A generational shift in evangelicalism

This is a follow-up to a post from a couple of weeks ago.

Last week, Scot McKnight spoke at a convention which brought together three scholarly societies:  the Evangelical Theological Society, the Society of Biblical Literature, and the American Academy of Religion.

For those who don’t know, McKnight is a professor, the author of 20 books, and a blogger. He is solidly evangelical in his convictions. Nonetheless, he has embraced emerging Christianity, perhaps with some reservations about its postmodern orientation.

I was surprised to see that the meeting of academics included on its agenda a forum on the Emergent Church. And I’m grateful that Andy Rowell recorded the sessions he attended, including the Emergent Church Forum.

Here is a ten-minute excerpt. McKnight begins by telling a story about a blue parakeet (i.e., emerging Christians) stirring up the sparrows (i.e., evangelical / orthodox Christians) in his backyard. And then he identifies six uncomfortable questions that emerging Christians are asking.

You can listen to the audio, or read my summary (verbatim at some points, a free paraphrase at other points) below.

McKnight on emerging Christianity

  1. What kind of truth can be found in scripture?
    Emerging Christians are beginning to ask questions about scripture that an older generation thought it had answered. The questions include, Just how human is this book? and Is it possible that the story of Jonah and the whale is just a myth? Emerging Christians hear that there might have been three Isaiahs, and they aren’t too bothered about it — it isn’t even interesting to them.
     

  2. Questions about science:
    My students put it like this: If evolution isn’t true, I would like to ask God why he made a world that looks so much like evolution. This is a generation that isn’t even attracted to questions about proving that Genesis 1-11 is a historical record. They don’t care about creation science. They believe in evolution, and that’s just the way it is.
     

  3. Questions about Christians and how they behave:
    Emerging Christians grew up with the scandals of Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker and the priests, and they just don’t trust institutional leaders. Behind closed doors, church leaders do things that are despicable. Emerging Christians ask this question:  If Paul says that those who are in Christ are a new creation, why are there so many old creatures in the Church?
     

  4. Questions about hell:
    I’ve had students say to me, Scott, my evangelical pastor tells me that people who haven’t heard the gospel are going to hell. Is he really telling me that everybody in North Korea who never has a chance to hear the gospel is going to hell? Well, I just can’t believe that’s true.
     

  5. A moral critique:
    I’ve had students say to me, Why is Jephtha in the Bible? And why is he valorized and heroized in Hebrews 11? That is a serious question. It’s easier to talk about how many Isaiahs there are than it is to answer that question.
     

  6. Questions about social location:
    Emerging Christians are aware that what we are interested in comes out of the world in which we live. There are other people in other parts of the world who don’t care about our questions.

    Social location matters to everything we talk about, the language we use to discuss it, the way we shape theology, the way we respond to the gospel, etc.

    Emerging Christians don’t just admit that, they delight in it. They’re not seeking a universal theology. They’re willing to live with a theology for the midwest, or the east coast.

I have a few comments of my own. First, none of the questions that McKnight points to are particularly new (except perhaps the last one, which brings us into the realm of postmodernism). What is new is the degree to which the traditional answers — answers which satisfied a previous generation of evangelicals — are now regarded with suspicion. As McKnight puts it at one point in his presentation,

This is not a question that evangelicals and orthodox Christians can simply give a traditional answer and get by with it anymore.

Second, the refusal to settle for easy answers may be related to McKnight’s third point, the distrust of institutional leaders. The traditional answers were never intellectually satisfying. They were accepted largely on the say-so of the priest or the Doctor of Theology, who was regarded as a trustworthy authority. Given the new cynicism about church leaders, emerging Christians aren’t taking things on authority; they’re waiting for an argument that they deem reasonable.

Third, I think emerging Christians within evangelicalism look particularly shocking in the US context. In Canada, you will find extremely few Christians, evangelical or otherwise, who insist that the earth was created in seven 24-hour days. Evolution is perhaps somewhat more controversial, but I think most Canadian believers accept, at the very least, that theistic evolution is a legitimate position.

Finally, the six “questions” of McKnight’s presentation do not touch on all the elements of emerging Christianity. McKnight knows that:  he has given a very different summary of the movement in a Christianity Today article.

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Bridgett
    Nov 28, 2007 @ 12:27:09

    Didn’t literal creationism come about with the 7th day adventists? I thought that was so, but I’m not an evangelical or Christian fundamentalist (which I don’t mean in the derogatory sense). I thought that for many years, long time, fundamentalists took Gn 1-11 with a grain of salt and understood its place in Jewish history, but then that changed with folks who wanted the end of the world calculated literally, so the beginning had to be as well.

    Tangent–anyway, every time you write about the emerging church it makes me both less suspicious of them and more irritated with Benedict XVI. Factionalism. We’re better than you. That sort of stuff.

    Reply

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