Book Review: An Emergent Manifesto of Hope

Summer’s finally over, and I’m back with a few minutes to post. It’s taken me all summer, but I finally go through this book and want to post a review of An Emergent Manifesto of Hope.

What exactly is Emergent? I’ve been asked that several times since I’ve read often in that area and had some interaction in the discussion. Every time I’m asked that question, I find myself searching for the right words. It seems that anything I say would be inadequate and not really accurate. In the introduction to this book, two key leaders in the emergent friendship, Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt, speak to this reality. More than anything, the authors purport, emergent is about friendship – relationship. As I’ve engaged in the discussion from the periphery, I have found this to be true. They are, at their heart, a network of people discussing how we can better be the church. “Yeah, but what do they believe? What is their creed?” comes to response from many a skeptic. On the surface, it appears as though that is what this book sets out to address. It is a collection of 25 essays written by different leaders among the emergent network of friends written to address. And yet, one thing is certain, perhaps the defining tenet of the emerging network is diversity. This book illustrates the unity in diversity that God’s kingdom has been hungry for.

The essays in this work vary greatly. Some are definite academic treatises. Dwight Friesen acknowledges at the end of his essay that some readers may see his paper as “little more than esoteric mumbo jumbo.” (p. 211). There’s definitely some of that. But overall, I was impressed with the diversity, the honesty, the introspectiveness, and the holistic approach that these works display. Because of the breadth of subject matter, I found it difficult to quickly summarize the book and have chosen instead to look at a few of the individual articles that made an impression on me. Because I’ve spent so much time reading through these works, some are fresher in my mind than others, but a few I found to be more relevant than others.

The book is broken up into five parts where five key aspects of emergent sensibilities are addressed by key leaders whose experience offers insight into these areas. I’ll look over each area and discuss the articles that I connected well with.

The first part addresses the concept of missionality that has become such a key point in theology and which has found a home of emphasis within the emergent discussion.

Heather Kirk-Davidoff’s work titled, “Meeting Jesus at the Bar: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Evangelism” encouraged me to think at length about everything I have known about “evangelism.” She confesses in the beginning of her article, “I stopped wondering about how to draw younger folks into my church and started focusing on how to draw my congregation out of its building and into relationship with the world outside its doors.” (p. 35). This just makes sense to me. It just sounds like what God wants of his church . . . and at the same time, it sounds so different from what we know. Her emphasis on building relationships over the market-driven approach of many mega-churches is a definite characteristic of emergent thinking.

Troy Bronsink, in an article entitled, “The Art of Emergence: Being God’s Handiwork” wrestles with the concept of the ongoing openness of theology and analyzes what it means to “emerge.” The significance narrative theology plays in how many emergent leaders read the Bible and understand God is especially evident in this article. Quoting from Lesslie Newbigin, Bronsink illustrates how significant this missionary/theologian has been to the evolution of the emergent movement. He asks the poignant question, “What if emerging churches were to sketch ways of being the story in ages yet to come instead of thinking of appealing to ‘cultural relevance’ under the authorities of closed, feebly supported, tried-and-true rationale?” (p. 67). This kind of thinking scares the pants of many folks.

Part 2 looks at specific communities of faith and how the emergent conversation engages various traditions and ministries.

I found Thomas Malcolm Olson’s article especially relevant to me and my ministry to folks in jail. He says, “I can safely say prison inmates – especially the chemically addicted ones – are the major forces shaping my theology, allowing me to experience God’s character up close and showing me what it means to be a faithful witness to this upside-down gospel” (p. 91) which I have found to be particularly true in my experience with inmates and previously held inmates. He has a side discussion about sex offenders comparing them to modern day lepers. He says he’s thought about putting “Jesus loves convicted sex offenders” on a tee shirt. I’d buy one. Olson is another example of how emergent is attempting to bridge theology and praxis.

Tim Conder’s article, “The Existing Church/Emerging Church Matrix: Collision, Credibility, Missional Collaboration, and Generative Friendship” was probably one that I found to be most beneficial in the book. I enjoyed the article so much I went out and got his longer treatment of the same issues in his book The Church in Transition. He discusses the challenges and obstacles he’s faced in bridging the emergent discussion with an established church. Anyone who has found interest in emergent discussions but who operates in an established church would find Conder a sympathetic voice. He puts into words many struggles that I face in bridging where I come from and where I see most Christians I interact with. Conder says, “The real issue involved the collision of two rival conceptions of Christian community and two polarized paradigms for ministry.” (p. 101). That is a good summary of the crux I often find myself in. I believe Conder provides an important link to the established church that often seems jettisoned by those engaging in emergent discussions. “In current landscape there is great demand for fellowships driven by an Emergent philosophy, connected to the historical church, and not embroiled in the conflict formed by these colliding paradigms.” (p. 103). The latter of those, to me, seems to be the biggest obstacle.

