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Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church [Paperback]

D A Carson

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Book Description

April 28 2005
A perceptive evaluation of the new “emerging church” movement showing how we must not only interact with a fast-changing culture but also have our vision and practice of ministry shaped by biblical theology with Scripture as the norm.

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About the Author

D. A. Carson (PhD, University of Cambridge) is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He is the author or coauthor of over 45 books, including the Gold Medallion Award-winning book The Gagging of God, and An Introduction to the New Testament. He is general editor of Telling the Truth: Evangelizing Postmoderns and Worship by the Book. He has served as a pastor and is an active guest lecturer in church and academic settings around the world.

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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  67 reviews
149 of 154 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Balanced, Fair, and Biblical Perspective of the Emerging Church Movement Sept. 11 2005
By Seeking Disciple - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Dr. D.A. Carson offers a fair, balanced and biblical review of the emerging church movement which is fastly changing the scope of American Christianity (and I believe for the worst). Carson opens his book with a careful review of the movement by allowing the various authors and teachers of the movement to share their thoughts in their own words. Carson has numerous footnotes to help the reader see where the quotes are coming from.

The book is quite loving in its approach. Dr. Carson does not seek to tear down the emerging movement but he does seek to expose both its strengths and weaknesses. He does this with much grace. Dr. Carson is not blind to what the emerging church movement can teach the evangelical church but he does not hesitate to point out where the movement falls short by testing it with the Word of God. Truth, writes Carson, is not optional nor is it fuzzy. Truth comes directly from God and it contained in the Bible. Everything must conform itself to the Scriptures or it will not stand at all.

I greatly enjoyed this work. Having read much of emerging church authors and visiting various emerging web-sites, I found Carson's work to be a prophetic voice in our age. I highly recommend this work to every disciple of Jesus.
241 of 258 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Important Contribution to the Conversation June 14 2005
By Tim Challies - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
While much has been written about the Emerging Church (henceforth known as EC), D.A. Carson is, as far as I know, the first person to write a book-length treatment evaluating and leveling critiques at the movement. At any rate he is certainly the most widely-respected. And yes, I know the EC leaders prefer to call it a "conversation," but since Carson does not shy from calling it a movement, nor will I. In Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, subtitled "Understanding a Movement and its Implications," Carson seeks to introduce the movement, assess it, and address several of the most glaring weaknesses. There are few men who are better suited to this task. Carson is a scholar and is known for his conservative, biblical theology as much as for his sound research and presentation skills. All of those admirable attributes are displayed throughout this book.

In the preface Carson writes, "Whenever a Christian movement comes along that presents itself as reformist, it should not be summarily dismissed. Even if one ultimately decides that the movement embraces a number of worrying weaknesses, it may also have some important things to say that the rest of the Christian world needs to hear. So I have tried to listen respectfully and carefully; I hope and pray that the leaders of this "movement" will similarly listen to what I have to say" (page 10). That spirit of love and charity pervades the book.

The book follows a logical format - introduction, admiration, criticism. The first chapter, "The Emerging Church Profile," is an uncritical summary of the Emerging Church. Carson arrives at three conclusions. First, the EC must be evaluated as to its reading of contemporary culture. Second, the EC needs to be evaluated as to its beliefs regarding Scripture. Third, the EC's proposals for moving forward in this postmodern culture need to be examined.

The second chapter examines the strengths of the Emerging Church. Carson praises four aspects of the EC. First, they are adept at reading the times and know that the presentation of the Gospel must change with the times. Second, they value authenticity. Third, they recognize the social location of the church, and know that the church is within a cultural context and cannot be removed from it. Fourth, they place high value on evangelism. Fifth, that they probe tradition and seek to build a faith that is rooted in the past while still being relevant to the present.

Having shown the strengths of the EC, Carson turns to several weaknesses in the third chapter. He critiques their evaluation and denigration of modernism, their condemnation of confessional Christianity and accuses them of having a view of Christianity under modernism that is both theologically shallow and intellectually incoherent.

The fourth chapter serves as an introduction to postmodernism and the postmodern mindset. For those who are unfamiliar with the changing times, and our society's emerging epistemology, this chapter is a valuable introduction.

