The Next-Wave Ezine: Issue #94

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Oh, Spencer

(Ed Note- There's been some good conversation on Spencer Burke's book A Heretics Guide to Eternity. Some good interaction with it can be found here, here, here and here. So, for those who complain that the Emerging Church refuses to engage in self-critique, we offer the following. Thus far, from what I've seen, Spencer is taking the considerable pushback his book is receiving extremely well. He's to be commended for his reaction to the critique of his book. And speaking of critique...)

Spencer, you're killing me here...

(Warning: this started off as a short, breezy commentary on a couple things from Spencer's book. A few hours later, my fingers are tired from typing and I'm cussing. Read on at your own risk and don't say I didn't warn you. I didn't intend to open up a can of Driscoll, but...)

Still reading  A Heretics Guide to Eternity. Still not liking what I'm reading. I can see where this seems to be going, and it frustrates me. It frustrates me because I spend a lot of time arguing with schismatics that the emerging church is not rife with heresy and heretics (in the actual non-cool meaning of the word), and those same schismatics are going to make hay with this book...

I realize that's not Spencer's fault. He's just honestly trying to describe his ideas. But at this point, with all the criticism of the emerging church and the inability of the critics to differentiate between individuals who may or may not be representative and the whole, Spencer's book equals a whole lot of 'splainin' for a whole lot of us...A lot of us who see good in the emerging church, but definitely do not reside in its outer reaches of doctrinal revisionism. Yes, there are some who have lost the plot, who seem to have come up with some creative reasons why we don't need to make disciples of all nations. But they don't describe the vast majority of us who are trying to contextualize salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ for a postmodern, post-Christendom world.

More on the book itself

It begins (and I think majors on and ends with) an argument against "religion." And the two choices Spencer seems to be providing us with are "religion" on one side, and a free-form religionless "spirituality" on the other.

"Religion, it seems," says Spencer, "is often about what makes us different and separates us, while spirituality seems to be more about what we can hold in common and what might connect us."

Now, where was that DA Carson quote again...?

I recognize that Spencer is describing a personal journey, and I'm extrememly relieved when he makes statements like

"Contrary to popular opinion, I believe that spirituality is not just personal opinions about God and the divine. Indeed, the challenge of moving beyond religion is to go beyond wallowing in some sort of of postmodern spiritual narcissism. For me, this temptation is remedied by remaining deeply committed to the teachings of Jesus Christ."
But my fear is that as I continue in this book, we'll be walking down the road to "I'm deeply committed to Jesus, you are deeply committed to Krishna, and we're all good." And even if we tag "because of what Jesus did" on to the end of that statement, it still seems at odds with Scripture. It simply doesn't jibe with the words of Jesus Himself that the road to life is narrow and there are few that find it.

The whole argument against "religion" seems really wrongheaded and overly binary to me... Spencer starts with the Age of Accountability VS. the near death of his infant daughter, which of course could only turn out one way... Since "religion" didn't offer an acceptable answer in the case of infant mortality, then religion has to go. Of course, the Age of Accountability is more of a psuedo-doctrine, a straw man in this case (as opposed to the much more robust Justness of God which can pretty much stand up to anything). There are others, too numerous to mention.

One that really rankles though is this: "In the evangelical Christian tradition, you ask Jesus to take your sins. How do you get the eternal life Jesus promised? By actually praying a prayer of belief. You have to ask God to save you. Fail to ask correctly,  fail to pray the prayer, and you might be out of luck."

Sorry, but who exactly teaches that? Yeah, I've met a couple of intellectually-challenged fundamentalists in my day who might say something that patently dumb, but no serious evangelical (or post-evangelical) would say what Spencer just said.

He continues and we begin to get to the heart of the issue with this book.

"The question, however, becomes whether or not we regard it as important that the peoples of the world call themselves Christian or that they benefit from the teachings of Christ, whether they embrace Christianity or not."

See, I understand what Spencer is saying. And that's both good and bad.

I understand what he's saying, the good: We started this whole emerging church thing because Christianity itself had over the last couple of decades done a poor job of contextualizing the Gospel to the postChristian world in which we found ourselves. We had (in the words of Dallas Willard) "buried Jesus under a heap of trivialities." When Spencer is describing this and arguing against it, it's pretty standard emerging church lingo that I can get behind. I think the American expression of Christianty needed a robust critique and I'm glad to participate in it...I don't want to see people buy into USAmerican Christianity™, I want to see people follow Jesus.