The third part of the book addresses emergent faith. These essays all critically look at the church’s whole sale buy in to marketing, capitalism and the American culture at large.

Brian McLaren, who has quickly emerged as the voice for emergent, though I’m sure he’d be quick to correct that misinformation, again provides a strong article. The article entitled, “Church Emerging: Or Why I Still Use the Word Postmodern but with Mixed Feelings,” shifts the discussion of modern/postmodern to what McLaren believes to be a more accurate depiction of the shift that is taking/has taken place – from colonialism to post-colonialism. As with all his work, he has the ability to talk about some very significant and controversial issues in a way that overflows with humility and rational. His discussion incorporates another important factor in the emergent discussion – that of diversity and an appreciation for minority voices and a realization of oppression and repentance for the longstanding centralized power of WASPS. Something that is recognized throughout the book is that the emergent discussion has been dominated (once again) by WASPS, but the movement continues to gain steam and has a real desire to become more. McLaren emphasizes the absolute necessity of this. Later authors in the book will speak more to the topic.

Part 4 is the most esoteric section of the book. Here, theology is considered in its place in emergent discussions. This review is getting lengthy so this summary will be brief, but Sally Morgenthaler offers a great article on addressing leadership in a post-CEO modeled church. The voice of femininity is important here and speaks as loudly as her words do. She gives a voice to the appalling record of churches in gender relations, especially as it pertains to leadership, “For instance, females make up well over 60 percent of the average entrepreneurial congregation’s constituency, while their representation as leaders outside the realm of children’s and women’s programs is usually less than 1 percent.” (p. 183).

Perhaps the most challenging article is Samir Selmanovic’s “The Sweet Problem if Inclusiveness: Finding Our God in the Other.” This may be the area of emergent discussions where those on the outside looking in are most hesitant to participate. “The emerging church movement has come to believe that the ultimate context of the spiritual aspirations of a follower of Jesus Christ is not Christianity but rather the kingdom of God.” (p. 192). We must look again at the kingdom of God. When we begin to consider this concept, suddenly we may find ourselves in unchartered waters, which is where many will find themselves in Selmanovic’s work. It is a move towards Karl Rahner’s Anonymous Christian idea as it pertains to the discussion of other religion. Selmanovic offers an interesting discussion toward John Hick’s universalism that evangelicals have labeled heresy. However, Selmanovic, under the discussion of the kingdom, offers a fresh look at the “who’s in” question. He asks, “Has the supremacy of Christianity become our non-negotiable value?” (p. 193) So he summarizes in a statement that perhaps deserves quite a deal of reflection, “There is no salvation outside of Christ, but there is salvation outside of Christianity.” (p. 195).

The final part of the book deals with a subject that has become especially important to me: social activism. Tony Jones offers in the introduction to the section this is the most important aspect of what all the discussion is about. In a moment of humility, which seems rare for Jones, he confesses the challenge of this area for the suburban Christian.

In the articles to follow in this section, the authors confront the problems of racism, classism, and poverty. Karen Sloan has an interesting article about sexuality and the importance of accountability and honesty in our personal struggles therein. Women and their rights are considered in Deborah and Ken Loyd’s article. Randy Woodley ends the book with a particularly eye opening article that addresses the prominent and overlooked racism dealing with the First Nations and the incredible blind eye that Christians have turned towards Native Americans in this nation. Woodley sees in the emerging church a great opportunity for reconciliation in this area and sees it as an important corrective to a theological black hole that has existed in American theology “a theology of place.” “It has been difficult for the American church to develop a theolgy of place with a stolen continent as a foundation.” (p. 299).

Sorry for the length of the article, but hopefully it was helpful for you to see a more detailed account of what this was about (and, if you’ve been one asking, “What is emergent?” hopefully this gives you some idea of what some people involved are saying.”

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One thought on “Book Review: An Emergent Manifesto of Hope

  1. Your article did help me understand “emergent” more. And the part you said scares the pants off of people does scare me. There are things I like about the emergent movement and then there are other things I just don’t get. One thing I don’t understand is with this emphasis on being missional and social justice, why aren’t we overflowing with volunteers at non-for-profit agencies like our own that exist entirely for service? Nice to see you last weekend.

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