Saturday Afternoon Book Review: Tony Jones

This review is by one deeply involved in the subject of this book, Tony Jones. Enjoy.

Imagine, if you will, that you’re writing your dissertation on left-handed hitters in baseball.  The subjects of your study have widely varied approaches to hitting, but they are all among the best in the majors: Joe Mauer, Ichiro Suzuki, David Ortiz, and Josh Hamilton.  But here’s the thing: your entire PhD dissertation is based on what they’ve written and said about their own swings.  You never once attended a game and watched any of the four sluggers take an at-bat.

That would be a fatal flaw in this hypothetical dissertation, and it is the fatal flaw in John S. Bohannon’s dissertation-cum-book, Preaching & The Emerging Church: An Examination of Four Founding Leaders: Mark Driscoll, Dan Kimball, Brian McLaren, and Doug Pagitt.

To be fair, Bohannon is not the first critic of the emergent/-ing movement to fall into this trap.  Before him, DA Carson, John MacArthur, and Kevin DeYoung & Ted Kluck have made the same error of writing books about the ECM without visiting a faith community that self-identifies as emergent.  R. Scott Smith and Jim Belcher are happy exceptions to this trend; although I vehemently disagree with the conclusions of both of their books, they each had the decency to meet with me and others face-to-face and even to vet their manuscripts for accuracy.

Bohannon, as far as I can tell from the copious footnotes in his book, has never heard Pagitt, McLaren, or Kimball preach, and he has only heard Driscoll in a conference setting.  Yet his book sets out to analyze and judge their preaching.  As I wrote, this lapse is fatal to his project, in my estimation.
That being said, Bohannon is to be commended for his literary thoroughness.  He has read virtually everything that these four men have ever written about themselves or each other, blog posts included.  His research is unparalleled in regards to the homiletical postures and strategies of each.  But that itself is a bit problematic.  McLaren, for instance, has never written anything explicitly about preaching, save for one entry in a 2003 book that he co-authored with Tony Campolo.  And Bohannon’s book comes out four years after McLaren retired from the pastorate.  So McLaren doesn’t seem like an ideal subject for a treatise on preaching.

So the first two parts of Bohannon’s book are a thorough record of these four men and their approaches to the kerygmatic act.  As Doug Pagitt told me recently, “In the first half of the book, he got me right.  He’s done his homework.”

But the second half of the book — Part Three — in which Bohannon analyzes and criticizes these four preachers, is less commendable, and that’s a result of Bohannon’s pedigree.  In the classic rockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap, there’s a famous two word review of Tap’s album, Shark Sandwich (which is surely unprintable on Scot’s blog).  Here’s my two-word review of Bohannon, Part 3: entirely predictable.

As a dissertation submitted to Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, one might guess that Bohannon is less than favorable toward a couple of the preachers he’s studying.  Although he rarely does it in the text proper, in the footnotes the author shows his true colors, repeatedly stating that Pagitt and McLaren do not believe or practice “orthodox Christianity.”  He disagrees with their understanding of text and revelation, and most decisively with their styles of proclamation.  They are dodgy and hard to pin down.  Kimball and Driscoll, on the other hand, articulate a version of the gospel that accords with Bohannon’s, and they do so in a simple and straightforward way that Bohannon appreciates.  Try as he might to maintain objectivity — and he repeatedly states in the text that he’s trying to be fair — Bohannon concludes just how we’d expect him to.

Here’s my basic summary of Part Three:

Pagitt = odious
McLaren = slightly less odious
Kimball = good, but could be better
Driscoll = my hero

But something occurred to me when I read Bohannon’s assertion in the prelude to Part Three that “all true biblical preaching, by nature, is expositional preaching”: Pagitt and McLaren are in good company, from Augustine and John Chrysostom to Sojourner Truth and Billy Sunday.

If you think that verbal plenary revelation of a propositional gospel is meant to be understood by a clergyperson and clearly re-articulated to a congregation, you will find much to agree with in this book.  If you don’t, I imagine you’ll find it as maddening as I did.

Tony Jones blogs, writes books, and speaks.  You can also find him on Twitter and Facebook.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • chad m

    Driscoll = emerging
    really?

  • nathan

    How disappointing.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    The SBC will coopt emerging shortly even as they are coopting evangelical.

  • JoeyS

    chad m, Driscoll wears jeans and says swear words so of course he is emerging. Also, he uses product in his hair but doesn’t use a comb. Tale-tell sign, my friend.

