Friday, January 11, 2008

Roger Oakland's Critique of the Emerging Church

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Roger Oakland’s (2007) Faith Undone: The Emerging Church… A New Reformation or an End-Time Deception (I’ve noted the ominous absence of a question mark previously!)

I have a core set of books which form a critique of what they usually refer to as “the emerging church movement:” D.A. Carson (2005) Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a MOvement an Its Implications, R. Scott Smith (2005) Truth and the New Kind of Christian: The Emerging Effects of Postmodernism in the Church, and Thomas Hohstadt (2007) Beyond the Emerging Church: The End and the Beginning of a Movement, as well as various articles (online and mainstream media) from people like Chuck Colson and Phil Johnson, and more general evangelical denouncements of postmodernism like Douglas Groothuis (2000) Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism, and Art Lindsley (2004) True Truth: Defending Absolute Truth in a Relativistic World. I also just found Whatever Happened to Truth? (2005). Any others out there?

But after only a few chapters, I was pleasantly surprised by Roger Oakland’s approach in his critique. I disagree with his conclusion that “behind this new kind of church is a well designed strategy and maneuver by the prince of this world, the enemy of our souls, to literally take apart the faith of millions” (20). That said, however, I’m glad of his approach.

Oakland notes the reductionism of other critics (19), who limit their “analysis” of the emerging church milieu to a few books published by some (more and less) influential authors. For example, D.A. Carson (2005) focuses upon Brian McLaren’s (2004) A Generous Orthodoxy and Steve Chalke’s (2003) The Lost Message of Jesus, written with Alan Mann. Fellow critic R. Scott Smith (2005) extends his literature review from the work of Brian McLaren and Tony Jones to postmodern theorists, theologians, and ethicists such as Stanley Hauerwas, Brad J. Kallenberg, Stanley Grenz & John Franke, and Nancey Murphy.

However, a limited, literature-based approach inevitably fails to grasp the complexities of this milieu, and privileges certain voices within it above others. Most research is conducted among a select number of leaders of emerging Christian communities, whether through interviews with them or through reviews of their published works, instead of undertaking fieldwork amongst ordinary community members. But this reductionism not only occurs amongst a group that might be called “anti-emerging church outsiders”; it is also important to note that, particularly in a UK setting, several popular empirical studies are undertaken by these same select leaders themselves. For example, Jonny Baker’s MA dissertation on the labyrinth, Ben Edson’s doctoral work on emerging church missiology, and Ian Mobsby’s MA dissertation on emerging church and fresh expressions’ ecclesiology and Anglicanism. Emerging church researcher Bryan Murley has blogged about the need for “outsider” research here.

I was both genuinely surprised and genuinely glad that Roger Oakland has identified this tendency within the criticism of emerging churches, and that he seeks to avoid such a reductionist methodology in his book. “Faith Undone examines not just the obvious leaders of this movement but will examine the much more encompassing emerging spirituality. Through this book, I hope to expose a belief system, rather than just a group of particular leaders” (19 his emphasis).

This approach is similar to Gordon Lynch’s methodology in his (2007) The New Spirituality, which I’ve blogged about before. Oakland, albeit through a literature review and ostensibly not through empirical research, seeks to identify “the spirituality behind the teachings” (19) in a similar fashion to Lynch’s identification of a progressive milieu and the progressive spirituality which emerges from such an environment. I aware that Lynch is engaged in the academic study of the sociology of religion and spirituality, whilst Oakland is engaged in the polemical defence of one theological position and the concerted attack of another. However, Oakland's objective of attempting to “unveil a belief system” (19) which underpins numerous individuals, communities and organisations, rather than to assess (or indeed “attack” 19) individual authors or leaders, significantly increases the analytical value of this work, in comparison with other critics’ reductionism. I disagree with his conclusions and he still makes some inaccurate generalisations, but I appreciate Oakland’s more inclusive approach to data collection in his denouncement of the emerging church.

Oakland's history of the emerging church is also interesting: in parts thought provoking, in others highly entertaining. I’ll post about that shortly!


Anonymous said...

Hello Katherine

It seems to me that there are major differences between the American and UK versions of the Emerging Church. All the books you have chosen seem to be from the US backdrop of ongoing culture wars between liberal left and covservative right-wing Christians and hence seem to be polemical and extreme in tone ( Caputo too suffers from this too.) do you not need to take into account the cutural differences between the USA and UK?



Anonymous said...

What about major Uk Evangelical theologians ( NT Wright? A McGrath?) If they have written articles they might be free of the extreme fundamentalist American critiques that appear on your list of chosen books and also be more nuanced and sophisticated.


Katharine Moody said...

Yeah, these are great points. I'm trying as much as possible to both take the differences and similarities into account, and get over the fact that there is a huge US monopology on published material concerning the emerging church!

I've got some material that looks at evangelicalism in a UK context, but so far haven't come across much in the way of UK evangelical commentary on the emerging church milieu. I'd appreciate a heads up if you know of something!!!

Also, there are important differences between the Northern Irish context in which Ikon emerge and the context of the rest of the UK in which other communities emerge. This will also feature quite heavily in my thesis.

And thanks for the signpost to Kester! x