Book Review: Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be), by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck
“They just don’t get it.”
I predict that’s what the naysayers of Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck’s new book Why We’re Not Emergent will say.
“They don’t understand me” is one of the slogans of post-moderns, Emergents, and teenagers everywhere. It’s built into their philosophical system. It may be the only solid plank their doctrinal platform has.
In one sense, of course, it’s true. No one but God understands all the way into the depths of every person’s heart (e.g. Prov. 20:24).
And in another sense it’s helpful. For instance, my wife, recognizing that my experience and brain-wiring are quite different than hers, loves and serves obtuse and arrogant me when she says in exasperation, “You’re not understanding me!” When she says this, she’s not referring so much to logical differences as to categorical or perspectival differences, as if a cat were trying to explain its view of the world to a dog. So it is with the Emergents. They are potentially serving and loving non-Emergent evangelicals by insisting, “You’re not getting it,” because it forces us non-Emergents to work harder at getting outside of ourselves and seeking to understand.
The problem is that this same phrase “You don’t understand me” can be used dismissively, immaturely, impudently. It can be thrown out as a conversation-stopper in order to avoid correction. And it’s my impression that some Emergents, like some teenagers, do just this.
Michigan pastor DeYoung and his church member Kluck, who write alternating chapters in this excellent book, are under no illusions that Why We’re Not Emergent won’t run into these kinds of conversation stoppers. The last page of the penultimate chapter reads, “Those who aren’t inclined to the emergent/emerging thing will probably support most of what we’ve written, and those who call themselves emergent will find a million reasons to find fault with it. The idea that people read much of anything and have their minds changed by it is less and less realistic to me. People, usually, just dig in” (235).
I hope they are wrong. I hope my snarky teenager comparisons are wrong. I hope that those inclined to the “emergent/emerging thing” will themselves at least try to understand what these two men are saying, because it’s the closest thing that I’ve read so far that both “gets” where the Emergents are coming from while at the same time offering a very good critique of the movement’s deficiencies.
PULLING BACK THE CURTAIN
In fact, that’s probably the book’s greatest strength. In addition to describing some of the philosophical and doctrinal deficiencies of the movement, they capture something of its cultural flavor, aroma, texture. DeYoung and Kluck pull the emerging curtain back and point out, “Look, a lot of what you guys are doing is dressing up your cultural preferences with highfalutin language. C’mon.”
Here’s their reaction to pastor and Emergent leader Dan Kimball’s side-by-side comparison charts of the modern church and postmodern church:
Kimball says that preaching in the emerging church “teaches how the ancient wisdom of Scripture applies to kingdom living as a disciple of Christ” while the modern preacher “serves as a dispenser of biblical truths to help solve personal problems in modern life.” Those two sentences would say the same thing if not for Kimball’s choice of language, employing uninspiring words like “dispenser, ” and “solve” for the modern church instead of cool words like “ancient wisdom” and “kingdom living.” Similarly, in the modern church “the Bible is a book to help solve problems and a means to know God,” and “discipleship is based on modern methodology and helps.” Conversely, in the emerging church, “The Bible is a compass for direction and means to experience God,” and “Discipleship is based on ancient disciplines.” Well, who wants problem solving and methodology when you can experience God and use ancient disciplines?
DeYoung and Kluck don’t mean to suggest that the differences between Emergents and non-Emergents is merely terminological. In fact, every other chapter, authored by Pastor DeYoung, is devoted to explaining the significant philosophical and doctrinal differences behind the word groups contrasted in the quote above (to be fair, Dan Kimball describes himself as “Emerging” not “Emergent,” meaning that he doesn’t embrace all those doctrinal differences). Still, non-Emergent readers like me will probably find themselves grateful that these two authors finally return the stereotyping favor that Emergents have used to bless us non-Emergents from the get-go. As they put it, “the emergent critique of the modern church suffers from an over-population of straw men.”
And Emergents, well, I hope that the ever-earnest Emergents will receive the stereotyping—accurate, in my opinion—with good humor, with the ability to not take themselves so seriously, and with the gentle correction that, yes, some of their sacred cows like “authenticity,” “sincerity,” “inconsistency,” “spiritual journey,” and “idiosyncracy” are cultural clichés, too. Like all of us, Emergents have their own set of culturally conforming non-conformities.
By seeking to understand several of Why Were Not Emergent’s critiques, Emergents might even gain some of what they’re after—like authenticity—as illustrated in a story Kluck tells about attending a funeral at his old church. He describes the building as a place with “folding tables, a drop ceiling, bad carpet, and a potluck lunch” which would “give Dan Kimball a heart attack.” Kluck writes,
This church, like many in America, has survived a great deal. Car wrecks, cancer, extramarital affairs, some bad theology, and the like. But, much like the small town that it’s in, it has taken care of its own. It has mourned with those who mourn. It has delivered meals. It has made countless hospital visits. It has, for the most part, spoken truth and preached the gospel of Christ crucified…Those here [for the funeral] today came to honor the life of a man who lived largely because of a proposition—that sometimes outmoded belief that Christ paid the penalty for our sins, and that we are, because of that, compelled to live for Him, and like Him.
