Posted by: Alex | May 17, 2011

Introducing the Younger Evangelicals

Today we are starting to look at book two of our summer project, The Younger Evangelicals by Robert E. Webber, which will give us an overview of the “Emerging” movement.  Ironically, despite all Webber’s praise of postmodernism, this book is tremendously more systematic than the journalistic account Hansen gave us of the Neo-Reformed movement, and so we will take a more systematic or topical approach in reading it.  Today I just want to introduce the book.

The first thing to be noted is that this is an older book, written in 2002 and reprinted in 2003.  If he has revised it somewhere else, I’m unaware of the revision, but I don’t think he has.  Reading through the book, its age is apparent in several ways.  First, September 11 is a major reference point for the book and much is made of the impact that day will have on this generation.  Undoubtedly it will/has, but the frequency with which Webber returns to that event points to how fresh it was on the nation’s consciousness when he was writing.  Another tell-tale sign of the book’s age is the thinkers he interacts with.  He struggles to identify major, widely recognized voices in the emerging movement- Rob Bell is not mentioned by name that I have encountered so far and Brian McLaren receives only minor treatment.  Mark Driscoll is still being counted among the emerging crowd by Webber and he even cites Michael Horton as an example of the “younger evangelical” movement he is describing (fairly certain Horton would not appreciate the mention now given his rantings about how postmodernism marks the end of all things civilized).  So there is a sense in which the book is “outdated.”  But that will be fine for our purposes- what this book does provide us is a great description of many of the social/cultural and theological forces at work in shaping this movement.  We will, as we read more recent representations of the movement from its own spokespersons, examine how those forces have played out in practice.

In introducing the younger evangelicals Webber highlights two important themes he wishes to stress which are worth considering here before we launch into a more systematic discussion of the characteristics of this movement in later posts:

1.  Historical continuity between what is happening in the “Emerging” movement and what has always happened in Evangelical history.

Webber thinks that what is happening to evangelicalism as it enters the twenty-first century is no different than what has happened every time a major cultural shift has occurred:

The younger evangelicals want to release the historic substance of faith from its twentieth-century enculturation in the Enlightenment and recontextualize it with the new cultural condition of the twenty-first century.  This contextual methodology is no different than the method the Reformers used to deconstruct the church’s reliance on the medievally culturalized form of of Christianity in order to release the faith to be contextualized into the cultural situation of the emerging English and European culture.  Evangelicals have carried out this process of deconstruction and reconstruction repeatedly throughout history.  Those who resist this process in the current debate deny the evangelical commitment to a changeless faith indigenized in various cultures.  (17)

This continuity with the evangelical tradition is something Webber is very keen to show, and in the first chapter of the book he traces a history of evangelicalism in the twentieth century with the intention of showing exactly this.  Part of the agenda is also to show how entrenched in “Modernism” twentieth century forms of evangelicalism are.  These arguments will continue throughout the book and be one of the cornerstone’s of his case for the emerging church as the next phase of evangelicalism.

2.  The difference between previous evangelicals and the “Emerging” movement is primarily a difference of context (and how that context shapes communication), not “truth.”

Webber makes an interesting claim about the nature of the change that is happening in evangelicalism.  To look at a couple of representative examples of his argument:

The current dilemma of twentieth century modern evangelicalism is that the twentieth-century cultural paradigm in which the evangelical faith was explained, proclaimed, and defended has come to an end.  Because culture is in a new paradigm, the old wineskins are collapsing.  It is not the faith that needs to be changed but the paradigm or the wineskin in which Christianity is communicated.  The current transition from the old to the new paradigm has created a great deal of dissonance and confusion.  (15)

The younger evangelicals stand in the same tradition.  They want a faith that is biblically informed and historically tested as well.  But, because they are products of a new culture, the younger evangelicals explain and present that faith differently.  The clash between twentieth- and twenty-first-century evangelicals is not over truth but over the cultural garb in which truth is clothed. (17)

We need to consider both of these claims as we continue to study this movement and ask whether they are, in fact, good representations of the “Emerging” movement, especially in contrast to the “Neo-Reformed” movement.  We can start by noting that both claims are hotly disputed by “Neo-Reformed” thinkers.  They, as best I understand them now, would argue both for the continuity of theological history culminating in their own movement- and thus deny that it points toward the “Emerging” movement being the next phase of evangelicalism- and that what is at stake in the difference between the two camps is most definitely an issue of truth.

I will give here my initial and tentative thoughts on both of these claims, which are subject to change as we continue to study this summer.  In regards to the first claim, while I like Webber’s narrative, I think that as a student of philosophy and history I have to acknowledge that the history of ideas is far more complex than either the “Emerging” narrative he has painted here or the one offered by “Neo-Reformed” thinkers would like for it to be.  Each narrative is picking up on particular themes and we have to make a value judgement about which themes are more important.  With regards to the second claim, I think that it is honestly a bit naive.  While I agree with Webber in part- I think a change in context has provided the momentum for the “Emerging” movement- I also think that there are real theological differences between the two movements, and thus to some extent what is at stake is indeed a question of “truth.”  Both of these initial assessments will certainly be nuanced and fleshed out more as we go, but that’s my first approximation.

What do you think?  Are these two claims true?  Particularly the second claim- have we moved to the point where real doctrinal issues of “truth” divide the two camps or is still a matter of paradigm and communication?


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