For many evangelicals, the views of emergents, like Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Rob Bell, and Doug Pagitt, have been written off as heretical. Evangelicals have identified and classified them as “yesterday’s news,” as opposed to when the “emerging church” was making a “splash” in the late 90s until about 2010. So, they have been off many evangelicals’ “radar screens.”
Yet, I have found that their influences have morphed and actually increased over time. Now writing as “progressives,” they have developed a full-orbed theology. They also are raising questions that are on lots of younger Christians’ minds these days, ones who are prone to leaving church and maybe the faith altogether. And, they are giving answers that are attractive to many such people. These kinds of questions are ones Barna (and David Kinnaman) has reported on in You Lost Me; e.g.,
- How could a loving God send people to hell? How could the God of the Old Testament (apparently) commit genocide?
- How could a loving God blow up in rage and violently kill His Son? How can we trust such a God?
- How can we not be imperialistic and colonialist as Christians (including with the good news)? Is the good news mainly about going to heaven when we die?
- How could good Christians be so concerned about salvation of peoples’ souls, and yet seem to not really care about crucial issues of extreme, widespread poverty, oppression, colonialism, racism, sexism, global warming, and more – social justice and ethical issues?
- How can we condemn people in other religions for not believing as we do?
- So, are Christians, and Christianity, really good, or do they actually foster a lot of evil?
- How can we be wise and learn from science, rather than have a default mindset of skepticism and antagonism?
I wonder if the choice to ignore their more updated views has led to an unexpected result. That is, I think their voices are giving a “Christian” lens to many such issues at work in broader society. Moreover, along with the influence of professors at Christian colleges and universities, who were trained in secular PhD programs, I think they are influencing many students with their progressive ideas about diversity, social justice, etc., on conservative Christian colleges. The emergents also are deepening their criticisms of conservative, evangelicals and their churches, and they were more on target with them in 2005 than I realized when I wrote Truth and the New Kind of Christian.
So, what should we think of their updated, newer views? Like in Truth, I try to be irenic, gracious, listen to them, and carefully describe their views. Then, I try to assess their views, looking at both strengths and concerns, whether that be ethically, philosophically, or theologically.
Importantly, I think they miss the mark in two subtle, yet deeply important ways: first, I think they do not realize a root problem in all too many conservative churches. I think that these churches have been unwittingly, yet deeply, shaped by naturalism, in the sense that, practically, God has become irrelevant for their lives in various ways and to various, yet significant, extents. That means that in those regards, they live in the “flesh” – their own sinful propensities. This can be described as a practical atheism.
So, one thing I do is show how many historical, cultural, philosophical, scientific, and other factors have shaped Christians in the west, and the US In particular, so that in various ways many Christians don’t really expect God to show up in their lives – in many ways, such faith has been de-supernaturalized. But, second, and ironically, I think that McLaren, et al. don’t realize that they are advocating a kind of Christianity that also has been deeply naturalized.
Instead, I argue that that the real solution both groups need is to embrace the fullness of Christ, in fullness of Spirit and truth, as Paul describes in Ephesians. That way, Jesus Himself can be powerfully manifested in Christians’ lives, which is so desperately needed today.
Next, I will survey some of the emergents’ newer views.