I understand what he's saying, the bad: This is the second time in the first few pages of the book that he's talked about the "teachings of Jesus." See, I would love to see the world impacted by the teachings of Jesus. But the Gospel is the Good News that God Himself has come to rescue and renew creation through the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf. The teachings of Jesus are wonderful, but separated from the "work of Jesus on our behalf?"

Spencer says: "Could it be, that beyond religion, reason and conventional wisdom, grace is something that is opted out of rather than opted in to? Is it not something you get but something you already have?"

There's the big money question, isn't it? I understand that Spencer is positing that we all benefit from the work of Jesus on our behalf, and we do in many ways (more on this when Spencer gets to Romans later in the book), but not all of us benefit from the work of Jesus on our behalf in the same way absent any personal appropriation and acceptance of that work. I realize that Spencer is arguing the exact opposite point, but what he offers (so far at least) are questions like "what if", as in "what if we're all in already?" To which I can only reply with one of the first verses I ever memorized (I'll spare you the King James though...) "But to all who received Him, to those who believed on His name, He gave the right to be called children of God." You can posit an "opt out" system all you want... but I want to see how you handle the very clear words of the New Testament.

And then begins the a torrent of false choices and oversimplifications...Spencer quite literally goes off the rails...

"For years we have assumed organized religion is the only way humanity can have a relationship with the divine other, whoever that may be."

We have? Raise your hand if you believe "organized religion is the only way humanity can have a relationship with the divine other."

Hmm. No one raising their hand?

And I won't even comment on "whoever that may be."

From page 53: "I know of a group of British friends, mostly people associated with the music business, who are trying to find balance in their lives after many years of excess. Although many of these men have a complete disdain for organized religion, they frequently talk abut their spiritual experiences. They may not be religious, but they're definitely open to a relationship with a 'higher power.' It seems that the language of twelve-step groups has finally put God in loose enough categories to be palatable. Likewise, books like the Celestine Prophecy and Conversations With God have also helped these men find connections with their spiritual lives when religion has only been a barrier."

Damn it (literally).

See, if what we needed was "connection with our spiritual lives" that might be okay. But that's not what we need. We need connection with God. And He's not going to be found through whack-job rantings like the Celestine Prophecy and freakin' Conversations with God, both by new age loonies who claimed to be talking to God but were in all likelyhood talking to someone a little farther south.

The point of the Incarnation is that in Jesus, all the fullness of God is with us in bodily form. Connection with God, means connection with Jesus.

I'm gonna wrap this up now and go to bed before I start sounding like Slice of Laodicea... But let me finish with one more "religion" bad/"spirituality" good dichotomy: "... there is a growing awareness that religions of all kinds are prone to blindness and idolatry that can cause immense suffering to the world."

Amen, Spencer. And let's include in that the self-worshiping religion that masquerades as "spirituality"... the one that ignores virtually the entire Bible (and pits God's love against His holiness and justice) by making statements like "Never one to judge, who'd never hold a grudge 'bout what's been done- God loves everyone" or "The expectation would be in that in the West those forms of religion that tell their followers to live their lives in conformity with external principles to the neglect of their unique subjective-lives will be in decline..."

This book is breaking my heart.

Bob Hyatt is the lead pastor of the the evergreen community, an emerging church community in Portland, OR. More importantly he is the husband of Amy and the father of Jack and Jane (see the pic).



Good thoughts. Just so you know, though, I think when he says "the divine other, whoever that may be," he's speaking of -all- organized religions, not just Christianity. In other words, whoever your God is (YHWH, Allah, our Triune God), you think the way to communicate with Him is through an organized religion.

Other than that, I think this is a fair judgment. There is a great danger in separating the truth and importance of Jesus' work from His teachings - the Western world already went down that road once with the social gospel, that somehow life is all about a Jesus ethic. We might as well be following Buddha if all we need is a good teacher or a connection with our spirituality.

Something Chris Lyon's said in his article about how we will be known as Christians hits it on the nail for me.

I understand the need to get away from "religion", but we need to define "religion." plus we need to define what Jesus' teachings really are. There were many that saw his Truth as "high minded diatribe" as well. He was not afraid to say "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, none can come to to the Father but through Me." Period. The none really sticks out to me in light of this book. I guess there is a good thing to deconstruct words like God and say "whatever that may be." or Bible verses and not act as we have the only right interpretation....but my fear is that we will deconstruct to the point of nothingness. That there is a human ability to reason and understand, and it's okay to assume that your mind has interpreted correctly and to live on that. It's the difference between seeing the world with doubt, and seeing it with wonder. Wonder is the right way to see the world. This "God" is not some unknowable Being, He's right here, He's given us the means to know Him, to love Him, to live in relationship with Him, through Jesus. Yes, we can say I still don't get Him, but I can say with all hope, that I know I will as I grow older, if never perfectly, cause He's Here and Now.

