October 2007


[continued form yesterday’s post]

C. Wess Daniels (Quaker-aligned, Mennonite-lovin’, recent Fuller Seminary grad) responded to McKenna’s post with his own observations, supportive of the idea that Anabaptism is a wide tent capable of organizing diverse emerging traditions, while connecting new movements with a powerful historical witness:

I too have witnessed in my interactions with people from various traditions that many … are looking for some kind of new (or different) lens from which to understand our faith …. Anabaptism as a tradition is all encompassing and contains within the intellectual framework to bear the weight of an influx of many traditions into it’s vision.

I particularly agree that new emerging Christians would benefit by articulating some connection with a specific tradition so rich in historical integrity. I know it’s been extremely helpful for me.

Legendary emergent blogger Tall Skinny Kiwi chimes in with a post around the same time reviewing the contributions he’d like to see from multiple international Anabaptist flavors. He’s especially enthusiastic about Canadian Mennonites. His post is also helpful because of the books (real, paper books!) he references.

Anabaptist-friendly minister and prolific Brit blogger Graham Old disagrees! Responding to McKnight’s original post in summer ’05, he asks:

What of being a church for the poor? Or radical ecclesiology and anti-Constantinianism? Or communal hermeneutics, or a genuine committment to peace and nonviolence? What about being a church on the fringe, in a long line of such marginalised groups? (And not because it was cool to be “radical” and fly below the radar, but because you weren’t invited to the party.) I would have to say that such features are far from characteristic of the emerging church.

And then later, following up in his comments he clarifies:

I just completely disagree with the idea that the emerging church has an emphasis upon the poor. It may be that particular churches and/or groups of churches do – but I don’t see them doing so because they are emerging. That is, I don’t think it is characteristic of the emerging church.

Of course, I delight in those aspects of the emerging church that do seem anabaptist-ish, but I don’t think there’s enough of them to suggest that the two movements have a similar spirit.

This has been a summary of conversation I’ve found interesting and helpful. More of my own opinions at a later pint in time.

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I’m not the first to consider the idea that emerging church finds particular resonance with Anabaptist traditions. This has been a topic discussed and debated in the last couple of years. I’ve been checking out the archives of bloggers I read and have found a rich and interesting conversation about this. I’ll try to summarize and link to the various threads in this post, and maybe comment myself on the points raised in them at a future date.

Back in 2005, Scot McKnight (beloved emerging academic brainiac from North Park) proposed the following in the conclusion to a blog post reflecting on the Brian McLaren book A Generous Orthodoxy:

Now I wish to make a proposal that changes the title of this post: the sort of evangelicalism the EM is striving for is anabaptist. As we in the EM seek to fashion a label and a category for what is going on, perhaps the only genuine label that comes close is “anabaptist.”

Great idea, right? The blog conversation resulting from this post has been rising and falling over the last couple of years.

In May, Jerrod McKenna did some blogging about movements of radical peace witness he’s encountered, and found the phrases “emerging peace church” and “open anabaptist impulse” to be helpful describing what was going on with this spindly branch of the emergent family sapling. He names emphasis on community, an invitational character open even to enemies, elevating non-violence as an essential expression of the spirit of Jesus, and a withdrawal from political forces that employ coercion. He concludes:

In a post-Christendom setting their may be no more important stories to draw on than this ‘Open Anabaptist impulse’ and other similar traditions such as the Early Friends. A witness to the reality of the early churches “power” not being found in positions of prestige but with those in a position of need.

Part 2 tomorrow!

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about theology lately, exploring Anabaptist ideas amid Emerging church controversies. Much of the rageblogging done against people like McLaren and Tony Jones is filled with accusations about believing the “wrong” things about the atonement. So I’m glad that Josh Brown’s blog tipped me off last month to North Park professor Scot McKnight’s book in Abingdon’s series on emerging theology, A Community Called Atonement.

