Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Monday, October 08, 2007

A Quick Note on the Emergent Church Movement

Andrew Sullivan links to Boing Boing which links in turn to the blog Revolution in Jesusland. R. in J. concerns itself with what has also been called the "emergent church movement"--a form of evangelicalism that concentrates on being less divisive and more embracing, and on caring for the poor, the needy, and the oppressed. Many people who have written to me have asked if I am familiar with the lights of the movement (Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Donald Miller, The Mars Hill Church podcast, et al.), some of them implying that if I knew the good work that these evangelicals are doing, it might take some of the piss out of my book-in-progress.

I actually have a chapter in the book called "Why the Emergent Movement Won't Work," and while I haven't finalized it, while I was reading the comments on Boing Boing, I realized that people were busy saying the same things they always say ("You can't pigeonhole evangelicals! They're a diverse group, some of whom believe several liberal things!") and ignoring a few points that I want to make now.

The fact is, evangelicalism will always be a conservative movement for at least two reasons:

First, it's a form of Christianity that is so intense in its devotion and focus that it is always going to be essentially sectarian. Evangelicalism begins, for most people, with the conviction that conventional Christianity--as practiced by "liberal" or "mainstream" churches--is lacking in spiritual substance. Evangelicals are the real Christians in a world of compromised Christianity such as you'd find at the World Council of Churches or in your local Episcopal congregation. Evangelicals are the ones who made daily Bible reading and weekly Bible studies a central part of modern devotion (since presumably Wesley's followers have long since lost their way). In its very musical practices (soft rock instead of hymns) it functions as a kind of protest movement against mainstream Christianity.

Second, this sectarianism is fueled by devotion to the literal reading of the Bible. What distinguishes Emergent Movement types is that they emphasize different parts of the Bible than most evangelicals do (more on the poor, less on the hell), but they're still ultimately trapped by their dependence on the Bible.

If you read Brian Mclaren, for example, the most radical things he says (and the things that have gotten him in the most trouble) include, "We should stop preaching about hell" and "we should agree to complete silence on the subject of homosexuality for at least ten years." He doesn't actually dare to say, "The Bible is wrong on both topics, and taking both doctrines biblically and seriously is bad for us." Much less does he suggest we should repudiate the Bible on these points. His only solution is to stop talking about the unpleasant things the Bible teaches.

Similarly, in Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller has a really nice moment where he describes being in college and setting up a kind of reverse-confessional booth, where people would come in and sit down and the Christians sponsoring the booth would apologize for being arrogant, and pushy, and for supporting ugly things, etc. And they did this with no agenda, not "I'm sorry--and now, having said that, will you come to this Bible study?" but really just an "I'm sorry." It's a great section. But again, he never actually says, "We were factually wrong." He says, rather, that Christians didn't tell the story with enough sensitivity. Homosexuals are still evil, and everyone except us is probably going to hell still, but it was rude of us to point this out. Let's go help out at a soup kitchen!

As long as evangelicals are evangelicals (i.e., Biblical literalists with sectarian leanings), they'll be a danger to decency and human respect. And this, in short, is why the emergent movement won't work: If your beliefs are poisonous, it's more important that you change your beliefs than that you tell us you feel bad about how you expressed them.

Having said that, I am pleased to note that the Mars Hill and Rob Bell podcasts are consistently the most popular ones in the "Religion" section of iTunes, so you could definitely make a case that this form of Christianity is actually growing as quickly as its adherents claim. I still have my doubts about it being anything but kind of a fringe--any trip to a Christian bookstore will reassure you that hell and sin and Republican anti-evolutionism are all quite popular still--but if more people were like Rob Bell and Brian Mclaren, evangelicalism would, indeed, be less of a challenge in our culture than it is. But since their followers would, by definition, be carrying dangerous passive beliefs (hell, sectarianism, homophobia, etc.) along with the "good" Biblical ones they'd be acting out for a change (care for the poor and oppressed), my book actually becomes more useful, not less. Because it's all about the unintended consequences that emerge when good intentions ("I want to be morally upright!") get hooked to a bad moral compass (the literal, naively read Bible). Emergent people carry the virus even farther below the surface, and that can't be good in the long term.



Blogger Joe said...