And that is my same Hope for understanding His Word he has provided. He wouldn't sit up there and give us Scriptures that we would all ruin ourselves in trying to understand, to the point that we had to reconstruct new meanings for everything. If anything we totally understand what it means, we just don't act it out well cause we are completely imperfect beings. Postmodernism, relativism, it works to a certain extent, but sometimes I think we order to appear "easy to understand" to the world, taken it too far. The world will question everything we say, so we speak in the vernacular of questions. Question is good, but there must be hope of an Answer. And that God can and will provide it. Question with no hope of Answer will never get anywhere...

Sometimes it's good to say.."I know you have questions, but let's just deal with what we know now." Jesus said I am the only God. More or less he said that. And that he is the only way to an afterlife that is not Hell. He did. Pure and Simple. We can ring around that mulberry bush all day, but He said it. We can unpack it, and deconstruct what God means, and only and who the heck Jesus was, and exactl what Heaven means, and maybe we should to a certain extent, but not in a endless circle that never gets anywhere. Faith like a Child. Sometimes I just have enough wonder to say, hey I might be right in my definition and perception of this. Sometimes in that way it makes it easier for me to love the World, cause we all have this longing for concrete Answer. For Hope, for Grace that can be given to all...and truly it is there for us to grasp, but it needs to be real, foundationed and concrete. Maybe Jesus is just Jesus, and not some abstract concept. Maybe it's okay for me to trust my interpretation of what Jesus meant when he said that...and maybe it's okay for you too, and it's best if we both agree, cause when it comes to Eternity, and words like "only" I definitely want to make sure I'm on the right track. And God gives me Hope of that Answer. And I think I've found it.

It's alright for us to say that, it's alright cause people need that Answer. They already have enough questions for us to be adding more than we need to. Sometimes we really do just need something absolute. And for some of us to be absolutely right about it, so that the others can have a hope of it being real. I wish we all could be absolutely right, and God draw us all in with our individual paths, but if Jesus said it's not that way and it's only Him, I'm gonna assume He's right, and go His way. And I will not apologize for teaching in love and hope giving, and absolutely believing, and acting out that belief, to all.

Someone claiming that there is the possibility of salvation outside of Christianity is NOT the same as claiming there is salvation outside of Jesus .

it is a shame that so many fundamentalists conflate those two different contexts .

Spencer writes: "Could it be, that beyond religion, reason and conventional wisdom, grace is something that is opted out of rather than opted in to? Is it not something you get but something you already have?"

Not really a radical thought, is it? I guess for those steeped in fundy-culture. For the rest of us, this sounds remarkably like previenient (spelling anyone) grace.

Grace is ours from the start.

Damnation is something we choose.

I'll keep the words small...

Spencer is loved. His questions and ideas are welcome. We do not have to fear the questions and ideas. He is simply mistaken to think that there is any salvation outside of Jesus. We can argue about a lot of things in Scripture but it seems that the consensus among Christians is that salvation (whatever you'd unpack that to mean) has everything to do with Jesus and only Jesus (not to be confused with "Jesus Only"). Catholics. Protestants. Orthodox. Legalists. Not-legalists. Etc... Christianity is about Jesus.

I could be friends with Spencer but it looks like some time soon it might be incorrect to refer to him as my Christian friend.

See you in Seattle, Spencer.

I understand the concerns; I also spent part of the past week with Spencer at the emergent village 'gathering' in Glorietta/Santa Fe.

A couple of thoughts: First, it's easy to quickly become critical of Spencer for his thoughts being contrary to our perception of the gospel. Yet, nobody can answer his question -- "Where is the biblical evidence of an 'age of discernment.'" [I did my M.A. research project around this issue at a reformed seminary, and even the professors refused to jump into this one.]

Secondly, Spencer is pushing against the edges of our orthodoxy, but that also challenges us to think. Our past church experiences did nothing to challenge us to think deeply.

Finally, most of the protestant church has also forgotten parts of the 'gospel.' There is an inidication that the kingdom is about renewing all of God's creation, that God loves the entire world, and yet we don't take those passages into consideration. So, to suggest that Spencer is betraying the text is equally true of most of our traditions. Let's just be honest about these things.