In evangelical churches for generations, the penal substitutionary theory of atonement has held a privileged position over other possible interpretations about why Jesus “had to die.” Not that I was ever told about it growing up evangelical, but there are a number of other, quite different, explanations of what could possibly explain Jesus’ execution (theologically speaking).

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An easy spot for traditional church folk to pick at Emergents’ claims of “orthodoxy” (more on this weaponized word in a future post for sure) is to press the issue of penal substitutionary atonement – which Emergents are not particularly fond of (Lord knows, I’m not!). See Tony Jones’s recounting of his lunch with John Piper to get a sense of the conflict.

So I’ve been trying to learn something about Anabaptist theology’s work on the atonement. I’m happy to discover once again that there’s probably a reason why an emerging church-flavored person like me is so comfortable with the Mennos. They have a broader theological view of atonement, and don’t seem to equate penal substitution with the gospel.

It seems like the theological work being done these days is in two broad areas:

  1. identifying the theological history of Anabaptism,
  2. and some robust new thinking and interpretation by contemporary Anabaptist theologians.

The History

It’s not easy to get a clear picture of Mennonite theological history, for many reasons outlined in this helpful Frances F. Hiebert article from Direction journal. From my reading of Hiebert’s historical survey, I think emerging Christians would be right at home with Anabaptist thought on this subject. While most Mennonites (but by no means all) recognized some truth to penal substitution, this was by no means the whole story for them. Early Anabaptists understood this “forensic” model as only one facet of a complex and mysterious culmination of God-human relations. From Hiebert’s article [emphasis is mine]:

But to them, that model was inadequate or insufficient. It concentrated chiefly on Christ’s death and had been reduced to a passive or forensic doctrine which concerned only a change in humanity’s legal status before God….To the Anabaptists, however, atonement meant much, much more. According to Pilgram Marpeck it was far more than a legal transaction in the heavenly court. It … referred to all the ways in which God and humans have been reconciled through the work of Jesus Christ. It points not only to Christ’s death, but to all the various phases of his activity on behalf of humanity including his ministry, his death, and his resurrection…. This comprehensive view of atonement is in contrast to both Catholic and Protestant traditions that have held a forensic doctrine of atonement in which “all that is really necessary for the salvation of humankind is a qualified (pure) victim.”

The New Thinking

Some of the contemporary work on this subject I’ve read is from J. Denny Weaver, a professor from Mennonite school Bluffton College, in Ohio. This article outlines a modification he’s made to another historical atonement theory called “Christus victor.” Weaver’s so-called “narrative Christus victor” theology removes the contradictory blood-thirst from God’s role in Christ’s death, and sets the entire enterprise in an against-the-empire context that I hear leaders in the emerging church speak about often.

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Boy, I sure am excited to get my hands on Brian McLaren’s new book, Everything Must Change. The blogosphere is a-buzzin’!

Baptist minister Chris Seay is one of those spicy young(ish) emerging church pastors who warms the cockles of my heart.

seay and mclaren

I first became aware of Chris Seay when someone pointed me to a Web site where he makes videos for his church. The Web site is extensive, with a lot of video and audio, most of it networked through YouTube and subscribable via iTunes. It looks like he is someone plugged into culture and interested in being engaged rather than withdrawn. Any doubt about this was eliminated when I read the reviews of his book, which argues that the Holy Spirit is at work in the HBO series the Sopranos, revealing Christianity’s deepest and most profound truths.

I love what he says in this Christianity Today interview about a Christian’s relationship to culture:

I still think one of the great fallacies of Christian thinking is this kind of garbage in/garbage out mentality…. Daniel was educated by sorcerers, magicians, pagan priests, and astrologers. It says at the end of chapter one that he became ten times wiser in those things than the people that taught him. And yet, clearly, he wasn’t a pagan priest or a sorcerer. Scripture was his guide through all of the mess of his own pagan culture that I find to be very similar to our culture.