Carson goes on, in chapters five, six and seven to critique the Emerging Church's response to postmodernism. He is especially critical of the EC's handling of truth, and frustrated by their refusal to deal with the tough questions. He finds that more often than not, the EC leaders refuse to deal with the tough questions related to claims of absolute truth. He is also concerned with the EC's stubborn refusal to use Scripture as the norming norm against appeals to tradition, as well as the EC's emphasis on "belonging before believing." He deals with two books in some depth - Brian McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy as well as Steve Chalke's The Lost Message of Jesus, thus representing leaders of the Emerging Church on both sides of the Atlantic. Carson arrives at a chilling conclusion. "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...I cannot see how their own words constitute anything less than a drift toward abandoning the gospel itself" (page 186-187).

The book concludes with a list of relevant Bible passages and "A Biblical Meditation on Truth and Experience." He closes with a challenge. "So which shall we choose? Experience or truth? Damn all false antitheses to hell, for they generate false gods, they perpetuate idols, they twist and distort our souls, they launch the church into violent pendulum swings whose oscillations succeed only in dividing brothers and sisters in Christ...If emerging church leaders wish to become a long-term prophetic voice that produces enduring fruit and that does not drift off toward progressive sectarianism and even, in the worst instances, outright heresy, they must listen at least as carefully to criticisms of their movement as they transparently want others to listen to them...If they manage this self-correction and worry less about who is or who is not emergent and rather more about learning simultaneously to be faithful to the Bible and effective in evangelizing the rising number of alienated biblical illiterates in our culture, they may end up preserving the gains of their movement while helping brothers and sisters who are more culturally conservative than they are learn to reconnect with the culture." (page 234).

Carson faced a great difficulty in this book. How does one fairly and adequately critique a movement as eclectic as the Emerging Church? Many have criticized this movement for being so hard to pin down. Carson admits that not every critique he makes will be valid for every person who considers himself a part of this "conversation." Yet I feel that McLaren did as well as could be expected, focusing the majority of his attention on those who have the majority of the influence.

My concerns with the book are twofold. First, while the Emerging Church is emerging at the popular level, this book is written to appeal more to scholars and to those who are well-versed in theology than to the neophyte. If it is true, as Carson claims, that most Emerging leaders come from a fundamentalist background, then perhaps this is appropriate. But I am not sure that this book offers a lot by way of popular appeal. If your teenage son has become enamored with an Emerging Church while at college, I do not know that this book will interest him or convince him to re-examine his church. That being said, he was not Carson's target audience for Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church. I have little doubt that the majority of the major players leading the Emergent conversation will read and absorb this book. I pray that the Spirit works in their hearts to humble themselves before the Word, that they can test what Carson says in the light of Scripture.

My second concern is that Carson does not address in any depth some of the major concerns of believers who examine this movement from the outside. Among these are the mysticism and ecumenism that seem foundational to the Emerging Church.

This book is surely the most valuable contribution available to us in challenging the Emerging Church. Carson evaluates the EC in the light of Scripture, showing where it falls far short and providing suggestions for appropriate remedies. This book succeeds in its task and I highly recommend it.
48 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church Aug. 16 2005
By Randy W. Rodden - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Great primer in understanding the strengths and very serious weeknesses of the Emerging church movement. Anyone who wants to understand how postmodernism is affecting this segment of the evangelical church will benefit from Carson's balanced and penetrating critique. Most of all I hope the leadership of the Emerging church will carefully read this book and use it as a wise corrective, given in the spirit of grace and truth, for their well intentioned movement.

Randy W. Rodden
32 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wise and Thoughtful Critique Oct. 11 2005
By Phillip H. Steiger - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This book is a must read for anyone who is interested in who and what the Emergent Church movement is. In my opinion, it is the most comprehensive and trenchant popular-level critique of the movement to date. Carson has taken the time to read the major works and authors within the Emergent conversation, and based on several anecdotes related in the book, he has engaged many forums and individuals within the movement. As a result, Carson deals fairly and charitably with the people and the positives of the theology and philosophy, and also has a solid footing for his critique.

A crucial point of contention with Carson is what he calls the "wretched antithesis." Within postmodern philosophy, a typical dichotomy is that because we cannot be omniscient knowers, we must therefore be skeptical of all possible knowledge. Unfortunately, Emergent picks up on this false dichotomy and fails to give appropriate emphasis to truth claims (however analogous, modest or straight-forward they may be) in Scripture. I have also found it true that Emergent authors and pastors are unwilling to deal in terms of "truth" even though Scripture is not afraid to do so.

