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September 17, 2009 / compassioninpolitics

The Straw person Critique of Emergent Church

The Straw person Critique of Emergent Church

Joe Wells in a recent Think/Focus Press article entitled “Ancient Attack Plan Made Modern: The Emergent Church Movement” highlights:

Aside from the many blatant contradictions of the Emergent movement with the Word of God, the inconsistency within their own logic also serve as devastating as winds and rains. They argue that we can’t know absolute truth, all the while claiming that they absolutely know this to be true. They’ll say there is no good reasons for what we believe while saying there are good reasons to believe this. They also profess that the true knowledge is out of our reach while claiming they have the knowledge to know that true knowledge is out of our reach. This house is truly man’s frail attempt to build a house without the Rock being the foundation. The sand just doesn’t hold up.

It is true that sin exists and is something that Christians should generally be against. The article also points to the primacy and ultimate Truth of the Bible. Unfortunately, sloppy scholarship, theology, and journalism on the part of the Joe Wells article (and several others I’ve read recently from Christian circles) creates a straw person argument, instead of anything resembling a true or robust criticism of the work of Emergent’s principles beyond the assumption of relativism. I understand Well’s oversights–his intent wasn’t to be academic–but certainly it was to be truthful and not misrepresent the diverse views of large numbers of individuals. In fact when Wells quotes Brian McClaren:

Arguments that pit absolutism versus relativism, and objectivism vs. subjectivism, prove meaningless or absurd to postmodern people.

Initially this isn’t his argument as much as the tagline of his argument. Additionally, this is more an assertion of fact rather than a value judgement. It asserts we live in post-modern times (which is partially true–but people still look to capitalism, technology, the military, and science for solutions) Thats not to say McClaren isn’t making an argument about textual interpretation, but this specific statement is not one at the level at which Mr. Wells evaluates it.

Does postmodernism have problems, yes (as highlighted by feminist Catherine MacKinnon and others–read her “Points Against Postmodernism” for critique of the focus on textual criticism and postmodern theory in the context of politics both personal and political.) I just wish from truth and education sake that the article had delved into any kind of nuance and specificity without providing a broad stroke criticism (which seems basically based off a two page article by Norman Geisler–both make essentially the same critique of post-modern Christian theology as represented in Emergent Church philosophies–see Geislers seven indicts of postmodern thought) The article paints the conflict as objectivism vs. relativism, when the issue is far more extensive and nuanced than such sound bites can suggest.

I realize its difficult to provide an adequate review and critique of Emergent church in a one page article, however this article is fundamentally in error in three areas:

1) Doesn’t describe the emergent church with any nuance (From my understanding their are large differences between McClaren and Stanley Grenz on the one hand, and Rob Bell and Donald Miller on the other)
2) The emergent church itself contains a great deal of diversity which isn’t referenced in the article (A 2007 Christianity Today article about the emergent church points to 5 different varieties) This is analogous to lumping all religious or Protestants theology, beliefs, and churches together.
3) The important faith questions which Emergent church brings up are entirely omitted from the articles consideration
4) It looks like the author read no more than 3 articles about Emergent, without looking to what the primary texts say. This would be analogous to writing an article on health policy by combining the insight of 3 interesting articles rather than looking at the work of public policy experts and the specifics of the bill text. Someone who launches such a criticism should as a Christian and academic examine a much larger breadth of scholarship and work. They have a responsibility for communicating and informing, not for oversimplifying and creating sound-bite-like refutation

To me, I see this as a larger lack of desire of humility and listen (via reading and research) into the interdisciplinary issues which arise around postmodern times, peoples, and theory. In fact, several emergents have written “Our Response to Critics of Emergent” which implores those who critique:

We would only ask, if you accept our critics’ evaluation of our work, that in fairness you abstain from adding your critique to theirs unless you have actually read our books, heard us speak, and engaged with us in dialogue for yourself. Second-hand critique can easily become a kind of gossip that drifts from the truth and causes needless division.

