New Christians VS. Vintage Jesus
Chad Hall reviews the latest books by Tony Jones and Mark Driscoll.

If you'd asked me two years ago if I was part of the emerging church movement, I would have thought for a second and said, "Yes." When asked today, I pause for half a second before saying, "No." The New Christians and Vintage Jesus helped me clarify my journey from Yes to No.

I found one book insignificant and the other inflated.

Let's start with the insignificant. I admire Mark Driscoll for doing significant stuff. He's planted a thriving church in a place where it's tough to do ministry and helps lead one of the more successful church planting networks around (Acts 29). I cracked open Vintage Jesus anticipating something important. Based on the title, I expected Driscoll to pop the cork on an enduring theology that over time increases in flavor and potency. But the book was more flat Coke than fine wine.

I did not find Driscoll's book very interesting. About a third of the way through the book, my mind traveled back a decade to my first week of seminary. As a preaching newbie in need of guidance, I checked out an old, small book on preaching that started by saying something like, "If your sermons are not interesting, you're missing something because God is infinitely interesting." The notion that conversations about God should be interesting resurfaced as I read Vintage Jesus and caught myself muttering, "Yeah, yeah, yeah? so what?"

I did not expect some new theology from Driscoll, since that is certainly the opposite of his well known position. But I did expect him to show that God was interesting and revolutionary. I think guys like Erwin McManus and John Burke tend to deliver better on what I expected from Vintage Jesus: how ageless truth is renewed within each generation.

Driscoll wrote boldly when it came to things that don't really matter, such as his choice of over-the-top colorful language in retelling some biblical narratives. But he held back on the truly important matters, such as how radically life-altering is our faith. Except for a few confessional moments that really stood out, he played it safe in Vintage Jesus. Maybe he didn't want to be mistaken for one of those emergent kooks who deny the basics of faith he finds important: beliefs such as hell and substitutionary atonement. Whatever the reason Driscoll chose to play small in this book, I was disappointed. I think he could have done better.

Enough of that. Let's turn now to the inflated book.

The New Christians gave a true and honest depiction of the emergent church movement. That's not to say it was an attractive picture. I felt Jones presented himself and the movement as condescending, contradictory, and closed.

July 15, 2008

Displaying 1–10 of 80 comments

Steve Cuss

July 30, 2008  11:46am

Chad, I've read Driscoll's book, but not Jones'. I used to be very intrigued by the whole emerging/Emergent stream and I completely fit their demographic. Then I listen to a couple of podcasts featuring the usual suspects and both podcasts had the same tone and approach that you describe in the book. Driscoll is talented, charismatic and is on the fast track to becoming John McArthur if he is not careful - using all that theological education to condemn other Christians instead of preaching the Gospel. Jones and crew are self absorbed, hyper nuanced and apparently in permanent deconstruction mode. Emergent guys seem to happily use the systems they despise - especially the PUBLISHING system. Meanwhile we have a handful of people our age who are great role models: Kimball, John Burke, McManus, Andy Crouch, Brian Walsh.... thanks for writing a great article

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Chris D.

July 29, 2008  11:48pm

I have my issues with Driscoll but saying "mean things" (Driscoll) isn't the same as saying things that are patently, unquestionably heretical and go against sound doctrine (Tony Jones). Driscoll is brash and boorish at times with his message and as such gets most of the heat. The Emergents' are generally more calm in their approach and don't raise as much ire (at least initially). I'll go with loud, ham-fisted theology over the quiet "nice" variety as long as it's rooted in the Orthodox Gospel. Neither is anywhere close to ideal but one is at least remotely based on something solid.

