For the last few months I have been wondering if the emerging movement is still a conversation. Many in the movement have preferred to call it the emerging conversation, rather than the emerging church. This question has particularly stuck in my mind since I asked someone who is a leader in the emerging “conversation” if they knew of anyone who had offered a substantive response to D. A. Carson’s Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its ImplicationsThe answer I received was, “Most of us believe that book is so bad it doesn’t deserve a response.”
I was surprised by this answer, because I did not find Carson’s book to be offensive or intentionally trying to distort the emerging message. It may be that I don’t get it, but I felt that Carson was really trying to understand and interact with his best understanding of this movement and then make a meaningful response to it. Obviously there are going to be areas where D. A. Carson disagrees with key voices in the emerging church. For my part, Carson’s book left me sincerely interested in how people like Brian McLaren (who was not the person I was corresponding with) would respond to Carson’s concerns.
To be fair, I am raising this question based on a very short response I received from one person. It would be unfair to make this representative of an entire group of people. Moreover, Peter Rollins was recently as SMU and I had the chance to visit with him for about thirty minutes after he spoke in a New Testament calss. He was very gracious and in the time I spent with him I felt that he wanted to be part of an ongoing conversation. (While I do not agree with everything he says, both of his books are worth reading: How (Not) to Speak of Godand The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond BeliefHow (Not) to Speak of God has particularly been praised by folks within Emergent.)
To push things a bit farther: From my perspective, there does not seem to be all that much critical reflection on what is coming out of the emerging church. I have sometimes detected a bit of a defensive posture from folks in the emerging church, such as the appendix in Tony Jones’ The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier titled “A Response to Our Critics.” Of course, this is also an effort to do exactly what I am asking for – conversing with those who disagree with them. So, I am sure that the emerging church has received more than its fair share of uncharitable criticism. I am also sure that they have often done their best to respond to their critics. However, lately I have felt that there is a bit of an attitude that “those people just don’t get it” and therefore they are not worth talking to.
I write this because there has always been something that I can’t quite put my finger on about the emerging church that has attracted me. I think that there are many things that they get powerfully right. I also think their ability to get their message out and sell books in places like Barnes and Noble shows that they are meeting a real need that people have, particularly younger people – a demographic my own denomination currently has a very hard time connecting with. So I am a fan of the emerging church. I buy the new books that come out (although enough are coming out now that I can’t say I buy all of them). However, I also have some questions. Occasionally I think they get things completely wrong. I don’t think this makes them different from any other group. But because they are raising such important issues and are connecting with popular culture so well, I hope that they will not insulate themselves from constructive criticism or change. It seems to me that these were in many ways the very motives which raised up the emerging church to begin with – a desire to move the church closer to faithfulness and relevance in a changing culture.
What are your thoughts? Am I missing key venues where the conversation continues? I am interested in your perception of the current state of the emerging conversation.
The answer I received was, “Most of us believe that book is so bad it doesn’t deserve a response.”
that was true. but his later talks on the subject were more accurate. maybe a newer article or book by Carson would tempt some to respond.
Kevin Watson said:
Andrew – Thanks for stopping by!
I guess I am still a bit surprised that a book with as widespread of an audience as Carson’s had could not be deserving of a response. If it was inaccurate, misleading, building strawmen, etc. wouldn’t that be all the more reason to respond?
It seemed to be one of the first popular books that was not by an emergent author that was attempting to interact with the emerging conversation. It just seems inconsistent to dub something undeserving of a response because the reader strongly disagrees with it.
Maybe it would help me to understand where you are coming from if you said a bit more about why it was undeserving of a response.
Ben Simpson said:
Kevin, this is a great question–and one I have asked myself. At times I wonder if “conversation” remains the best descriptor, preferring to refer to it now as more of a movement with definable (but permeable) boundaries. Some elements of the conversation have changed from gelatinous to definitive forms. As a result, some markers of the “emerging church” might better be labeled presentation rather than conversation.
Kevin Watson said:
Ben – Thanks for sharing your helpful thoughts. I think there are certainly parts of the emerging church which are more set in their beliefs. Yet, I am still disappointed at the way in which emergents are sometimes unwilling to respond to those who disagree with them. I am not asking folks in emergent to change their beliefs, just to clarify what they believe by be in conversation with those who are coming from a different place. (I am not saying this in disagreement with anything that you have said – your comments have just helped me maybe push what I am thinking a step farther.) Thanks!