Tony Jones is the national coordinator of Emergent Village and author of The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier. Collin Hansen is editor-at-large of Christianity Today and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists. Both books take a sympathetic journalistic approach to a young but growing movement in American Christianity, examining why it's growing and how it's changing the larger church.
When you have two groups that care so much about theology, you'll always have something to talk about. E-mail conversations like this are helpful; sharing a meal together is even better. There is a tendency for all of us to write things for the Web that we would not say across a table. Nothing can substitute for the immediate give-and-take of face-to-face dialogue. I hope these interactions will continue and forestall the rush toward entrenchment in polemical blogs and books.
I do think that criticism can be constructive. I would be eager to hear about how Emergent has beaten back false critiques and even shifted course after observations that hit their mark. With the young, Reformed crowd I profiled, they face a great deal of criticism, both unfair and deserved. Some of it is easy to refute, such as the charge that Calvinists do not evangelize. Maybe these critics are not familiar with Edwards, Whitefield, Spurgeon, Carey, Judson, or even Piper's Let the Nations Be Glad. Nevertheless, young Calvinists have set out to evangelize with zeal, lest anyone still wonder. On the other hand, Reformed theologians have earned a reputation for picking each other apart but not applying their theology. Hopefully the young Calvinists will heed this critique and further explore how the doctrines of grace foster a biblical mix of conviction and humility.
Sometimes the criticism just makes me laugh. I get a kick out of Southern Baptists who worry about that leading emerging influence, John Piper.
One things that's frustrating for the Emergents as I'm sure it is for the Reformed is when we answer a criticism but it continues to come up. As I published in the book, several of us wrote an extended "Response to Our Critics" several years ago, but it has done little to quell the critique. I mean, how many times do I have to profess that I'm a trinitarian before people believe it?
One of the criticisms that I think it easy to refute is that Emergents lack conviction. The argument goes like this: Because Emergents tend toward more humble even postmodern articulations of truth, they necessarily don't believe anything and can't stand for or against anything. It's the "slippery slope" argument. (But, of course, the most radical of the French postmodernist philosophers had all sorts of convictions about truth and justice. In fact, most of them were post-World War II Jews who felt that it was absolutist truth claims that led to the Holocaust.) To the contrary, the Emergents I know are persons of intense conviction on many issues, and they are surely not "anything goes" relativists.
A more difficult criticism to refute has been that of the organization and leadership of Emergent Christianity. Since our movement formed along the lines of the new media, and particularly the Internet, it tends to be egalitarian and a bit chaotic. Some voices rise up loudly for a while, then fade to the background. In the past, mainline Christianity has tried to mitigate the dominance of loud white guys (like me) with bureaucracy and Robert's Rules of Order. Although I don't think that's worked very well, I do worry that our movement will devolve into the oligarchy of the loudest voices.
Let me ask you a question that flows out of this a bit. I get the sense from the young, Reformed guys I know that they share some of the epistemic humility that we have in Emergent. They don't speak with quite the certain tones of the older Reformed crowd. I think this humility about knowledge actually jibes perfectly with the Reformed doctrine of Total Depravity (i.e., if our intellects are depraved, how can we be so sure that we're right about, say, depravity?). Has this humility rubbed off on the older Reformed generation at all?
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The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier and Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists are available from ChristianBook.com and other retailers.