From the September 2010 E-Block.
Our first article in the Emergent Gurus series is a profile of a leading figure in the emergent movement, Leonard Sweet. We consulted four of his items, using three for this article:
- Jesus Manifesto – with Frank Viola. This was the item we did not consider, for it turned out not to be relevant. It is more of a devotional than a manifesto for the emergent movement (though it is not free from judgments of error and assumption).
- Jesus Drives Me Crazy! [JDC]
- Postmodern Pilgrims [PoP]
- The Gospel According to Starbucks [GAS]
Nevertheless, we will assume the best intentions by this author and grant benefit of the doubt for the sake of argument.
An initial word of illustration, however, to what may seem to be a disconnected matter.
I have recently done a great deal of writing and research on the subject of how the Internet can affect people’s thinking processes. (Some aspects of this may be found in an article in the June 2009 E-Block.) Reading Sweet’s books, I was troubled to find that they frequently presented components and arguments that would incite the very same distracted thinking processes as have been warned against by current technology writers with respect to the Internet.
What do I mean? For example, all of these books make use of what might be called sidebars – breaks from the main text which are marginally related diversions. In some cases, these might be poignant quotes from some authority or another; or they might be short jokes, or questions for consideration, or just about anything else.
The technology writers have noted that the Internet, with its texts peppered with hyperlinks, offers multiple opportunities for readers to be distracted into some other text, resulting in a loss of concentration. This lack of concentration becomes habitual, in turn altering the pathways of the brain.
I have little doubt that the sidebars can initiate the same mental effects. The question is, why are they being used?
At the risk of making this a distracting sidebar in itself --- I’ll return to that question at the end of this article.
Crazy Is a Short Drive
We will consider JCD first, and separately, because unlike PP and GAS, it is not about evangelism. Rather, it is what might be described as an extended pep rally for Jesus, with the central premise being as follows: Jesus wasn’t normal in his world, so we’re called to not be normal either. That’s actually not too far from the truth, taken at face value. But what does it mean in JDC in terms of application? It means, actually, a series of right problems with wrong solutions:
- JDC offers some excellent commentary against individualism as a cause for the decline in Western, Christianity spirituality. But it paradoxically uses individualism as one of its selling points. For example: “Do we really think that the same God who created a gallimaufry of species and an arkful of odd specimens expects us all to act, look, think, and worship alike? Might not personality actually suggest quarks of genius?”  (It might, yes. But let’s make a defensible case for such quarks being genius; God made many “odd” specimens, but none have their faces where their rear ends should be.) And: “The truth is, there has only ever been, and only ever will be, one you.”  And more: “It’s all about relationships.”  And: “…we need God to reveal to us our own face and tell us our personal story.”  We do? No, that’s the demand of modern individualism. The irony is that at one point, Sweet actually recognizes one formal basis of collectivist thought: “Everything you do affects me, and everything I do affects you.”  But he has yet to resolve the tension between the two forms of thinking, which is the same problem the Western church as a whole has had.
- Though not primarily about evangelism, JDC offers some good commentary about relating to our culture and being aware of how we need to approach others with the Gospel. However, Sweet at times goes too far in accommodating the culture. He tells a story reminiscent of the one we related from Michael Spencer in another article in this volume, of a woman who refused to go to church because she watched the faces of people as they came out, and all were “preoccupied with anxiety and self-preoccupation” versus “new light as a result of that religious experience.”  And another, Sweet reports, says: “I’ve seen your God made manifest in you and he is a God without compassion…I shall remain an unbeliever.”  As we have noted in the comments on Spencer: Shouldn’t these epistemic misapprehensions warrant correction rather than simply being endorsed as examples by which we are to take action? Our preoccupation with personal testimony is what has led us down this fruitless path.
- “Christian spirituality is highly illogical, paradoxical, volatile, playful, and dangerous. The world of faith is freakish and unpredictable.”  Is it? Not last I checked, sorry. It might be nice if Sweet explained the “how” and “why” here, but he does not.
- “What are doctrines but vestibules to the mysteries? To follow Jesus is not a paint-by-numbers path. To follow Jesus is to live the adventure and experience the mystery of faith.”  Really? Not last I checked either. Here Sweet seems to have fallen for the common error that “mysteries” in the Bible are “something we can’t ever figure out” when it actually means “something revealed by God”. There’s no “adventure” or “experience” in any of this (and Sweet does nothing to show that there is, save assert that there is).
- “Perhaps it would be better if we spent more time learning
from people of other faiths rather than denouncing them.”  And: “Can
we not find with Islam and Hinduism some common ground on which we can
all stand and walk together toward peace and justice?”