    I jest, of course.

  • Ben Wheaton

    Driscoll was part of the core movement in the ’90s that became “emerging,” along with Brian McLaren, Andrew Jones, and others. He was certainly identified with it in the early part of the movement, until he began to distance himself from people like McLaren a few years ago.

  • steve_sherwood

    “all true biblical preaching, by nature, is expositional preaching.”

    Well, that certainly shuts off the dialogue, doesn’t it? Every time I encounter this sentiment asserted with utter confidence, I am amazed and perplexed.

  • James Petticrew

    How on earth can someone be awarded a doctorate based on an evaluation of contemporary preachers without actually having heard them or interviewed them?

  • http://blog.tonyj.net tony jones

    James (7), That’s what I kept asking myself. I scoured the footnote for any reference of visits to the churches in question, but I could not find any. And I don’t know when he wrote the book, but McLaren retired from the pulpit in 2006. Brian travels and speaks now, but I don’t think you’d call what he does “preaching.”

    Further, Bohannon cites as fact items like the claim that Driscoll has occasionally worn a bullet-proof vest in the pulpit because of threats against his life. The source for these facts? Driscoll’s own book.

    I must say, where I’m getting a PhD, I would have to verify a claim like that with a secondary source for it to be included in the dissertation.

  • billyv

    Paul on the Areopagus, was he preaching? And if he was, was it expositional?

  • nathan

    A couple thoughts:

    1. the value of expository preaching is diminished when its adherents and enthusiasts absolutize the particular form.

    2. It seems to me that this dissertation tackles a subject more suited to a D.Min program…and even then the handling of it is sub-par. I’m sure it went to press because it’s just another shot at the current favorite cultural boogeyman. These books strike me as exercises in self-congratulation and religious insularity.

    Again, very disappointing.

  • Josh Mueller

    From what you describe, Tony, this seems to be less an examination of their preaching style than an examination of their doctrinal views and their understanding of the gospel.

    If Driscoll is his hero, then … *just rolling my eyes and keeping my tongue*

  • http://blog.tonyj.net tony jones

    I remember when DA Carson was writing his book. Doug Pagitt emailed him to say that we would welcome him at Solomon’s Porch for a visit. He replied (through his assistant) that our books were all he needed to be conversant in emergent. No site visits or personal conversations were necessary.

    Even John Piper had the decency to meet with Doug and me when we approached him.

  • John M

    “All true biblical preaching, by nature, is expositional preaching.” That pretty much elminates most of the NT examples of preaching in Acts and the Gospels doesn’t it? Or am I missing something?

    Apparently Jesus didn’t “preach” then. He just told stories and reinterpreted OT passages. Shame on Jesus, no “expository” preaching…

  • http://www.highmileagehermeneutics.blogspot.com Phil

    I read DeYoung and Kluck’s book, and I was bored with Kluck’s chapters, precisely because he was writing about his experiences with the ECM (At this point clarity about what self identified means would help). Doesn’t Kluck explicitly writes about one visit to an ECM community? One more thought…Carson’s book was addressing the content of the books. Since he was addressing issues not thier preaching or community experience, why would he need to visit? Do these emergent writers feel thier own writing doesn’t give them fair treatment.

  • Dan

    Phil wrote, “Do these emergent writers feel thier own writing doesn’t give them fair treatment.” Precisely.

    Unless there is something dramatically different about the “live” preaching and the “research [that] is unparalleled in regards to the homiletical postures and strategies of each”, I’m really unclear as to how the paper might misrepresent the big four. And if the live preaching is, in fact, radically different from the “homiletical postures and strategies of each”, then what was the purpose of all that they wrote that was part of the author’s research? Is their writing dishonest as to their real viewpoints? Do the “homilitical postures and strategies” of each have nothing to do with their own preaching? How absurd! Does that mean we can’t have any clue about the preaching of Chrysostom or Jonathan Edwards because we can’t go visit and listen to them? Again. Absurd.

    I suppose a visit or two might have provided a few nuggets, but I seriously doubt it would have changed the author’s conclusion after all that “unparalleled” research. Seems the real issue here is the author has a “pedigree” from Southern Baptist Seminary and he “disagrees with their understanding of text and revelation”. And that’s what disappoints Tony.

  • Derek

    The only thing disappointing is Tony’s review. He offers no substance or opportunity for the author to speak for himself.

    You can’t just say he is wrong about Pagitt being unorthodox without explaining why. This is simply opinion and editorial on the part of Mr. Jones, and no real effort to interact with the dissertation on its own merits.

