Rob Bell, Emergence, the Past, and the Future
The release of Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins, and the accompanying evangelical controversy thrust Bell into the broader American consciousness. CNN ran multiple stories about him, and Good Morning America hurried to book him. However, most media outlets, made suddenly aware of Bell, struggled to contextualize him. Most Christian media chose either to condemn or celebrate the book, and thus the “secular” media reported primarily on the theological brouhaha. Measured attempts to understand and analyze Bell and his context were almost completely absent.
Most categorizations of Bell associate him with the “emerging church” (or, sometimes used synonymously, the “postmodern church.”) This term is potentially useful, but it lacks a consistently helpful definition. This is due in part to the fact that many who use the term do so in order to stigmatize certain theological positions and not to analyze evenhandedly. In addition, many figures to whom the label is often applied tend to resist the label. The emerging church movement—or, “conversation,” as many would have it—is necessarily amorphous, as most within it recoil at “dogmatic” epistemological certainties and tend toward apophatic (de)constructions of theology. Also, a main feature of the movement is “cultural relevance,” and thus emerging folks tend to reinvent themselves fluidly.
Granted, it can be difficult to come up with some useful analysis for a group so diverse it includes Bell, Peter Rollins, Mark Driscoll, Brian McLaren, and Scot McKnight. That being said, I think there are two foundational points we should be able to use as our bases for inquiry about the emerging church. First, the word “emerging” itself implies a sort of protest, naturally prompting the question, “emerging from what?” The emerging movement should be seen as a self-conscious reform movement. Most emerging leaders’ books take the form of a response, a correction or expansion of the ideas with which his/her target audience is familiar. This leads to the second point: the emerging church is an evangelical movement. While the term “evangelicalism” is not easily defined and carries a variety of connotations, enough literature and use has been devoted to it that we at least have a sense of what it means. Emerging churches, by and large, function in typically evangelical ways, from the styles of worship music and preaching to the pastors’ book deals with Zondervan. The structure of an emerging church service or the layout of the sanctuary is usually much closer to an average Southern Baptist gathering than a liturgy- and doxology-infused Presbyterian service or a Catholic mass.
Furthermore, the form of Christianity from which emerging folks seek to emerge is usually some version of conservative evangelicalism. Emerging leaders have taken issue with prudish views of sex, a lack of care for the poor, the arrogance of systematic theology, the non-tenability of biblical literalism and young-earth creationism, and more. Given the above description, one might be tempted to characterize the emerging church as simply liberal Protestantism (and some critics have done this.) However, this characterization elevates the theological above all else and ignores the style, the aesthetic, the language, and all the other elements of the evangelical habitus, most of which remain alive and well in emerging churches. In this somewhat paradoxical way, the movement exists as a sort of protest against certain aspects of evangelicalism yet staged by individuals and communities who seek to do so within a steadfastly evangelical context. This is why emergence tends to be popular among college students and in cities with significant young-adult populations; students from evangelical backgrounds go to college and inevitably read Derrida or take a course on biblical literature/history or biology and experience cognitive dissonance. Rather than the two older options, covering one’s ears and claiming that “the world” is out to destroy one’s faith or abandoning religious belief (or at least evangelicalism) altogether, the emerging church represents for many a middle path, so to speak.
So why should scholars care about the emerging church? There are many reasons, but I think the significance of the movement can be summed up with temporal tropes: when we think of the emerging church, we are thinking of a group (or groups) of evangelicals who seek to emerge from the past and shape a new reality for themselves in the present. In turn, this will shape the future of American evangelicalism.
Last summer, I had the opportunity to conduct a mini-interview with Rob Bell via email. In his response to one of the questions he wrote, “People are desperate for narrative — a big story, something large enough to live for. That’s the question right now for millions — is there a story? One we can trust? I say yes. The other stories have failed, which, of course, creates all sorts of new opportunities.” The task for scholars is to identify and analyze what those “other stories” are, why they have failed Bell and his audience, and what “new opportunities” will be seized and what they mean for the future of American evangelicalism.