Fr. Gregory Jensen has an interesting post about Emergent Christianity and in particular, Brian McLaren’s book A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith. Having actually spent some time considering this approach to Christianity before becoming Orthodox, I thought I might share some insights (no promises on quality!).
In this post I’d like to focus on one aspect in particular: linguistic patterns. Anyone who has spent more than 10 minutes reading emergent literature will find himself bewildered by the voluminous set of new terminology. Terms like “authentic,” “community,” and “incarnational” abound. This terminology serves three purposes.
The first of these purposes is to create a rift with past tradition. This provides a sort of new reformation; a theological “reset” button. This is of course the primary observation by Orwell (in 1984): the systematic creation of new language serves to cement the concepts of a desired ideology by severing any connection with the past. He termed this Newspeak. While Emergent Christianity is certainly not “the Party,” it does seek to recast the current arguments significantly by changing the terminology. This is not the only purpose for the new terminology though, the next two points are equally important.
The second reason for new terminology is to disguise the implications of their theology to their unwitting evangelical constituents. This is sometimes unintended, but I believe most often used with intention and is quite similar to the linguistic re-purposing that goes on within liberal mainstream protestantism where a liberal will profess belief in the resurrection of Christ and by this he means something akin to a personal spiritual enlightenment rather than a physical resurrection. At the root of both of these methods is a deep untruth.
The third function of neologism in emergent Christianity is sociological self-selection. This is most crucial as regards the “intentional communities” and “new monasticism” for which this self-selection is a shield against having neighbours whom we have not chosen. It is precisely this fact that reveals what at first is mistaken for love as something quite different. This is perhaps most evident in the emergent theology of caring for the poor. All attempt is made to use “incarnational” language: “I am serving the poor so that I may incarnate Christ.” This is a direct inversion of the scriptures in which we serve the poor because they might be Christ. This inversion and community self-selection are tied together in the mythos that “I am the savior who comes to bring salvation to these poor (unenlightened) people.”
I do not mean the following as an association fallacy. However, one cannot help but notice similarities between emergents and Gnostics. Both used terminology as a means to create a rift with tradition. Both used language to hide this rift with tradition to maintain a relationship with the dominant Church. Finally, both used this terminology to self-select a community of “enlightened” believers.