Can we? Probably not. Though he contrarily bemoans the advance of
relativism , Sweet seems to neglect here the fundamental differences
that make such stands and walks impossible, unless said faiths are
watered down into non-recognition. A Hindu who believes that karma has
put a beggar in his place in life is not going to be sympathetic to a
Christian missionary who tries to lift that beggar out of his place (and
is thereby imperiling the beggar’s trip to nirvana).
Perhaps Sweet is right then, about needing to learn more from people of other faiths –it might show him that his request for “common ground” is misguided.
We now move to a combined consideration of GAS and PoP. The latter was the earlier book, for a conservative publisher, and as noted, contains cautions that are lacking in GAS. Both books use sidebars, but in PoP, these are inserted in a far less distracting way, generally at the end of sections rather than (as in GAS) in the middle of them, and they are made to look like the rest of the text (whereas in GAS, they are placed inside boxes, with a different colored background). Both books are about evangelism, but GAS is using Starbucks as a marketing model for the church while PoP just gives the same model in the form of straight explanation.
GAS is also, like JDC, filled with wild assertions that are given no argumentative support. For example:
GAS20 “Jesus, more than anyone else, shows us what it means to live with a grande passion.”
GAS46 “God is at work and at play in your life, sending you experiences of God…without the experience of delight and enjoyment, the life of faith is not a life but a theory….Authentic experience is the starting point for a lived faith that not only transforms the individual, but also changes the world.”
GAS60 “God loves variety that is vigorous and audacious.”
GAS88 Jesus “was the most spontaneous person who ever lived…[he was] open to being surprised by life and responding spontaneously to the circumstances around him…he lived in the immediacy of the moment and fell in love with whomever he met…”
The net purpose of all of this seems to be a vain effort to remake God and Jesus into persons acceptable within the emergent social paradigm. As it is, they remain little but begged questions in context.
Right Problems (and Solutions)
Sweet deserves credit for noting correctly some serious problems in the church today. He is particularly correct on two major points.
The first is that the church has neglected the visual/image aspect of learning. Sermons which are just words are fine for some people (myself included), but others could stand a little multimedia or visual aids to help them get the point. (Unfortunately, some emergents – though not obviously Sweet in particular – take this to ridiculous lengths, such as reducing teaching to nothing but visual effects, in effect turning the Gospel into a dog and pony show devoid of any serious content.)
The second is that Sweet rightly encourages the need for participatory programs and evangelism. Such is indeed the proper function of the Body of Christ.
To these extents, Sweet is correct [GAS 29] that many current church leaders are “totally clueless about the world that is out there.” We’ve said much the same thing ourselves.
Right Problems (and Wrong Solutions)
In contrast, there are places where Sweet himself is rather clueless:
Rationalism. Sweet’s desire to make the Gospel appealing to postmoderns leads him to the inane conclusion that rationalism has failed to make Christianity appealing: “Rational faith – the form of Christianity that relies on argument, logic, and apologetics to establish and defend its rightness – has failed miserably in meeting people where they live.” [GAS5] Excuse me? This is an age when 99% of churchgoers can’t even explain any doctrine of the faith in rational terms; if we can be charitable, I suppose I could say that Sweet, like many Christians, has fallen for the view that the apologetics of Josh McDowell represent the best “rational faith” has to offer. If rational Christianity has failed, it is because it has not actually been tried. I daresay however that I have heard from many readers who have testified to a more vibrant faith thanks to a more rational Christianity.
As far as “meeting people where they live,” that raises another point: It never occurs to Sweet that people live in a bad neighborhoods. Sweet fails to recognize postmodern thought as a trap from which people need to be released. Hence he says things such as, “Intellectual arguments over doctrine and theology are fine for divinity school, but they lose impact at the level of daily life experiences.” And: “The problem is not that Christianity can’t be believed, but that it can’t be practiced because of its lack of lived experience.” On the one hand, I might point out that when we read “anti-testimonies” on places like ex-christian.net, we have yet to find one that says that people have apostasized because of “lack of lived experience.” In fact, as I said in an article for CRJ:
An informal survey conducted by a Web site support group for ex-Christians indicates that two-thirds of respondents began to question Christianity because of some intellectual difficulty. The largest portion (28.5 percent) cited “theological/doctrinal problems” as their reason for questioning their faith; another 27 percent claimed that their faith “no longer made sense” or that they “grew out of it.” Ten percent cited “Bible contradictions” as their reason to initially question Christianity…approximately 6 percent cited “actions of other Christians” as their reason for questioning their faith, while 5 percent cited “personal tragedy.” The balance of respondents either were not Christians when they started questioning Christianity or cited some other reason, such as, “wanted to start sinning” (1 percent).
”Lack of lived experience” doesn’t even register, and while this was an informal survey, if Sweet is right then we would expect “lack of lived experience” or something like to make an appearance. But it doesn’t.
