In Gerson’s revisited 20th century evangelicalism, the mercenary character of the Religious Right disappears because conservative Christians embrace evolution. He’s wrong, not only, as you point out, about the uncontested truthfulness of Darwinian biology, but also about the connection between causes and effects. Gerson seems to think that accepting evolution would have kept evangelical Christianity’s respectability and allowed conservative theological emphases to flourish with the broader culture. He ignores the fact that mainline Protestantism did exactly what he recommends—embrace evolution and higher criticism—and has been unraveling ever since, bleeding members while slouching toward the sexual revolution. His wistfulness for an evangelicalism that doesn’t alienate the elite universities is a day late and a denomination short.
New blog category blatantly stolen from Alan Jacobs.
I’m old enough to remember a movement in the mid to late 2000s called “the emerging church.” I still own some of their books, because as a high school/college student raised in conservative evangelicalism, I resonated with a lot of what they taught, including the idea that conservative evangelical culture was far too obsessed with policing doctrine. I loved this point, because (at the time) it expressed a coldness I had felt for a long time growing up in the church. Emerging church literature pressed a dichotomy between relationships and religious dogma and laid the blame for the schism at the feet of fundamentalists. “Yes,” I thought, “this is why church feels so inauthentic.”
Many of these authors were explicit in their recommendations. Do away with “what we believe” lists. Stop making theology the test of church membership or teaching. For every verse you read from Paul, read the Sermon the Mount 10 times. If given the choice between insisting on a point of doctrine and welcoming someone into your fellowship, choose the latter every time. It was alluring stuff, because you could hug it, shake its hand, take it out to coffee, not just read or recite it. And it won over a lot of my generation.
I’m no longer allured by it all. For one thing, what we referred to as the “emerging church” doesn’t really exist anymore, and the cause of death is unflattering. Rob Bell went from pastoring to touring with Deepak Chopra. Velvet Elvis (his first and most broadly successful book) was wrongheaded in a lot of ways, but at least it was a book about Christianity and didn’t sound like it should be featured in a Readers Digest column by Gwyneth Paltrow. Don Miler’s Blue Like Jazz was a sort of “searching for answers my religious upbringing didn’t give me” manifesto. Miller now runs a corporate branding company and doesn’t go to church. Well then.
But here’s the most illuminating part. Many of the writers and spokespeople who talked about prioritizing relationships over doctrine have actually become quite adamant about their own theology. It just so happens that the doctrine that is worth making standards around is just a different kind. For example, opposing the death penalty is worth excommunication:
Honestly, I hope the Catholic Church excommunicates all those who continue to support capital punishment… including Justices of the Supreme Court and Governors who sign death warrants. It's time to end the death penalty. https://t.co/g0318MGNIq
And the ordination of female elders is worth schism (and, presumably, excommunication as well):
The time has come for a schism regarding the issue of women in the church. Those of us who know that women should be accorded full participation in every aspect of church life need to visibly and forcefully separate ourselves from those who do not. Their subjugation of women is anti-Christian, and it should be tolerated no longer.
Christianity’s treatment of LGBT people, too, is worth taking a stand on:
Death penalty, gender, ordination, sexuality: Aren’t these issues that alienate people? Aren’t these divisive topics that keep people at arms length from each other instead of bringing them together around Jesus?
By the standard that was applied ten years ago to conservatives, yes, they are. But it turns out that not all orthodoxies need be “generous.” Not all gatekeepers are bad. It’s a matter of having the right ones.
One thing I’ve read a lot lately from some contemporary progressive evangelical writers is this: If a particular belief makes relationships difficult, or makes people around you feel alienated or upset, you should probably stop believing that doctrine.
The logic goes like this. Jesus said we can judge a tree by its fruits. When people are excluded by or express personal frustration at a point of doctrine, we should be suspicious of that doctrine because of the bad fruit it is beginning to bear. On the flip side, we should evaluate doctrines for their truthfulness in large part by whether or not they bear good fruit–that is, by whether or not, by believing them, we become more friendly, more inclusive, and more ingratiating to the people around us.
But C.S. Lewis has some problems with this idea. And in his essay “Man Or Rabbit,” he explains why this sort of approach of doctrine isn’t a respectable one:
One of the things that distinguishes man from the other animals is that he wants to know things, wants to find out what reality is like, simply for the sake of knowing. When that desire is completely quenched in anyone, I think he has become something less than human. As a matter of fact, I don’t think any of you have really lost that desire. More probably, foolish preachers, by always telling you how much Christianity will help you and how good it is for society, have actually led you to forget that Christianity is not a patent medicine.
