(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

Getting frustrated by An Emergent Manifesto of Hope

I have been reading with some considerable frustration An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, edited by Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones. The book describes itself on the back cover as:

a coming together of divergent voices into a collection of writings that will bring you the latest thinking of the emerging church. You will have a front-row seat as both established leaders and up-and-comers in this influential international movement grapple with how to be faithful Christians in today’s ever-changing cultural context.

It frustrates me, first, that the book promotes itself so self-consciously and self-importantly as the product of an elite friendship. Tony Jones describes the origins of Emergent Village in a ‘crummy hotel meeting room in Arlington, Texas, in August of 1998’:

And, as so many have found, being in a room with these individuals was an exhilarating experience. The energy in the room was palpable. The room positively crackled. I think that’s because we had the feeling, even back then, that we were on to something…. Even as we struggled to determine what that “something” was, we talked about an element of the connection that was seemingly even more important, and surely more elusive, and that was and is friendship. (11)

Mark Scandrette offers a telling word of advice in the opening chapter: ‘You are invited to embrace your own celebrity - recognizing the importance of your own journey over simply being a fan of others’ - and cultivate a local culture of faith-seeking’ (25). Surely a movement supposedly grounded in humility, equality and inclusive community should not have to invite people to embrace their own celebrity?

It frustrates me, too, that a book purporting to offer a manifesto for an ‘influential international movement’ is written entirely by Americans and almost entirely about the emerging movement in America. The only exception - and for me by far the most invigorating chapter in the book - is Brian McLaren’s interaction with the work of the Congolese theologian Mabiala Kenzo on post-colonialism. I understand that this is an Emergent publication and is bound to reflect limited organizational interests, but it seems to me that McLaren’s argument, sitting at the heart of this book, already has the potential to deconstruct the Emergent perspective, which would be a sad irony.

A biblical deficit

But what most frustrates me is the fact that a book offering a ‘manifesto of hope’ for the post-Christendom, post-modern, post-colonial church is so weak biblically. This is not to say that there is not some good material in it. There is. But it is very difficult to see how the ‘eschatology of hope’ which Tony Jones believes constitutes a ‘core conviction’ of the emerging church (130) is meant to arise out of the biblical narrative. It’s not enough to dismiss the pop apocalypticism of Peretti, LaHaye and Jenkins and then blithely announce that ‘the folks who hang around the emerging church tend to see goodness and light in God’s future, not darkness and gnashing of teeth’. The Jesus whom the emerging church is so keen to follow frequently spoke about wailing and gnashing of teeth. Why has that now been erased from his gospel? I’m not saying that Jones is wrong. It’s just that this book does not show that the leaders of the emerging church in America have seriously thought this through.

Why are these friends not struggling to tell the biblical story together? Where is the fascination with the narrative that was supposed to be a hallmark of postmodern biblical theology? Why does the ‘latest thinking of the emerging church’ not include even one chapter that attempts to sketch - hesitantly, paradoxically, inconclusively if necessary - a biblical theology for the emerging movement?

Tim Conder highlights the fact that under the emerging paradigm our theology has shifted from ‘systematic/propositional’ to ‘narrative/missional’, that the objective of the gospel has shifted from ‘eternal salvation’ to ‘present reign of God in this world’, that mission is now defined by ‘God’s redemptive agenda’ rather than by ‘personal, spiritual needs’ (100). But as far as the book is concerned, these developments are merely notional. Sherry and Geoff Maddock write: ‘our ideas about salvation - what it means to be saved - break out of old paradigms as we move out in mission’ (81). Well, I understand that much of the change of thinking in the emerging church has been driven by praxis. But by now I would have thought that this mission-driven rethinking would have been supported by careful and explicit biblical reflection.

What we have are practitioners flicking through their commonplace books for disconnected, decontextualized snippets of biblical wisdom that they can cut and paste into arguments that are essentially the product of those endless rambling missional conversations. The arguments are not necessarily bad and the practical outcome of the conversations is not necessarily bad, but there is very little sense of living in and out of the biblical narrative. If (to borrow N.T. Wright’s suggestive analogy) they are Shakespearian players acting out the unwritten fifth act of the biblical drama, they appear to be doing so on the basis of random quotes remembered from English lessons at school, not on the basis of an intense and thoughtful immersion in the first four acts of the play. To be biblical, or not to be biblical - that is the question.

