No Final Judgments – One Southern Baptist and Emergence Christianity

This post was originally written for abpnews at the invitation to offer a Baptist, even Southern Baptist reflection, on the recent Emergence Christianity Event in Memphis, TN.

Friendships transcend labels. More than ten years ago I ventured with a friend to a conference not organized and characterized by my denomination, Southern Baptists. The event was the National Pastors Convention hosted by Leadership Journal, Zondervan, and Youth Specialties, among others. During pre-session music the video screens were filled with information and an occasional stab at humor.

We Southern Baptists often share jokes where other denominations or groups serve as the butt. I was unprepared when Baptists served as the prod for levity. We are often told it is good to laugh at ourselves. This is fine when we initiate said joviality. But, when others take aim at our idiosyncrasies that is another matter.

Southern Baptists are a serious lot. And, we are serious about our criticisms. We make resolutions, or attempt them, to express our concern if not disdain for, say, Mark Driscoll and the Emerging Church. Mark Driscoll used expletives and alcohol. The Emerging/Emergent Church dabbled with theology not content to re-arrange the chairs of ecclesial methodology. When Southern Baptist become wary, we make our opinions public. Our judgments are final.

Ed Stetzer presented on the Emerging/Emergent Church at New Orleans Seminary and concluded with his concerns. He and other religion observers have contended the Emerging/Emergent Church is in its death throes. Not according to Phyllis Tickle.

At the recent Emergence Christianity event in Memphis, TN, Tickle offered a historiography that promises the future of a movement subsuming labels like emergent, emerging, missional, hyphenateds, fresh expressions, neo-monastic as detailed in her new book of the same title. Folks quibbled with her first book, The Great Emergence. Maybe it was the reference to the Church having something like a garage sale every 500 years that just did not sit well. There is a difference between an historian and a religion observer. Tickle is the latter not the former, a difference she acknowledges.

Tickle tends to see Christianity in its sweep rather than its detail. She tracks streams, be they cultural, theological, or intellectual, and looks for the interrelationship that mark shifts in religious practices and sensibilities. For instance, Tickle references the issue of slavery as an illustration of challenges to inerrancy. If the Bible is factually true then it ought actually be practiced. When Christians supported slavery, and later segregation, with Scripture, what was claimed to be factual was not actual. For Tickle this illustrates inerrancy as an ideology. Her conclusion is not unlike David Fitch’s in The End of Evangelicalism, even if derived from different illustrations.

Today Tickle is ready to name a variety of new expressions fomenting in traditional denominations as well as non-traditional forms, from East and West including both hemispheres as, Emergence Christianity. She sees a number of tributaries giving rise to this sea change. Here in the United States, many Southern Baptists would be surprised that Tickle includes John Piper and Tim Keller as those positively spurring something new. Her analysis is not intended to suggest some will be left behind, or left out. Instead, it seems, she sees some segments of Christianity moving faster than others, some preferring one label to another, while still comprising Emergence Christianity.

What marks this new era? Tickle points to it as the Age of the Spirit. In an interesting move Phyllis refers to the sequences of the Charistmatic movement as the indication we will finally see a shift in the reference point for authority. She refuses to relegate the Scriptures as passé. But, she does push against the notion that they form the final authority. We must trust, and follow, the Spirit. Jesus would likely be her final authority.

I left most interested in Phyllis’ final questions. First, Tickle believes we need a Theology of Religion. How do we hold the Christian faith amidst others who hold an equally strong position in other faiths? Her question is not one of arguing the rightness or wrongness of a given Tradition. Instead, the question is what sort of people will we be in the world where we encounter others who possess different yet passionate faith.

Second, Tickle believes there is a need for a new doctrine of the atonement. She points to Church history where at least six visions/theories of the atonement have been held. Curiously she notes that the Church settled questions about the nature of Jesus and the Spirit in relationship to the Father, but never took up the matter of which vision of the atonement is the vision. Her brief explanation noted that context tended to shape the vision for a given theory of the atonement. If we are entering a new era, as she proposes, then we may need a new doctrine to add to our existing visions/theories. I wonder what Scot McKnight would say.

Third, Tickle believes we still face the question, “What is a human being?” She walked quickly through the different distinctions that have been proposed for what sets a human apart from other creatures, animals. The more we learn from other fields, the more we realize the question is still up in the air. She points to the issues of personhood and how we have historically talked about consciousness. Neuroscience continues to make contributions to what we know that will inevitably, if not already, require us to consider afresh references to the Imago Dei.

Tickle ended her session suggesting the most important matter for the future of Christianity is transmission. How will we continue to tell the story of Jesus to our children, their children, and beyond? Phyllis either used her own experience as a means to illustrate how transmission works or she cited her own habits with her children as the means for transmitting the faith. Interpretations vary. I suspect she was getting at what Lamin Saneh considers distinct about Christianity. It may be transmitted across cultures, and here I believe Tickle would say, across time.