The Virus! yes the Virus!!
brilliant, although by that definition it would seem that the only thing capable of containing it would be a gas bomb dropped from high altitude but hopefully Dustin Hoffman can find the first monkey and develop a cure eh?

10/08/2007 9:44 AM  
Blogger Bryan Allain said...


i run don miller's fan site (which makes me...a dweeb i guess) but Don has never claimed to be a part of the emerging church movement. he has said that he feels a kindred spirit to pastors like Bell and McClaren, but that he is not a pastor himself and as such isn't really a part of this movement. relative to your average christian, he is rather conservative in his beliefs.

i know it's easy to peg him as an emergent because he likes to talk about social justice, but just be aware of where he places himself in the movement.



10/09/2007 8:56 AM  
Blogger Cowboy Dave Dickerson said...

Actually, it's precisely this aspect of labeling who's in and who's out that makes talking about the emergent movement so vexatious. (If only they'd come out with a single set of pamphlets, like the Fundamentals!) But I doubt even Mr. Miller would deny that he is lumped in among the emergent folks, and that people who read McLaren tend to also read and admire Miller. (In fact, there's over a dozen Amazon booklists to back this up.) So I'm more concerned with tracing the movement as people who are fans of it see it, rather than making sure all the nomenclature meets the approval of the authors whose work has been interpreted out of their control. Philip Glass doesn't consider himself a minimalist, but surely any discussion of minimalism that ignores Philip Glass would be incomplete. But thanks for the nuancing! I'll do my best to mention this in the final version.

10/09/2007 9:53 AM  
Blogger Koolz said...

A couple or thoughts on your piece:

1- I would argue that there are attempts within the emergent movement to fight sectarianism. The focus of this fight has been captured within the Christian world, but also it has grown to include the interfaith community. Within Christendom, numerous emergents are returning to mainstream churches and denominations. They can be found in Baptist, Lutheran, Catholic, charismatic, and mega churches. As for interfaith, people like Samir Selmanovic are beginning communities like Faith House Manhattan that are interested in searching for God in other faiths (Islam, Judaism, Wiccan, etc). Are they trying to change the world? Sure. But the idea would be to encourage peace, dialog, and learning. Will they be successful? Not sure.

2- Hell and homophobia. I agree with your criticism that McLaren has not been direct on such issues. Part of me wants to hear someone say that Hell does not exist and it is perfectly ok to gay. That being said, I understand why he doesn’t want to draw those lines. Drawing those lines will shut off dialog. Change is more difficult without dialog. As for me, I don’t believe in the existence of eternal damnation, and I’m trying to believe that homosexuality is not wrong. Does this mean that I don’t believe everything in the Bible, maybe, but I’m also thinking that some items in the Bible were lost in translation?

3- Will the emergent movement fail? Maybe so. It’s possible that these ideas will fade over time. Or maybe, instead of being institutionalized like every other item, the emergent church will be successful in being a subversive thread within that world that continues to push for the true things that Jesus wanted (real peace, real love, and relationship with God).

10/10/2007 11:43 AM  
Blogger James Diggs said...

I consider myself as someone taking part in the emergent conversation and I can certainly resonate with your problems with evangelicals. Though the emergent church is made up of many who come from evangelical backgrounds I think there is a real struggle with many of us in whether we would still classify ourselves as evangelicals. The only reason many of still do so is because we would rather help reform than defect.

With that said I have to disagree with you that the emergent church are bible literalists. The fact that we are not is what our evangelical critics are so upset about. The emergent church does not believe the bible is inerrant or contains all truth. Evangelicals are furious with the emergent church, especially fundamentalist like Piper and Macarthur, that we reject things like a literal creation account, we embrace evolution and modern science, and question literal penal substitution theory of the cross.

Do not confuse the emergent church with the seeker sensitive movement a decade ago, where hell wasn’t talked about because they were trying to repackage evangelicalism to seem less threatening. The emergent church doesn’t talk about heaven and hell because it really believes that being a Christian isn’t ultimately about those things. We think being a Christian is about trying to make a better world for all humanity today and that Jesus preach that the Kingdom of Heaven is here and we can touch it in this world. The emergent church has different paradigm of beliefs that changes what we actually think not just a slick new method.

