April 22, 2008
Monsters on the Loose
The emergent movement, like the monster flick Cloverfield, is an underground phenomenon, but can it deliver on its hype?
If you hate Cloverfield (or don't even know what it is), then you probably loathe emerging Christians. If you like Cloverfield, you're likely to dig the emergent conversation. Both deliver on their grand promises in a novel way (that is decidedly not for everybody). But why does the film (and the emergent folks) inspire such antipathy? Why can't we appreciate the next generation's re-imagination of tired clich?s?
Movies offer a safe way to process our cultural anxiety. In monster movies we're presented with an opportunity to corral our fears. Zombies or UFOs or viruses wreak havoc for ninety minutes before order is inevitably restored. Cloverfield depicts a seemingly ordinary evening in New York City that is derailed by an unexpected and unexplained attack. Sound familiar? Cloverfield is a direct response to the fear unleashed by the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Eerie shots of panic in the streets remind us how vulnerable we felt. We follow shell-shocked New Yorkers crossing the Brooklyn Bridge in search of safety. The film doesn't offer any reasons for the monster's rampage. It is pure terror. Our way of life as we know it is vanishing, and nothing seems capable of stopping the assault.
For some, the emergent movement has become a monster to be dreaded and feared. Despite leaders' best efforts to explain their theology, rumors about the Emergent Village keep swirling in the blogosphere. A struggling, insecure church has identified emergent Christians as the new enemy. How a small band of smart, reasonably clean-cut ministers like Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt or Rob Bell could inspire so much fear is a tribute to the mania available on the Internet. To some evangelical watchdogs, public enemy number one has a goatee, an earring, and a dog-eared copy of Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christian. How did this get so far out of hand?
Cloverfield started with a teaser trailer. The obscure name "Cloverfield" was never really explained. But the Internet buzz generated by a single commercial reaped huge dividends. People went wild, analyzing the trailer shot by shot. "Who created this movie? What is it about?" And most of all, "When can I see it and solve the mystery for myself?" It was as if the Hollywood studio behind the movie made it purposefully obscure.
The emergent movement works from the same mindset. It starts with random, unchurchy names. Some sound like booths at a Renaissance Faire: "The Well," "The Journey," "The Quest." Others apt for a coffeehouse vibe: "Elevation," "Area 15," "Thad's." They don't spell it all out. They let people talk and discover it for themselves. Word of the mouth is the best marketing. It is cheap and effective. "You've got to see it." "What is it?" "You've just got to see it." We can all learn from Cloverfield (and the emergents) ability how to arouse curiosity, build anticipation and preserve a sense of wonder.
For those who have invested enormous sums in stately locations or grandiose settings, such underground marketing phenomena can be frustrating. To those who have been building, planning, and working hard it seems quite unfair. How can sixty seconds of showing nothing but the Statue of Liberty's severed head, generate more enthusiasm than something literate, important, and ambitious like the film Atonement? How can established denominations that occupy the prime corner on the most traveled streets in town lose members to a gathering held in a warehouse? When did a shaggy mutt become preferable to a pure bred? If you're amongst those seminary-trained pure-breds, it should make you mad to see a goateed, self-taught computer geek take over. It is easy to get bitter. Unfortunately, you must learn the native tongue, understand the new medium, deal with the new terms.
Of course, the enormous anticipation generated by Cloverfield resulted in the inevitable letdown. It is easy to generate suspense in a trailer, but to measure up to pre-release hype is tough. "It wasn't as interesting as I thought." "It's not that scary." "There wasn't enough blood." The same can be said for the emergent church. On the other side of mystery arises the reality of disappointment. "That's it? It's just a church." Just singing. Basic bible reading. Coffee time.
So much energy has been devoted to discrediting the emergent movement, that it can also be disappointing to discover just how modest and meager their changes are. They may do church in the round. They may sit on sofas rather than pews. They may wear jeans rather than khakis, but basically, the emergent movement is a heartfelt gathering of Christians trying to follow Jesus together. At the end of the day, Cloverfield is just a movie. The emergent movement is just a loose affiliation of churches. Neither is a revolution; they're more like a romp.
In part two (the sequal) of his post, Craig Detweiler explains why critics panned Cloverfield for its unorthodox style. Are critics of the emergent movement reacting to style, or is their objection more substantive?