Friday, January 27, 2012

Hyping Hyphenated Lutherans

Two "threads" on "emerging" Christianity have caught our collective attention in recent years. It seems there are equal parts excitement and confusion around this emergence, and so I make an attempt here to summarize the threads and especially highlight how they influence contemporary Lutheran theology and practice.

Theological Emergence

The first thread, a largely theological conversation about a "new kind of Christianity," has been especially championed by Brian McClaren, Phyllis Tickle, and Philip Clayton.

Because I don't think everyone needs to read the works of these three theologians in great detail, I offer an overly simplistic (but hopefully useful) summary of the argument. 

I start with Philip Clayton. Clayton, whose areas of academic specialty include the philosophy of religion and the religion and science conversation, essentially ventures out into slightly uncharted waters for himself and makes a proposal for the centrality of transforming theological discourse (the book is Transforming Theologies) to the emerging church conversation. For Clayton, emerging = progressive (what some would label liberal). His book is probably helpful as an introductory text in theology for seminaries of a liberal persuasion, but it does not break nearly as much new theological ground as most reviewers have claimed.

Phyllis Tickle also observes an emerging theological shift, but identifies it more out of an historical locus, what she terms The Great Emergence. She offers an attractive thesis, that the church emerges in a new and better form approximately every 500 years. Since we are now 500 years after the Reformation, and the Reformation was the last great emergence, we are ready for another one. Her thesis, which she substantiates on historical grounds, mirrors Clayton in some ways by seeing all churches in this era as not only emerging but also converging to slightly left of center. 

Finally, Brian McLaren has essentially popularized the kinder, gentler, more open kind of Christianity so many North American Christians are seeking these days. His new kind of Christianity mostly popularizes what we might call progressive Christianity. It's not that the ideas are new, it's just that they are now popularized and offered to a wider and more receptive audience. Interestingly, McLaren also likes the word "transforming." The emergent conversation is enamored of its lingo.

Ecclesial/liturgical Emergence

The other thread is much more of an ecclesial and liturgical conversation. This is not to say that there are not also plenty of theological arguments within this conversation, but the direction tends towards how churches might be organized differently, and how communities might worship together differently.

It's hard to get a handle on precisely how to define this "emergence." Typically it is edgy stuff, ministry with the marginalized, in marginal places, but it also often has a hipness to it, an artistic edge, coupled with an ecumenical and winsome communality. I'm a fan of the emerging church conversation, and learn much from it. I think it reminds us to consider beauty, to reinscribe our everyday community practices with theological import and wisdom, and I don't think it hurts anything if it happens to be hip, happening, and culturally contextualized along the way. 

It's also a conversation that successfully sells books.

There's a lot you can read on this topic. Maybe the best early survey was by my dissertation advisor, Ryan Bolger, in Emerging Churches. Bolger (together with co-author Eddie Gibbs) offer a research based summary including 9 core practices of the emerging church:

The nine (9) core practices are: 
1. Identifying with Jesus (and his way of life) 
2. Transforming secular space (overcoming the secular/sacred split) 
3. Living as community (not strangers in proximity at a church service) 
4. Welcoming the stranger (radical and gentle hospitality that is inclusive) 
5. Serving with generosity (not serving the institution called "church," but people) 
6. Participating as producers (not widgets in the church program) 
7. Creating as created beings (this is a great chapter!) 
8. Leading as a body (beyond control and the CEO model of leadership) 
9. Merging ancient and contemporary spiritualities. 

More recently, a nice collection has arrived: The Hyphenateds: How Emergence Christianity is Re-Traditioning Mainline Practices. The sub-title includes a favorite emergence term, "re-traditioning." Emerging churches think of themselves as re-traditioning more than innovating per se.

It is no surprise that many leaders in the emerging church movement, therefore, actually come out of an existing tradition, or remain in one in order to re-tradition it. This book offers essays by such church leaders and pastors. Three of the essays are by ELCA Lutherans: Nadia Bolz-Weber (pastor of All Saints and Sinners, Denver, Colorado), Nate Frambach (professor of youth culture and mission at Wartburg Theological Seminary), and Timothy Snyder (scholar, editor, and a variety of other things in St. Paul, Minnesota).

