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Is Emergent the New Christian Left?
May 29, 2006
Tony Jones, one of the more prominent leaders within the Emergent church movement has recently posted a pair of articles at the “Out of Ur” blog responding to the charge that Emergent is the new Christian left. “[I]s Emergent a new camp for Christian liberalism? In this post Tony Jones, the national coordinator for Emergent, responds to critics by championing Emergent’s conversational purpose and celebrating the group’s diversity.”
There are three things that struck me in these articles. First, these two articles highlight some of the ways in which any meaningful discussion with the Emergent leaders is little more than an exercise in frustration and futility. Second, they also highlight just how far some leaders within the Emergent conversation have gone in abandoning truth. And third, they highlight the mixed-messages sent out from the leadership of this conversation.
Like many participants in this Emergent “conversation,” Jones feigns surprise and ignorance at the outcry against the Emergent church. He presents this movement as a simple, innocuous friendship, for who could possibly criticize a friendship? Here is how Jones describes Emergent Village: “And some of those blogs are deeply critical of Emergent Village, a decade-old friendship that has, after my family, become home to my most important relationships.” Further along in the same article he describes the people who inhabit this harmless village. “Within Emergent are Texas Baptists who don’t allow women to preach and New England lesbian Episcopal priests. We have Southern California YWAMers and Midwest Lutherans. We have those who hold to biblical inerrancy, and others trying to demythologize the scripture. We have environmental, peacenik lefties, ‘crunchy cons,’ and right wing hawks.”
Surely those who are leery of the Emergent church would not waste so much effort discussing what this movement is accomplishing if it were nothing more than a decade-old friendship. And surely Jones and others would not bother to participate in such a conversation if they felt that it had no hope of accomplishing anything. Jones presents something in harmless terms that, in reality, has the potential to bring about a great change within the church. Thus it is ridiculous to feign surprise that people react in alarm to such a movement.
What continues to surprised Jones is “how dangerous some people consider this friendship I’m in to be. If you take some of these blogs (and books) seriously, those of us who make up the Emergent Village are a great threat to the Christian church-we have undermined doctrine, truth, and church life. The fact that we’re discussing theological items that have been previously deemed ‘undiscussable’ is considered grounds for labels like ‘heretic’ and ‘apostate.’” That is a ridiculous and irrational statement. The fact that this Emergent conversation discusses doctrine and theology that has long been considered heretical or apostate is surely not grounds to label those who discuss it with those terms. After all, every seminary student discusses heresy and apostasy and learns both true doctrine and false. The true objection, or the most common objection, against the Emergent church is that these doctrines, long-since deemed heretical, are often given equal footing and are discussed as if they had never been deemed harmful in the past—as if the church had never formulated a biblical consensus as to where these doctrines deviate from Scripture. We can see the fruit of this in the very fact that the conversation includes people whose beliefs are, in theory at least, diametrically opposed to each other (ie. “Texas Baptists who don’t allow women to preach and New England lesbian Episcopal priests”). There is nothing that is undiscussable, but there are doctrines that are clear and settled and do not merit being placed on equal footing which what Scripture clearly presents as true.
Jones eventually stoops just about as low as one can go in an argument, arguing that those who disagree with the Emergent church simply misunderstand it. “Honestly, I care little about these critiques. They come from those who either have no idea what Emergent is all about and/or could not possibly be persuaded from their position anyway.” Even though some world-class scholars and committed Christians have expressed concern about the Emergent church, Jones simply states that these people either do not understand Emergent or are hardened in their ignorance.
In the second article, Jones turns his attention in particular to Chuck Colson who has become a vocal critic of the Emergent church (of course it is difficult to know if it is Chuck Colson or Anne Morse, his writer, who is truly most concerned). Colson’s latest missive against Emergent says that “truth is truth”—something Jones says is a “ ‘self-referential argument,’ or a ‘circular reference’ and it’s non-sensical.” He also turns his guns on the phrase “true truth” (a term most often associated with Francis Schaeffer). And this is where Jones’ argument gets very interesting and he reveals just how far he has slipped into the postmodern mindset.
But if I can try to surmise Colson’s meaning from the subtitle of the essay [Jesus is the Truth Whether We Experience Him or Not], he means to indicate that we in the emerging church have placed too much weight on “relational” or “experiential” theories of truth. The gospel is true, Colson seems to be saying, regardless of your human experience of that truth.
But philosophically, the obvious follow-up question is, Why? What makes the gospel true, especially if those of us in the world have no experience of its truthfulness? Is it true because Chuck Colson says so? Because Augustine said so? Because Paul said so? Is it true because, as Karl Barth might say, God’s revelatory action that breaks into our space-time continuum? But isn’t even that subject to our interpretation of the event?
Jones then states his agreement with “postmodernist extraordinaire” Stanley Fish “argues that truth comes to be known in and among and on the basis of ‘the authority of interpretive communities.’” Jones goes on to say, “We are subjective human beings, trapped in our own skins and inevitably influenced by the communities in which we find ourselves. And isn’t this what the church is, or at least should be: an authoritative community of interpretation? Indeed, isn’t this just what Colson did when he converted to Christianity in prison many years ago: placed himself under the authority of the church of Jesus Christ?”
He concludes as follows:
What I was trying to get at in my blog post earlier this week is that Emergent Village endeavors to be a catalyst of conversation, community, and, ultimately, interpretation. We want the church to reclaim its place as the authoritative community of interpretation of scripture, culture, and human existence. We want Christians to be engaged politically and culturally, and we want to provoke robust and respectful dialogue around issues that matter. Many of us think that the polemical nature of the church today precludes just this kind of necessary conversation. So, we’re going ahead and doing it, with or without the imprimatur of evangelical elites like Colson and Carson.
If that’s a compelling vision for you, then jump on board, we’re glad to have you. If, however, you’d like to first see our doctrinal statement on penal substitution or read a position paper on homosexuality, then Emergent Village isn’t for you.
Jones has taken the Emergent church from being a mere conversation between friends to “a catalyst of conversation, community, and, ultimately, interpretation.” Can he still feign surprise when Christians express concern that such a varied group of people, many of whom reject the authority of Scripture and other fundamental doctrines, intend to be a catalyst of conversation, community and interpretation?
Jones clearly struggles with the concept of truth. What makes the gospel true is not experience of those who hold to it. It is not because Augustine or Paul says so. It is true because God says so. The gospel is true because God tells us it is true. God, the source of truth, God who is truth, tells us that the gospel is true. We need no other authority to tell us this and to assure us of this. If God is who He says He is, the gospel must be true. An argument about truth is, in reality, argument about the very nature and character of God. Jones and other Emergent leaders are treading on some very dangerous ground when they begin to question or abandon or relativize truth.
Here are the articles I have referenced: