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?

Pentecostals And Emergents: Preliminary Thoughts

I have been invited to speak in the upcoming conference, Subverting the Norm, on the intersections between the Pentecostal movement and the Emergent conference, specifically in terms of radical theology. Suffice it to say, I am pretty excited. World-class philosopher John Caputo and Doug Pagitt, a prominent voice within the Emergent conversation will both be there. I attended the Society of Pentecostal Studies (SPS) last Spring in Minneapolis, and had the privilege of listening to presentation by emergent thinker Tony Jones. Tony Jones’s presentation and blog posts on the subject are to this point the most sustained intellectual interaction of the two movements to date. I highly recommend that anyone interested in the subject explore Jones’s blogs. His involvement with SPS, I found out after the event, was highly controversial, based on his stance concerning homosexuality and other issues (see here). I use Jones’s existing thoughts, then, as a starting point for my own careful contrast and comparison of the movements. While many of Jones’s points are insightful, I aver that his work in general seems to highlight more of the contrasts between the movements than numerous points of overlap and meaningful points agreement similitude that I see existing between them.
My foremost task in my presentation at Subverting the Norm, then, will be to extend the discussion on the ways that the movements work to complement one another, both historically and contemporarily. There is much in common between the two, particularly in terms of ethos, or essence, of the movements. The following list represents my earliest thoughts on this relationship, building on some of Jones’s points while reformulating others.

1. One element I found lacking from Jones’s work was an extended treatment of the element of primitivity. Both Pentecostals and Emergents tend to be intensely primitivistic in outlook. In sermons given from the pulpits of Pentecostal churches, the term “the Early Church” or “New Testament Christians” are referenced frequently. In my experience, this tends to be a common theme in much of emergent thought, particularly in terms of the rejection of the influence of capitalism on the church and a return to some sort of authentic, untainted, and more original form of Christianity. Whether this “New Testament Christianity” is attainable for the modern church, however, is another argument. 

2. Working hand-in-hand, both Pentecostalism and the Emergent Church are at root movements of social-religious protest. Pentecostalism, in the nascent years of the twentieth-century, was extremely anti-institutional, anti-establishment, and anti-structure. While it has undeniably evolved in its 100 year history, becoming more institutionalized and formalized, it cannot deny the fact that it was at base a religious expression of rebellion from the norm. 

3. Another common theme between Pentecostals and Emergents is an obvious one: both have strained relationships with the broader Evangelical community. Emergent thought is often described as being exemplary of post-evangelical Christianity; Pentecostalism has a similar relationship. Several scholarly voices from within the study of Pentecostalism have decried the relationship of the movement with Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism’s awkward step-parent. Pentecostalism’s growing relationship with Evangelicalism in the second half of the twentieth- century has been cited as the cause of Pentecostalism’s erosion of “distinctives,” in particular issues such as women’s roles in ministry, positions of anti-violence and pacifism. Many of these are argued to have been played down as Pentecostals tried to fit in with their more refined Evangelical brethren. 

4. Both of the movements have been historically and continue to be beacons of civil-rights: involving both gender and race. At Azusa street, it is reported that “the color line was washed away in the blood.” Both men and women shared responsibility in ministry. For these inchoate Pentecostals, the Holy Spirit was no respecter of persons; it was poured out freely on whoever desired it. Neither skin color or gender mattered. And, they were convinced, they had biblical backing! (Yet, as I will demonstrate in my presentation, all was not perfect in the early years in regards to civil rights and equality. As time progressed, problems ensued. Not all Pentecostal denominations allowed ordination to women, and race issues constantly creeped up, even at the Azusa mission.) 

5. Jones does do a fantastic job describing perhaps the most important similarity between the two movements: that of a pneumatologically-oriented theology and praxis, and a re-instatement of trinitarianism (in contrast to binitarianism). In essence, both movements see God as directly at work in the world through the Spirit, and the involvement of the Christian in God’s work. Christians co-op with God, partnering with God in this lifetime. This sort of praxis ultimately rejects Calvinism for the more experiential and participatory Armenian point of view, and as Jones eloquently demonstrates, this might make the neo-Calvinists uncomfortable as it might be seen as an undermining of God’s sovereignty. If humans are actively involved in God’s work on this earth, they might wonder, is not God then dependent upon them? Both Pentecostals and Emergents are acutely aware of the movement of God on this earth in the here-and-now; both appropriate a theology of the Kingdom as already-but-not-yet; this kingdom is one that is something that is not entirely attainable but is something to be sought diligently, and built, here and now. For both Emergents and Pentecsotals, the Kingdom of God has an important social dimension. 

6. Lastly, another point of parallel is that of the hermeneutics of the two movements. Some scholars of Pentecostalism claim that the movement’s ways of interpreting the Bible are, in essence, relational and experiential, thus situating Pentecostal hermeneutics as a postmodern endeavor. This, I might point out, is difficult to conceptualize, given the common understanding of Pentecostals as biblical literalists, or the even more inaccurate description as fundamentalists. These scholars argue that in the course of its ritualization (i.e., “evangelicalization”), Pentecostal Bible scholars opted out of their hermeneutics of the Spirit for a more rigid and dogmatic interpretation of the Bible. Still, however, Pentecostal hermeneutics are characterized as Spirit-led. Such a perspective has allowed Pentecostals to ordain women, even though there are passages that, for biblical literalists, prohibit them from speaking from the pulpit. One thing is certain: if contemporary Pentecostals are more literalists than pneumatological interpreters, they are just plain bad ones. They pick-and-choose. I feel, as do a growing number of Pentecostal scholars of the Bible, that pneumatological readings of the Bible are anti-modern (perhaps even anti-historical- critical?). 

Is the Emergent movement the culmination of Azusa Street? While I am hesitant to make such a presumptuous statement, I have to consider the fact that the Emergent movement may just be a continuation of, fulfillment of, or renewal movement of the original renewal movement: Pentecostalism. Yet, in its current state, the Emergent movement bears striking resemblance to the Pentecostal movement, only without its ritualized, formalized, and evangelicalized addendums. Certainly there are differences regarding particular moral and political issues (the Jones presentation controversy embodies this contention), but this simply does not do away with the fact that the movements have more similarities than they do differences. In my opinion. Currently. 

So what do you think? Keep in mind that these points represent the beginning stages of my thoughts on the subject. These points will certainly become more well-defined and nuanced as I get closer to the presentation date. I appreciate and look forward to any thoughts or opinions concerning the overlapping nature or contention surrounding these two movements. If I receive any good insight, I will more than likely graft that thought into my presentation. Thanks for the interaction.