CFP: Religion, Conflict, & Boundary Maintenance

The Invention of the Emerging Church Movement

[A short version of this essay was originally posted by The Religious Studies Project.]

Frequently, for social scientists, our study subjects mess with our categories. We propose and define a term; ethnographic informants reject it or defy its boundaries. We delineate criteria; collaborators don’t pay much attention. The connection between empirical description and secondary scholarly categorical construction is sometimes fraught with ambiguity and difficulty.

Such is the case of the Emerging Church Movement (ECM) or phenomenon—for lack of better terms—that has recently provided a delightful conjoining of two of my interests: (i) contemporary evangelicalism and (ii) the study of scholarly taxonomic systems. Religious people incessantly challenge our taxonomies. Those people we’ve marked out as or deemed religious tend to, in varying degrees, refuse our categories, meaning that our category construction must often be reactive to activities occurring on the ground (i.e., anomalies, exceptions, extremities, flukes, etc.), things that may actually prove to be more normative than they did at first glance. And for good reason, this constant back and forth. Fields of study dedicated to a form of serious empiricism—the study of what can be observed, recorded, and compared—ought to take on a form of epistemic humility in the realization that categories, while seductive, productive, and sometimes retaining a high degree of explanatory, elucidative power, are ultimately constructs, and more or less useful ones at that. It follows that constructs may be applied and discarded, with varying degrees of ease, per cultural context, historical era, or social situation. In other words, it’s important to point out that scholarly taxonomies, posturing themselves as durable and authoritative, get published in monographs and journal articles and give off reified impressions of finality. Our classifying work, then, does something; our definitions and labels objectify (and sometimes legitimate), influence, and perhaps structure activities in the field.

Gladys Ganiel and Gerardo Marti have done a masterful job in the application of one particularly controversial descriptor, the ECM (correlate terms include the gerunds and adjectives emerging, emergent, and/or emergence in conjunction with a noun such as church, evangelicalism, Christianity, and/or conversation). In the following, I’ll discuss both Ganiel’s informative interview and her and Marti’s recent book, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emergence Christianity (OUP 2014), purposefully conflating the two (but also recognizing that semi-structured interview recordings and book-length manuscripts are disparate academic artifacts). Ganiel’s informative interview offers a helpful distillation of some of the monograph’s main themes. While a growing number of book reviews and symposiums have highlighted strengths and weaknesses of The Deconstructed Church, in this piece I’d like to focus instead on the authors’ roles in the employing of a set of labels or categories (i.e., “the ECM,” emergence, etc.) to a particular set of social, cultural, and religious activities occurring in the late-modern West.

To get right to it: What happens when a scholar employs a term that intended constituents reject or resist? What are the implications of appropriating a confessionally derived, emic term to somewhat disparate groupings of emerging rituals, philosophies, and theologies? What happens if the positing of an umbrella category not only consolidates and categorizes but essentializes and homogenizes behavior on the ground rather than elucidate it? What are the politics of etic term formulation and emic self-application or adoption? I’ve raised this issue in critique of a recent book on global “fundamentalism,” but I think the same tensions are particularly relevant to the case of the ECM. A brief look at some of the discourses involved in category construction, on behalf of both social scientific fieldworkers and informants in the field, will reveal some of the tensions that I have in mind.