And later he describes how culture spaces can be where Christians meet people and engage their spiritual questions:

I’ve found it as a place where people are longing and asking spiritual questions. In music and movies, you see all of these deep spiritual questions. And the people that are supposed to engage those questions have removed themselves. We pull away from culture to the point where we can no longer affect it. Somewhere right in the middle is a really healthy place, but it’s a difficult one to find.

I realize I don’t have a clear idea of what the Mennonite disposition toward culture is. I have a vague idea that this has historically been an ambivalent relationship, but where are Mennonite churches moving today in relation to culture? What’s the deep Anabaptist theological thinking on this? It’s something I plan to investigate for a while.

Ugh.

I’m coming late to this bit of online drama. Not sure how I missed it this summer, but the Christianity Today blog linked to an article by someone name Frank Pastore who thinks that the goals of emerging church and Al Qaeda are the same.


pastore article web shot


Yes, really.

The emergent blogs jumped on this bit of horror-filled nonsense better than I ever could.

Steve Knight’s lack of “sputtering sarcasm.”
Mark VanSteenwyck is reminded of Anabaptism
Jordan Cooper calls it stupid, but gets some weird ananymous trolling in the comments.

There’s not much I can really even say about this. Even some emergent-unfriendly commenters condemn such lunacy (linked to by Steve above). But I do just want to say how sad and uncomfortable I felt reading some of the Christianity Today post comments. No one really defended Pastore. But a disturbing number of posters thought there was a grain of truth in his rant.

Ugh.

In my previous post, I tried to explain the anxiety and restlessness I sometimes feel working at an evangelical Christian college. It’s frustrating to me that people around here judge me based on my theological beliefs. What they are usually saying is that they think I’m not really a Christian, and therefore some kind of threat to the cohesion of this Christian community.

Next month a friend of mine is coming to speak on my campus who has been drawing controversy lately by publicly espousing theological beliefs that identify him as outside the boundaries of what many of the colleges he speaks at find acceptable for Christians.

I was telling this to a colleague at lunch this week, and he responded by saying that the word “orthodoxy” means “right belief,” and Christians have been protecting the faith by making judgments about one another’s theological beliefs for two thousand years. He said “If your friend finds it too hard to believe the right things, maybe he’s in the wrong religion. Being a Christian is easier than that.”

Obviously, I took this personally, because I’m assuming my colleague would say the same thing about me if he knew that I hold a theology that probably fails parts of his litmus test for believing the right things.

I don’t care how easy people say it should be for me to follow Christ; in my personal experience I find it very hard! I struggle with weak faith, confusion about the Trinity, laziness and bad character, the existence of evil, injustice and suffering. I work out my theological conclusions in response to these struggles, so that I can remain faithful. If I believed some of what people tell me I should believe about (theology buzzword alert:) soteriology, eschatology, divine ontology, etc., I wouldn’t be able to stay a Christian at all!

I’ve found tremendous hope and help in the Mennonite church. Fellow Mennos care about and frequently ask me about my mission. “Following Christ and building the Kingdom of God!” is my usual answer. They ask me what I need in order to do that. There are many things I need: discipline, humility, meditation, good advice, submission to God’s will, community support, and more. And also I believe theological ideas that people judge me for.

Parts of my theology is awkward, and unpopular, maybe even incorrect or incomplete. But what those beliefs do is help me be a better, more faithful Christian.

This is “what theology is for” in my life. It’s to help me understand and follow and serve and submit to the will of Jesus. Not to draw boundary markers for club membership. I care very little for the theological opinions in the heads of most of the people I work with at my college. I simply care if they are healthy and at peace following Christ and building the Kingdom.

I wish I had more of a sense that people around here could look at me that way if they knew all that I believe.

I take comfort in the confidence that the Mennonites will let me stay in their group if ever the college I work for tells me to leave. I’m still working out what this means in the long term.