It should come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog, or even a casual observer of American Protestantism that we have big problems. The mainline protestant churches are shells of their former glory, to put it nicely. In terms of numbers, finances and theological prowess, many mainline Protestant church bodies are stuck in a morass of decline and relativism. For non-mainliners, the Church Growth Movement has so hopelessly watered down evangelical Christianity that it is impossible to determine the difference between Oprah Winfrey and Joel Osteen (and the legions of wannabe Joel Osteens).
Then there is the Emergent Church, or Emergent movement, or whatever it chooses to call itself these days. This pitiable attempt to reconcile postmodern philosophy and traditional Christianity has displayed numerous heresies and a total lack of humility, all with a wink and a nod towards irony. The postmodern "best of all worlds" approach of the emergents is very attractive to young adults, who are pretty sure that because someone quotes a church father from 340 A.D., they must be wise. Focusing on love and all things touchy-feely, the emergents have tried their very best to respond to vapid megachurches with an embrace of "authenticity", rawness and getting back to what Christianity "really" is about.
Like all movements, there is some good coming from both the Church Growth movement and the emergent movement. For the Church Growthers, at least some folks have moved from the couch to a church pew, or, theatre-style seat. I think that is a good thing. For the emergents, at least they call traditionalists to not get too rigid in our theology and hide behind it. "Organized" religion can indeed be so provincial, so shortsighted, that it does indeed become the grumpy uncle no one likes to have around. Perhaps both of these movements, fatally flawed though they be, can remind us stodgy, orthodox Protestants, to think outside of the box on occasion.
But observing these two movements, I have been compelled to try to discern exactly what the roots are. Why are these movements unique to Protestantism? When did this all begin? Without trying to provide an exhaustive history, and knowing that much has contributed to these movements (including the revival movements, the embrace of the law that the mainliners left behind, etc.), I'd like to offer at least one foundational principle that has led directly or indirectly to these two movements: the emergence of the super-theologian in the early/mid 20th century. Major theologians, including but not limited to Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich, the Niebuhr brothers and more recently Jurgen Moltmann, had profound influence on Protestant theology, and they were all advancers of new ideas.
Of course, there were many theologians, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, and Albert Schweitzer that were super-theologians, but they had no interest in advancing a cause, but in preserving the Church. (Some say Bonhoeffer was a neo-orthodox super-theologian but I strongly disagree. His “religion-less Christianity” comment was fleeting and has been overblown.) They were influential, but more for apologetic reasons than fomenting theological revolution. It was those listed in the previous paragraph, and their many disciples, that created something in the Protestant Church that has been a cancer ever since: competition.
While I am not so naive as to think that competition hasn't existed in the Church forever (remember the disciples asking Jesus which one was the greatest?), I do think that the emergence of the super-theologian created opportunities that simply did not previously exist. Mass media and the possibility of achieving celebrity status converged to teach many a young man and young woman that being a theologian offered one the opportunity to become known, and to have influence. But this celebrity status would be available only to those who had something new to say. And now we arrive at the nub of the problem: theologians quickly embarked on a race to find something new to say with the hopes of being seen as a super-theologian.
It isn't just book sales or fame that led to this problem. The academy itself is largely to blame, even though its blame comes as a result of unintended consequences. Think about this logically: to earn a PhD, one must have a new thesis to present. In the world of theology and scripture, there are only so many new theses that can be presented before many of them start leaving the rails of orthodox Christianity. One can only read so much into the gospels or the letters of Paul before one sees things that aren't there, things that Paul never intended, or things that cast Jesus in a radically new light. If the academy demands that academics find something new in theology, they will. And before long, these will be the patriarchs and matriarchs of a new Christianity.
Fortunately for the Church Growth Movement, it cannot be criticized of having theologians that have gone down this path because it does not have theologians. It has marketing experts that pose as theologians. The emergent church does have many leaders who have embraced no-orthodoxy, however, and have swallowed it whole. Their leaders are following in the footsteps of the super-theologians by being heavily published, widely read, attractive to secular media, and influential to skeptical postmoderns.
While I hate to be so cliché as to say this all could have been avoided, much of it could have been. It is not the theologians task to present anything new; it is his or her task to proclaim what the Church has always proclaimed. The entrepreneurial and independent spirit of American Protestantism causes grave problems when it forgets its calling to be faithful and insists on being “relevant” or “contemporary”.
To the super-theologians of our age, I simply say: the gospel is always contemporary. Your superstar status is not needed to make it so. Cease trying to reinvent the Christian faith. Use your charisma to proclaim it, not redefine it.