Jesus Creed

I didn’t think I’d get to a second part until tomorrow, but I just got the book for review, so here we go.

In this second installment we will look briefly at what DA Carson says positively about the Emergent movement. I am sad to say that I’ve seen some bloggers jump on his case before they have listened to him, and they are doing just what they are accusing him of doing. Whether or not some Emergent folk think Carson has listened to them is not the point; the point is to listen to him. (As I am writing this I got a paper copy for review. So, now I’m going on my own read.)

DA Carson finds some positive features in the Emergent movement and he sees five features that are commendable, even though from what I see he doesn’t expound these five features by showing what and how this takes place among the Emergent leaders. In fact, this section comes off as a backhanded compliment. Ten pages of compliments, no genuine citations of their writings and how they do these things, and then the rest of the book a pretty stiff critique. I say this only because it is true (and authentic): it appears to me that this is cursory affirmation because that is how one is supposed to treat an opponent.

First, they “read the times” and by this he refers to how they are concerned with understanding culture. Second, there is a push for authenticity among the Emergent folk. Third, there is a genuine perception of our own – whoever we might be and wherever we might be – social placement in the world and how that shapes our gospel understanding and mission. Fourth, evangelism is important or reaching our modern culture. Fifth, if I understand what I am hearing, DA Carson sees another good thing in the Emergent concern with historic Christian traditions. He concludes the chapter by showing that other churches are doing similar good things – and this comes off (to me) as a bit of churlish behavior. Do the Emergent think they are the only ones? (If they do. and forgive me DA if I’m wrong here, then they need this reminder. If not, why close down this chapter by affirming other traditions for what is good about the Emergent?)

If this is what Carson sees in the Emergent Church, I think he sees some good things. I’m wondering if this is all he sees – is there no good in their commitment to “community”? to issues of the Bible that are not held by some evangelicals to be part of the gospel – like social justice and the environment and business? what of their courage “to start all over if they have to”?


#1: Has DA Carson given the Emergent leaders the nuance they deserve on how they read the times? McLaren, for instance, has a pretty sophisticated (at times) understanding of some things and he differs from others in significant ways.

#2: What does “authenticity” mean for the Emergent folk? The Willow model has for years been keen on the word authentic and by this they mean the leaders have to stand up and take their medicine when they have done wrong (and many sermons have such illustrations – Hybels and the whole gang), but is this what Emergent is talking about? My understanding of the Emergent is that “authentic” refers more to the human condition, an almost Augustinian sense of humans being flawed and everything about them is flawed. If this is the case, we have to ask if Carson’s perception here is genuinely an Emergent understanding of authentic.

#3: What role does our own particularism play both in understanding the gospel and fleshing out the gospel? Huge, huge question, and I think at the heart of much of the Emergent. In other words, is the Emergent movement every bit as much an “ecclesiology” as it is an “epistemology”? Further conversations with my source will help me see what DA Carson sees here. Most of what I’ve seen so far focuses exclusively on the philosophical epistemological question, though. We’ll see.

#4: I have been impressed of late with what the Emergent movement means by “evangelism,” and I’m quite sure here that different groups have different understandings. Some, of course, see it as the old gospel shaped for postmoderns but others have shifted the paradigm dramatically (Doug Pagitt, for example). So, the question becomes, What is evangelism for the Emergent? Here this one: is it discerning what God is doing in the world and “joining in” and “saying Amen” and “working with God”? Or is it gospel preaching to postmoderns? Big, big questions here.

#5: I’ve heard a bundle over the last two years about the Emergent concern with the classical traditions, including especially Eastern Orthodoxy. What I have wondered, and many will perhaps know more than I, is whether this is the result of trying to figure out how the 2d and 3d century churches “embodied” the gospel in their day so we might learn how to “embody” it in our day? Or, is it a genuine turn to the classical traditions in order to find a more authentic display of the gospel? I’m not sure if DA Carson talks about this.

