The Great Emergence: Tony Jones and Provocative (but Responsible) Dialogue

Recently Fuller Seminary hosted a talk on “Emergence Spirituality.”  Put succinctly, Christianity is going through a major identity crisis that tends to happen every five hundred years or so.  In the West, Conservative Evangelicalism, a Protestant brand of Christianity that has had deep ties to the Republican party and agenda, is disintegrating.  This is the Christianity that I think is what comes to mind when most non-Christians in American talk about “Christianity” or “Christians.” This is the Christianity of Ned Flanders. Many people are questioning what Christianity is really about and what churches should be doing.

Many Christians are jumping this ship but have no idea where they are going…so they are going everywhere.  Some are going to ancient traditions and finding spiritual guidance in the writing of Christian mystics and leaders.  Others are going to highly liturgical churches like the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church often drawn by the imagery, symbolism and mystery that the Protestant tradition jettisoned.  Others are looking forward to creating their own spiritual traditions and making Christianity work in this rapidly changing modern world.

Many in my generation are choosing between Emerging/Emergent churches (Rob Bell and Donald Miller would be big names from this camp) and Neo-Calvinist/Neo-Reformed churches (Marc Driscol would be a big name here).

This conversation was about the spirituality of Christians in this Great Emergence and in this conversation Tony Jones made some remarks about Pentecostalism, that is a Christianity that is focused on the movement of the Holy Spirit, in the Global South, that is the Christianity that is growing in Sub-Saharan Africa and South American, that were offensive to some.

This is a video of the dialogue….

The comments in question were made roughly around the 54:00-60:00 mark.

Tony Jones had the mic and said, “To me, the rise of Pentacostalism…and forgive me if this offends any Pentecostals in the room…but it frightens me. I don’t understand it. I don’t like it.  It’s not my version of Christianity.  I struggle with it.  I…maybe stereotype it as theologically thin and maybe not intellectually enough…My question is…is this simply the traditional historic response to the movement of the Spirit in the world.  Am I not just the church council in Jerusalem freaking out?”

Lauren Winner asked him to ask the real question he was really asking and he responded…

“What I am really asking is, how do those of us, some of us here in the doctor of ministry program, some people who are theo…invested in theologically thinking through our faith or people would not be here tonight.  This is a high level intellectual version of Christianity and we are in the shrinking minority of the people who confess Jesus is Lord on this planet.  So I am wondering about how those things jive and if I part of our mission or my mission should be to bring a more sophisticated theology to them or is that colonialism like our fore-bearers have done?”

A friend of mine, Alicia Grey, was offended by these remarks and posed a question to him.  I heard about this second-hand and posted on my Facebook some inflammatory remarks about the whole situation. Some contacted me and suggested Tony’s remarks were aimed at a fear that the prosperity Gospel, a caricature of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that promises health and financial prosperity, was what he was really concerned with. I promised to watch the video later and comment on it more thoroughly.

For me there are two issues at stake here.

First, how should a communicator balance the tension between responsibly communicating (that is, not needlessly making inflammatory or hurtful remarks for no reason) and provocatively engaging an audience (which is arguably necessary to get some to think critically through what you are saying)?

Tony Jones shared honestly about his fears about the Pentecostalism and the Global South and seemed well aware his remarks opened him up to accusations of colonialism, racism, etc. To this point I get Tony Jones’ attitude and I think anyone who knows me will see the parallels. I often share honestly and vulnerably to spark conversation.  Other times I say things that are intentionally inflammatory or exaggerated to push people to think. As my friend Ron Mayott put it succinctly, I am an agitator. I know that in being myself I will spark controversy and some people will go on the defensive and attack me instead of wrestling with what I say.  I, like Tony, accept these consequences as I think this is part of the role I play in the wider Body of Christ.

However, where is the line between being provocative and bring responsible as a communicator?  We use our words to enlarge or minimize others and ultimately what we communicate reflects what is in our own hearts.  I mean tabloids make provocative and slanderous comments to draw in readers.  Is this what Tony Jones was doing?  Where is the line between saying something with conviction and being too arrogant to hear another perspective? Is this what I do? Where is the line between calling someone, something or some belief to account and a malicious attack?  Where is the line between being oneself (especially if you are people like Tony and I) and self-control and caution?

Simply put, I believe there is no line.  I think communication in this arena is a grey area. It requires discernment, the direction of the Holy Spirit and experience to navigate a tension that has little margin for error.

I personally often struggle with the tension of sensibly offending the hard-hearted to get through to them, while at the same time, knowing there are softhearted people that hear the same message.  I must tip toe on a knife’s edge at times lest in getting through to the knuckleheads I steamroll over others, all the while trying to accomplish my goals.

When it comes to balancing this tension I think I have handled what I have communicated about pornography the best.  On one hand I have intentionally and publicly talked about something many people think I should not talk about. I have been honest in ways people think I should not be honest.  It strikes me that sadly most of this push back comes from Christians. Why do we, who serve the Truth, fear truth?  Why do we, who have the hope for the forgiveness of sins, fear talking about our sins in a very real and concrete way? Additionally, everyone knows where I stand when it comes to pornography: that is immoral and unacceptable for Christians to engage it.  In taking such a clear moral stance I run the risk of being typecast as yet another legalistic and moralistic Christian.

However, because of how I have communicated about it in conversation, in my writing (both for the SEMI and on my blog), and in sermons and testimonies, both men and women have felt safe to come and talk to me about their struggle with pornography, sexuality, abuse and so forth. Many have gotten into various recovery programs, counseling relationships and are healing from past wounds and getting better.

I praise God that he has used a man who was once a miserable porn hermit, totally disconnected from everyone in my life as I played video-games or watched pornography often for ten hours a day, to bring life into others.

In regards to Tony Jones, I think his question was ultimately if his personal fears were unwarranted and had their origin in a fear of change or if they were legitimate because of theological abuses in the Global South.  This is a good question and I applaud his use of personalizing it and admitting his own fears and bias.

I have absolutely no problem with this and from the content alone I do not think Alicia’s comments were warranted.  Simply put I would suggest Tony’s fears are from both a fear of change and ultimately a fear of the Holy Spirit.

However, how he communicated his question provoked Alicia’s concerns regarding racism and theological colonialism. In this I do not think she was wrong to say what she did. He could have done more to frame his question to avoid this situation, but again there is no line.  Maybe by being offensive (intentionally or carelessly) he sparked good conversation that will ultimately be fruitful. At the end of the day while we can say whatever we want about Tony Jones’ language, ultimately it is for God to judge His servants.

[P.S. Tony Jones wrote about this more on his blog and questioned if being called a racist was appropriate for what he was saying.]

Second, this takes me to a wider issue, the fear of the Holy Spirit in the Church.  But I will save this for my next post.

About Kevin

I am figuring out life and faith and taking other people along with me on my journey. Sometimes as fellow travelers, sometimes as hostages.
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