The problem is that in reading two paragraphs from Mc Laren–who is probably the most vocal, most controversial, most popular, and probably the most extreme Emergent theorists, is that others like Rob Bell and Donald Miller don’t share such radical views. This is unfortunately, all to common, in fact emergents have implored readers, authors and theorists:

Sixth, we would like to clarify, contrary to statements and inferences made by some, that yes, we truly believe there is such a thing as truth and truth matters – if we did not believe this, we would have no good reason to write or speak; no, we are not moral or epistemological relativists any more than anyone or any community is who takes hermeneutical positions – we believe that radical relativism is absurd and dangerous, as is arrogant absolutism; yes, we affirm the historic Trinitarian Christian faith and the ancient creeds, and seek to learn from all of church history – and we honor the church’s great teachers and leaders from East and West, North and South; yes, we believe that Jesus is the crucified and risen Savior of the cosmos and no one comes to the Father except through Jesus; no, we do not pit reason against experience but seek to use all our God-given faculties to love and serve God and our neighbors; no, we do not endorse false dichotomies – and we regret any false dichotomies unintentionally made by or about us (even in this paragraph!); and yes, we affirm that we love, have confidence in, seek to obey, and strive accurately to teach the sacred Scriptures, because our greatest desire is to be followers and servants of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. We regret that we have either been unclear or misinterpreted in these and other areas.

But we also acknowledge that we each find great joy and promise in dialogue and conversation, even about the items noted in the previous paragraph. Throughout the history of the church, followers of Jesus have come to know what they believe and how they believe it by being open to the honest critique and varied perspectives of others. We are radically open to the possibility that our hermeneutic stance will be greatly enriched in conversation with others. In other words, we value dialogue very highly, and we are convinced that open and generous dialogue – rather than chilling criticism and censorship – offers the greatest hope for the future of the church in the world.

We regret that some of our critics have made hasty generalizations and drawn erroneous conclusions based on limited and selective data.

The critique is effectively a hit-piece which throws the baby out with the bath water. While I share Well’s apprehension and fear of the more radical forms of the Emergent church (particularly the so-called revisionists), I still think there are several kernels of important truth (or rather Truth) in its literature. And I understand that postmodern literature can sometimes be dense, but Donald Miller, McClaren, and Rob Bell are reasonably clear in most of their writings. Unfortunately, this type of article is not the kind that builds bridges of understanding or listening on the part of either side, but rather cycles of refutation, accussation, and unnecessary strife.

Not everything from emergent is good or right. I think three theme Emergent has captured are:

1) the upside-down nature of God’s kingdom
2) Christians should be about humility (some do it better than others–and this is something we can all learn about)
3) The importance of small groups and community
4) Jesus was a rebel and outcast

According to Ed Stetzer in one of his articles on Emergent church theology suggests there are three main groups in emergent (Relevants, Reconstructivists, Revisionsists: the exact configurations of the groups isn’t important or useful, as I’m sure any number of demarcations are possible) and seems to point out that all bring something to the table. He is highly skeptical of the revisionists as he terms them (as am I):

Revisionists are questioning (and in some cases denying) issues like the nature of the substitutionary atonement, the reality of hell, the complementarian nature of gender, and the nature of the Gospel itself. This is not new — some mainline theologians quietly abandoned these doctrines a generation ago. The revisionist emerging church leaders should be treated, appreciated and read as we read mainline theologians — they often have good descriptions, but their prescriptions fail to take into account the full teaching of the Word of God.

Does that mean we cannot learn from them? Certainly not. I read mainline theologians like Marcus Borg and George Lindbeck like others in the past read Karl Barth — good thinkers, but deeply wrong on issues I hold as important. I read many emerging church writers the same way. They ask good questions, but I am driven to Scripture for the answers.

