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Deeper problems in “emergence” Christianity

On Tuesday, Julie Clawson posted an excellent piece on the Emergence Christianity gathering in Memphis last weekend.  In her article, she rightly criticized Phyllis Tickle’s thoughts on the fall of Constantinian Christianity.  (Please read Julie’s post; it’s lengthy, but it’s worth your time.)  As a result, several of my fellow women of faith tweeted, reblogged, and discussed the content of Julie’s post and the problems that have become evident in much of emergent culture.

There was no problem with Julie’s thoughtful remarks about the confusion over Phyllis’ speech.  There was no problem with the continued discussion on Twitter, in which many women chimed in to suggest that there might be some issues within the movement, including a failure to examine privilege.  But for whatever reason, the conversation turned unpleasant when the women involved were accused of “attacking” the movement and being “passive-aggressive.”  In other words, it was the Emergence Christianity version of calling women “shrill.”

I stopped identifying with the emergent movement some time ago.  I found it to be largely populated by well-educated, white, cis-gendered, straight men.  It’s not that I have anything against that particular demographic, but I prefer to have a broader range of people in my life.  I have also become frustrated with the fact that Emergent types are willing to talk about inclusion but often fail to practice it.  For example, LGBT people are frequently left out of the conversation in the supposed interest of attracting more people to the table.  To put it simply, there is a widespread attitude that people should not be made to feel “uncomfortable” if they believe that homosexuality is a sin by having actual gay people speaking and teaching.  To allow such would imply that Emergents have taken sides; thus we’re reduced to hearing straight people speak on behalf of LGBT Christians rather than hearing from LGBT Christians themselves.

That said, I have three real problems with the back-and-forth over the last two days.  First, anyone who voiced (or tweeted, rather) concern over Phyllis’ statements was shut down as approaching their disagreement in the “wrong” way.  In fact, Jay Bakker even suggested to Suzannah Paul in a tweet that the best way to handle criticism is in person or via telephone.  This is an absolutely ridiculous thing to say, given the fact that Phyllis’ speech was 1. public; 2. the last thing on the program for the weekend; and 3. made by someone with whom it would be difficult for hundreds of people to have a personal conversation.  Should everyone who disagrees with President Obama’s policies attempt to put a call through to the White House?  This may be much smaller scale, but the principle is the same.  In effect, Jay was shutting Suzannah down for speaking out, rather than engaging her to find out why she felt that the speech was misguided.  In fact, in suggesting that it is unfair or unreasonable to critique problematic aspects of Emergence Christianity is much like telling people that it’s un-American to point out continued bias in the broader culture.

The second problem  is that following that awkward Twitter non-conversation (note: tweeting about someone’s tweet is also passive-aggressive), the discussion turned to “rigorous thinking.”  Once again, this is a way to shut down any real opportunity for honest consideration of privilege within the movement.  In this case, anyone who is not an academic or an intellectual is left out.  Additionally, it is assumed that only certain people are capable of having intelligent dialogue (read: men).  Women could not possibly have put in the time and study needed to be active participants.  As Sarah Moon pointed out in a series of tweets,

So, today I critiqued someone’s ideology and their response was “They must not teach [ideology] in the US.” Listen, man.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when white men assume my critiques of their academic discussions is based in ignorance

I have not put hundreds of hours into studying different theories for justice/liberation to be told “You must not have been taught” Nope.

Don’t even get me started on the fact that it is taken as a given that LGBT people don’t have any background in systematic theology.  Using the old “but we need to use our big brains to sort this out!” to silence reasonable criticism is a way of belittling anyone who isn’t a straight, white, cis-man by assuming that person is not intelligent or educated.

Which brings me to the last problem.  It disturbs me that the words “rigorous thinking” should be used in conjunction with anything having to do with faith.  This was exactly the kind of narrow-minded bullshit I tried desperately to leave behind with the evangelicals.  In their case, the issue was over finding the one correct interpretation for every single word of the Bible.  Right doctrine trumped everything else.  Now we have this particular brand of emergent thought that assumes we just need to study harder so that we can figure out God’s intent through Scripture.  Understanding the context and nuance in history and the Bible will render previous versions of Christianity null and void and lead us to perfect practice of our faith.  Unfortunately, there is no such thing.  Replacing one crappy theology with an equally crappy theology leaves us nothing but a huge pile of manure.  And certainly, maintaining that study is the most important aspect of spiritual practice ignores the fact that not all Christians are highly intellectual, nor do all of us want to spend the majority of our time poring over dense tomes.  Most of us just want to love God and love people, and we’re all still trying to work out what that means.

