Where is the Church in the labels and identities of Emerging Church and American Christianities

It has been a little over a week since,Thanks to Emerging Pensees, I came across this guest post by “Brandon Morgan”*, over at  Roger E. Olson’s blog.  Tony Jones had his reply, and then reflects on the labels evangelical liberal and progressive. And Austin Roberts at Imago*futura calls it  an identity crisis, and then gives an  account of evangelicalism. Brandon has responded to his critics  and concerning his use of these labels here.  The conversation seems to have moved on to Tony Jones proposal for adding another label to the mix.   “Brandon” is concerned about how he identifies as an American Christian and thus how the Emergent Church (ECM) is or is not identifying itself.  Brandon does seem to have had a peculiar understanding of the Emergent Church as an identity that could repair a rift in American Christianity.  Brandon can I think be forgiven this (mis)understanding since a “generous orthodoxy” can appear to transcend the politics of a Christian identity divided between Modernist and Fundamentalists. Based upon this expectation of healing a rift, “Brandon Morgan” challenges an Emergent sense of identity, by questioning if it is actually any different from the  mainline.   “Brandon’s” question though dances on the edge of asking in what way does the Emergent Church actually engage the Church and not simply various Christianities with which it may, more or less, identify.  In Brandon’s struggle I detect a longing  for the one Body of Christ beyond the proliferation of identities and labels. Though it seems “Brandon” can’t  see his way to having only the identity of Christ, through simply being part of the Church, the Body of Christ.

“Brandon Morgan” in both posts plays with Christian identity in a distancing fashion. Brandon is seeking a place and an identity, but he wishes to distance himself from current identities and places of American Christianity.  After a particular experience he now questions and distances himself also from the ECM.   He is definite about his not being mainline or liberal, he may be evangelical but definitely not conservative evangelical.  He is a participant in the Emerging Church, namely at the Void Collective. Yet as Mike at Emerging Pensees and Tony Jones point out his rhetoric distances himself from Emergents.  Though he also distances himself from evangelicals and his Southern Baptist upbringing.  What Tony Jones and Mike Clawson did  not recognize is that “Brandon’s” first distancing move is from “conservative evangelical circles”.  He is uneasy, has a queasy stomach over evangelical theological and political conservatism.    What we then have in Brandon is a seminarian who is a participant in an Emergent space called (ironically?) the Void Collective, who comes from (out of?) the Southern Baptists, and wishes to distance himself from forms of evangelicalism he describes as politically and theologically conservative, and who after participating in the Wild Goose Festival (WGF) finds he is also queasy about Emergent Church as he found it at WGF.   It would appear that “Brandon Morgan” is finding that he is no where in the American Christian landscape.  “Brandon” is struggling with having no acceptable identity, even the Emergent Church is failing to provide him the space and the identity he is seeking. Though the question remains is he seeking a form of Protestantism or the Church?

(It is also perhaps noteworthy that he was part of an event that the Void collective performed at the Wild Goose Festival, if I have put the pieces together said event was called “GODISNOWHERE”.)

What Tony and Mike seem to have missed here is that this critic from within,  has written himself out of the current identity politics of American Christianity.  What place has he to stand and critique?  From what identity does he speak, for whom or what?   Possibly an evangelicalism that is not conservative.  But no not that, he claims to have no stake in the future of evangelicalism.  What he claims to have a stake in is the American church.   As one who is a bit wary of conservative evangelicals, liberal mainliners and now Emergents, he takes up his location everywhere and nowhere- the American church.  He is a Christian in America.  This is from where he speaks, as such he has sympathies with Emergents and evangelicals, but apparently not liberals, or at least not with Emergents and Liberals who see evangelicals (or conservative evangelicals) as the enemy.

“Brandon Morgan” then identifies with a Christianity that is torn asunder, left – right, fundamentalist-modernist, evangelical-mainline. He had seen the ECM as possibly healing this rift in American Christianity up and until the WGF.  “Brandon’s” experience of WGF was not one of healing a rift but of embracing one side of the rift, by the embrace of the Mainline through the mutual vilifying of  conservative evangelicals.   Not having been at the festival in question I can’t evaluate the accuracy of “Brandon’s” experience. Admittedly as Mike and Tony point out “Brandon’s” experience does not match up with the proper and academically defined theological categories.  Even so neither Mike nor Tony actually seek to address “Brandon’s” experience of exclusion and embrace – the exclusion of the conservative evangelical and the embrace of the liberal mainline.  Thus I think they don’t see the ecclesiological question at the heart of Brandon’s current unease with the Emergent Church.

