Let Bygones be Bygones

My buddy Jay and I had a round of several emails about his post, which was a response to my post. Our conversation got me thinking…

It seems to me that the only ones who brings up Brian McLaren’s Plymouth Brethren background are those who are attempting to marginalize him or explain what he’s up to. For instance, in DA Carson’s lectures at Cedarville College, he refers to the church of Brian’s childhood and Spencer Burke’s time at a mega-conservative church in SoCal as evidence that these are simply men who are moving out of fundamentalism. Andy Crouch mentions it in a similar context in the recent CT article.

The funny thing is, in all my time with Brian, I’ve never heard him mention it. In other words, of all the things by which Brian identifies himself, “formerly Plymouth Brethren” isn’t one of them. He was PB thirty years ago! He’s no more PB or post-PB now than he is a post-teenager — it may be true, but it has little to do with his current theological/ecclesiological project.

These people point out his and others’ backgrounds as a way to belittle the theology that Brian et al are currently espousing. Like, “Oh, you can understand why he’s reacting so strongly once you see that he’s a former…FUNDAMENTALIST!” But that is to not take seriously what Brian is really up to. That’s no more valid than to say that Brian is developing a new theology for himself because he’s lost his hair and he’s on a quest for new forms of virility. You see, it’s ludicrous.

And it’s just as ludicrous to pin theological tags on everyone who’s involved in this whole thing. It simply does no good. It’s an attempt to paint them into a corner, to “figure them out”: “Oh, you just a post-youth minister…seeker sensitive pastor…Lutheran…low church…etc.”

So I sense a real predicament brewing. There are those in emergent who are through with all denominational tags, think that modern theological education has ceased to be productive, etc., and there are those who very much want to emerge within the setting of established institutions. Some find the differences and uniquenesses among Protestant traditions to be beneficial, while others find them to be a distraction and a waste of time.

I don’t want to create a brouhaha, but I think this may be a massive storm cloud on the horizon.

  • Anonymous

    Tony do you think that this is an issue of power? To marginalize the other is easier than learning from the other. If our theological position is set and not contextual then movement is a bad thing. Just a thought.Scottwww.knowtown.com/scott/

  • The Accidental Buddhist

    Should a guy hoping to work in an Emerging Church eventually as a Pastor still go for the M.Div?

  • Jon

    i personally don’t think it is only about power, although i’m sure that plays into it. putting things/people into categories is a modern construct that i don’t really want any part of, nor should those that are ‘emergent.’ we created that problem though in many ways by calling it emergent, having a convention, publishing books, etc. maybe we really need those things though, so i don’t want to slam the coordinating group. i’m already tired of defending emergent to modernist christians (evangelicals, fundamentalists) that are my friends and family. all i want to tell them is come along and find out. but there is nowhere for us to go. maybe online is the only place to go right now to be in conversation. i am in seminary right now under the M.Div program and struggle as to whether or not it is what i need to be doing. someday i’ll be in a church that is going to be like what we all envision it to be, and i’m not so sure that an m.div. is the best degree to prepare me to be a participant in that community. i asked tony about it back in the spring and he didn’t have an answer for me then. have you come up with anything yet T?

  • bobbie

    hey tony, as a former/post PB i salute you! thanks for going here, as it’s frustrating to hear that we can’t be ‘as emergent’ because of our roots. si johnson is also from this background and i don’t see people painting him with that type of brush.yes, for the first bit emerging is ‘reactionary’ – but that initial rush wears off and life/faith/beliefs become much more about responding than reacting.i think that pigeon holing anyone in this discussion is counterproductive. understanding background, denominational and national/racial origins is helpful as a baseline – but when used as a constant barrier the conversation goes nowhere.your ‘forecasting’ is likely accurate, we can use it to navigate through, or divide apart. i vote for through together. isn’t that what this discussion is all about?

  • Chris Enstad

    the m.div is good to have for many reasons:1. it puts you on the radar of your denomination or at least a churchwide body… yes, they aren’t necessarily going to be huge fans of what you might be trying to do but these things take time. 2. you learn much more in 4 years then you can in two. I cannot begin to count the number of “church leaders” who have no knowledge of church history, believe that the KJV descended from heaven in one whole volume, who do not have the capacity for theological thought and discussion, and who do not have any grasp of church leadership besides whatever is written on the poster they bought at Successories.3. the m.div is a much more holistic degree than the ma because it takes into account the needs of future missional leaders in terms of pastoral care, spirituality, language, history, systematics, etc. etc. In my ideal world everyone who calls themself a Christian would have an m.div ;)

  • jch

    I was fortunate to hear McLaren speak at a conference in Nashville in October. He used one of his sessions (an hour in length) to speak about his PB background. It was interesting to listen to him speak about his tradition and how it has influenced him today. So, yes, I’ve heard him speak about his PB background and I got a sense that his current journey is somewhat of a reaction to his history. Aren’t we all reactionary beings, really?

