Whaddya Say We Get Honest about Labels?

Whaddya Say We Get Honest about Labels? April 24, 2013

This morning on Marketplace Morning Report, Krissy Clark filed a story entitled, “What Does ‘Welfare’ Mean to You?“:

Once upon a time, the word welfare simply meant, faring well. That’s how the framers of the U.S. Constitution used it in the preamble. Right after the part about “forming a more perfect union” and before the part about “securing the blessings of liberty”, there’s a charge to “promote the general welfare.”

And yet, if you go out on to the street and ask people how they feel about the word welfare today, the feelings are, to put it mildly, fairly negative.

“It’s for people who sit on their butt all day and don’t do anything and then say ‘give me your money,’” is how John Frazer, a car service driver from San Diego, put it.

“It’s kind of associated with failure,” added Suncana Laketa, a graduate student from Arizona who said she had received welfare in the past herself.

She goes on to explain how the word has changed — how it has been demonized. The label “gay” has undergone a similar change, as many parents have had to explain during the annual reading of “The Night Before Christmas.” And here’s a telling book title about how labels are used: Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show.

You see, calling someone a “liberal” isn’t just a forensic exercise in academic differentiation. It’s a political act. And leaders who claim a theological tradition that’s particularly attuned to the political should stop acting naive about the politics of labels.

This post and the hullaballoo that surrounds it has the potential to be seen as internecine sniping, so I’m going to try to draw some larger lessons.

As I’ve written before, David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw recently wrote a book in which they stated they’ve “learned a lot” from “Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones and others.”

“But their answers have often lacked the substance on which we can live, and what goes by the name of ’emerging church’ now appears to have settled into another version of mainline Christianity.”

There are so many problems with this sentence, that it’s hard to know where to begin.

On his radio show, Doug asked Fitch and Holsclaw exactly what he’s said or written that led them to believe that he is propagating “another version of mainline Christianity.” The best they could come up with is that Fitch said that Doug said something to him at an Emergent Village cohort meeting in 2002 that led Fitch to believe that Doug doesn’t think Jesus is essential to the Kingdom of God. That’s a pretty thin soup to indict someone, I’d say. You can listen to the show yourself to hear Doug’s response.

On Twitter and Facebook, I have repeatedly asked them to point to somewhere — anywhere — in my hundreds of thousands of published words, what I have written that has led them to conclude that I have “settled into another version of mainline Christianity.”

For one thing, “mainline” is a demarcation of denominational Protestantism. It has virtually nothing to do with theology, which is why Methodists, Presbyterians, Mennonites, and Episcopalians all fall under that rubric. It’s about the church’s polity and history in the United States, not about any shared theological heritage. If anything, I have been brutally anti-mainline, both on this blog and in my books. So, I’m still waiting for a response.

I’m writing about this topic again this week because Deacon Bill wrote a nice, conciliatory post on HBC (which Holsclaw immediately attacked and wrongheaded), and Fitch blogged about how I shouldn’t get my nose out of joint because labels are good.

Listen, what Holsclaw and Fitch are attempting to do in their book is nothing new. Jim Belcher tried to do the exact same thing in his book: I’m not conservative, I’m not emergent, I’m the middle way! Indeed, I used some “third-way” language in my book, The New Christians, even as I tried to deconstruct the liberal-conservative bi-polarity, which I think is a thoroughly modern construction.

Fitch and Holsclaw are jumping up and down saying, “It’s not bad to be mainline Christian!” Fitch writes,

Doug and Tony ask why we might label them protestant mainline…?  Tony seems upset that we did so.  Does Tony have something against mainline Protestantism? Much much good has come and is coming from this part of American Protestantism.

Yes, you’re damn right I have something against mainline Protestantism! Have you not been paying attention?!? My entire PhD dissertation is an attack on mainline polity. My christology is an offense to many mainliners. And I could go on.

