Order a pint of Guinness, turn up Coldplay, and meet me in the corner booth of our local pub because I want to tell you a story.
Rushing to finish Why Were Not Emergent , I balance against the trains jolts while furiously underlining various passages. I live in Bushwick, Brooklyn¯which, according to the New York Times , is home to a growing artists scene, though many pockets are still poor and the crime rate remains relatively high. The train slows at my stop. I shove the book back into my purse (relieved to at least put the kitschy orange and green cover out of sight). Waiting for the doors to open, I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the subway windows and suddenly feel disaffected by the Royal Tenenbaum gaze that stares back at me. Once in my apartment, I collapse onto my vintage, button-tufted couch and toss aside my Bible¯one of those new ESVs with a red leather cover and floral etchings. After putting some Sigur Rós on my iPod and making myself a latte, I pick up where DeYoung and Kluck left off. The end.
A story can say a lot, but it can also leave a lot unsaid. For example, that dull story¯with its postmodern self-consciousness, lazy plot line, and forced cultural references¯alludes to some facts about myself, but it doesnt reveal anything about what I actually believe.
The emergent church isnt much different. Its devotees like to tell stories and engage in discussion, but often the dialogue is not helpful and the stories are not very exciting. This is because the emergent conversation¯movements are passé and narrow-minded¯lacks the commentary and the narrative of traditional Christian doctrine.
It lacks commentary because emergent teachers¯leaders are too authoritative¯refuse to annotate the gospel with anything other than personal speculations. Its stories lack tension because they gloss over the climactic cross and other crucial gospel elements. As a result, the story that they are teaching¯a story where Jesus is the protagonist, God is little more than one of Shakespeares fools, and culture is the director¯is superficially pleasing but deeply disappointing.
In Why Were Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be) , Kevin DeYoung, the senior pastor at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, and Ted Kluck, a sportswriter who has written for ESPN, are quick to admit that they dont think of our emergent sparring partners as the bad guys. Many Christians have been edified by the movement. The emergent conversation stems from good intentions and is pointing out dangerous imbalances in the Church. It is even to be admired for how it strives to engage a postmodern culture, win hearts for Christ, create authentic Christian art, and improve the world in which we live. But, the authors add, the emergent movement has its own errors that need to be corrected.
Defining the emerging church is like nailing Jell-O to the wall, the authors write. The what and who of the movement are almost impossible to define. But of even greater concern is that, as emergent teachers are concocting their instant Jell-O movement with a dash of powdery theology, they have tossed a batch of unassuming evangelicals into a pot of slow boiling water. DeYoung and Klucks book is meant to help evangelicals test the emergent waters so they can jump right back out before getting burned.
Because emergent beliefs are so amorphous¯as a result of complying to postmodernism¯it is impossible for its teachers to assert their beliefs absolutely. As a result, real conviction is one of the great casualties of emergence. Writers such as Brian McClaren, Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, Peter Rollins, and Rob Bell are quick to write off historical doctrines and hesitant to assert anything other than approximate truths. Thus the emergent tone is dismissive, even when under the guise of profundity. And many of the challenges and inconsistencies of the emergent movement stem from the fact that it has intentionally not built itself on any foundation¯an effort to avoid proposition, metanarrative, and tradition.
Rather than just make a case against emergence, DeYoung and Kluck make a case for doctrine, for conviction, and they do so with an authenticity that would make any emergent devotee proud. In their brief manifesto, DeYoung and Kluck counter the arguments of the emergent movement with the word of God and simple logic. The result is refreshing.
Instead of fusing their very different styles, DeYoung and Kluck wrote their own chapters independently. DeYoungs writing has the same straightforward and enjoyable quality of his chapter titles: Bible: Why I Love the Person and Proposition of Jesus, Doctrine: The Drama Is in the Dialogue, Modernism: The Boogeyman Cometh, and Jesus: Bringer of Peace, Bearer of Wrath. In each chapter, DeYoung addresses the most noteworthy, and often most controversial, emergent theological viewpoints, hitting on such issues as scriptural authority, inaugurated eschatology, eternal damnation, and Jesuss death and resurrection. DeYoung replaces every emergent fallacy that he tears down with a scriptural reinforcement.