Perhaps Sweet might argue that “lack of lived experience” is equal to “no longer made sense” or “grew out of it,” or that it is what actually lies behind all the reasons. But that would just be a contrivance. There is no evidence that “lack of lived experience” is a serious factor in people not believing in Christianity. However, even if it were, it would be something that people would need to be shown is a very poor reason for disbelieving Christianity.
In sum, Sweet is simply dreaming dreams to say things like, “The crisis of faith today has more to do with the imagination than with the intellect.” [JDC129]
When he also says [Pop 29] things like, “Western Christianity went to sleep in a modern world governed by the gods of reason and observation. It is awakening to a postmodern world open to revelation and hungry for experience,” he fails to recognize that the postmodern world is epistemically sick and needs to be weaned from this hunger for experience. This can perhaps be done post-evangelism, during Christian discipleship’ or it can be done during evangelism – it does not matter. Aside from the fact that the “modern world” is still out there, and is still very loud (eg, the New Atheists), we should also make it understood that experience is not at the center of reality and does not determine truth.
In a final irony, GAS173 says that we need to “stop privileging Western rationalism.” The irony is that Sweet is using rational argument to persuade us of this: He uses the evidence of the prevalence of postmodern thought to argue for a change in approach. Apparently we’re supposed to “stop privileging Western rationalism” only after Sweet himself is through using it.
The Cult of the Amateur
This book by Andrew Keen was another that I used in my recent study on the effects of the Internet. Keen argues that user-generated sources like YouTube and Twitter are destroying our culture, engaging personal narcissism, and promoting amateur source material like Wikipedia at the expense of more sophisticated, scholarly sources.
Unfortunately, Sweet has failed to recognize the very problems Keen has pointed out. He rioghtly recognizes that [GAS69] “[t]he distinction between consumer and producer, server and served, professional and amateur, is fading fast.” What he fails to see is that this is not a good thing. He refers to Wikipedia, for example, as something that “encourages democratization and decentralization and deprofessionalization” [70-1]. But these are not good things when it comes to things like producing reliable sources of information, or providing critical services in which people are normally trained before they offer provision.
As an example, Sweet notes [GAS74] Steve Bartman, a Cubs fan whose interference with a player may have cost the Cubs a World Series berth. Sweet acts as though what Bartman did was a good thing, and says that the future is “more about people creating their own experiences as forms of self-expression than passively observing someone else’s experience.” In other words, Bartman’s interference with a player (which was probably not intentional) was a legitimate form of “self-expression”! This is simply nonsensical narcissism. What Sweet forgot to add was, “people creating their own experiences as forms of self-expression at the expense of others.” This is the sort of selfishness that emergent commentators frequently and unwittingly encourage.
Sweet notes [GAS76] that NASCAR encourages fan participation, and explains that he thinks this is why it has a growing fan base. But let is draw the line here: NASCAR fans don’t go driving out on the track with Jeff Gordon. Nor should amateurs be allowed to write for wide-use sources like Wikipedia on topics that they barely understand. The inability of many users to see this distinction is an enormous problem, one that Sweet apparently fails to recognize.
When it comes to church in particular, [GAS84], Sweet says of his preferred worship style that “the congregation is part of the act of sermon composition and design…Quality is raised by increasing the interaction on every front, especially between the preacher and the congregation.” He gives an example of how, when he preaches, someone else Googles for random images that are posted on screen “as contributions to and animations of our conversation. The energy that flows from these multilayered connections cannot be described.” The only way “quality” could be increased by such chaotic meanderings is if “quality” is arbitrarily defined – as it apparently is here: Sweet rates “quality” according to some nebulous perception of “energy” that allegedly “flows” during the service. This would be as opposed to, “Does the audience learn and retain anything?” --- a criterion for quality that Sweet is apparently not interested in.
As justification for this rather chaotic style, Sweet offers but one justification [GAS87]: “Jesus received each moment as a gift, less going after what he wanted than wanting what came to him.” He notes from a source that 54% of Jesus’ encounters “are initiated by his hearers. Instead of standing up and proclaiming the message He wanted the people to hear, He responded to His audience’s questions. Objects, doubts.” The problem with this estimation is that the Gospels provide only the barest chronological window into Jesus’ ministry: The Sermon on the Mount and other such teachings which involved “standing and proclaiming” were likely repeated multiple times during Jesus’ ministry, such that the 54% figure can readily be called into question. But even if not, 54% is simply not statistically significant enough to warrant Sweet’s own chaotic approach to teaching. Nor in fact were most of those encounters actually “teaching” engagements: These people who came did not rush up during the Sermon on the Mount. The only person who might have interrupted a teaching of Jesus – the leper – actually put Jesus publicly “on the spot” in a rather manipulative way.
Not all of Sweet’s suggestions are off base. Elsewhere he suggests a Q and A format for teaching (that can indeed be appropriate in some circumstances, especially as a follow-up to a sermon), and also suggests the use of cell groups. The church has indeed titled the balance too far away from interaction. But the answer is not to do as Sweet suggests and slam down hard on the other end of the balance.
