This article constitutes the sixth installment in a series adapted from the author’s undergraduate thesis, An Ancient Future Church?: An Orthodox Examination of the Post-modern Christianity of the Emergent Church Movement. Follow the link above to start from the beginning of the series.
Brian McLaren is regarded as the most influential voice in the Emerging movement, mostly through his writings and extensive, global speaking schedule. McLaren, along with Alan Jones, is among the most notable proponents of the radical wing of the movement. Although from two different traditions — McLaren being the founding pastor of the non-denominational Cedar Ridge Community Church and Jones being the Anglo-Catholic dean1 of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco — they both share a vision of a reimagined, new Christianity, a Christianity that in many ways bears no relation to that which has been passed down from the Apostles. Between them, they have published a multitude of books but it is in McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy and A New Kind of Christianity and Jones’ Reimagining Christianity that they have laid down their vision of the future of Christianity – albeit one that is informed by their interpretation its past.
The common theme that runs through the writings of both McLaren and Jones is that of a subtle agnosticism towards historical Christianity, in particularly that of it as a revealed truth. Again, as with most emergents, their stance is generally in opposition to conservative evangelicalism of a North American variety, so most Orthodox would agree with their opposition to certain tenets of Protestantism.
McLaren is merely the natural result of the processes taking place within Western Christianity for centuries, with all sources of authority successively being discarded.
Sit down next to me in this little restaurant and ask me if Christianity (my version of it, yours, the Pope’s, whoever’s) is orthodox, meaning true, and here’s my honest answer: a little but not yet. Assuming by Christianity you mean the Christian understanding of the world and God, Christian opinions on soul, text, and culture… I’d have to say that we probably have a couple of things right, but a lot of things wrong, and even more spreads before us unseen and unimagined. But at least our eyes are open!
To be a Christian in a generously orthodox way is not to claim to have the truth captured, stuffed, and mounted on the wall. It is rather to be in a loving community of people who are seeking the truth on the road of mission and who have been launched on the quest by Jesus, who, with us, guides us still. Do we have it? Have we taken hold of it? Not fully, not yet. But we keep seeking. We’re finding enough to keep us going. But we’re not finished.
In fact, there is nothing Orthodox, or even ‘orthodox,’ about this view. From an actual Orthodox Christian perspective, one that sings “we have found the true faith” at every Divine Liturgy, it does a great disservice to the Holy Fathers who shed their blood to defend the doctrines of true Christianity from distortion and heresy. Of course, McLaren does not claim to be Orthodox, and his perspective is tragically symptomatic of much of modern, liberal Christianity and to a large degree, a considerable segment of the emerging movement. However, it cannot be held against McLaren that he holds such a view – he is merely the natural result of the processes taking place within Western Christianity for centuries, with all sources of authority successively being discarded, one after another. With the loss of Holy Tradition, the mind of the Fathers, and even a respectful view of Holy Scripture, it is difficult to imagine any other result.
Along with his view that, basically, Christianity in whatever form we know it cannot be completely true, McLaren also advocates ‘gender-neutral’ pronouns for God, ‘nuanced’ views on universalism and sexual morality, and holds the opinion that people can be ‘followers of Jesus’ within their own religions, whether they are Jews, Muslims, Hindus, or some other religion. These views are not, however, exclusive to McLaren, or the emerging movement for that matter, being quite endemic within modern liberal Protestantism. Despite all of this, McLaren does affirm, at least according to his website, traditional Christian doctrines such as the Trinity, the incarnation and virgin birth, and the death and resurrection of Christ. The question of how he understands or ‘interprets’ these doctrines is another question.
What McLaren has instead achieved is the creation of a politically-correct, neutered religion, which has no substantial message
What has made McLaren so influential in ECM is his style and approach. By trying to shift away from the ‘Greco-Roman narrative,’ as he calls it, and developing a more ‘Jewish’ Christianity, McLaren believes that he is avoiding dogmatism, judgmentalism, denominationalism, hypocrisy and an ‘us-versus-them’ mentality, replacing it with inclusiveness, dialogue, storytelling and plurality, if not syncretism. What he has instead achieved is the creation of a politically-correct, neutered religion, which has no substantial message and although he himself apparently holds to the traditional doctrines mentioned above, his approach allows for the complete discarding of them by others.
While McLaren maintains some acceptance of traditional Christian teachings, despite his seemingly contrary views regarding the truthfulness of it all, his friend Alan Jones goes even further with his speculations. His book Reimagining Christianity has been lauded as a classic by liberals and emergents and condemned as a heretical text by conservative evangelicals. Despite his dubious views on the Trinity, Christ and the virgin birth, he received great praise from McLaren for this work. Others who lauded Jones’ book include Richard Holloway, the former Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church and a ‘born-again atheist.’
