(May 2008 – Volume 14, Issue 5)
A note from Pastor Gilley: I have recently completed reading a number of books related to the emergent conversation. This month’s TOTT paper will be composed of my reviews of these books.
Finding Our Way Again, the Return to the Ancient Practices
by Brian McLaren
Brian McLaren, the most recognizable name in the emergent church movement, signals a shift, or at least a new emphasis within emergent, toward ancient practices of earlier periods of church history. As usual, McLaren believes the church has lost its way due to its refusal to follow God’s leading. The church has become “proud and unteachable” but fortunately a few “humble and teachable” people (guess who?) are pointing out the right path (pp. 150-151): “When the community of faith realizes it has lost its way, it begins looking forward by looking back…It looks to its ancient practices to help it reset its future course” (p. 160).
This means that the church, in order to find its way again, must look to and adopt the early church (not New Testament church) traditions and rituals especially the “seven ancient practices” of fasting, pilgrimage, common daily prayers, a weekly day of rest, annual holy days and seasons, tithing and sacred meal, as they find fulfillment in the ‘threefold way’ of purgation, illumination, and union with God” (p. 162). What seems to have precipitated this renewed interest in ancient practices and mysticism is the recognition the emergent movement is in need of roots. McLaren writes, “More and more of us feel, more and more intensely, the need for a fresh creative alternative—a fourth alternative, something beyond militarist scientific secularism, pushy religious fundamentalism, and mushy amorphous spirituality” (p. 18). I assume by these harsh remarks McLaren means that the emergent church, having already rejected modern evangelicalism and fundamentalism, must now move beyond an “amorphous spirituality” and put down some anchors. These anchors are sinking into the soil of ancient spiritual practices (p. 19).
Finding Our Way Again is actually the introductory volume in a series of eight titles published by Thomas Nelson and edited by Phyllis Tickle. The other seven works will each develop one of the seven ancient practices deemed important for the emerging church. One of the important features of this series will be its relevancy for not only those in the Christian faith but also for those in Judaism and Islam, apparently because all three of these traditions share the same ancient practices (p. 19). At no point in this introductory volume does McLaren speak of any form of exclusivity within Christianity. Quite the opposite: “If we do not rediscover in our three religions the ancient way of spiritual practice, which is perhaps the best and truest thing about them, then we will contribute to the destruction of the world” (p. 215). At one point McLaren calls Islam “Christianity’s sibling” (p. 53) and he affirms his belief “that a person can be a follower of the way of Jesus without affiliating with the Christian religion” (p. 35).
Chapters 17 through 19 are devoted to the “threefold way” of purgation, illumination and union, which is common to all forms of mysticism, Christian or otherwise. However, McLaren does not describe the “threefold way” as his mentors and the ancient mystics (such as St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila) do. He either does not understand his subject (highly unlikely) or he is using his winsome pen to make these approaches much more attractive than they normally would be to many people. But he definitely promotes contemplation (a mystical form of prayer), lectio divina (a mystical form of Scripture reading), and the daily office (a ritualistic form of prayer) (pp. 179-180).
McLaren peppers this book with his usual talk of the kingdom of God, which is identical to postmillennial liberalism of the early 20th century. He also takes a hard swipe at anyone dumb enough not to believe in evolution (pp. 147, 189), assuring us that their grandchildren will grow up just like the Catholic Church did after Galileo.
Finding Our Way Again is McLaren’s and the emergent church’s formal marriage to the Ancient-Future Faith movement. These two have been seen flirting in various places but it seems the union has been consummated with the new ancient practices series.
In Constant Prayer
by Robert Benson
In Constant Prayer is the second volume in Thomas Nelson’s “The Ancient Practices Series” which encourages a return to early traditional Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox rituals and observances. This book is written by Robert Benson, an alumnus of the Academy for Spiritual Formation and concerns itself with the “divine office.” The divine office is composed of seven (or fewer) set times of daily prayers. Each office, which takes up to twelve minutes to say, “is made up of psalms, scriptures and prayers” (p. 12). The best known of the offices was written by St. Benedict in the 6th century for use by his monks. Benson claims biblical precedent from Psalm 119:164 which says, “Seven times a day I will praise you.” He writes, “Taking their cue from the psalmist, the Hebrew people developed a set of daily liturgical offices of prayer. These little prayer services were to be said at specific times of the day, or specific hours” (p. 19). Benson then states that the ancient Christians continued this practice throughout the early stages of church history (p. 21). The office nearly died out during the Middle Ages but was rescued by the monks and nuns, only to be rejected by the Reformers in an overreaction, Benson believes, to the corrupt teaching and practices of Rome (p. 22).