Finally, Sweet falls into an error not restricted to emergents, but also common even to teachers like Moore, as we have noted in this issue: He overpersonalizes the Gospel. For example, at PoP xxii, he offer questions intended to pose as advice for evangelizing postmoderns. This includes presenting the cross as a symbol for “understanding life and transforming lives,” and giving a postmodern person a Bible and referring to it as a “book that is custom designed by the Holy Spirit for you [and] has your name written on it and all over it.” This is the same error, in essence, as is performed by a teacher like Moore who strains too much meaning out of texts to make them relevant to modern life. The idea of “custom design” is merely modern narcisissism at work.
Elsewhere, Sweet notes [PoP45] a poll that indicates that 32% of worshippers “have never experienced God’s presence in worship” and 44% have not experience it in the past year. This presumes that “experience” is some sort of valid test, and begs the question that the experiences are genuine. It also overpersonalizes the work of God beyond what can be epistemically justified.
The good news is that in PoP – but not in GAS! – Sweet issues certain cautions [46-48]: “Experiences can become idolic as well as addictive.” “Experience is not the final arbiter of truth.” “[T]here comes a time when it’s not time for experiences, but for obedience.” And: “There are certain presuppositions in the postmodern worldview that are opposed to the Christian worldview as revealed in biblical texts and traditions of our faith. I want us to become not worldly wise but worldly unwise.” But it seems that all Sweet is doing here is pandering to the core Baptist readers of PoP, for it is clear that these cautions are not applied elsewhere. He notes the growth of Mormonism, and rightly says that the growth has a lot to do with the amount of participatory rites Mormonism offers. But it does not click in his mind – perhaps because he knows little about Mormon beliefs – that Mormons place “experience” and “revelation” at the center of their epistemology, and do so as ones teaching a false message.
I could not finish a survey without some comments on various other errors made by Sweet, and all of these are to be found in GAS.
- 8-9: “Do you think Jesus ever got bored?...I tend to think he was so engaged in life that he never had a chance to taste boredom….Jesus practiced a way of living that was visceral, vibrant, and vigilant with meaning…His life was characterized by joy and energy; it was spent in relationship with others.” The latter are of course more examples of unproven assertions, but the main error has to do with “boredom”. Sweet is right that Jesus never got bored, but that is only because “boredom” is a modern concept. It wasn’t vibrant living that did it: It was the fact that the ancient world was a harsh place to live, and boredom is the product of a leisured class with too much time on its hands.
- 17: If the authors of the Gospels were here, “they would tell you that faith is not primarily a matter of belief. They would emphasize instead aspects of life that are closer to what we call passion.” No, they would not. This is an erroneous understanding of “faith” (see here); it is true that it is not primarily about “belief” but it also has nothing to do with what we call passion. (Sweet also  wrongly contrasts faith to believing by evidence based on Hebrews 11:1.)
- 62: Regarding the use of a dove as a symbol for the Holy Spirit, Sweet notes that a dove is just a pigeon, and that “God chose a trash bird as the symbol of the Holy Spirit.” Sorry, no. The idea of pigeons as “trash birds” is a relatively modern one, as pigeons of today are effectively a domesticated species.
- 92: “Jesus’ goal was not that everyone understand him, but that everyone experience him.” The latter is yet another unproven assertion, and an imposing of modern values on the text. As forJesus’ goal in teaching, that is true, but it was not because Jesus wanted everyone to “experience” him rather than understand him: It is because a teacher of that day would want to be sure that only his “ingroup” got the full understanding of his teachings. This was a matter of social stratification, not making “experience” a priority.
- 91: “Where did we get the notion that truth is clear and singular? Truth is better described as misty and multiple: it comes to those who are good at both standing still and journeying on.” Although this might make a good fortune cookie, epistemically, it is a disaster. Note as well that Sweet in saying this again self-contradicts, for it is clear that the statement “truth is misty and multiple” is meant to be a singular statement about truth, one he tries to make as clear as possible.
- 115: “Contrary to the emphasis of some of the more contemporary Bible translations,” it was not Peter’s Galileean accent that gave him away, but “the diction of his spiritual passion.” I can only hope that Sweet is joking here.
- 149: Sweet makes the standard error interpreting Jesus calling us “friends” (see April 2010 E-Block).
With that, I close by returning to my earlier question regarding the use of sidebars.
The “benefit of the doubt” explanation for their use is that Sweet is trying to communicate to an audience that is used to such distractions.
The troubling explanation for their use is that Sweet is purposely using these techniques so that readers will not notice that most of his material doesn’t consist of rationally defensible arguments.
Which one is true?
I’ll be an emergent on this one and suggest that they both are.