Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church; A Book Review

As with anything in this world, Christianity is in a constant state of change. Changing with the times is good for Christianity only in so far as it can be done without compromising it’s unique doctrine and practice. This in no way makes changing with the times not worth it. No Being culturally relevant is worth running the risk of being affected by our culture in negative ways. But if Christianity is going to seek relevance she must always guard against leaning over so close to the world that she ends up “falling in.”

D.A. Carson, in Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church, is concerned that some of the leaders of the emerging church movement have done just this–they have “fallen in” in their attempts at cultural relevance. The bulk of Carson’s concern is with those whom he considers to be the most outspoken representatives of the emerging church--Brian McLaren and Steve Chalke. Carson’s purpose is not to condemn the emerging church movement, but rather to: 1.both commend the strengths of the emerging church movement and warn of its dangers, and 2. to challenge other emerging church leaders to “rise up and call McLaren and Chalke to account where they have clearly abandoned what the Bible actually says.”

Carson was born on December 21, 1946 to very godly parents (Thomas and Elizabeth Carson) in Montreal, Canada. Carson got a degree in Chemistry and Mathematics from McGill University (Montreal), a Master of Divinity Degree from Central Baptist Seminary (Toronto), and a PhD in Philosophy in New Testament from Cambridge University. He is presently research professor in New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Carson is known as one of the most prominent Christian scholars in the twenty-first century. He has written over forty-five books. Carson is more than qualified to write a critique on the emerging church conversation. In fact, two of his most acclaimed books are written on the subject of Christianity and culture.

Argument of the Book

Before critiquing the emerging church, he sets out to faithfully present the main distinctives of the movement (Chapter 1). Many have expressed frustration at Carson’s over generalizations and misrepresentations of the emerging church, but this is why he prefaces the whole book with this statement:

“The Diversity of the movement, as well as its porous borders, ensure that I have not found it easy to portray it fairly. I have tried to be accurate in description and evenhanded in evaluation. Even so, I must underscore the fact that when I am forced (for the sake of avoiding endless qualifications) to resort to generalizations in order to move the discussion along, one can almost always find some people in the movement for whom the generalization is not true...”

Carson identifies the emerging church movement as a protest movement. They are in protest against three things: evangelical fundamentalism (and it’s discriminating, out-of-date, meta-narrative, modern methods), modernism (and it’s overly confident, dispassionate absolutism), and the megachurch movement (both in it’s emphasis on reaching the already-churched, and in it’s institutional nature) .

Although Carson has issues with much of the emerging church, he does see some things in it that are worthy of imitation. Much of this movement, after all, is the result of genuine Christians who have had issues with evangelical Christianity and it’s neglect of important aspects of Scripture. Carson agrees that evangelical Christianity has it’s flaws, and therefore lists four strengths that he sees in the emerging church movement (Chapter 2). The four strengths include: their attempts at cultural relevance; their rejection of passionless inauthentic Christianity; their recognition of our limited, culture-bound mind set; their undiscriminating evangelistic zeal; and their embrace of forgotten aspects of tradition. All five of these strengths are things that could help evangelical Christianity be more faithful to God and His Word.

In Chapters 3-6 Carson discusses the weaknesses of the emerging church movement. His first critique is that their portrayal of modernism is altogether simplistic. According to Carson, they portray Christianity under modernism as “rationalistic, cerebral rather than emotional, and given toward arrogance because of it’s absolutism.” He then goes on to give some convincing examples of Christians (Spurgeon, Packer etc.) who successfully rose above the cocky pretensions of modernism.

Carson also has issue with the emerging church’s understanding of what postmodernism is. While Mclaren thinks of postmodernism in terms of social change, Carson prefers to think of postmodernism in terms of epistemology, and views social change as one of the “correlatives” of postmodernity and it’s epistemological approach. Carson points out that although the leaders of the emerging church say that they do not completely reject modernism, they never say anything good about it. In the same way, even though the leaders of the emerging church say that they do not wholly embrace postmodernism, they never say anything bad about it (Chapter 5).

Because the emerging church is primarily affected by postmodernism and it’s epistemological approach, Carson spends Chapter 4 giving a brief survey of premodernism, modernism, postmodernism. His conclusion is that postmodernism, like modernism, starts with self as the arbiter of all truth. But that postmodernity, unlike modernity, has a negative view of the abilities of the human mind, which leads them to conclude that nothing can be known because of the limited perspective of the finite knower. After this survey, Carson shows how postmodernism’s premise that we are limited in what we can know because of our culture-bound perspective can be reconciled with modernism premise that we can know absolute truth.

The most pointed critiques of the emerging church are found in Chapters 5-6. The majority of Carson’s concerns have to do with their commitment to postmodern ideals over/against the Bible. He points out that many of the fundamental issues in the Bible are questioned by some of the leaders of the emerging church. For example, he discusses Stanely Grenz and his near pluralistic view of other religions, McLaren and his weak stance on both homosexuality and hell, and Chalke and his outright rejection of the atonement.

In Chapters 6-7 Carson provides the reader with a large amount of scripture that speak to some of the downfalls of the emerging church. The majority of the scriptures speak about knowledge and how we can come to know things for certain. Some of the other scriptures cited deal with morality, the superiority of Christianity, the place for objective-historical evidence, and our need for the Bible to help us interpret our experiences.

Carson ends the book with a short one-page challenge to the emerging church and it’s leaders. His challenge goes as follows:

“If emerging church leaders wish to become a long-term prophetic voice that produces enduring fruit and that does not drift off toward progressive sectarianism and even, in the worst instances, outright heresy, they must listen at least as carefully to criticisms of their movement as they transparently want others to listen to them. They need to spend more time in careful study of Scripture and theology than they are doing, even if that takes away some of the hours they have to devoted to trying to understand the culture in which they find themselves. They need to take great pains not to distort history and theology alike, by not caricaturing their opponents and not playing manipulative games. And above all, they need to embrace all categories of the Scriptures, with the Scripture’s balance and cohesion–including... what the Bible says about truth, human knowing, and related matters.

If they manage this self-correction and worry less about who is or who is not emergent and rather more about learning simultaneously to be faithful to the Bible and effective in evangelizing the rising number of alienated biblical illiterates in our culture, they may end up preserving the gains of their movement while helping brothers and sisters who are more culturally conservative than they are to reconnect with the culture.”

Use for Ministry

Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church is a must-read for modern day leaders in Christianity. Although Carson’s representation of the emerging church is not true of everyone in the movement, he does an excellent job of exposing some dangers of those who have over reacted against evangelical Christianity and modernism. Carson’s approach expresses a balance that is needed in a society that seems to only operate in extremes.

Carson presents two helpful pictures of how to be culturally relevant in our postmodern context without, in any way, neglecting the ultra importance of knowledge in the Christian life. The first is found in Chapter 2 where he speaks of a non-emerging, doctrinally driven church in New York City that has impacted it’s surroundings without compromising it’s doctrine. The other is found in Chapter 5 where Carson speaks of his own evangelistic efforts. He often creatively uses the book of Revelation, which utilizes vivid word pictures, in his evangelism because people, in our postmodern context, are more likely to be more interested. Here we do not see a rejection of the Bible for the sake of relevance, rather we see how Biblical doctrine can be espoused when thoughtful creativity is involved.

This book is also helpful in understanding our present cultural context and how it got to be the way it is. I personally have benefitted in my evangelism because of Carson and his cultural studies. The models he provides for explaining how a finite knower can know things for certain without knowing things exhaustively have also been of great benefit (Chapter 4).

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