On the other hand, one wonders what Kluck, the sportswriter, can contribute to this theological discussion. His chapters are not completely devoid of relevance and insight, but what he offers is usually either supplemental to or repetitive of DeYoungs contribution. As Kluck writes, Kevins [DeYoung] chapters are longer and more propositional. Mine are shorter, and more experiential, because Im not a seminary-trained theologian, rather just a guy in the pew (or in our case, the plastic chair). Yet Klucks chapters¯which share touching stories, make numerous sports analogies, and reinstate stale clichés¯destabilize the book because they often get tripped up on some of the same trappings that are in the emergent church. Kluck is the story-teller. He is the social critic. He is the guy who admits he does not know what he is talking about (on numerous occasions). Klucks writing, perhaps because it is in the context of a critique of a trendy movement, is too trendy itself.
My story about coming home on the train¯if it can even be considered a story¯alludes to the fact that I, like DeYoung and Kluck, should be an emergent Christian. In my more presumptuous moods, I call myself a writer, and Im a fan of Dave Eggers. I grew up in an evangelical church. I live in a part of Brooklyn whose edges are rougher than the hipster paradise of Williamsburg. I love to listen to bands, which if named, will instantly lose their indie appeal. I drink lattes. I hate easy answers. I enjoy deep conversations. So shouldnt I be craving a new kind of Christianity that will undo my traditional evangelical upbringing while satisfying my newfound love for diversity, social justice, and, of course, soul searching?
Not at all. Despite my hipster leanings and stale Christian pedigree, I am not emergent, if emergence is defined by its theology instead of just its ethos. And after reading this book, I am even more grateful that I never jumped onto the emergent bandwagon. I am not the only young Christian who appreciates many aspects of postmodern culture but who also yearns for the absolute conviction that DeYoung and Kluck present.
Some of us long for teaching that has authority, ethics rooted in dogma, and something unique in this world of banal diversity, DeYoung writes. We long for Jesus¯not a shapeless, formless good-hearted ethical teacher Jesus, but the Jesus of the New Testament, the Jesus of the church, the Jesus of faith, the Jesus of two millennia of Christian witness with all of its unchanging and edgy doctrinal propositions.
This Jesus is the Jesus of traditional doctrine, the Jesus of yesterday and today and forever. He is not a Jesus who will go out of style along with skinny jeans, tight cowboy shirts, and aviator sunglasses.
Throughout the book, the authors make the case that the emergent church is simply a fad. In fact, the emergent church seems to be going down the same accommodationist path as the mainline, bourgeois, modern churches that they are reacting against. And, like the baby boomers megachurches, the emergent church is sweating to make the gospel entertaining and comfortable to their generation. The mainline church bent over backward to accommodate modernism, and its members have budget crunches and shrinking churches to show for it. Will the emerging church go down the same nondoctrinal path as the mainline church relative to postmodernism? DeYoung asks. In an attempt to reimagine the gospel, emergent teachers have merely repackaged the modern, seeker-sensitive approach.
Because they are reacting against the suburban, middle-class churches of their parents, the emergent ideal is an urban breed of Christianity. Yet the largest church in the cosmopolitan center of the United States, New York City, is Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Redeemer¯which, coincidently, is primarily attracting twenty- and thirty-year-olds, many of whom are artists¯is a church of rigorous expository preaching that is anchored in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Tim Keller, the senior pastor at Redeemer, understands that it is important to contextualize doctrine but that you cannot change doctrine. Even while preaching absolute truth, propositions, sin, and hell, Keller will quote the Apostle Paul in the same breath as a quote from Bono, and all to make a point meaningful to his congregation, not to win cool points. Redeemer is a church that is ministering to a young, urban congregation because of¯not despite—the fact that it is dedicated to historical Reformed theology.
In the end, the authors of Why Were Not Emergent are not making a case for a new kind of Christianity. They are not trying lure emergent Christians into their fold with a hipper take on things. They are simply trying to replace the errors of the emergent church¯which is, nonetheless, making important contributions to evangelicalism¯with scripturally sound theology.
And it should not be so counterintuitive that young evangelicals such as myself prefer theology rooted in tradition to a spirituality waffling in relativism. We want a story with a climax so profound that it leaves us worshiping God, not reducing him to fit into our cultural paradigm. And if that story comes with a Guinness and some Coldplay, great. If not, no big deal.
Kristen Scharold graduated from Wheaton College and works at the New York Times.
Why Were Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be) by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck