Rob Bell, Emergence, the Past, and the Future

After news this week of Mark Driscoll's homophobic facebook status, the emergent church again pops into the news cycle. For those of you not in the an emergent hotbed like Knoxville, the term might be unfamiliar. RiAH mentioned the emergent church while pointing to the controversy over Rob Bell's Love Wins back in May, so today's guest post tackles the label "emerging church." Our guest poster, Charlie McCrary, interviewed Bell for his thesis on Bell's evangelical anti-intellectualism. Charlie received his BA in religion from the University of North Dakota in May and begins the MA program in American Religious History at my alma mater Florida State University in the fall. His post reflects on Rob Bell, emergence, and the ambiguity of this very label. Charlie makes an excellent case for why scholars should be paying attention to the emergent church and their appeal as method to understand shifts in American evangelicalism.

Rob Bell, Emergence, the Past, and the Future

Charlie McCrary

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.


Susannah said…
I agree with your characterization of the emergent 'conversation' especially in respects to being adverse to dogma and to it being an evangelical movement. Those in the emergent conversation are by and large coming from and responding to American evangelicalism. However, I do think that many in the emergent conversation are or at least attempting to move beyond evangelical worship styles. The emphasis on the arts and ritual among many emergents means that some turn to more liturgy-focused worship than the evangelical movements that they are coming out of. In some ways this turn is a kind of new traditionalism, which sees the focus on ritual as a way to sidestep a focus on dogma. Perhaps this is not the case which the emergents who share features with the megachurch (Rob Bell or Mark Driscoll), but certainly this is the case among the majority of emergent folks I've encountered.

In any case, I also agree that scholars of American religion should be paying attention!
Elesha said…
Nice post. It makes me wonder: rejecting a few dogmatic positions, turning a friendlier face toward the surrounding culture, yet seeking essentially to preserve conservative Christianity--did evangelicalism "emerge" from fundamentalism in the Billy Graham era? What is similar this time around, and what is different?
Janine Giordano said…
Thanks for the post. I tend to have the same questions as Elesha. Moreover, I just visited Rob Bell's church (and Rob Bell) a couple weeks ago, and was struck by just how mainstream evangelical/ similar to other evangelical churches the whole service was. Aside from the spatial design of the sanctuary, it did not strike me as the kind of "conversation" that I hear about in other emergent churches. Seems like there is a whole range, and Bell must think there is something to be gained in identifying the church as such. The message I heard/ experienced was quite conventionally evangelical.
Mike said…
Great Post and welcome! Two points:

First, I think Elesha hit the nail on the head. I've was reading Conrad Wright's _Beginnings of Unitarianism_ the other day and I thought the story of Arminianism in 18th cent. New England had a lot of parallels with some of the emergent folks today.

Second, I think the point about how hard it is to define who is in or out of the emergent church is critical here. It's pretty clear that MacLaren and the folks at the Emergent Village are in. But I'm not so sure about Bell. I think a lot of folks who read the emergent people's books also read Bell and I think that many leaders in the emergent church took up for Bell and want him to be part of their program but I'm not sure Bell wants to be part of it. I read a comment from Tony Jones, another emergenty dude, a while back where he said that Bell has never seemed interested in the emergent conversation, that he was more of a lone wolf. And then there's Mark Driscoll who was hanging out with Doug Pagitt, Jones, and MacLaren back in the early days but has since rejected the emergent label. I guess I say all this to point out that it is really messy.

Christian Smith made the point that scholars often confused statements from evangelical leaders with the sentiments of evangelicals in the pews. I think the same can be said of the emergent church. People probably have _Love Wins_ alongside John Piper or Donald Miller or C.S. Lewis on their bookshelves. The next step in accounting for the emergent church is to move past the figure heads and their bogs and get into the nitty gritty of lay people in both "emergent" and more "traditional" evangelical churches and how they read, relate, and think about these men and their ideas.

Again, great post!
Ken Silva said…
"one might be tempted to characterize the emerging church as simply liberal Protestantism (and some critics have done this.)"

Indeed, but as a leading critic of the Emerging Church I can tell you that it's a postmodern form of progressive/liberalism--a Liberalism 2.0

It has a metaphysical component e.g. with process rheology and emergence theory of science that original liberalism didn't have.

That said, they still end up with a form of Christian Universalism, which Rob Bell argues for in his Love Wins mythology.

"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."

Actually it's a neo-liberal cult within evangelicalism emerging deeper into denying cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith:
Charlie McCrary said…
Thanks to everyone for the positive comments.

I like to work on Bell precisely because some of the issues mentioned in the comments; he's tough to figure out. As Mike notes, definitions are crucial. This is true not only of the definitions that scholars construct, but also of the definitions that our subjects have constructed. When Jones uses "emergent," I think he's referring to something narrower than what I have labeled "emerging." Driscoll has called himself "emerging" but not "emergent." Perhaps the messiness of it all is one reason Bell has distanced himself from the label "emerging" while recently defining himself instead as "evangelical and orthodox to the bone."

Susannah, thanks for bringing up that point. I think you're right, and I should have included some acknowledegment of that fact. There are many good examples of this, including the second half of Peter Rollins's _How (Not) to Speak of God_, Solomon's Porch (Doug Pagitt's church), and at least certain volumes of Thomas Nelson's The Ancient Practices Series.

Beyond definitional issues, I see at least two important historical questions. As Elesha and Janine have asked, "Are they really doing anything new?" Second, and just as important, "What do they (leaders and laity) think is new about what they're doing?"

Thanks for keeping the conversation going. I think an important one.
Brian said…
As a Methodist pastor with both a deep love and reverence for church history I applaud this post for shining light on the structural, rather than theological, issues at work in this emerging conversation. Like Luther and Wesley before them the early movers in the emerging church movement were mostly unaware that they were in a movement; they were reacting to a crisis and grappling with making worship relevant. They did so without regard to the place they occupied on the theological spectrum. If this is a movement at all, and not a book section at your local Christian book store, it is joined around issues of praxis not theology. If it continues it may yet result in the sort of revolution that Methodism brought about, a revolution that powerfully shaped our nation and which quickly dissolved into factionalism over race, praxis, organizational structure, and theology. The result is that we people called Methodist have, for more than two centuries, existed in varied states of truce under an impressively diverse theological tent. It has not to date, nor will it ever, resolved into anything resembling the sort of theological unity found in conservative evangelicalism. It was not designed to do so, it was designed to evangelise, and as such it is continually being shaped by both its diverse clergy and the make-up, traditions, and temperament of the communities being reached.
Tom Van Dyke said…
"Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed."---Chesterton

Rev. Bell brought Harry Emerson Fosdick to mind today, so I wondered what happened to Fosdick's Riverside Church.

Still kicking, with 2-3000 members. What is left of its theology, it's hard to say. Rev. Brad Braxton was brought in in 2008, booted in 2009. According to one source

Braxton’s method of preaching also served to isolate many members of
the congregation due to his elements of evangelical tradition in the
church service while also replacing the traditional choir with a gospel
choir. Furthermore, many dissidents maintain that he additionally
preached “at times what they considered a Riverside heresy: that Jesus
and only Jesus was the way to salvation.”


The interim pastor's sermons may be found here.

There seems little in the way of orthodoxy to proscribe.