The New Christians…a review

I was eager to read Tony Jones’ new book The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier. I have tried to stay current with his writings and other authors along the Emergent frontier such as Brian McLaren, Doug Paggit, Dan Kimball, among others. While many of these other “emergent” books are musings, thoughts, and reflections, I was hoping that The New Christians would provide additional clarity to what lies behind the Emergent movement. The history, philosophical background, religious questionings, theology per se, and the hopes and dreams of the emerging leaders truly emerged in this book. I find the conversations well articulated, inspiring, challenging, and beautiful at the same time. While much in this book does raise theological questions for me, these questions are much needed and long overdue.

Emergent Christianity is a middle ground, or a third way, between the foundationalism of traditional liberalism and conservatism. In many ways, it is a reaction against the beliefs, assumptions, presuppositions, and affects of modernism, especially modernism’s impact and influence on western Christianity. We are living in an ever increasingly postmodern age, and thus the emergent movement is an attempt to re-think and re-imagine what Christianity can and should look like for this new generation and generations to come.

Yet a wonderful component of this movement is that it does not shun or deny the importance of other traditions and movements within historical Christianity. Dispatch 1 states, “Emergents find little importance in the discrete differences between the various flavors of Christianity. Instead, they practice a generous orthodoxy that appreciates the contributions of all Christian movements” (8).

I resonated with one of the problems associated with the individualism of evangelicalism that Jones highlighted. Too often, all of the emphasis in placed on an individual’s personal commitment to Christ, which is then followed up with the command of “personal” devotions. We have made Christianity a personal faith, distancing it from the social and communal entity it was meant to be. Furthermore, in promoting this personal holiness, Christians are more concerned about their own lives then the lives of others. I have witnessed more time being spent in devotions, Bible studies, and Sunday school classrooms than helping the poor, advocating for justice, and reaching those in need.

I often wonder what the point is striving for godliness and holiness if its end result does not make you more sensitive, compassionate, and loving towards others? As Jones states, “the church that doesn’t challenge its members to face the core ethical issues that confront them every day at work is the church that has abdicated its responsibility” (17).

The emergent generation feel great disappoint with modern American Christianity, desire inclusion rather than exclusion, and has a hope-filled orientation. I share all of these and especially agree with the phrase, “Our calling as a church is to partner with God in the work that God is already doing in the world-to cooperate in the building of God’s kingdom” (72). And I also agree with the emergents is that God can, and does work through non-believers to accomplish his purposes. After all, isn’t it reasonable to think that God’s purposes are much bigger than our own? Our goals seem to boil down to one thing; getting people saved so that they can escape hell. God’s purposes for his creation is to renew, restore, and repair relationships and bring about new life…here on earth first. So I don’t think God is going to deny the help of well-meaning individuals or organizations because they don’t have the correct understanding of him. As dispatch 6 states, “Emergents see God’s activity in all aspects of culture and reject the sacred-secular divide.” (75) Truth is wherever God designs to expose it; it is most perfectly and poignantly instantiated in the person of Jesus, and from him it flows out into all creation” (75)

As I tell my students, “All God is God’s truth”. This means that they do not have to be afraid of science, art, and other religions because if they discover something to be true or beautiful, they are free to claim it as being form God. I also make the equation that God is love. Therefore, wherever they find love, even in other religions, God is present. As Rob Bell said, our world is drenched in the presence of God. “If God is in it, then emergent Christians will find God there” (76).

From one personal note, I really understood Tony’s experience at Dartmouth with Campus Crusade. That style of evangelism and ministry is what I grew up with and in many ways still feel pressured to do and make my students do. The problem is that I too find it very uncomfortable, anti-relational, generally unsuccessful, and the opposite of Jesus’ way of loving. I have grown to really not like (I won’t use the word hate, but am tempted to) door-to-door evangelism that we do on our mission trips each summer. And I hate (I will use this word now) the fact that I feel that way. I feel so guilty, especially when others, like my wife, really enjoy it and thank God each time for the opportunity. I ask myself what is wrong with me. But then I compare it to the joy I have in sharing my life’s experiences with some good and trusted friends who do not consider themselves “born-again” Christians. Yet in some many of our conversations, we share deep spiritual things and I have truly felt the presence of Jesus there. That is the kind of “evangelism” I love to engage in, but of course this takes months and years of trust and mutual friendship. Should I be alarmed that I really don’t have a goal with these friends? Sometimes I feel that I should try to lead them in a prayer of salvation or invite them to church when an alter call will be offered. Yet, does God need our clever sales pitches to work in their hearts? However, I remember my own conversation was a very radical event that truly changed my heart and life in an instant. What if the Holy Spirit desires to work in a similar way, but is waiting for my friends to truly make a personal commitment to Him. Now I am starting to sound like an evangelical again!