While marginalized for centuries, today there has been a revival of interest in the daily office, not only among Catholics but among evangelicals as well. This is most welcomed by Benson as it seems to be the one thing that will provide for the survival of the church (pp. 51, 52, 57, 59, 115).
Although Benson offers a sample daily office, and provides some hints and ideas about its practice, this book is largely a pep rally for its use. He writes with humor, vulnerability (even admitting his struggles with introversion, depression, divorce and psychological breakdown), and with understanding (he admits the office is hard to maintain, often boring and most will repeatedly fail) (pp. 47ff; 67ff). Benson encourages flexibility in both use of a prayer book (pp. 30ff) and times and manners of the divine office’s use (p. 36).
Still, praying the office is essential unless we want to be the generation that “will preside over the death of the church” (p. 52). We are assured that the divine office is “the very prayer which Christ Himself, together with His body, addresses to the Father” (pp. 4, 24, 116). How he knows this is a mystery for Benson does not document any of these statements; he presumes way too much and he is careless. For example, he writes “the words of Psalm 95 have been the opening psalm of invitation to morning prayer for the faithful for six thousand years” (p. 28). Of course this cannot be since Psalm 95 was written about three thousand years ago. But that this is not a misprint is evident in that he repeats the statement on page 114.
Benson simply does not make his case biblically, nor does he try. He provides occasional references to Scripture but none supports his thesis that the daily office, as he prescribes it, is mandated by God or essential for the health and vitality of the church. His point of reference is not Scripture but Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions and those of the mystics such as St. Benedict (p. 6), Thomas Merton (p. 62) and Teresa of Avila (p. 83). Our Lord has called us to be people devoted to prayer but He does not call us to rote recitation of prescribed prayers and set times of the day.
Confessions of a Reformission Rev.
by Mark Driscoll
Mark Driscoll is at the center of much discussion today—partly because he is difficult to pigeon-hole. On the one hand he is a powerful preacher who holds to Reformed theology and has spoken at John Piper’s annual conference. On the other hand he is crude, admits to cursing and is prone to anger and sarcasm (Driscoll manages to insult and make fun of virtually everyone). I am often told that Driscoll is a work in progress (aren’t we all?) and has greatly matured in recent years. That may or may not be, but as a reviewer I must review the book at hand which was published only two years ago (2006).
On a positive note, Confessions reveals a man who holds nothing back. Driscoll passionately and aggressively pursues what he believes is best for the Lord’s work. He defines reformissional as “seeking to determine how Christians and their churches can most effectively be missionaries to their own cultures” (p. 15). Would that more of us seriously considered being reformissional by that definition. Driscoll also is an entrepreneur and visionary (e.g. pp. 60-61). Although he is the pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, his heart lies in evangelism, not pasturing. His preaching is intense, doctrinal and in your face. He is not a man who pulls punches. There is much commendable in Mark Driscoll.
But there is also much that should disturb us about the man:
- He is crude. From barnyard words (pp. 67, 94, 128, 129, 134) to the gross description of the affects of the stomach flu (p. 177), to sexual innuendos (pp. 59-60, 94-96, 128), to repeatedly referring to “God the Ghost” (pp. 7, 26, 34, 47, 74), Driscoll’s language is often shocking.
- He is an admitted curser (pp. 47, 50, 71, 97, 99, 128, 130). He is known as the cussing pastor in Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz (pp. 96-97) and there is no indication in this book that Driscoll has reformed his foul language.
- He is also ruthless. Driscoll has a mission (to ultimately grow a church of 10,000 attendees – p. 164) and any who does not fit into that mission is dispensable (pp. 45, 63, 112, 131, 135, 148-150) or fired (pp. 146-147, 196). As Mars Hill grows to megachurch status, one has to wonder what has become of the multitude of people harmed in the process, especially as Driscoll admits his fits of anger when not pleased (pp 99, 128, 130).
- Separation from worldly activities does not fit Driscoll’s missional strategy. He speaks often of drinking and frequenting bars (e.g. pp. 51, 131, 146), buying lottery tickets (p. 58), admiring and learning from foul-mouthed entertainers such as Chris Rock (pp. 43, 70), stealing a sound system (p. 62) and setting himself up for sexual temptation (which he resisted) (p. 128).
- Purity in the church is inconsistent. While Driscoll certainly desires to see Christians live morally, he is willing to use unbelievers in ministry, especially in his worship and concert bands (pp. 68, 158) It is one thing to reach out to those involved in such sins; it is another to use them in ministry.
