A Better Atonement: Lean Left, Tony, Lean Left!

Try as he might, Peter Laarman can’t help but sneer at my latest book. Just…Not…Progressive enough for him. Also, not smart enough, too hipster, and too evangelical. He doesn’t seem to like my eyeglasses, either. Or the book’s subtitle. Or Rob Bell. (Wait, what in God’s name does Rob Bell have to do with my book on the atonement? You’ll have to read the article to find out.)

Penitentially present to RD readers for just a minute during Holy Week, I want to welcome a new Kindle-only book from Tony Jones: A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin.

I have never met Tony Jones, and I was initially inclined to offer a sneer instead of a review. I am still inclined toward sniping, as you will see, but the easy snipe just won’t do this time. I’ve thought about it, and (God forbid) I’ve even prayed about it. I conclude that the old Common Front principle of “no enemies on the Left” really ought to apply right now, at a moment when anyone who is honestly seeking to recast troublesome old Christian doctrines should be seen as an ally and not an enemy.

Read the Rest: Rejecting Blood Sacrifice Theology, Again | (A)theologies | Religion Dispatches.

But here’s the point of the review: Oh, look at the little post-evangelical emergent discovering what we smart liberals have known for decades. How cute!

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  • I clearly missed the point of his conclusion. Was he calling you a supercilious jerk? Or was he admitting to being one himself?

  • For a person so disdainful of unoriginal ideas, Peter Laarman appears surprisingly taken with his own brilliant and devastating (i.e. utterly boring) observation: “hipsterish.”

    Holy crap, he needed an editor so badly on this one. Doesn’t he have any friends willing to look over his drafts? As someone who shares much of Laarman’s sardonically defensive emotional toolkit, I know the value of a loving, “Dude, this makes you sound like a dick.” Oh, well, I’m sure he’s a nice person, and hey: underneath the thick patina of condescending “Duh! Walter Wink exists!” I think he’s glad you wrote the book.

  • Tim T

    Laarman states that “…most reasonably literate Christians can easily reel off the names of some key figures along this path: philosopher and historian Rene Girard, Gil Baillie (Girard’s foremost Catholic expositor), Walter Wink, James Alison, S. Mark Heim, Rita Nakashima Brock, and others.”

    Well, I consider myself a “literate Christian”, college educated, growing up in a fairly liberal denomination (Presbyterian), and I never read or came across any of these people, not do I bet most others in my church have either. Rene Girard I have only come across recently, and that’s because of writers like Tony Jones, Peter Rollins, and Richard Beck.

    Laarman needs to get his nose out of the air just a bit and come down to earth with the rest of us. True, maybe the above folks have been discussing these things for years, but it takes a Tony Jones to bring these ideas down to our level so that the average churchgoer can understand them.

    Thanks, Tony.

    • Charles

      Limiting ones library often results in only confirming ones biases.

      • Dan Hauge

        True, but to me the better response to that is to encourage people towards wider reading, and simply huffing about how inferior one is because of what they haven’t already read tends to have the opposite effect.

  • Carl

    He’s right, the thoughts on this blog aren’t really new, they’re just rehashed ideas from mainline liberals. They figured out the lies long time ago.

  • As a “well-educated professionals … embarrassed to be … with lots of blue-haired ladies and unenlightened preaching and an old organ wheezing along…” I enjoyed some of the sarcasm. I also agree with the above comments that he seems to have hit the “send” button a little too quick. I don’t know who bothers me more, those who study new ideas but do a terrible job of sharing them and bringing them to the laity or those who bring those ideas to the laity without discussing the ancestory of the ideas. Not that Tony fits either of those categories, as an amateur, I can’t really say.

    I hope you do consider his test Tony, “can they demonstrate a Jesus-like revolutionary resistance in relation to a culture of unprecedented social inequality—and of unprecedented and appalling economic, racial, military, penal, environmental, and psychological violence?” Call it “left” or whatever you want, there is a pull in that direction.

