Brandon Morgan’s response….

Brandon Morgan’s response…. August 8, 2011

Here is Brandon Morgan’s response to critics of his guest post here (about the ECM):

“I would like to thank Tony Jones, Scot Mcknight and Deacon Bo over at Homebrewed for taking the time to respond/repost my reflections after attending Wild Goose. A number of the comments from these blogs have asked many good questions, some of which I’m afraid I won’t have time to respond to.

Initially, I suppose, I would like to clear up some concerns that Dr. Jones had with my reflection about the relationship between ECM and mainline denominations. His criticisms were more directed toward methodological or stylistic concerns, which perhaps led him to interpret my seemingly important questions (or else no one would have noticed) as rhetorical conjectures rather than substantive questions. This inevitably led to a rhetorical critique against my writing style and “methods of research” than substantive responses to my thoughts. I am actually surprised; first, that Tony disagreed with me at all. I would have assumed that, given his thoughts in his books, podcasts (particularly that AAR podcast with McKnight and Diana Butler Bass) and blog posts, that Tony would have been similarly concerned with the ease in which conversations among ECM people collude with the underlying methods of mainline denominations. I am surprised, secondly, that Tony’s recent follow up asking for a new word to describe non-evangelicals other than “progressive” or “liberal” does not at least convey an attempt to promote exactly what I hope ECM folks do, namely, transcend or at least govern imaginatively the evangelical-liberal impasse in American Protestantism. It would seem that Tony does not really disagree with me as much as perhaps feel defensive regarding my reference to my thoughts about Wild Goose because perhaps he felt I was targeting him. That was not the case.

That being said, I also assume that individuals who post on blogs asking questions (or who sit in church asking questions for that matter) need not convey elaborate qualitative or quantitative data in order for such questions to be on the table of concerns. My reflection on Wild Goose was the spearhead to a number of conversations I have had with mainline folks in dialogue with ECM ideas. So my thoughts do not spawn uniquely from that meeting, nor are they unique in comparison with others who have similar analyses.

In all honesty, I do not find ECM’s similarity with mainline concerns as a problem. Interestingly enough, mainline denominations do not generally see ECM as a problem either, but a promise. They do not see ECM as controversial because the mainline has already asked the questions that post-evangelical people are asking now. Their books generally include emergent ideas as a “shot in the arm” to an already established form of denominational life. So, it would not be a negative if ECM folks decided to find a home in mainline denominations. In fact, this was the very advice McLaren and others gave to VOID in order to get monetary support.  It might actually benefit ECM in an attempt to overcome what Jeremy Begbie has called “naïve anti-institutionalism.” But it would convey a contradiction regarding what Tony himself, in an interesting spat with Diana Butler Bass, claimed as being the benefit of ECM, namely that it attempts to move beyond the division in American Protestantism.

Now, in reference to Deacon Bo, I think the difference between liberal and progressive is negligible. However, I do not think they are un-theological terms. Theology is always political and vice-versa. We do not get to call our names theological because they are unsociological or unpolitical. They do, however, seem to have similar theological trajectories. That trajectory is one which I find to be rather similar to the kind of theology that, as Bo mentioned, someone like John Cobb would espouse. However, Cobb’s differentiation between Liberal and Progressive rests on the same premise: that experience (gender, racial, national included) is a valid location for theological reflection. I do not generally agree with this claim, and so am definitely not liberal. I also do not think one has to be a liberal in order to confess such an idea. But the take away from the conversation of titles expresses to me that, even after a number of years, the ECM has failed to contribute significantly to a well-worked theological/missional trajectory. This is perhaps the reason why I think criteria for ECM need to be laid out before any effective analysis is performed. How will we know what we are looking for when our qualitative and quantitative analyses take to the churches? I am assuming this is what some of my friends, like Gary Black, are doing when they type away in their studies. We have to agree on what something is before we ever find it. My own Baptist tradition has this same problem.  This problem in ECM may likely be due to the ideas expressed in Tony’s recent comment that

“We’ve taken a pastiche approach to church and theology — we take a little bit from here and a little bit from there. The benefit of that is a great deal more freedom than many leaders in the church feel. The other side of that coin, however, is that we inevitably disappoint anyone who comes from a particular camp, because we’re never really enough of anything.”

This comment in response to David Finch’s reflections about a book on ECM seems to convey the sentiment that I find already quite prevalent within the dominant political liberalism of contemporary America. The organization of contracted individuals to freely choose what they like from the consumer line of theological and social thought is not new but is in fact an orthodox tenet of American politics, not to mention the American University. Tony thinks the pastiche model really works. I do not. It seems that David Fitch’s comment that “all we’ve done is stir the pot, and then blended in with existing structures” is perhaps an overly grouchy-anabaptist way of saying what I was attempting to claim about EMC and its relationship to the theological presuppositions that reside in the mainline denominations. I will not spell out again the ways in which ECM has at its disposal to critique liberal or progressive forms of theological collusions with specific nation-state policies, or modern presuppositions about freedom, tolerance, personhood, rationality etc. I simply want to ask again how ECM is going to make itself up on the spot. Its thoughts have to come from somewhere and they can’t come from everywhere.

Personally, I find theological liberalism/progressivism to be a highly sophisticated approach to theological reflection, albeit ill-founded. Anyone who has even glanced at the work of Gary Dorrien will see that mainline liberal presuppositions are not toss-away categories. These are serious thinkers. But they are subject to critique in a number of ways. ECM will, I think, find its place to the extent that it can avoid what I see as the mistakes of the liberal tradition to theology and its approach to the church/world relationship.

So here are the (non-rhetorical) questions again: Why haven't Emergent folks joined the mainline denominations? Why have the negatives of evangelicalism been so easy to describe and virulently rebuke, while the negatives of the mainline denominations have barely shown up in Emergent concerns? Another way to ask this question would be: Why hasn't the Emergent critique of evangelicalism's involvement with the American nation-state and it's tendency toward creating theologically exclusive boundaries not found root in a critique of mainline denominations, whose political interests also conflate the church with nation-state interests?

I will also point out in conclusion that I have not been to every church in America. I do not have the time. So a number of churches, perhaps more than we realize, fall outside the typologies I or anyone else has chosen to use. That is the nature of the beast. That is why Bass can think Mainline is on the rise and others think it’s in decline. The same fact is true of every denomination. Because of this, I do not feel the need to account for every church community in order for my questions to bear relevance. Lastly, my use of the pronoun “they” instead of “we” is perhaps due to my recognition that, in order for there to be a “we” there must be an agreement that ECM speaks for me. Since I am, at the moment, unsure exactly who ECM speaks for, other than the plethora of leaders that ride atop its cultural wave, then I am not sure what it would mean for me to say “we”.  I am not simply saying that ECM does not speak for me, but more importantly, I am currently unaware exactly on behalf whom ECM does speak.

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