July 15, 2008
New Christians VS. Vintage Jesus
Chad Hall reviews the latest books by Tony Jones and Mark Driscoll.
If you'd asked me two years ago if I was part of the emerging church movement, I would have thought for a second and said, "Yes." When asked today, I pause for half a second before saying, "No." The New Christians and Vintage Jesus helped me clarify my journey from Yes to No.
I found one book insignificant and the other inflated.
Let's start with the insignificant. I admire Mark Driscoll for doing significant stuff. He's planted a thriving church in a place where it's tough to do ministry and helps lead one of the more successful church planting networks around (Acts 29). I cracked open Vintage Jesus anticipating something important. Based on the title, I expected Driscoll to pop the cork on an enduring theology that over time increases in flavor and potency. But the book was more flat Coke than fine wine.
I did not find Driscoll's book very interesting. About a third of the way through the book, my mind traveled back a decade to my first week of seminary. As a preaching newbie in need of guidance, I checked out an old, small book on preaching that started by saying something like, "If your sermons are not interesting, you're missing something because God is infinitely interesting." The notion that conversations about God should be interesting resurfaced as I read Vintage Jesus and caught myself muttering, "Yeah, yeah, yeah? so what?"
I did not expect some new theology from Driscoll, since that is certainly the opposite of his well known position. But I did expect him to show that God was interesting and revolutionary. I think guys like Erwin McManus and John Burke tend to deliver better on what I expected from Vintage Jesus: how ageless truth is renewed within each generation.
Driscoll wrote boldly when it came to things that don't really matter, such as his choice of over-the-top colorful language in retelling some biblical narratives. But he held back on the truly important matters, such as how radically life-altering is our faith. Except for a few confessional moments that really stood out, he played it safe in Vintage Jesus. Maybe he didn't want to be mistaken for one of those emergent kooks who deny the basics of faith he finds important: beliefs such as hell and substitutionary atonement. Whatever the reason Driscoll chose to play small in this book, I was disappointed. I think he could have done better.
Enough of that. Let's turn now to the inflated book.
The New Christians gave a true and honest depiction of the emergent church movement. That's not to say it was an attractive picture. I felt Jones presented himself and the movement as condescending, contradictory, and closed.
Jones's lava metaphor scored especially high on the pomposity meter. Evidently the emergent movement is red-hot gospel lava bursting forth from the confines of crusty old ?isms: individualism, consumerism, institutionalism, Presbyterianism, Catholicism, and Methodism.(37) I read the pages surrounding the metaphor four times looking for something that would rescue it from being a condescending thumb in the eye of anyone who is not emergent. I'm still looking.
In similar condescending fashion, Jones detailed his realization that the Campus Crusade for Christ folks he knew in college "were beholden to underlying theologies that are even more in need of overhaul than the methods themselves."(102) These Crusade schleps exemplify what Jones admitted sounds like a supremely arrogant equation: good theology begets beautiful Christianity while bad theology begets ugly Christianity. Even after his explanation, it still sounded supremely arrogant to me.
I also thought The New Christians revealed some deep contradictions in the movement. Jones emphasized that emergents are open and humble and driven to explore because they know they really don't know and they might be wrong. That's a nice epistemology, but it didn't play out in Jones's interaction with non-emergent thinkers. He never seriously considered that maybe non-emergents are legit in any significant way. What if Jones misunderstands or is misinterpreting the critics, the ?isms, the bureaucrats, the left, the right, or the foundationalists?
Jones was gracious, generous, and inclusive to emergents and practically anyone beyond the pale of crusty old Christians (saints, theologians who can be hijacked, Derrida, yoga, etc.), but was dismissive toward the crusty old Christians. He failed to explore the nuance and texture of these groups while simultaneously criticizing opponents of emergent for not recognizing the nuance and sophistication of his movement. Jones described emergent as a beautiful and messy movement, but gave evidence that non-emergent Christians are just ugly.
My jaw really dropped when Jones described an emergent church in Seattle. The congregation came off as a band of intellectually superior egoists. Bureaucratic institutionalism has suffocated the traditional church because it cares only about itself; meanwhile this rag-tag emergent congregation worries how long they can survive in face of the big, bad, co-opted, unthinking brutes who rule the spiritual landscape. They constantly look over their collective shoulder at mean old Mars Hill Church (Driscoll's congregation). Without even a nod to the irony and contradiction, Jones noted that the Seattle congregation exists because they are funded by a big, traditional, mainline church in Manhattan. I got the impression from the emergent pastor/priestess/abbess that the East Coast sugar daddy church really doesn't know what those crazy kids in Seattle are doing. That's okay; just send money so we can keep on emerging.
More than the condescension and contradiction, what I found most disturbing was that emergents' thinking process seems self-sealing. Early in the book, Jones recounts a critic who opined that criticizing emergents is like nailing Jell-O to the wall. Jones responded that emergents don't blindly accept the assumptions of the stories they've been handed, which could make them appear slippery. He went on to recall a time when Walter Brueggemann urged emergents to live by no other script than the biblical script, which emergents try to do.(39) This is a perfectly self-sealing process: anyone who criticizes emergents simply reveals how faulty the critic's assumptions are; anyone who doubts emergents' assumptions reinforces how faulty (non-biblical) the doubter's assumptions are; all criticism validates that emergents are on the right path and reinforces emergents' core assumptions that they are not beholden to any assumptions. Nothing self-critical here.
This self-sealing process showed up throughout the book, notably in Dispatch 10: "Emergents believe that theology is local, conversational, and temporary. To be faithful to the theological giants of the past, emergents endeavor to continue their theological dialogue."(111) I was impressed by what an elegant and efficient shelter this provided for emergents: by disagreeing with theologians of the past, they are actually agreeing with those same theologians. If you disagree with this dispatch, then you reinforce their theory in use. There is no way to for emergents to be wrong. In fact, my act of thinking in terms of right and wrong just shows how trapped I am by my own faulty assumptions. There's no way through this kind of thinking, and, I fear, no way out.
Driscoll's depiction of emergents as a bunch of liberal, sissy losers who finger paint is funny (in an off-color way), but I don't think it's very helpful for getting emergents out of their doom loop. He seems concerned with being right and being funny but not with influencing a group who really needs some of what he has.
And what does Driscoll have that emergents could use? As crazy as this might sound, I think he is humble. Not in the politically correct sense of humility where nobody is ever wrong or bad or judged, but in the City of God sense that you know your place in the order of things. In my opinion, Driscoll seems to get that Christianity is the rock against which humans are broken, the fire that purifies us, the sieve through which our lives are sifted and sorted and made good. By taking a deconstructing stance toward Christianity, theology, and life, emergents seem to be getting this backward: they can't help but to break, burn, and sift the faith.
Drunk on an overindulgence of their own intelligence and high on the hoopla of being on the exploratory edge, emergents seem headed off the road of what passes as sensible and sound Christianity. Can the Christian faith withstand the deconstructive doubts and curiosities of emergents? Of course it can. That's not the point. The point is that emergents may not be able to survive their chosen path.
In Vintage Jesus, I caught brief reminders of why and how our faith remakes us into God's likeness. In The New Christians, I learned just how much the emergent movement needs to take this reminder to heart.
**Stay tuned to Out of Ur in the next few days when we'll post responses by Tony Jones and Mark Driscoll to this review.**