Before looking at Marti and Ganiel’s definitional work and informants’ consistent resistance, however, it might help to consider what exactly terms like “the ECM” are seeking to describe. According to one of Marti and Ganiel’s informants, the ECM is “Christianity for people who don’t like Christianity” (7). The movement—assuming for a moment that it constitutes such an entity—arose in the 1990s in a series of critiques of popular evangelical subcultures, ecclesiology, and theology. Marti and Ganiel define Emerging Christians as a particular group “sharing a religious orientation built on a continual practice of deconstruction” and characterize the ECM as “an institutionalizing structure, made up of a package of beliefs, practices, and identities that are continually deconstructed and reframed by the religious institutional entrepreneurs who drive the movement and seek to resist its institutionalization” (25-26). Other social scientists have qualified the phenomena as consisting of (post- or quasi-) evangelical discontents who, experiencing a “severe disenchantment” with broader evangelicalism, engage in a particularly intentional movement of religio-cultural critique (Bielo 2011, 5-6), or as a do-it-yourself, postmodern, inclusive, grassroots, anti-institutional force (Packard 2012). Individuals engaging in these conversations of inevitably structuring, institutional resistance to institution itself often describe themselves as undergoing processes of de-churching (i.e., as de-churched; Packard 2012) or de-conversion (Bielo 2011). Much more might be said about the people who identify through non- or anti-identification maneuvers along these lines. But what I find especially interesting is the secondary, scholarly work that goes into proposing an authoritative definition and subsequent definitional criteria and then determining, via elaborated definitional grids, who counts as part of the proposed order.

Marti and Ganiel, to be sure, are well aware of the issues involved in the positing and defending of secondary taxonomies. “In attempting a social scientific analysis,” the authors clarify early in the introduction to The Deconstructed Church, “we acknowledge that we focus on a set of groups that resist definition.” Such resistance, they continue, is at times even “passionate and obsessive” (5). Few dialogical insiders, further, are willing to define whatever it is that the moniker “ECM” attempts to delineate, as its diverse constituents embrace irony and contradiction and lack “systematic coherence” (5). In fact, “avoiding labels is part of avoiding stigma” and even socio-cultural identities based in rejection of labels might indeed constitute a group identity if enough persons coalesce within and around a similar critical stance. All of this strategic secondary work of naming and defining seems justified, at least to a point. I’d argue, recalling Jonathan Z. Smith, that the job of the scholar is to produce and defend illustrative, second-order, taxonomic terms; classifying for reasons of elucidation and illumination is at the heart of the academic and religious studies endeavor (Smith 1982).

But regardless of the ECM’s amorphous and messy self-descriptions, such ambiguity does not dissuade Marti and Ganiel from formulating a definition. Instead, “rather than noting its ‘anti-institutional’ orientation and succumbing to a hopeless lack of definition,” the scholars delineate not only a definition but a multiple-part characterization of (or criteria list for) the entity (for lists of qualifying attributes or characteristics, see Marti and Ganiel 2014, 29-30; Packard 2012, 7-10, 145-165; Bielo 2011, 10-16). The ECM, then, as a nebulous “congregational movement” (55-56), mostly resists insider definitional clarification even though, as Bielo demonstrates, “The Emerging Church” label itself has emic—not etic—origins. Even though social scientists employ the term, Bielo considers its dubiousness. “The [‘Emerging Church’] label itself is increasingly of little interest to adherents as a meaningful self-identifier,” he writes, “but the movement it was intended to capture continues to thrive” (2011, 5). Here we witness the categorical resistance alluded to prior, followed abruptly by a deliberate scholarly adoption or appropriation of the term. Bielo’s strategy, along with those of social scientists to follow, is a secondary maneuver; theological terms become academically productive and useful as they move from native to exterior domains.

Late-modern informants well versed in postmodern, anti-essentialist philosophy and post-colonial theologies don’t often like labels. Ascribing to a particular category is not simply a theological choice made in some imaginary free market arena of American spirituality; self-identifying is a politically laden and significant act, a tactic that requires potential constituents to make close consideration of the implications that aligning with a certain collective will have (and especially a non-traditional, boundary pushing, and theologically suspect one, according to some sectors of evangelicalism). One of Marti and Ganiel’s informants tellingly notes that to “out myself as an emergent church member would be a very big no-no” (2014, 75). To utilize social-anthropologist Mary Douglas’s (1980 [1966]) concept of purity and danger, the ECM and its terminological correlates have been successfully dirtied or marked as polluting by more traditional evangelical writers and speakers who see it as their task to police the boundaries of established evangelical orthodoxies, thereby purifying contagions from its ranks. The ECM label, marked as a threat to existing denominational orthodoxies, is cast as dangerous and suspect. Thus one prominent figure involved in the theological discussions under question, Denver-area minister Nadia Bolz-Weber, has recently made it clear that the emerging qualification is “not one that I’m comfortable with any more.” “I don’t think it’s useful,” she reflected in a recent public talk. Here we witness emic rejection and subsequent etic adoption, a veritable domain switch in a terminological sense.