  • Bill Arnold

    I’m curious about the person questioning the M.Div. Were you really asking about pursuing an M.Div. as opposed to an M.A. as Chris supposed?I’m not pursuing an M.Div., one because I don’t know that I will be pursuing a “professional” church position, but also because I don’t know that the extra classes will prepare me any better. An example that comes to mind is holietics. I don’t want to study how to make a speech better if I don’t intend to make speeches for a living.Also, if you don’t think one M.A. is sufficient, why not take two? Depending on your goals, you might get more out of that than taking one M.Div. That’s just my opinion and I’ll freely admit my knowledge of M.Div. programs is pretty limited. In any case, I think any degree is better than none because, assuming your in a healthy learning environment, you will benefit intellectually from being pushed by professors and classmates. I hope that in questioning M.Div.s, we’re not questioning the importance of scholarship. That would definitely be a shame.

  • Jon

    thanks everyone for your helpful thoughts on the m.div. thing. instead of posting another comment on it, i went ahead blogged my struggles a little bit more in detail. your comments have been so helpful so far, if you don’t mind heading to http://theotensionology.blogspot.com/ , that would be even more helpful. thanks.on another note of tony’s post. we all have our own story and all come from specific times, places, situations, etc. to write someone’s position on x,y, or z because of that story is absolutely ridiculous. so what if brian’s background is PB. we need to thank God for providing that for brian to bring him to where his is today and his influence on the conversation. that kind of shit pisses me off.

  • Anonymous

    I think the whole emergent thing feels a little dangerous to some because they don’t connect with it – but that’s no reason to start picking on people’s hair, that’s what the TBN channel is for.brianhttp://deeper.typepad.com

  • Chris Enstad

    that’s funny :)I have the article in my hand and Andy really is using the hair thing as a hook not a foil he says it matters about as much as the number of churches who have pastors that wear ties.

  • Anonymous

    As a self-professed post-modernist, Tony, you should know that we never escape from our contexts. It is quite legitimate to bring up McLaren’s background because, whether he realizes it consciously or not, it DOES influence him.- Joseph

  • Anonymous

    im sorry.you all sound so impassioned.i guess there’s value to it, to these kinds of conversations.im just not seeing it right now.

  • John

    I have a M.Div. and M.A. and I feel they don’t serve me in the real world. They do just fine in the Christian sub-culture. For example, the way I learned to dissect the scripture in the Greek is dissatisfying to me now. I’m glad I know it, but I find the traditional/contemporary sermon very ineffective and tiresome. Most (not all) M.Divers come out as church managers (not holy men).I think the storm clouds are brewing too. We’ll all be marked as heretics soon and there are some who lament the fact that they can’t burn us at the stake anymore.

  • Andy Crouch

    Hi, it’s the author checking in!It’s been fascinating, and humbling, to read the responses in blogland to my article. Because I appreciate the spirit of Tony’s (and others’) critiques on this site, I thought I’d offer a few thoughts. I offer them not in the spirit of trying to justify myself (God forbid), but hopefully contributing to the most fruitful possible conversation.First, the only thing that really bothers me about people’s responses to this article are those who say I’m preoccupied with style over substance. True, that’s where the article begins. But a good two-thirds of the article–and the last word–is completely about substance. I give a ton of space to letting Brian, Rob, and Kristen articulate some theological concepts that I take to be central to the emerging-church phenomenon. What I reported is the heart of what we talked about in open-ended conversations about what the emerging church means.Is the hair a red herring (hairing)? Well, it’s partly just good clean fun. And hey, I didn’t even report on the fact that I saw two _more_ guys checking their hair in car windows as I arrived at Mars Hill. The reality is that there is a subculture–a small and fascinating subculture, call it metrosexual, artsy, progressive, whatever–that is way more preoccupied with fashion than mainstream American twentysomething culture. And that culture is way overrepresented in places that self-identify, and that others identify, as emerging church. That’s worth reporting. But I take pains to point out in the piece that it ultimately is no more a movement than churches where people wear business attire.The more substantive criticism, which I expected, is using Rob/Kristen (NOT just Rob–why does no one notice that some of the most trenchant comments were from Kristen?) and Brian as the sole stand-ins for an incredibly complex movement. Well, this was a tough decision. MHBC is not an “Emergent” church in many ways. But as I talked with the Bells, I realized that the fascinating story here was that this was a culturally-relevant megachurch plant whose founders–after planting the church–had read A New Kind of Christian and begun a theological journey that summarizes much of what seems core to the emergent conversation. I think that’s pretty newsworthy. And in a magazine article–that you actually want readers to read–you have to choose a few people to represent bigger, more abstract and diverse realities. Also, my remit was *not* just to report on Emergent–the slightly more confined and distinctive “conversation” that Brian is most invested in–but “the emerging church,” which generally, out there in mainstream church and mainstream media, includes churches like Mars Hill Bible Church.On to Tony’s point in this post. As someone who comes from a charismatic context (although I’ve worked in evangelical settings most of my adult life) and went to a mainline seminary, I just don’t agree that Brian’s background is irrelevant. We all come to our “positions” as “vectors”–we come from somewhere, and that affects what we see. (A very postmodern observation.) The theological problematics I hear over and over from key people in the emergent world are ones that really only make sense if your starting point is (at least heavily influenced by) the conservative wing of evangelicalism. I have talked to many savvy mainline people who were simply puzzled by A New Kind of Christian, for example. Whereas no evangelical can read it and not see the relevance of the questions Brian’s asking–even if, like some of CT’s editors, they don’t like where Brian goes with it.I certainly don’t introduce Brian’s background to marginalize him or diminish his contribution. (And BTW, the idea that CTI would want to marginalize or dismiss Emergent does not at all match my conversations with my editors nor the fact that Brian is a contributing editor for Leadership Journal.) If I wanted to marginalize him I would have relegated him to a single paragraph and left him unnamed… like I did with a certain DJ. :) Rather it’s my job as a writer to *locate* his theological contribution in a history, a history he shares with many other people, who are over-represented at Emergent gatherings. Again, the insight that people do theology from a certain location is a crucial and helpful aspect of postmodernism. It is troubling, though, that so little emerging-church conversation and practice reflects a clear sense of how *particular* are the backgrounds and experiences that would make you look for answers where emerging-church folks tend to look for them. This is just a part of a larger story of the way that American culture is profoundly history-impaired.In the end, it was a 3,600-word article for a general audience. People who thought it was too basic, remember, there are 30,000 churches in America and Brian says “a few dozen” are fully engaged with emergent; there are 150K readers of CT, many in places with no “emerging church” of any sort nearby. Also remember that there are strident voices in CT’s world who would dismiss the whole emerging-church phenomenon as… well, you can fill in the blanks. A certain amount of basic education is required if there’s going to be a widespread, helpful conversation in the, let’s say, 29,900 churches that haven’t started it yet. Those who want more substantive reflection from me should read the five-views book that we did–it was fun and I think has some real meat to it. This article is, like a lot of what I hope to write, a parable that gets conversation started. I’m glad it’s working.