Rather than make final judgments, I prefer to inhabit the edge listening. Gamaliel wisely noted that to work against movements in which God might be working to be foolish.

Brian McLaren, James MacDonald, and The Elephant, Part 1

Few things bewilder more than the apparent contradiction in responses toward high profile Christian leaders. It seems the trigger for public outcry turns on what is said, not what is done. I am reminded of the parable of the two sons. One told his father he would go work the field but did not. The other told his father he would not but later did. One son knew the right things to say but not the proper thing to do. The other did not say the right thing but did the proper thing.

You want to get the Evangelical establishment up in arms, invite them to cross the road with Brian McLaren. There is little doubt the content of Brian’s new book will spur even more vitriol his direction. Many will feel a hubristic sense of affirmation that Brian has indeed gone the bridge too far. Few will entertain his project that Jesus-y people ought to learn to get along with everyone, even those with whom they disagree.

Writing this piece will confirm in some minds I have lost mine. Read More

Progressive Conservative? or, Keep an Eye On Tony Jones’ Challenge

Sadly any mention of certain friendships shuts down many a conversation. Over the past ten or more years I have had a few occasions to chat with Tony Jones, in person and on the phone. There are many times I believe Tony gets a bad rap. Other times I am well aware his provocations stir deep passions. Like other of my friends he forces me to think more deeply about issues of life and faith.

Recently Tony offered a challenge to Progressive Christians. This after he and others debated any and all adjectives used to nuance Christian. At the heart of his challenge is another provocateur, Tripp Fuller. Here is another young thinker that will not let us off the hook when thinking about Christianity, and notably God.

Evangelicals, conservatives, and fundamentalists tend to think Liberal Progressives have nothing to say about God because they have made any number of philosophical moves that tend to produce ethics as religion. Read More

Stina Busman Offers Questions and Suggestions to Fitch

Stina Busman described David Fitch’s project in The End of Evangelicalism as “impressive.” But, that does not imply a wholesale endorsement. David would not want ti that way. Instead, he would invite conversation partners to help refine his constructive way forward for the Church. Here is Part 2 of Busman’s review. You may read Part 1 here.


With that said, there are a number of places that give me pause in Fitch’s work.  I will suggest two as I conclude my thoughts here.  First, as I read through his critical application of Žižek’s ideas to the evangelical situation, there is a sense of obviousness that emerges for me.  For example, while Fitch recognizes that the centrality of the idea of the United States as a Christian Nation is debated now more than ever, he still affirms that this conceptual object is deeply embedded in contemporary evangelicalism.  I do not – at some level – doubt this, and yet, I am not sure Fitch’s assertion would be affirmed readily by a younger generation of evangelicals.

While my experience with this demographic is limited (and while I am admittedly part of this younger generation), I rarely hear any of the evangelical college students I teach supporting this concept of a Christian Nation.  Instead, many recognize this belief has characterized evangelicalism in the past but do not retain allegiance to this conceptual object.  Undeniably, there is an ever-growing body of literature on generational differences within evangelical Christianity, and in many ways this body falls outside the scope of Fitch’s work.  Nevertheless, the enduring relevancy of his project is directly related to the younger leadership arising in evangelicalism – not simply the established evangelical torchbearers that Fitch mentions and analyzes.  Thus putting Fitch’s work in conversation with Bob Wuthnow’s text After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion, for example, would be an enlightening endeavor.

Another area that gives me pause concerns a certain narrowness that characterizes Fitch’s account of evangelicalism.  Read More

Guest Post(s) – Stina Busman On Fitch’s The End of Evangelicalism

What about the future of Evangelicalism? Recently Trevin Wax suggested in the early days of the Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention high profile Evangelicals lent their weight in the effort to stave off liberal drift. Wax thinks it is now time to return the favor. Trevin sees the current situation among Evangelicals to need the now re-invigorated SBC to lend their support and involvement in shoring up what to him is an Evangelical stream that has become too wide.

I have been chewing on Wax’s piece since it came out. The one thing that I believe he misses is explicated in David Fitch‘s, The End of Evangelicalism. Sadly the book may never make it into those circles. We tend to see books by the droves on the same old theme – “if we would do better and try harder, then we could remake, reshape, improve on what we have.”

Willard suggests the notion that, “if at first you don’t succeed try, try again,” has made its way into the church. The error prompts us to do the same things harder rather than step back and see just what it is that keeps us failing. If this practice is prevalent in churches, it is perfected in denominational structures. Maybe the folks over at Lifeway would do well to consider a book study with their research team using Fitch as their subject.
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