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July 23, 2008  3:49am

Todd and Paul, It is interesting an interesting argument that you both make. You claim that emergents believe something about the world or truth, (specifically holding a different epistemology than you), not because they have become convinced of its truth, but because they have vested interests, (hiding unorthodoxy, avoiding personal inconvenience). Not only that, but they are attempting to spread their beliefs to others, (the Us vs. them comment) also for the the reason of serving their own interests. I wonder if you would agree that they are creating their own church "culture" which seeks to squash out dissent through a clever "epistemological song and jig". If I'm not mistaken, what you are doing is deconstructing emergents. You are attempting to show that their claims about "truth" are not philosophically grounded but rather a cover for an agenda to gain power and control in the church. At this point, I'm not sure whether to critique you, or welcome you to the party. This could really be a textbook example of deconstruction. Be careful, as your method says as much about your beliefs as your words themselves. As to your comments, I think you'll find that (most) emergents are deeply stung by such accusations (which I assume is your intent, no?). Indeed, we feel them all too strongly. How can we be sure that we are not "false teachers"? Emergents are suspicious of even their best motives to be faithful to the biblical text, knowing their ears to "itch" in subtle and not-so-obvious ways. I would be interested to hear, how, when you read the scriptures, your own "itching" ears don't lead you to hear what you want as well? Is "inconvenience" always the best guide? That is, when choosing between interpretations of a text, one easier and one harder, is it that the "harder" way is the better one? I don't ask these questions to try and corner you, but it does seem to me that you misunderstand emergents somewhat if you think we are not sensitive to the "itching ears" argument. It is "itching ears" which has lead many of us to begin to question whether we can really trust fully what we hear, especially when we know how easily our own motives and desires can cloud our hearing. In turn, we then apply the same reasoning to others, and begin to wonder about their motives as well. How is what they say influenced by their understanding, desires, motives? How is their reading of scripture influenced? I would be interested to hear how both of you have addressed this issue in your own understanding of faith. Blessings, T.J.

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Darren King

July 22, 2008  4:56pm

Paul, I hear you. All I can say is that your points all makes perfect sense for someone speaking from your paradigm. I'm not trying to be dismissive or arrogant there. I'm just stating "the truth" wink, wink... I'm sure the choir agrees with you. But I don't see it that way. Seriously though, all I really hear you saying is that if we follow this deconstruction through, we may end up with some less than desirable consequences. Fair enough. But one can't go about reconstructing one's epistemological views based on what that may bring to fruition in other areas. One has to align oneself with reality as best one can- and deal with the consequences as they arise. It does us no good to align under one particular paradigm simply because it's more convenient. To do otherwise would be a form of situational ethics- would it not? You follow what I mean? I'm very aware that you don't see it this way. But I'm afraid that many of us do. Also, let me clarify an earlier comment: I wasn't saying we can or should get rid of the categories "liberal" or "fundamentalist" per se, I was merely stating that these terms are meaningful only within a certain worldview. I'm saying, apply them when they make sense. But only then. For instance, if one has a modern worldview, one tends to err EITHER for a fundamental, OR a liberal perspective on the Bible. But in a postmodern world these terms are somewhat obsolete. Sorry, I could have been clearer on that one originally. Didn't mean to be so cryptic or so broad-sweeping. Also, because we are talking around things, rather than actually listing off a laundry list of doctrinal positions, we don't really know where each other stand. All that is to say, I'm probably not as far down the deconstruction rabbit-hole as you might assume. But then again, I guess that all depends on where you really stand. Okay, one last point. I'm not a strong believer in the slippery slope argument- the one that I hear you indirectly referencing throughout your post. I don't believe, as some do, that opening up some of these questions is going to create a vortex of everything-is-nothingness and nothingness-is-everything kind of dilemma. I really don't. One of the reasons I don't worry about this is because I have a strong belief in the ministering nature of the Holy Spirit. All that is to say, we are not alone in a vacuum of our own thoughts.