Rudy Carrasco’s passionate appeal to the Old Testament prophets in support of justice-oriented ministry is something of an exception (248-250), but in theological terms we jump very abruptly from 8th century Israel to 21st century Pasadena with no evidence of a connecting missional narrative - and Carrasco admits he is ‘puzzled’ by the violence of Amos’ God. So why are we basing mission on the fulminations of an angry and violent Old Testament God? I’m not saying we shouldn’t. But do we know why we should?

Following Jesus and the kingdom of God

If the ‘gospel’ now has to do not with ‘eternal salvation’ but with the ‘present reign of God in this world’, where is the biblical exploration of that radical and complex claim? There are some vague pointers in the endnotes, but the impact of the debate on the content of the book itself is fragmentary and incoherent. If we are going to make following Jesus and the concept of ‘kingdom’ central to, and paradigmatic for, the mission of the emerging church, over against the preferred categories of modern evangelicalism, then we have to show how this argument works biblically. I entirely approve of the emphasis on a narrative theology, but I would suggest that it is precisely the biblical narrative that makes the emerging church’s preoccupation with following Jesus to the margins of society problematic. What has happened to ‘eternal salvation’? Has it merely vanished in a puff of smoke? What has happened to following Paul, for that matter - or at least listening to him? What happens to the ‘kingdom of God’ after the Gospels?

Let me illustrate what I see as some of the rather careless assumptions made about the kingdom of God. Mark Scandrette cites the suggestion of his colleague Dr. Linda Bergquist that ‘renewed popularity of the “kingdom” language is related to the emerging global narrative of the deep ecology movement - a consciousness and awareness that everything matters and is somehow interdependent’ (27). But no attempt is made to show how Jesus’ announcement to first century occupied Israel that the kingdom of God was at hand might have some relation to the quasi-mystical concerns of modern environmentalists. Bergquist’s suggestion sounds like modish, sub-biblical theorizing. If it’s not, we need to be shown why it’s not.

Similarly, Samir Selmanovic writes: ‘It is worth being reminded that Christ never proclaimed, “Christianity is here. Join it.” But Christ did insist, “The kingdom of God is here. Enter it” ’ (192). But it is one thing to challenge the ‘idolatry of Christianity’; it is another to reinterpret the kingdom of God as some sort of transcendent divine power or principle at work in the world, accesible to anyone (such as Selmanovic’s ‘non-Christian friend’ Mark) with good intentions. I understand the inclusivist instinct here, but we are not going to make sense of it by bending Jesus’ language out of shape. If we don’t have simple answers, let’s at least show that we understand that these are complex issues, that we are aware of what is at stake biblically.

The biblical concept of the kingdom of God makes no sense apart from a particular historical community, a people over whom and on behalf of whom God reigns, a community called to serve a particular purpose. Nanette Sawyer gets irritated with a pastor who claimed that it was unbiblical to speak of all humans as ‘children of God’ (45). She offers a rather weak biblical rebuttal, but this is not the real issue. The problem is that phrases such as ‘children of God’, ‘sons of God’, are used biblically to define a distinct people that is consciously and purposefully in relation to the creator God. To adapt the pained and scornful insight of Dash Parr in The Incredibles: to say that everyone is a child of God is just another way of saying that no one is. There must be some sense in which the heirs of the promise to Abraham are ‘special’ to God and, more importantly, have a shared sense of responsibility to live paradigmatically and prophetically as God’s new creation in the world.

As final example, Ryan Bolger argues that the purpose of the church is to get behind God’s mission and run with it, and that ‘God’s mission resembles the work Jesus performed within Palestinian culture’ (133). But Jesus’ mission to Israel cannot be seen as merely exemplary. The Jews who came to be baptized in the Jordan did not merely repent of the way they understood their faith and then join a new movement ‘within the religious structures of the day’. Jesus did not simply transform a culture. He saved the people of God from destruction. However exactly we understand the eschatological narrative that underpins the Gospels, it certainly cannot be reduced to an instance of cultural transformation, a model for doing mission in our own culture.

I’ll make the point again. This is not at all a bad book: it brings together within the confines of the American emerging movement a diverse group of practitioners who reflect thoughtfully on the implications of their activities for mission. What bothers me is that a ‘generative friendship of missional Christians’ such as this can be so lacking in biblical imagination. If the emerging church is to establish itself as a viable alternative to ‘modern’ forms of Christianity - and certainly if it aspires to supplant them - it must demonstrate a consistent willingness to think biblically, to act out of a profound familiarity with the biblical narrative, to articulate hope in determined dialogue with the complex and disturbing text of Scripture. An Emergent Manifesto of Hope ought to offer something more compelling, more adventurous, and more urgent, than loose talk about following Jesus and a bowdlerized version of the kingdom of God.