But none of this is really the point. The point is this: If you want to have credibility in the world of evangelical publishing and seminary education these days, one of the ways to do it is to distance yourself from Brian McLaren. Get it? Brian has gone from a board member on several evangelical seminaries and mission agencies to persona non grata. And in pitching my latest book proposal, my agent was told by Zondervan/Nelson/Navpress/IVP that I’m radioactive because of my affirmation of gay marriage and gay ordination. And make no mistake, although the Missio Alliance conference this month had an admirably diverse array of speakers, there was not one person speaking who has publicly affirmed gay marriage.

This is politics, not academic discourse. That’s what I’m saying.

I left this comment on David’s blog this morning:

David, you’ve repeatedly been asked by me to show where, in the hundreds of thousands of words that I’ve published, you find evidence that I’ve “settled into another version of mainline Christianity.” You have yet to offer a shred of evidence.

You’ve repeatedly offered to repent, but you haven’t. Nor have you retracted.

That sentence in your book is a naked attempt to categorize us as the “other.” It is a political move, an attempt to gain points with evangelical readers. For someone who purports a theology that is so attuned to the political, it seems seriously disingenuous for you to keep pretending that your sentence was not political in nature.

Mainline Christianity is dying. Everyone knows it. It’s in the headlines every day. So it’s not like that label comes value-free. You meant to marginalize us when you labeled us as such. I’m not going to stop pushing back against that political act.

Time for you to come clean.

Too harsh? But Fitch and Holsclaw have been asking for robust dialogue of differentiation. Here you go.

Feel free to play politics with me and my theological work. That’s fine. Just be honest about it.

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  • Jonnie

    It’s gonna be a feisty day on the interweb…

  • “It has virtually nothing to do with theology…”

    Completely false.

    The mainline identity is absolutely theological. It’s not precise, acute, or systematic (which gives you academic, technical wiggle room), but it is, absolutely, a common-ground theological signifier (for any congregant or person on the street). There is variance in ecclesiology, but theology is one of the primary binding elements.

    And your statement shows, Tony, that your interest is dodging the substance of Dave and Geoff’s argument, and *making this into* a chippy, institutional, political battle that is more about your personal brand than anything else.


    • Alright, Zach, I’ll take the bait: How about you enlighten the rest of us on what, exactly, mainline theology is.

      And, honestly, it’s not me who’s not answering the question here.

      • No bait. No challenge (though, if you want to comment on Dave and Geoff’s book, make a substantial argument!). Just a request to stop turning this into something it doesn’t need to be.

        Mainline theology is, generally, progressive/liberal as compared to evangelical theology. The person on the street understands this and attends a mainline church over an evangelical church with the understanding that it is a progressive/liberal theological alternative (they obviously may also have all kinds of other reasons for attending). I attend a United Methodist Church currently with the full understanding that it is more progressive/liberal theologically than the evangelical churches in town (and, honestly, that’s one reason I choose to attend).

        Again, technically, academically, there can be all kinds of ways to parse this and make it seem like a UCC and UMC and ELCA and even UUA church have absolutely nothing in common theologically at all. But common sense says otherwise. Dave and Geoff’s argument is simply that emergence Christianity has most in common with this progressive/liberal theological bent present in the mainline, and is often directly connected to it and at home within it. I’m sure there are plenty of examples of emergence/mainline overlap that could be produced, yes?

        That’s it.

        • Dude, I’m saying the entire premise of their book is based on a falsehood. Isn’t that a substantial argument?

          • Can you review the book then? For me, that would produce the kind of conversation that would move us forward. As I mentioned at Homebrewed, I do think there’s common ground here (which is why a ‘radical middle’ for evangelicals *could* form a conversational space for conservative-leaning and progressive-leaning folks), and I want to see that explored along with the clear differences (and any errors in perception that folks like me might have).

            • Why should I take their written work more seriously than they’ve taken mine? (I’m asking this seriously.)

              • Matt Tebbe

                Because you’re a Christian? (serious answer)

                • I’ll start looking in the Gospels for that teaching, Matt.