- He has an unbiblical understanding of demonic activity and recommends the books of C. Fred Dickason and Neil T. Anderson on spiritual warfare (pp. 122, 123, 184).
- He is totally open to charismatic-style leading from the Lord through voices, dreams, visions and words of knowledge (pp. 39, 74-75, 85, 121) as well as tongues (p. 190). This is perhaps the most concerning issue related to Driscoll.
- His church has grown on the back of questionable activities such as non-Christian rock concerts (p. 40), hip-hop and punk-rock worship (pp. 93, 100, 126).
- While Driscoll has distanced himself from the more radical emergent movement (pp. 21-23), he is still associated with the Leadership Network (pp. 7, 82) which promotes emergent.
I found it interesting as well that Driscoll claims emerging churches reach out through relationships not programming, yet the whole book is about programming. Even the chapters are arranged (and titled) around the size of Mars Hill at various times. Nothing (or at least very little) is really said about relationship style evangelism; the emphasis is on what brings people to church services. Nor is there any discussion of the biblical model of the church. The implication is that the church is more shaped by culture than Scripture (pp. 21, 73).
Mark Driscoll is much admired today because his strategy is working—that is, his church is growing (p. 155). But there is much need for careful reflection here.
The End of Religion
by Bruxy Cavey
The End of Religion is published by NavPress Deliberate, which is clearly a promoter of emergent theology and stresses redeeming the world (that is, bringing God’s kingdom to earth through improving earthly conditions), contemplation, mystery-embracing, inclusivism (embracing God’s truth in other faiths), and creative culture (p. 5). The End of Religion does not endorse most of these emphases, and Cavey (in personal correspondence with me) rejects affiliation with the emergent community. However, having the book published by NavPress Deliberate and in addition by quoting or receiving endorsement from many in the movement or on the fringe (Erwin McManus, N.T. Wright, Dallas Willard, Gregory Boyd, Larry Crabb, John Michael Talbot, Jim Wallis, Clark Pinnock and of course Brian McLaren), the reader is left wondering. This is especially true since McLaren, the recognized leader of the emergent movement, wrote an endorsement for the cover and Cavey acknowledges McLaren’s The Secret Message of Jesus as a great follow-up to this book. The Secret Message of Jesus is McLaren’s sad attempt at a gospel message and is a clear perversion of the true gospel (you can read my review at www.svchapel.org/resources/bookreviews). In a personal letter to me Cavey clarifies that he does not agree with everything these men write, but he uses them to connect with his audience, which he sees as mostly non-believers.
With this introduction here are my specific concerns about The End of Religion:
- Some statements could be interpreted as inclusivism
Cavey says that Jesus can offer spiritual help to people of other religions. He is seen as “a rabbi to the Jews, a prophet to the Muslims, and avatar to the Hindus, and enlightened one to Buddhists…” (pp. 11-12). Cavey tells me he means by this sentence that Jesus is already considered these things in other religions and this is a good starting point for evangelism. Still the comment is confusing in light of the resurgence of inclusivism today. We must be clear that Jesus came to seek and to save the lost—to call them from their idols to the living God, not offer false religions spiritual help. I was further confused when the author speaks of an atheist as a “committed Christ-follower” (p. 188). This is apparently a careless statement and does not reflect Cavey’s belief in the exclusivity of salvation through Christ alone (see p. 166).
- A misunderstanding of the kingdom of God
Cavey follows the theologically liberal postmillennial understanding of the kingdom that is prevalent in emergent circles. He writes, “Every time we allow our choices to align with God’s will of love for us, we experience more of His kingdom on earth” (p. 125). It is common in many circles to point to the fact that Jesus often said that the kingdom was near; however it is seldom noticed that Jesus never said the kingdom was here and when Jesus ascended the Messianic kingdom had not yet come (Acts 1:6-8). They try to wrap their “kingdom has come” theology around Luke 17:21, which is actually a statement made by Jesus to the Pharisees and is not teaching an inner, spiritual kingdom (unless one wants to believe that the kingdom was presently in the hearts of the Pharisees who would soon murder Jesus).