“Invention,” a word I used in the title of this response, is surely too strong of an action word to use in this case. But the ECM is nonetheless a thoroughly problematic category. Not many people, if we take the existing works on the phenomenon as standard, self-identify with or see as meaningful proposed (i.e., adopted/adapted) scholarly descriptive terms. The name has little to no value to those individuals associated with strands of criteria the definitions elaborate. Beyond confessional rejection, scholars themselves disagree on what criteria ought to be included under the banner term; Marti and Ganiel critique Bielo and Packard’s previous works for what they consider to be conceptual errors, including problems of definitional inclusion and exclusion (e.g., 2014, 138). The “ECM” term is troublesome, certainly, but is it useless? Is it vacuous? I’m not entirely convinced that it is. We need, after all, taxonomies to frame and catalog data observed and collected in the field. In fact, and as alluded to earlier, I’d argue that the task and duty of the scholar is to generate and/or appropriate terms for the particularly scholarly purposes of elucidation, historical preservation, and descriptive classification. Marti and Ganiel have given us one of the most important analyses to date of a set of events and developments we might at least provisionally agree to categorize under the heading in question. Personally, however, I find questions of terminological genealogy most interesting. Why emerging or emergent church or emergence Christianity as classifications and not, say, post-evangelical or missional as ones? (I wonder if most scholars might agree that the application of entirely generic, social scientific terms, in place of emically derived ones, would prove an unproductive exercise. Don’t our informants need to recognize themselves in the works about them we produce?) In the staking out of what terms denote—academically, secondarily—Ganiel and Marti’s book is an excellent example of the ways scholars and collaborators mete out meaning through words, labels, titles, and terminologies in a relational, dialogical, even circular, fashion. No, “invention,” then, is not quite right. We might amend the title of this response, more appropriately, to something like “The Invention of the Emerging Church Movement as a Productive Scholarly Taxon.”

Works Referenced

Bielo, James S. 2011. Emerging Evangelicals: Faith, Modernity, and the Desire for Authenticity. New York University Press.

Douglas, Mary. 1980 [1966]. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Marti, Gerardo and Gladys Ganiel. 2014. The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Packard, Josh. 2012. The Emerging Church: Religion at the Margins. Boulder, CO: First Forum Press.

Smith, Jonathan Z. 1982. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. The University of Chicago Press.



Picture credit: Jared Dunn, “My Philosophy Bookshelf (bottom)”

As an advanced graduate student in religious studies, among other departments, I’ve been advised by or have sat under for classes a number of different types of instructors in this hyper-eclectic field. The taxonomy below represents an incomplete, overly-essentialist, and (admittedly) biased listing of said types, followed by brief discussions of each category’s posturing in relation to others:

1. The Historian (not to be confused with subcategory 7.3 below)

2. The Philosophy of Religion Scholar

3. The Textualist (i.e., Biblical Studies, and/or the Study of Ancient Sacred Texts)

4. The Sociologist (of Religion)

5. The Anthropologist (of Religion)

6. Critical Method and Theory of Religion Scholar

7. The Hybrids

7.1. The Historian-Ethnographer (or Ethnographer-Historian)

7.2. The Social Anthropologist (or Socio-Cultural Anthropologist)

7.3. The History of Religions Scholar

7.4. The Area Specialist

7.5. Comparative Religious Ethics Scholar

7.6. The Religious Tradition(s) Specialist

7.7. The (Academic) Theologian

1. History. Examines what the category identify as some form of religion—broadly defined and construed—as their study subject. Think: Historians of Eighteenth-Century Protestantism. Historians of Medieval Catholicism. Historians of Shia Islam. These scholars spend much of their time in dusty libraries digging through archives (or in their cozy, air-conditioned offices perusing through digitized collections). They construct high quality, relatively plausible, compelling narratives of factual and teleological value. Historians make rote occurences of past events mean something by placing them, via compelling theoretical and interpretive grids, within broader sequences of happenings. Historians tend to critique categories #4 and 5 for not paying attention to temporal situatedness and conditioned meaning in terms of past trajectories (e.g., regimes or institutions) of power.

