Long-time GetReligion readers may remember that I have been, and remain, very confused about the meaning of the term "emerging church" and how it relates to that other confusing term "evangelical." There was even a time, two years ago or thereabouts, when GetReligion.org was named one of the top weblogs linked to the "emerging church" movement. That struck me as most strange. It still does. Whatever the term means, it is supposed to be linked to a kind of post-evangelical embrace of the nuances of postmodern reality, in an attempt to fuse ancient mysteries with contemporary questions without the certainties of orthodoxy or something like that.
The key figure -- in part since his church is so close to the D.C. Beltway -- is the Rev. Brian McLaren, an author who has a stunning ability to write thousands and thousands of words without betraying anything specific about where he stands on centuries of Christian faith and doctrine and how they apply to modern issues. That's where -- for a premodern, Orthodox Christian guy like me -- the frustrations begin. The last thing journalists need to be doing right now is tossing around another loaded, yet almost totally undefined, term. I mean, imagine trying to write an "emerging church" entry for the Associated Press Stylebook.
Truth be told, the "emerging" people and more than a few other Protestants are trying to run away from that "evangelical" buzz word. That's part of what is going on with the "Evangelical Manifesto" story right now. Click here for one report on that scene.
Anyway, Rachel Zoll of the Associated Press recently sat down with McLaren for a Q&A that captures some of my frustration with all of this.
It's common to ask if the "emerging church" represents a move to the theological left and the assumption is that it does.
But that's an old question. I want to know if the leaders of this movement believe that they are making a move toward ancient faith traditions or simply another attempt by modern people, or postmodern people, to create their own version of the faith that tries to get back to what they believe the early church was all about. This is a recurring theme in American religion for 200 years or so.
Thus, Zoll writes:
Author Brian McLaren is among the most influential American religious thinkers of the last decade. His break with rigid orthodoxy and embrace of new worship styles is at the center of what is called the emerging church -- a movement that has gone viral. The emerging church reclaims ancient practices and prayers and creates new ones, while re-examining Scripture to learn how modern-day Christians should live. ...
Emerging thinkers contend that evangelicals and others have been too influenced by the broader culture in their reading of Scripture. The emerging church says this has marginalized important Bible teachings and hurt the faith.
See what I mean? This is modern worship that breaks with rigid orthodoxy of the past while reclaiming ancient practices to create a fusion for modernists. To me, that sounds like three parts modern with one part ancient and the postmodernists get to create all the equations that matter, when it comes to authority.
Later, in the interview, there is this exchange:
Q: On the theology behind the emerging church, you reject the idea that there's an absolute truth. So what boundaries are there on theology that churches are teaching? Can any church just call itself an emerging church?
A: Obviously that's a challenge. The flip side of that question is look at the Catholic Church: For all of its orthodoxy, it could have bishops covering up for molesting priests. And evangelicals, for all their claims of orthodoxy, can be barbaric to gay people and can blindly support a rush to war in Iraq and can be, as we speak, fomenting for war with Iran. ... Obviously, I have a lot of critics and they often say, 'You're wanting to water down the Gospel to accommodate to post-modernity.' I say, 'No, I really don't want to do that. But what I do want to do is acknowledge first the ways we've already watered down the Gospel to accommodate modernity.' ... I think the naivete of some of those critics is that they're starting with a pure pristine understanding of the Gospel. It seems to me we're all in danger of screwing up.
So, no absolute truths? I don't see a clear answer there, especially not for a minister who is so concerned about social justice. Also, if you are seeking ancient roots, does that include the Nicene Creed? Are creedal absolutes tossed out, too?
You know where I am going with this, right? I think someone -- a journalist perhaps -- needs to ask this man three specific questions. Cue up the "tmatt trio," again:
(1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?
(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6)?
(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?
So read the Zoll interview, you journalists out there. What questions would you have wanted to ask?