Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Scot McKnight on emerging Christianity

Last week, Scot McKnight spoke at a convention which brought together three scholarly societies:  the Evangelical Theological Society, the Society of Biblical Literature, and the American Academy of Religion.

For those who don't know, McKnight is a professor, the author of 20 books, and a blogger. He is solidly evangelical in his convictions. Nonetheless, he has embraced emerging Christianity, perhaps with some reservations about its postmodern orientation.

I was surprised to see that the meeting of academics included on its agenda a forum on the Emergent Church. And I'm grateful that Andy Rowell recorded the sessions he attended, including the Emergent Church Forum.

Here is a ten-minute excerpt. McKnight begins by telling a story about a blue parakeet (which symbolizes emerging Christians) stirring up the sparrows (evangelical / orthodox Christians) in his backyard. And then he identifies six uncomfortable questions that emerging Christians are asking.

You can listen to the audio, or read my summary (verbatim at some points, a free paraphrase at other points) below.

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  1. What kind of truth can be found in scripture?
    Emerging Christians are beginning to ask questions about scripture that an older generation thought it had answered. The questions include, Just how human is this book? and Is it possible that the story of Jonah and the whale is just a myth? Emerging Christians hear that there might have been three Isaiahs, and they aren't too bothered about it — it isn't even interesting to them.
  2. Questions about science:
    My students put it like this: If evolution isn't true, I would like to ask God why he made a world that looks so much like evolution. This is a generation that isn't even attracted to questions about proving that Genesis 1-11 is a historical record. They don't care about creation science. They believe in evolution, and that's just the way it is.
  3. Questions about Christians and how they behave:
    Emerging Christians grew up with the scandals of Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker and the priests, and they just don't trust institutional leaders. Behind closed doors, church leaders do things that are despicable. Emerging Christians ask this question:  If Paul says that those who are in Christ are a new creation, why are there so many old creatures in the Church?
  4. Questions about hell:
    I've had students say to me, Scott, my evangelical pastor tells me that people who haven't heard the gospel are going to hell. Is he really telling me that everybody in North Korea who never has a chance to hear the gospel is going to hell? Well, I just can't believe that's true.
  5. A moral critique:
    I've had students say to me, Why is Jephtha in the Bible? And why is he valorized and heroized in Hebrews 11? That is a serious question. It's easier to talk about how many Isaiahs there are than it is to answer that question.
  6. Questions about social location:
    Emerging Christians are aware that what we are interested in comes out of the world in which we live. There are other people in other parts of the world who don't care about our questions.

    Social location matters to everything we talk about, the language we use to discuss it, the way we shape theology, the way we respond to the gospel, etc.

    Emerging Christians don't just admit that, they delight in it. They're not seeking a universal theology. They're willing to live with a theology for the midwest, or the east coast.
I have a few comments of my own. First, none of the questions that McKnight points to are particularly new (except perhaps the last one, which brings us into the realm of postmodernism). What is new is the degree to which the traditional answers — answers which satisfied a previous generation of evangelicals — are now regarded with suspicion. As McKnight puts it at one point in his presentation,
This is not a question that evangelicals and orthodox Christians can simply give a traditional answer and get by with it anymore.
Second, the refusal to settle for easy answers may be related to McKnight's third point, the distrust of institutional leaders. The traditional answers were never intellectually satisfying. They were accepted largely on the say-so of the priest or the Doctor of Theology, who was regarded as a trustworthy authority. Given the new cynicism about church leaders, emerging Christians aren't taking things on authority; they're waiting for an argument that they deem reasonable.

Third, I think emerging Christians within evangelicalism look particularly shocking in the US context. In Canada, you will find extremely few Christians, evangelical or otherwise, who insist that the earth was created in seven 24-hour days. Evolution is perhaps somewhat more controversial, but I think most Canadian believers accept, at the very least, that theistic evolution is a legitimate position.

Finally, the six "questions" of McKnight's presentation do not touch on all the elements of emerging Christianity. McKnight knows that:  he has given a very different summary of the movement in a Christianity Today article.


Steve Martin said...

Hi Stephen,
Good Post! I also apprecieted your post on the changing winds within Evangelicalism. The next 20 years should be very interesting for those of us in the Evangelical church. Personally, I suspect there will be some type of divergence (can't say split with something as nebulous as Evangelicalism) - not sure if it will be with respect to the emergent / fundamentalist poles but probably something like that.

re: Canadian attitudes to creation / evolution:

extremely few Christians, evangelical or otherwise, who insist that the earth was created in seven 24-hour days.

I agree that it is a totally different environment here in Canada but I think "extremely few" is a little optimistic. According to a recent poll (see: http://www.canadianchristianity.com/nationalupdates/070712evolution.html) 26% of Canadians believe that "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so".

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Thanks, Steve. Perhaps my impression about Christianity in Canada arises from my personal location: urban Ontario.

No doubt rural Christians are significantly more conservative, and particularly Christians in Alberta.

But remember when Stockwell Day was the leader of the Canadian Alliance Party, and he acknowledged that he believes human beings and dinosaurs once lived together? He was mercilessly attacked for that position, and there was no public backlash from conservative Christians. They may have been talking amongst themselves — for that matter, I didn't think Day had been treated very well — but there just isn't the same sort of hair-trigger response here.

Cliff Martin said...

It is appropriate that McKnight frames the defining elements of the emergent church in questions. Emergent is not so much about "positions" as it is about firmly held "non-positions." I find that refreshing, actually. Early on, I was wary of emergent Christianity, especially some of its postmodern underpinnings. But the more I read emergent authors, and the more I look at the nature of the “conversation”, the more I realize that I have been “emergent” for most of the last 30+ years. As an evangelical church leader, this has gotten me into trouble more than once.

Thank you, Stephen, for another great post.