Friday, April 9, 2010

Calling Tony Jones To Account

Tony Jones wrote a blog post named "Calling Kevin DeYoung to Account." In this post he argued that DeYoung mis-characterized the Emergent Church and several of the members of the Emergent Church. It seemed like a fair challenge to DeYoung. And the cool thing is that DeYoung apologized for his words. A good ending to the story.

Now it's time to call Tony Jones to account. Actually, that seems too harsh. Let me re-phrase that. I'd like to invite Jones into a spirit of greater respect and collegiality. The problem is that Jones mis-characterizes and belittles the Mainline Church. Jones' post about Kevin DeYoung makes it obvious that he doesn't like it when the Neo-Reform folks misrepresent and belittle the Emergent Church. (Plus, in a post today, it's clear that he doesn't like it when his allies offer critiques.) So, I'm just asking that Jones doesn't do the same thing to the Mainline Church. I will include four examples of Jones' words in order to make clear what I am talking about.

First, in a panel discussion at a recent book expo, Jones said: "Liberals, like those at Claremont, are ideologically rigid and not open to dialogue." I have found this to be untrue. My experience of "liberal" seminaries is that they are very open to a diversity of perspectives. Many, if not most, are ecumenical, having faculty and students from a wide variety of backgrounds and theological traditions. When you sit in class at Mainline seminaries, you often will share a table with Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists, Pentecostals, Unitarians, etc. Every single class is an act of ecumenical dialogue that requires openness to diversity. In fact, one of my former professors at a "liberal" seminary, Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, is now the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches. The only thing Kinnamon was rigid about was the absolute need for respecting and listening to people with different perspectives. In fact, I would say Kinnamon's graciousness in ecumenical dialogue is something that should be a model for all Christians who want to live in a more peaceful world and Church. And, yes, Kinnamon is a "liberal," Mainline Christian. So, I don't think it's charitable or fair for Jones to claim that liberal Christians are "ideologically rigid and not open to dialogue." In my experience, it's liberal Christians who have been the most willing to include people with a variety of different perspectives. This is true of Claremont, too. The tagline itself at Claremont is: "The world is changing. And so is Claremont." "Liberals" can be open, fluid, changing folks.

Second, Jones implied that the use of inclusive and expansive language by "liberal" Christians is "bizarre." While sharing his experience at Hanover Church of Christ near Dartmouth College, Jones wrote: "I recognized the opening prayer, hymns, and the robes on the ministers. But as we got more deeply into the worship service it seemed like I was in some kind of Bizzaro Church. During the Lord's Prayer the opening words were 'Our Mother, who art in Heaven.' Other prayers were addressed to the 'Great Spirit.' Several of the hymns had the same tunes that I remembered but slightly different words — all reference to maleness and warfare had been purged." (100). It's uncharitable to say that a church that uses inclusive and expansive language is a "Bizzaro Church." The Bible includes a variety of images for God, including Father (Matthew 6:9), Mother (Psalm 131:2), Rock (Isaiah 17:10), Water (Jeremiah 17:13), Vine (John 15:1), etc. The use of expansive language is meant to be faithful to the diverse images of God found in Scripture. In fact, God's very name, "I Am Who I Am" (Exodus 3:14), suggests that God is enigmatic and our words about God are only models and metaphors. So, expansive language attempts to use a plurality of images for God in order to avoid making any one image of God into a idolatrous, graven image. Plus, inclusive and expansive language is also used in order to bring about the reformations that feminist theologians, such as Ruth Duck, have been discussing for decades. This is too important to simply cast aside as something "bizarre" that "liberal" churches do. Churches who use inclusive and expansive language do it to as a sign of their commitment to Scripture and justice. This seems faithful, not bizarre.

