Don Carson’s “Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church” is now a relatively old book, published in 2005 as a considerable extension of three 2004 lectures. In his inimitable style, Carson responds to the growing movement of the Emerging or Emergent Church. A short blog post will not suffice to explain such an eclectic population, but my basic understanding places the Emerging Church as a relatively recent response to post-modernism.
One of Carson’s greatest strengths in this book is acknowledging the lessons to be learnt from the movement, especially in light of post-modernism’s valid critique of modernism. We are in a society today that questions everything, including our ability to know things; but this has been taken to an extreme, rightly earning premonitory criticism from G. K. Chesterton, who predicted ‘We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table’ (cited on p217). Carson has a helpful correction repeated throughout his book – while we cannot know things omnisciently (that is, we cannot know things completely and absolutely, with the thorough insight of God), we can know things truly (that is, we can know things that are true, and know them with certainty). I may never understand mathematics in its entirety, but I can understand some things about mathematics – including a limited comprehension of the multiplication table! – and know that it is true.
Thus, Carson acknowledges the strengths of Christians speaking from experience – and shows considerable biblical precedent for it, noticeably at the end of his book. Yet he criticizes those authors who have abandoned the ‘truth’ category, doing so at the expense of core (and crucial) Christian doctrine. When the category of ‘truth’ can be abandoned at will, it is the uncomfortable doctrines that are first lost, and this is exactly what has been observed in the cases of sin and hell (exemplified in the critique of 2 books in chapter 6).
Carson’s response is to tread a middle ground, keen to escape over-simplification that pretends omniscience (and in so doing undermines everything subsequently stated!), but also wary of claiming complete ignorance of any truth. The Bible insists we can know things – and it is inevitably that the author walks much closer to this conservative line in enthusiasm to remain faithful to what God has revealed.
If I were to offer any criticisms of the the book, there would be two. The first, I acknowledge, is a stylistic thing – that I felt in many cases Carson’s rhetoric was unnecessarily aggressive. It was clear that much of what he had read from the Emerging Church movement had deeply offended him – and understandably so. Yet there were moments when I felt throw-away sarcastic remarks were unnecessary contributions to the debate. I acknowledge that this a personal soap box of mine that I shall be wary of beating too loudly.
The other niggle was his handling of biblical texts. I found his work in this area outstanding and wonderfully helpful – in many areas a great model of choosing texts because their context reveals them to be relevant, rather than because a specific word might imply it (e.g. his choice of texts mentioning ‘know’ had significant exclusion criteria to ensure relevance to the debate). My criticism, then, lies not in his excellent text work, but that it didn’t arise until his penultimate chapter. It felt for me like there was a considerable dependance upon the theory of epistemology in earlier chapters, rather than what God has told us about it. I would have found an earlier placement of chapter 7 (‘Some Biblical Passages to Help Us in Our Evaluation’) far more persuasive than the graphs (!) of chapter 4. Carson has a deep-seated love of the Scriptures and an earnest desire to remain faithful to them; for the undiscerning reader, I wonder if this would be clearer had chapter 7 been moved forward.
Why such a lengthy summary? Because I think it is an outstanding book that every thoughtful Christian should read. I found it extremely heavy going in places, but immensely edifying and a helpful contribution to a pertinent and surprisingly emotive debate.