  • Andy Crouch

    Sorry, that should be 300,000 churches, not 30,000. Which makes the number who haven’t really gotten around to “emerging” 299,900. :)

  • Anonymous

    Andy – just wanted to say, I thought your article was thought provoking and in the end will help the conversation continue.www.postermeging.modblog.com

  • The Accidental Buddhist

    John S. Thanks for the new Sig file…——————————————————I think the storm clouds are brewing too. We’ll all be marked as heretics soon and there are some who lament the fact that they can’t burn us at the stake anymore.——————————————————What P.M.-P.E. person hasn’t felt this way?

  • Sivin Kit

    based on the little I know, there’s a small group (or maybe bigger) from the Brethren churches in Malaysia has quite an interest with the ideas from “A New Kind of Christian” :-)

  • Friar Tuck

    I think part of the reason that there is such an emphasis on emergent’s relationship to fundamentalism and evangelicalism is that much of the movement has defined itself in relation to what it is not. Especially as you read A NEW KIND OF CHRISTIAN you see a pastor emerging from a Bible-church type background.It will be interesting to see how emerging churches see themselves in relation to mainline denominations–although we realize that each individual community will be different. It will also be interesting to see whether denominational structures can survive, and how they adapt, to our rapidly changing culture

  • aaron

    Tony, great piece on people dwelling on the past. did Jesus do that? not so much. it’s like Donald Miller says throughout Searching for God Knows What, people are just trying to stay in the lifeboat and kick anybody they can out. i think Jesus would have been self-sacrificing…

  • David Williamson

    The Brethren are the punk rockers of Christendom. With uncompromising vigour they have stripped down the faith to its most basic tunes.While I have huge admiration for much of punk rock, I choose to listen to music performed by people with fewer piercings. However, just as the Clash helped revitalise music at at time when the sounds of the radio were as moribund as the preaching in many of our churches, time and time again, people of Brethren heritage have done amazing things for the building up of us all.There’s a great article at http://www.christianitymagazine.co.uk/engine.cfm?i=92&id=241&arch=1 but here are a few change makers:Jim Wallis, Sojourners top dudeFF Bruce, well-known theologian David Gooding, as aboveRobert Gordon, professor of Hebrew, at Cambridge University.Clive Calver, president of World Relief Donald Wiseman, professor emeritus of Assyriology at London University and founder member of Tyndale House, Cambridge.Ram Gidoomal*, London mayoral candidate for the Christian Peoples Alliance, pioneer of left-of centre evangelical thought.Sir John Laing, builder and founder of the Laing Trust. Sir Peter Vardy, funded a pioneering City Academy School in north-east England which shaped New Labour policy to faith schools.Gerald Coates, founder of the Pioneer network.Roger Forster, founder of Ichthus Christian Fellowship.Arthur Wallis, widely regarded as the father of the charismatic movement.


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