Thanks Spencer, and thanks Bob for disagreeing. :)


I think Burke/Taylor's book actually starts to take the church into the postmodern world in a way not many others have attempted. Personally, I wanted more from them, but I was glad they at least started some conversation. I think much of the "emerging conversation" is about moving the furniture around in the room and doesn't really look at how this new world will and is changing the church in very significant (and not necessarily negative) ways. I think many of us are actually responding with more mere traditionalism than we would admit. Just some thoughts...

I don't know if you were pulling my leg on the Nicene Creed or not, but I stick to the proven Apostles Creed and leave the Nicene to the third century emergents!

I knew that black belt thing wouldn't fly, but I thought it was a nice try. Let me see if I can put it a different way. I imagine that Ph.D. Theologians who have all studied and read the New Testament in the original Greek and the Old Testament in Hebrew, might feel freer to discuss some of these theological niceties ad infinitum. By the way, I don't remember a McLaren book that questions the "person of Christ". As to statements of faith and creeds, Next-Wave has always adhered to the Nicene Creed, don't know if that makes us too far out for you or not...

Charle - I would disagree that the Person of Christ is a "black belt" discussion. as you put it. It is Jesus 101 and is open for the public (world).

As to your observation that some of the behavior of the evangelical conclave was on some level a causation for the EC movement, I would say "Amen". So repentance cannot be taken for credit by the emergents and audited for the reformed, it is ecclesiastically manditory for all of us.

If the emergent discussion was exclusively methodology the tenor would be quite different. But the doctrinal issues, salvation and the person of Christ no less, if left to MacLaren and others to redifine, will change the face of historical Christianity. And since most of them will have nothing to do with the confining and "legalistic nature" of a statement of faith, people like myself are not only nervous, but in reality, perceptive.

Henry, have you ever participated in martial arts? Years ago, when I was in college I took a judo class. We started with a white belt, then depending on skill moved to a yellow belt, brown belt, and if you got really good, a black belt. All of these kinds of discussions are more of the "black belt" level. Before you jump on me for that statement, here is what I mean. There are certain moves that should not be tried by white belts, or yellow belts, brown belts and even first degree black belts. I think, likewise there are certain theological discussions that cannot be carried out in books and then blog posts. First of all black belt discussions should be based on relationship and common scholarship. This is hardly ever the case and leads to lots of misunderstanding.

However, Henry, someone might argue that evangelicals opened the door for their "grandson" Spencer to write his book? are our discussions any different than those throughout the ages of us trying again to figure out God. we constantly and consistantly claim that we have progressed, but we have just again digressed. sadly, as we digress and discuss what "we" think is vital to God and others who need HIM, the others look at us in bewilderment.

I have no doubt that you theologues will get it all figured out. But, is there a remote chance that you are simply repeating as the pharisees did. Neglecting those in need for the sake of "figuring out God" and making ourselves more spiritual...while Jesus was out IN THE WORLD BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS AND MEETING SPIRITUAL NEEDS.

Seriously, how many hours have all of you spent, writing and arguing about things that our needy world could care less about...cmon!!!!!

Now, we have more words to figure out, and I honestly could not read much of the comments because I did and do not have the time to look them up in the pharisee dictionary. How does any of this change my life or the life of the ONE who needs the TRUTH!!

Please do NOT reply with more traditional rhetoric. The trick of the enemy is obvious as divisions amongst believers expounds and multiplies as you point out how wrong we all are...genious!!

The discussion about the musings of anyone, free from Scriptural moorings, can still retain a slim tether rope that can marginally connect them to historical orthodoxy. And when pressed, depending on their particular mood that day, someone like Burke and others can run to that thin rope, which they almost begrudgingly hold, and claim they are still connected to "cardinal doctrines".

But my question is this: If these Spiritual "free radicals" engage in "everything is on the table" discussions in the embyonic stages of the emergent movement, what will the discussion center around when Burke's grandson is writing books? By then doctrinal issues will be of little use with wide if not borderless parameters. Yes, the orthodox crowd can sometimes be overly agressive with the stakes always burning, but is it not possible that God is using these imperfect people (or trying to) to keep the emergent group from abandoning redemptive truths in the Trojan Horse of well meaning "cultural missional" metamorphosis? The whole doctrinal discussion is moving way too fast and it now seems as if the most daring and adventurous departure, or at least the most creative and unrecognizable description of formerly accepted faith statements, become the next hot topic discussion among people who are intellectual enough to participate. We are witnessing either revival or reversal.

Hey Bill... It's cool. I know where you are coming from. I feel at this point in the emerging church conversation, it's pretty rare for any of us to disagree with any other of us. Which can be both good and bad. We've done a good job of maintaining a friendly dialogue...

