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A Review of

Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church:

Understanding a Movement and Its Implications

(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 250 pp.

Chapter three of Carson’s book consists of a rather long evaluation of how the Emerging Church analyzes contemporary culture. This is important for the simple fact that “the emerging church leaders themselves ground their call to reformation in the cultural changes taking place all around us” (57).

If there is anything to blame for the ills of the church today, so argue Emergent leaders, it is modernism. Perhaps a bit of historical perspective will help us understand why this is so.

On reading many Emergent authors one invariably comes across a rather rigid periodization of human history into pre-modern, modern, and postmodern. But we must always remember that such terms can never point to the precise chronological conclusion to one “era” or the beginning of another, as if history and its intellectual and cultural changes were ever so tidy. That being said, Carson concedes to work with these labels as best he can. The pre-modern era supposedly ended (or gradually came to a close) with the Enlightenment in the 18th century. As Carson points out, “for virtually all of the leaders in the emerging church movement, what is modern is the fruit of the Enlightenment” (57). When postmodernism began (or emerged) is anyone’s guess, and many do! Some contend that the “postmodern era” began as early as the 1960’s and the cultural, moral, and intellectual upheaval associated with that decade. Others have pointed to the end of the Cold War or perhaps the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. A few even argue that whatever postmodernism “was”, it is now passé. Needless to say, there’s hardly a consensus on this point. In any case, it is enough to say, again, that modernism, with its pursuit of rational certainty, absolutism, and failure to recognize the “perspectivalism” in all human knowing is viewed by Emergent as the enemy.

Carson’s discussion in this chapter is wide-ranging, so I will simply list his more important observations on the way Emerging church leaders have understood the concept of modernism (postmodernism is taken up in the next chapter).

(1)       Most emergents (Carson’s term of identification) point to perceived shifts in epistemology and their implications for society and church and how the two relate. Of greatest concern is the way “we think people learn or experience the gospel, how they come to put their full trust in Christ” (58). Evangelism that focuses on arguments and evidence and logic and proof and ultimatum and threat (i.e., repent or burn!) are no longer effective. Evangelism is now “bound up with conversation, friendship, influence, invitation, companionship, challenge, opportunity, dance, something you get to do” (58). Postmodern people don’t come to faith in Jesus in response to the preaching of biblical texts or through reason or because of the cumulative effect of historical and archaeological evidence. These are the lingering tactics of a church in bondage to a modernist approach to human knowing and thinking. The postmodern world requires a different strategy, one that we will take up later on.

(2)       Carson believes the emerging church movement’s understanding of modernism is “too reductionistic and wooden. The modern period [again, generally from the onset of the Enlightenment in the 18th century to the close of the 20th] is treated as if it were all of a piece, consistently devoted to the rational, the cerebral, the linear, the absolute, the objective. But history simply isn’t that neat” (59), as Carson proceeds to demonstrate by pointing (all too briefly, in my opinion) to several influential thinkers who hardly fit the modernist mold (e.g., Kant, Nietzsche, the Romantic movement, Schopenhauer, Schleiermacher, and Kierkegaard).

(3)       Carson also believes that emergents have distorted the nature of confessional Christianity under modernism. As he has read emergent literature, the Christianity that flourished during modernism is portrayed as “rationalistic, cerebral rather than emotional, and given toward arrogance because of its absolutism” (60). Yes, examples of this can be found, but under modernism one can as easily cite examples of Christianity that are passionate, holistic, tender, loving, relational, and committed to authentic spirituality.

(4)            Whereas it is true that many Christians in late modernism stressed the importance of truth, “this was not because they thought in epistemologically absolutist categories, but because they lived and served at a time when the truth of the gospel was progressively being denied by classic liberalism, which veered more and more toward the antisupernatural. Instead of condescendingly dismissing these leaders, even if in retrospect they did sometimes get the balance of things wrong, we should honor them for being faithful in their time” (63).

(5)       When emergents do critique modernist Christian confessionalism “they tend to gravitate to the worst exemplars and seem to mock them. Even when the better emergent writers project an attitude of balance, there is almost always a stinger in the presentation” (64). For example, Carson cites “Neo,” the fictional character in McLaren’s three volume series, as saying: “According to the Bible, humans shall not live by systems and abstractions alone but also by stories and poetry and proverbs and mystery” (64). Carson’s response is worth citing at length

“What Neo only concessively admits is cast negatively: human beings ‘shall not live by systems and abstractions alone.’ Whoever said they did? Why not say that human beings ‘shall not live by precious truth and revealed propositions alone,’ or something of that order? In other words, even where there is a show of balance, one cannot help but feel that truth and propositions are, at best, being damned with faint praise. . . .

The ostensible balance is always cast with the apparent concessions running only one way. One never stumbles across passages that say, in effect, that human beings shall not live by stories and poetry and proverbs and mystery alone, but also by revealed truths that are to be believed, trusted, understood, and obeyed – yet Scripture insists on this point countless times” (65).

(6)            “Despite the formal concessions,” notes Carson, “it is difficult to find a paragraph in any of the emergent writings that says anything positive and grateful about modernism or about the Christian churches that went around the world under modernism” (65).

(7)       Carson argues that the almost universal condemnation of modernism and Christianity under modernism “is not only historically skewed and ethically ungrateful, but is frequently theologically shallow and intellectually incoherent” (68).

It is theologically shallow “because it overlooks the basic fact that no worldview, no epistemological system developed by us in this fallen world is entirely good or entirely bad” (68). Thoughtful Christians should “not identify themselves completely with either modernism or postmodernism, nor should they utterly damn either entity” (68).

