If there’s one thing emergent Christians can’t stand, it’s being categorized, or worse, stereotyped. It kinda goes against the whole idea that the emergent movement can’t be nailed down or quantified. The funny thing is, most folks who are emergent would deny it if asked, not out of shame, but rather out of principle. It’s kind of like the old saying, “If you meet The Buddha along the road, kill him.” If it’s distilled down to a handful of component parts, it loses something…maybe everything.
Anyway, my wife, Amy, sent along a passage which pretty much describes me with about ninety-percent accuracy, which is impressive. And given that it’s from a guy who is down on emergents, it does lend him a little bit of credibility to offer a critique.
Kevin DeYoung, co-author of Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be) notes that, “After reading nearly five thousand pages of emerging-church literature, I have no doubt that the emerging church, while loosely defined and far from uniform, can be described and critiqued as a diverse, but recognizable, movement.”
Aside from the fact that he seems to use “emerging church” and “emergent Christian” synonymously, he does have a good sense of what I’m about, if no one else. Following are some excerpts from his list, of signs you might be an emergent:
- if you don’t like George W. Bush or institutions or big business or capitalism or Left Behind Christianity;
- if your political concerns are poverty, AIDS, imperialism, war-mongering, CEO salaries, consumerism, global warming, racism, and oppression and not so much abortion and gay marriage;
- if you talk about the myth of redemptive violence and the myth of certainty;
- if you love the Bible as a beautiful, inspiring collection of works that lead us into the mystery of God but is not inerrant;
- if you support women in all levels of ministry, prioritize urban over suburban, and like your theology narrative instead of systematic;
- if you disbelieve in any sacred-secular divide;
- if you believe doctrine gets in the way of an interactive relationship with Jesus;
- if you believe salvation has a little to do with atoning for guilt and a lot to do with bringing the whole creation back into shalom with its Maker;
- if you believe following Jesus is not believing the right things but living the right way;
- if it really bugs you when people talk about going to heaven instead of heaven coming to us…
Yeah, color me busted. I’m a lot of that stuff.
I’m not sure why exactly he compiled this list, other than to help promote his anti-emergent book. But DeYoung’s criticisms of emergents raised a lot of thoughts for me. Here are what I see as a handful of his central problems with emergent Christianity, followed by my responses.
Emergents throw away doctrine, and thus don’t stand for anything.
Agreed, we tend to reject doctrinal statements and systems of authority that impose them on others, but to say we don’t stand for anything is simply wrong. At the risk of generalizing, I would argue that ALL EMERGENTS are unified by the Greatest Commandment, which was offered by Jesus himself as the perfection of the sum total of all law and doctrine:
Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.” – Matthew 22:37-40 (from The Message, an interpretation of scripture)
Good enough for Jesus; good enough for me.
Emergents criticize atonement theology because it’s not easy to stomach, or not cool.
From my perspective, hanging your theology on the idea that “Jesus died for your sins” seems like the easy out, rather than the other way around. I understand where the whole “blood atonement” theology, and Paul proposes it a few times in his New Testament letters. But if we look at where he’s coming from, he’s surrounded by sacrificial cultures, including Judaism. But as far back as the story of God stopping Abraham from nearly sacrificing Isaac, it seems to me that the message throughout scripture is “Enough. No more blood.” And if, indeed God can’t tolerate sin without a blood sacrifice in the form of Jesus, then all the forgiveness of sin that Jesus offered in his lifetime didn’t count. And if we want to get slippery and argue that his death retro-actively took care of the sins of the past, then why did he bother forgiving sin throughout his ministry in the first place?
And frankly, I don’t find this easy, convenient or cool to say in a nation where evangelical theocratic values still prevail, but if God felt the need to kill his own child to make things right, I’m not sure I’m interested in modeling my life after such a God.
Emergents focus on “easy” issues to get behind like poverty and diversity, while downplaying the tough stuff, like abortion and homosexuality.
I will agree that some of the more prominent voices in emergent circles have yet to take explicit, strong stands on issues below the belt. And I agree that just not saying anything is not good enough. Hey, it’s not a perfect movement! That said, there are many of us who take issues of sex and sexuality on directly. In fact, I’ve written, edited and contributed to several books that deal directly and explicitly with pornography, sexual addiction, abortion, homosexuality and a host of other uncomfortable topics.
