This is not a formal book review. I wrote this after reflecting on the book -- jotting down my notes and grouping them into categories. Many of my thoughts are simply first impressions. Many times my musings only make sense if you have the book opened to the page to which I am referring. Rather than waiting to write a formal response down the road, I thought I would put forth my ideas as a way to engage dialog.
I appreciate Dr. Carson's efforts at putting forth a book covering this moving target of a movement. I think we will all be the better for the discussions it produces. Without further ado...
D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications.
Becoming Conversant addresses a movement that is less than a decade old in the US, and almost double that for the UK. In the UK, emerging congregations exist primarily within Anglican churches, while in the US emerging churches they take the form of new church plants that may or may not retain their denominational affiliation. Carson takes on quite an intimidating task, seeking to understand such a disparate movement.
I appreciate how Carson (45) begins to list many of the strengths of the movement in regard to culture, authenticity, social location, and assessing tradition. I do believe he misses many of the strengths of the movement – such as a renewed look at the life of Jesus and the reign of God, the transformation of secular space, and renewed forms of community, and the list can go on. However, I are grateful that Carson does not find the entire movement aberrant.
At the outset, I must say that the methodological approach in Becoming Conversant falls short, if the goal is to understand the Emerging Church movement in its entirety. The book does not feature interviews with Emerging Church leaders nor were Emerging Churches observed in any systematic way. Focus groups were not created nor were case-studies performed. Indeed, a few of the books written by those within Emerging Church circles were read and discussed. However, with such a small sample of books reviewed, I think it would be impossible to come to understand the Emerging Church movement.
If the goal of Becoming Conversant was simply to survey those authors who influence the Emerging Church, or those who influence the movement epistemologically, the right books were not selected. The attention on Brian McClaren plus a small number of other authors such as Spencer Burke, Steve Chalke, Dan Kimball, Dave Tomlinson distorts the discussion because these authors are not working to create an epistemology for the emerging church. My research among more than one hundred emerging church leaders indicates that other authors have had significant impact on emerging church thinking, authors such as Jack Caputo, Stanley Hauerwas, Alasdair MacIntyre, Nancey Murphy, Henry Nouwen, Miroslav Volf, Dallas Willard, N.T. Wright, and John Howard Yoder to start. Indeed, the books Becoming Conversant lists are significant, but just as with the lack of empirical research, it represents an anecdotal perspective on the emerging church.
What are the consequences of such a reading? Becoming Conversant seems to conflate Emergent with Emerging Church, and the Emerging Church is much bigger than Emergent (87)...In addition, to say that emerging church leaders come from intensely conservative or fundamentalist backgrounds is an overstatement (85). What I would say is that they have fairly solid conservative evangelical roots, representing a broad evangelical spectrum. In the UK the leaders were raised within the charismatic movements, and often they are ‘vicars kids’. In the US, emerging church leaders hail from a fairly broad spectrum, not only from the movements of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s (Calvary Chapel, Vineyard, Purpose-Driven, and Seeker movements), but mainline denominations as well. Carson did not ‘triangulate’ his research – he read a few books, but did not get at any other data to confirm deny his research. However, not all Carson writes is problematic.
Carson is right to critique the hype – postmodernity does not equate to utopia (83), it is simply another fallen culture and not the answer – it must be embraced and critiqued by the followers of Jesus, just as with any culture.
Becoming Conversant decries that the Emerging Church says positive things about all “isms” except modernity (73). My question is, does modernity need advocates? Its many benefits are implicit to all Westerners. It has been the powerful social force in the world for hundreds of years. A minority opinion does not need to praise the status quo; instead, the question should be, are the insights and protests from the margins valid?
Becoming Conversant suggests that Emerging Churches should honor modern Christians with their emphasis on truth, who sought to communicate the gospel in their time, that Emerging Churches should be grateful for the contributions modern Christians have made (65). Honestly, in my many conversations with emerging church leaders, I rarely hear emerging church people disrespecting modern Christians. To be sure, it is not only Emerging Churches who have difficulty controlling their tongue about others who practice their faith differently.