Third, Jones wrote that the United Church of Christ, a Mainline denomination, is "notoriously left-leaning" (9). Obviously, in the context of his book, Jones is using this label as part of a dualistic, straw man argument against "Conventional Christianity" (i.e. Mainline) and in favor of "New Christianity" (i.e. Emergent). One of the problems with this label is that it's a gross misrepresentation of the UCC. This is a denomination that includes conservatives, moderates, and progressives. Plus, the UCC is made up of a vast array of polities, theologies, perspectives, and peoples from many different contexts: Evangelical, Reform, Congregational, Frontier Christian, Black Church, Rural America, Feminist, Queer, etc. So, the UCC is a pluriform denomination that is actually quite difficult to stuff in a simple box. Each congregation is different. Each congregation is diverse. And so the denomination is impossible to classify in the reductionistic way in which Jones tried to label it. It's just not accurate to call the UCC "notoriously left-leaning." A better description might be to say that the UCC is a "notoriously 'big tent' denomination." Barack Obama described the post-partisan and inclusive vision of the UCC well: "UCC churches across the country open their doors to millions of Americans each Sunday, and they accept, love and counsel all who enter. This spirit of inclusiveness has served as a model for me in my time in the Senate, and the love for one's fellow man that the UCC stands for is the foundation of my work." The UCC, like Obama, is committed to honoring the diverse perspectives around our common table of ideas. Honoring diversity is good for public discourse in politics and the Church.

Fourth, in a rant on his blog about ordination, Jones said that the Mainline Church is "tribal," "abusive," and "sinful." He says it's tribal because Mainline people pick one theological flavor and one type of people and stick with this tribe forever. (As if the Mainline Church or any denomination is one monolithic bloc.) He says it's abusive because Mainline denominations have ordination requirements that he thinks are too strict. (As if ethical standards and communal discernment isn't important.) He says it's sinful because it's tribal, abusive, bureaucratic, etc. (As if any human institution isn't influenced by sin, including the Emergent Church.) And it's not just me who has noticed Jones' uncharitable words in blog posts like this one. The Senior Minister of the American Church in London, John D’Elia (a personal friend of Jones), wrote the following about Jones' recent barrage of criticism against the Mainline Church: "What gets me is that you have demonstrated a rash and bitter level of dismissiveness to those of us who choose this path. In your anger at the bureaucracy of large denominations and institutions, you’ve lashed out not only at them, but also at the men and women of faith and calling who participate freely in the opportunities for ministry that they offer. You sneer at it as simply being loyal to the tribe, and you rarely pass up a chance to mention the availability of health insurance or pensions. Shame on you for not being able - or worse, willing - to understand another person’s experience...What if there’s nothing wrong with trying to be a good steward of a family’s health, whether physical or financial? What if, for example, serving Christ in a denomination that provides a health plan isn’t a sin or a ‘sell-out’ at all, but rather a prudent way to be a good steward?" D'Elia is simply asking Jones to honor different ways of doing ministry. It seems that in our world, there is still room for the structure, accountability, and support of denominations.

Hopefully these four examples of Jones' words illustrate his pattern of mis-characterizing and belittling Mainline Christianity, without discrediting all of his other good and faithful work. But that's the point. His uncharitable banter hinders his message. Sometimes it seems like Jones uses polemic, adversarial, and provocative statements in order get attention. Many of his comments are valid points. But some of these comments are sensationalistic banter. The issue is that it's difficult to hear the valid points when they're mixed with such sensationalism. Michael Moore also brings up valid points in his films, but the films are so infiltrated with sensationalism that it's hard for some people to take his points seriously. That is what I see happening with some of Jones' blogs and books.

Many people in the Emergent Church, including Tony Jones, have good and faithful ideas that are important for others to hear. But those points can be made without a polemic, adversarial, and provocative stance. Brian McLaren is an example of someone in the Emergent Church who does this well. McLaren makes his points without the need to belittle others. I think his approach is a much better way to reach an audience. As the old saying goes, "Honey attracts more flies than vinegar."

We need to be partners, not adversaries. The Mainline Church needs the Emergent Church. And the Emergent Church needs the Mainline Church. We have much to teach each other - and learn from one another. Let's figure out a way to form a generative friendship instead of an unproductive standoff. I honestly feel like I am both Mainline and Emergent. That is why I am so passionate about bringing these two "sides" together. I care deeply about the Church and think that the Mainline and Emergent Churches have much to contribute to the future of Christianity. So this blog post is my plea for a spirit of greater respect and collegiality. And maybe someday we could even reach the level of collaboration. After all, Apostle Paul reminds us that we are all different members of the one Body of Christ (I Corinthians 12).

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for directing me to this site - interesting food for thought and Qs that deserve an answer.