I no longer have any hope that this movement is redeemable.  (I’m sure my first clue ought to have been that Mark Driscoll was once associated with it.)  It certainly isn’t the place for progressive Christians to find the kind of faith that does not merely speak on behalf of, but openly invites the voices of those who are most frequently silenced within the church.  I don’t believe the answer is to start a new movement; I believe it is to stop looking for a revolution or a leader and start practicing the very things we want to see happen within Christian faith.  Until and unless we confront the real problems—those pertaining to privilege, status, and value-attribution—we will never be the people God intended us to be.

Someone Cooler than I

Promises, promises.  I said in this morning’s post that I would lead you to someone cooler than I am in tonight’s post.  I’m late with that, but it’s for a good reason.  I spent the evening in the company of my sisters and their families.  It was worth it.

Anyway, here is a person I think you should track: Brian McLaren.

Back in 2009, I was struggling to make sense of the fundamentalist fog I’d lived in.  I felt as though I had very little spiritual direction, but I could no longer subscribe to much of the theology that had informed my faith for twenty years.  The problem was, I didn’t have anyone at the time who had been through it and came out on the other side.  Nearly everyone I knew still held to all (or almost all) of the things I was ready to leave behind.

And then I read a little book called The Great Emergence by Phyllis Tickle.  She makes reference to Brian McLaren, among others.  I decided to check out some of the people mentioned in the book.  I quickly discovered that McLaren was the one who interested me most.  He appeared to have gone on a spiritual journey that mirrored mine, and he made reference to C. S. Lewis.  Those two things made him already a kind of kindred spirit in my mind, so I went in search of his books.

Our local library didn’t have a copy of A Generous Orthodoxy, unfortunately, and the one copy in the system was already checked out.  Fortunately, another branch carried some of his titles.  I brought home copies of Everything Must Change and A New Kind of Christian.

My husband quickly devoured Everything Must Change, but I wasn’t quite ready for it.  I started with A New Kind of Christian (ANKoC).  My world was turned upside down from page one.  Before, I had been unable to put words to what I’d been feeling, muddling through and hoping that I would just recapture the faith I thought I’d lost.  Instead, I found someone else who did have the right words.  He named it and embraced it.  I felt as though McLaren himself had stepped into my living room for a chat, reassuring me that I wasn’t crazy and that I wasn’t on the verge of turning into an angry former Christian.

Again and again, McLaren writes with this same conversational style.  I finished the rest of the series that begins with ANKoC (The Story We Find Ourselves In, The Last Word and the Word After That), then went on to read many of his other books.  Two years ago, I read A New Kind of Christianity and learned about the flawed narrative that overlays much of our theology and doctrine.  I listened to his series of podcasts walking through the Bible, while simultaneously listening to the entire Bible on MP3.  Last year, I learned how to pray again by reading Naked Spirituality.  In short, McLaren is my go-to guy when I need to read or hear something spiritually uplifting.

And that sums up what I like about his style—it’s a pick-me-up, gentle and humble in tone.  Although he does make some good points, theologically speaking, it’s never a matter of having to wade through theology-ese.  One doesn’t need to have a PhD in religious studies to make sense of what he says.  Heck, one doesn’t even need to be a Christian.

If you can, check out some of McLaren’s books from the library.  Read his blog.  E-mail him a question (as far as I can tell, he answers all of them).  Even if you end up disagreeing, he is worth checking out.  If you live near me, I will loan you my copies of his ANKoC series, because I believe it’s that important.

I’m looking forward to reading his next book.

Sunshine, Happiness and Gum*

The youth at our church are going through a series called “Happy,” on the Beatitudes.  In yesterday’s message, the youth pastor asked what culture says they should chase after to find happiness.  The answers weren’t surprising: Looks, relationships, money, popularity, possessions.

Not much changes between adolescence and adulthood.

