on emergent

The emergent conversation has been profoundly important in my life. It created (and creates) safe space for me to engage with questions that I’ve needed to engage with (the kinds of questions addressed in my latest book). It introduced me to Christians who have become dear and lifelong friends and learning partners. For me, the emergent conversation has been a life-giving, faith-enriching thing.
So I have read with some interest a number of recent analyses of where the conversation is and where it’s going. I offered some of my own perspectives in a recent Relevant Magazine interview.
In my view, reports of the conversation’s demise are greatly exaggerated. In some cases, they represent wishful thinking; in other cases, a limited frame of reference. From my perspective, Chapter 1 of the conversation may be ending, but there are many new and even better episodes to come. Or better put, what we call “the emergent conversation” may in fact be chapter 3 or 7 or 123 of a much longer storyline. That larger story is nowhere close to being over, and in fact, I don’t think its most important work has even begun.
The real future, as I see it, isn’t an intramural conversation among Evangelicals (as many think), or even among Western Christians (as others think), but rather an expanding conversation among progressive evangelicals, missional mainline Protestants, progressive Catholics, and postcolonial Christians from around the world. Its future may or may not still use words like emergent, emerging, etc., but the cat is out of the bag. Deep questions are being raised, and when that happens, you can take two predictions to the bank, one of them being that you can’t get the questions back in the bag, and the second being that some people will try.
The latter will say, “I was OK when we were talking about making church more up-to-date, culturally relevant, and successful (i.e. large), but when we start asking deeper questions – about theology and justice, for example – I’m checking out.” Now I’ve never been against making the church more up-to-date, culturally relevant, and effective, as beset as that project is with dangers, toils, and snares. (The obvious alternative – keeping the church out-of-date and culturally irrelevant and ineffective – has its problems too.) But I’ve repeatedly laid my cards on the table (for example, in EMC and NKoCy): I don’t think the problems in the Christian religion are cosmetic. I think we have some deep issues to deal with – issues of theology, justice, narrative, and identity.
Lisa Sharon Harper gets it right in her recent open letter. She responds to important conversations being raised around Soong-Chan Rah’s recent book and Sojo piece.
Some folks won’t go there, but others of us, for conscience sake, have to grapple with the issue of Christendom and colonialism – and the inherent white-european-male-privilege with which Christendom has been historically and theologically complicit.
As Lisa explains, the Christians who have opened this discussion have been largely non-white and non-male. Sooner or later, white folks like me – especially the white males like me who have held the vast majority of the power in the Christian religion in all its main forms – have to decide if we are willing to become peers with our non-white non-male sisters and brothers. We have to decide – not just if we will give “them” a place at “our” table, but if we will go join “them” at “their” table – perhaps someday together forming new tables where “us” and “them” disappear into a larger “us.”
Are we who have had the majority of power willing to learn to see the world from the perspective of the sub-altern (or marginal, non-privileged)? Are we willing – not simply to bring “the other” into our field of hegemony and homogeneity, enhancing our “diversity” (which can too easily simply be another form of colonization) – but to enter into the space created by those who have suffered under our hegemony and homogeneity? Are we willing to see margins as horizons?
Here’s how I expressed the issue in the last chapter of NKoCy:

As we’ve seen, the term Christianity (like its cousin orthodoxy) has too often camouflaged something quite foreign to Christ and his message, something that is more the problem than the solution: a fusion of Greek philosophy and Roman power, alloyed or adorned with elements drawn from the Bible, which is interpreted and applied in ways that often betray Jesus’ life and teaching. Its defenders have unofficially mandated that when people try to modify that Greco-Roman orthodoxy, they must wear an adjective that brands them as aberrant, like a scarlet “A” sewn on their soul. For example, when theologians read the Bible through the lens of the Exodus narrative, they are called “liberation theologians,” but their counterparts who read it through the Greco-Roman narrative are never labeled “domination theologians” or “colonization theologians.” Similarly, we have “black theology” and “feminist theology,” but Greco-Roman orthodoxy is never called “white theology” or “male theology.” Having become utterly normative for most of us, it’s just “theology.” (p. 256)

I then acknowledge that even my book’s clumsy modifier “a new kind of” can simply be a way of letting those in power tolerate diversity without addressing the deeper issues of violence, racism, colonialism, sexism, and imperialism that lie unacknowledged or hide undetected within hallowed words like Christianity, Evangelical, Mainline, Catholic, Orthodox, and so on.
So, thank God for Lisa Sharon Harper, Soong-Chan Rah, Tony Jones, Gabriel Salguero, and others who have waded into this profoundly and painfully important subject. The process is awkward and messy at times, but as my friend Randy Woodley says in The Justice Project, the key issue is to stay at the table when you’re hurt and offended and misunderstood and made uncomfortable.
May we all – especially those of us who are white and/or male – come and stay at the table, pause to listen before we react, take a deep breath to expand before we contract, and prayerfully remain open before we shut down. Because now, I’d say, is when the emergent conversation (whatever it’s called) could get more interesting and important than ever.
On a happy note, just as I was reading through this important thread of conversation, I received the announcement of this November’s emergent village theological conversation. The topic and speakers – as well as the makeup of the emergent village council
bring joy to my heart, and speak to a hopeful future. We all live in the creative tension of progress made and a long way yet to go.