I’m an alumnus of one of Ikon’s ‘Atheism for Lent’ courses. Back in 2006, along with about ten others, I read Merold Westphal’s Suspicion and Faith: the Religious Uses of Modern Atheism. What sticks with me about the course, which was facilitated by Peter Rollins, was the idea that Christians could learn something useful by seriously considering atheist critiques of Christianity.
In other words, if Christians engaged with what atheists were saying, we might be able to take the beams out of our eyes, to use a biblical motif, and see how Christians had failed to live up to Jesus’ example.
The course also helped me to latch on to the idea that it can be an enlightening and invigorating exercise to make yourself listen to what critics say about what’s important to you. As I’ve said previously on this blog, I have some sympathy for the ‘emerging church’, so I thought I would set aside some time during this Lent to delve in to what critics of the emerging church are saying.
My first foray has been a book by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck, Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be) (Moody Publishers, 2008).
To sum it up as simply as I can: DeYoung and Kluck are not emergent, because they are Calvinists.
This is neatly illustrated in the advice given to Peter Rollins, after critiquing his book, How (Not) to Speak of God: ‘Rollins should read Jonathan Edwards or John Piper …’ (p. 126).
Somehow I don’t think it’s quite that simple.
It won’t come as a shock to people with even a passing interest in the emerging church that the movement questions some of the basic assumptions or beliefs of Calvinism, such as: substitutionary atonement as the right way to interpret Jesus’ death and resurrection, the extent to which people can really know God, the authority of scripture, how to interpret certain passages of scripture (such as what the bible says about homosexuality), the ability to discern absolute truth and so on.
Indeed, the line at the top of the back cover of the book reads: ‘Here’s the truth – there is truth.’
This is a jibe at the perception that emergents don’t believe in absolute truth, or at the very least, don’t believe that we can arrive with knowledge of absolute truth here on this earth.
In one of his chapters in the book (the authors wrote chapters individually, rather than together), DeYoung puts it this way:
‘I know that some in my generation have a hard time with truth claims. But I’m convinced there are just as many of us – Christian and not – in our postmodern world who are tired of endless uncertainties and doctrinal repaintings. We are tired of indecision and inconsistency reheated and served to us as paradox and mystery. Some of us long for teaching that has authority, ethics rooted in dogma, and something unique in this world of banal diversity. We long for Jesus – not a shapeless, formless, good-hearted ethical teacher Jesus, but the Jesus of the New Testament, the Jesus of the church, the Jesus of faith, the Jesus of two millennia of Christian witness with all of its unchanging and edgy doctrinal propositions’ (p. 116-117).
I have to admit I sighed in exasperation when I read some of the sentences in that paragraph. From what I understand, people in the emerging church do not boil Jesus down to a ‘good-hearted ethical teacher.’ Rather, the Jesus I see explored in the emerging church is more like the Jesus in John Carroll’s book, The Existential Jesus. I quoted Carroll when I reviewed his book,
Mark’s Jesus is not … interested in ethical teaching. Worse, he identifies all churches with the withered and stonyhearted. He exposes their nature as innately driven to suppress Truth. Truth is their lethal enemy.
The Jesus that John Carroll sees in the gospel of Mark is constantly calling his followers to examine themselves, to interrogate their religion (not settle for a plausible or comfortable set of truth claims because they are too tired), and to seek to live more justly here on earth.
That said, DeYoung and Kluck have done their homework on the main thinkers in the emerging church, engaging with the work of Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Tony Jones, Donald Miller, Dan Kimball, Rollins, etc. And I think that they do try, mostly, to be charitable to those they disagree with. In some places they challenge emergents to define more clearly how what they are articulating is Christian, and how it really fits in with the gospel, and this is useful.
Dan Kimball’s review of the book also praises this charitable spirit, and he says he entered into a fruitful email correspondence with DeYoung about some of the main points in the book. Kimball wrote:
Kevin’s response has been so gracious, and he commented back to my comments. I can’t imagine that this type of correspondence to me, isn’t what would please Jesus. We have had some very wonderful back and forth dialogue. I both disagreed with some of what they wrote and I also agreed with some of what they wrote. I personally see such wonderful, beautiful exciting things about what is happening in the emerging church world, but like the authors, I also have concerns and strong disagreements with some things in the emerging church world.
That said, I was taken aback by Kluck’s tendency, in his chapters, to mock the appearance of various leaders in the emergent movement, particularly how they dressed, what their hair is like, or what sort of glasses they wear. A generous reviewer on amazon.com (D. Stringer, The Common Loon) described this style of Kluck’s as ‘satirical’, but to me it just came off as mean. When people wrote similar things about Fr Brian D’Arcy’s appearance on this blog, I moderated or removed the comments.
But I do agree with what Kluck says on page 234: ‘The idea that people read much of anything and have their minds changed by it is less and less realistic to me. People, usually, just dig in.’
Does what passes for ‘debate’ or ‘dialogue’, through books like this or in the blogosphere, usually only convince people who already agree with the position that is being stated? That’s something to ponder during Lent.