Saturday Afternoon Book Review: Tony Jones

Saturday Afternoon Book Review: Tony Jones November 6, 2010

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.

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