  • nathan

    This is simply opinion and editorial…

    At the end of the day, that’s what a “review” is…

  • http://www.theproblemwithkevin.com kevin s.

    “But here’s the thing: your entire PhD dissertation is based on what they’ve written and said about their own swings. ”

    This analogy doesn’t work at all. A book is simply a means of communication, as is a sermon. A swing is a means of making contact with a baseball, whereas a book is a means of communication.

    It is reasonable to expect a baseball player to do a poor job of describing his swing. A baseball player is not a communicator. If a pastor is writing books that do not reflect what he or she believes, then any in-depth critique is unnecessary, because that pastor’s ideas should be summarily ignored.

    The value of analyzing written works is that they are a matter of the public record. Anyone who thinks they are reproduced inaccurately, or that they are taken out of context, can appeal to the text. Not so in the case of a sermon.

    Reviewing a book without even once quoting said book, or even citing a specific topic covered by the book? That’s like writing about a player’s swing by discussing his team uniform.

  • Josh Mueller

    I may be able to gather all the written material a person has ever authored and still not truly understand the first thing about them or what they are truly trying to say. I may be dead on or totally off. And much of the accuracy will depend on the paradigm from which a person is judging and evaluating another. Until you’re willing and able to walk a mile in their shoes, you’ll only be assigning coordinates within the system of thought you already believe in. The baseball analogy may be a bit off if you’re only writing as a live spectator but Tony’s point about personal feedback in addition to and critically evaluating our opinion is dead on target.

    Of course that involves the real risk of walking away with an evaluation that may turn out more positive than the critical eyes which are watching you would be pleased with. Bruce Waltke, in the different context of the evolution debate, is one of many examples how quickly someone can be outed if he’s not careful.

  • http://blog.tonyj.net tony jones

    To those of you who think that reading the books and blogs of Pagitt, McLaren, Kimball, and Driscoll is sufficient to evaluate them as preachers, let me reiterate:

    1) Pagitt alone has written a book on homiletics. The homiletical thoughts of the other three had to be garnered, sometimes through tortured logic, from other writings (including blog posts).

    2) Since when did what someone writes about themselves become the most accurate representation? As the old saying goes, “autobiography is the art of self-deception.”

  • rjs

    Folks,

    The book is available through the Amazon link, but also as an e-book download (search on John S. Bohannon). After reading Tony’s review I downloaded and looked at the book (went to the source!). I have not read it completely – but I would agree with Bohannan far more than Tony does I expect – although I do not think that all true biblical preaching is expositional preaching.

    If Bohannan had filed his dissertation away, as is generally the case, that would be that. But he put it up on Amazon and in e-book for a more general audience and more general discussion. As a result there are two questions – the most important, is there anything new of value in the analysis? Second does the data and research support the conclusions?

    The analysis doesn’t seem to offer any unexpected insights (perhaps because there are none to be offered – perhaps because of the nature of the original question). Perhaps the analysis will be of use to some who are contemplating preaching.

    There is a secondary question at play here, separate from the book and the nature of preaching in the emerging church. This has to do with good practice in original research. Here I have to agree with the criticism – for creative original research (the cornerstone of the Ph.D.) he should have interviewed and observed his subjects … taken the time and spent the money to do the field research.

  • http://www.gettingfree.wordpress.com T

    I agree with Tony here (20). Preaching is not the same as writing books and blogs. If this book’s subject had been about these men’s “gospel” or “thinking” or “writing” or something more general, then hearing them preach still would have been natural and expected, even charitable, but not fatal. But if the book is specifically about their preaching and one never goes to hear their preaching, I think that flaw is fatal, even obviously and comically so.

    Think of Billy Graham or several favorite preachers today: even reading transcripts of the sermons is not at all the same as hearing them preach. If a book had the preaching of Billy Graham as it’s title, the failure to hear him preach would be so problematic as to be laughable. At best, this book seems very poorly titled.

  • Michael Hochstetler

    Based on the posture taken in “A New Kind of Christianity,” I am tempted to think that for McLaren, at least, it would be more of a compliment than an insult to be described as not believing in Orthodox Christianity.

  • Kevin s.

    But mclaren is no longer a preacher. His books are his means of communicating. It strikes me that there is no criticism of emergents that emergents will tolerate.

    Also, the works in question are not autobiographies. There is no compelling reason to assume self- delusion.

