Why Missio Alliance and Subverting the Norm need each other

Giving his toast to Jacques Derrida during the Live Homebrewed Christianity “Theology of Rock” podcast at the Subverting the Norm conference earlier this month, Jack Caputo made the following comment: [Derrida belongs on the Mount Rushmore of Radical Theology because] “he saves us from the safety of religion.”

One week later someone tweeted the following quote from a talk by Scot McKnight at the Missio Alliance inaugural gathering: “a gospel of personal afterlife insurance is about my needs, not Jesus’ reign.”  Another tweet followed: “Jesus left a community, not a book or a rule.”missioalliance

In his response to Caputo’s keynote talk at Subverting the Norm, Tony Jones made a number of interesting comments as well, at least one of which is the impetus for this blog post:  He said, “Be loyal to this tribe.  We have a better version of the gospel than the regnant view of the gospel in the West today.  If our version of the gospel is to stand a chance, particularly among the “nones,” then we’ve got to stick together in spite of our doctrine/theological/philosophical differences.”

My contention here is not that these quotes (Caputo’s and McKnight’s) mean the same thing – based solely on the speakers, obviously they don’t – or that the differences between these two groups are unimportant or insignificant.  I do want to suggest though that there might be a common spirit shared between the groups captured by these two quotes.  To borrow from Peter Rollins, I think those represented at each of these conferences have rejected a Christianity of certainty and satisfaction and have instead turned to pursue a faith that is more honest, broken, communal, politically conscious, non-triumphalist, and in the end, more true to the basilea theou of peace, justice and reconciliation that Jesus announced.   

Part of the common mission seems to be something like the embodiment of a counter-narrative to the dominant ideologies of our time. (I like Walter Brueggemann’s terminology of these ideologies as technological-therapeutic-consumer-militarism.)  The quality of scholarship critiquing the worship and subsuming power of global capitalism on both sides is impressive. Then there is also a common mission, I think, to call out the false-consciousness of conservative and neo-reformed evangelicalism that takes the form of nationalism (violence), bibliolatry (certitude) and/or soteriocentrism (satisfaction).  Missio Alliance leader David Fitch is especially helpful in naming these master signifiers (see my review of his book The End of Evangelicalism?). Rushmore_Poster_rev0

Moreover, I think both movements clearly renounce Christendom and embrace the challenge that is religious and non-religious pluralism.  Lastly, while I’m sure there’s more to be mentioned, both conferences celebrated ethnic diversity and the empowerment of their female leaders (Cherith Fee-Nordling and Jo Saxton for Missio, and Namsoon Kang, Katharine Sarah Moody and Melinda McGarrah Sharp for STN, among others).

These are not small points of agreement.

There are definite theological differences between these two camps, as already acknowledged.  Some members of the groups won’t even be interested in this conversation.  But it does not follow that there is a clean separation on all fronts. As Brian McLaren argues in his latest book, Christ-centeredness, or the integrity of a distinctive Christian identity on the one hand, and radical hospitality on the other hand, are not mutually exclusive. Rather, it’s a tension Christians must live in, however difficult, and that’s why I’m convinced the conferences need each other.

And despite suspicions to the contrary (see Doug Pagitt’s interview of Fitch and Holsclaw about their latest book), not all Emergent types and Mainline Protestants have low christologies, just like not all Missio leaders are Hauerwasians (Roger Olson who also spoke at the conference is case-in-point) or unwilling to bless gay marriage.  It’s easy to see which side is more inclined to what – Missio to Christian identity and STN to inclusivity – but I suspect that these inclinations can be explained to some extent by each group’s respective fidelity to divergent contexts.  If Missio is committed to responding to the disillusionment with the conservative and neo-reformed attempt to reduce the gospel to “justification,” STN is addressing the broader and more political context of concern for social, eco-justice and epistemological/post-modern fragmentation. Both contexts must be attended to!

I’m frustrated by what I’ve read recently from some leaders of Missio like Fitch and Holsclaw in their published and unpublished remarks about figures like Rob Bell and other emergent folks in general.  They’ve constructed a false binary, I think, between the neo-reformed crowd and emergents, by mistakenly collapsing the latter into Mainline Protestantism.  At the same time, I can understand Fitch and Holsclaw’s frustration with the alleged theological vacuity of emergent church figures in the past decade.  SquareDesign_ver1

And yet I’m considering both of these frustrations, attempting to gaze toward the future with a bigger picture in mind, and venturing the observation that these frustrations are nonetheless relatively inconsequential compared to what can be held together.  Why? Because I believe these gatherings and networks exist at least in part for the sake of furthering a story and a faith that actually brings good news to the poor, the planet and the LGBT community – to use the Homebrewed slogan – but that does not forfeit its Christian distinctiveness in the process.