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Paul Dalach

July 22, 2008  9:15am

Darren, I clarified my usage of return to something less complex, aka more fundamental. That is as clear an explanation of my atypical usage as I can come up with. I'll refer you to C.S. Lewis' work "The Abolition of Man"...and though this was written against the strong modernist societal trends of his time, it is, surprisingly, at times as relevant a polemic against obscurantist epistemology. If one continues to undermine the attainability knowledge, what will you have left? What do you teach of the subject: "we can't know anything conclusively and I'll teach you conclusively why this is true"? Silly...foolish. If you can explain away everything, you'll find you've explained explanation away. And maybe you think you've not gone to that extreme. How far WILL you go though? Isn't it convenient that our little epistemological song and dance so conveniently rids of nasty little categories that inconvenient us personally? Because that's all I've seen from this little jig: "For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear." (2 Tim 4). Apparently, the Apostle Paul thought that sound and wholesome teaching was clear and lasting over the ages. I'll strive to stay within the Apostle Paul's position...I don't feel the desire to follow after Pontius Pilate's "What is truth?" You want to get rid of "liberal," "unbiblical", and "fundamentalist"...will you loose also "uncharitable", "ungracious", and "imperialistic". So you've substituted the categories, but you still have them. What about the bible's "judaizers", "mutilators of the flesh", "wolfs in sheep's clothing", "false teachers", "wanderers away from the truth", "those who loved the world"? Are those useless categories that, through our social evolution, have become meaningless? Was Jesus foolishly destructive to call some "a brood of vipers"?

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Todd Burus

July 22, 2008  8:30am

This is not to say that they cannot be evaluated and found more or less truthful, but the rock that breaks, burns, and sifts is not Christianity. It is Jesus the Christ, Incarnate God. This may appear to be a subtle distinction, but it makes a world of difference. It appears to me that this is actually the problem with s number of "emergent" theologies, that Christ and Christianity aren't synonymous! What is Christianity but the act of following Christ? So what should the difference between the claims of Christianity and the claims of Christ be? None. Notice how Paul calls Christianity "the Way" (Acts 24.14). Then to Paul, his sect, Christianity (Acts 11.26) is "the Way." But Christ is also "the way" (John 14.6). How can this be? Because there is no difference in the two. All this said, I believe that it is the emergent types that want to make "Christianity" to be the other in an Us v. Them battle (Check out Rob Bell's upcoming book if you don't believe this). If they can paint "Christianity" as something to fight against then they can rationalize their unorthodox interpretations and methods as being opposed simply because they are unwelcome to the bad guy and not for the real reason which is that they are unbiblical.

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July 21, 2008  10:38pm

In my opinion, Driscoll seems to get that Christianity is the rock against which humans are broken, the fire that purifies us, the sieve through which our lives are sifted and sorted and made good. By taking a deconstructing stance toward Christianity, theology, and life, emergents seem to be getting this backward: they can't help but to break, burn, and sift the faith. In my opinion (oops) this statement is key to the underlying problems of the whole review. It makes the classic error of confusing Christianity and Christ. The same mistake is made when Jesus' statement "I am the Way..." is changed into "Christianity is the way". Christianity is one of the great world religions, but as such it is a system of beliefs just as are Judaism, or the Hindu faith. This is not to say that they cannot be evaluated and found more or less truthful, but the rock that breaks, burns, and sifts is not Christianity. It is Jesus the Christ, Incarnate God. This may appear to be a subtle distinction, but it makes a world of difference. The writer's failure to discern this distinction makes it easy to see how many other similar nuances of the emerging conversation are easy to miss, resulting in a review that, in many instances, is simply off the mark. Provocative read, though. Thanks.

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Darren King

July 21, 2008  9:08pm

I certainly agree that epistemology is at the heart of the disagreements/divergent perspectives one comes across in a discussion such as this. But I'm not sure why Paul wants to call it "degeneration" or moving backwards in complexity. I actually think that mature interaction and consideration will lead us exactly where we are; at an impass of sorts, yes... But an intellectually honest one. And while this may be uncomfortable for some, let us at least retreat to our respective corners amiably; respecting one another, not merely dismissing each other as "unbiblical", "fundamentalist", or "liberal". When one realizes the issue is one of epistemology, one also realizes that these one-dimensional tags leave so much to be desired. In fact, in such circumstances, these tags become almost worthless- even worse, they are often destructive. It is when name-calling sets in that we see degeneration.