  • Karl Kroger

    This neighboring Dakotan is greatly appreciative of your book , these guest posts, and your overall contributions to changing the conversation about the work of Christ. While Laarman certainly has a significant influence, I think it’s limited to those who are far, far left. Your work, among others, is impacting the entire American church. I would also argue, that by remaining rooted in Christ, the discipleship and fruit are greater too.

  • Smugness is such an overrated quality…

  • Charles

    “…can they (emergents) demonstrate a Jesus-like revolutionary resistance in relation to a culture of unprecedented social inequality—and of unprecedented and appalling economic, racial, military, penal, environmental, and psychological violence?”

    I liked the Laarman piece – a lot. He articulated my thoughts much better than I am able. The above quote from Laarman is the question that I’m waiting for Tony and his cohorts to fully address.

    Liberally yours…

    • Curtis

      “a Jesus-like revolutionary resistance in relation to a culture of unprecedented social inequality”

      A pretty tall order, don’t you think? Sure, the emergents may fall short in this regard, but is there any Christian movement that has done any better?

  • Chris

    I think Laarman’s attitude should be a cautionary heads-up. This is where you wind up the further out to the extremes (both ways) that you lean. No offense Tony, but you already have a fairly condescending presence (in your blogging), but you’ve been out-condescended. How does it feel? Do you really want to feed that monster and lose all relevance the way this guy has?

  • Mr. Laarman has written a snarky review not so much of Tony’s book but of Tony himself and the Emergent conversation. Surprisingly divisive from someone who serves as executive director of “Progressive Christians Uniting.” Maybe he’s jealous because he knows he’ll never be a hipster.

  • I found it very interesting that Laarman accused you of making point of letting us “know just how smart and how hip” you are, while his entire article was little more than his way of saying “Look at me, I’m so smart” (Tillichian view?).
    The idea that “mainline liberals figured this out long ago” is true. But, they can’t lay claim to any originality in doing that, because these aren’t new ideas; they’ve been around for about 2000 years. The emergent church is only doing what the mainliners did before us: digging them out, dusting them off and presenting them in a way that fits the current culture. We aren’t the first to do this and I’m pretty sure we won’t be the last.

  • Charles

    My, my! Snarky see, snarky do!

  • Kathy

    Nobody’s better at being snide than enlightened Christians, it would seem.

  • Yes, we “former conservative, fundamentalists, …” are behind the “progressive, liberal, mainline…” groups. But just because we show up to the party late shouldn’t mean we can’t celebrate with everyone there. And as Tony responded on Laarman’s site, we need someone to translate for us – Laarman certainly isn’t going to do it!
    For those of us who can’t/haven’t/aren’t living life with our “emergent” family, but rather, are still holding the hands of the blue-haired (southern) ladies, we are grateful for authors like Tony who provide us a language to speak to our community. Maybe, just maybe, we have a way in…
    But I did actually appreciate Laarman’s question. So what are we going to do about it – and what does it mean for our future? I have been wondering that for years…

  • I have spent no small amount of time over the past few years introducing mainline progressives to the emergent conversation and I’ve gotta say that attitudes such as Laarman’s have been — by far — the most annoying aspect of my work. I’ve become convinced that such animosity is mostly rooted in bitterness, anger, and envy. Let me say up front that I’m a progressive mainliner who swims pretty far to the left. Yet time and again I hear progressive church leaders patronize emergents: “Don’t these [young hipster naive Christians] realize this has all been done before, that they’re late to the theological ball game?” The truth of course is that they do realize this.

    As I made clear in Toward a Hopeful Future (coincidentally published by the left leaning Pilgrim Press, publishing house of the UCC, in which Laarman is ordained), folks like Tony (and McLaren and Bell as well as others) are very up front about saying they are hardly doing something entirely new, but are following in a long line of theorists past and present. But progressive mainliners are often bitter, angry, and envious because all these fantastic theological ideas that mainline pastors have long talked about in seminaries and continuing ed events (with other pastors) are actually getting traction among whole sets of young people who will never darken the doors of their old, dying churches.