              • matybigfro

                Golden rule,
                turn the other cheek

        • Zach, I’ve been pretty immersed in the mainline world for the past few years, and I can assure you that there are just as many (if not more) CONSERVATIVE mainline churches around the country as there are LIBERAL mainline churches. While it may be true that the liberals hold most of the power in the national hierarchies of mainline denominations, the reality on the ground is that conservatives still hold quite a bit of the power in local congregations. So it’s just not as simple as saying “all mainline churches are liberal theologically and that’s why people go to those churches.” To say that completely disregards the vast numbers of theologically conservative mainline churches, as well as the other reasons why people attend those churches (i.e., tradition, location, programs, worship style, etc.). #justsaying

          • Steve, you’re right, though I think there is still a general understanding of a theological category here. Even the presence of such a *spectrum* among local congregations says something about the larger denominations (hierarchies) & the mainline category itself – namely, they are *open* to these liberal theological expressions and beliefs. Emergence shares that openness, that leaning. The book is making a general statement (which I agree needs some clarifying, not defensiveness on either side) about a leaning or movement in that direction. You (and Tony) didn’t address the other point which is that there is (obviously) a lot of overlap currently among emergence thinkers/authors/speakers and the Protestant mainline. There’s some proof in that pudding (though I am not trying to slam dunk anything here).

            Thanks for the feedback bro.

      • The biggest theological difference between mainline Christianity and the “emerging church” can be found by choosing between the following two questions:

        A) Is the most important choice to believe that Jesus arose from the dead to save the people that believe he arose from sin?
        (Second order discourse)


        B) Is the most important choice to believe and more importantly make the choice to live Jesus’s message (Love) so that you are saved from living a life of sin/wrong choices that bring unhappiness, misery, emotional agony (what Hell or “Living in the Flesh” represents) RIGHT NOW? (First order discourse)

        I believe that most of mainline Christianity would choose choice A.
        I choose choice B.
        I believe the “emerging church” aligns more with choice B.
        Finally, I believe Jesus would choose choice B.

        What does the Bible say?

        Jesus wanted people to believe in his teachings (which is to LOVE) and not simply the name, “Jesus!”

        John 14: 23
        23Jesus replied, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.”

        John 8: 31
        31Jesus said, “If you hold to my teachings, then you are really my disciples.

        John 15: (10, 12, 14, 17)
        10If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love
        12My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.
        14You are my friends if you do what I command.
        17This is my command: Love each other.

        Luke 6: 40
        40A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher (equal as his teacher)

        You have Spiritual Death (Emotional Agony, Misery- what “Hell” represents) OR Spiritual Life (Happiness, Joy- what “Heaven” represents) RIGHT NOW!

        1 John 3: 14
        14We know that we have passed from death (“spiritual death”) to life
        (“spiritual life”), because we LOVE our brothers. Anyone WHO DOES NOT LOVE REMAINS in death (“spiritual death” or “emotional agony/sorrow”).

        I, personally, do believe that Jesus did arise from the dead, but my point is to show that the most important decision Jesus would want anyone to make is not believe that he arose from the dead, first and foremost, but to live and tell others about his message.

        Jesus wasn’t about accolades as Jesus was a teacher, first and foremost. My mom is a teacher, and she is great at what she does. My mom has never wanted accolades for what she has done for a student as my mom finds satisfaction in seeing her students succeed in life. My mom finds great joy when former students come back and thank her for whatever lesson she taught them that allowed them to find greater success in life. My mom doesn’t expect nor want students going around telling other people how great she is. My mom simply wants to affect her students in a positive way. Hence, what is most important to my mom as a teacher is her message or lesson. Now, I find my mom to be a very loving person, but I understand Jesus to be most loving.

        So, first and foremost, would Jesus want people to tell him and others how great he is for dying on the cross for peoples’ sins & arising or would Jesus simply want people to live and tell others about his message (Love) as by living his message allows for people to achieve joy, happiness, love (Spiritual Life) right now?

