August 7, 2008

Book Review: Why We're Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be)

I must confess that I often judge a book by its cover… the back cover that is. If the title and trendy cover artwork for Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be) aren’t catchy enough already, the endorsements on the back cover are what really grabbed my attention. Those who are familiar with the current mini-feud within evangelicalism between liberal “emergents” and conservative Calvinists will recognize names like scholar D.A. Carson, pastor Mark Dever and blogger Justin Taylor, all of whom are well respected in Calvinist/Reformed circles. Because of their high praise for this book, I was half-expecting another dry and academic roast of Brian McLaren’s irreverent writing, which often distracts critics from the broader emerging movement’s missional focus.

While reading the opening chapters, I quickly discovered that my pre-conceptions were largely incorrect. Gen-X authors Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck have done their homework and the result is a witty, engaging and accessible critique, certainly the most nuanced and evenhanded anti-emergent book yet published. While it’s no surprise that their perspective is clearly Reformed (thanks to a healthy dose of penal substitution atonement theory, human depravity and unconditional election), their observations and conclusions will be helpful to readers across the Christian spectrum. With alternating chapters, DeYoung’s pastoral/academic lens provides the theological substance while Kluck, a culturally savvy sportswriter with an eye for the ironic, supplies a colorful layperson’s perspective.

Regardless of how one describes what it means to be ‘emerging’ or ‘emergent’ (the authors acknowledge there is a difference), it is unmistakably one of the most controversial movements in the church today. “Defining the emerging church is like nailing Jell-O to the wall” writes 30-year-old pastor Kevin DeYoung in the book’s introduction. Even though the ‘emerging church’ is not a denomination, nor does it have a statement of faith beyond the “values and practices” described on the Emergent Village website
, it’s safe to call it a “diverse, but recognizable, movement” and not just “a conversation” as some adherents are fond of doing. For a movement so heavy on terminology (emerging, emergent, missional, postmodern, praxis, incarnational, ancient-future, etc.) there is a glaring, intentional absence of clear definitions. I can identify with DeYoung when he says:

It’s frustrating because the ‘we’re just in conversation mantra’ can become a shtick whereby emergent leaders are easy to listen to and impossible to pin down… No matter what label you put on it, once you start selling thousands of books, speaking all over the country and world, and being looked to for spiritual and ecclesiastical direction, you’re no longer just a conversation partner. You are a leader and a teacher. (p. 17)

For someone expressing such clear opposition to the movement on theological and philosophical grounds, it’s commendable how DeYoung goes to great lengths to cultivate respectful dialogue, a practice frequently espoused by emergents. With generous disclaimers in the introduction, he acknowledges the possibility that his understanding of the movement may be different than that of his readers. He does his best to allow the movement to define (or not define) itself on its own terms. He acknowledges that some emergent authors “if push came to shove, would sound much more orthodox and evangelical than they come across in print” (I would agree). He welcomes correction if he’s misunderstood anyone and he understands that everyone can’t be lumped together under one label. He concedes that certain authors like Rob Bell and Donald Miller don’t label themselves as “emerging” while some like Dan Kimball are more theologically responsible than others like Spencer Burke (no kidding). He doesn’t want to think of his opponents as “bad guys” or criticize those who have been blessed by their ministries. He claims to not dislike all things emergent and refers to emergent believers as “brothers and sisters.” He even gives a tip of the hat to Rob Bell, calling him “a good teacher.”

Once the definitions and qualifiers are in place, DeYoung uses his 135+ pages as a passionate call for classic Protestant orthodoxy, addressing a variety of concepts that some (not all) emergent writers tend to downplay: the knowability of God, absolute truth, the need for doctrine/theological boundaries, the authority of Scripture, the existence of hell, the reality of God’s judgement, the uniqueness of Christ, the nature of the atonement and the balance between law and gospel. Responding to a diverse host of writers including McLaren, Bell, Miller, Kimball, Burke, Doug Pagitt, Peter Rollins, Leonard Sweet and Tony Jones, DeYoung sometimes overstates his case, but for the most part, he makes a genuine attempt to engage his opponents fairly. Here is a sampling of my favorite slices:

The Christian movement at its inception was not just a way of life in the modern sense, but a way of life founded upon a message… As soon as you say Jesus died and rose again for your sins according to the Scriptures, you have doctrine. You have a message about what happened in history and what it means. That’s theology. There is no gospel without it. (p. 113)