Christianity claims to give an account of facts–to tell you what the real universe is like. Its account of the universe may be true, or it may not, and once the question is really before you, then your natural inquisitiveness must make you want to know the answer. If Christianity is untrue, then no honest man will want to believe it, however helpful it might be; if it is true, every honest man will want to believe it, even if it gives him no help at all. [God in the Dock, p.108-109]
When we’re looking at doctrine, our ultimate question cannot be, “Is this helping us?” Rather our ultimate question must be, “Is this true?” That means at least two things.
First, it means that our doctrines of Christian belief are not meant primarily to help us live and work well with others on this earth, but to help us know and be known by God. We should indeed strive to live at peace with all men, and our love for other Christians is a sure mark of our Christianity. But this is much different from saying the essence of our Christianity is our relationships with other humans. Christianity is news from God first, before it is helpful to us.
Second, it means that we simply cannot judge a doctrine’s truthfulness by how seemingly helpful it is in our life. Truthfulness and helpfulness are not the same thing. To conflate the two is really a Darwinistic way of looking at Christianity, as if the “strong” doctrines that further social harmony are meant to survive and the “weak” doctrines that are antiquated or unpopular need to die off. The Bible is clear on many points of doctrine that our neighbors may not admire us for believing, or that may not actually help us win favor and friendship (even inside the church!)
But as Lewis reminded us, truth is valuable apart from its helpfulness. Truth is not merely a means to an end but an end itself. “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” (John 14:6)
As far as I can tell it, the “emerging church” is dead.
The time of death is difficult to establish, much like the time of birth was. But there’s no question to me now that the whatever internal mechanisms the emerging church
movement contained are no longer functioning. Its leadership seems largely to have abandoned its project. Compared to the flurry of publishing in the early to mid-2000s, the last few years of evangelical writing have hardly broached the topic. Perhaps most significantly, its most popular champions have almost uniformly given up the pretense to reforming evangelicalism and are now either squarely in the mainline Protestant tradition or else out of the game altogether.
If you type in EmergentVillage.com in your browser, you won’t be reading the latest thoughts of postmodern evangelical theology. THAT site apparently doesn’t exist anymore. EmergentVillage.com is now a home decor shop, which is probably not as ironic as it feels. There is indeed a blog with the name “Emergent” in it at Patheos Progressive Christian, but the site seems to be operated mainly by a few non-clerical mainline Protestants, and–if I may add–doesn’t seem to generate much traffic.
The “emergent movement,” as keynoted by men like Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones and Rob Bell seems to have little to zero traction. What’s fascinating about these men is the way their recent intellectual output seems to fold neatly into categories that they fiercely protested being placed in. McLaren of all of them seems to have maintained his “conversational” tone. Pagitt and Jones continue to produce their own content, yet neither of them seem to have much use for the emergent movement anymore. Jones will occasionally highlight something about it, but his mentions nowadays feel more occasional than regular (and almost never venture beyond his personal blog page). There’s very little focused attention like the kind that was given to the movement a few years ago.
Bell’s case is more interesting. Of the four Emergent pastors I mentioned, Bell is by far the most well-known. He went from pastoring a several thousand-member church in Grand Rapids to becoming something like Oprah’s official spiritual guru, landing his own television show and accompanying Oprah on her massive, pseudo-sacramental speaking tours. That’s quite a turn, of course, for a pastor whose theology embraced Emergent principles like authenticity and community. I wonder how many Emergent teachers would have identified Bell’s current trajectory as a desirable one back in Emergent’s heyday; I would guess very few.
Doctrinally, it’s interesting to me that a movement that placed so much emphasis on “conversation” and positioned itself as an inter-evangelical dialogue has become solidly progressive in its ethics and soteriology. As Scot McKnight pointed out in an important lecture on the Emergent Church in 2006, the movement distinguished itself largely by its refusal to be “pinned down” on areas of theology and draw meaningful doctrinal lines. Yet between Bell, McLaren, and Jones–and I think its fair to sum up the most active remnants of Emergent in terms of those three men–all of them have affirmed the goodness of LGBT sexual relationships, have repudiated penal substitutionary atonement, and have explicitly distanced themselves from most traditional evangelical camps.
Now the important thing about those two comments is this: Even if you agree with both sentiments, it is unquestionable that the absolutist and dogmatic nature of those comments clangs loudly against the kind of gentle, “let’s talk about this” tone that characterized much of Emergent literature for many years. If nothing else, we can conclude one thing from all this: The Emergent Church movement has largely folded into a rigidly doctrinal camp with specific theological boundaries that match up well with mainline Protestantism.