Church in the Present Tense: A Candid Look at What’s Emerging – Book Review


So what’s emerging in the emerging church? Are we tired of asking this question yet?

A major criticism of the emerging church has been that it is too difficult to define. Its leaders are accused of being slippery when it comes to articulating their own principles or saying where they stand in relation to each other.

Well, I have to admit that I am not (yet) tired of asking ‘what’s emerging?,’ and a new book by Scot McKnight, Peter Rollins, Kevin Corcoran and Jason Clark offers some useful insights on this.

Church in the Present Tense (Baker, 2011) is the latest in the Emersion series, billed as ‘Emergent Village resources for communities of faith.’ The broadly US-based Emergent Village describes itself as ‘a node in the web of the emerging church.’

The book is designed in such a way that it could be used as a resource for congregations, small study groups, or even university modules (so I think, as a university lecturer).

There are two chapters each under four headings: Philosophy, Theology, Worship, and Bible and Doctrine. The chapters are single-authored by one of the contributors, and their writing ‘talks’ to the other chapters to varying degrees.

Church in the Present Tense also comes with a CD including interviews with Clark, Rollins, Archbishop Rowan Williams, Brian McLaren, Jonny Baker and Kester Brewin, as well as snippets of alternative worship titled: Coca Cola liturgy, Labyrinth, Grace Church Montage and Soul Space. The interview with Rollins features input from Belfast’s Jonny McEwen, a ‘non-member’ of Ikon.

McKnight, Rollins, Corcoran and Clark are four of the ‘big names’ associated with the movement who just happen to have formal doctoral training, variously in religious studies, philosophy and theology.

That makes the style of this book somewhat more ‘academic’ (i.e. heavy going in parts) than other books in the series, such as Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence.

Some chapters are heavier than others, such as Corcoran’s chapter ‘Who’s Afraid of Philosophical Realism?’ This is the first chapter and actually quite useful for setting up the rest of the book, but readers should be warned that they will be expected to grasp the distinctions he makes between philosophical postmodernism, the postmodernism of creative antirealism, epistemic humility, philosophical realism, etc.

Apart from that, what this book does really well is to draw out some of the distinctions between the various strands of thought associated with the emerging church. For example, Corcoran’s chapter on ‘Thy Kingdom Come (on Earth): An Emerging Eschatology’ delves into the conversation about what emergents think about heaven and hell.

Indeed, his summary on page 69 (although Corcoran would probably deny this) could be mistaken for a synopsis of Rob Bell’s latest, controversial book, Love Wins:

‘… many in the emerging conversation find what I like to call christocentric universalism – the belief that eventually all human beings are reconciled to God in Christ – extremely attractive. Some, sadly, may first need to experience the torments of hell, but eventually love will win, God will win, and all will be saved.’

Corcoran contrasts that vision with what he calls the ‘perpetual deferral’ of the kingdom of God, which he associates with Rollins and the philosophers Jacques Derrida and John Caputo. He describes perpetual deferral as ‘no matter what we come to understand of God and of his justice, the reality of God and God’s kingdom is inexhaustible; there is always more’ (p. 71).Corcoran, while not altogether rejecting christocentric universalism, explicitly rejects perpetual deferral.

Frustratingly, the topics of Rollins’ chapters don’t broach the subject of perpetual deferral. It would have been interesting to see how the various authors tackled their points of disagreement head on. This seems to be a missed opportunity in a book such as this.

Another weakness of the volume is that Part 4, Bible and Doctrine, is written entirely by Scot McKnight. This is nothing against McKnight per se – I  think his chapter on ‘Atonement and Gospel’ is one of the strongest and most interesting in the book. In this, McKnight is concerned to correct what he sees as evangelicalism’s excessive focus on the atonement (particularly the Reformation’s emphasis on ‘justification via double imputation or through the lens of propitiation’, p. 130).

McKnight says that we have become so caught up in articulating the ‘plan of salvation’ that we have forgotten about living out our salvation, or ‘enter[ing] into that lordship story’ (p. 138). This resonates with Rollins’ chapter on ‘The Worldly Theology of Emerging Christianity’. Rollins claims that the way we actually live our lives is what is important – for him our actions reflect what we actually believe. We may think we believe more noble things but our actions will always betray us.

And McKnight’s other chapter on Bible and Doctrine, ‘Scripture in the Emerging Movement,’ proposes thinking of scripture as a series of ‘wiki-stories’, a metaphor that I think could have a lot of mileage in our online, plugged in world. As McKnight says, God needed a variety of expressions to give us a fuller picture of the Story (p. 117).

But again, it would have been nice to see another perspective on Bible and Doctrine. And as Jonny Baker pointed out in his review of Church in the Present Tense, none of the authors or interviewees are women.

This  means that the book’s perspective is further limited. So what about ‘variety of expression?’

These criticisms aside, Church in the Present Tense is worthwhile read, and the accompanying CD provides a real flavour for the movement that simply could not be achieved by reading words on a page.

In addition, Baker Publishing has produced some videos of Corcoran and Rollins in which they answer questions about the emerging church that are not explored in depth in the book, such as whether or not the emerging church is dying and the role of emerging Christianity in interfaith dialogue.

Kevin Corcoran: Are emerging Christians allergic to creeds and beliefs?

Kevin Corcoran

Peter Rollins: Are emerging Christians allergic to creeds and beliefs?

Peter Rollins

Peter Rollins on Reports of the Demise of the Emerging Church

Peter Rollins

Kevin Corcoran on Reports of the Demise of the Emerging Church

Kevin Corcoran

Kevin Corcoran on Emerging Christianity and Interfaith Dialogue

Kevin Corcoran

Peter Rollins on Emerging Christianity and Interfaith Dialogue

4 thoughts on “Church in the Present Tense: A Candid Look at What’s Emerging – Book Review”

  1. Having followed Scot Mcknights and Jason Clarks blogs I am not sure if they would now call themselves part of the emerging church…this book is based on material written a few years ago

    In my experience people talk often past each other as there is no agreed consensus what the emerging church is


  2. I can only talk about the Catholic Church. But is a lot of this stuff essentially trying to re-invent the wheel. A very wise secular Priest once observed that some of the loonier stuff emerging in Catholic theology came from Order religious, with too much time on their hands. Interesting thought.

  3. Great point Rodney and very interesting comment Eric.I also wonder if the emerging church is about to run out of steam and become just a fringe grouping consisting of disillusioned evangelicals and others. There were some good ideas coming out of it but in my opinion too much of it was negative and it was also impossible to pin them down on what they believed. Do they believe the Bible? I couldn’t honestly say whether they do or not.

  4. I can only speak for myself. That’s really the place to begin. There is a tendency to want to get to the conclusion about the dogma – the part of .faith that is doctrine/beliefs; to want to see where we agree and disagree; to determine who is correct or Biblical. I get that. It’s a necessary part of the conversation to dialogue about how we are motivated to live out our faith.

    If you took the most prolific, out-spoken, highest profile individuals associated with the conversation and lined their theology of certain topics next to each other in a grid, you’d probably find that collective they are all over the map in a lot of areas.

    I think, at least for some, it’s easier to understand that the conversations are more about exploring the question and finding the tension between possible solutions than it is about answers. It’s a passion to engage with others about their beliefs and faith practice as much as it is to convert others to our way of believing. Now, I know what’s at stake from my evangelical perspective, but I trust the Holy Spirit to do His work. I also believe that conversation needs to be a two-way street.

    Hope that helps.

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