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Chad Hall

July 21, 2008  4:04pm

As this topic gives way to cartoons, I thought it potentially good to post some reflections and responses. I'll post this at the end of each of the three articles (my review, Tony's response and Mark's response) in hopes of spurring more, and perhaps even better, conversation. At the least, I can say I have beaten a dead horse and we'll know the topic is done. 1. My blog article was too provocative. I knew this was true when Scott McKnight at highlighted the article as "how not to write for a blog." Ouch. Painful, but true. I don't mind being honest that I found one book a bit boring and the other a bit cocky, but I should have toned down my rhetoric. I wanted to write an interesting piece, not an offensive one. I'm disappointed that my writing did more to provoke fighting than to provoke thought and thoughtful discussion. I'll aim higher next time. 2. I underestimated the polemic environment into which I was writing. I wrote this as the follow-up to a shorter "review" I did for Leadership Journal, with this being my "reaction." I assumed that most readers would have entered this conversation through the door of the print review. I was wrong. I also missed the heat that was already in the kitchen, so to speak, especially as it relates to the twinges of cults of personality going on in the environment. My critiques of books and ideas sometimes got taken as critiques (or compliments, see #5 below) of persons. My proposed title did not bear the word "versus," which I think contributed to a polemic tone, Yet my content didn't bring in anything to cool the conversation. 3. My rhetoric about COTA was over-the-top and unhelpful. I didn't precisely enough distinguish how the church "came across" in the book from what I might actually believe or think to be true about the church, in general. I once met Karen Ward and experienced her in only the most positive of ways on that occasion. Aside from that encounter five or six years ago, I know very little about the church and should have been more clear about that. 4. Evidently, in a polemic situation, everyone assumes a bias. I found it interesting how this played out in the ongoing conversation. Some readers assumed I had a bias for Driscoll and against Jones, neither of which is true. I also noticed folks assuming biases and misinterpreting comments from other posts. I'm sure the tone of the article fed into this. Still, a silver lining was the unexpected yet welcome branch of the conversation re: one limitation of text-based conversation is that it's easy to assume wrongly and assume the worst. 5. I found interesting the conversation re: "humble." I chose this word as a description of what I think should be our proper stance with the doctrines and theologies of the past, but many readers (including Driscoll) seem to have considered it in a more general sense of one's demeanor or humility in inter-personal interactions. To me, a substantive conversation can occur here. I'm not ashamed to confess that I think some emergents go too far in deconstructing the faith, yet my aim in saying that is to enter into dialogue, not debate. I could have done a much better job framing this topic in a way that was curious, invoked conversation and sought to understand those who see it differently. Now that my reflections nearly equal the initial review, I'll stop typing and start reading. Cheers, Chad Hall

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Paul Dalach

July 21, 2008  9:40am

Mike, I see how you can take my words as purely negative...mocking. It's not what I degenerate is to move back in complexity, to settle somewhere 'lower'. I have a strong background in math, if that helps understand my, admittedly irregular, usage a bit better. To the point, our more complex topical discussions seems to perpetually wind back to the place of real division...what is truth and can we really discern it? In my other comments in this series (including parts 2 and 3), I've already said my 2-cents on the subject: the extent in which the ability to discern truth has been called into doubt is either silly ignorance or dishonest and agenda driven. Posed as an honest academic query, it leads us to this point of spinning in the cul-de-sac of epistemological discussion where a conclusion and/or a compromise in any other area of inquiry is almost impossible. TJ is right...I don't even know if we have the tools to communicate any more. Dialogue will increasingly become impossible as more participants become jaded and mutually distrustful on the underpinning question of epistemology.

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