The emerging church is back?

Remember a few years ago when lots of reporters were talking about the emerging church as if it was the new trend was sweeping the nation? You know how people are still talking about it now? Yeah, me neither. It was such a nebulous "movement" to begin with, but apparently New York magazine just discovered it.

Alex Morris' glowing profile of Jay Bakker paints the young pastor as some hip leader of something, though it's hard to tell what that is. Bakker is the son of Jim and Tammy Faye (Jim resigned from his ministry after an affair, and accounting fraud led to imprisonment and later divorce). You can check out the beginning of the piece, and then I'll pull out a few choice passages.

He's thinking about just how much RELIGION DESTROYS, as a tattoo close to his armpit reads, and how seriously, seriously [f***ed] up that is. He's thinking, too, about Revolution, the church-cum-religious movement he helms, part of which is unfolding right now, whether or not the Williamsburg waifs who've packed themselves into the dark concert hall realize it.

Eloquent writing, you'll see. I have not read anything by Bakker and have no interest in critiquing him as a pastor, writer, thinker, whatever. My interest is in whether this reporter actually journalistically proved his thesis, that Bakker is somehow leading a movement.

In a manner that borders on proselytizing, Bakker, an Evangelical Christian, has mounted a multifaceted attack on the Christian Establishment. In addition to his Brooklyn ministry, he travels regularly to churches and festivals, appears on television news, and has a large online following (his Twitter feed has over 4,000 followers). Both because of his lineage and his strong language, he has become an unofficial spokesman for a growing group of young, disaffected Evangelicals attempting to splinter from the mainstream church--and call it to task in the process.

This paragraph seems to serve as the motivation for the piece. But the thing is, anybody can travel to churches and festivals, television news and have an online following. Is 4,000 Twitter followers really considered a lot? Who crowned him spokesperson?

In praise of the piece, we do get a lot of interesting background about Bakker's life. We get a sense of what it must have been like to grow up on television and then have all of that stripped away by someone else's choices. However, the piece takes a while before we start to read what he actually, you know, believes.

Bakker's real rebellion has been against mainstream Christianity, which he doesn't think has much to say about forgiveness. He was 20 when he entered AA ("I've never had a legal drink"), and his theology has certainly been shaped by the program: He now says he drank in part to get over his guilt about drinking, a stranglehold that was released once he came to realize that "God loved me no matter what." This experience led him to resent Christian legalism, the dos and don'ts that are so much a part of modern faith, and this sent him to the Bible. "I started reading the Bible for myself for the first time," he says, "and I was just blown away by it. All the stuff I'd been taught my whole life didn't seem to be adding up to what's in the Bible."

The author uses the phrase mainstream Christianity or mainstream church, but it's unclear what he means. Is there really a mainstream Christianity or church, especially in the Protestant tradition? Does Bakker believe that his parents were in the mainstream of Christianity? Despite numbers, do televangelists actually represent "mainstream" churches? Aren't they somewhat eccentric by their nature?

The rest of Protestant Christianity, however, he's basically prepared to ditch--a stance that pushes him beyond the far liberal wing of the Evangelical Christian community and into what is known as the "Emergent" ministry.

The Emergent movement is not an organized force in American theology; most of its members would probably dispute being members of anything. But it is a way of referring to a growing number of churches and ministers--like the Void collective in Waco, Texas, and the theologian Brian McLaren--who attack the fundamentals of fundamentalism. They tend to be pro-choice and support gay marriage, and they don't fret over premarital sex. They welcome atheists and embrace doubt. They like to read Nietzsche during services.

Just so we're clear, the "emergent movement" really is not a new concept. In fact, there's been discussion about its decline or death. In his 4,000+ piece, the author briefly quotes one person who has theological concerns with Bakker's ideas and then quickly cites stories from Bakker about mistreatment he's experienced.

"I think a movement founded on rebellion is going to collapse under the weight of its own moralism," says the Evangelical writer Ted Kluck, who accuses Revolution of substituting the arrogance of the traditional church with its own. To others, Bakker is not moral enough: He is engaging in "cafeteria Christianity," picking only the parts of the faith that suit him. By focusing on grace, he is absolving sinners. He's been threatened physically at speaking engagements and been told he's leading people to hell. But Bakker speaks like a true believer. "Another type of reformation is happening," he says. "And when a reformation is happening, the reformers aren't recognized as reformers. They're seen as heretics."

The author gives a vague description of where he personally stands religiously, something in between a believer and a doubter. Though it's unclear what he believes or what he doubts, except a little bit of both when it comes to Bakker.

Over a six-pack of Diet Coke and between a number of cigarettes smoked on the fire escape, we go verse by verse through the tomes, picking through some of the key issues that rankle or rally modern-day Christians: homosexuality, premarital sex, abortion, women's rights, marriage, divorce, Heaven and hell.

Since when do these issues necessarily become THE dividing or rallying points for Christians? Yes, these issues are hot politically. But are Christians really dividing over premarital sex and women's rights? What about things like baptism, church hierarchy, tradition, music? You know, the things can make entire denominations set apart from one another? For instance, I've never seen a church form in favor of premarital sex or divorce.

Finally, here's the author's takeaway:

It's hard not to respect someone who won't abandon the church even as it tries to abandon him, and who aggressively searches for truth without claiming that he owns it. Still, while Bakker and Anderson have the sympathy and attention of their audience, I can sense parishioners trying to work out what they think of Revolution. Once you strip so much out of Christianity, what is left? How do you agree with a church that is still figuring out its message?

But as I'm sitting there, close to the back and beer in hand, it occurs to me that maybe the opposite of faith isn't doubt. Maybe the opposite of faith is certainty, a comforting belief in your own rightness. [His parents had] a theology of aspiration--believing is easy, and believing leads to success--and it didn't encourage its followers to doubt their faith or themselves. This, it seems to me, is what Jay is offering: a Christianity that allows for, and is even sustained by, failure.

And there you have it. That is what makes Bakker edgy to this writer. Coincidentally, the profile might help Bakker sell his book coming out in January. Unfortunately, this piece felt like a rehashing of someone's memoir, and that was already done.

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