Alan Jones says, “I believe in the Bible and the creeds, but not literally, and I am no atheist."
To quote and comment on all of the difficult and troubling statements found in Jones’ book would be the work of another paper entirely but as a demonstration of the doctrines contained therein, some of the most significant will be included here. When discussing narrative and storytelling, he reveals a view of the Holy Scriptures which is at odds with traditional Christianity: “Are the words attributed to Jesus in the New Testament really his? My approach has always been skeptical with regard to the text and open with regard to the tradition.” His skepticism also reaches beyond the Scriptures, to the Creed and the doctrine of the virgin birth: “I believe in the Bible and the creeds but not literally, and I am no atheist. I love the tradition and am nurtured by it. I have a great devotion to Mary the Mother of God but am agnostic about her literal virginity – or, to put it bluntly, I couldn’t care less about it.” Likewise, the heavenly hosts: “Every day I invoke the protection of holy angels but I hear no flapping of wings. Belief in angels is a way for me to affirm the presence of God in a personal way… Angels are a metaphor pointing to something real, and the only way to get to that reality is through poetry, myth, and metaphor.”
His views on the person and divinity of Christ are also questionable, with just enough typically vague language to avoid openly appearing heretical: “We call Jesus divine because he makes visible the mystery in his living, dying, and rising to new life. He shows us that we exist only in relationship with each other and that the secret of life is found in giving it away.” He goes on:
The question “Is Jesus God?” is not like questions such as “Was Abraham Lincoln from Illinois?” The questions sound the same, but the latter question is easily settled by making a few inquiries. The question about Christ’s divinity is a far larger one, about how we interpret the world. We don’t know what life means until we have learned how to turn it into a story – a myth. A myth, in this sense, is not something untrue, but a story without which the truth could not be told.
He writes: “Each of the monotheistic religions has its own peculiar neurosis… Christianity is sadomasochistic.”
Of course, skepticism in regards to Christ’s words in the New Testament will of course lead to difficulties in answering Christ’s question of “Who do you say that I am?” 2 This is the conundrum that liberal Christianity finds itself in. Jones’ general opinion of Christianity shines through in many of his remarks, and it does not come across as positive. He writes: “Each of the monotheistic religions has its own peculiar neurosis… Christianity is sadomasochistic.” “And concerning Christianity, I am not interested in its survival, in its adapting to the so-called modern world. Christianity doesn’t need anyone to save it. If it has any truth, it will continue. If it hasn’t, it deserves to die.” The following anecdote recounted by Jones effectively summarizes his worldview.
John Shepherd, the dean of St. George’s Cathedral in Perth, Western Australia, invited the abbot of the Bodhinyana Buddhist Monastery to preach at the service, which was a Eucharist – the central Christian sacrament, and the abbot accepted in full knowledge of this. Aboriginal dancers led the procession into the cathedral and later led the offertory procession to the altar. During communion, representatives of the Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, and Baha’i faiths read passages from their sacred writings, and after communion an Aboriginal reader offered a dream-time reflection. Was this Christian? The answer, as far as I am concerned, is “Of course.”
Although he writes in his book that “I really do believe that Christianity, as I have received it, has a fullness of truth, which I cannot find in other traditions” many of his statements and observations shown above bring this into doubt. None of what Jones writes is ground breaking, original, or specifically emergent, being more rooted in the radically liberal Christianity that has developed since the 1960’s, but his view of Christianity as a narrative, or story, and shedding of dogmatic absolutes, coupled with the incorporation of many spiritual traditions from both traditional Christianity and other religions, brings him well within the spectrum of ECM, particularly the Emergent stream. Those people who have left ‘dogmatic’ denominations, or traditional Protestant churches find much to latch onto in his writings as a much-needed way to articulate their new views.
As Jones writes, “I’m waiting for a more generous and inclusive version of the Old Story to emerge.” This is the ‘new kind of Christianity’ McLaren writes of, which is being sought by those on the extreme wing of the emerging movement. Although ECM has its traditional, doctrinal-minded Protestants, a good proportion of the movement is fully behind Brian McLaren and similar thinkers from the Emergent stream in their search for a radically redefined Christianity. However, based on what Alan Jones thinks Christianity is, and his description of the conventicle in Australia, this ‘new Christianity’ will not really be Christian in any recognizable sense at all.