Carson's call is not for a nasty end to Emergent, despite some of his detractors. His call is for a real and honest dealing with the role of theology within the Church, and for Emergent to answer some of these serious critiques. A great deal of Emergent thought is content to "ask questions" and thus feel vindicated in their apparent profundity. Carson, and so many others, just want some substantive answers to serious questions.
59 of 69 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A wise and discerning perspective on the emergent church Sept. 30 2005
By Brian G Hedges - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Don Carson, research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, has done the church a great service in this recent overview and assessment of "the emergent church," a movement which is fast gaining momentum in evangelical culture, especially with the younger generation. Writing with both years of biblical faithfulness and a keen insight into culture to his credit, Carson presents a carefully written synopsis and evaluation of the emerging church which is both appreciative and critical. "Whenever a Christian movement comes along that presents itself as reformist," Carson writes, "it should not be summarily dismissed. Even if one ultimately decides that the movement embraces some worrying weaknesses, it may also have some important things to say that the rest of the Christian world needs to hear" (10). Carson succeeds in both listening to the important things the emerging church leaders are saying, and bringing Scripture to bear on their worrying weaknesses.

Chapter one gives a profile of the emerging church, with Carson assuming little to no acquaintance with the emerging church from his readers. Carson has obviously done his homework on the `conversation,' as his numerous references to writings by Brian McLaren, Dan Kimball, Mike Yaconelli, Spencer Burke, Leonard Sweet, Robert Webber, Dave Tomlinson, and others reveals. "At the heart of the emerging reformation lies a perception of a major change in culture" (42). This perception has led many of the emerging church leaders into protest - protest against modernism, and both traditional and pragmatic (i.e. seeker-sensitive) evangelicals, who (in their estimation) are becoming increasingly irrelevant in our rapidly changing culture. Very little appreciation or criticism is offered at this point. Instead, Carson insists that "the emerging church movement must be evaluated as to its reading of contemporary culture" (43), while its "proposals for the way ahead must be assessed for their biblical fidelity" (44).

The second chapter focuses on the strengths of the movement. In the author's view, some of those strengths include:

* Its honest attempts "to read the culture in which we find ourselves and to think through the implications of such a reading for our witness, our grasp of theology, our churchmanship, even our self understanding" (45);

* Its push for authenticity in our corporate worship of God (49-51);

* Its recognition of our own social location, that is that "we ourselves are part of this rapidly changing culture, and we cannot help but be influenced by it" (51);

* Its concern for "evangelizing people who are often overlooked by the church" (52);

* And its "probing links with the [Christian] tradition" (54), casting off some traditions that are deemed unhelpful and wrong while remaining open to exploring practices that belong to the larger swath of Christendom (a strength that is also at times a weakness).

But while all of these things are positive traits within the emergent church, for which we should be thankful, Carson concludes by describing one church which embodies all of these characteristics, but which is not likely to be identified with the emerging church movement. The point being, that "the emerging church movement has numerous strengths, and we should be grateful for them - but they are not exclusively theirs" (56).

Next is Carson's summary of the emerging church's analysis of contemporary culture. "This exercise is important because the emerging church leaders themselves ground their call to reformation in cultural changes taking place around us" (57). Several criticisms of this analysis are offered. First, Carson points out that emergent leaders tend to be overly reductionistic in their understanding of modernism. "The modern period is treated as if it were all of a piece, consistently devoted to the rational, the cerebral, the linear, the absolute, the objective. But history isn't that neat" (59). This misreading of modernism is especially troubling because of the emerging movement's tendency to unfairly criticize and almost universally condemn confessional Christianity. This is Carson's second criticism. "In my reading of the emerging church literature, Christianity under modernism is rationalistic, cerebral rather than emotional, and given toward arrogance because of its absolutism" (60). Of course, examples of such can be found, but this has certainly not been universally true of all Christians within modernism. There are also examples of Christians whose firm beliefs were matched with fervent devotion to Christ. (As a case in point, Carson provides a lengthy quotation from Spurgeon.) Third, Carson takes issue with the emerging movement because its condemnation of confessional Christianity is often theologically shallow and intellectually incoherent. "It is theologically shallow because it overlooks the basic fact that no worldview, no epistemological system developed by us in a fallen world, is entirely good or entirely bad . . . It is intellectually incoherent because, in the spirit of postmodern toleration, most emergent publications go out of their way to find good things about every other `ism'. . . . The one `ism' about which some appear to find it almost impossible to say anything positive, especially in the publications of emergent leaders, is modernism (as they understand it)" (68-69). Carson also surveys the movements analysis of postmodernism, and confesses that "in many aspects [he] agrees with [their] understanding" (75). But he does feel that they appeal too much and too carelessly to the buzz word "postmodernism" - especially given the fact that in popular culture the word (and other accompanying nomenclature) means different things to different people, while "in academic circles, the subject is beginning to look passé" (81). To lump all social changes under this one rubric, decreases the credibility of the emerging church's analysis. And the claim that, with postmodernism, the age of authentic Christianity has arrived betrays a lack of evenhanded evaluation. Some writers need to tone down their rhetoric.