Maybe that’s why I don’t sell many books. Anyway…
Yes, emergents don’t take “a stand” on abortion, because we’re all over the map with what we believe about it. And one of the beautiful things I appreciate about emergents is that we don’t agree on lots of things. We believe that there is a love that is the connective tissue, holding us together regardless of our differences. It’s an ongoing discussion, for sure. And as for homosexuality, most emergents are pretty clear that saying it’s a non-issue isn’t acceptable. Namely, there’s a growing consensus that GLBTQ folks are denied equality, both in the church and elsewhere, because of who they love and how they identify with regard to gender. Even for those emergents who may still not be sure how they feel about the moral implications of homosexuality, I expect most – if not all – of us can agree that we’re called to advocate for all people to have equal standing in the eyes of the church, government and one another.
Emergents reduce the Bible to just another good book by not upholding its perfect inerrancy.
This whole argument about the divinity and perfection of scripture is so tired, I almost didn’t even respond to this. We’ve all heard the debate. But suffice it to say that God doesn’t need a Bible. God didn’t have an ego issue to be worked out in a 66-chapter memoir. and if the Bible was intended to be perfect, it stands to reason we would have been inborn with such understanding, rather than depending on sometimes-contradictory stories, passed down orally through generations, then written, rewritten (and so on), translated and interpreted. I’m sorry, but if the Bible was perfect, there wouldn’t be more than one version and one interpretation. And for anyone says they don’t interpret scripture, you’re kidding yourself.
Just because I may not deem everything factually, historically accurate in the Bible doesn’t mean that I don’t find divinely inspired Truth in its pages. If that’s not good enough, once again, I’ll just go ahead and tap out now.
Emergents don’t like to talk about things like judgment and hell because it’s not attractive.
Actually, we talk about hell quite a bit, but it’s usually helping de-program the deep fear, guilt and paranoia drilled into folks at a younger age about why they HAD to believe and do “XYZ” or else. Again, not all emergents will share a common theology on hell, judgment, etc, but for me it’s clear that the modern notion of hell came from the Greek myths about Hades. Even Jews didn’t have a theology of hell; they believe in Sheol, which was a place of rest for the dead, not of fire and eternal suffering.
Rob Bell’s argument in his book, Love Wins, is salient. He notes that most who embrace a theology that leans on hell also believe there’s an “age of accountability” for children, before which they are not held responsible for their own actions in God’s eyes. Bell says then that the compassionate thing to do is to kill off all of our children before the age of accountability to ensure they will live forever in Paradise. What’s a few lost decades on earth, after all, compared with the possibility of eternal damnation?
There are few who would suggest that God’s love doesn’t exceed that of human beings. So let’s see a show of hands of those who would kill their own child out of love for someone else? And yes, I’ve heard the argument that it shows God loves us more than his own son, but keep in mind, Jesus is supposedly “one of us,” in that he was fully human. And Jesus said that whatever is done to the “least of these” is done to him, and therefore, to God. So who could argue that Jesus wasn’t among the “least of these” while being crucified? Totally vulnerable, betrayed, poor, humiliated. Sounds pretty “least of these” to me.
Finally, who is this sacrifice for? Supposedly for us, but actually it’s to satisfy God’s intolerance of sin. Do we see God as so weak or intolerant that God can’t handle us just as we are? Are we really so powerful in our sin? This seems like hubris to me, to even suggest that we can do ANYTHING that can’t be handled, forgiven or tolerated by the One who made us.
One thing I think the author was spot-on about was his criticism of the emergent movement largely holding up white, straight middle class males, while also praising the idea of diversity. This is very true, and we have a long way to go if we’re not going to end up looking like a bunch of hypocrites or opportunists. If we value diversity in all its forms, we have to be much more aggressive about helping this movement more accurately reflect the makeup of those in our midst.
Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004.
Christian is the creator and editor of the Banned Questions book series, which include Banned Questions About the Bible and Banned Questions About Jesus. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PregMANcy: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date. For more information about Christian, visit www.christianpiatt.com, or find him on Twitter or Facebook.