Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Review of "The New Christians" by Tony Jones

Tony Jones' book "The New Christians" is an outstanding history and overview of the Emergent Church movement. Jones is obviously a compelling writer. He also brings up many important things to consider for the future of the Church. But it was hard to read past the negative and inaccurate characterization of Mainline Christianity in general and the United Church of Christ in particular.

In the first chapter of his book, Jones attempts to set up a dichotomy between conservative Christians (via the Southern Baptist Convention) and liberal Christians (via the United Church of Christ). He then implies that these two denominations represent the extremes of Christianity. The SBC being at the far right and the UCC being at the far left. Jones also says that this SBC-UCC dichotomy represents "Conventional Christianity" that has grown stagnant, ineffective, and irrelevant. He then suggests that the Emergent Church represents a "New Christianity" that is fresh, capable, and relevant. The implied message is that the Emergent Church is the movement that has been able to transcend the conservative-liberal dualism and form something radically different.

The problem with this argument is that it's an oversimplified description and false dichotomy. For example, Jones commented on "the silly television ads from the liberal United Church of Christ." This comment is a misunderstanding of the purpose and meaning of the commercials. The "bouncer ad" (which Jones mentions) was one of many different ads used in the UCC's TV ad campaign. All the ads have different themes and ways of communicating, so it's not possible to describe them with one simple, flippant description. As Bill Moyers says, we must "beware of the great oversimplifiers." Nuance is always important because things are always more complex than our initial impressions reflect. Plus, for Jones to name something as "silly," is dismissive, unhelpful rhetoric for Christian dialogue.

As another example, Jones said the UCC was a "notoriously left-leaning denomination." This label is a gross misrepresentation of the UCC, since the denomination is represented by a vast array of theological perspectives. The UCC is a postmodern denomination that is made up of a diversity of the polities, theologies, perspectives, and peoples from many different contexts: Evangelical, Reform, Congregational, Frontier Christian, Black Church, Rural America, Feminist, Womanist, Queer, etc. So, the UCC is a multiform denomination that seeks unity in it's diversity. It's not an ideological denomination that imposes any one agenda. It's not accurate to label the UCC as a "notoriously left-leaning denomination." A better description might be to label it a "notoriously 'big tent' denomination."

Real life is too complex for labels. But we need to use them in order to make sense of things and engage in conversation. The important thing is to use labels in a careful, prayerful, and mindful way. And to realize that all labels fail to perfectly describe anything or anyone perfectly. So, the flippant way in which Jones used labels in his book seemed inaccurate and unproductive.

I'm writing this note because I care about helping to foster a productive dialogue between the Mainline Church and the Emergent Church. Hopefully we can communicate more clearly and fairly in the future. We both have important things to learn from one another.

May a "generative friendship" continue to develop and grow between all of us missional Christians!

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