Very helpful is Carson's "personal reflections on postmodernism's contributions and challenges" in the fourth chapter. While this chapter requires the most effort, it is probably the most rewarding, as Carson defines and contrasts the epistemologies of premodernism, modernism, and postmodernism. In short, premodern epistemology said "knowledge depends on revelation - i.e. on God disclosing some part of what he knows, however that revelation is accomplished" (88). Modern epistemology, "a label commonly applied to the epistemology of the Western world from about the beginning of the seventeenth century until a few decades ago" (92), begins with man instead of God (Descartes' "I think, therefore I am") and claims that the right foundation plus the correct method would invariable yield objective truth (92-95). Postmodern epistemology, like that of modernism, begins with the finite "I," but draws very different conclusions. It is "passionately anti-foundationalist," meaning that "there is no ultimate fulcrum on which the levers of knowledge can rest" (97) and it "insists that there are many methods [of knowing], all of which produce distinguishable results and none of which is any more or less `true' than the results produced by the other methods" (97). "Objective knowledge is neither attainable nor desirable" and under this regime, truth "cannot partake of ahistorical universality" (97). With postmodernism come several correlatives (syncretism, secularization, biblical illiteracy, ill-defined spirituality, and globalization) and entailments (98-102). Carson then details both strengths and weaknesses in postmodern epistemology, and helpfully distinguishes between what he calls hard and soft postmodernism. Hard postmodernism concludes that "human beings cannot have objective knowledge about anything" (105), while soft postmodernism, admitting that human knowledge is necessarily perspectival, still insists that "we can in measure approach the truth in some objective sense" (105-106). The appropriate place of "critical realism" (110-111) needs to be recognized and new models for helping us think explored (116-122).

Chapter five contains Carson's most detailed critique of the emerging church movement itself. He voices five criticisms, all of them related to the movement's handling of truth-related issues. They are (1) their failure to come to terms with the importance of non-omniscient truth-claims (126-132); (2) their failure to face the tough questions especially if they are truth related (132-138); (3) their failure to use Scripture as the norming norm over against an eclectic appeal to tradition (139-146); (4) their failure to handle "becoming" and "belonging" tensions in a biblically faithful way (146-155); and (5) their failure to handle facts, both exegetical and historical in a responsible way (155-156). Chapter six specifies this critique by carefully examining two significant books, Brian McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy and Steven Chalke's The Lost Message of Jesus. Carson's criticisms are irenic and charitable in tone, though he doesn't hesitate to call these authors on the carpet where he deems it warranted by Scripture.

Finally, in chapters seven and eight Carson points his readers to some biblical passages to help us in our evaluation of postmodernism and the emergent church. He lists over 120 passages (some more helpful than others) relevant to truth, knowledge, and pluralism (188-202), then briefly comments on ten texts that are particularly insightful for this discussion (202-217), and concludes with an excellent biblical meditation on truth and experience, grounded in a chapter-length exposition of 2 Peter 1. Scripture, subject, and name indices are included at the end of the book.

Having been both stirred and troubled in reading several books on postmodernism and the emergent church, I came to this book with high hopes of being guided by this biblically faithful, contemporary scholar. I was not disappointed. Carson helped clarify my understanding of both modernism and postmodernism, seemed to resonate with the emergent church in some of its positive features, and was well able to articulate the cautions I have intuitively felt in my own reading. His research is impeccable, his knowledge of Scripture profound, his love for the church obvious, and his critique insightful. All of that to say this: if you only read one book on postmodernism and the emergent church, read this one.

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