Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed


Emergent Style? The Essay Form

posted by xscot mcknight

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.



Advertisement
Comments read comments(19)
post a comment
Sivin Kit

posted May 5, 2005 at 12:36 am


Thanks Scott for this post .. I can really relate to the “essay” metaphor/picture you’re using here to describe the “emergent” conversation. I prefer it to stay this way and see how it progresses naturally …



report abuse
 

bill bean

posted May 5, 2005 at 8:26 am


“wrote their way to clarity”, I like that



report abuse
 

bill bean

posted May 5, 2005 at 8:31 am


Also, where is a good place to start with Alan Jacobs?



report abuse
 

Scot McKnight

posted May 5, 2005 at 8:44 am


Alan Jacobs writes for Books and Culture, and he’s got two books I think (amazon.com).



report abuse
 

Bud Locke

posted May 5, 2005 at 10:10 am


Scot, I have enjoiyed your blog very much. I hope to bump into you at some Covenant events.As for the essayist illustration, you’re right on.



report abuse
 

Bob

posted May 5, 2005 at 2:57 pm


What about the poem or (though not literary) the song? The “conversation” (the term I prefer) has also been called a dance. Any dance needs music.The elements of guys like McClaren or Donald Miller’s writing that truly capture the imagination, though couched in “essay”, could only be considered song.But then, when I think about it, the “poem/song” is probably God’s “style”.



report abuse
 

Tatiana

posted May 5, 2005 at 5:04 pm


But you forgot about Wendell Berry!! (How could you?)



report abuse
 

Scot McKnight

posted May 5, 2005 at 6:12 pm


Wendell Berry … another Kentucky Rose.



report abuse
 

Brother Maynard

posted May 5, 2005 at 9:56 pm


Excellent post, Scot. In my comments while linking to this post on my own blog, I say that this post is one of the most important to EC blogdom in the past few months.Well done… and I do hope I grow up to be an essayist someday… you’ve really provided me here with something to strive for as a blogger.Gratia vobis et pax,Brother Maynard



report abuse
 

fernando

posted May 6, 2005 at 2:29 am


I’ve been pondering this one, and if we are talking essayists in the sense of wendell berry, then I’m probably onboard……to me one difference between emergent bloggers and, say, fundamentalist bloggers is the openess of the posting. emergent bloggers tend to want to leave things open to discussion and “play” rather than close the debate down.i had an interesting experience recently, posting what I thought might be a conversation opening comment on a blog. however, the response from the blogger, which largely consisted of a string of bible verses that were useful but tangental to the point I was raising, showed the tendency to want to close the debate down.i wonder if there might be an important difference between an essayist and a pamphleteer?



report abuse
 

Scot McKnight

posted May 6, 2005 at 5:46 am


Fernando, content is not quite the issue when it comes to essays and blogging; it is tone and purpose. If the essay is an argument, if it is a diatribe, well then it really isn’t an essay any more. It may be short, but to be an essay means you are “trying” something out. My suggestion, after all it is an essay itself, is that the essay form lends itself to the very essence of the Emergent folks since it is a conversation and folks want to try on a few ideas and see what happens. Very rarely is someone saying, “Look, this is the way it is and quit disagreeing.”



report abuse
 

Bob Robinson

posted May 6, 2005 at 7:22 am


John Wilson has been doing us all a great favor with his series, The Best Christian Writing each year. You’ll find essays from a wide array of writers on a variety of topics.I’d say that blogging is an interesting animal in the essay category…Because a blog is not really a blog if you don’t get to know the person writing it.You wrote that blogging “is essayist — unless, of course, it is the simple journal form where someone tells us what she is doing today.” I think that this is an essential element to a real blog–it is not just disconnected thoughts from somebody you’re not getting to know. Instead, it is an interpersonal conversation. Interspersed throughout a good blog are tidbits of interpersonal communication that allows you to create a relationship with the blogger. What makes blogging so unique is that you grow to understand the person and what he or she is living through as they ruminate on the topics in their more “essayistic” posts. This is a wonderful step in the evolution of the essay: the creation of a virtual conversational community. When you are in conversation with friends, you “shoot the breeze”—you talk about sports, your kids, what you did over the weekend—as well as about serious matters. And the “shooting the breeze” makes the serious conversations that much more rewarding.And that is what makes blogging an essential part of the “Emergent Conversation.” Bloggers get to know each other and talk with each other about their lives and about ministry.



report abuse
 

Scot McKnight

posted May 6, 2005 at 7:30 am


Agreed, Bob.Hence, the essayists I pointed out (mostly) are writing what is called the personal and familiar essay. It is informal; it is a conversation between two people. There are some essays, like those of Bacon or Lewis or Dorothy Sayers, that are more intellectual (and I’m big on those too), but the bulk of my suggested names write personal essays.And, this is why I don’t prefer “anonymous” bloggers. Who is this, I say to myself? Why doesn’t she or he give a name?Well, I know as well as you do that sometimes it is because they don’t want to take the time to sign up for an account (which is free), and other times because they want to make comments without being known. No such thing for me. No such thing as person-less comments.John Wilson is simply the best in the business. A man of exquisite taste, and that is why Books and Culture has the likes of Volf, Mathews-Green, Jacobs, Mark Noll (whose writing is not as scintillating as it is brilliant), and the like.



