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.

Chasing the rabbit

Father Stephen recounts an evocative story from the Desert Fathers, set in the context of the Gospel According to John (1:14 “we have beheld his glory”) and John’s first epistle (1:1 et seq: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it”). The story is the perfect conclusion — indeed, could almost stand alone:

There is a story from the Desert Fathers about a young monk who asked one of the holy men of the desert why it is that so many people came out to the desert to seek God and yet most of them gave up after a short time and returned to their lives in the city.

The old monk responded:

“Last evening my dog saw a rabbit running for cover among the bushes of the desert and he began to chase the rabbit, barking loudly. Soon other dogs joined the chase, barking and running. They ran a great distance and alerted many other dogs. Soon the wilderness was echoing the sounds of their pursuit but the chase went on into the night.

After a little while, many of the dogs grew tired and dropped out. A few chased the rabbit until the night was nearly spent. By morning, only my dog continued the hunt.”

“Do you understand,” the old man said, “what I have told you?”

“No,” replied the young monk, “please tell me, father.”

“It is simple,” said the desert father, “my dog saw the rabbit!”

Finding salvation outside the monastery

St John of the Ladder writes (1:21):

Some people living carelessly in the world have asked me: “We have wives and are beset with social cares, and how can we lead the solitary life?” I replied to them: “Do all the good you can; do not speak evil of anyone; do not steal from anyone; do not hate anyone; do not be absent from the divine services; be compassionate to the needy; do not offend anyone; do not wreck another man’s domestic happiness, and be content with what you own wives can give you. If you behave in this way, you will not be far from the Kingdom of Heaven.’

HT: Felix Culpa.