Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Oakland: Playing Games to Expose Emerging (Contemplative) Spirituality

Roger Oakland’s history of the emerging church and his aim of exposing emerging spirituality are a lesson in playing games.

Oakland’s aim is “to document in this book how the emerging church bridges Christianity and this ‘new spirituality’” of New Age mysticism (222), a “belief system that uses ancient mystical meditation practices to induce altered states of consciousness” (81).

However, his methodology involves neither fieldwork amongst authors, leaders, members and friends of emerging churches nor in-depth analysis of the published materials he quotes. Instead, Oakland uses several methods to draw inferences from literature by people like Leonard Sweet by placing this literature next to that of what Gordon Lynch terms “progressive spirituality” (2007 The New Spirituality), without interviewing those involved in emerging churches to determine if their spirituality is that of the New Age.

Firstly, Oakland plays a game of who’s related to whom. A few examples of this approach:

  • Oakland refers to Lauren Artress, canon of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, whom he considers the catalyst for the use of labyrinths in ritual. He traces her connection to the emerging church through her pastoral overseer at the Cathedral, Alan Jones, who’s book, Reimagining Christianity, was endorsed by Brian McLaren (69)

  • Concerning the history of the Emerging Church, the spirituality of the Leadership Network is traced from Bob Buford to the “business / management guru” (23) Peter Drucker: “while Drucker no doubt brought his business sense to the Leadership Network table, his spiritual overtones were prevalent as well; and they were passed on to Buford, who in turn passed them on to the emerging church” (24).

A second method used to demonstrate the mysticism of the emerging church, is to interpret the writings of emerging church authors and leaders through the lens of a more thoroughly contemplative or New Age author.

An example here is when Oakland quotes Brian McLaren writing on what Oakland refers to as “Kingdom Now theology,” and then goes on to explain what McLaren means through the work of New Age leader Barbara Marx Hubbard, who is described as “someone who might agree with McLaren” (158). While Marx Hubbard may well agree with McLaren, McLaren is never asked, nor are his writings analysed to determine, whether he agrees with her! Indeed, Oakland acknowledges that “she puts a little twist in the Kingdom Now theology” (159). But then he states, without demonstrating this, that “What Marx Hubbard proposing is little different than McLaren’s message” (159).

This methodology of inaccurate inference from one writer to another is astonishing and inexcusable – especially when Oakland aims to expose the former as similar to the latter. Oakland appears to be constructing his parallels between the emerging church and New Age mysticism, rather than exposing them.

A third tactic is to quote mystical elements of authors who are tangentially connected to the emerging church, or might be placed on the fringes of what I am calling “the emerging church milieu.”

For example:

  • Marcus Borg (whom only one of my participants has mentioned). Oakland acquiesces that “most would not consider him an emerging church leader,” but engages in a game of “who are his friends?”, noting that he and McLaren participated in a conference together in 2006, and that Rob Bell references him in Velvet Elvis, and so on (196). Combing the second methodology mentioned above as well, Oakland proceeds to quote Borg and then asks, “What is behind this mindset? Listen to one New Ager describe what underlies this line of thought” (197). Did he think to ask Borg whether what underlies his thoughts is the mysticism of the New Age movement?

  • Other people with tenuous connections to the emerging church but who Oakland includes regardless, include Philip Yancey, who “may not be an emergent leader, but his beliefs certainly fit with emerging spirituality” (213)

  • As well as individuals whom emerging churches may not regard as emerging, Oakland also refers to practices such as drumming, which is included “even though some in the emerging church might consider [it] a bit extreme” (70)

A fourth strategy is a clear (intentional?) misreading of emerging church literature. A clear example is Rob Bell, quoted by Andy Crouch in his Christianity Today article, as “discovering Christianity as an Eastern religion, as a way of life” (cited 109). Oakland asks, seriously, “does he really believe that Christianity is an Eastern religion?” (109) He seeks an answer to this question through Bell’s references to the science of emergence, in which he writes that, “God empowers the land to do something. He gives it the capacity to produce trees and shrubs and plants and bushes that produce fruit and seeds. God empowers creation to make more” (cited 110). From this quotation, Oakland concludes that Bell is saying that “all creation is divine. Everything is God” (111). I don’t believe that this is what Bell is saying here at all. And to couple this misreading with a misreading of the Christianity Today quote is to misrepresent what Bell is saying about Christianity. By referring to it as an eastern religion, I believe Bell is highlighting that the nature of religion is understood differently in eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism – as a “way of life,” something to be lived out rather than philosophically or theologically abstracted and dissected.

Surely, Oakland realises that he can only use tactics for so long before readers think that his criteria for including authors and leaders in his account of emerging spirituality serves his agenda of exposing it as New Age mysticism rather than accurately describing the spiritualities of the emerging church milieu.

There are a few other points to be made. Oakland’s characterisation of New Ageism, contemplative prayer, and Christian mysticism, is influenced more by his evangelical context than by academic study of these phenomena. This goes back to what I was saying a few days ago about the foundational position of Scripture in evangelicalism, which prevents serious consideration of church history, understood as the valid religious experiences of previous generations of Christians. Therefore, for Oakland, that “Catholic monks have taught [meditative] practice for a long time” undermines rather than legitimates the contemplative prayer (82). The same goes for the mysticism of the desert fathers. For Oakland, “while outer quietness is legitimate, inner stillness of the mind is not” (82). His rejection of church history and tradition is a necessary correlative of his rejection of Roman Catholicism as authentic Christian expression: “A mystical prayer movement endorsed and actually initiated by Catholic monks (and accepted by Catholic leadership) should be alarming to any discerning Christian” (83).

Oakland’s lack of in-depth (and methodologically sound!) analysis of emerging church literature and of empirical data, begs the question: Is the contemplative prayer and mysticism of emerging churches the same as that of New Ageism or eastern religious traditions? Tony Jones clearly identifies his Jesus Prayer and centering prayer (from his 2005 The Sacred Way) as based on “the reflections and writings of the Desert Fathers” (cited 105). Oakland’s rejection of church history is the motivation for his characterisation of such prayers as un-Christian because of their grounding in history rather than Scripture. But there are examples of evangelical beliefs which have their grounding not in Scripture but in church history – for example, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo (see Jack Caputo’s 2006 The Weakness of God and Catherine Keller’s 2003 The Face of the Deep).

Oakland’s desire to expunge all eastern aspects of Christianity betrays a colonialist mentality, in which it is forgotten that Christianity emerged in the context of the Middle East, before the canonization processes of Scripture, and not in the last few centuries of Western history.


Anonymous said...


I would loudly echo all your opinions about Oakland. I would be inspired by Christian mysticism - the very definition of mysticism is contested, defined in many ways and subject to new interpretations with each generation. To simplify all the debates about what even constitutes Christian mysticism into one generic term 'mysticism' betrays his lack of knowledge. His anti-catholic bias is sad but not suprising.

Ps I am a fan of Marcus Borg - his ideas do gell well with the emergent movement even though his constituency is more liberal Episcopalian (in my opinion)


Katharine Moody said...

From what little I've read / heard about Borg, he seems to hold to panentheism where God is in everything. I think some in the emerging church milieu might agree with this, but I doubt all do.

What are your thoughts on panentheism?

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