2. Philosophy of Religion. Specializes in (the history of) philosophy dealing with religious topics and also dabble in what sometimes falls under the rubric of “theory of religion.” These scholars find it frustrating that categories #4, 5, 7.1, 7.2 (and perhaps 7.4) liberally employ classic and modern philosophers and/or theorists of religion but do so haphazardly, selectively, and at times incoherently. This category also critiques category #1 for tending to abstain from the overt application of philosophical/theoretical ideas to their historical analyses. Philosophy of religion scholars tend to underscore the idealogically positioned and perspectival understanding of any historical, cultural, and social phenomena, occurrence, or event and thus largely function in an interpretive mode of inquiry.

3. Textual Analysis. Employs a wide and eclectic variety of methods and approaches to the reading, interpretation (i.e., hermeneutics), and analysis of ancient religious texts. Skilled in languages, both ancient and modern, dead and contemporary. Critiques categories #4 and 5 for failing to realize how important a role texts, words, and languages play in the lives of human persons. Does not function as a discrete methodology, school, or category, per se, but draws on aspects diffused throughout the other listed fields.

4. Sociology. Following in the wake of the Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Karl Marx, this category takes the mysterious “social” as its primary line of inquiry, especially as the social pertains to institutions, organizations, and other human groupings. Has an infatuation with numbers, graphs and charts, and predictive variables. Sees category #5—the field closest to it in terms of method and inquiry—as tantamount to glorified journalism. Finds category #1’s methods as speculative in nature and akin to detailed guesswork. Engages categories #2 and 6 consistently and uses theories from these categories to guide methodologies and the interpretation of data derived from said methodologies.

5. Anthropology. Specializes in the study of particular lived aspects of human life (e.g., kinship and/or ritual) and the overlap between the domains of religion, culture, and the social. Methods: Primarily ethnographic and field-work based. Believe that category #1 (and #7.3) makes at best obtuse guesses about how once living peoples might have existed, thought, believed, and behaved. Often pat anthropological comrades on the back for doing the “real” academic grunt work, that is, going out into “the field” to collect data from “actual” people in situ. Critiques a number of categories, including #2 and 6, from theorizing too abstractly and for failing to find compelling evidence of their hypothesizing on the ground in “real” time. Challenges category #4 for reifying culture and society through an overemphasis on numeric, quantitative analysis that ultimately misconstrues both how culture as well as social institutions work.

6. The Critical Study of Religious Studies. This group of scholars, difficult to pinpoint, tends to hail from category #2 but also engages in a smattering of methodologies common to #1, 3-5, and 7. Takes the methods and strategies of categories #1-7 as its subject matter. In other words, this category describes, analyzes, and critiques the work of scholars who consider religion—in all its descriptive and definitional manifestations—as a productive area of academic inquiry. Work in this category tends to be at least partially historical (read: genealogical) and by definition engages in the study of power, discourse, rhetoric, structure, and function of cultural and social institutions. Often—as this field engages in the study of the study of religion—critical religious studies scholars tend to be hyper-reflexive in that they take interest in the ways that religion scholars load analytically descriptive terms such as “religion” with meaning, and in the quest to understand why and for which reasons religion is cast as it is, pay attention to the dynamics of power (and boundary construction and maintenance) within the academy. Critiques category #5 (and perhaps 6) for failing to see that ethnographically derived data on “real” people constitute representations of human meaning as much as, say, the historical study of traditions through texts. Often engages in its own academic purity rituals, however, as the category is constantly on the look-out for scholars (with hidden agendas) hailing from sub-category #7.7.