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes; we do see through a glass dimly; we do not fully understand; we don’t know God as God knows Himself; our words can’t capture the essence of God. God is greater than we can conceive- but what about the 1,189 chapters in the Bible? Don’t they tell us lots of things about God that we are supposed to do more with than doubt and not understand? Aren’t the Scriptures written so that we might believe and be sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see and even proclaim this faith to others? (p. 123-124)

Does anyone really believe that creedal formulations began with modernism, as if Christians suddenly got obsessed with doctrine in the wake of the Enlightenment? ... This is systematic theology- taking a question and trying to hear what all of Scripture says about it. Isn’t that what McLaren has done about the kingdom or Dan Kimball about worship? (p. 151)

Does the emergent Jesus demand that all nations worship Him as their God and Savior or merely that everyone live like He did? ...Obviously, Jesus was chided for fraternizing with sinners and tax collectors, but why did the Jews crucify Him? They killed Jesus for His outrageous Godlike claims- that He was the Son of God and the King of Israel. (p. 204)

If DeYoung supplies the book’s intellectual reasoning, Ted Kluck brings the satirical spark. Unlike his co-author, Kluck makes his points with subtlety, sharing what are more like meandering impressions (think Anne Lamott without the swearing) rather than blunt statements of condemnation. By diffusing defensiveness with a charming, self-deprecating approach (confessing that he too wears the Rob Bell glasses and gives “weak” responses to smart questions), he satirically questions the movement without spelling everything out. Never hesitant to poke fun at himself, he admits that “writing a book titled Why We’re Not Emergent probably won’t help at all in the ‘further alienating friends and acquaintances’ department” (p. 99) adding later that “The idea that people read much of anything and have their minds changed by it is less and less realistic to me.” (p. 234)

In chapter 2, Kluck does an excellent job of exploring (with a little bit of mystery and imagination I might add) the themes of protest and rebellion, tongue-and-cheekly calling himself a “rebel” for making what sounds like a hilarious short film about Christian stereotypes. Many readers, myself included, will identify with his anti-“evangelical cheesiness” stage. Kluck successfully deconstructs the appeal of protest and rebellion by pointing to examples from history that illustrate how protesting the status-quo is really nothing new. Ironically, this book, like much of emergent literature, is also a protest.

Kluck is at his creative best when he is describing the faddish trends embraced by the evangelical subculture, emergent or otherwise. Describing a theologically-minded friend of his named Dave, he says this:

I wouldn’t go so far as to put him in the “rabid young John Piper groupies” department, but if he met a beautiful young girl wearing glasses, no makeup and an indie-rock T-shirt, reading Calvin’s Institutes, he probably wouldn’t hesitate to ask her to “court.” (p. 99)

Some of my other favorite Ted Kluck snippets include his humorous description of a “web-based experiential prayer module” (p. 210) and this reflection on holiday letters:

I hate holiday letter time. You know the time of year- it’s the time when successful Christian couples send you the glossy photo of themselves in the yuppie uniform of the year surrounded by a passel of lovely children… The blonde housewife looks a little tired but nevertheless hot in a conservative Christian meets Desperate Housewives sort of way. And there’s the husband, who has put on a little paunch since he sat on the Young Republicans committee in college and was the head of his class in his business school. (p.174)

One of the book’s recurring themes is the need for balance. On page 156, DeYoung says, “We must refuse false dichotomies that force a wedge between head and heart, rationality and faith, truth and experience.” In the epilogue, he reinforces the imperative this way:

I pray fervently that my church not be a lopsided church that excels in one kind of virtue at the expense of other virtues… I fear emergent leaders are creating a host of false dichotomies that will produce lopsided churches, even as they respond to lopsided churches in the opposite directions. (p. 251)

For the most part, DeYoung and Kluck use sound reason and keen observation to expose many of the false dichotomies that abound in emergent literature including: belief vs. practice, destination vs. journey, information vs. transformation, doctrine vs. ethics, life after death vs. life on earth, scriptural commands vs. scriptural narratives and the gospel as an event vs. the gospel as a doctrine. On these issues, many influential emergent writers do in fact have a lopsided focus for which Why We're Not Emergent provides helpful correctives.

But despite their genuine efforts to maintain balance, there are more than a few instances when DeYoung and Kluck seem to present their own set of false choices by elevating one virtue at the expense of another. Some of these include: Scriptural wisdom over corporate wisdom (p. 79), belief in Christ over following the way of Jesus (p. 112), Jesus as Savior over Jesus as Servant (p. 188), atonement theory over economic justice (p. 191), sin and rebellion over suffering and brokenness (p. 194), “sin, justification and undeserved mercy” over “community, inclusion and journey” (p. 248) among others.