“Brandon” can’t quite articulate the ecclesiological question either. Unfortunately “Brandon” obscures his experience by his imprecision in the use of labels and markers of identity.  He also obscures his experience through a confusion of American Christianity, American Protestantism and the American Church.  In which landscape is he  seeking a place? is it  in  American Christianity or the American Church or American Protestantism?  As I read Brandon his experience of disillusionment is located in his seeking a place for a unified American Protestant identity, that he also identifies with the Church in American. What  He experienced at Wild Goose festival was a tendency to lean more towards one side of the rift  within American Christianity/the American Church/ American Protestantism.   “Brandon” can’t quite decide whether he is seeking an identity that simply is found in a healed American Protestantism, or if such healing would then reveal the space of the Church in America, or if he is seeking some unification of American Christianities.

What “Brandon’s” questioning and the responses bring me to ask is if the emergent Church is actually about emergent Christianity. If so, the question of the Church, that is the nature and reality of the Body of Christ, may not be of interest to the Emergent Church.  What this whole discussion does tell me is that Protestantism and American Christianity with its multiplication of identities, movements, “churches” and denominations is the space within which the Emergent Church is content to live. After all this  lead Tony Jones to look for a new label and identity within the American Christian landscape (though not a denominational one).  “Brandon” is seeking (what might never have actually existed) a unified American Protestant Christian identity and witness.   In “Brandon’s” questioning of ECM I both see a longing for the Body of Christ, the Church, and a failure to submit to the reality of the Church, the Body of Christ, as something to which we are joined.  We don’t need a new label and another Christian identifier, (Incarnation Christian or other wise) what we need is to ask who and what is the Church, the Body of Christ and are we truly part of it, or are we continually rending ourselves from it.  We need to hear Paul’s critic in 1 Corinthians 1:10-17 of the ways the early church in Corinth sought to multiply labels and identities and remember that either  we are Christs or we are not, either there is the Church or there isn’t the Church.  Either there is one baptism into which we have been joined to Christ, or we have not  joined to Christ. So I ask are we continuing to divide Christ?  Does conversation, generous orthodoxy and gleaning from traditions save us? Will a unified Protestantism proclaim Christ crucified.  Are we seeking to have Christ as our identity or are we asserting our version of the Gospel or one thread of the fabric of Christ as the whole cloth?

I get and am sympathetic that certain paths and certain ways of being Christian may have lead one or enable one to continue to follow Christ, but I must as are we following Christ if we can’t let go of these identities for the sake of Christ, and to ask if we are in fact in the Church, or simply dividing Christ garments at the base of the cross.

* To make explicit that “Brandon Morgan” refers to the particular textual production of two guest blog posts and their textual effects in the blogosphere, and is not a claim to know the intentions or the psychological state of  the biological person behind these two texts.  I do not know in the flesh said person, nor can I know for certain whether or not said person exists in the flesh, What I have are now three texts attached to this signature, one bellow in the comments. -priestly goth

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Interesting analysis Larry. I agree that I was somewhat confused by where Brandon was coming from at first, and you’re probably right that I have failed to address his basic concerns.

    However, I’m not sure he is quite as confused about his own identity as you or I first assumed. After further engagement with him on Olson’s blog, it seems likely that he is primarily influenced by the “Bapto-Catholic” movement which is big there in Waco (and which I believe you have some experience with there in your area in the form of the Ekklesia Project). That being the case, I think his actual concern is that the emerging church movement simply isn’t as Hauerwasian (or Radically Orthodox) as he would like it to be. I may be wrong about that, but that seems to be the subtext of his posts. I think Brandon has already found his place within American Christianity, and is simply disappointed that more of us emergents haven’t already joined him there.

    • Priestly Goth

      Given his reply below you are correct. But I was dealing with his textual production. “Brandon Morgan” in these two posts presented as without location within the American Christian landscape. I of course not having met Brandon the person could only work from the texts what he had written. Being fairly heavily influenced by Derrida, I had no illusion I was actually describing the psychology of the particular person Brandon but was limiting myself to the textual production that had unleashed a disease it seems to me about identity in the American Christian landscape that I still think should take us to the examine our sense of what Church is. which is my actual line of thought.

      I certainly like and feel that the Ekklesia Project is worth paying attention to, and I have yet to find myself disagreeing with Hauerwas, though I think if i pushed him on these questions and the Ekklesia Project I’d find fairly quickly that while they remain within Protestantism I am leaving it. I however did not get the sense that he was Hauerwasian in his two posts.

