Friday, April 4, 2008

Tony Jones: You’ve Got to Leave it Behind (?)

A busy week for this sack of skin and bone, so my apologies for not getting this up sooner. I’m going to begin at the very beginning of Tony’s book The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier, since I’m told that’s a very good place to start. This whole series of posts will not consist in detailed reviews; instead, we’ll go for the highlights, a sort of ESPN-like “week in review” that seeks to capture the diving catches, impressive dunks and soon forgotten bloopers that make for good audio-visual consumption. We may not go chapter by chapter either. To get us started though we’ll begin with chapter one, Leaving the Old Country. I’ll make a few observations and then leave you with a question or two (or four).

The story with which this chapter opens is beautiful. It’s beauty lies in its likeness to God’s kingdom—surprising, unexpected, shocking. Tony recounts a recent airplane experience he’s had. He gets bumped up to first-class and sits next to a pregnant woman he is quite sure did not get bumped but instead seems to him the sort that would fly first-class regularly. He judges this woman to be a paragon of New York chic, based on what she’s wearing, and where she’s sitting. She strikes him as hip, urban and probably something like a NYC magazine Editor. She sets about working on her stylish MacBook Pro while poor Tony pulls out his less than flashy Dell. The kingdom comes when midway through the flight the woman closes her sleek, silver MBP, takes out a very traditional rosary, drapes it upon her pregnant belly, closes her eyes and begins silently to pray a prayer that’s been prayed by such paragons of un-chic and un-hip as Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

I love that! Tony thought he had her pegged, figured out and then—BAM—his preconceptions are turned on their head. Tony doesn’t use the story to make this kingdom point (but it makes it very nicely, I think), he uses it to underwrite his contention that contrary to what many expected at the beginning of the century—that the more educated and secular we become the less religious we become—we are actually only becoming differently religious not less religious. And while there are many Americans—some 225 million by his count—who lay claim to church membership the level of their commitment to denominations and particular doctrines is growing weaker. Increasing numbers of self-confessed Christians do not care very much about denominations nor for the specific doctrines that define them. And even though the vast majority of self-confessing Christians (some 90%) can tell you what church they belong to there are, out on the fringes, out on the frontier Tony would say, another 10% who are leaving the homeland—the churches of their parents—and heading into the far country.

God may not be dead, but church as usual Tony thinks is. The old style churches still exist—like pay phones still exist—but they’ve outlived their usefulness. As evidence that something is rotten in the Denmark of the Church, Tony points to recent riffs within Anglicanism, the Southern Baptist Convention and other sadnesses within the more left leaning churches as evidence. But probably the most telling piece of evidence are the stats of Barna and boys, who report that some twenty million evangelical Christians have forsaken their church pews for home groups, house churches or no church at all.

Yes, the times they are a changin’ and while emergents are not so much interested in rejecting the past they are even less interested in preserving it. What they’re not interested in preserving is institutional bureaucracy and the supplemental trappings that keep the institutions alive while simultaneously sucking the life out of the very people they’re intended to serve. That’s the story on the left. On the right, the evangelical church, in its desire for cultural influence, has gotten into bed with politicians hoping that by so doing the church might act as some sort of moral yeast or leaven in what is perceived to be a thoroughly immoral society. But if there’s anything to be learned from Elliot Spitzer it’s that when it comes to prostitution and politics, neither politics nor the whore that services him, usually wakes up in the morning feeling very good about themselves. And Tony’s point is that, here we are, we’ve awakened 10, 20, 30 years after Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and James Dobson’s forays into politics and the moral landscape of contemporary American life is virtually unchanged.

And there’s more bad news. Old school evangelicalism of the sort espoused by Falwell, Robertson and Dobson believes that saving individual souls will translate into moral, communal and societal change, usually thought of in terms of a single issue—abortion. This was/is the single moral issue whose solution—making abortion illegal—was believed to be the key to our nation's favor with God. Thankfully, evangelicalism now sees that there are other issues that are moral issues. Well okay maybe one more anyway—homosexuality. Ridding our nation of homosexuals and abortion is bound to find favor with God.

But it’s this sort of thinking that “the new Christians” are leaving behind. As Tony sees it (and as I see it too) there’s a seriously mutilated, one-dimensional, monochrome-colored gospel at work here. It’s not the gospel of Jesus. The gospel of Jesus, the gospel that is Jesus, is a gospel that sees salvation as much, much larger, grander and all-encompassing than the gospel of individualism. Poverty, the environment, factory farming, education, racism, sexism—the gospel concerns them all. Salvation, reconciliation, redemption, the New Jerusalem is about all these worldly (horizontal) matters as much as about getting one’s soul right with God (what is usually thought of as a vertical matter).

A few more items, then a couple of questions. First, the new Christians have little patience for the classic polarities that have defined life inside and outside church—like the perpetual conservative vs. liberal boxing matches played out on cable television, talk radio and denominational witch trials. Here’a great image from the book:

Meanwhile, a [new] generation of Christians aren’t even boxing anymore. They’re out flying kites.

I love that image because it gets at a sort of playfulness that is characteristic of emergents and perhaps best exemplified in the whimsical, jesting antics of social activist Shane Claiborne of The Simple Way.

To my mind, these are the diving catches and powerful dunks delivered in the first chapter. And I’ll want to say more later about the emphasis within emergent on relationships and deep friendships. For now, though, let’s look at a blooper. And I’ll just mention this point without belaboring it because I’ll take it up in a later post. As a philosopher, and an analytic philosopher at that, I get a little jittery when Tony or Brian Mclaren or anyone else writing on or from within emergent starts talking about philosophy. In this chapter, Tony brings up what he says philosophers call “foundationalism” and the inherent infinite regression supposedly inherent in all foundationalist systems. What I get jittery about is that when Tony talks about philosophy it is usually so-called postmodern philosophy he has in mind. And there are several mistakes I think emergents often make in their discussions of philosophy. But, as I say, I’m not going to press the point here. I’ll take it up later (maybe even next time, since philosophy and postmodernism does put in an appearance in chapter two).

