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An interesting discussion for me is whether or not to call this Emergent “thing” a “church” or a “movement” or a “conversation.”

Let me weigh in with these thoughts, and then suggest what I think is the quintessential literary form for Emergents. First, I think it can be said with a fairly robust confidence that it is not a “Church” in any significant sense of the word. At least, not as the Evangelical Covenant is a “church” or the Lutherans are a “church” or the Roman Catholics are a “church.” There is too much organization, history, hierarchy, and the like inherent to such a term and so the Emergents can’t really be called a “church”. They are far too diverse to let that happen. Clearly, there are Emergent “churches” in the sense that there are “churches” that associate themselves, to one degree or another, with other such churches. They have, after all, conferences that draw similar people together. Because it is not a “Church” with a set of denominational leaders and the like and because, at the same time, there are lots of churches that want to be connected to one another, it seems fair enough to me to call it a “movement.” A movement implies a broad spectrum of denominations that are moving, to one degree or another, in a similar direction. When movements get solid enough they can become a “Church”. Which could happen. I’m no prophet.

But, the term that many prefer is that of “conversation.” This is a very nice term, and it keeps everyone settled down and doesn’t let too much structure appear and it makes it clear that there is a lot of exploration, experimentation, and suggestiveness about what is going on. No one really knows what will happen so things are at the conversational level. Maybe it will stay that way long enough to avoid the problems that develop when great ideas get overly institutionalized.

For this reason, I suggest that what is most compatible with the Emergent conversation is the literary form called the “essay.” Now, because I happen to be a huge fan of essayists, and I’ve blogged in the previous blog about some, and will mention more in blogs to come, my own sensitivity to the essay and to what the Emergent conversation is all about leads me to think that more “essays” ought to be written.

In fact, they are being written and I want to give two prime examples. First, “blogging” is essayist — unless, of course, it is the simple journal form where someone tells us what she is doing today. The minute the “blog” moves from simple reporting to a little reflection, it becomes essayistic. To “essay” is to probe, to attempt, to try, to stick one’s neck into a room to see what is there and to reflect on what one saw. The second example is Brian McLaren’s Generous Orthodoxy. Preeminently an essay, McLaren’s book tries on a few ideas to see if they fit, he doesn’t take his ideas more seriously than he ought, he owns up to his shortcomings, and he knows he just might be wrong and he hopes that he might be right and he asks for people to give it a shot too. This is what essays are all about: try out an idea. Or, as my favorite essayist calls it, an essay is a “line out for a walk.”

Essays don’t like definition and final conclusion and they are not arguments but ruminations and reflections and attempts to bring order and clarity to one’s thoughts — and letting everyone in on the action.

Who are the major essayists? Well, the father of them as we know them is Montaigne, that Frenchman who had more time on his hand than he should have. And one thinks also of Francis Bacon and Steele and Addison and Samuel Johnson and then we get to Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt and H.W. Fowler and Max Beehbohm and G.K. Chesterton and H.L. Mencken and Robert Benchley and James Thurber and E.B. White and George Orwell and A.J. Liebling and then the more recent ones, and I can’t give them all, would include Joan Didion and Merrill Joan Gerber and Nancy Mairs and Brian Doyle and Alan Jacobs. There are, of course, those who do political essays, like Isaiah Berlin and Edward Said and Lionel Trilling. There aren’t enough Christians writing essays, though Alan Jacobs is so good he just might discourage others taking up the task. If you want a good book that bundles up some good ones, try out P. Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay, or The Oxford Book of Essays.

The point of it all is this: these writers “wrote their way to clarity” (if they ever got there, and some didn’t — like Fowler) and it was by thinking their way on paper that they came to terms with what they were thinking. But they knew they weren’t setting down final thoughts for all time.

Can you think of a more Emergent literary form than the essay? Until enough “essay” their way through issues and “blog” their way into their own mind we really won’t know what it is all about. And it takes awhile, but there is no need to hurry because there are so many “thinks to thing” about.

I write here of course about “literary” form. The most Emergent “form” might just be koinonia.

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