Is the Emerging Church Movement Dead?
With all the discussion and debate raging about ‘the Great Emergence,’ the rise of ECM, and its growing influence on mainstream Christianity, it is interesting to see that many of its proponents (or former proponents) deem that the movement has already died a death and is finished. Like all opinions and beliefs in ECM, this is far from universal, and is disputed by many. As the final section of our overview of ECM, we will look at the various opinions as to why this may be the case.
Of all the blog posts and articles on this issue, the most in-depth have been from C. Michael Patton, a blogger for Credo House. He identifies six points as to why he believes that ECM is dead, most of them being their interactions with evangelicals, who are ECM’s target demographic, at least among the ‘churched’ population. His points are that:
1) The leaders lacked tact in addressing evangelicals
2) they were unnecessarily offensive towards them
3) they failed to identify with them
4) they tolerated heterodox theology
5) ECM leadership was not unified
6) Evangelical leadership never really cared about engaging with them.
Patton compares the first three points with a failed coup attempt, in which the emerging upstarts failed to convince evangelicals to listen to their message, primarily because many emergent leaders spoke down to them, or even mocked evangelicalism. Rather than finding common ground in the idea of ‘always reforming,’ which is a core component of Protestant thought, they instead associated evangelicals with fundamentalism (something that a number of emergents were fleeing from) and belittled them. Evangelicals, who might have aligned with ECM’s position on many issues, instead became defensive and rejected the emergent leaders.
Pfour and five go hand-in-hand, as it is the Emergent stream’s tolerance of liberal positions on both theological and moral issues which led to many ruptures in the movement, and the eventual abandonment of the ‘emerging’ label by many in the Doctrine-Friendly stream. Many of the more conservative elements of ECM have instead adopted the term ‘missional’ to express their intention of returning to the roots of their involvement with ECM. Dan Kimball, who was an early leader in the Doctrine-Friendly stream, sums up his disassociation with ECM:
When the whole emerging church discussion began, it was primarily about evangelism and mission to emerging generations… That’s why I got into it, and it was fun and a thrill to be part of… After a while, some within it began focusing more on theology and even some core issues of theology… the whole central focus of evangelism to emerging generations was lost, in my opinion… A lot of the things discussed and then even becoming beliefs is pretty liberal theology… it is pretty much classical extreme liberalism in a new, cooler wrapper.
The final and sixth is the natural conclusion to the first five: most serious evangelical leaders and scholars did not fully engage with ECM, partly due to its propensity to speak down to evangelicals and seeming inability to present a united front on important issues, and partly due to their own refusal to open up their theological doctrines to debate.
In another post, Patton blames ECM’s ambiguity in regards to theological and moral issues as a major part of the movement’s failure to become more influential among traditional Protestants. Allegorizing it as a plane flight, he writes:
The emerging church asked Christians to re-think their faith. They asked us to deconstruct our beliefs. They asked us to doubt everything. They asked for us to take a ride in the emerging plane and fly for a bit… However, the emerging plane never landed. It soon became clear that there was no destination. There was no runway on which to land and the emerging plane did not even have landing gear. The deconstruction happened with no plans of reconstructing. The emerging journey became an endless flight that did not have any intention on setting down anywhere. Many people jumped out, skydiving back home. The rest, I suppose, remained on the plane until it ran out of gas.
A significant number of the Doctrine-Friendly stream ‘skydived,’ most notably Mark Driscoll, who is now mostly associated with Neo-Calvinism. One of the more astute commentators on Patton’s article noted that ECM’s desire to find ‘authentic tradition’ and continuity with historical Christianity opened up the path to Neo-Calvinism for many former emergents, an opinion with which I am in full agreement.
However, despite the more conservative elements of ECM retreating back into evangelicalism, or rebranding as missional, Brian McLaren and others still think the movement is as active and vibrant as ever, although the ‘conversation’ has changed. Writing in 2012, he states that “If we use Phyllis Tickle’s term “Christian Emergence” or “Emergence Christianity” to describe a broad phenomenon that is occurring across the spectrum of Christian communities, I think the movement is stronger than ever.” He goes on to state that he believes that influential figures in evangelical and charismatic movements have forced the movement underground.
In Ganiel and Marti’s recent research, they find themselves in agreement with McLaren that ECM is “not only viable but shows some signs of spreading.” They believe that the “RIP ECM” debate is a healthy sign that ECM is maturing away from its initial reactionary positions. One of the main arguments against McLaren’s opinion is that the Emergent Village website and blog has disappeared, when it was once the hub for much ECM discussion, particularly the Emergent Stream, as well as a whole host of other blogs, which have either vanished or dried up. It could be suggested that this was a deliberate move, made just as ECM seemed on the verge of becoming a denomination, or at least a recognised and established movement with a hierarchy, in its own right. In this regard, by appearing to be ‘dead’ by dissolving its focal point, ECM could be staying true to its anti-establishment principles.
