Distressed about my widely circulated exchanges with an "emerging church" leader, a young theologian confronted me after a conference. He urged me to try to understand them. "You might be surprised by how much you agree on," he said.
Maybe I had been too harsh. After all, the theologianwe'll call him Jimargued that emerging church leaders are trying to translate the gospel for a postmodern generation. That's a commendable goal, I agreed. Though in their effort to reach postmodernswho question the existence and knowability of truthI expressed fear that they are coming dangerously close to teaching that objective truth does not exist.
A lengthy e-mail exchange with Jim followed. In defense of emerging church leaders, he insisted that truth is paradoxical, simultaneously personal and propositional. It is objectively true that Jesus Christ is Lord no matter what anyone thinks, Jim wrote. But, he added, "Propositional truth is not the highest truth. Indeed, the highest truth is personal."
Like all statements that can lead us into error, those have the ring of truth. Of course, truth becomes relational when we come to Jesus, Truth himself. But our doing that isn't what makes it true. He is the truth whether or not we ever experience him. Scripture is never less than revealed propositional truth.
Jim argued that one prominent emerging church leader won't say this for fear that the greater points he's trying to make won't be heard. Okay, I conceded, his motives may be good, but his position can lead people to think that truth depends on experience or comprehension.
Jim continued to plead for my understanding. Emerging church leaders are only seeking to challenge the church to go beyond static orthodoxy. Good, I repliedbut what's new? I've been trying to get people out of pews to live their faith in prisons for 30 years.
Fearful that I was being influenced by stereotypes, I asked my associate Anne Morse to visit a leading emerging church. The service was a bit unsettling to a traditionalist, she reported, with no Bibles or hymnals in sight. During the service, congregants were free to engage in activities at various "stations" of the building: praying, journaling, or tithing. The pastor, who lacks formal seminary training, offered not a sermon, but the story of his decision to "follow Jesus."
But style is not really the issue. I've worshiped all over the world, in former prison torture chambers, under jungle overgrowth in Sri Lanka, and in homes of persecuted believers. And I recognize that the emerging church is trying to engage the postmodern mindset as Paul did at Mars Hill, picking up on Athenian cultural artifacts. Once he did that, however, Paul also taught them why they were wrong. He didn't sanctify the altar to the unknown god or say that pagans have things to teach us, as at least one emerging church leader does (when, for example, he says Buddhists have things to teach Christians about meditation).
The e-mails kept coming back to that one stubborn question: What is truth? While I now have increased sympathy for what emerging leaders are trying to accomplish, I still believe some have wrongly diagnosed the churchbelieving evangelicals are wedded to dry, dusty doctrine, the curse of modernity.
I only wish that were the problem. My experience is that most mainstream evangelicals are so steeped in the experiential gospel that they never think about truth propositionally. (Barna found while 63 percent of Americans do not believe in truth, 53 percent of evangelicals don't either.)
The arguments of some emerging church leaders, I fear, draw us perilously close to the trap set by postmodern deconstructionist Stanley Fish. Defending himself after his sympathetic statements about the 9/11 terrorists boomeranged, Fish claimed that postmodernists don't really deny the existence of truth. He said there is simply no "independent standard of objectivity." So truth can't be proved to others; therefore, it can't be knowna verbal sleight of hand.
For evangelicalism (let alone emerging churches) to buy into that would undermine the very foundation of our faith. Theologian Donald A. Carson puts his finger precisely on the epistemological problem: Of course, truth is relational, Carson writes. But before it can be relational, it has to be understood as objective. Truth is truth. It is, in short, ultimate reality. Fortunately, Jim came to see this.
The emerging church can offer a healthy corrective if it encourages us to more winsomely draw postmodern seekers to Christ wherever we find themincluding coffee houses and pubs. And yes, worship styles need to be more inviting, and the strength of relationship and community experienced. But these must not deter us from making a solid apologetic defense of the knowability of truth.
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Tony Jones, the Emergent conversation's national director, took on this column on Leadership's Out of Ur blog.
Brian McLaren and Chuck Colson have sparred before. McLaren wrote an open letter to Colson about Colson's CT column The Postmodern Crackup. Colson then responded.
Recent Charles Colson columns for Christianity Today include:
Soothing Ourselves to Death | Should we give people what they want or what they need? (April 5, 2006)
A More Excellent Way | Changing the law isn't enough. (Jan. 23, 2006)
My Soul's Dark Night | The best of evangelicalism didn't prepare me for this struggle. (Dec. 7, 2005)
Machiavellian Morality | One reason teenagers, among others, are jammed in our prisons. (Sept. 22, 2005)
Verdict that Demands Evidence | It is Darwinists, not Christians, who are stonewalling the facts. (March 28, 2005)
The Moral Home Front | America's increasing decadence is giving aid and comfort to Muslim terrorists. (Sept. 23, 04)
Reclaiming Occupied Territory | The Great Commission and the cultural commission are not in competition. (July 21, 2004)
Societal Suicide | Legalizing gay marriage will lead to more family breakdown and crime. (May 24, 2004)
Evangelical Drift | Outsiders say we're the status quo. Our call is to prove them wrong. (March 29, 2004)
Confronting Moral Horror | It's a witness even the most jaded find impressive. (Feb. 04, 2004)
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