You mentioned that you feel that evangelical paradigms are “a danger to decency and human respect” and I agree. The emergent church embraces humanity for the sake of humanity. We do this as followers of Jesus by understanding that God met us in our humanity through the incarnation. The typical evangelical says it is ALL about the cross and appeasing God’s wrath. The emergent church is beginning to see the cross as just a part of the incarnation; that God met us in our humanity which included meeting us in suffering, death, and even the injustice we do to one another. This is the reason many in the emergent church are embracing social justice issues, because it is a natural response to their faith. This means we value how we treat others and that we do it with human decency and respect regardless of what others may believe. It is not about getting others to agree to believe what we do but about trying to do our part to make the world a better place. I know many atheists who are closer to living out what I think the Kingdom of God is all about more than many evangelicals. As an emergent follower of Christ I resonate much more with those who are leaning into loving humanity than with those who just claim to believe the right Christian beliefs.

Now I have made some broad statements about what the emergent church believes and I have to clarify that I painted this picture with a very broad brush. No one person can say what the emergent church definitely believes; not me and not McLaren. The emergent church is a conversation across all Christian traditions(not just evangelicals) and sometimes it is a tough conversation. When McLaren said we shouldn’t talk about homosexuality for 10 years he was just suggesting that we need more time (especially evangelicals) to digest all the factors of the issue, especially in regards to modern science and this new post modern paradigm the emergent church is embracing. And that isn’t the only thing McLaren has said as he and others have wrestled with homosexuality and other gender issues. McLaren’s suggestion for moratorium on talking about homosexuality is not based on trying to avoid a hard issue so that we appear to be playing nice but because he is suggesting that the issues are far more complex than what your typical evangelical says when he ends the discussion by pointing to a few lines in the bible. Evangelicals are furious with the emergent church for saying that the issue isn’t cut and dry based on the Bible, but the emergent church does not hold the same view of bible literalism and understands that life is way more complex than the over simplified stances of your typical evangelical.

Anyway, I think you should take a closer look at the movement and you will see that the emergent church is doing a lot more than just trying to burry poisonous views of biblical literalism under friendly methodology. I don’t know if the emergent church will ultimately “work”; but your reasons you said it won’t aren’t accurate because the heart of the movement is about saying to evangelicals that we have gotten some stuff wrong about God and the Bible and maybe and we should be more humble because we don’t know everything. I am part of the emergent church and I am definitely NOT a bible literalist.



10/12/2007 10:11 AM  
Blogger Cowboy Dave Dickerson said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments! I'm sorry to have inspired so much concern, because frankly, the post was kind of quickly written and not as sensitively thought out as it could have been.

Anyway, another way of putting what I was trying to say is this: 1.) I like what the emergent movement is doing.
2.) However, most of the emergent folks I run across label themselves as a kind of evangelical, and even when they resist such labels, they are certainly a reaction to, and an attempt to reform, evangelical Christianity.
3.) And I think the reason it won't work is that emergent Christianity doesn't "feel" evangelical to anyone who's shopping for evangelicalism (where's the moral certainty? where's the evangelism? where's the literal Bible?), and so it can't redeem evangelicalism per se; it can only erect a third thing between evangelicalism and mainstream Christianity that is more like the latter and will attract only a fraction of each.

Having said this, my own book may wind up being an "emergent"-style book--just one with less commitment to the evangelical church I came from. And, of course, more fun swearing.

10/12/2007 1:26 PM  
Blogger James Diggs said...

Thanks for clarifying,

You may be right that there is not much hope in “reforming” evangelicalism as long as certain “fundamental” (pun both coincidental and true) paradigms remain. The thing is even if reform isn’t possible most people in the emergent church do not want to start yet another Christian faction even if this turns out to be inevitable. I think we would be ok if we could become a bridge between evangelical and mainstream churches- and even orthodox and Catholic groups. I do think the conversation of the emergent church extends to all these fingers of Christian expression; I have close friends who have become fascinated by eastern orthodox churches and I have been revisiting some of my Episcopal roots. So I applaud any perspective that moves away from evangelicalism especially because evangelicals mistakenly think that they have captured definitively what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Thanks for the conversation and good luck on your book.



10/12/2007 3:29 PM  

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