    At the risk of over generalizing, one of the more popular myths out there, theologically at least, is that mainline churches are bastions of progressivism. The truth of the matter is that the clergy and seminaries lean left, but most of the parishioners are conservative to moderate, with a few progressives thrown in for good measure. Most could be described as Baptists who want to be able to drink a beer and not have to believe in a literal hell. There’s a popular adage that makes the rounds among mainline clergy: “If we preach what we are taught in our seminaries then we’ll get fired,” or, “Could you imagine what the people on our pews would think if they learned what was taught in seminary?” So when mainline church leaders hear about a bunch of “emergent” folks really interested in such questions, they feel frustrated, jealous, and perhaps even slighted.

    Emergents actually are interested in what is being taught in the seminaries, but those who show up to standard mainline churches care much more about casseroles and committees than the import of atonement theologies. This can lead to a lot of resentment from progressives, and I think such dynamics play into the condescension expressed by Laarman and many others.

    With that said, however, part of me thinks Laarman’s cryptic ending was actually in praise of the emergents. I think it can be read as him acknowledging the reality of the aging population of the mainline, and if emergents don’t pick up the mantle of progressive Christianity then who will?

    • Thanks for your hard work, Phil.

      As we move from the idea of being guaranteed a lifelong vocational ministry with decent pay and benefits to part time or entrepreneurial ministry, more of us young mainline minister types are being up front about our dreams, passions, and personalities. I’m grateful for that. It does mean churches will know up front who this person is that might be partnering with them for years to come.

      Tony’s work is great in that he does do his best to introduce some of these tough concepts in a more accessible way.

      I also like Christian Piatt’s Banned Questions series for the same reason – easy to digest and present in a conversational environment.

      The challenge remains figuring out how to communicate our faith in this changing world in ways that make sense.

    • Thanks Phil. I am fairly new to the party, so I’m not always sure about my views. Guys like Laarman can really throw me when they say “everybody knows about”, then names some obscure authors. I went to a liberal church for years, but the United Methodists, unlike the emergent Evangelicals, don’t talk about a liberal movement, they just sort of allow it.

      When I started to turn the tables and challenged the leadership on bringing these issues to light, they would fall back on statements about what the parishioners want. That doesn’t seem like leading to me, it seems like picking the easy requests and ignoring the real needs of a broken world. When they started paying more attention to their declining numbers, but responded with more focus on celebration than actions for justice, I gave up.

    • Christy

      I’m no longer a Christian, so I don’t have a dog in this fight. I still find religion incredibly fascinating, however, and I’ve been puzzled by the snarky, condescending tone of a number of public statements by mainline clergy & leaders that I’ve read over the past few months, directed at emergent-y types and spiritual but not religious types. (I’d probably consider myself in the latter category.)

      I’ve also been puzzled by the attitude that doctrines like original sin and substitutionary atonement are somehow weird, fringe bits of dogma only taught by uneducated fundies to rural hillbillies in overalls, as opposed to theology embraced by the entire Southern Baptist Convention, the majority of evangelicals, a fair number of Catholics, and the entire slate of GOP Presidential candidates.

      Given the steadily declining numbers in mainline congregations, it makes me want to ask:
      “Seriously, do you really want to spend your energy kicking the shins of the very groups of people – emergent-y and spiritual but not religious types – who are most likely to keep you from declining into oblivion?”

      I’m baffled by the attitude – it seems so counter-productive and unnecessarily alienating.

  • Richard

    Here’s something I would contend that the mainline liberals that already ‘know’ this stuff have to gain from the ‘new kids on the block’ – the emergent conversation has done a much better job of applying these ‘better atonements’ to everyday structures of life and community and in their relationships. Laarman’s snark is just a more academically acceptable form of violence.

  • Jeremy

    I’m very new to your blog and “emergent” issues in general, but I really don’t understand the snide tone of this guy’s critique. It really leads me to believe that he’s afraid of having to relinquish some theological niche that he believes is his.

    No wonder many don’t feel comfortable with either “liberal” or “conservative”. I feel like any actual criticism of your book is overshadowed in this case by this guy’s fear. His “liberal” credentials are seriously called into question by his elitist tone.