report abuse
 

Scot McKnight

posted May 6, 2005 at 7:35 am


The best examples of the sort of essayist that “converges” with the Emergence are the following: Montaigne, Lamb, Hazlitt, Samuel Johnson, FW Fowler, Beerbohm, (at times) Chesterton’s journalistic pieces, Mencken (who is too cynical for me), Benchey, Thurber, White, Perelman, Epstein, Gerber, Mairs, Lopate, and some of Brian Doyle.These are very literary sorts; almost none takes on Christian topics; but each divulges personality and reveals the human condition of all of us.That is why the converge with the Emergence.



report abuse
 

Anonymous

posted May 6, 2005 at 3:34 pm


I’m wondering if the desire for one to give a name instead of anonymously blogging is a Modernist superficial tendency to give someone a label. What does a name tell you about a person really? In the Bible they have more significance, but does someone’s name tell you anything whatsoever about them? If someone named themselves 7, are they somehow being impersonal and not showing themselves to you because they didn’t say their name was Ellen? If what comes out of 7’s mouth is the same as what comes out of Ellen’s mouth, what’s the difference. The same could be said for the anonymous posts (of which this will be one for irony). How about getting to know a person for what they say and who they are and not for the label you call them? Wouldn’t that be more fun? To be able to recognize someone from who they are and how they think?



report abuse
 

Scot McKnight

posted May 6, 2005 at 8:25 pm


Anonymous,I can get numerous “anonymous” blogs. Which one is which one?Forgive me if I’ve seen names as “labels.” Far from it for me: names normally imply disclosure, and withholding names implies unwilling to disclose.Anonymous words are contextless, and imply that the mind is not the mind of a person.Perhaps I’m overdoing it. Sorry if I am.



report abuse
 

Brother Maynard

posted May 7, 2005 at 7:33 am


I guess I have to chime in on the anonymity question. I blog anonymously for a particular reason, and expect that reason to come to a close – at which time I will stop being anonymous.I started to explain why I blog anonymously, but have finished deleting it after going back to my own blog and posting it there instead.There are a few people who have said negative things about my blogging anonymously – one who doesn’t like to link anonymous bloggers, and your comment here, Scot (among one or two others). Most people have been very accepting and understanding. To be clear, I don’t really count all of the comments here as negative about my blogging anonymously… but just wanted to make the point that some of us have particular reasons to do so.



report abuse
 

Brother Maynard

posted May 7, 2005 at 12:43 pm


Maybe a small point of adjustment… (thanks for the offline email, Scot). When I think about it, my own situation is actually not anonymous, but pseudonomynous. When Brother Maynard comments, you know who it is perhaps as much as if I used my real name. With anonymous comments you don’t get even that… I guess that’s whey when I comment elsewhere I do so as Brother Maynard like on my blog rather than being anonymous or using my real name – it does connect my online writing. Sorry if I overreacted! I prefer people write or comment with some name (even a pseudonym) rather than anonymous – so I’m probaby not even disagreeing.



report abuse
 

Bob Robinson

posted May 7, 2005 at 6:16 pm


Yea, it’s funny that I don’t feel that Brother Maynard is in the category of “anonymous” bloggers. I feel I’m getting to know his heart even though I don’t know his real name. And, I love his movie, so I feel that I DO know him (and I’m trying desperately to borrow the Book of Armaments from him…just for the weekend).



report abuse
 

Post a Comment

By submitting these comments, I agree to the beliefnet.com terms of service, rules of conduct and privacy policy (the "agreements"). I understand and agree that any content I post is licensed to beliefnet.com and may be used by beliefnet.com in accordance with the agreements.



Previous Posts

More Blogs To Enjoy!!!
Thank you for visiting Jesus Creed. This blog is no longer being updated. Please enjoy the archives. Here are some other blogs you may also enjoy: Red Letters with Tom Davis Recent prayer post on Prayables Most Recent Inspiration blog post Happy Reading!  

posted 11:15:58am Aug. 16, 2012 | read full post »

Our Common Prayerbook 30 - 3
Psalm 30 thanks God (vv. 1-3, 11-12) and exhorts others to thank God (vv. 4-5). Both emerge from the concrete reality of David's own experience. Here is what that experience looks like:Step one: David was set on high and was flourishing at the hand of God's bounty (v. 7a).Step two: David became too

posted 12:15:30pm Aug. 31, 2010 | read full post »

Theology After Darwin 1 (RJS)
One of the more important and more difficult pieces of the puzzle as we feel our way forward at the interface of science and faith is the theological implications of discoveries in modern science. A comment on my post Evolution in the Key of D: Deity or Deism noted: ...this reminds me of why I get a

posted 6:01:52am Aug. 31, 2010 | read full post »

Almost Christian 4
Who does well when it comes to passing on the faith to the youth? Studies show two groups do really well: conservative Protestants and Mormons; two groups that don't do well are mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics. Kenda Dean's new book is called Almost Christian: What the Faith of Ou

posted 12:01:53am Aug. 31, 2010 | read full post »

Let's Get Neanderthal!
The Cave Man Diet, or Paleo Diet, is getting attention. (Nothing is said about Culver's at all.) The big omission, I have to admit, is that those folks were hunters -- using spears or smacking some rabbit upside the conk or grabbing a fish or two with their hands ... but that's what makes this diet

posted 2:05:48pm Aug. 30, 2010 | read full post »




Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.