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