7. Hybrid Methods.

7.1. The Historian-Ethnographer (or Ethnographer-Historian). Made up of scholars who blend, to varying degrees, methods from categories #1 and 4 (or 5).

7.2. The Social Anthropologist. Scholars who fit somewhat awkwardly between categories #4 and 5.

7.3. The History of Religions Scholar. An older term which refers to a specific group of pre-twenty-first-century scholars interested in the academic study of religion (as opposed to theology proper).

7.4. The Area Specialist. Scholars who define their academic identity primarily on the geographic (or national) area studied (e.g., Americanists, Sinologists, or experts of Southeast Asian religions).

7.5. Comparative Religious Ethics Scholar. Takes ethics systems, writ broadly, as its primary area of interest and draws methodologically on many of the above categories. Invested in description and analysis of human ethics but finds as enlightening and productive the comparison of both similar and disparate systems and phenomena.

7.6. The Religious Tradition(s) Specialist. Similar to category #7.4, above, traditions specialists define themselves primarily as scholars of a particular religious traditions (e.g., scholars of Buddhism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, or Judaism), sub-traditions (e.g., Pure Land Buddhism, Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, etc.) or even further as sub-traditions clarified regionally or geographically, thus collapsing into category #7.4 (e.g., Pure Land Japanese Buddhism, Pentecostalism in the Global South, or American Judaism).

7.7. The Theologian. Since Abington v. Schempp (1963), do not exist in public schools funded by taxpayer dollars (or at least do so covertly). Tend to hail from seminaries and/or religiously-affiliated academic institutions. Methods vary and draw on a number of the above categories.

Finally, some questions: How accurate or descriptive are these categories and sub-categories listed above? Have any fields been grossly misrepresented (or omitted altogether)? (Combinations, mixtures, and sub-fields abound, so which would you add to the list? I’ve neglected to include, for instance, an important field in the study of religion—the psychological, cognitive, or neuroscientific study of religion—simply because, in my understanding, such scholars tend to hail from departments other than religious studies and this post focuses mainly on scholars in religious studies department proper. Related to categories #1, 4, and 7.1, I’ve also not included the field of social history as social historians tend to work within history departments.) Given the increasingly interdisciplinary direction the academy is moving in, do sharp distinctions between schools or categories pertain? And how are scholars such as myself—presently training at least partially in religious studies graduate departments—going about identifying themselves and their scholarly identities in light of these categories?

What are your thoughts?

Religion as Analytic Fiction

I thought a lot about the field of Religious Studies over the fall semester. Religion was an important theme in a course I took under ethno-historian Raymond DeMallie, titled History of Anthropological Thought. For my term paper, I traced the use of religion as an analytic construct in North America from the proto-anthropological era of the Bureau of (American) Ethnology up to Clifford Geertz’s famously encompassing definition of religion as a cultural system. I analyzed a number of important definitions of religion from the position of someone training in the methods of anthropology but working primarily from the Department of Religious Studies. I won’t bore you with a summary of that essay here, but I will highlight several theorists I consider relevant to these issues.

While I researched for the essay, I wrestled with a number of questions: What is Religious Studies? What is religion? What has religion to do with society or culture? Does religion produce societies and cultures or is it produced by them? If scholars can reduce religion to some vague postulate to be identified vastly across the spectrum of human socio-cultural formation, does the subject then deserve its own field of study? Is religion really a universalized special form of socio-cultural formation, something that is truly distinct from other analytic categories, such as kinship, politics, economics, and so forth? Like all scholars interested in the study of the study of religion, I wrestle with these questions every time I pick up a book or article themed in this direction. These are in no way new questions, although they are relevant to me at this important juncture of my academic training.

