Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches: Five Perspectives
Robert Webber: general editor; Mark Driscoll, John Burke, Dan Kimball, Doug Pagitt, and Karen Ward
Zondervan, 2007, 240 pages (paperback), $16.99
It doesn't arrive as a hipper-than-thou podcast or as a series of txt msgs, but it does come with a flashy blue and orange cover with a slick, mildly edgy font. Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches offers five perspectives of the Emerging church. The volume aims to give the reader a taste of varying approaches by emerging Christians to issues such as Scripture, atonement, and the exclusiveness of Christ, to name just a few doctrines.
In the introduction, editor Robert Webber discusses the relationship between the evangelical church and culture. Webber is interested in telling the story of the rise and fall of a movement by borrowing the concept of "turnings" from sociologists William Strauss and Neil Howe, authors of The Fourth Turning: What the Cycles of History Tell us About America's Next Rendezvous with Destiny (1997). "Turnings come in cycles of four," Webber writes. "Together, the four turnings of the saeculum comprise history's seasonal rhythm of growth, maturation, entropy, and destruction" (10). For evangelicals, Webber says this means that "current evangelical diversity can be organized, since 1950, through the four turnings of high, awakening, unraveling, and crisis" (10). Evangelicals have been "bumping up against culture in each of these turnings," but now there is a "cultural change" and it is left to the Emerging church to respond to this shift (10). Therefore, Webber has produced this volume to investigate what the Emerging church has to offer.
Each contributor-Mark Driscoll (Mars Hill Church, Seattle), John Burke (Gateway Community Church, Austin), Dan Kimball (Vintage Faith Church, Santa Cruz), Doug Pagitt (Solomon's Porch, Minneapolis), and Karen Ward (Church of the Apostles, Seattle)-discusses the nature of his or her beliefs, what they have in common, and with what each takes exception to each other. Each contributor's chapter is followed by a response from the other contributors, but don't expect a good old-fashioned debate. This is "not fisticuffs," as one of the contributors declares, but "more like a fun pillow fight" (86). In fact, with the exception of Driscoll, some of the responses are nothing more than a friendly pat on the back. One gets the impression that a few contributors have the mistaken idea that a firm debate is inherently unloving, and so put on kid gloves.
While Karen Ward, for example, is often conversational and almost never critical in her responses-when speaking of Dan Kimball she notes how much she likes his hair-Mark Driscoll's responses are often more to the point, though he unfortunately strikes the occasional low blow the others tried to avoid. In one instance, when responding to Ward, Driscoll goes jarringly off subject to question her leadership position due to her gender instead of to critique her argument.
The volume does, however, offer a few benefits. First, this book comes from the horse's mouth, so to speak. For emerging Christians who complain (often rightly) of misrepresentation, this is likely to be a welcome expression of their beliefs-after all, the diverse collection of posts in your bloglines account may or may not get it right. Secondly, one can legitimately see differences among the contributors, demonstrating the breadth of the Emerging movement. This shows up in their various personalities, approaches to the Christian life, and methods of expression.
But what of doctrinal differences? In one sense, there are demonstrable doctrinal differences. Mark Driscoll's contribution, for example, is in stark contrast to the last chapter by Karen Ward. Driscoll calls his approach a "Biblicist Theology." "Our view of Scripture matters," writes Driscoll, "because without a proper understanding of Scripture, we cannot truly know and love the real Jesus" (26). Driscoll fills his chapter with a short summary of doctrine, covering the nature of Scripture, the Trinity, and the atonement. Of all the treatments in the volume, this is the closest to a doctrinal statement, even proof-texting (would that be "prf txtg"?) to save space. But with a mere fifteen pages on three of the most controversial doctrines of Christianity, it does not dig very deep.
Karen Ward, who describes the work of this volume as "an opportunity to share stories and swap recipes," takes a different road (161). She gets a nod for being the most creative, with her chapter even mimicking the form of a blog post at times. It is a light, optimistic piece, but with little theological discussion, and in fact very little emphasis on Scripture at all. Ward is more concerned about community than propositional truth, noting that "we do not possess truth or seek to correct the truths of others, but we seek to live faithfully in light of the truth of God in Jesus Christ" (179). This explains why she finds Driscoll a theological heavy hitter, admiring his "no-fat, no-saccharine, no-filler approach to biblical truth" (47).
In another sense, the differences are mere shades of resistance to propositional truth, with Driscoll and Ward representing the two ends of the spectrum. John Burke's chapter affirms the authority of Scripture: "we must submerge ourselves in the Scriptures" (63). But when speaking of world religions, he warns Christians about the "our God" or "us-them" mentality (64), and finds the moral codes of all major religions to be the same (56). Dan Kimball calls for confidence in what "Scriptures do make clear," but also encourages greater appreciation for mystery (99).
In response to Kimball, Doug Pagitt says, "Dan holds to an authority in the Bible that I believe is better placed in the Holy Spirit" (113); theology is "always contextual" (123) and "Christians have never been intended to be a people only of a book" (126). Pagitt's first statement embodies the issue of subjectivity raised by confessionally Reformed Christians. Whose interpretation of the Spirit-for lack of a better phrase-wins out? This is why Reformed Christianity emphasizes both the Word and the Spirit. How does Pagitt's perspective affect core doctrines of the faith such as the Trinity or the gospel? If all theology must evolve, can there be a distinctively Christian theology? Perhaps this difficulty is why Pagitt's chapter gives little attention to the targeted issues of the atonement and the exclusiveness of Christ, which Driscoll notes with concern in his response. What points of theology are we willing to change and according to whose interpretation of the Spirit?
The book closes with an epilogue and a suggested reading list, which itself speaks volumes. There is also an appendix on the common creeds of the church and essays on "What is the Ancient-Future Vision?" and "A Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future."
As one with friends in the Emerging churches and some sympathy for the issues raised by the movement's leaders, I found myself wishing for some sturdy pegs to hang my hat on, less brevity in the responses, and a bit more fire. This is, at times, just a coffee shop conversation among agreeable friends, the kind where you can leave the table for another tall iced Americano with two Splendas and not miss anything.