- The search for the historic Jesus
Commendably Cavey wants to take us back to a true picture of Jesus (p. 25). Unfortunately the portrait he paints of Jesus is, at times, a bit lopsided. For example, he showcases the love of Jesus but leaves out His anger (p. 80). Jesus, Cavey states, “never went out of His way to convince people they were sinners” (p. 239) and He “promoted a nonjudgmental spirituality” (p. 213). These statements are rather ambiguous. In light of Jesus’ rebukes (check out Matthew 23), and the numerous strong statements in the epistles (as a sampler try 2 Peter or Jude), to portray Jesus as all love and tenderness and not also extremely harsh on rebellious sinners is not a balanced picture. We as Christians are not to sit in judgment over nonessentials, nor are we the determiners of men’s souls, but we certainly must, after examination of our own lives, deal with sin and false teaching in others (Matthew 7:5; 18:15-20). Cavey tells me in his letter that he is in strong agreement with my comment here.
- Confusing statements concerning the gospel
As far as I can tell (from the book and correspondence with Cavey), he understands and teaches the biblical gospel message (see especially pp. 237-241) Therefore it is disconcerting to read an almost direct quote from Brian McLaren, “Salvation is not ultimately about going to heaven as a disembodied spirit, but about the renewal of all creation back to what it should have been in the first place” (p. 198; see also pp. 213, 238). Restoring the planet has become the gospel message of emergent. In the process it is hoped that many will become “Christ-followers,” even if they remain Buddhists or Muslims. But the real issue is bringing the kingdom to earth through our good deeds. Even though Cavey rejects this understanding of the gospel these are the things that McLaren references when he makes such statements.
- Some unfortunate statements concerning Scripture
One of the most disconcerting aspects of The End of Religion is some weak statements pertaining to Scripture. Cavey, perhaps because he sees this book as addressed to unbelievers, carefully tiptoes around the proclamation that the Bible is inspired by God. He admits the Gospels are “historically more valid than many of us have been led to believe” (p. 24), and God “commissioned” the Bible (p. 255), but he comes up short in pronouncing a belief in an inspired Bible. In the same arena, he often pits Jesus against the Word. “Truth is a person to be known, not a collection of disembodied facts to be studied…When God wants to ‘share His heart’ with us, He gives us Jesus” (p. 175, see p. 210). True enough, but what we know about Jesus is found in the Scriptures, not in mystical experiences or the like. He quotes Larry Crabb who writes, “Jesus seekers across the world are being prepared to abandon the old way of the written code for the new way of the Spirit” (p. 159), which in its context is a call to mystical Christianity. Cavey also accepts rhetorical hermeneutics (also embraced by McLaren) which is an approach to Scripture in which more attention is paid to body language than to the words (pp. 134-135).
- The Pharisees
Cavey paints the Pharisees as the ultimate bad boys of religion. Fair enough. But then he misunderstands the real problem and lumps “Bible lovers” (he calls them the dreaded fundamentalists) with them. He claims the Pharisees “were the Bible-fundamentalists of their day. If they had a motto it would have been, ‘The Bible says it. That settles it. I believe it. Let’s do it.’” (p. 97) He could not be more inaccurate. Jesus never condemned the Pharisees for their “Bible-thumping” (p. 80) but for their distortion, supplementing, and invalidation of Scripture (Matthew 15:1-9), something Cavey seems to recognize (p. 102), but sometimes ignores.
Finally, I found it disturbing when, after summarizing what Jesus taught about sin, Cavey states, “I am inclined to agree.” Perhaps this is a misstatement but I find it amazing that a “Christ-follower” is “inclined” to agree with Jesus. Does it really matter if we agree or not? And if we don’t agree are we not simply wrong? On the other hand I am not certain how settled Cavey is in his “Christ-following” mode. In a footnote he expresses his belief in the historic Jesus, but if he is wrong about this he wants to find the real man behind the stories and follow him: “For now, I’m happy to call that person ‘Jesus.’” (p. 244) It sounds like he is still open to other options. Again, in Cavey’s letter to me he affirms his commitment is to Christ and His teachings, and he was simply using understatement as a communication tool. I have encouraged him to make this far more clear in future writings.
The End of Religion makes some good points about religion and even sin. Cavey correctly writes, “Rightly understood, sin is a good-news idea… Jesus taught that sin is forgivable – karma, by definition is not” (p. 78). Still there are a number of issues that are of concern and/or need further explanation. As an added note, even as Cavey is writing this book against religion, many in the emergent fellowship are headed toward traditions and rituals in the form of the Ancient-Future Faith movement, including McLaren. Cavey’s position (pp. 107, 211, 220-221, 237) would be out of sync with this new direction. I believe the overall theme of The End of Religion is much more in line with the teaching of Scripture than the Ancient-Future Faith or emergent movement. Cavey tells me that he is not part of the emergent movement. If so, I would encourage him to clarify this in his writings and especially to distance himself from Brian McLaren.