Carson criticizes the tone of the argument some have had against modernity (44). I would encourage that we give emerging leaders some space. They are working out a type of Christianity that is new, and this is a process of dismantling what went on before, and it might take a few years or so to make this transition. They should not be attacked for this liminal stage – it is part of an extremely vital task – mission within post-Christendom is a new process in church history, and there are not a lot of forerunners in this regard.
It is modernists who critique particular traditions, not postmodernists, I don’t believe Carson is on solid ground here. (70)
Carson critiques McLaren’s view of the modern West, that because of its ‘absolute’ perspective on reality, the West marginalized all others and sought domination (70). Carson maintains that McLaren paints with large brushstrokes. However, both McLaren and Carson are advocating mainstream positions held within the academy, and neither are marginal positions. For those who study social theory, McLaren’s interpretation is probably more in the mainstream than is Carson's, so to paint McLaren as overstating things is well, an overstatement.
Culture in General
I find that Becoming Conversant presents a truncated view of culture – Carson asks “is there at least some danger that what is being advocated is not so much a new kind of Christian in a new emerging church, but a church that is so submerging itself in the culture that it risks hopeless compromise?” (44). This statement is inherently problematic. All of us are completely submerged in our various cultures, and we cannot stand outside of culture. Indeed, the church is always 100 % within culture. The question becomes not how much culture the church ought to adopt – but how to glorify God within that culture. By looking to create indigenous postmodern communities, Emerging Churches are not fighting the Bible, but simply other cultural expressions of the Christian faith (be it 1950s, the 1600s, or even earlier). There are many 1950s expression of church that may still make sense to those who have been raised in that environment. However, missionaries think in terms of cultures – how to advocate for a people movement within this other culture? Why should one who lives in postmodern culture have to change cultures, to find God? I teach in the School of Intercultural Studies, founded by Donald McGavran. He taught that one should not have to change cultures to find God. He was speaking most specifically about his own Indian context, where, to become a Christian, one needed to leave his or her culture, become a Western individualist, and join the mission station, to find God. Our Western churches do many of the same things to the spiritual searchers in our culture. They must become 1950s businessmen with 16th century theology to find God. McGavran decried such barriers. Emerging Churches, like McGavran, do not want to extract people from their culture, but seek to indwell the gospel within that culture.
Carson has only heard three or four Africans expound on Romans well – although they do narratives quite well. So, one needs to become modern and of European descent to understand parts of Scripture? I feel this is to impose a certain reading on Scripture that is mistaken at best and imperialistic at its worst. Again, isn’t it possible that a narrative reading of Romans might yield insights that a modernist would not receive from the text? Changing cultures in order to read scripture aright seems naive and ethnocentric. (67)
We need to accept the givenness of a culture (126) – we cannot choose the culture we are born in! Our culture shifted from text-based to image-based over a hundred years ago. To level a critique against image-based culture is futile. It is the same futility that some have sought to change oral-based cultures in order to communicate the gospel. The Incarnation teaches us to go to their culture, not demand that cultural changes occur for some to find God.
What I mean by postmodern culture, Carson refers to these as postmodern correlatives (98). Carson’s fears of postmodern correlatives are entirely one-sided (98). I find the fear of syncretism misplaced. The modern church was highly syncretistic. Secularization was invented in modernity, and the modern church succumbed, in fact, allowed for secularization’s possibility. Indeed, the Bible as a solely print-based medium may have seen better days – but people still communicate texts, the church simply needs to be more creative in creating indigenous forms of communication for God’s Word. The popularity of New Spiritualities is due in part to the secular form the church has adopted. Indeed, the church has much to learn from the ways these new spiritualities form their way of life. Globalization means that I need to take our missional mandate seriously and the end of the practice of valorizing one culture over another.