Reflecting on this experience, Kluck continues,
I am reminded that there are still churches and places in this country where one doesn’t have to work at being “authentic.” Authentic isn’t a look you put on in the morning, or a new and snappy way to bathe the sanctuary in “mystery’ through the strategic arrangement of candles and projected images. Authentic is bearing one another’s burdens. Authentic is people coming to a funeral in their work clothes—Carhartts, hospital scrubs, etc.—on a Friday morning.
One of the most downright beautiful aspects of this book is its repeated presentations of this kind of authentic church life together (see especially the chapter “Why I Don’t Want a Cool Pastor”).
NO, WE DON’T GET IT
The trouble with teenagers, of course, is that they think they know it all already. And the trouble with reform movements like the Emergent church is that they assume, by their very nature, they “get” whatever they are trying to reform. They have a “been there, done that” attitude that permeates every conversation. Which makes them somewhat impervious to counter-correction. In their very passion to reform, they can become unreformable.
Emergents might be right about some of the things they want to reform; and they might be right about the majority’s inability to understand. No matter how many times my wife explains to me what it’s like to be my wife, there’s a sense in which I just don’t get it. And sometimes I think that I never will. So let me say to the Emergents, “On behalf of all non-Emergent evangelicals everywhere, no, we don’t understand. We don’t get it.”
That’s unofficial, of course. No ETS or SBC or PCA or CT or DG or T4G or TGC or DAC signature at the bottom of that. Take it for what it’s worth.
So one weakness of DeYoung and Kluck’s book is that there’s a sense in which they may not get it. I don’t say that because I do get it. I already told you that I don’t. But I think that I get what I don’t get which, if you get, you’re getting it just enough to say what you’re not getting. Get it? And I think that DeYoung and Kluck just might back me up on this. But I’m not sure. Also, both of my parents are professional musicians and I grew up surrounded by musicians. If you did as well, you’ll know what I mean in a second.
So with these impressive credentials, let me propose that there’s something of a nineteenth century Romantic impulse dwelling in the heart of the Emergent church—a drive to experience mystery, beauty, majesty, and the heroism that can only follow a profound grappling with all that’s dark in the world. This impulse can never be satisfied with just rational formulations.
There’s also a deep-in-the-gut dissatisfaction with the world as it now is, a dissatisfaction so viscerally intense that it can easily overwhelm one’s better theological judgment and yield a kind of utopianism.
Now I think, although I’m not certain, that DeYoung and Kluck understand all this, but I’m not sure they understand it as well as Emergents want to be understood. And that’s understandable. I don’t understand either. Their ability to write well demonstrates that they are creative men, Kluck especially. But the book still reads like two men who think with their heads. Again, me too. Like all Romantics, Emergents think—and I can only put this vaguely—with their guts, or maybe it’s their hearts. And praise God that some people in this world think with their guts or hearts! I’m grateful that some people don’t want to simply work out mathematical physics equations in classrooms but want to escape into the night and feel the grandeur of the stars. I’m grateful that some people aren’t content only with books of theology but want to enjoy and live even the slightest hints of God’s transformative compassion in song and service. I’m grateful that the injustices of this world weigh more heavily on some than they do on the rest of us.
In short, I believe us proposition-loving types could do a better job of listening to the heart passions of the Emergent church (and if you’re response to words like “heart passions” is anything like mine, then you and me are the ones who could do a little more listening).
Of course, right now any Emergents who made it through the last four paragraphs are probably thinking that I don’t get it at all. What can you do.
BUT PLEASE DON’T JUST SAY…
But even if they—or we—don’t understand you entirely, Emergents, please don’t just say, “These guys don’t get it” and chuck the book on the pile. That’s a conversation stopper; and these two authors get a lot. I’m vain enough to wish I had written their book!
DeYoung and Kluck’s arguments, I believe, are compelling, and their cultural characterizations are revealing. Emergents, I plead with you, please read those aspects of the book carefully and with open hearts. Yes, the Phariseeism that can afflict proposition-loving personalities like mine can send people to hell. But wrong propositions will also send people to hell.
Finally, Emergents and non-Emergents alike should be convicted by DeYoung’s remarkable epilogue, which meditates on Jesus’ words to several of the churches in John’s Revelation. Jesus has words for the doctrinally sound but loveless Ephesians. Jesus has words for the faithful but doctrinally undiscerning Pergamums. Jesus has words for the loving but overly tolerant Thyatirans. Jesus has words for each of us, and Why We’re Not Emergent concludes by wonderfully reminding us of that fact.