Saturday, August 12, 2006

A Review of D. A. Carson's "Becoming Conversant With The Emerging Church"

First let me say that this is a well-written book with a lot of great information and argumentation. But it, in my estimation, ultimately misses the mark it set out to hit.

Carson does an excellent job of pointing out the key positive attributes and attainments of EC - authenticity in Christian practice as opposed to consumerism in the megachurch movement and connectivity with the "foreign" American culture that has not heard the gospel as well as respect for indigenous culture - wherever we find it (even in our own backyards).

Further, he goes on to make the helpful distinction of hard and soft postmodernism, with the former being self-refuting and anti-Christian and the latter being an acceptable framework within which to communicate the gospel. The same can be said of hard and soft modernism - with the former being empiricism or logical positivism or materialism and the latter being evidentialism or soft materialism or realistic dualism.

However, Carson seems to make a number of subsequent category errors in his trenchant assessment of the emerging church's handling of various doctines and Scriptures.

As McLaren and others have pointed out, many of the writers (not least, McLaren himself) Carson harshly critiques are not scholars, but practicing pastors seeking not a theology, but a practical essclesiology in dialogue with contemporary culture, whereas Carson is a hard academician.

Based on this and given Carson's handling of his often uncharitable critiques, one might, somewhat sarcastically ask at the outset of this assessment, "who has brought more unbelievers to saving faith in Jesus - Carson or McLaren? Who has created a framework for useful and ultimately salvific dialogue with the disenfranchised, alienated, angry and skeptical modern unbeliever - Carson or McLaren?"

Having said that, albeit with a wink given Carson's own harsh words for McLaren et al, it is accurate to say that Carson specifically raises some questions the EC should respond to. Note that none of these have anything to do, Carson's assertions to the contrary, with postmodernist epistemology, but with hermeneutic requirements and the view of Scripture held by those involved in the debate.

Carson argues that at the root of his concerns with McLaren's positions on a variety of issues is an epistemological dead-end rooted in hard postmodernism.

But this seems disingenuous at best since both McLaren and Carson categorize McLaren and many of the other EC leaders Carson discusses as "soft" postmodernists - a category that Carson admits is an acceptable, if somewhat distasteful (at least to Carson), framework for rehanging the gospel message.

Further, McLaren has gone to great lengths to address the accusations of relativism and pluralism and has firmly denied them both. But Carson reinterprets the pastoral writing of McLaren and reads into it epistemological and theological meaning McLaren likely never intended. The straw man carefully constructed, Carson then sets about tearing it limb from limb.

At issue here, really, is not epistemology at all. The difference between McLaren and Carson has nothing to do with Richard Rorty and Rene Descartes and Aristotle. The issue is their respective views of Scripture - or, at least, specific passages of Scripture.

The specific issues Carson has are McLaren’s supposed positions (or lack of a clear position) on homosexuality, substitutionary atonement, and the position of other religions and whether they have any redemptive value whatsoever.

Carson works hard to root his disagreements with McLaren’s (lack of) positions on these issues in epistemological terms, but they are really hermeneutical disagreements entirely.

McLaren, like many people today, struggles with the traditional reading of Scripture on a variety of topics – the three listed above being writ large among them. But one doesn’t need degrees in either philosophy or history to recognize (and Carson himself points this out repeatedly vis รก vis the Creedal statements) that this has little to do with epistemology.

Two centuries or less ago, the issues were slavery and the position of women. Good people (all “modernists”?) disagreed. The traditional conservatives arguing that the Scripture was silent on slavery (or, at least, on whether it was sinful) and was clear on gender (women were subordinate). The “new thinkers” believed, following Wilburforce for example, that slavery was wrong and sinful – though to argue so from Scripture took, both then and now, quite a bit of contortion. Later, the gender issue would require even more contortion and “culturization” of particularly troubling passages of Scripture.

Carson readily points out how the Creeds were comprised entirely of disputed claims – disputed among believers. Yet he scolds McLaren for daring to hold out the possibility that some of our current, dominant views on some issues of doctrine may need reevaluation – and that modern culture may have had some providential role in “opening our eyes” to this possibility – just as “modern culture” in the 18th and 19th Centuries was opening eyes on slavery in light of Scripture and in 19th and 20th centuries was opening eyes on gender issues in light of Scripture.

None of these disagreements have anything whatsoever to do with epistemology, but Carson holds to this tack instead of addressing these as disagreements over interpretations of Scripture. This is especially interesting since Carson ladles out his harshest criticisms of McLaren where Carson contends McLaren is glossing over Scripture and refusing to deal with texts honestly - yet Carson refuses, it seems, to acknowledge that McLaren is merely raising questions about issues that have been disputed for centuries and are currently coming into renewed debate.

Carson’s arguments for substitutionary atonement, the sinfulness of homosexuality and the dogmatism and exclusivity of the Christian church over and opposed to any other faith may all be correct and right. Or, perhaps, McLaren is raising some valid questions on these issues – though, again, McLaren is offering a pastoral view of the questions he is asked and how he responds to them in a pastoral setting, not developing a systematic theology.

This discussion should take place and should continue. But unfortunately Carson entirely misses this category error (epistemology v. hermenuetics) and lumps McLaren’s concerns into the tin with postmodernism and casts the lot onto the rubbish heap.

He sets out to discuss what’s right and wrong with EC, but because of obviously deep-seated and heartfelt passions about particular doctrines and some modern conversations about them, he strays far from his chosen topic and attempts to answer a question he has not rightly raised, leaving the reader with not only a grossly misshapen picture of the EC and postmodernism, but without a better understanding of the very debates Carson is so passionate to see won in his favor.

For further reading:

Becoming Conversant With The Emerging Church
A Generous Orthodoxy
A New Kind of Christian


Len said...

Perhaps the single greatest sermon I ever heard was at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago last year. The speaker was DA Carson and he spoke on how much God loves us from Ephesians 3:14-21. I am always charitable to him because of this sermon.

You are one of several reviewers who have said that his arguments in this book aren't fair. I have yet to read it so I cannot comment to that. I do get aggravated, however, with the Emerging leaders willingness to answer and define their beliefs in some areas. What is so wrong with plainly saying if you believe Jesus is the only way to heaven?

How is the class going at your church? Let me know what thoughts are popping up if you don't mind. This is an interesting discussion. I am thankful for the emergent movement and the contributions that are being made to my faith. It is good to be challenged on how I have always viewed things.

Great review by the way.

CJR said...

Len -

There's no question Dr. Carson is a great thinker. The book is a good one, but I just believed he missed the mark with trying to read too much into McLaren's writings.

I think your question on "plainly saying" is exactly the issue McLaren and others are struggling with. They struggle not because they can't say Jesus is the only way to heaven, they can, but because that phrase can mean radically different things depending upon your assumptions, implications and inferences. The entire point of much of emergent questioning is the belief that things are just a heck of a lot more complex than we'd like to believe they are.

In short, there may be no such thing as "plainly saying" where issues of the divine are concerned - precisely because human understanding of the divine will always have an element of uncertainty attached to it - and so our proclamations must be somewhat humble. Of course, that position can be controversial and is one Carson takes to task (to a certain degree, anyway) in the book.

The class is going very well. I brought in a guest speaker from an "emergent" church that's been planted in the growing arts district in Jackson. We did a Q&A and I think a lot of folks were surprised by what he had to share about how they are effectively connecting with folks who have been openly hostile to the church.