Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: A Book Review

(Here's my review of D.A. Carson's Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church)

D.A. Carson begins his book with a broad-stroke survey of the divergent Emerging Church movement, using the stories and writings of the movement's prominent leaders including Spencer Burke, Chris Seay, and Brian McLaren. I was not familiar with the whole emerging church movement until I've read and reviewed Brian McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy. So Carson's brief introduction on the emergence of the Emerging Church has clarified a lot about it.

Carson is especially helpful in understanding this movement when he summarizes his investigation by comparing and contrasting it with the 16th century Protestant Reformation. He says, “To grasp it [the Emerging Church] succinctly, it is worth comparing the emerging church movement with the Reformation, which was, after all, another movement that claimed it wanted to reform the church. What drove the Reformation was the conviction, among all its leaders, that the Roman Catholic Church had departed from Scripture and had introduced theology and practices that were inimical to genuine Christian faith” (42).

Carson's point is that the Emerging Church, like the Reformation, wanted things in the church to change. But unlike the leaders of this new movement, the Reformers cried for change “not because they perceived that new developments had taken place in the culture so that the church was called to adapt its approach to the new cultural profile, but because they perceived that new theology and practices had developed in the church that contravened Scripture, and therefore that things needed to be reformed by the Word of God.

By contrast, although the emerging church movement challenges, on biblical grounds, some of the beliefs and practices of evangelicalism, by and large it insists it is preserving traditional confessionalism but changing the emphases because the culture has changed, and so inevitably those who are culturally sensitive see things in a fresh perspective” (42).

Thus, according to Carson, at the heart of the emerging church movement “lies the conviction that changes in the culture signal that a new church is 'emerging.' Christian leaders must therefore adapt to this emerging church. Those who fail to do so are blind to the cultural accretions that hide the gospel behind forms of thought and modes of expression that no longer communicate with the new generation, the emerging generation”(12).

One can therefore say that the movement's battle cry is not really a return to the Scripture but a reinterpretation of the Scripture or a reformulation of Scriptural truth to conform to the demands of the culture. Having read McLaren, I believe Carson is dead right in describing the movement as such.

Dr. Carson then ventures on exploring the strength of the emerging church in Chapter 2. He identifies five good characteristics of the movement, namely: (1) it honestly tries to read the culture and respond accordingly (45-49); (2) it emphasizes authenticity both in faith and practice (49-51); (3) it recognizes the church's socio-cultural location (51-52); (4) it is interested in evangelizing people who are usually neglected by the church (52-54); and (5) it also tries to connect with the past and other Christian traditions (54-55). Here Carson is grateful for these good qualities that the emerging church seems to demonstrate. His concluding example, though not part of the emerging church, yet “it displays all the strengths of the emerging church movement while avoiding most of its weakness” (56), is focused on Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, pastored by Tim Keller of the PCA. I think it is important to point out that a real confessionally Reformed church can be, and must be, culturally relevant without resorting to the emerging church's compromises.

In Chapter 3, the author reflects on the weaknesses of the movement, quoting and examining the core thoughts of some Emergent leaders. Dr. Carson, while commending the inquisitive minds of its leaders, also criticizes their reductionistic and manipulative analysis of the contemporary culture and Christianity. Carson has observed that “[s]ome discussion within the emerging movement is more sophisticated and introduces a few of the contemporary strategic thinkers in the broader marketplace of ideas” (84). He then concludes that “apart from occasional concessions, the rhetoric of these discussions is almost always over the top: the church must adapt to the postmodern world or it will die; unless we get on board with the direction of the emerging church movement, we are probably out-of-date modernists and absolutists to boot - all set forth in absolutist terms"(84).

This overgeneralization among postmodern emerging leaders regarding the future of the church “seems to spring,” says Carson, “from the mistaken assumption that most traditional evangelicalism is just like the conservative churches from which they came. That betrays the narrowness of many of their backgrounds and helps to explain why their rhetoric and appeals to postmodern sensitivity so absolutist: this is the language and rhetoric on which they were weaned “ (86).

The next chapter deals with Carson's own reflective analysis on postmodernism itself. I admit this chapter is not easily digestable to the mind, not to mention the longest. However it is also the most helpful in understanding the development and
challenges of postmodernism, and it complements with Dr. David Wells's analysis in his book Above All Earthly Pow'rs. Here Dr. Carson defines and contrasts the epistemologies of premodernism, modernism, and postmodernism. He points out that premodern epistemology states that "knowledge depends on revelation - i.e., on God disclosing some part of what he knows, however that revelation is accomplished" (88).

On the other hand, modern epistemology, "a label commonly applied to the epistemology of the Western world from about the beginning of the seventeenth century until a few decades ago" (92), begins with man instead of God and claims that the right foundation plus the correct method would invariable yield objective truth (92-95). Postmodern epistemology, like that of modernism, begins with the finite "I," but draws very different conclusions. It is "passionately anti-foundationalist," meaning that "there is no ultimate fulcrum on which the levers of knowledge can rest" (97) and it "insists that there are many methods [of knowing], all of which produce distinguishable results and none of which is any more or less `true' than the results produced by the other methods" (97). "Objective knowledge is neither attainable nor desirable" and under this regime, truth "cannot partake of 'ahistorical universality'" (97). With postmodernism come several correlatives (syncretism, secularization, biblical illiteracy, ill-defined spirituality, and globalization) and entailments (98-102).

Carson then discusses both strengths and weaknesses in postmodern epistemology, and helpfully distinguishes between what he calls hard and soft postmodernism. Hard postmodernism concludes that "human beings cannot have objective knowledge about anything" (105), while soft postmodernism, admitting that human knowledge is necessarily perspectival, still insists that "we can in measure approach the truth in some objective sense" (105-106). The appropriate place of "critical realism" (110-111) needs to be recognized and new models for helping us think explored (116-122).

Chapter 5 is Carson's most detailed critique of the emerging church movement itself. His five criticisms of it relate to the movement's handling of truth-related issues, which are: (1) failure to come to terms with the importance of non-omniscient truth-claims (126-132); (2) failure to face the tough questions especially if they are truth related (132-138); (3) failure to use Scripture as the norming norm over against an eclectic appeal to tradition (139-146); (4) failure to handle "becoming" and "belonging" tensions in a biblically faithful way (146-155); and (5) failure to handle facts, both exegetical and historical in a responsible way (155-156).

Three other chapters contain Carson's critique of the thoughts of Brian MacLaren and Steve Chalke (Chapter 6) and exposition of biblical passages to help readers in evaluating postmodernism and the emergent church (Chapter 7 & 8).

Overall. D.A. Carson has presented a carefully written exposition and analysis of the emerging church, in its postmodernistic expression, which is not only critical but also appreciative. Right from the beginning, he says, “[w]henever a Christian movement comes along that presents itself as reformist it should not be summarily dismissed. Even if one ultimately decides that the movement embraces some worrying weaknesses, it may also have some important things to say that the rest of the Christian world needs to hear" (10).

Dr. Carson, in my evaluation, has indeed succeeded in both “conversing” with the basic things the emerging church leaders are saying, and bringing Scripture to bear on their alarming weaknesses.


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