Can we get on board with that?  I’m genuinely curious and hopeful.

Bill is an adjunct professor of theology and ethics at the University of the Incarnate Word, a PhD candidate in philosophy of religion at Claremont Graduate University and has worked as a youth and campus minister at Baylor University and Santa Clarita United Methodist Church.  He and his wife Whitney live in Austin, TX, and you can connect with him on his blog at wawalker.com or on twitter @bwalkeriii.

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26 comments
wg23
wg23

Bill, thank you so much for your post. Also, I just clicked your name up top and realized that you have quite a few interesting posts on here, so I am looking forward to reading them. 

Anyway, I am, as I mentioned to you at STN2, a UMC pastor. So, I have engaged with folks who would have been involved with both conferences from an outside perspective. I grew up in a 1950's style mainline UMC church, and have been serving the same type of churches for years. I began reading Brian McLaren and Peter Rollins in my first year of seminary, and they both transformed my thinking and my faith. As the years have gone on, I have read quite a bit of missional, emergent, radical theology, etc... My tribe since birth has been the UMC, so I never really considered any of those movements to be tribes. Instead, I approached all of these voices as if they were prophets speaking to the Christianity that I had known my whole life. Being raised in a mainline denomination, it has taken me years to discover the voices outside my tribe that have transformed my life. I am thankful for all of these voices, and it is my prayer that tribal walls do not get erected so firmly that they no longer can listen to each other. 

I do not want to speak to specifics in this post or the comments, because I do not understand all of the dynamics going on between all of the members of this larger family that, as Bill writes, "need each other". I also don't want to mistakenly use the wring name for a particular sub-tribe or school of thought within this family. I would, however, like to say a more broad, thank you. Thank you to all of the voices that have spoken hope into my life as I have grown up in the dying church. Thank you to those of you in both the Missio Alliance and Subverting the Norm realms that have moved me to believe in the resurrection of the church. Thank you to all of you who are willing to listen to folks who think differently to you do. Please keep listening to each other.

JoshuaBrockway
JoshuaBrockway

Seems to me that the general thread running through many movements today is the desire to address a the crumbling church of christendom. 

Yet, I think @TonyJones has merely demonstrated what Fitch and Holsclaw name in Prodigal- Emergent has become another liberal experiment- and I mean liberal in the modern sense, not liberal as in progressive. I think the fear of labels and distinctives is the case in point= differences are a source of conflict rather than a means of healthy difference. 

glassdimly
glassdimly

It is Jesus who saves us from the safety of religion. Derrida is, at best, a faded mimeograph. Yes, global capitalism is death-bound, but it is prophets who are willing to live and die for faith, like Jesus, who show us the way to resist colonization by empire, and God who gives us strength to resist. Derrida failed to die for his faith as Jesus did, which is why I look to Jesus' witness rather than that of Derrida to show me the road to liberation.

GaryBlackJr
GaryBlackJr

We're talking. Das is goot. Loved seeing Doug at Missio. Would have loved to been back at STN2 since I was at STN1. Perhaps I'm one of only a few that have attended both? I found STN more intellectually robust and less praxis oriented (this could have changed dramatically this year.) I found Missio a fair blend of both preaching and lecture. But the ideas and visions at both were stunning and beautiful. Not dissimilar objectives but perhaps unique means. Like Bill I'm genuinely hopeful. 

geoffholsclaw
geoffholsclaw

I could be wrong, after all we all think our own children are the best and brightest, but when Fitch and I wrote Prodigal Christianity we definitely strove to take people's ideas seriously (and I think a fair reading would show that).  We gladly acknowledge what we have learn from both parties (neo-Reformed and Emergent) and then offer our own position.  Only those who stop at the introduction will think we needlessly through around labels.  

But @jonestony , what "rules" are you talking about that you are playing by? We didn't lay down any rules for you or anyone else.  This sounds like another dodge from engaging in edifying dialogue.  Others also want to know why distinction shouldn't be allowed to stand as a way of mutually edifying all (I believe they have spoken in the comments).  

TonyJones
TonyJones

I am simply playing by the rules that Geoff set up when he wrote about me in Prodigal Christianity.

What, now you're all saying that we actually need to takes one another's ideas seriously? 