So, although some have distanced themselves from the Emerging label and the sole semi-official organ of ECM has seemingly folded, a number of the individuals associated with ECM continue to be highly influential and sought after for conferences and gatherings. Most importantly, the ideas and concepts associated with ECM are still prevalent in many quarters and, if Ganiel and Marti’s assessment is correct, continuing to spread, even if they are not overtly being labelled as ‘emerging’.
“What, then, is the Emerging Church?”
Having now looked at ECM from a variety of perspectives, using a selection of primary and secondary literature, we are able to see that Fr. Damick’s statement from the beginning of this thesis is thoroughly accurate. However, despite the difficulty in being able to identify what exactly ECM is with exactitude, we are able to highlight specific themes that are present in much of the analysis and also to make several connections between the varying perspectives. From this, we can present a synthesized analysis along with our own concluding viewpoint.
It cannot be emphasized enough that ECM is neither a formal organisation nor a new denomination, but instead a pan-denominational movement with adherents in probably every major Protestant group
DeVine’s study, analysed above, gives the clearest explanation for the movement’s distinguishing factions – Doctrine-Friendly and Doctrine-Wary, or Emergent. These two groups, although not clearly demarcated, form the most notable constituent parts of the movement. In this, we can connect the more specific outlook of the majority of ECM commentators and critics with Tickle’s wider, more inclusive view, in that we can draw correlation between these two factions and the Magisterial and Radical factions of the main Protestant Reformation. Another comparison, more familiar to Orthodox, would be the Renovationist movement in early twentieth-century Russia, which consisted of both moderate and radical elements.
In either comparison, both factions are born from a genuine desire to change what they perceive as institutional problems in their churches, albeit with differing approaches. Much of the writings of ECM adherents show that they have a serious desire to make what they believe to be necessary changes for their churches to continue to function and, in particular, reach out in our contemporary social and cultural climate. In order to achieve this, ECM has made extensive use of post-modern thought and post-modernist approaches. For both factions, this has manifested itself as a more inclusive ecclesiology, with a strong focus on community-building, as opposed to the ‘programs’ associated with seeker-friendly churches.
It is within the more radical elements of ECM that we find another prevalent aspect of the movement, which is its anti-authoritarianism
ECM can be seen as a reform movement that started in response to the staid modernism of evangelical Protestantism, its outdated approaches to both mission and worship and its affiliation with the Religious Right.
It is within the more radical elements of ECM that we find another prevalent aspect of the movement, which is its anti-authoritarianism. This was highlighted in the studies of both Carson and Ganiel and Marti. Although much of the above-mentioned practices are in protest against the perceived staid practices of Protestantism, the Emergent stream takes its protest into the theological sphere, and even openly goes against traditional evangelical doctrines. This mostly focus around the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, something that the Orthodox also have strong disagreements with, but also extends to more ‘universal’ teachings, such as the virgin birth, the inspiration and reliability of Holy Scripture, church hierarchy, the nature of the Trinity, and the divinity of Christ. There is also a tendency to lean towards universalism and, to a degree, syncretism among some of the Emergent faction.
In summary, ECM can be seen as a reform movement that started in response to the staid modernism of evangelical Protestantism, its outdated approaches to both mission and worship and its affiliation with the Religious Right. Emergents sought to re-engage the surrounding culture by both using contemporary culture and traditional practices in order to conduct missionary work and create new, enthusiastic and authentic communities in a post-modern environment. However, as with all religious reform movements, the movement slowly grew into two factions, with the more liberal emergents becoming anti-authoritarian and, it can be said, iconoclastic, in their approach. Reaction against these elements was strong from conservative evangelicals and proponents of ECM withdrew their support as a result. At the time of writing, the majority of the conservative faction have ‘relabelled’ themselves as ‘missional’ and have distanced themselves from the ‘emerging’ label. The more liberal elements continue their work, although on a seemingly smaller and less visible scale since the demise of Emergent Village as a semi-official organ. ECM continues, although its current form is one that operates more at a grassroots level than the former national- and international-conference level. The ideas spread by ECM during its most influential period are still around, and by all accounts, slowly spreading. As has been discussed above, the movement is not over, but the conversation has changed slightly.