It set me thinking about a couple of things.  First, it occurred to me that we don’t just tell people that they will be happy once they beautify themselves skinny, meet Mr./Ms Right, and settle down in their McMansion with their 2.4 children.  We also tell them that if they don’t have all that and a side salad of career power, they should actually be unhappy.  It goes beyond conveying the message that having it all makes your life good, but that your life simply cannot be good unless and until you do.

The second thing I realized is that Christians are just as guilty of this.**  We like to tell ourselves we aren’t.  After all, aren’t we so counter-culture in our insistence that life isn’t about money, sex, and power?  We’re all about Jesus!  And Love!  And Following God!  I don’t even mean that in a self-righteous way.  I mean in the sense that we define ourselves by being people who have relationship with the Living God, and what could be better than that?

It’s certainly noble.  The problem is, we make the opposite mistake from “the world.”  We assume that people who are “far from God” are the most unhappy, miserable people who do nothing but run after all the wrong things.  We assume that people of other religions are unhappy because they are too busy making sure they follow all the rules.  We assume atheists are sad because they have no hope.  We assume that people who tick the “none of the above” box on the census are miserable because they have no morals.  We assume that anyone who doesn’t follow Jesus is desperate to have his or her life turned around from the wicked ways of lusting after earthly pleasures.

Not quite.

I don’t know about you, but I know plenty of joy-filled, content non-Christians.  I also know an awful lot of Christians who are unhappy, and it isn’t because they don’t have enough faith or because they are still caught up in pursuit of cultural happiness.  Religion that dictates whether or not we should be happy with our lives is religion gone bad.  It diminishes the real joy and the real pain that people experience.

I see why it happens.  People are reluctant to frighten their friends and neighbors by telling them they will go to Hell if they don’t convert.  (Not that this is bad; scaring people into faith is pretty sick.)  So what can we do, if we don’t just want to turn everyone off to Christ with our fire and brimstone?  Aha!  We can remind them how hopeless and tragic this life is unless they know Jesus.  Unfortunately, that isn’t an improvement.

We need better ways to communicate the Gospel without reducing it to a set of before-and-after pictures (either the Hell kind or the happiness kind).  I suggest we start by living the way Jesus taught, pursuing love, peace, and justice.  The rest will come.

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*For the morbidly curious, the title of this post is a line from a Phineas and Ferb song.
**This isn’t meant as a criticism of the message the youth heard in church on Sunday.

An Unconventional Faith

I’m resuming my current series of posts on challenging our thinking.  This time, I’m presenting you with some folks who hold a view of faith that falls outside of traditional, conservative Christianity.

First up, and rather fitting, is Phyllis Tickle.  I was first introduced to this new way of being Christian through her book The Great Emergence.  It’s a fairly short work, and a quick read, but powerful in its message.  Tickle describes the major periods of church history and the birth pains of each new movement that rocked the church.  She declares us ready for another shift in our thinking, a new way of understanding and practicing our faith.  One of the most helpful parts of the book is the graph highlighting the differences between orthodoxy (“right belief,” adherence to doctrine) and orthopraxy (“right practice,” emphasis on action).  She explains the differences among Liturgical, Social Justice, Renewalist, and Conservative Christians.  I had never understood what was actually behind some of the arguments among denominations, and this helped clarify.  If you read one book to expand your thinking about the church this year, this is the one I recommend.

Second, in The Great Emergence, Tickle mentions several other voices of Emergent Christianity.  One of those is Brian McLaren.  I couldn’t possibly do him justice in this one blog post.  For many years, he’s worked tirelessly to help us understand our faith in a new light.  He’s taken us into his own journey of deconstruction, discovery, and growth.  If you’re not quite ready to embrace emergent thought, then start with his 2011 book, Naked Spirituality.  He offers very little of his most controversial ideas, instead focusing on the journey itself.  When you’re ready, move on to A New Kind of Christian and its sequels.  McLaren uses storytelling to convey the process of a maturing and expanding faith.  If you’re ambitious, read as many of McLaren’s books as you can get your hands on.  Those will be hours well spent.

In all of this, keep an open mind.  I don’t mean in the sense that you are willing to embrace absolutely anything without discretion.  I mean, try to read without judgment.  Rather than jumping to the conclusion that emergent thinkers are “leading the flock” astray, remember that we are all on an expedition to understand God, faith, the Bible, and the message of Jesus.

Happy reading!