Unfortunately, the word religion has become so sedimented in our academic vocabularies I fear it is rendered meaningless. Is not the word an empty descriptor, a vague signal that has no substantive value with the exception of clarifying a field of study? Consider, for instance, this application of the term from my own university department’s web page. Religion, such a description infers, is universal, ubiquitous, and influential. It is a force that exists before other institutional categories (e.g., literature, politics, art, and economics) and serves to shape and influence said categories. Yet, other than a “major force in human experience” that shapes other important institutions, the description provides no concrete definition. Vague definitions, however, demonstrate another point. Scholars themselves don’t exactly agree about what religion is. I give this example not to criticize my department’s webpage but to show the difficulties in definition and description of contested secondary categories.

Claude Levi-Strauss, in an obscure passage in his Totemism, speaks to these issues:

But the human sciences can only work effectively with ideas that are clear, or which they try to make so. If it is maintained that religion constitutes an autonomous order, requiring a special kind of investigation, it has to be removed from the common fate of objects of science. Religion having thus been defined by contrast, it will inevitably appear, in the eyes of science, to be distinguished as no more than a sphere of confused ideas. Thenceforth, any attempt to make an objective study of religion will have to be directed to a domain other than that of ideas, one which has be distorted and adapted by the claims of religious anthropology. The only approach routes left open will be affective (if not actually organic) and sociological ones which will do no more than circle around the phenomena. . . . Conversely, if religious ideas are accorded the same value as any other conceptual system, as giving access to the mechanism of thought, the procedures of religious anthropology will acquire validity, but it will lose its autonomy and its specific character. . . . This is what we have seen happen in the case of totemism, the reality of which is reduced to that of a particular illustration of certain modes of thought (103-104).

Levi-Strauss speaks conjecturally, here, but his thoughts underscore my questions. Is religion really an “autonomous order”? Should scholars define it “by contrast” to other formative systems? Does religion require “a special kind of investigation”? Modifying his words for my own purposes, I worry that at worst Religious Studies departments constitute nothing more than “sphere[s] of confused ideas.” Bronislaw Malinowski, earlier than Levi-Strauss, warns against such artificial programs of inquiry. “An Ethnographer who sets out to study only religion, or only technology, or only social organisation,” he writes, “cuts out an artificial field of inquiry, and he will be seriously handicapped in his work.” By defining religion (“Religion is x and y and z but not a or b.”) and lifting it up and above and apart from other systems of socio-cultural formation (“I study religion, not economics.”), I worry that scholars construct an artificial field of inquiry.

To clarify, I don’t necessarily feel that religion as secondary term of analysis is a bad thing, although some recent anthropologists such as David Schneider go as far as declaring the “quartet of  institutions” [i.e., kinship, economics, politics, and religion] as “vacuous,” “empty,” and ultimately, useless. For these scholars, scholarly terms of meta-analysis, terms originated during periods of imperialist expansion, lose their meaning. I’m reminded of Jean Baudrillard’s conceptualization of the simulacrum. In media theory, this refers to the idea that images-qua-symbols no longer retain external referents. The images themselves retain symbolic meaning (and possibly) apart from any historical linking to a concept, idea, or presence. This may be what has happened to the construct in focus. Scholars project religion, as a category, onto cultural practices (“This is religion; that is religion. That is not religion.”) and fail to recall that the term itself is second-order. Religion, in a way, is a fiction. It’s etically derived. The real issue, at least from my perspective, is whether or not religion is a productive fiction. Does the term help us? Is it useful? Does the term elucidate or obscure?

Scholars are human, too, just like Levi-Strauss’s anthropological subjects, and we look out into the world and try to make sense of various phenomena via analytical and classificatory systems. As academics, we need useful terms regardless if they are problematic. I think in the pragmatic sense, Religious Studies is important in that it draws together eclectic scholars who are studying analogous things and asking analogous questions of human histories, cultures, and societies. But religion should probably not be construed as anything more than an analytic construct. I don’t really believe in religion proper–religion as some vague thing spread across all human cultures, so to say. But I am committed to religion as a scholarly term of contestation. Religion as an analytic fiction–to be determined and defined per researcher, per research context–is helpful.