On pages 32-33, DeYoung emphasizes that the destination is more important than the journey. He describes the emerging path as “more about the wild, uncensored adventure of mystery and paradox” which is contrasted with Biblical passages about being sojourners in this world. He’s right that there are certainly many passages in Scripture that talk about heaven, but there are just as many, if not more, that talk about how to live. Emergents clearly err on the side of emphasizing journey, but so do the Quakers and mystics from the contemplative tradition. DeYoung’s Reformed tradition falls closer to the destination end of the spectrum, but both traditions are important to evangelicals and it would be a mistake to exclude either. Because DeYoung is so focused on the destination, it didn’t surprise me that he is not a big fan of personal introspection:

We are so in-tuned with our dysfunctions, hurts and idiosyncrasies that it often prevents us from growing up, because maturity is tantamount to hypocrisy in a world that prizes brokenness more than health. (p.34)

I would contend that becoming aware of and understanding our brokenness/depravity is a very important mark of the Christian life. This is not the same thing as “prizing” it. Perhaps the reason why “authenticity and sincerity have become the currency of authority” for postmoderns is because they have heard too many hypocritical “authorities” use doctrine as a tool to control others. Doctrine is critical to Christianity, but to set it up as a rival with personal introspection is another false choice that need not be made.

On the subject of preaching vs. discussion Kluck seems to imply that generation Xers are drawn to emergent because they hate truth or can’t handle the truth:

I would be hard pressed to find anything our generation hates more than ‘preaching.’ When talking about our faith we’re careful not to sound ‘preachy.’ The word carries great baggage. It is especially important, too, to lead us to believe that we’ve figured something out on our own, rather than telling us anything. (p. 61)

I don’t think this generation hates “preaching” as much as they hate preachers who don’t speak the truth in love. As Kluck himself says using a James Dean movie character as an example, people really don’t want to rebel as much as they want somebody worth submitting to. On page 64, Kluck says that he “was looking for a theology and a body that I could give my life to and entrust with my children.” I would add that this is also what many emergents are looking for. Truth and love together. However, when people begin think that the only truth-tellers are mean-spirited or that the only people who will love them are people who deny the existence of absolute truth, we have created a false choice between truth and love.

As I scrawled a multitude of reactions in the page margins, I found myself vacillating between agreement and disagreement, sometimes even on the same page. I would often write “excellent point” and “false dichotomy” within the span of a paragraph or two- kind of like when I read Brian McLaren! The mix of brilliance and overstatement made for some roller coaster reading. One minute, Kluck is making terrific observations about the marketing strategies used by some churches, but before you know it, he’s comparing emergents to tobacco lobbyists (p. 97). In another instance, he likens emergent preaching to a "Jesus-as-therapist approach" (p. 218), but I doubt that this concept would be as easy to dismiss if biblical names for God like Healer, Comforter or Counselor had been used instead.
In a single paragraph, DeYoung goes from issuing a valuable warning about the emergent imbalance toward “already” vs. “not yet” to rebuking the movement’s emphasis on fighting poverty/injustice since “Jesus said the poor will always be with us and wars and rumors of war will continue to the very end.” (p. 187) Another example of this tottering occurs when Kluck astutely points out the pretense of emergent jargon:

Why is it living incarnationally to drink Chai and listen to sitar music in a coffee shop, but not living incarnationally to eat cheese fries and watch big trucks crush things? (p.230)

But on the very next page, he seems to make fun of people who join intentional communities or practice "new monasticism" by sarcastically referencing those who “have time to read all of the books on missional living, which would tell him [his pastor friend Cory] to intentionally get a house in an urban area, get some kind of job that would allow him to rub shoulders with ‘regular people’ and then ‘do life’ with them.” (p. 231) In a matter of paragraphs, DeYoung goes from making a solid exegetical case for balance based on the 7 churches in Revelation to pitting Donald Miller against Jonathan Edwards in theological mismatch of historic proportions! (p. 250)

My final criticism, perhaps a minor one, concerns the book’s subtitle. Part of the marketing appeal and surface credibility of the book hinges on the idea that DeYoung and Kluck are “two guys that should be” emergent. This clever subtitle seems to imply that there’s something about the authors that gives them a better understanding of the movement- that they are closer to the action in some way which gives their critique more weight than say, an academic rebuttal by D.A. Carson who is on the outside looking in. While it’s true that both authors are young, culturally savvy, and grew up in Christian homes, these are hardly the defining characteristics of people who’ve joined the movement. As their book correctly stresses, questioning the way we ‘do church’ is a huge, if not defining, element of being an emergent Christian. A major component of the emergent experience is being dissatisfied or disillusioned with your experience of the evangelical church, which then prompts you to question the way things should be done.