The basic thesis of the book is that all the authors are hyphenated in that they combine/meld/weave/smash their own tradition into creative synergy/tension with emergence. Frambach, for example, coins the term "Luthermergent." He sees himself as an interested observer cataloging this Luthermergence. Bolz-Weber and Snyder are, each in their own way, signally embedded in the emergence itself as Lutherans who both benefit from, and struggle with, the way they are as hyphenateds.

I recommend you read the book in its entirety in order to hear the narrative in the voice of the authors. Hearing their collective voices (some hopeful, some angry, some aloof, some prophetic) gives a better sense than anything I've read recently of what this emergence, if it is anything at all, is like. 

My basic thesis is that emergence is definitely something, but it isn't quite as sui generis or radical as some of the press would like to have us think (just read the copy on the back of all these emergent books to see what I mean).

I did, however, brainstorm a fun way to try and illustrate where various pastors, theologians, and individuals are on the Hyphenated Continuum. What, you might ask, is the hyphenated continuum? Well, if these folks are hyphenated, then they are "Lutheran-Emergent." But where are they on that continuum? To offer an analysis, I list a host of Lutherans, and then place an asterisk (*) at the place on the continuum in the term "Lutheran-Emergent" that best indicates how Lutheran or Emergent they are, at least from my perspective.

I push back into history in order to illustrate that actual emergence is nothing new, exactly, and also point out some important figures (I think especially of Schleiermacher) who were in all likelihood attempting something similar to the emerging church conversation while not labeling it as such.

I know this is completely nerdy and hokey, but bear with me. It's kind of fun (if a name below is unfamilar, google it... It's a mix of important historical theologians, living pastors and theologians, and a few others, all Lutheran--including Jesus).

Luther*an-Emergent: Nadia Bolz-Weber
L*utheran-Emergent: Nathan Frambach
Lutheran-E*mergent: Timothy Snyder
Lutheran-Emerge*nt: Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Lutheran-*Emergent: Martin Luther
Lutheran-Emergent*: Friedrich Schleiermacher
Lutheran-Emergent      *: Georg Hegel
*Lutheran-Emergent        *: Friedrich Nietzsche (he was so emergent he was Lutheran again)
Lutheran-Emer*gent: Paul Tillich
Luthera*n-Emergent: Clint Schnekloth
Luth*eran-Emergent: Lois Malcolm
Luther*an-Emergent: Cynthia Moe-Lobeda
Lutheran-Emerge*nt: Katie von Bora
Lu*theran-Emergent: Mark Hanson
Lutheran*-*Emergent: Jesus

As you can see, life as a hyphenated Lutheran has been going on for some time, and it is more of a graded scale than an absolute form. I encourage you to create your own chart, and chart your own theologians, church leaders, and self. 

Why does any of this matter? I think I can summarize it in this way. All of this matters because those of us who have been traditioned into Christ actually think it is worth considering what life together should look like, and we should be sensitive to the needs of religious others who are often alienated from our communities because our traditions have become hardened instead of held loosely and lovingly. 

I think Lutheran-Emergents are trying to figure out, each in their peculiar ways, how to maintain a strong center with an open door. 


  1. Anonymous7:56 AM

    I think you can probably drop the name Lutheran from your hyphenated names.

    The ELCA is no longer Lutheran or Christian only focused on social issues not the saving grace of God. I find it very sad.

  2. Thanks for doing some of the organizational heavy lifting to help folks engage in the conversation about the topic, Clint.

  3. Anonymous, it is uncharitable and unkind to make such a sweeping and patently untrue statement, which is probably why you are hiding behind your anonymity. May God be gracious to us all.

  4. You're welcome, Keith!

  5. It seems to me that those who have left the ELCA because of the social statement on human sexuality are the ones who are focused on social issues.

  6. Anonymous7:33 PM

    Observation: On the hyphenated spectrum, you place yourself closer to Jesus and Martin Luther than any other individual (tied with Timothy Snyder). Could you elaborate on that?

  7. That's funny. Probably it's not valuable to over-analyze it, because I was playing around with the typology. However, I actually put myself closest to Nadia Bolz-Weber and Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, both of whose theology and work I identify quite strongly with. I also like Martin Luther and Jesus. :)