Bill wrote a conciliatory post, looking for common ground. Geoff's first response was to shoot Bill down and say there isn't any. I think that's telling.

I, for one, would love to hear a conversation between Caputo and McKnight. I think that'd be fascinating, and there might be more in common than you think.

geoffholsclaw
geoffholsclaw

I think that the commonality between Missio Alliance and Subverting the Norm is what I don't get. If this post had been, Missio and Wild Goose I would have thought, "Sure no big deal."  But throwing Caputo and McKight together, even with caveats is a reach for me.  I love contemporary political theory/philosophy and have published essays on Zizek, Badiou, Agamben, but I don't think this is the long term trajectory for theology. Jesus did not come only to break idols but to reveal the true ikon of God. I rarely see positive space for a construal of this true humanity (because, at is usually goes, to say something concrete is to create another idol).

But certainly my call for clarity of distinction should not be thought of as a prelude to a heresy hunt, nor a rejection of ecumenism. But I have seen this before, first when people refused a distinction between Emergent and Emerging a couple years ago, then the distinction between Emergent and Missional. Tony ( @jonestony ), when you ask for people "be loyal to this tribe," some alarms go off for me.  Why not let distinctions stand so that the church can learn and grow through them. An overhasty assimilation to a vague commonness only hurts everyone. Anything less is a false (or worse, enforced) diversity. (Example: if someone from the East Coast said California (where I'm from) and the Midwest (where I live) were basically the same, I would have to offer a distinction, not because I hate one and love the other, but because I love both in being different from the other).

@bwalkeriii you said, "My contention here is not that these quotes (Caputo’s and McKnight’s) mean the same thing – based solely on the speakers, obviously they don’t – or that the differences between these two groups are unimportant or insignificant.  I do want to suggest though that there might be a common spirit shared between the groups captured by these two quotes." I think there is a "common spirit" or as Tony said in his comment, a movement "toward the same" thing is possible, but you only mentioned what we are all against (excepting a commitment to diversity).

Maybe we need a post that celebrates the diversity and what we all can learn from each other.

sean muldowney
sean muldowney

Man, I for one am really happy to this post. Lots of us are at a crossroads and want to embrace some of the best of what both of these communities are offering as a way forward. I hope Homebrewed can be a major dialogue facilitator.

A live conversation at Wild Goose perhaps?

bwalkeriii
bwalkeriii

@geoffholsclaw Thanks Geoff for this.  Yes, I think it would be more helpful to say that there's a false binary between "missiona" and "emergent" -- good clarification.  That is what I meant. 

As for downplaying the differences, I was so unsure about this that I almost didn't write the post.  At the end of the day, the importance of the similarities could just be wishful thinking and far too based on my personal dual-citizenship and desire to take the best of what I see in both. 

Of course there is much more to Missio than just responding to the neo-reformed gospel, but I'm necessarily generalizing, much as David Fitch explains in his post today, and simply trying to highlight that Missio is at least slightly more concerned about that problem, and about talking to conservative evangelicals period, while STN is at least slightly more concerned about politics (even though Missio is obviously concerned about this too!).  Just look at the respective conference sessions.  I think this is definitely fair!  

And by the way, like @jonestony I imagine, I too "get tired of endless critique and don't think that Jesus came as the arch-deconstructor of false-consciousness."  This is exactly the common ground I'm talking about, and why I thought it worthwhile to argue for "mutual need" more than "similarity."

Another issue I didn't mention much that deserves acknowledgement is about what we all think of "discipleship" and the ecclesiological differences that might follow as a result.  We should have that conversation too.

jonestony
jonestony

Notwithstanding Geoff's comment (which is unnecessarily but unsurprisingly defensive), I TOTALLY AGREE WITH THIS POST! In fact, I mentioned the Missio event when I was at STN2 in my public comments after Tripp's presentation. I think we are moving toward the same thing, which is why it is so bewildering to me that Geoff and a few other leaders in Missio continue to publicly draw more lines and make more boundaries. What's more interesting to me is that Scot doesn't do this (with the possible exception being his book review of McLaren in CT a couple years ago). 

To that end, Doug Pagitt attended Missio and told me that he felt warmly received by almost everyone. It seems that most people there do not feel a need to play up the differences, but instead want to promote the commonalities.

geoffholsclaw
geoffholsclaw

Now this is certainly true: "not all Emergent types and Mainline Protestants have low christologies, just like not all Missio leaders are Hauerwasians."  I have no disagreement at all there. 