DeYoung speaks very positively of his conservative Reformed upbringing and was never interested in leaving it behind, much less becoming emergent. As far as Kluck is concerned, the closest he came to joining the movement was talking with a friend who tried unsuccessfully to recruit him into it. If everyone were this happy and content with their evangelical church experience, it’s doubtful that an emerging movement would have ever “emerged” in the first place! The authors don’t seem to question the way their Reformed community does church, just the way that some emergents do. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with critiquing something you’re not part of and I truly rejoice that both guys appear to be thriving as part of their own faith tradition. But there’s no evidence from either of their spiritual journeys that these guys were ever remotely interested in becoming emergent, so it’s a somewhat of a misleading marketing gimmick to say that they “should be.” I would not expect two Calvinist complementarians from western Michigan to be emergent any more than a I would expect a left-leaning open theist attending Fuller Seminary to be Dutch Reformed!

Personally, I consider myself someone who identifies with certain aspects of the movement, but I avoid the “emerging” label for its connotations of theological liberalism and doctrinal uncertainty. Based on my experience, I cannot say that this book provides a completely balanced description of what the movement is about. While it’s true that certain writers and pockets of the movement are merely attempting to sell books, make people feel good, target a marketing demographic, provide disillusioned young Christians a forum to vent, promote liberal politics and protest evangelical authority, the emerging church has still made some positive contributions beyond their diagnosis of what’s wrong with mainstream evangelical Christianity. A renewed interest in contemplative spiritual disciplines, the narrative depths of Old Testament, liturgical/sacramental worship, communal living, social justice (not just charity), participation in the Kingdom of God, spiritual formation, peacemaking, creation care and the way of Jesus are a few that come to mind. It's not that emergents are the only ones who care about such things, but the authors tend to either gloss over these aspects of the movement or treat them as distractions to the gospel.

Of course, I wouldn’t expect DeYoung and Kluck to fully survey the merits of the emergent movement any more than I would trust Brian McLaren to provide a faithful summary of historic Reformed doctrine! But if you are looking for a moderate, theologically responsible description of what the emerging church is, I highly recommend the work of Scot McKnight (this article is a good starting point), a respected evangelical scholar who has identified himself with Emergent Village, but is not afraid to offer a firm biblical rebuke of the movement when one is needed. A case in point was McKnight’s rebuttal of Spencer Burke’s A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity, which represents the radical unorthodoxy and quasi-universalism awaiting emergents if statements of faith, moral boundaries, established doctrines and church history are ignored. DeYoung mentions on page 161 that McKnight even has a few criticisms for Rob Bell’s interpretation of 1st century Jewish history. As Kluck says on page 213, “When I see the emergent movement described by Scot McKnight, I like it a lot better than when I see it hashed out by Brian McLaren and Tony Jones.” I couldn’t agree more.

Although I wouldn’t suggest it to anyone looking for an introductory survey, I highly recommend Why We’re Not Emergent to those who are already participating in the “conversation” as well as anyone who wants a summary of the emergent movement's weaknesses. You’re not likely to find a more respectfully nuanced (and engaging to read) case against the emerging church than the one presented in this book. DeYoung and Kluck have provided an articulate call to historic orthodoxy that should be, and hopefully will be, welcomed at the discussion table.


becs said...

Hm... After reading this book & your review, I have to say that I think you were a bit generous to Deyoung & Kluck... I found their straw men arguments annoying, and much of their self-depreciating writing style canned.
That said, I am increasingly unsympathetic to the Emergent conversation - It's quickly starting to sound old. (And that's coming from a postmodern!)

James said...

Hey Dan,
Had dinner with the Staffords last week in northern CA. Talked about you.
jim miller

KBCAP said...

That was a long blog, I have a simple mind so it was a little difficult to get everything but I wanted to comment on one thing. You know when the writers said postmoderns hate preaching, he does have a point. I think that idea comes from rebellion. I don't think postmoderns hate preaching but rather I think postmoderns hate all the intellectualism that comes out in boring preachers. I agree that we are to preach the truth. I personally like good simple preaching over discussions. But I think postmoderns want a chance to deconstruct what they are hearing right when they hear it. I agree with the writers that we are not to avoid preaching but we just need to make it simple and applicable. I personally would rather have a short, simple, applicable message preached than a long drawn out preaching/discussion oriented message.