Deep down, Emergent Church is shallow

I left the Evangelical world decisively about the time Bill Hybels’ Willow Creek Church was its fad du jour, so Emergent Church was largely unknown to me. Having left, and after a few years having given up on the idea that surely the folks over there are just waiting to hear what stunned me 14 or so years ago (Orthodox Christianity), I haven’t really kept up with the characteristic novelties, fads, charlatans, personages and artistes of Evangelicalism. (Oh yeah: I did read Blue Like Jazz and kept thinking that Donald Miller was channeling Holden Caulfield.)

But Father Gregory Jensen apparently has kept up, with the Emergent-flavored variety of Evangelicalism at least, and despite some sympathy, sees it as rooted in Oedipal adolescent rebellion.

From his review of Andrew Farley’s new book, “The Naked Gospel: The Truth You May Never Hear in Church,” extended quote:

Whatever might have been the justice of his criticisms of the Medieval Catholic Church, Martin Luther began a historical process that embodied a fundamentally different understanding of what it means to be Christian. For Luther and those who followed in his footsteps, to be a Christian meant not to live according to Tradition of the Church but to protest against it. We have reached a point now that when tradition–even Christian tradition–conflicts with the individual and his desires it is the individual and not tradition that is given the primary place.

Within the broad context of Protestantism is that people criticize yesterday’s critics. (sic) We come to see yesterday’s heroes as those who would bind us, the new generation, even as they were once bound by those who came before them.  The dynamic here is almost Oedipal.  Just as a man rebels against his father, his son in turn rebels against him.  But this isn’t maturity but childishness.

Thanks to my relationship with the Ooze, a site “dedicated to the emerging Church culture,” I’ve had the opportunity to read and reflect on works significant to the Emergent Church movement.  For all that I admire the energy and enthusiasm of this movement, I’ve concluded that it is simply the latest manifestation of the anti-Traditionalism that is at the core of both Protestantism and neoliberalism.  And like both, I fear the Emergent Church movement will in time fragment into every smaller sects, leaving it is wake spiritually and psychologically damaged men and women.

Contrary to his own assertions, Farley’s book is not about the Gospel.  While I think he is right in rejecting the deformation of Evangelicalism, he simply substitutes his own idiosyncratic view of the Gospel for the one under which he grew up.  This is simply another in a long string of attempts to justify Evangelical Christianity’s love affair with rebellion against Tradition.  St Anthony the Great warns his monks about just this when he says “A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad; you are not like us.’”

The problem here is that without a solid grounding in the Christian Tradition, the Emergent Church movement, like Protestantism and Evangelical Christianity before it, has little to offer.  My earlier reference to Oedipus was not accidental.  Like the rebellious adolescent, Farley’s book confuses criticism with mature thought and supplanting one’s father with being an adult.  This is not a surprise; criticism is easy.  But stripping away the neuroses of Evangelical Christianity is different from presenting the Gospel in its fullness.

Farley does not present the Gospel in its fullness; he wants to present the “Naked Gospel.”  But the Gospel isn’t, and never has been, “naked.”  Like Joseph, the Gospel has always worn that divinely tailored coat of many colors (see Genesis 37:3) called Holy Tradition.  “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle” (2 Thessalonians 2:15, NKJV).

If readers finds Farley’s critique compelling, they owe it to themselves to seek out an Orthodox Church and discover the Christian Tradition in its fullness.  It is possible to live a life that is more than criticism.  Through the sacraments of the Church you can become a “partaker of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), progressively freer from your sins and evermore the person God created you to be.

In a sense, the only thing remarkable about this is that there’s a felt need to remark on it. The glimmers I’ve gotten of the Emergents suggested that they are the latest Evangelical schtick (sicut erat in principio, et nunc et semper), wherein the distinctive transgressivism is borrowed artifacts — candles, incense, silence, maybe a few icons — from Christian traditions that actually are rooted in something.

But maybe if Father Gregory has earned their respect, they’ll hear him when he says the Emperor’s new clothes look suspiciously like the old clothes — under the nice-smelling Fabreze, the same superstructure of rebellious and novelty-seeking thought, convinced that only the chains of the past prevent fulfillment, and that going back to the Bible (or the “Naked Gospel”) will unlock the door thereto.

I was privileged for a year and a summer to attend Evangelicalism’s best, Wheaton College, preceded by four years at Wheaton Academy, its loosely-affiliated Christian boarding school. Many (not all) of my friends from there have crashed and burned. Some know they’ve apostasized. But some still think of themselves as Evangelical Christians of some sort, while manifesting by attitude (and in at least one disappointing case, by explicit words) that there’s no love of God, but only some cheap fire insurance. Church attendance pays the premiums. They never saw, or long ago ceased seeing, the rabbit. I was one of them (I’d ceased seeing what I saw as a child), though I hadn’t yet abandoned the chase before Orthodox Christianity blessedly blind-sided me.

What’s at stake is not bragging rights, much as we all love to brag. What’s at stake is sheep without a Good (and stable) Shepherd, becoming over time Father Gregory’s “spiritually and psychologically damaged men and women.”

Perhaps what deters them from the fullness of the Gospel is precisely that it’s not shallow; that you can’t jump in and feel the bottom; that the Christian tradition “is what it is” despite your pet theories of what this (or that) verse “means to me” —and that what it is is 2000 years deep; or just that it brings God so uncomfortably near (rather than freezing Him in a book one can manipulate to mean most anything).

The best lesson I learned coming into Orthodoxy was that if it and I disagreed, it was probably right. Time has proven that true in many ways, is still proving it true in some ways, and has in no wise ever proven it false.

The Gospel Reading for Pascha

The passion narratives having been read during the week, we come on the Day of Resurrection to read … not an explicit Resurrection narrative, but  John 1: 1-17.

The choice of John 1 (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God ….”) might seem an odd one, but:

In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.

Given the Orthodox emphasis on the Resurrection as Christ’s conquering of death (not – or not exclusively – a vindication of his “His message” or even of the deity of “His person,” as if to say “See? I’m God. I can do anything? Got that, dummies?”), the inability of light to “comprehend” the light takes on added power.

Another reason, however, may be the tradition of receiving Catechumens on Great and Holy Saturday. In other words, their formal catechesis having been completed, adults are received into the Church. We had no litany for Catchumens in the Liturgy today.

But what has that to do with why we read from John today? When I was a Protestant, we passed out the Gospel of John, separately printed, as a veritable evangelistic tract because of what we considered its warmth and accessibility. I believe it’s still the case that Wycliffe Bible Translators will translate and publish the Gospel of John in a new (to Wycliffe) language before any other Scriptures.

But it was not so in the early Church. The early Church actually withheld the Gospel of John from Catechumens, having them learn the facts of Christ’s life from the synoptic gospels. The Gospel of John was considered too theological for a novice. That’s right: the superficially warm and fuzzy Gospel of John is heavy theology!

Therein, no doubt, lies a rather large tale about how historic Christianity and Evangelicalism even conceive theology. Obviously, we’re seeing something more in John than its heart-warmingness. Something, even, that might be missed or misappropriated if John is read to early in a spiritual pilgrimage.

So – or so it seems to me – the Gospel for today from John may be appointed not just for its evocative power, but to continue the instruction of the “Newly Illumined” who were received the day before – and are now “ready for meat” in more than one sense. I wish I were equipped to flesh out this little epiphany better than this, but there it is.