You mention Fitch and I creating a false binary between the neo-Reformed and Emergents. Surely that is not a false binary, but an easily discernable one. Did you mean to say that we have created a false binary between "missiona" and "emergent"?

But I can't help but think that you are overplaying the similarities and downplaying the differences between supporters of Missio Alliance and Subverting the Norm.  Certainly the commonalities are a critique of dominant ideologies and a renounciation of Christendom.  But I think where the the differences lay are exactly that Missional type are tired of endless critique and don't think that Jesus came as the arch-deconstructor of false-consciousness.

I think the difference is exactly mispercieved when you say, "If Missio is committed to responding to the disillusionment with the conservative and neo-reformed attempt to reduce the gospel to “justification,” STN is addressing the broader and more political context of concern for social, eco-justice and epistemological/post-modern fragmentation," as if Missio Alliance and other radica/middle evangelicals are not social, political, eco-justice concerned.  We are, just not how you would like us to be, so you place us as merely reactionary again neo-reformed "substitutionary atonement."  

Acknowledging true differences are necessary for attending to true diversity, no? It seems that those in the Emergent crowds want to down play these difference between emergent and missional, but I don't think it serves either as vague attempts to be "loyal to a tribe."

But those are just my thoughts. 

David Fitch
David Fitch

@jonestony It must have been God :) ... seriously, sorry about the tech issues. I hope the 1000 words make it online. :)

glassdimly
glassdimly

@glassdimly My point is that what we need is a recovery of the Gospel tradition that already exists in the text, grounded in practical, radical action for social change. That is, spiritually rooted activism. Postmodern thinkers like Derrida mostly obfuscate what is plain in the Gospel narrative: that which we have obscured because we live in the midst of empire. It makes me cranky when 1st world post-structuralist thinkers are placed into the role of savior, "from the safety of religion.” Perhaps the above quote is out of context, but that's my knee-jerk response to some of the subverting the norm / Peter Rollins stuff.

bwalkeriii
bwalkeriii

@geoffholsclaw @jonestony Caputo and McKnight together -- yes,  a stretch indeed, and I probably shouldn't have chosen those two.  This is helpful.  But I'm kind of confused by the rest of your comment.  What do you mean I "only mentioned what we are all against"? I think Missio is more Christocentric, for example, and I talked about that and how it's very important. 

Agreed though, let's celebrate that diversity and what we can learn.  That should bring us together.  No vague commonness.  I just may need a little help with what differences you have in mind exactly that weren't alluded to above...

JamieArpinRicci
JamieArpinRicci

@jonestony Yeah, I appreciate your response, but feel that you failed to address Geoff in any substantive way.  I'd be interested in your response.

zachhoag
zachhoag

@jonestony This is what I don't get: Why not respond to Geoff's comment instead of talking about him in a parenthesis when he's two virtual feet away?

I also tend to think there's a lot of truth to this post - we have more in common than we realize - and I was really pumped to see Doug at the event. That is a healthy, hopeful thing. But I think the heart behind what Geoff is saying is that it doesn't help to negate or deny differences that exist, thought and language boundaries, etc. That won't help our potential unity or collaboration, it'll just cause confusion. So long as (in my opinion) we are not going the Driscoll route in deciding who the heretics are in each group, distinctions are good and helpful in creating conversation and even collaboration. 

The fact is, the Missio distinctives do speak to some of us who feel out of place in both the conservative (neo-reformed, etc.) and progressive (emergence, etc.) groups. Those distinctives are bound to be important to us, just as emergence distinctives are likely important to you. Does this make sense?

I am hoping for a future of finding common ground - but that won't happen if we aren't willing to be honest about differences, too.

Jonnie Russell
Jonnie Russell

@jonestony @jonestony Could the line drawing impulse be the influence of the NeoAnabaptist impluse for distinctivness?  Certainly hasn't been a theological leaning bent towards ecumenical engagement.

geoffholsclaw
geoffholsclaw

@bwalkeriii Bill, I don't have time right here, but I do think there are commonalities and difference. Perhaps I just need to cut/paste from "Prodigal Christianity." Fitch and I are pretty clear there about what we have learned and appreciate from Emergent thinkers and what we see to be the differences (and what we have learned from the neo-reformed for that matter). But I think Tripp wants to interview Fitch could also be a place to continue the discussion. 

bwalkeriii
bwalkeriii

@zachhoag yes, that is why I say "need each other" instead of "are pretty much the same."

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