As I told Andrew Jones in my blog at his site, I am a former colleague of DA Carson’s at TEDS; I had the office next to his for years; he is my friend; I consider him an expert; I do not have the book but I am in contact with those who know what is in it. I can sketch here only the briefest summaries of what is there, and I am encouraging everyone to buy it. And I am encouraging everyone to read it carefully; avoid reactionary responses and listen to this most careful of scholar. I expect all of us to learn from him.

I’ll be posting several blogs about this topic.

Before we can even begin to discuss the proposals and evaluations of DA Carson in his must-read forthcoming book, we have to observe that “defining our terms” is both fundamental and (at the same time) extremely difficult. For instance, what does “emergent” mean? Will we use it for Robert Webber’s form, Brian McLaren’s form of the Emergent, Doug Pagitt’s form, Steve Chalke’s form, Andrew Jones’ form, the Willow Axis form, or will it be for the many, many who have adapted the Emergent label and are using its ideas in rather normal churches? What has to be admitted up front is that Emergent is not a “fixed” or “reified” Object that can be described the way one can describe Wrigley Field or the Lincoln Tomb or the White House.

DA Carson has himself for a long time been involved in trying to get the term “Evangelical” more “accurately” defined (footnotes deleted) as he and other theologians have sought to find that powerful connection of the Reformed Churches from Calvin to Jonathan Edwards to more 20th Century forms of that theology. But, others have fought hard to maintain a looser, sometimes calling it a more “sociological,” definition. And one thinks here of Don Dayton (who thinks it embraces the Wesleyan movement) or others who think it is even much wider than that (as can be seen in Randy Balmer’s romp through the churches, in his “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory”).

So, let’s issue this up front: it is not going to be easy to define Emergent, and so when one gets into this discussion, it is best if one recognizes one is defining and responding to, if I may be so bold to adapt an expression from Hemingway, “A Moveable Feast.”

On top of that, it just so happens that Emergent work is done in the trenches and not in books and journal articles: you learn about the Emergent by talking to its leaders and its people, by reading its bloggers, by attending its conferences and conventions, and by attending its churches. Over and over I’ve been told this: “Scot, you can’t read this stuff in some book. No one has put it all together. You have to get on the internet and attend the churches.”

Now to DA Carson… who is singularly qualified to get into this issue because of his biblical expertise and his previous examination of pluralism, “The Gagging of God.”

DA Carson says this book is rooted in the lectures he gave at Cedarville in February 2004. He thinks a self-identity has been established in the Emergent movement and he says that he will have to generalize to move the discussion forward. The Emergent movement recognizes that culture has shifted and that a new church is “emerging.” DA Carson admits the variety and boundary-shifting ambiguity of the Emergent movement.

He sees the following characteristics of the Emergent Movement: (1) protest and he describes the story of Spencer Burke with his problems with spiritual McCarthyism, (2) protest against the modern and here he will show that postmodernism, while open to various meanings, is essentially discontinuous with modernism and is an epistemology that is anti-foundationalist, (3) protesting on three fronts – not just evangelicalism and modernism but also the seeker-sensitive church.


#1: Does “emerging” refer to the postmodern culture in all its varieties, or to the church hat accompanies that shift in culture, or to the ideas that are part of that culture, or to the gospel that responds to that culture, or to the gospel taking shape in a new way in a new cultural paradigm? The answer to this question matters immensely. And I’m not sure DA Carson, or even some of the Emergent folk, are all pointing at the same “thing” when they speak of “emerging”.

#2: Is the “emerging” movement fundamental a church of protest? And, if so, is the primary target of the protest evangelicalism? What are its targets?

#3: Is the postmodernist epistemology of the Emerging folks (and one should not simply equate postmodernists and the Emergent folks) essentially affectional over against rational? inclusive vs. exclusivist? authentic vs. the absolute? is social history more significant that the history of ideas?

#4: Is “emergent” or “integral” thinking superior to traditional absolutist rational thinking?

#5: Has the Emergent movement understood culture accurately? Does it appeal to Scripture accurately?

