May 23, 2006
Is Emergent the New Christian Left? Tony Jones responds to the critics
In December, Brian McLaren was arrested along with 115 other activists while peacefully protesting the federal budget that he believes unfairly treats the poor. As one of the most visible participants in Emergent Village, McLaren's increasingly outspoken political views has some wondering - is 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.
I read a lot of blogs, my wife and friends say too many. 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. My Emergent friends, old and new, love Jesus and are robustly grappling their way into God's future. It seems to me that the two most important commitments that we in Emergent share are 1) we are ultimately hopeful about God's future, and 2) we are committed to moving forward together, as friends.
What continues to surprise me 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."
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.
On the other hand, I'm currently hearing and reading that Emergent is part of the "New Christian Left." Mark Driscoll, for instance, has recently drawn a line in the sand between "emerging evangelicals" and "emergent liberals." He places himself in the former camp, and I assume he'd assign me to the latter. Others, like Ed Stetzer, have similarly attempted to divvy up the emerging church. Stetzer gives three labels: relevants, reconstructionists, and revisionists. Again, I can assume that I'm among the lattermost, whose "prescriptions fail to take into account the full teaching of the Word of God," according to Stetzer. Yet another Christian leader has recently accused us of becoming one with Jim Wallis, Sojourners, and the Christian Left.
The problem with all of these critiques is that they fundamentally misunderstand the nature of Emergent Village. We are a group of friends - about 20 in 1997, and now in the thousands - who are committed to doing God's Kingdom work together, regardless of our theological, ideological, and political differences. Are we friends with Jim Wallis? Yes! And are there Bush-loving neocons among us? Yes! Emergent is a loose collection of folks who feel that true, robust conversation about issues that matter has been chilled out of modern Christian institutions (seminaries, mega-churches, denominations, and para-church groups, to name a few). We're trying to make a place to bring conversation back.
Thus, we have friends among us who think that small government, free market economies are the solution to poverty, and others who favor federal programs and higher taxes - honestly, this is an ongoing conversation within the Emergent friendship. But we all agree that something must be done about extreme poverty, especially in Africa.
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.
I suppose it's easy for those who stand outside of Emergent Village looking in to credit the politics or theology of a few to the whole group, but that's inaccurate. And I can understand the frustration of those who want to criticize us and box us in when we say that we don't play by the old rules, that we can't be categorized as "left" or "right," "evangelical" or "mainline."
But, I think those same critics will only be more frustrated as the tide of those rebelling against a commodified and domesticated Jesus gain momentum. If the mainstream media is a harbinger, then I'd say that recent columns by Gary Wills and Andrew Sullivan show that a tipping point is just around the corner. Jesus really wasn't a Democrat or a Republican, and he won't be domesticated by political agendas. I do, however, believe that he will inhabit the robust and respectful dialogue about ideas that matter.