On Tuesday, Julie Clawson posted an excellent piece on the Emergence Christianity gathering in Memphis last weekend. In her article, she rightly criticized Phyllis Tickle’s thoughts on the fall of Constantinian Christianity. (Please read Julie’s post; it’s lengthy, but it’s worth your time.) As a result, several of my fellow women of faith tweeted, reblogged, and discussed the content of Julie’s post and the problems that have become evident in much of emergent culture.
There was no problem with Julie’s thoughtful remarks about the confusion over Phyllis’ speech. There was no problem with the continued discussion on Twitter, in which many women chimed in to suggest that there might be some issues within the movement, including a failure to examine privilege. But for whatever reason, the conversation turned unpleasant when the women involved were accused of “attacking” the movement and being “passive-aggressive.” In other words, it was the Emergence Christianity version of calling women “shrill.”
I stopped identifying with the emergent movement some time ago. I found it to be largely populated by well-educated, white, cis-gendered, straight men. It’s not that I have anything against that particular demographic, but I prefer to have a broader range of people in my life. I have also become frustrated with the fact that Emergent types are willing to talk about inclusion but often fail to practice it. For example, LGBT people are frequently left out of the conversation in the supposed interest of attracting more people to the table. To put it simply, there is a widespread attitude that people should not be made to feel “uncomfortable” if they believe that homosexuality is a sin by having actual gay people speaking and teaching. To allow such would imply that Emergents have taken sides; thus we’re reduced to hearing straight people speak on behalf of LGBT Christians rather than hearing from LGBT Christians themselves.
That said, I have three real problems with the back-and-forth over the last two days. First, anyone who voiced (or tweeted, rather) concern over Phyllis’ statements was shut down as approaching their disagreement in the “wrong” way. In fact, Jay Bakker even suggested to Suzannah Paul in a tweet that the best way to handle criticism is in person or via telephone. This is an absolutely ridiculous thing to say, given the fact that Phyllis’ speech was 1. public; 2. the last thing on the program for the weekend; and 3. made by someone with whom it would be difficult for hundreds of people to have a personal conversation. Should everyone who disagrees with President Obama’s policies attempt to put a call through to the White House? This may be much smaller scale, but the principle is the same. In effect, Jay was shutting Suzannah down for speaking out, rather than engaging her to find out why she felt that the speech was misguided. In fact, in suggesting that it is unfair or unreasonable to critique problematic aspects of Emergence Christianity is much like telling people that it’s un-American to point out continued bias in the broader culture.
The second problem is that following that awkward Twitter non-conversation (note: tweeting about someone’s tweet is also passive-aggressive), the discussion turned to “rigorous thinking.” Once again, this is a way to shut down any real opportunity for honest consideration of privilege within the movement. In this case, anyone who is not an academic or an intellectual is left out. Additionally, it is assumed that only certain people are capable of having intelligent dialogue (read: men). Women could not possibly have put in the time and study needed to be active participants. As Sarah Moon pointed out in a series of tweets,
So, today I critiqued someone’s ideology and their response was “They must not teach [ideology] in the US.” Listen, man.
One of my biggest pet peeves is when white men assume my critiques of their academic discussions is based in ignorance
I have not put hundreds of hours into studying different theories for justice/liberation to be told “You must not have been taught” Nope.
Don’t even get me started on the fact that it is taken as a given that LGBT people don’t have any background in systematic theology. Using the old “but we need to use our big brains to sort this out!” to silence reasonable criticism is a way of belittling anyone who isn’t a straight, white, cis-man by assuming that person is not intelligent or educated.
Which brings me to the last problem. It disturbs me that the words “rigorous thinking” should be used in conjunction with anything having to do with faith. This was exactly the kind of narrow-minded bullshit I tried desperately to leave behind with the evangelicals. In their case, the issue was over finding the one correct interpretation for every single word of the Bible. Right doctrine trumped everything else. Now we have this particular brand of emergent thought that assumes we just need to study harder so that we can figure out God’s intent through Scripture. Understanding the context and nuance in history and the Bible will render previous versions of Christianity null and void and lead us to perfect practice of our faith. Unfortunately, there is no such thing. Replacing one crappy theology with an equally crappy theology leaves us nothing but a huge pile of manure. And certainly, maintaining that study is the most important aspect of spiritual practice ignores the fact that not all Christians are highly intellectual, nor do all of us want to spend the majority of our time poring over dense tomes. Most of us just want to love God and love people, and we’re all still trying to work out what that means.
I no longer have any hope that this movement is redeemable. (I’m sure my first clue ought to have been that Mark Driscoll was once associated with it.) It certainly isn’t the place for progressive Christians to find the kind of faith that does not merely speak on behalf of, but openly invites the voices of those who are most frequently silenced within the church. I don’t believe the answer is to start a new movement; I believe it is to stop looking for a revolution or a leader and start practicing the very things we want to see happen within Christian faith. Until and unless we confront the real problems—those pertaining to privilege, status, and value-attribution—we will never be the people God intended us to be.