reading Dostoyevski to reading Nabokov, from listening to Gospel music to listening to Sufjan Stevens, from celebrating “stale” liturgies to celebrating “ancient-future” services, and we think that this is causing a more genuine form of Christianity to come (back) into existence. I'm not convinced. For the most part, it appears as though the Emergent conversation is not rectifying the mistakes made by prior generations of Christians; in fact, it appears as though they are simply repeating those mistakes in new and updated ways. Thus, once again, you get a Christianity that is oh-so-relevant, but really it's just as self-indulgent as the surrounding culture and as previous generations of Western Christianity. It seems to me that the Emergent conversation is not much better and not much worse than most other church trends that have come and gone in the last one hundred years. It's all just a little too convenient (but, after all, we consumers love convenience). Being Emergent lets me be “hot” and Christian and it doesn't cost me a thing (and we consumers love free things even more than we love convenience).

Now, show me a movement where people are committed to a costly form of Christianity, where people are radically committed to loving God and loving their neighbours, where people are daily laying down their lives for those whom they love, show me this movement or conversation, or whatever, and then I might be inclined to say, “yes, here is the Spirit breaking in (once again) in a new and marvelous way.”

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