In this third installment of DA Carson’s important new book, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, we will briefly summarize and ask questions of his third chapter, a chapter on how well (or how well not) the Emergent leaders understand contemporary culture.
Let me emphasize again that DA Carson opens with comments on the diversity of the Emergent movement, and so any comments that “this doesn’t apply to us” is not fair to him. He speaks to four weaknesses in its cultural analysis of modernism: first, its tendency toward reductionism (which may or may not be similar to his admitted need at times to “generalize”); second, condemnation of confessional Christianity; third, some theological shallowness and intellectual incoherence; and fourth, a particularization of the above three.
Here’s his big point: “Modernism seeks rational certainty and therefore veers toward absolutism, because it has refused to recognize the essential perspectivalism in all human knowing” (p. 57). Because modernism is behind us, even evangelism has shifted from its previous mode (and here he uses McLaren as an example).
1.0 Emergent analysis of Modernity
Let’s look at each briefly because this is a long chapter (pp. 57-86). The analysis tends to the reductionistic when it comes to modernism and how Christianity expressed itself in modernity: it is not just linear thinking and the rational. History is not this neat, DA Carson contends. This distorts modernism and, because the Emergents root theology and praxis in this distortion, it really matters what Emergents think of modernity because they think confessional Christianity expresses that modernism. At this point there is a lengthy set of prayers from CH Spurgeon, which DA Carson thinks demonstrate the holistic approach and the relational approach that was not characteristic of Modernity but is to be found in the Emergents (and this from a Modernist pastor – though I must wonder if the “Puritan out of his time” can count as a Modernist, and my reading of the Emergents is that they are not responding to Spurgeon, and I even wonder if many even know who he was or have read much of him). He then appeals to JI Packer, and a conversation he had with Packer, and then suggests that the “either/or” approach – spirituality or doctrine – doesn’t apply to Packer either. He also appeals to JG Machen. In other words, has the Emergent movement distorted the Christian faith and praxis of the modernistic period?
Second, he finds in the critique of culture an “almost” universal condemnation of confessional Christianity. This is part of his earlier evaluation that the Emergent movement is a “protest” movement. Here he critiques McLaren’s famous “Neo” for damning the good with faint praise, for always leaning toward the story-form vs. the systemic form, and for never giving any credit to modernism or the Christian faith of that era. In sum, there is an imbalance. DA Carson, and I fear that some will miss this, then admits that there is an imbalance at times in the Christian faith of modernity. (Why Carson says he can think “of only three or four African preachers who can expound Romans well” is beyond me. This is bad writing, and he is simply making a point: Africans tend toward the narrative portions of Scripture.) Grant DA Carson his point: he admits that modernity lended itself toward doctrinal passages, and postmodernity will lend itself to narrative portions. (Very nice section here on his father’s preaching.)
The analysis by Emergents of modernism is theologically shallow and intellectually incoherent. The theological shallowness pertains to any and every system because of the impact of the Fall. [Let me offer a brief rave of my own: I would to God that Calvinistic theology would embrace the implications DA Carson is here speaking of, and an implication that I’m not sure DA Carson follows through on and it is: it boggles that those who preach the most about the noetic impacts of the Fall (our mind is affected) seem to think it has impacted their system the least. I apologize if this sounds terse and out of place, but it is as good a time as any to let this point be made. And, so far as I am reading this book, Carson would admit to it (even if he thinks my pointing at his Calvinism is only one example of what I am saying).] Its incoherence is that it finds too much good in other things and not enough good in the Christian tradition. DA Carson then makes a point I have been making for years in my classes and mention somewhere in “The Jesus Creed,” namely that tolerance is big, bad, bogey word today that has become a billy club used against anything that disagrees with another. He argues that the Emergent folks are tolerant of everything but modernism and its Christian expression. Fair enough.
2.0 Emergent analysis of Postmodernity
Now DA Carson turns to the evaluation of “postmodernity”(this chapter needed some editing up front to make it clear that there was an analysis of modernity then postmodernity). My outline helps out. Still, the point comes through. He agrees in the main with the trends: decline in absolutism, increase in perspectivalism, decrease in confidence in reason and objectivity, and an increase in affectivity and the like. He finds problems with Emergent analysis.
First, postmodernity is a buzz word. Second, too much of social change is lumped into one word. DA Carson suggests distinguishing postmodernism from the “correlatives” of it. Third, postmodernity is becoming passé for in Europe the term is fading from view. Fourth, there is a suggestion that the “age of authenticity” has dawned and this smacks of absolutism. (McLaren again.)
And now DA Carson anticipates his next chapter with some words about “isms.”The alarmist tendencies: if you don’t adapt your church will die. Here’s a quote that must be considered very seriously:
“Of all the Christian writers who explore postmodernism, none are quite so modernist – so absolutist – as the emerging church leaders in their defense of postmodern approaches” (84-85).
For some reason DA Carson does a little sociological guessing himself and suggests that postmodernity appeals to Christians from intensely conservative or fundamentalist pasts. (Not all are from such backgrounds, he admits.) I wasn’t aware he knew all these leaders personally. Does he have sufficient numbers to be talking about “a very high percentage of them”?
#1: I expected more on the Emergent analysis of culture, and got more on Emergent’s critique of the evangelical and confessional faith. Why?
#2: What does it mean to say that Emergent theology is “intellectually incoherent”? Does this mean that it is not “systematic” or “systemic” but is instead “narrative” or “story” or “encounter in form”?
#3: Is the use of “postmodernity” too much of a buzz word, too easy to use, to use to use as a “trump card” of victory for the Emergent movement? Has the Emergent movement used too many simplistic definitions and so distorted the discussion? Has DA Carson adequately characterized modernity and postmodernity?
#4: Is DA Carson too attached to Brian McLaren’s voice in the Emergent crowd and missing other voices? Who might these be? And what difference would it make if he had worked on other Emergent voices?
This is a very serious chapter, and one that needs some careful ears and some patient thinking. I will not let myself here run into a dialogue with DA Carson at this point for fear of running into many, many pages.
Tomorrow is the Lord’s Day: let us pra
y for one another in the spirit of the communion of the saints.