  • Josh Mueller

    Kevin,

    Emergents don’t “tolerate” criticism? Are you kidding me? If I want to meet with someone face to face (like Tony and Doug did with John) who is a known critic of the movement, how is that “not tolerating”? The only thing I read here is a frustration of judgment from a distance, not critical evaluation as such. Or are you saying that emergents’ open invitation for constructive criticism is insincere and a sham? That would be quite the accusation to make by someone who most likely has not spoken in person to any of the individuals named here either.

    So what exactly is your sweeping generalization based on?

  • Kevin s.

    My sweeping generalization is based on the emergent response to every criticism. Every critic has misunderstood or misrepresented the movement. At a certain point, it is more persuasive to argue than it is to complain.

  • http://www.theproblemwithkevin.com kevin s.

    “That would be quite the accusation to make by someone who most likely has not spoken in person to any of the individuals named here either.”

    I have attended Solomon’s Porch several times. I don’t think that makes me any more or less qualified to comment on this issue.

  • Josh Mueller

    Kevin,

    To the degree that I would see my own views misrepresented in others’ portrayal of me, I would reject it every time too. And it’s sad but true that most evangelicals critics of emergent see nothing in the movement but an attack on orthodoxy. I don’t see why they shouldn’t reject this accusation and do so consistently.

  • smcknight

    I asked Tony to evaluate this book in part because (1) I’ve not heard any of these folks preach and (2) he has. Experience hearing these folks preach is important to this kind of study, so I agree with those who have said the author should have taken time to listen to them preaching — and even interview them thoroughly in order to understand nuance.

  • Derek

    Scot, you have never heard Mark Driscoll preach or Brian McLaren? I just find this kind of surprising. Especially with Driscoll since you have offer critiques of him in the past.

  • smcknight

    I’ve not listened to either of them online etc. I’ve heard Brian talk but never in a church service; nor Driscoll. I’ve read two of Driscoll’s books; several of Brian’s.

  • JoeyS

    I’m still amazed that this warranted a Phd. Critiques aside, that is ridiculous.

    KevinS, I think it is fair for people who are critiqued to respond. Tony pointed out that although he disagreed with the conclusions of Belcher and Smith, he respected their criticism because they properly tried to understand through standard research methods. This is not the case for folks like DeYoung or Bohannon. They misrepresented emergent before doing their homework well.

  • http://www.everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    Excellent review Tony.

    I’d love to carry the topic itself forward. How do you critique one’s preaching/teaching stylistically? Is it worth whiled? Is there a “right” way to do this? Do certain theologies encourage/demand ways of communicating truth to others?

    On another front, is it the case that “verbal plenary revelation of a propositional gospel is meant to be understood by a clergyperson and clearly re-articulated to a congregation” is never/seldom a good option?

  • http://blog.tonyj.net tony jones

    KevinS,

    Yes, what JoeyS says. For those of us who self-identify as “emergent,” there is no dearth of criticism out there. I imagine that I’m no different than someone like John Piper, who sells MANY more books than me, and thus has many more critics: I listen to some and disregard others.

    Whether a critique warrants my attention is, of course, more of an art than a science. And I can speak from my friendship with Brian and Doug that they both pay attention to their critics as well.

    For instance, Scot’s review of Brian’s most recent book in Christianity Today was negative. I’ve spoken to Brian about that review on several occasions. He read it and re-read it. And it will, whether consciously or subconsciously, affect him as he moves forward with his next book. Brian does more than “tolerate” thoughtful criticism; he listens to it.

    I will admit to a certain amount of criticism fatigue. What was interesting about Scot’s review of Brian’s book was that it brought something new to the conversation. Most of the critiques I read of emergent are redundant. Bohannon’s book, in my view, brought some interesting new things to light, but ended up with the same old predictable conclusions.

  • Josh Mueller

    Jeff,

    While there is no single “right” way to do it, you can always learn something by examining both content and style of various preachers.

    I wrote my thesis on Spurgeon’s homiletical emphasis many years ago (based on the written source of his sermons on parables) and it was intriguing to see the connection between his own conversion experience and theology, his personal advice to students about preaching, and his own sermon content and style.

    Spurgeon would be the first to point out that imitating other preachers and self-awareness in preaching need to be avoided at all cost.

  • Matt Edwards

    Are we sure Bohannon hasn’t listened to these guys preach? Did anyone ask him?

    Tony, did you read the dissertation, too, or just the popular book? Is it possible that the original research from the dissertation was omitted from the popular book to make it more readable?