  • Brandon Morgan

    This is Brandon Morgan, whom your post drastically misrepresents. My critiques do not spawn from my lack of ecclesial identity nor am I searching for a denominational home. I go to University Baptist church in Waco TX, my pastor is Josh Carney. That is the part of the body of Christ that I find myself placed. I affirm the creeds, and the Great Tradition of the church. I affirm the church as the community of those who bear witness to the revelation of God in Christ and should enact such a role through establishing the practices of the church as a communal-political alternative to nation-state or private interest. I think Barth is generally right about revelation and I think Yoder is right about the church. I am highly critical of liberal protestantism along with conservative evangelicalism as being two sides of the same coin of modernity. I also think Aquinas was methodologically right about the analogy of being and De Lubac was right about an Augustinian trajectory in Thomas’ view of the relationship between nature and grace. I am not theologically or ecclesially muddled. So please consider reposting this entry or erasing it entirely, because it drastically misrepresents me as a person, whom you have never met. It would be better if you would stick to the issues at hand and not attempt to psychologize the persons involved.

    • Priestly Goth

      Brandon, I am sorry that I failed to grasp from two pieces of text your chosen location within American Christianity. As you point out we have never met and so far as I could discern you have little participation in this virtual textile we call the internet. Obviously the threads to your life were tenuous, and I followed threads in your texts mainly to Tony Jones’ desire for a new label. Also,

      In my defense then I simply say that you presented any of us who sought to understand your posts with an interesting position. Since you covered over your position by claiming to be a disillusioned Emergent Christian and participant in the Void Collective. (which you may be but not as someone with other interests and places of idneity. Your text had consequences, it raised issues of textuality and identity. I would still argue that he text itself is uncertain. The rhetorical device you used was of a disillusioned insider. You may have felt you left clues of your preferred position. But since you critiqued in the two post the Emergent church as if from within and not as one with the above mentioned loyalties, positions and location, you produced the effect of being without location or at least of being uncertain of how to fit within the American Christian landscape. Thus your two texts opened up spaces of longing for something other than what was, and this production was woven into other threads questioning identities and labels in the American Christian landscape. Which was and remains one of the issues at hand for the priestly goth. Rhetorical devises have consequences, identifying with the Void collective has textual consequences, not clearly spelling out the place from whence you wish to critique the Emergent Church had textual consequences. I was simply following those threads that you left dangling, apparently unintentional. But when I read I don’t pretend to know an authors intention, only the textile the author has left.

      You are clearly quite certain of things. I can only conclude that the rhetoric in the two posts I reference here then got away with you. I also can understand your misunderstanding my post. I should have said “Brandon” or left some other textual marker that I was simply referring to a textual production and not the person behind that textual production. In response to your demand I will edit this post to read “Brandon” with a note saying that I am not analyzing the psychology of an actual person but the play of these two texts with the emergent question and the question of the Church. I read texts like Derrida, without concern for the psychology of the author, rather the author is a textual production that may or may not have close relation to the biological and psychological internal life of the person that also bears the signature of an author.

      Oh, and you clearly confuse being uncertain about identity with being intellectually muddled, I make not such equation. I suspect that having a strong identity and place in the American Christian Landscape may be a very theologically and ecclesially muddling place to live. Not necessarily but the textile of political loyalties that the identities produce tend to erase the only identity that matters, that of Christ.

      So, then lets talk about the issues, my brother: The ways in which the identities of American Christianity obscure our understanding of the Body of Christ. I miss read you in our larger textile, and clearly as you wish to be identified. Isn’t that interesting that you now reveal that your playing in the realm of labels and production of identities obscured your own identity that both “Mike Clawson” and Priestly Goth had difficulty locating “Brandon Morgan’s” place in the American Christian landscape.

      I’d like to explore how your position answers my question about sub identities within Christianity and how they negatively or positively effect the ultimate identity of the Church, that is Christ. My claim here was simple: Like the Corinthian church American Protestantism including that of the Emergent Church, in its need to be identified with this or that penultimate identity abandons the true identity of the Church.

      I believe Paul critiques the very thing that is and was happening around “Brandon Morgans” questions, that we are being distracted by these questions of label and identities that are at best penultimate. My challenge is to abandon these and seek only the ultimate.

      PS. My guess is Brandon that you and I are closer than Mike and I are theologically. With the exception that I find Yoder’s ecclesiology wanting, mainly because I take seriously Roman Catholic and Easter Orthodox claims to be the Church.