Monsters on the Loose
The emergent movement, like the monster flick Cloverfield, is an underground phenomenon, but can it deliver on its hype?

If you hate Cloverfield (or don't even know what it is), then you probably loathe emerging Christians. If you like Cloverfield, you're likely to dig the emergent conversation. Both deliver on their grand promises in a novel way (that is decidedly not for everybody). But why does the film (and the emergent folks) inspire such antipathy? Why can't we appreciate the next generation's re-imagination of tired clich?s?

Movies offer a safe way to process our cultural anxiety. In monster movies we're presented with an opportunity to corral our fears. Zombies or UFOs or viruses wreak havoc for ninety minutes before order is inevitably restored. Cloverfield depicts a seemingly ordinary evening in New York City that is derailed by an unexpected and unexplained attack. Sound familiar? Cloverfield is a direct response to the fear unleashed by the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Eerie shots of panic in the streets remind us how vulnerable we felt. We follow shell-shocked New Yorkers crossing the Brooklyn Bridge in search of safety. The film doesn't offer any reasons for the monster's rampage. It is pure terror. Our way of life as we know it is vanishing, and nothing seems capable of stopping the assault.

For some, the emergent movement has become a monster to be dreaded and feared. Despite leaders' best efforts to explain their theology, rumors about the Emergent Village keep swirling in the blogosphere. A struggling, insecure church has identified emergent Christians as the new enemy. How a small band of smart, reasonably clean-cut ministers like Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt or Rob Bell could inspire so much fear is a tribute to the mania available on the Internet. To some evangelical watchdogs, public enemy number one has a goatee, an earring, and a dog-eared copy of Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christian. How did this get so far out of hand?

Cloverfield started with a teaser trailer. The obscure name "Cloverfield" was never really explained. But the Internet buzz generated by a single commercial reaped huge dividends. People went wild, analyzing the trailer shot by shot. "Who created this movie? What is it about?" And most of all, "When can I see it and solve the mystery for myself?" It was as if the Hollywood studio behind the movie made it purposefully obscure.

The emergent movement works from the same mindset. It starts with random, unchurchy names. Some sound like booths at a Renaissance Faire: "The Well," "The Journey," "The Quest." Others apt for a coffeehouse vibe: "Elevation," "Area 15," "Thad's." They don't spell it all out. They let people talk and discover it for themselves. Word of the mouth is the best marketing. It is cheap and effective. "You've got to see it." "What is it?" "You've just got to see it." We can all learn from Cloverfield (and the emergents) ability how to arouse curiosity, build anticipation and preserve a sense of wonder.

April 22, 2008

Displaying 1–10 of 25 comments


July 15, 2008  1:57am

Movies offer a safe way to process our cultural anxiety. In monster movies we're presented with an opportunity to corral our fears. Zombies or UFOs or viruses wreak havoc for ninety minutes before order is inevitably restored. Cloverfield depicts a seemingly ordinary evening in New York City that is derailed by an unexpected and unexplained attack. calysoramesh ============================================

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April 26, 2008  2:53pm

Ashleigh, Great point. Absolutely agree. I should have broadened the circle. But I chose to hold up those who have been singled out by others for the most unhelpful and reactionary attacks. This is my simple way of asking God's people to chill out while we all wait to see what emerges. Cloverfield may be forgotten as a great marketing event. Or it may be remembered as the reinvention of staid movie conventions. Time will tell....

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April 24, 2008  5:14pm

Call this really picky (especially since I enjoyed the article), but I wish people wouldn't refer to the stereotypical member of anything in solely male language. Twice here an emergent is described as having a goatee, completely invisibilizing the female leaders of the movement. Perhaps even in the emerging church women aren't equally prominent, but that doesn't mean they're completely absent. I'm fine with your stereotyping the emerging folks to make a point, and if smaller groups of people aren't a part of that (ex: ethnic minorities) in your eyes, fine, that's your perception. But I KNOW women are involved in this movement (women are the majority of most churches, and even if there were fewer in the emerging movement, you've got to figure they couldn't ever be less than 30-40%...), and I think it's important they be included in our mental image.

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April 24, 2008  9:53am

Really? It's all about couches vs. chairs, jeans vs. khakis? Seriously? I hope that in part 2 you engage some serious criticism from those whose last names don't rhyme with BacBarthur or whose arguments don't ammount to "they should just learn to sit on pews and sing hymns like Christians have done for the first 2000 years."

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April 24, 2008  8:45am

Skeptical - I am, in fact, kidding you. Actually, I will gladly confess to having failed to explore and understand the EC movement. Here's where I'm coming from–after going through something of a "crisis of faith" several years ago, friends started giving me books by McLaren, Donald Miller, etc. And I got the sense that these authors pushed things to a certain point but were careful to preserve some form of orthodoxy. Maybe that's unfair, but I wanted to ask some more basic questions about Scripture, the historical Jesus, etc., so I moved on.

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April 23, 2008  10:04pm

Are you kidding me? Unreflective about the underlying beliefs of evangelicalism? That's EXACTLY what the movement is being criticized for... This comment thread just shows how people are not taking the time to really listen, explore, learn and understand the wide range of issues and voices in play within the EC.

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April 23, 2008  9:11pm

So much energy has been devoted to discrediting the emergent movement, that it can also be disappointing to discover just how modest and meager their changes are. This has been my disappointment with the emergent movement since I picked up a copy of NKOC. Too often, the changes are cosmetic (styles and practices), and I detect an unwillingness to reflect critically on the underlying beliefs and assumptions of evangelical Christianity. Sorry for the broad brush, but that's my take.

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Jeff Keuss

April 23, 2008  1:08pm

great post, craig - love it! I will admit that I havent seen "Cloverfield" because... well... I know I will be disappointed! I have to say that the comparisons are more than whimsical - particularly your point that what most people seem to react to is the letdown ("is this all there is after all the hype?!") says more about our eschatological weariness than whether the search for the better form of church.

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April 23, 2008  11:30am

I agree with Daniels last post. What has been going on lately with these articles?

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Kevin Derr

April 23, 2008  11:22am

I enjoyed the post, the comments were often off following other agenda's. I do often wonder why the idea of an emergent church scares so many traditional types. Then I remember the number of books written about praise music and how bad it was, is.. depending on where you are in that who conversation. I am reminded that the Holy Spirit can and does move without the permission of the established church, especially when a fresh wind of Pentecost is needed.

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