Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Illuminating article on evangelicalism/emergent in NYT

On Easter Sunday, the New York Times ran an interesting article by Michael Luo on the current state of evangelicalism, describing some of the developing political and theological divisions. You can read the article here.

The most interesting and illuminating part of the article is the description of the theologicical disputes between the emergent and (traditional) evangelical camps. Often reporters for secular newspapers and periodicals will either overlook the substance of theological disagreements, reduce them to politics, or fail to report them accurately. While Luo certainly doesn't provide a nuanced presentation of what the argument is all about (to be fair, he didn't have the space to do so), the article strongly indicates that he has at least begun to see what is going on here. Look at his summary sentence of the issues:

"[The emergent movement/conversation] emphasizes reading the Bible as a narrative, perfect in its purposes but not necessarily inerrant; de-emphasizing individual salvation in favor of a more holistic mission in serving the world; even making evangelicals less absolutist on whether people from other religions might find their way to heaven."

Despite the false dichotomy of the first point (one can read the Bible as primarily narrative and inerrant), Luo has accurately identified the hot-button issues raised by the emergent conversation and accurately distilled much of the teaching of emergent, or at least its most visible spokesmen, in this one sentence.

Moreover, although the article's clarity decreases in what follows, the obscurity actually illustrates the true, and generally counterproductive, obscurity of the emergent debates. For example, after noting (correctly) that emergent's speculations have made many evangelical leaders "nervous" that emergent will "water down the theology," Luo quotes Albert Mohler as saying, "It's over the question of the nature of truth." That is indeed a big issue, but the reader is given little to work with in discerning exactly what Mohler meant--we don't, for instance, hear Mohler identify the "It" in question, or hear what he thinks the competing visions of truth are. The reader is left to guess, though, that Mohler was charging the emergent folks with promoting relativism, because Luo next reports that emergent leader Brian McLaren denies the charge that he is promoting relativism. To the contrary, McLaren asserts that his intent in leading the emergent conversation is to rescue evangelicalism from the jaws of its "fundamentalist elements," to avoid "polarization," and to find a genuine "third way." Luo does not identify--probably because McLaren didn't either--who the "fundamentalists" in question are, what the "polarization" is about, or the courses between which McLaren is attempting to navigate a "third way." Throwing about vague and inflammatory words like that is not helpful, but has become sadly typical in the debate over emergent (and emergent proponents and critics share the blame).**

Let us seek better things, casting aside the sin of using words just to win arguments. Contrast how the Word of God works: He is the light who has come into the world to save us from the domain of darkness, driving smoke and darkness away; and he is sharper than a two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. We who are being conformed to his image should aspire to wield our words like bright candles and sharp scalpels--shedding light along the narrow way, cutting with surgical precision to kill sin and save souls.

** NOTE: To be fair I should point out that the phrase "fundamentalist elements" was not a verbatim quote from Brian McLaren himself. Those were Michael Luo's words, and whether they accurately reflect what McLaren said I do not know. If not, then at least in this instance he should not be charged with throwing about vague and inflammatory words.

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