I first heard of the emerging movement in the summer of 2000, and to be honest I did not take it very seriously. I had spent several years of my life studying the philosophies of Derrida, Lyotard, Fucoult, Habermas and the Frankfurt School, Locke, Rousseau, Descartes, Spinoza, and others, and I thought the emergents were applying the implications of philosophical systems they did not understand. Or to put it another way, I thought the emergent movement was more an example of evangelical entrepreneurialism than of the practical application of an intellectual revolution. I thought it would pass off the scene in due time, but I no longer think that way and here’s why.
First, about a year ago I heard one of the foremost spokesmen of the movement, Brian McLaren, express his views on the atonement, on hell, and on homosexuality. I must admit that I was surprised by the intellectual force with which he articulated his views, even if I disagreed with just about everything he said. From that time forward I began to think of the emergents as more than entrepreneurs, but also as intellectuals whose ideas have to be reckoned with.
Second, I recently had lunch with Tony Jones and Doug Padgitt, two of the originators of the movement, and as I prepared for the meeting I thought more and more, “I smell Jacques Derrida—and not distantly.” Sure enough, in our meeting I discovered that as these leaders were developing their movement they traveled to Villanova University to sit at the feet of Derrida, and in various other ways sat at the feet of those like him. I was not encouraged by this, but I was more convinced than ever that these guys are not superficially applying postmodernist ideology, but are themselves enmeshed in the thought and implications of it.
Finally, at the end of September, Desiring God (John Piper’s teaching ministry) is hosting a conference called The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World. One of the speakers is D. A. Carson who wrote the book, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, and so in preparation for the conference I read the book. I was greatly helped by the first and sixth chapters, and more convinced than ever that the ideas of this movement have to be dealt with seriously.
In the first chapter, Carson introduces the movement in an admittedly cursory fashion. “Nevertheless, the diversity of the movement, as well as its porous borders, ensure that I have not found it easy to portray it fairly” (pg. 9). While I’m sure he did not find it easy, he did in the end do a good job of it and, from my own reading of the movement, I think he got it right. Or as I said to Tony Jones in an e-mail, “I didn’t get the feeling that he was describing someone other than the guys I just had lunch with.” Of everything I’ve read over the last few months, Carson’s introduction to the movement has been most helpful.
In the sixth chapter he deals more directly with two leaders of the movement, Brian McLaren and Steve Chalke. Specifically, he critiques McLaren’s book Generous Orthodoxy and Chalke’s book The Lost Message of Jesus. I’ll leave the details for you to read on your own, but let me quote some of his concluding remarks:
“I have to say, as kindly but as forcefully as I can, that to my mind, if words mean anything, both McLaren and Chalke have largely abandoned the gospel. Perhaps their rhetoric and enthusiasm have led them astray and they will prove willing to reconsider their published judgments on these matters and embrace biblical truth more holistically than they have been doing in their most recent works. But if not, I cannot see how their own words constitute anything less than a drift toward abandoning the gospel itself” (pgs. 186-87).
Those are very strong and serious words, but I have to admit that I agree with them. You simply cannot deny certain key aspects of the atonement, deny the existence of hell, waffle on ethical issues that are clear in the Bible, and say that you’re preaching the gospel.
Far from being a fad that will quickly fade, the emergent movement, I think, will have a tremendous impact on evangelicalism and will, in fact, split it right down the middle. On the left will be the neo-liberals who will not in ten-years-time be distinguishable from main-line liberals. And on the right will be neo-fundamentalists who passionately cling to the Bible and absolute truth and the communicability of specific truth and the comprehensibility of specific truth. They will argue that the emergent movement has not really said anything new, for “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
And they will flee from the wisdom of this world, in favor of the rock-solid foundation of the Word of God—“For the wisdom of this world is folly with God,” and “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock” (1 Corinthians 3:19 and Matthew 7:24-25).
I choose the Rock. And I pray that the left-wing of the emergent movement will, by the grace of God, wake up and choose the Rock as well. I will be overjoyed if my prediction proves to be completely false.
Trusting in the Rock,