  • Matt Edwards

    I guess, on that note, too, based on your familiarity with the preaching of the four subjects of Bohannon’s book, how has his failure to listen to them preach led him astray in his evaluations of them? Can you cite a specific example of where he is wrong?

    Also, is your disagreement with Bohannon based more on his poor scholarship, or on your disagreement with the theology of preaching that his denomination holds to? Bohannon didn’t write this dissertation for a university, but for a confessional school with specific theological commitments.

  • http://www.theproblemwithkevin.com kevin s.

    “KevinS, I think it is fair for people who are critiqued to respond.’”

    Absolutely. And the fair thing to do would be to address arguments and explain why they are or are not accurate. John Piper does this all the time. So does Al Mohler. They respond to plenty of people who have not seen their sermons.

  • nathan

    Bohannon didn’t write this dissertation for a university, but for a confessional school with specific theological commitments.

    true, true. The issue isn’t just the rigor of methodology, the issue, for me, is context and content.

    which I think further underscores that this topic really seems suited to a D.Min. It’s very hard to not roll ones eyes at calling this type of work/subject matter “Phd” material.

    It seems to me people want have their cake and eat it too.
    Eschew the rigor of the academy as some “liberal” scheme and at the same time pretend that such scholarship actually can stand toe to toe with substantial theological research.

  • chad m

    honestly, as i’m reading through these comments and thinking about this book i have to ask, “Does anyone really care about a book like this?” is this a book someone like myself, an “emerging” pastor, should pick up and read? it sounds like an utter waste of time unless one is an emerging church sociologist or something weird like that!

  • Matt Edwards

    Nathan,

    It probably was a DMin dissertation. I don’t know what other discipline it could be. Historical theology?

  • rjs

    Matt,

    Here is a link for both the book and his bio, which states a Ph.D. from Southeastern.

    A search on John S. Bohannon will also lead to this page at theresurgence.com

  • http://blog.tonyj.net tony jones

    Responding to comments 35-42:
    -It is a PhD dissertation
    -He states in the book that he made no changes between the dissertation and the book
    -Of course I have disagreements with his theology, but I wrote a book review that assaults his methodology
    -@Josh, since Spurgeon was no longer alive, I imagine that you read his sermons and you read first-hand accounts by those who heard his sermons. Bohannon does neither. The book is about these guys’ books.
    -@chad, no, I don’t think this would be a helpful book to read. Thus my review.

  • Matt Edwards

    His PhD is in Applied Theology with an emphasis on preaching.

  • nathan

    What is “Applied Theology”?

  • JoeyS

    “What is “Applied Theology”?”

    It’s like an MDiv…. (note sarcasm)

  • Timothy Dalrymple

    A few thoughts.

    First, I wonder if Bohannon should be offered a chance to respond? And to clarify whether he has ever heard any of them preach? It would seem in keeping with Tony’s concern that there was no personal engagement with the subjects of the study.

    I would expect dissertation footnotes to reference any personal correspondence or interviews of the subjects. I would not *necessarily* expect the footnotes to note whether the author has heard the subjects preach, especially since “hearing” can take so many different forms these days. I find it rather hard to believe that the author would never, at least, have listened to some of their sermons online.

    Second, “predictable” does not necessarily mean wrong, and what is predictable to some readers will not be to others. Tony is obviously very well versed in the critiques of the ECM, and “predictable” is probably meant as a reflection on whether a book is worth the time, and whether the author is thinking outside the ruts of his intellectual/faith community. But I find that academia’s love for the unpredictable often leads to dissertations that are more innovative and trendy than truthful and substantiated. In other words, I’d rather speak the truth, even if it’s predictable.

    Third, why does the fact that McLaren is no longer preaching disqualify his theory and methodology of preaching from consideration in a study like this? My own dissertation was on someone long dead, and no one objected that Kierkegaard was a “retired” religious thinker and so no longer worthy of study. So, I don’t quite follow that line of reasoning.

    Finally, I appreciate some of the points Tony makes in the comments about Scot’s review in CT, John Piper, and criticism fatigue. But I don’t especially appreciate the aspersions cast (by others, not Tony) against the educational institution and its degree program. This was a critical review from someone deeply invested in the subject. I would read the actual book before you conclude that it’s unworthy of a PhD (most dissertations really are not very good, by the way) or that it reflects poorly on the school. The tone of the comments, at that point, became more sneering than charitable.

    -Tim Dalrymple


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