(I think Ed may be conflating “seeker sensitive” relevant churches with “seeker sensitive” emergent churches which bare some of the same symbology and metaphors, but his categories are still helpful for our purposes here)

So returning to our main quest to determine what emergent is and how it sees the world, what it offers us, and where it might go wrong–were left with creating a criteria for what would constitute a minimalist criticism/review of emergent thought in America:

1) is academically and journalistically viable (I’m not saying this article passes that litmus test either)
2) which takes a more in depth look at the multiple layers of theology writing (instead of simple black/white, good/bad at the buzzword level)
3) which looks to multiple authors from a tradition to provide representative samples (rather than taking the summaries they’ve found somewhere else–I’m sorry if I’m wrong on this, but there are no footnotes while 4 different authors were referenced)

Only then can we be honest to the theory and theology and ultimately honest with readers. For a far more nuanced and in depth understanding of Emergent-type churches and thinkers from someone outside the movement, but interested and passionate about the issues it addresses check out John H Armstrongs detailing of individual churches. (I probably agree with 92 to 95% of what Armstong says–I think he’s a little hard on the seeker sensitive Mars Hill given what I see as their mission and goals in relation to new Christians as well as it only being a single Sunday encounter rather than a prolonged elbows deep relationship in the community at Mars Hill, but certainly honest and open about his encounter with Rob Bell and his congregants) For instance Armstrong delineates three types of churches in a post about the truth war about emergent churchwhich is more helpful for understanding the metaphor various churches use for addressing issues of Biblical interpretation and doctrine:

1. A boundary-set way of thinking

2. A center-set way of thinking

3. A relationship-set way of thinking

If you’re interested in multi-media on Rob Bell you can watch Rob Bell Nooma videos for free or check out videos for “Everything is Spiritual” For an audio sermon at Mars Hill on Story by Donald Miller you can download it for free on iTunes.

More Informed and Accurate Sources on Emergent Church Doctrine

Also read the Skinny on the Emerging Church in the USA by Andrew Jones. You can also check out his most influential books in the emerging church movement, so you can know who are the so-called “emerging church leaders” at least from an intellectual perspective. [I think Andrew is apt to point out that pastor Rob Bell doesn’t really fall in Emergent and this classification of him as emergent doesn’t quite make sense]. You can even check out Dr. Ed Stetzer on emerging church if you want a more extended exchange between mainline and emergent church thought. Also, incredibly helpful in determining what emergent is and what it says is reading “Our Response to Critics of Emergent” written by actual emergents rather than a secondary source or media outlet.

More Informed Research on the Four “Emergent”/Postmodern Authors Mentioned in the Focus Press Article
If you would like to hear about postmodern and emergent perspectives on truth, life, and theology you can find these authors for free on Google books:

Brian McClaren
Rob Bell
Donald Miller
Stanley Grenz

** I hope I was honest to Focus Press’ criticism and don’t fall prey to any of the commentary
***I also appreciate much of what I find in Focus Presses’ publication Think magazine and read it on a monthly basis. This is not meant to decry or criticize their overall mission or work.


Leave a Comment
  1. Matt Huggins / Oct 8 2009 12:40 pm

    While careless critique is to be avoided, the adoption by a diverse group of faith communities of the label “emergent” placed upon them the burden of clarifying their shared (and unshared) beliefs. If the movant fails to carry the initial burden imposed upon it, the respondent’s failings are of little relevance.

  2. compassioninpolitics / Oct 8 2009 1:02 pm


    The issue is that in this case the overarching label isn’t helpful for creating a constructive dialog. It would be as if assume that all political debates in America were between the Republicans and the Democrats. That faulty analysis creates unnecessary confusion and skews the truth. We have debates that involve multiple sub-groups including liberals, conservatives, libertarians, progressives, moderates on both sides of the isle, and entire other discussions that don’t register on the.

    To borrow on the analogy–if we find ourselves on either side of the major divide in America–its all the more incumbent and smart to engage the moderates on the one hand and figure our what makes the more radical adherents tick. (I’m sorry to use the word “radical,” but perhaps those who we find furthest from our core beliefs).

    Also, I believe that Andrew Jones isn’t all that opposed to sub-group labels of emergent, but I may be mistaken.

    Not all Emergents are McClaren adherents. In the same way not all GOP are adherents to Rush or Mcain and not all Democrats are Nancy Pelosi or Michael Moore.

    If we decide that there are no alternatives to categories–we should do our best to make them categories of one.

    Independently however, it should be independently both smart, dignified, and Godly that we treat them as individuals (and their beliefs as such) rather than members of a group.

    Thanks for your query. I hope I’ve answered it. If not…feel free to engage me further. Thanks for reading.

    Just my humble opinion,

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