One of the more than 58,000 (count ‘em) names on the War Memorial to the Vietnam Veterans in Washington, D.C., is Barry Armstrong. We weren’t close, but we did play sandlot baseball together at the Little League field in Read Park in Freeport, Illinois. Boys who play pick-up games together are forever joined and so, when I saw Barry’s name on the Memorial, I was stirred far more deeply than I anticipated. “What would have become of him?” It hurt, and I hardly knew him. We took our kids to see the Memorial, not knowing the sort of life-long impact it would have on each of us. For me, it has become the story of Barry Armstrong, and we only played sandlot together. He was older than me, some three years, and he is the only boy I knew from Freeport that died in Vietnam.

That is why the story of Karen Spears Zacharias, told beautifully in Hero Mama, is so important for all of us to read: the one she lost was her Daddy, and the death of Sgt. David Spears almost wrecked what survived of his family. In some ways, it did wreck her family. Scars never go away but, when shrapnel tears apart your Daddy’s body in the morning rain and no one is quite sure what happened, and when that Daddy is the pillar holding everyone up and the glue holding everything together, the shrapnel wounds tear into everyone in the family.

Often the family members weren’t even sure what was going on inside the wreck that was the Spears family. On the 20th Anniversary of the Wall every name was read aloud, and it took four days. At 10:30pm, in the rain, Karen walked across the platform, said, “And my father – you were a hero to me long before Vietnam – David Paul Spears” (325). But, when she walked away with her friend Kathy, she saw to her left a group of South Vietnamese soldiers in uniform, dressed in tan uniforms and holding flags. She began to weep, and she wept for an entire day: “I was weeping over the humility and honor of those men, and for the great losses both our nations had suffered” (326).

Many Americans opposed the Vietnam Conflict (it was never officially identified as a War) and the opposition pressed the shrapnel wounds deeper into the heart of the Spears family, so when Karen asked her boss at the newspaper where she was a journalist for a vacation to go to Vietnam to visit the site where her Daddy died, she found his rejection and his words cold and callous. “I’m not interested in any stories about children returning to the battlefields where their fathers died, and I don’t think our readers will be, either…. If you make this trip to Vietnam, we will consider it job abandonment” (326). Karen went, she lost her job, her husband supported her, and mother dropped in a prayer that this one she loved would come back.

I am a Christian pacifist. I don’t pretend to know if it is good international policy, but as a theologian who has spent more than two decades studying Jesus and his teachings, and doing what I can to work out his principles in our world, I can’t for the life of me understand why more Christians are pacifists. And I can give all the reasons – from cruciform existence to “Caesar and God”, but Hero Mama deepened an argument I’ve never considered central to the debate. The argument is this: consider what happens to a family when a Daddy dies in the war.

We were all disgusted when Timothy McVeigh called the many children who died in Oklahoma “collateral damage.” This is typical military rhetoric for the “casualties of war” – and it is but another example of the rhetoric used to mitigate the disaster of taking the life of another human being, made as an Eikon of God.

Hero Mama is not about war and how to approach whether we should or should not enter into wars. This is powerful, engaging, soul-searching and heart-finding memoir of what happens when a Daddy is torn from a family. I can’t tell you how much this book impressed me.

Alan Jacobs, in his brilliantly written and wide-ranging book, A Theology of Reading, makes a simple point that has sent my mind reeling and my heart into confession and prayer. Here it is: genuine interpretation of another’s writing is an act of love or it is an act of abuse. Either we treat the author as a person who has given voice to his or her inner heart and that we can trust, listen to, and respond to. Or, we treat that person as a duplicitous voice that we can’t trust and that we can strip in order to use for our own power.

So, we either listen to the words of Jesus or to the words of a blogger (to use two extremes) and give them our trust and respond to them, or we make of the words of Jesus or a blogger what we’d like and the latter is a form of interpersonal abuse.

To love a person is to listen to them, and to let their voice speak. To listen to a person is to let that person’s world enter into our world. When the latter happens we choose either to enhance our own life with the other person or, as Cain did to Abel, we destroy that other person to make them what we want ourselves. To treat them with love and trust is to let them be the Eikons God made them to be; to refuse to trust them and love them is to make them a golden calf which we can hammer down into our own image.

We have no other real options.