Wednesday’s @ Whenever About Whatever

Dr. Watson’s Wednesday’s @ Whenever about Whatever                                           June 10, 2020

Today I continue the series on my theological journey by revisiting and diving a little deeper into a movement within the Christian faith called “Emergent Christianity.”

As I said a few weeks ago, I discovered Emergent Christianity about ten years ago and I have read almost every book that has come from folks who self-identify as emergent Christians. I don’t always agree with everything they have said or written, and yet I do believe that in the last couple of decades they have produced some of the most creative writings I have ever read.

The writer that I want to focus on today is Tony Jones and his book titled The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier (2008). I don’t know if this is true, but I think Jones may have been influenced by Stanley Hauerwas’ book, Dispatches from the Front (1994).

Throughout his book, Jones shares twenty “dispatches,” little comments that are packed full of meaning, all of which are interesting and worth discussing. Today I want to talk about just the first three of his dispatches, so we might be on this topic for a few weeks. The first dispatch has to do with their openness to many perspectives:

  1. 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.

Here, Jones is drawing upon Brian McLaren’s book, A Generous Orthodoxy, a book I might discuss at length with you at a future time. McLaren’s book highlights positive aspects from every major theological “tribe” in Christianity. The subtitle alone is worth sharing: “Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/Calvinist, anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian.”

I appreciate this because my own journey is one that has benefited from time spent in various Christian tribes. I was raised among the Southern Baptists (which is where I received almost all my higher education), I became a Christ-follower while attending a non-denominational charismatic church. I preached my first sermon in an Assemblies of God church, which is a Pentecostal group. Later, I was ordained in the United Church of Christ, a mainline Protestant denomination, which is my official affiliation today, but I also served a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregation once upon a time.

I may have “moved passed” some of those groups in terms of my theological outlook, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that I also benefited in ways that I might not even be aware of, and I certainly do not disparage my education from two moderate Southern Baptist universities in Texas. The Baptists taught me a thing or two, for sure.

Perhaps the most influential professor at Hardin-Simmons University where I earned a B.A. and an M.A., Dr. James Shields, died last week. I believe he was in his early 90s. He is the professor who encouraged me to go back to college after a five-year hiatus and study religion. I will never forget his Christian Doctrine class.

He would lecture for most of the hour and then, with a few minutes remaining, encourage discussion, which often led to arguments. And yet, at the end of each class he would slap his hand on his desk, and say, “Thank God we’re saved by grace and not by doctrine.” I know that sounds very Baptist, but if you peal back that statement far enough you will discover a “generous orthodoxy,” maybe even a hint of universalism.

I like to say that I was emergent before emergent was cool, because my personal journey has had to incorporate many different traditions or “orthodoxies.”

  1. Emergents reject the politics and theologies of left versus right. Seeing both sides as a remnant of modernity, they look forward to a more complex reality.

I see what he’s doing here. Do you get the impression that we humans have a difficult time seeing the “gray,” the ambiguous, the complexity of reality? It’s like everything is black and white these days . . . in more ways than one, right? Even the black and white issue is not always a black and white issue, if you catch my drift. What I mean by that is that in terms of social issues, politics, or theology, we need to get away from seeing everything as “either/or,” or what we call “binary” thinking.

This is admittedly difficult to do because our politics and theologies are so terribly polarized. We so easily fall into one or the other “side” that we can’t hear what the other side is saying, even when they have something positive to say. I know I’m as guilty of this as anyone. Other than family and church members, my list of Facebook friends is about as one-sided as possible.

Most of us enjoy our little ideological bubbles (which is probably good for our mental health), but what Jones is saying here is that sometimes we need to burst our bubbles and begin to see that reality is more complex than what we instinctively believe. No doubt we will continue to “lean” left or right, but that shouldn’t stop us from rejecting “black and white” thinking as much as we possibly can. An Emergent Christian can see nuance and complexity.

  1. Emergents believe the gospel is like lava: no matter how much crust has formed over it, it will always find a weak point and burst through.

Jones is referring to the fact that we do tend to see things in black and white so much that there is very little flexibility in our theology (or politics). People get so set in their ways that it is like a crust forms over our hearts and minds. I love this image of the gospel being like lava, looking for an opening and bursting through.

We are seeing this in response to the recent protests about racial injustices. There are many hard-hearted folks out there, especially people who have not yet learned to see their own privilege (which is admittedly hard to do). I am especially perplexed by those who only want to talk about the rioters and looters rather than the peaceful protesters, which are far more numerous, and the actual murder of George Floyd that led to these protests.

Furthermore, the crust is so thick on our hearts and minds that we can’t even see the bigger picture of past slavery, Jim Crow, and continued discrimination in multiple forms decade after decade. Until a person can “see” the context of all this, I don’t care about their “outrage” over “rioters and looters.” That’s not the headline.

Fortunately, the gospel, which includes a call for racial justice, is finding ways to flow through our society like lava coming from a volcano. If you are a crusty old soul, the good news is that lava is hot, and eventually it will break up your crust.

By the way, years ago, when I first read this “dispatch” from Tony Jones book, I wrote in response: “I’ve never seen an active volcano, but I have popped a few zits in my day, and I can tell you that when the puss breaks through my skin it hurts. Reading the Gospels has the same effect on me.”

I think the message here is, let’s try to move beyond the crusted-over version of the gospel in our lives and in the world. Let’s look for the lava and puss-like good news that needs to burst through.

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