Book Review: The New Christians – Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier (Mar-Apr 2008)

By Matt Dabbs

by Tony Jones (Jossey-Bass, 2008).

Reviewed by Greg Taylor
March – April, 2008

Think about the first time you heard the concept of the emergent church. How long has it taken to get your mind around who emergent Christians really are and what the movement is about?

For the first time since the emergent movement began several years ago, one book is a tell-all that could set the record straight for skeptics and blooming emergents alike. (Uh, make that ‘blossoming.’)

Skeptics still may not agree with emergent sensibilities, but at least The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier leaves nothing in the bag to wonder about.

Tony Jones lays out a treatise on the emergent movement in the newest of his flurry of books. In it he builds a long list of “dispatches” from the frontier and suggests that it’s decision time for mainline churches: join us, support us, or get out of the way.

Jones imagines a real frontier and uses the analogy throughout of a band of Christians who are sending dispatches back “home.”

The dispatches are an attempt to give a clear picture to Christians who have wondered what this movement is all about. With these dispatches, churches can more easily decide whether this is a movement bound to fail, heretical, or on the move.

The dispatches can’t be boiled down very easily, but many are redundant enough to combine.

Taking a page from Brian McLaren, the first dispatch claims emergents practice a generous orthodoxy, a recognition that if all Christian movements were Paul’s one body analogy in Corinthians, we need and even prefer to live with all those limbs, head, torso to truly be the body of Christ.

Another analogy summarizes several of the dispatches: the gospel is like lava, constantly bursting out in kingdom shots across the bows of political divides of left and right, denominational polarities, and any modern assumptions that only two options exist and we must walk in lock step with one or the other. For example, emergents reject the sacred-secular divide, says Jones, and “see God’s activity in all aspects of culture.”

The lava is burning some evangelicals who think emergents play fast and loose with theology and the Bible. For their part, Jones says emergents have a very high view of the Bible but approach it with humility, not “relativistic apathy.” They’re approach to Scripture and life is more interested in community than individual interpretation, but the attempt is to be faithful both to community and individual rights.

Theology and life for emergents is inseparable, communally and locally derived, and in constant conversation with past people and practices, present realities, and future hopes.

One dispatch is sort of not like the others and more like a historical fact: “The emergent phenomenon began in the late 1990s when a group of Christians leaders began a conversation about how postmodernism was affecting the faith.”

Reading the section that followed felt more like a memoir of Jones’s personal involvement in the movement and a who’s who of “we ticked off the establishment” but here’s what’s important about this part: a chasm broke open during some important meetings with a young version of Leadership Network.

Some in that meeting jumped in and dug to the center of the earth and are encouraging the lava to flow. Others stood on the canyon and observed the chasm between mainline evangelicals and emergents, and still others are on the other side and don’t care about either movement and perhaps think this whole book is a lot of navel-gazing about the newest bunch of guys who got book contracts and speaking engagements.

Tony JonesBut even if Jones’s book can’t decide whether it’s memoir, history, theology, or apologetics, or polemic (there’s an appendix that’s never been printed in a book called “A Response to Our Critics”), the book certainly does deliver on being a rather comprehensive look the emergent world and a call to decide whether or not to join the frontier.

The New Christians is a book every person—friend or foe—set on understanding the emergent movement ought to read before spouting off. Emergents are just fine with paradox, and the great paradox of this book—that is meant to help people understand the movement—is that the Christian movement is getting more complex.

And that’s fine by me. By the definitions of the book in the dispatches, I would consider myself an emergent, and I enjoy friendship with many emergents but also enjoy interaction with a variety of people through the spectrum theologically, politically, socially, globally. Emergent sensibilities open us up to the possibilities of cross-cultural, cross-social, cross-political, cross-theological conversation and friendship.New Wineskins

Greg TaylorGreg Taylor is senior editor of New Wineskins. He is also associate minister for the Garnett Church of Christ in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His newest book, co-authored with Anne-Geri’ Fann, How to Get Ready for Short-Term Missions, was released by Thomas Nelson in May 2006. His novel is titled High Places (Leafwood, 2004). He co-authored with John Mark Hicks, Down in the River to Pray: Revisioning Baptism as God’s Transforming Work. Greg and his wife, Jill, have three children: Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. Before moving to Tulsa in 2005, the Taylors lived in Nashville, Tennessee four years, and they lived in Uganda seven years, where they worked with a church planting team. His blog is [http://gregtaylor.cc].

Tony JonesTony Jones is the national coordinator of Emergent Village (www.emergentvillage.org), and a doctoral fellow in practical theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is the author of many books, including The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier and The Sacred Way: Spiritual Practices for Everyday Life, and he is a sought after speaker and consultant in the areas of emerging church, postmodernism, and Christian spirituality. Tony lives with his wife, Julie, and their three children in Edina, Minnesota.

 

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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