Is Emergent the New Christian Left 2: Tony Jones takes on Chuck Colson and "true truth"

In part 2 of his post, Tony Jones addresses emerging church critic extraordinaire Chuck Colson. Colson sees the Emergent conversation as a threat to traditional Christian understandings of the "truth." Jones responds by discussing the interdependence of truth and community - the essence of the Emergent Village conversation.

I thank the many commenters for thoughtful and, generally, gracious comments, and I want to respond in a bit of a roundabout manner. If you can bear with me, I think I can speak to the concerns of many.

Yesterday I received my latest copy of Christianity Today. I look forward with some ambivalence to the even-numbered months' editions because they contain both the columns of my friend, Andy Crouch, and of despiser-of-all-things-emergent, Chuck Colson (and his amaneuensis and, it seems, proxy church observer, Anne Morse). Colson has had a burr under his saddle about the emerging church for some time - for instance, in his last column he equated the emerging church with namby-pamby praise music (as he was bemoaning how many Christian radio stations are dropping his daily commentaries).

What Colson's writing has in fact betrayed over the last couple of years is that he knows very little about the emerging church. In this month's column ("Emerging Confusion: Jesus is the Truth Whether We Experience Him or Not"), he recounts a recent conversation with a "young theologian" named "Jim" (whose name has been changed to protect the innocent). "Jim" asked Chuck to take it easy on the emergents; they're just trying to translate the gospel for postmodern folks, "Jim" pleaded. That's a noble motive, Chuck replied, but if they undermine truth, then all is lost.

In his penultimate paragraph, Colson refers to D.A. Carson, fellow critic of Emergent, who argues that objective truth precedes relational truth. Colson then weighs in with this philosophical doozy: "Truth is truth." (Why don't you read that again.)

You see, by saying that "truth is truth," Colson is essentially saying...well, nothing. That's called a "self-referential argument," or a "circular reference" and it's non-sensical; it doesn't say anything, and it doesn't mean anything. I can't tell you how many times I've been speaking and heard similar statements. I'll spend a couple hours doing my best to lay out a rather intricate understanding of truth and interpretation, only to be told by an audience member that some things are "really, really true," "true with a capital 'T'" or my personal favorite, "true truth."

May 25, 2006

Displaying 1–10 of 81 comments

jay woodham

June 21, 2006  3:26pm

Some of postmodernity's more perceptive critics point out that it is nothing more than modernism on steroids; "hyper-modernity" some have called it. I can't help but feel that if much of evangelicalism has been the packaging of orthodox Protestant theology and Augustinian spirituality in a modern consumer-friendly form then "emergent" Christianity is simply the further commodification of the gospel for the consumption of individuals. This is evident to me in two aspects of the movement. First in its attempt to have community without an established authority – either in the form of high view of Scripture or acknowledged ecclesiastical authority or both. This is more than a rank misreading of human nature (which it is). The emergents do indeed see what the previous generation of evangelicals failed to see: that spirituality and community go together. But by trying to create communities without any doctrinal standards (not ones with any real teeth anyway) and a relunctance to enforce ethical ones (homosexuality) they've made community into yet another commodity that churches provide on condition of the individual's comfort and preference. This is literally more of the same. The second area is in emergent's use of the flotsam and jetsam of Christian tradition: using incense, practices like Lectio Divina etc. A lot of stuff is held up for use and emulation from before the Reformation or before the 1054 split. As far as that goes, it's fine, but what emergents blithely ignore is that those practices developed in a church ecology where true doctrine mattered and church authority meant something (not always for the good either). This is the commodification of tradition itself (similar to the false authenticity people feel listening to the "O Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack utterly disconnected from the actual cultures that produced the music). And don't get me started on McLaren and Walker Percy. Percy was an eccentric though devoted Roman Catholic who has a quote somewhere from the 70s or 80s that he could not understand why so many of his fellow papists were abandoning mother church and her rich heritage of Tradition and Liturgy for the Barnum and Bailey tent of evangelicalism. I suspect he'd have even less time for the emergent church. The emergent folks do understand their generation (or at least the middle class and up white version of it) better than Colson & co. But the more and more I read of and about it, the more I'm convinced the movement is in many ways the metastasis of the tissues in evangelicalism already gone bad. The cure is not more of the disease, and a pastoral sensitivity to postmodern people married to a strong confessionalism has hardly yet been tried. But it ought to be.