Carson refers to a loss of objective morality with postmodernity (101) – however, we must ask, did the objective morality of modernity lead to a virtuous society? One that resembled the Sermon the Mount? In reference to evangelism (101), if our evangelism is thought to be superior – we are not evangelizing properly, and to embody the faith first is not necessarily second best – it is how many Christian communities have grown throughout history.
With Carson, I agree that hard categories, in both modernity and postmodernity are fine in argument but fuzzy in practice (121).
Carson has seen little critique on postmodernity because emerging church people see it as a culture, not necessarily an area of debate (125). It is the water we swim in – it just is. I need to work out ways to worship God within this culture – not fight it, stand against it, etc. Missionaries transform cultures from within, after long periods of listening and serving, not from without, through critique.
Carson writes that the majority view in the Emerging Church of the shift of modernity to postmodernity is epistemology – how we know things – representing a shift from foundationalist to non-foundationalist thinking. However, a primary focus in the emerging church is on culture and not on philosophy per se. I rarely hear the word ‘epistemology’ mentioned in Emerging Church circles – when modernity and postmodernity is discussed it is through the lens of culture, of ethics, and not epistemology. For Emerging Churches, just as it is in much of the philosophical literature, ethics and not epistemology is the first philosophy. Again, Carson reduces everything to epistemology (Chapter 3). He is reading everything through that particular lens even though that is not a stated perspective of the participants in the movement. This a modern move, one that places one’s particular cultural interpretation, or set of lenses, above all others.
Carson asserts that McLaren and Chalke have abandoned the gospel (186). However, they are simply popularizing and reflecting on the significant conservative scholarship of N.T. Wright and mainstream missiological texts. They have not gone beyond Wright’s assertions of the gospel or the atonement – they are simply making these understandings available to the wider church. And the problem with their mission practice is that they are doing it across the street and not on the other side of the world.
Carson acknowledges that McLaren roots his work in David Bosch’s tome Transforming Mission. Clearly, Bosch’s work may well be the best-selling missiological work ever, and by rooting his work here, McLaren stands in good company. Oddly enough, Carson recalls the missionary efforts of William Carey, Hudson Taylor, and Roland Allen positively (74), and yet emerging church leaders advocate for nothing more than what missionaries have historically advocated, that of creating a “context-based theology”.
Carson laments the hype that the church must change or die as alarmist – but I disagree (83). I have spent considerable time with emerging church leaders in the UK – where 1% of their peers attend church weekly whilst 60% attend dance clubs weekly. They see the situation as nothing less than dire. Most denominations in the UK have forecasted their ‘death date’, so creating indigenous forms of the gospel is not a hobby but completely necessary for it to survive. I see quite promising moves at all levels of the Church of England in response to this crisis. They do not need convincing that the situation is quite serious.
On the flip side, Carson writes that the Emerging Church sounds absolutist (85) – however, from Emerging Church leaders what I hear is ‘this is how we are doing it’, and not ‘this is how everyone ought to do it’...
Carson finds it odd that emerging church leaders do not have a tradition (140). Most US emerging church leaders who go the emerging church route are forced to leave their churches. In the UK this is not the case, emerging church leaders are accepted within the Anglican tent – and increasingly they are encouraged in these moves. In the US, it either leads to church splits, shutdown of the alternative service, new church planting, or all of the above.
I applaud Carson’s efforts to understand the Emerging Church, a highly complex task in itself. Indeed, the movement benefits when scholars such as Carson lend their insights to the service of churches on the ground. Unfortunately, with Becoming Conversant, I do not believe he has given the church an accurate picture of this highly vital and important missional movement.
Carson wants a critique against postmodern culture (36), and indeed, a helpful prophetic word will be issued, but not by him, and not by me. Insightful critiques are made by Christians within a culture who have formed a hermeneutical community around Scripture. They make their own necessary corrections -- where they must embrace and critique their own culture. The outsider or even the missionary’s pet sins rarely hit the target. The cultural outsider can ask the questions and create a dialog, but at the end of the day, the prophetic critique of culture will come from within an indigenous, postmodern Christ-following community.