        • Theresa

          Who transforms you? You? There is power in the cross.

          • Living Jesus’s message has transformed me. However, Jesus’s real message was never taught in the 18+ years I was an avid church goer in various different churches growing up. One of the main problems is that modern day Christianity is really “Constantine’s Christianity” as Constantine, a pagan, is the one who decided which books were to be in our modern day Bible. Constantine used Christianity as a tool to unite and grow the Roman empire. To truly see Jesus’s message you must “take Catholicism out of Christianity” or “the false concepts out of Christianity” as mainline Christianity seems to focus on the false concepts rather than focus on Jesus’s message, first and foremost!

          • John L

            “There is power in the cross”

            Theresa, I think this is exactly Shay’s point. Jesus is often reduced to slogans and catch phrases, but the power of the cross is nothing unless it becomes embodied and expressed in changed lives that grow increasingly more loving and compassionate, especially towards those hardest to love.

            “Who or what transforms us?”

            I hear Shay suggesting that much of Christianity isn’t transforming anyone beyond a limited religious identity that really only “loves” its own professing tribe while remaining empathically alienated from the vast population “outside” of its ideological borders.

            We authenticate the “power of the cross” in our lives by the way it disarms political, interpersonal, and religious polarization — by the way it allows us to embrace our most feared enemy, or that sinner next door, and feel nothing but the deepest heartfelt forgiveness and charity towards those “darkest others.” If the cross does not kill us and rebuild us in its unconditional, universal, and undying expression of love, then it remains a mere religious idol.

  • I sat next to Tony Jones during 4 days of conversation with 40 tenured teaching intro to theology Mainline seminary professors. Only John Cobb & Harvey Cox liked Tony and could tolerate his way too orthodox theology. They thought Tony was the best kind of evangelical.

  • taddelay

    Tony, thanks for thinking about this. Your line about remembering who is on the same team has been floating around in my head quite a bit. I suppose the problem is deciding who is trying to go the same direction via a different route and who is simply trying to part ways. I was glad to see Bill write such a conciliatory post, but while StN types might want to work with MA types, I can’t tell whether the reverse is true. I don’t know Fitch or Holslcaw (and I’d really like to), but it was really clear on Doug’s radio interview that Fitch was uncomfortably dodging on the gay affirming question (Re: Rob Bell). That irked me because it’s a basic question of church autonomy in addition to human rights, but it irked me more that Fitch couldn’t just say “Yeah, I disagree with Bell on gay marriage, but an Anabaptist doesn’t tell other church leaders what to do.” When he went on to talk about labels, Fitch repeatedly said he was happy to repent if he can be shown to be wrong- but it was really clear that nothing was going to convince him. It sounded to me like faux-humility to avoid a very straightforward question from Doug.

    In other words, the interview felt like a lot of political posturing for Fitch (maybe not so much for Holsclaw though). I would like to see both at least admit the incentives to punt on the gay issue or distance themselves from EV. Without that it sounds like politics, and the first rule in politics is that you cannot name whatever is being disavowed without inciting anxiety or anger from whoever is doing the posturing. If we can’t “answer the damn question” because we are keeping our positions clean for publishers, then there are definite limits on how much we can talk.

    • Jonnie

      Tad, you freaking nailed it!
      A willingness to “repent,” beside a clear and distinct point of division and Jesus and the KoG, beside a desire to not speak generically about controverisal issues apart from particular individuals and congregations?! An absolute mess of inconsistency and posturing that really came off like waffling between political, publishing, and previously written commitments.
      Really confusing response that Doug was really gracious to not exploit more.

  • Sarah

    Differentiating from others who are in the faith (but elsewhere on the religious landscape) can definitely be a political act. I think just as often it can be a personal one. In both cases, when individuals or groups feel their own way of thinking and believing is threatened, the easy out is to label the offender a few degrees away from our own position… as a way of polarizing a “them” and maintaining safety for the “us”.

