About a year ago, now, I attended the Church Basement Roadshow when it stopped at Hot Metal Bridge Faith Communty in Pittsburgh. The Roadshow was a book tour for 3 then-recently-published books by Tony Jones, Mark Scandrette, and Doug Pagitt. I was really intrigued by what Tony had to say then, and so I picked up Tony’s book The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier.
Though he stepped down from the position last year, at the time of writing The New Christians, Tony was serving as the National Coordinator for Emergent Village. In The New Christians, Tony gives an explanation of the emerging church movement, including the shifts in our broader cultural context from modernity to post-modernity, some of the earlier history of the movement, the theology and ecclesiology behind the movement, and some contemporary stories that illustrate what the emerging church looks like on the ground.
The stories from the movement, both its early history and more recent stories of emerging churches, are what’s most helpful in the book. More than anything else, the emerging church is a movement of people. It’s difficult to define emergent Christianity in terms of a particular doctrine or theory, which Tony illustrates very well in the diversity of stories he tells. Tony’s stories aren’t just diverse in terms of the theological perspective of the individuals, though. Tony also reports “dispatches” of emergents who are very much at the center of the movement (though they wouldn’t like to be considered at the center or choose to be there) as well as lesser known emergents, faithfully demonstrating the movement’s egalitarian values.
What I found less helpful about the book is the ways in which Tony handles his and the emerging church’s critics. Tony begins the book by critiqueing and attempting to reveal the weaknesses of both evangelical/fundamentalist/conservative forms of Christianity and liberal/progressive forms of Christianity, as well as criticize both the religious right and left for attacking each other and the emerging church. He concludes that “Christian leaders resort to unnuanced attacks on one another.” [p.21] While this may be true, Tony says this after critiqueing and rejecting both the “right” and the “left” in less than 20 pages. His criticisms ultimately comes across as the pot calling the kettle black.
Tony also takes the comments of his critics VERY personally. Granted, some of his critcs have made comments that are very personal. Yet as I read the book, I couldn’t help but get the impression that Tony wasn’t prepared for some of the harsh criticism his thoughts have received. Much of the book comes across as defensive, and in some cases even as emotional venting.
The personal responses to personal attacks lead to what I think is the greatest weakness of the book. Because Tony responds in such a personal way that it’s hard to tell when Tony is talking about the characteristics of the emerging church and when he’s speaking more from his own opinion.
At the same time, this may be the book’s greatest strength. For much of the book, reading it feels like sitting across the table with Tony and chatting him. The New Christians is very much an insiders account of the emerging church, and Tony’s personal interest in the movement, his passion, and his emotions give the book an extra measure of authenticity.
If you’re looking to be inspired or to find new insights into the current state of the church, The New Christians will probably disappoint you. If you’re looking for an authentic first-hand account of the emerging church movement, though, The New Christians is certainly worth checking out.