Okay, a few questions for you to chew on.
1. From your own experience or observations, is Tony right that lots of people with emergent sensibilities are leaving behind institutional churches? I ask this because my experience in the UK at least suggests that emergent functions just as much, if not more, as a supplement to traditional church (i.e., Anglicanism in England) and not as a replacement of it
2. From your own experience or observations, do doctrines and beliefs seem less important to you and your generation than they seemed to your parents generation?
3. Do you agree with Tony that traditional, institutional churches are becoming relics, like payphones and phonebooths?
4. Where do churches like Mars Hill, which seem to me to embody many characteristic features of emergent, fit within Tony's taxonomy of contemporary church? I'm sure he'd say it's a megachurch (since it is), but is it emergent?


Stephen Krogh said...

Kevin, I cannot answer question one, because I intentionally avoid Christians will emergent sensibilities. The chief reason is that I haven't been able to figure out what is going on there. I've been to a few emergent churches (at least I think they were emergent; they probably wouldn't have wanted any label place on them, but they all listened to Cold Play and U2, liked Pope John Paul II, were all very hip looking, and had art hanging all around the church (none of which I understood, which should surprise no one) one of which was in a hollowed out gymnasium furnished complete with a bookstore, coffee shop, and plenty of tortoise-shell-rimmed glasses wearers, oh, and an artist to 'paint the message' as the pastor gave it, a message in which the pastor went out of his way to insult both Southern Baptists and Thomas Kinkade). The few that I have visited have been very confusing places. It was hard to say what was going on. There was a consensus that Jesus was God and that we should love and serve the poor (both things which seem impossible to refute as a Christian), but beyond that, it seemed more like a cultural oddity than anything, one utterly dependent on early 21st century sensibilities and one that will just as soon disappear when those sensibilities change, and the young hipsters find greener, more exciting pastures. All of that is said, however, from a cynical and radically under-researched point of view; I understand.

As for question two, I am not sure if doctrines and beliefs are less important than my parents' generation, but they are certainly less important that centuries past. This may be my Catholic theology shining through, but it seems that only in 20th century America, where political correctness and ecumenism reign supreme, can we even debate if Mormon, Jehova's Witnesses, or varying sects of Pentecostalism which deny the trinity are Christian. In fact, I have had conversations with co-workers who profess Christian faith (and I have no reason to doubt them), but they believe in something very close to modalism or sabellianism, both early Christological heresies, which deny either the full humanity or the full deity of Christ. The thing is that I've found myself questioning the urgency of these concerns, but it is clear that the earliest Christians were willing to die for their beliefs, so I ought to at least risk offending someone who espouses a heresy in the name of Christianity.

As for question three, I certainly hope Tony is incorrect here! It seems that both the Catholic and Orthodox churches are seeing increased interest. Perhaps it isn't world shaking interest or population doubling interest, but I don't think traditional Christianity is dying. This again seems like a cultural wish born in a thoroughly 21st century mindset. The ancient churches have survived countless persecutions, wars, invasions, pride, kings, corrupt popes and patriarchs, reformations, and perhaps most importantly, they've survived against their own apparently endless quest to self destruct. Yet, here they are. The Pope's visiting to any country (including his up coming visit to America) is covered as extensively as any other major world figure would be covered. Perhaps the simile will work when the world sees a renewed interest in pay phones?

Finally, I must answer the last question as I answered the first. I am not sure any church which is emergent would classify itself as such and from that likely not classify any other church as such. But Mars Hill always seemed to me to be a mega church with an engaging and charismatic (and authentic, I think) pastor, which largely owes its success to a generation tired of the CRC, RCA, and various other West Michigan trappings. Actually, having read that last sentence, maybe it does have emergent leanings? Have we actually defined emergent yet?

Keith DeRose said...

From your own experience or observations, do doctrines and beliefs seem less important to you and your generation than they seemed to your parents generation?

I wonder if this might be a bit misleading? Tony does think that denominations & the doctrines used to mark them out are less important to his generation. But beliefs -- religious beliefs are the relevant ones, I take it -- aren't less important. Chapter 4, "The Theology, Stupid,"is about the importance of theology to emergents (see especially the section "Theology on the Rise." It's different theology, and it seems to concern beliefs that are closer to how one lives, and it's an interest in theology that isn't happy with the pat answers provided by whatever sect of Christianity one might happen to be attached to, but, at least according to Tony, there is a very intense interest in theology. So I don't think (religious) beliefs are unimportant.

Kevin Corcoran said...


Now that I read it, I see all too clearly that my question was misleading. What I had in mind were those doctrines and beliefs that are peculiar to one's own denomination. Unfortunately, that qualification didn't make it into my question. So, the question I was wondering about is this:

From your own experience or observations, do those doctrines and beliefs that are peculiar to your own denomination seem less important to you and your generation than they seemed to your parents generation?

That's what I meant to ask (but didn't).

Stephen: one really quick thought for now. I think Tony would gladly admit that emergent is very culture/time specific and utterly dependent on sensibilities peculiar to this generation, such that emergent will just as soon disappear when those peculiarly early 21st century sensibilities change. At least I think he should gladly accept that. I'd go so far as to suggest that perhaps in its socio-cultural dna there is in emergent both a recognition and an embrace of the fact that emergent itself is a flash-mob-like thing. While its own life may be brief (in historical time) something carrying its dna--but a wholly new thing--is likely to show up elsewhere and elsewhen.