It is intellectually incoherent “because, in the spirit of postmodern toleration, most emergent publications go out of their way to find good about every other ‘ism’ – Buddhism, say, or Islam or the Aztec Indians or tribal animism. The ‘ism’ about which some appear to find it almost impossible to say anything positive, especially in the publications of emerging leaders, is modernism (as they understand it)” (68-9).

This leads Carson into an insightful discussion of the changes that have occurred in our understanding and use of the word “tolerance”. It used to be that “tolerance was . . . the virtue that permits, even encourages, those with whom we disagree to speak up and defend their point of view. . . . In other words, one had to disagree with someone or something before one could tolerate it. But in our postmodern world, tolerance is increasingly understood to be the virtue that refuses to think that any opinion is bad or evil or stupid. One ‘tolerates’ everything because nothing is beyond the pale – except the view that rejects this view of tolerance: for that, there is no tolerance at all. Quite frankly,” concludes Carson, “this is intellectually incoherent” (69).

(8)            McLaren, says Carson, “assigns the major blame for the litany of major evils during the past three centuries – Nazism, Communism, slavery, the slaughter of the Aztecs, colonialism, imperialism – to absolutism, and absolutism, he argues, is the fruit of the Enlightenment, the fruit of modernity’s endless quest for certainty” (71).

But are all acts of power, engendered by absolutism, equally evil? No one wants to argue that the U.K. and U.S. are always right, but neither sought to exterminate all gypsies and Jews or employed death camps. And it was “the failure of Britain and France to stand up to Hitler when he annexed the Rhineland, the failure to be absolute, that constituted the greatest Allied contribution to the outbreak of World War II” (72). Yes, America contributed to the slaughter of its native peoples and embraced slavery. “Still,” notes Carson, “to blame all this on absolutism seems very reductionistic: what stopped the slave trade across the Atlantic, after all, was Britain’s absolutist stance against the trade after Christians engineered abolition through the Parliament at Westminster, and British gunboats pretty much halted the slave trade across the Atlantic and in the Persian Gulf” (72).

Acts of outrageous cruelty and barbarism are not the unique products of modernism. We may have our Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot, but premodernism had its Attila the Hun and Caligula and Ghengis Khan.

(9)       And what of the many blessings that have emerged from modernism, such as modern medicine, hygiene, rapid transportation and communication, expanded lifespans, etc.' The corresponding evils of such success are less the product of modernism than the corrupting influence of sinners who “can turn any epistemological structure to perverted ends; . . . can twist any ideology, . . . can invent evil uses out of any invention or discovery” (73).

(10)     Carson wonders if absolutism is really the problem. God is absolutely sovereign. Adultery is absolutely wrong. Perhaps the problem is rather with “human lust to become like God” (73).

Needless to say, Carson’s observations are more wide-ranging and detailed than these 10 points, but you get the point.

He then turns to a few comments on emergent’s understanding of postmodernism. This is where things get tricky, for the simple fact that no one really knows how to define postmodernism, whether it has come and gone or is just now picking up steam. Carson is keenly aware of this and proceeds cautiously, as we’ll soon see. But he does acknowledge that the last few decades have witnessed some significant developments in the way Western culture thinks about thinking, i.e., the way our world approaches the subject of truth and our ability to know it with some measure of certainty. There has been an undeniable “decline in absolutism, an increase in perspectivalism (the view that all claims to truth are finally no more than different [and therefore equally legitimate] perspectives), a decreased confidence in reason and the possibility of knowing any objective reality, and an increased emphasis on other virtues such as relationships, affective responses, and the importance of community and therefore of tradition” (75).

Carson has some concerns with how some of emergent’s leaders envision postmodernism. Part of the problem is that “postmodernism” has become something of a buzz word that means being “with it”. The result is that “the content that one thinker or movement puts into it is not necessarily what is being understood by someone else” (76). Other emergents tend to lump all social change under the rubric of postmodernism and then tie things together in a cause / effect relationship. “It is as if one of the emerging leaders has just read the latest sociological analysis on something in Western culture, and the matter is then promptly written up in popularized and sometimes apocalyptic language and tied to postmodernism. The more that happens, the more postmodernism means nothing more than change in culture” (79). Carson believes it is more helpful to think of the correlatives of postmodernism, about which he will say more in a later chapter.

Is postmodernism passé? Carson points out that most of the books on postmodernism are being published in America. He fears that “a movement that was on the cusp of intellectual endeavor half a century ago, and popular in Europe four decades ago, and made popular on university campuses here a quarter of a century ago, is now the darling of popular evangelical writers trying to sound prophetic” (82). This may be true, but the fact remains that much of pop culture in the West continues to reflect the influence of postmodernist ideas, something the church can ill afford to ignore.

In chapter four of his book, Carson will lay out what postmodernism looks like in its North American context and then follow that in chapter five with a critique of how the emerging church has responded to it.

Just one word in closing. One cannot help but get the feeling at times that Carson’s complaint with Emergent is that, in his opinion, its spokesmen are not very intellectually sophisticated or sufficiently well-read to justify making the sweeping (even absolutist!) claims they do, which leads to simplistic analysis of developments in contemporary culture, unfair criticisms of the traditional church, and a penchant for capitalizing on the fear-factor to sell books. I’m not convinced this is entirely fair. One may not agree with McLaren, but it’s hard to deny that he is an exceptionally bright and erudite man. I think Carson would probably agree, and insist that he has in mind other emergent authors who may have gone into print a bit prematurely. In any case, I hope that all of us will be cautious in making personal judgments and grant our brothers and sisters in Christ the consideration and kindness that are due. This is the only way we can learn from each other and become the kind of church that our Lord envisioned.