As an outsider to American Evangelicalism, though a sympathetic one, I admit to being bemused by the movement’s taste for what seems to me reinventing the wheel. To be clear, this is true of its hipper elements, though not of people like my friends Russell Moore, Peter Leithart, and Darryl Hart, who, perhaps for this reason, are not completely comfortable with being called an Evangelical.
The almost inevitable movement of the Evangelical wheel reinventors is to claim that there is something wrong with the traditional wheel and then to talk a lot about what’s wrong with it, analyzing its restrictive circularity and pointing out all the nicks and scratches and the way it wobbles, while insisting that Christians find some new way of rolling along. Many of them stop there. Many of them are happy to roll along in vehicles using the traditional wheel, while writing books declaring that better wheels must be found.
But the ones who go on to try to find this new way of rolling along find themselves creating a wheel that’s pretty much like the wheel they were complaining about. The first wheels they create will probably be many-sided, because they insist on creating a new wheel and breaking free of the choices of their fathers, but as they try to force the vehicle along, and find out that it doesn’t roll very well, they make the wheel rounder and rounder. They find out why the original inventors made the wheel as they did.
This came out in a weblog discussion a friend commended. The item described the “emerging church” as a conversation and not (my words, not the writer’s) anything actually resembling a church. One respondent wrote:
I like some of the other commenters found the emerging church literature and thought to be freeing and validating. many of my friends who came out of a literalistic, fundamentalist, dispensationalist, foundationalist, churchy, christian subculturalist, (looks like I’m making a subtitle list in the likes of McClaren), etc. . . . existence as a Christian liked the Emerging conversation because of a word that I have used often to describe my position — resonation. It resonated and made me and other not feel so alone.
I wasn’t looking for a new ecclesiology as much as I was looking for a validation of hidden questions and a nascent theological trajectory that was going to take me away from my ecclesial roots — which was going to happen anyway, but the Emerging conversation was my “cocoon” out of what I was moving away from and for that I am so thankful.
A later respondent described the problem with these attempts to reinvent the wheel:
this is the very reason why there are lots of questions and few answers. When you start to move from questions to answers, and from theology to praxis, what you find is a church community that looks an awful lot like those villainous institutions of the modern era. Things like orthodoxy, which is necessary to hold a community together. Things like church membership, which are necessary to ensure any semblance of accountability to the way of Jesus. Things like moral boundaries, which are necessary for any social cohesive group.
Despite all the conversation, the reality is that when the deconstruction is over and we start to rebuild, we end up concluding that that which we deconstructed wasn’t all bad after all. Some of what many of us were running from, we come to find out, is a necessary part of building any kind of cohesive community — religious or otherwise.