Human life is theology. That statement stuck with me as I reflected and ponder about its significance and realized its truth. It is a great way to start conversations with people and also to challenge and convict Christians. The statement about what kind of house we buy is extremely revealing, as was the question about parking spots vs. Darfur.

I feel so dissatisfied with traditional answers to questions such as what does God allow evil in the world, or can someone be a homosexual and a Christian. I get completely infuriated with Calvinist’s responses to almost every question I have, while other Christians simply do not want to engage in these tough questions. Those who pose these questions are branded as having a questionable faith or battling the demons of doubt, or come crap like that. (Pardon my language)

I have also had conversations such as the one posed between the True Biblicist, “Brain”, and the Emergent. I do not think the Bible was written (past) or should be read (current) as handbook to Christian living. It is certainly a guide and rule of faith and while it does contain some things I believe to be universally true, its main purpose is to point its readers to the person and life of Jesus. True Biblicists run into myriad problems by attempting to stick to the letter of the law. I find this today with the issue of divorce. While I do not think divorce is good, healthy, or favored by God, I believe His heart is much bigger than even his commands. If a person were in a very bad marriage (abuse, neglect, adultery, etc…) than wouldn’t a loving heavenly Father want his child to be free of such a thing? Of course, people can easily abuse this freedom, which is why there is a command against it. But in my opinion, each situation is different and therefore these commands are contextual. This line of reasoning follows the approach of “wise interpretation” offered in the book. Seeing hermeneutics as an art, and not a science is a big challenge that can lead to transformation and freedom. Experience and humility are also needed.

I like the phrase “hermeneutic of humility” offered by Jones. Interestingly enough, I am about to finish a class at seminary on Hermeneutics and never once heard this phrase mentioned! I too believe that we can have “proper confidence” and become better interpreters through dialogue and conversation. I also believe that the Holy Spirit can and does inspire and illuminate our reading of the text each and ever time we approach it in humility and openness.

And yes, paradox does exist in the real world, our personal experience, and within the Bible. And, as Jones declares, we can and should embrace it. “God can be the creator of the universe and the breaker of the rules of physics. God can be sovereign yet no the author of evil…as is so often the case, the ‘truth’ lies in between, in a person (Jesus) who was truly human and truly divine-in faith, no fideism” (155). We should not handicap or limit who God is or what he can do. Does God really only work in absolutes. Is he that limited and uncreative? My God is not boring, static, and cannot be contained in a well-articulated theological box.

Much more could be written, and I suppose I already wrote too much. (Maybe I should start blogging!). Each section of this book offered great insight into the thinking of the emergent movement and caused me to rethink my own views. On the whole, this movement resonates deep within me. I am finding solidarity with these authors and friends and am finally finding people (albeit through books) that I can dialogue with about what is going on inside my mind and heart. I hope to engage more often in conversations with others rather than just let my mind wander and ramble in writing.

I am glad that Jones added stories and examples of some emerging churches such as Solomon’s Porch, the Journey, and Jacob’s Well, and I hope to visit some of them one day. I also appreciate Appendix A and hope that everyone who reads this book (especially its critics) will spend time reading the four commitments and subsequent practices of the Emergent Village and movement. In closing, I am encouraged and inspired by this book and hopeful that it will bring change and transformation to American Christians and Christianity as a whole. I find myself charting a similar path as the author has and I am hopefully optimistic that I will continue to dialogue with others, learn, grow, and change throughout my journey.

Additional Quotes (that I really liked)

“Emergents trust the Holy Spirit more than they trust in the methods of doing church” (61).

“If church is what happens when people encounter the Risen Jesus and commit themselves to sustaining and deepening that encounter in their encounter with each other, there is plenty of theological room for diversity of rhythm and style, so long as we have ways of identifying the same living Christ as the heart of every expression of Christian life in common.” (53)

“Emerging Churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures…they are missional communities emerging in postmodern culture and consisting of followers of Jesus seeking to be faithful to the orthodox Christian faith in their place and time” (56).

“This, then, is a high view of the church: the collected people of God, in community with God’s Spirit, will stay on track and engaged with God’s work in the world” (185)

Dispatched 15: Emergents hold to a hope-filled eschatology: it was good news when Jesus came the first time, and it will be good news when he returns” (176).

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One thought on “The New Christians…a review

  1. Thanks for the great review!

    Tony,
    Thanks for your writings and conversations over the past few years. I will continue to remain up on what you have to say in terms of theology, ministry, and what God is doing in our midst.

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