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.”
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?).
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.
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.