Emergents as “Dirty” Evangelicals

For the past few months I’ve been working on a definitional essay of the Emerging Church Movement (ECM), mostly because as an Americanist in religious studies and anthropology, I would like to know, in terms of the production of classificatory academic knowledge, (i) what the ECM is, (ii) where the movement originates, (iii) what it is like, descriptively, and (iv) where it fits in the spectrum of emerging North American Protestantism (notice: lowercase c).

That the ECM resists definitions, that it defies etic categorization, is by now truistic in every sense of the word. The ECM is diverse—there’s no question at all—and its practices and rituals vary per community or gathering. I concede the point. But enough primary source monographs have been written by emerging writers to begin the comparative program that is the core of religious studies. Emic definitions are ripe for comparison and contrast. Myriad blog posts bombard online discourse hubs, just waiting for analysis. As of yet, scholars have all but ignored the academic study of the ECM, with the masterful and recent exception of anthropologist James Bielo’s ethnographically multi-site Emerging Evangelicals.

At this point, I’m still collecting definitions and formulating my own. I’ve consulted the writings of many of the movement’s primary writers: Tickle, Jones, Ward, Knight, McLaren, Pagitt, Gibbs and Bolger, McKnight, Snider and Bowen, Rollins, and Scandrette, just to name a few. But as I’ve reflected on the diversity of the movement, especially as represented by these above figures, I’ve had a thought: Emergents—or those emerging, or those who self-identify with the ECM—are dirty evangelicals. Here I draw on anthropologist Mary Douglas’ famous theory of taboo and pollution, dirt and order. As she puts it in her own words, dirt is “a kind of compendium category for all events which blur, smudge, contradict, or otherwise confuse accepted classifications.” Dirt blends and smears categories; it blurs and obfuscates delineations. And while the term is certainly vulgar and possibly offensive at first glance, it does seem to instructively describe the state of the ECM. Emergents defy both academically descriptive as well as theologically-derived taxonomies. I’m thinking here of the ECM’s close identification with all things “postmodern,” which in some fields of the academy, most notably the visual arts, might be described in terms of hyper-eclecticism, combinativity, and juxtaposition. I’m thinking here of Tickle’s claim in The Great Emergence that emerging communities blend together the four quadrilaterals of Christian practice (which she calls the “Liturgicals,” “Social Justice Christians,” “Renewalists,” and “Conservatives”). I’m thinking of McLaren’s multifarious A Generous Orthodoxy.

One more point reinforces my use of Douglas’ theory to categorize the ECM. Within conservative evangelicalism, the reaction to this point has been primarily negative. Many see the ECM as theologically dangerous, and so construe it, unknowingly, of course, in Douglas’ theoretical terminologies. The ECM, to much of evangelicalism, operates at the margins of traditional Christianity (i.e., it is marginal) and its teachings heterodox. It operates at the fringes of Protestantism. Its practices are polluting.

So, what do you think? Are emergents “dirty” in the way Mary Douglas envisioned the term?

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2 thoughts on “Emergents as “Dirty” Evangelicals

  1. I think it works, especially since some self-idenitifying emergents wouldn’t identify as evangelicals. Glad you’re dealing with this and would enjoy reading what you come up with! My big question, especially for Tickle, is if we really are in the middle of “The Great Emergence,” when is this thing going to really start picking up steam?

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