Book Review: Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be)

By Amy Sondova Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be) is an perceptive discourse on what pastor Kevin DeYoung and journalist Ted Kluck believe is lacking in the emergent church today. Often humorous, the insight and research the men have put into crafting their book is incredible. Not only reading a ton of literature by authors such as BrianMcLaren, Rob Bell, Doug Pagitt and other heavy hitters, Kluck also conducted interviews with a seminary student, a pastor, and other “normal” folks living for God.

At its heart, Why We’re Not Emergent (Moody) isn’t a book directly attacking the emergent church itself, but rather expressing concerns over the words of its speaker. DeYoung begins by pointing out how difficult it is to describe the movement, yet alone who speaks for it. He coyly writes, “Defining the emerging church is like nailing Jell-O to the wall” (17). Another one ofDeYoung’s main criticisms involve the lack of a theological underbelly in the statements of emergent leaders—criticisms in which he outlines in detail in various chapters. Focusing on the importance of theology and then using rebuking Machen to rebuke McLaren is good reading for any seminary graduate, but may be a little heavy for the average person.

That’s where sports journalist Ted Kluck picks up the slack, relying heavily on narrative to tell his side of the story. Coming across as a bit cynical at times, Kluck is a critic that is engaging and insulting. For example, tongue-in-cheek much of the time, Kluck writes, “At times, I feel as if the emergent church is like that friend who goes off to college as an eighteen-year-old, and for the first year or so when he comes home feels like he has to quote Nietzsche just to impress you with hisnewfound intellect” (172). Other times, his wit is biting, like when he argues that artists who don’t feel supported in the church community “are the ones who may not have the talent to really cut it in the marketplace anyway” (143). It’s a bold statement from a writer who admits that his first book didn’t sell well (171).

The strength of Why We’re Not Emergent is that it tackles very real concerns about absolute truth, doctrine, the Trinity, Hell, and other issues with which the emergent church has been purposely vague in a thought-provoking manner. However, sometimes it takes DeYoung a bit too long to get to the main point, which is especially compounded by his heavy use of quotations. Yet when he makes a point, it is well-researched and intelligent, but perhaps oversimplified. Instead of making assumptions about what the authors mean in their writing, it would have been fascinating if Kluck actually interviewed Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Dan Kimball, and to further investigate the views of the authors discussed in the book. As a former student of Dr. John Franke, I know that as one of the leading minds in postmodern circles, he believes that absolute truth has to exist for postmodern Christians and embraces reformed theology. Perhaps interviewing Franke on his book, Beyond Foundationalism, co-written with Stan Grenz would have allowed for mutual understanding between the parties.

Why We’re Not Emergent is an uncomfortable book to read, especially for those who feel caught in the battlefield between emergent and non-emergent. The discomfort, however, invites readers into deeper thought and consideration about what the emergent movement is feeding so many eager mouths—ones that don’t feel satisfied at traditional churches and feel the emergent church is the only alternative. Interestingly enough, as a 20-something woman that is sympathetic to the emergent church, I chuckled when I read Kluck’s description of those in attendance as a Tony Jones lecture, “They are all white males, with the exception of one girl, and none of them—myself included—knows what to do when Tony encourages us to ‘lie on the floor, walk around, dance, or type e-mails’ while he is praying and speaking’” (225). It’s so true! There’s a certain irony about two middle-class white guys writing a book in response to a movement largely composed of middle-class white guys, who claim to urge diversity for women and minorities yet as Kluck observes poorly execute drawing a diverse audience. Then again, that’s what makes Why We’re Not Emergent a perfectly delicious response to the writings of the emergent church.

Print copy of review. 

0 thoughts on “Book Review: Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be)

  1. Nice review. Nicely balanced. Informative for me.

    I’m not de camp on any side of this. I’m guessing it’s too early to tell whether emergent theology and emergent sentiment will result in any pragmatic or measurable (forgive the modernist bias) difference in behaviors in our common polis.

    I really appreciated how your review went beyond descriptions of folklorical level stuff, like dueling hip-chic Nietzsche quotes, and beyond equal gruel, like “I don’t like Nietzsche” responses – to tag into deeper ironies and paradoxes in theology, like how absolute truths can obtain while incorporating post-modern concerns (Franke). Nice touch.

    Another good tag in your review involved sweet sarcasm on the composition, nearly all white males, at Jones’ lectures. I hadn’t wondered about this. After your sarcastic touche, I had a vision of black liberation theologians in South Africa prior to the end of apartheid, listening to Jones-like authorities dancing around with diamonds on the soles of their shoes.

    Which goes back, for me, to the question whether emergent theology or its adversaries really produce any different real-life effects in the polis of everyday life? Are these dueling theologies so different in effect?

    Okay – lying on the floor and dancing sure are observables. We can measure that.

    For me, for science reasons more so than folklorish theological reasons, I’m interested in theology as an emergent or responsive property to all our ecological pressures.

    But, it’s really too early to tell whether emergent-theology so-called will generate any noticeable difference in action compared to its adversaries.

    Except talking more about it.


  2. I didn’t want to say this in my review, but I don’t mind saying it in follow-up discussion. I went to Biblical Theological Seminary where Dr. Franke is a professor. While, at times, I was simply staring at him in confusion (I was a counseling major, so some deep theological concepts tend to go right past me or maybe I’m not that interested–who knows?)–I found myself amazed at the complexity of this thought and conviction.

    He was one of the first people I ever heard talk about such things and was especially encouraging to me as a woman in ministry. I remember talking to him at length the night before graduation at a reception and feeling a lot more hopeful about my employment prospects, and maybe just a bit more bold. I felt like, wow, here’s an intelligent man who thinks women can do more than bake brownies. Because he took the time to listen that evening, I began a journey that has allowed me to discover who I am as a woman, who God created me to be, and the unique things woman can do besides decorating the church.

    I knew he was pals with Stan Grenz (because we read the book in his class) Tony Jones, and Brian McLaren, but it wasn’t until after I graduated I realized he was an intellectual superstar. Interestingly enough, my memories of him are amusing anecdotes, not heady theological insight (which he has, believe me, I’m just more anecdotal, which is also why I enjoyed Ted Kluck’s part of the book immensely).

    Jim, I urge you to read the book. I imagine you will especially like the sections by Kevin DeYoung….and then let me know what you think.

  3. Amy- wonderful personal story. Thanks for sharing it.

    I share your feelings about “deep theological concepts” – for me, because I constantly want to apply concepts in practical actions. The paths from concepts to applications is fuzzier to me in theology than almost anything else. I can read poetry and just relax and enjoy: not need to act or do anything, because enjoying is good enough. But for some reason (maybe irrational), I feel a need to act and practice theology. And the path isn’t clear.

    I don’t know how much evolutionary biology you had to study in your counseling classes (not that biology trumps psychology), but some science researchers (say, Bloom) hold that religion can be (note: can, not always is) a bunch of our otherwise helpful cognitive functions, gone awry!

    So maybe you and I, in our confusions, are really okay! Hehe.

    Thanks again for the personal parts of your story, including your struggles as a woman.

    Here’s one for you: when I help battered women (not saying you are at all) , who want to get out of abusive relationships, and who have religious feelings, I often refer them to the story of Deborah, the famous judge in the Hebrew scriptures: the Song of Deborah has Deborah claiming for herself the power of mother, and not as a mere biological mother, but rising up as a mother of Israel – to break off abuse and oppression. She could have claimed power from her fancy title, “Judge,” but mothers are more powerful!

    You have within you, plus the Spirit, all you’ll ever need!

    Thanks again for the tip on the book


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