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Truth Seeker

June 21, 2006  2:07pm

All I see Tony and the rest of the emergent folks doing is attempt to stand on shifting sand while saying "what sand?" Tony, you contradict yourself. You condemn Colson for his stance on truth and "interpretation." yet you are so absolute on your view of truth. You are dead certain that truth is relative and is related to a person's worldview, making you an absolutist, even more than a modernist (which by the way is something that true Christians stand against, I for one am not a modernist). How come Colson can't have a view, but you guys can? The emergent folks are not having a conversation. They are slinging mud at the church and yet cry foul when someone throws back a criticism. Tell us where you stand and stop being the Jello on the wall. Participate in the conversation like grown-ups.

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brandt brereton

June 13, 2006  10:51am

If the Truth of Jesus is found at the end of an earthly funnel, why does anyone really care about how one finds oneself in the funnel? Would Jesus really care?

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June 08, 2006  11:30am

Bob Smietana's comment on 5/26 is wrong. Ecclesiology is not about "how we do church" but how we define what it is/is not. The "emergent church" is indeed rather interested in this subject, though apparently without a lot of well-grounded study or insight. Ecclesiology is a big problem generally speaking for Evangelicals and most Protestants. Noll, Neuhaus, and others have been noticing this and seeing it as an emerging crisis point. That is all very true. The EC (and anyone else) can easily perceive that the conservative protestant and evangelical world is on extremely rickety ecclesiological foundations. The EC response however seems to embrace ricketyness in a crypto-universalistic notion of the church. (Ecclesiology and soteriology being closely related.)

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June 06, 2006  11:52am

On the point of those who want Jesus over doctrine, remember, people have espoused lots of versions of Jesus over the centuries, and thus your Christology (doctrinal reflections) will come up whether you like it or not. Is the Jesus to whom you relate: the Nicene/Chalcedonian Jesus? the Arian Jesus? the Nestorian Jesus? (see "Last Temptation of Christ" for a vivid depiction of this one) the Docetic Jesus? the Dan Brown Jesus? (just a man, till that pesky Constantine came along) And so forth. So, doctrinal formulations, whether we like them or not, get pressed upon us when we start to consider which Jesus is worth relating to.

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Graham Veale

June 05, 2006  11:07am

I think that Tony deserves thanks for speaking with candour and intergrity, and for taking the time to articulate his position in writing. I would be very surprised if Carson and Colson were offended. If he read my comments, I hope I have not offended him. I think courtesy demands that a rigorous reply is given to those sating controversial positions.

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Bill Samuel

June 04, 2006  7:05pm

ML wrote, "It seems to me that the emergent church movement has a tendency to skip the exegesis and go straight to interpretation . . ." I think it's more like there's a tendency to integrate the exegesis and the interpretation, rather than to divide them neatly. This comes out of a more dynamic view than held by many others of scripture and our relationship to it. In my own church (Cedar Ridge Community Church, one of the better known churches often considered part of the EC movement), I don't see the exegesis being skipped.

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Nathan Woodward

June 04, 2006  6:53pm

How can we know if our interpretation of Scripture is Spirit-inspired unless we test them in the community of faith? This is how the NT canon–and how the historic creeds–came to be. How else do we critique and correct interpretations like those of Bahai-member Mike? How else can we test our own interpretations? This discussion has made it clearer than ever to me that "Emergent" is at least as vague a term as "Evangelical," if not more so. Carl says he is an emergent because "Creeds divide people," though I know many who consider themselves part of the emergent conversation find real value and deep meaning in the creeds.

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tim brynteson

June 03, 2006  10:29am

I am new to this conversation and only read Brian's Book "A generous Orthodoxy" a few months ago. However, I am mystified after reading these posts, with such informed and erudite contributions, by how few references there are to the Catholic Church as an interpretive community. From what I have read in the Catechism, enyciclicals from the last 40 years, and other writings going back centuries, this conversation is not new to the Church. As believers in "the way" we have had and will have a challenge to both understand and communicate the love of God to a lost world. Many, many good points have been made, and this thinking and discussing is important to the Church, but at some point it is simply intellectual tail-chasing. The great mystery is, somehow, I believe Christ desired that we be unified, so we can ACT with love and compassion in a world that so desperately needs love, not Truth. Our love and actions must be based on Truth, I understand, or we risk following our own vanity. We can find this truth on our own, or in a community. Which community we pick (or picks us) becomes a very important "decision." The radical individualism espoused by almost all americans today, Christian and otherwise, is the real enemy of loving, Christian action. We seek our own truth and give our allegiance very reluctantly to any institution. An understandably prudent position, but one which will always divide and weaken our witness to the world.

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don pettit

June 02, 2006  9:06am

Seeking the truth is just giving everyone the "Grace to Grow" as we are all emerging from the church culture of our past, the world culture of our present, or a combination of both.

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