Understanding a Movement and Its Implications
D A Carson
Oh dear. It had to happen, I suppose. A more appropriate title for this book would have been Being Conservative about the Emerging Church because that, sadly, seems to be what this book is about: Conservative Evangelical reservations about the emerging church movement and its leaders.
Carson is a widely respected and very astute New Testament scholar whose tent is firmly pitched in the Conservative Evangelical tradition, and this book expands upon a series of lectures (the Staley Lectures) that he delivered at Cedarville University in February 2004, offering an assessment and critique of the emerging church. His analysis is well thought through and carefully presented, a cautionary voice that deserves to be heard, identifying both strengths and weaknesses within the movement. Since the original lectures, however, more has emerged from the emergent scene on both sides of the Atlantic which has done little to allay Carson's concerns: the weaknesses outweigh the strengths to the point where he concludes, albeit reluctantly, that Brian McLaren and Steve Chalke — two key leaders in the area — "have clearly abandoned what the Bible actually says." (p.187).
I have to say, as kindly but as forcefully as I can, that to my mind, if words mean anything, both McLaren and Chalke have largely abandoned the gospel. Perhaps their rhetoric and enthusiasm have led them astray and they will prove willing to reconsider their published judgements on these matters and embrace biblical truth more holistically than they have been doing in their most recent works. But if not, I cannot see how their own words constitute anything less than a drift toward abandoning the gospel itself. (p.186-7)
There's no doubt that Chalke and McLaren have disassociated themselves from some key Conservative Evangelical interpretations of what the Bible says, but that's a different proposition altogether. Earlier in the book Carson applauds those leaders in the emerging church who "avoid the trap of thinking that their own understanding of something or other in the Bible is necessarily bound up with eternal truth just because that is what they understand the Bible to be saying." (p.52). It's ironic that this then seems to be the very trap he falls into himself with his rejection of the emergent points of view.
It's also ironic that Carson, Chalke and McLaren are all published by the same publishing house, Zondervan, but none of them appear to be taking their publisher to task for publishing the others' works. This, I think, is a sign of hope: "God bless the good ship Zondervan and all who sail in her" — passengers and crew alike. Please folks, if we're going to reach the other side, let's not have a mutiny along the way. Because this isn't simply about differences between authors in a publishing house: it's between leaders in God's church.
There really is an emergency and the lifeboats do need to be put over the sides — not for the crew or passengers to abandon ship, however, but to rescue those drowning around us. I've just finished reading Geraldine McCaughrean's Not the End of the World. It's a superb retelling of the story of Noah's Ark and whilst it's a children's story, anyone concerned about emergent issues would do well to read it. Because the final message that emerges from the story is that it's God's world: nothing about his world takes him by surprise. And whatever destruction may come upon the world, those whom God has seen fit to rescue haven't been rescued for their own benefit.
Don't throw your fellow crew members overboard, Professor Carson: there's nowhere else for them to go. If you prefer the security of the hold working with those you're familiar with or feeding the animals, please do that: it's a vital task, urgently needed. But please don't put obstacles in the way of those up on the decks, throwing lifelines out to a drowning world.
Phil Groom, May 2005
Phil Groom is this site's Webmaster and Reviews Editor. He's a freelance blogger, writer and web developer who spent ten years managing the bookshop at London School of Theology alongside eight years writing web reviews for Christian Marketplace magazine before he came to his senses and went independent. You can find him on facebook or follow him on twitter @notbovvered.Zondervan | Order from www.christianbookshops.org