The thing is, at a certain point we have to be able to disagree. And I think we have to be able to do it strenuously when it's the Gospel we're talking about. I feel a biblical mandate to get a bit worked up over two issues: the person of Christ, and the Gospel.

I know it's an iffy thing to say, but do those of us in this emerging church thing ever get to say "I don't think that's right"?

I'm looking forward to talking to Spencer by phone next week... He doesn't seem too upset over my articles (though I'm sure he disagrees with me...)

I hope you'll hang in there, Bill...

Bill - I read the article and got no sense at all of "high minded diatribe" or "lofty discourse". I read an article that talked about a book that's gotten a lot of attention lately - some of it through next wave - and offered another take. I thought there was room in the conversation for divergent viewpoints? I guess I'm just not getting why the "high minded diatribe" as I see it against Bob's article - and are you going so far as to suggest that Bob isn't a servant? I really don't get where your criticism is coming from.

Where's Charlie when you really, really need him...This articles high-minded diatribe is exactly the kind of lofty discourse that will distinctly mute the emerging conversation/movement...constipation.

Any person referred to Next-Wave to obtain a refreshing taste of down-to-earth, everyday folks desperately in need of a place where they might become aware that "I'm not alone, not an outcast, not an exception and Jesus Christ loves me" is going to click out of this faster than however they got here.

Maybe I'm completely deceived and that the emergent conversation has now morphed into the proprietary territory of intellectual elitism that most people can't understand, and one of the central reasons that drove them beyond the confines of established Christian faith practices in the first place. Great!...just great.

Beware of buddies and backslappers Bob...they'll take you places you never intended to go. My suggestion is to "come on down" to where the rest of us might have a chance to spell some of the vocabulary and concepts you are attempting to illuminate.

Then again...Damn it! (to use your phrase "literally"). Yes, it may be important to make your "mark" on "Next-Wave" as it's next editor...just never forget the ordinary folks like me and thousands of others who were lost and stumbled upon the blessing of what Charlie published that we could relate to. Never forget Charlie's gift for the "balance" of what he published and the "editorial hand" he wielded to craft the tone and attract the audience who might be drawn to the "blend" on the concoction he was mixing up. Never forget to pray before you publish.

I was one of those several years ago Bob...searching, desperately...I mean desperately...for others who may be similarly situated....who were "onto something" that God's Spirit used to reinhabit my life in new and more revealing ways. It was the blessing of Next-Wave and Charlie Wear's gifting where I found Jesus Christ speaking to me...leading me on...reinvigorating my appetite for Him.

This is the legacy you are now burdened with Bob. You need to burn a few pictures of Charlie off from his most recent blog posts...the latest one's where he is following God's leading to job, no income...just a leading that canoot (yes it can really) but will not go unheeded. His truck packed with stuff so high the engine overheated on numerous occasions.By the way, that picture is all he owned in life. The picture of his swollen ankle's providing evidence of the countless hours that Charlie sat in a chair in an apartment in Fountain Valley...until daylight on too many occasions...That's sacrifice in action. That's your legacy Bob...The legacy of a servant to all God's people.

Good luck. Keep it real will ya please...for the sake of those, just like me.

Florida!!! Perhaps Charlie has a hankering to run for secretary of state in anticipation of the upcoming national elections a few years away that he never told any of us about....I can see it now...Charlie Wear supervising the counting of chad Ballots on CNN and giving interviews with Katie Couric and George Stefanopholous (however you spell it).

You're in. May the force of Charlie be with you.

I'm out.

Certainly not a perfect book but I really think there is a lot of value to be found. People freaked out way too much with this book. I think we mostly missed the point by focusing on issues of potential disagreement rather than looking for what can be gained from the book. I've blogged about this here and here.

Bob, thanks for the courage to write this. It's a critical discussion. I've posted some thoughts on my blog, but I am reminded in particular of CS Lewis approach here.. under the concept of the Tao. The best picture is the closing chapters of The Last Battle. We emergent types need to do some thinking and writing on pluralism before the waters get more muddy.

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Next-Wave Ezine - Issue #94
Issue Credits
Cover Story

Suggestions for Critics of the Emerging Church
Featured Article: At the Top
Oh, Spencer
Featured Article: Spotlight
Brand Name Jesusâ„¢
Church Culture
Are the Popular Methods of Doing Church Working?
What’s a Faithmap?
Imagination and God’s Future
Kingdom Living
Paying to Follow Christ
Real Life
Church Life
Equal Time on Video Venues
Off Broadway
I went fishing the other day and do I have a fishing story...
Eckhart 11
Adventures in Emerging
The question of the hour...