    I’d like to think people of the Christian faith could firmly disagree with each other on various passages and maintain a shared kindredness even in our separateness… without either party vilifying our “other” or acting as though they are completely void of intellect or honest motive. Discourses like this take us closer to that or farther away, depending on why we get into them and whether all parties are willing to act with honesty and in good faith. They crash and burn if everyone is just waiting endlessly for the other guy to concede a particular point using the exact words they are hoping for.

    Personally, when I seek to label other people (and I do sometimes), it usually stems from a lack of appropriate humility.

  • I write as a Gen X mainline pastor who appreciates much of what has come out of the emergent/emerging conversation. My hope is that mainliners embrace more of this conversation. It seems to me that the two have both similarities (commitment to gender equality, concern for social justice, non-biblicist hermeneutics) and differences (emergents contextualize the gospel better).

  • vgiordano

    Tim Wise has a book coming out this year on how views towards “welfare” and the unemployed have changed over the years. Once upon a time during the depression in the 30s, people blamed the market and powers out of one’s control for the poor conditions one was often dealt. Today, we blame the poor for where they are.

  • Adele Henderson

    Thank you. This is the first of your blog I have read but just last night I encounter the same “labeling”, albeit negative, during a facebook discussion with a friend on the role of Judgment and Forgiveness with in Christianity. She basically said, that I was ‘elitist’ and a condoner of sin because I refuse to judge and choose rather to forgive. My mind was spinning. I just gave up. I figured when she said she is called to judge others sin I was going to get no-where. Then she brought up the fact that I support Marriage Equality and the LBGTQ community, then I really felt the judgment. Thank you again for this post.

  • brockcassian

    In my experience, the Emergent conversation has had the most traction among progressive liberals. And Tripps comment that Caputo was most affirming of your work should make that plainly clear. Few moderate communities are willing to go down the road of doctrinal deconstruction that has been the Emergent brand for some time. Thus , the audience for emergent books and resources is primarily a mainline liberal one.

    • Tripp said it was Cobb and Cox who liked what I had to say. I don’t get the impression that Caputo has ever read anything I’ve written.

      • brockcassian

        Yep, thanks for the correction….too mûch time between reading and the time to type. Yet, even with Cobb, the observation stands.

    • memckimmy

      I think you’re mistaken that the only people who are theologically progressive are “mainline liberals.” My experience, as someone who was formed in a more evangelical / anabaptist setting, is that the emergent conversation has opened up a broader theological landscape and opportunity to engage critically with doctrine and polity to those from non-mainline backgrounds who otherwise would have thought themselves isolated and alone in their differences from their peers.

      Yes, there is an audience of mainliners out there, and perhaps they are even primary in some metric, but to suggest that the emergent conversation only matters to traditionally liberal communities is a mistake. Looking at both the emergent conversation and the broader milieu of emergence Christianity I think the work and audience of Fitch, Holsclaw, and the Missio Alliance is part of that broader stream and that it bears much more in common with the emergent conversation than emergent does with mainline protestantism.

      • brockcassian

        Thanks Matt,

        Did you notice though that Tony includes Mennonites within the Mainline rubric? I imagine he would say the same for our Church of the Brethren.

        My sense is that the sticking point is the Mainline part. Though I slipped at the end of my original comment, I tried to stay with the liberal part (and for that matter progressive liberalism). Even among our Anabaptist/Pietist circles I’ve found Emergent gets more traction among progressives

        • memckimmy

          I did notice that, Josh.

          Tony, is this because even fringe/radical reformation movements such as Mennonites still operate under the denominational paradigm that you so clearly protest? While mainline protestant certainly = denominationalism I don’t think all denominationalism = mainline (though we certainly have our own structural and polity issues.)

          Josh, I’d agree that my experience is the Emergent conversation seems to have gained more traction among more theologically-progressive leaning folks, but I don’t think saying that is the same as saying Emergent is/has become another version of mainline. If anything I think it’s helped to provide me with a helpful way of connecting with my own Anabaptist/Pietist tradition’s history and vaguely evangelical upbringing with my more recently developed “liberal” leanings without feeling the need to jump ship.

          Fitch and Holsclaw labeling Emergent as the new mainline needlessly (and irresponsibly) creates a false polarity, which then sees them inserting their own work on “missional” into the resultant void. It’s an oversimplification at best and a political act at worst.

          It seems pretty clear that David and Geoff are writing primarily from an evangelical-leaning position, toward a non-academic audience. (Which is fine!) Still, a little more honest explanation of what they mean by the labels they throw around would have gone a long way toward preventing unnecessary animosity.

          The more I read of their book (I’m ~ 1/3 through) the more I experience them making narrow caricatures of Emergent. Perhaps in effort to appeal to those who have written off the whole conversation as just another liberal thought experiment, or perhaps because they themselves have done so. Either way, I don’t really see what they’re doing as all that different from what I’ve seen in the Emergent conversation in its broadest forms.

        • Muzi Cindi

          “I have compassion for the part of your psychology that needs a belief in order to feel safe and secure”
          Dr. William Bloom
          Tony, Geoff, & Fitch have serious safety & security concerns. The seem so scared to be found inside the liberal box as if to be INCLUSIVE is a cardinal sin. Tony even says the mainline Churches are losing members; SO WHAT? Does that mean they are wrong or is Tony fearful of losing “members”? Do they NEED to feel safe and secure?

    • Nathan

      By that logic, Henri Nouwen should be labeled an evangelical because his work is affirmed by so many of them.

  • I’ve tried to stay out of this fray, because, honestly, what do I ever add besides sarcasm. However, this time I must say that my friend Geoff and my acquaintance Dr. Fitch are wrong. They are wrong because, like most Evangelicals, they don’t have a grasp of the mainline beyond what they’ve read and been told (and it is all based on 1. Politics and 2. Theology).

    As a former evangelical now in mainline land and working for a mainline denomination, I can tell you Emergent thinking like Doug’s, Brian’s and Tony’s is as far from mainline as it is from evangelicalism. Sure, main liners like BTD because BTD theology is open and they like to be pushed theologically.

    However, the WAY of the Emergent movement (God I hate those terms) is the antithesis of mainline thought, polity, structure and movement. The mainline is usually a hierarchical structure with an emphasis on the way they have always done it. It is not fluid. It is not svelte. It is not open to new ideas that don’t come from those that created the problem (the denomination). It is tied to the past in such deep seeded ways, that it can’t change in any ways that aren’t technical. Adaptive change comes terribly hard.

    I don’t want to bore you with all the ways the emergent church is as outside mainline as it is evangelicalism. But, I think H and F have a misunderstanding of mainline church, as all evangelicals that haven’t spent time in the camp do.

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  • Steve Bailey

    The comments here serve to confirm what is obvious; the labels “conservative” and “liberal” are void of any pragmatic meaning and serve only to pump up dying ideologies that hinder the Gospel of Christ and the manifestation of the Reign of God. These labels are constructs that American Christianity has foisted on the world to universal detriment. I’m sadly reminded of Wm Butler Yeats “The Second Coming” in connection with these utterly vacuous polarities which American Christianity has allowed to shape and define itself. Must one even have to ask why the American Christian presence is so mistrusted and often dismissed as irrelevant?

    • Dennis

      You nailed it. The health and well being of Christianity in America demands that Christians rise above these obsolete, confining and mind numbing terms. Most people refuse to understand or acknowledge the history of these terms or how they came to be so polarized.

      I sympathize greatly with Tony Jones here. He is trying to find a realistic and sensible middle ground only to find himself being pushed over to one side by the other side. That’s total Bull S##t, and good on Jones for calling it out

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