Friday, September 26, 2014

Emergent Gurus: Carl Medearis, Part 1

From the August 2011 E-Block.
***

I was not expecting to be doing another entry in the Emergent Guris series for this issue, but a reader asked us to have a look at a recent book, Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Non-Evangelism (SOJ) by Carl Medearis, and I was quite frankly so appalled by what I read in just the first few pages that I decided an extended critique was warranted. 

SOJ, to be blunt, represents in summary that which is worst in emergent Christianity -- a tragic mix of passive-aggressive arrogance and ignorance posing itself as winsome wisdom while undermining the very foundations of what it professes to believe in. For this reason, our critique will proceed by pages -- something I normally reserve only for the worst offenders in any scenario -- and shall extended over more than one issue. 

19 -- Medearis' thematic expression here is that what he calls an "us versus them" model of Christianity which "misses the point." It does? Really? Then one must wonder how Jesus "missed the point" in confronting Pharisees and Sadducees and Herodians; and how Paul, John, and Jude "missed the point" lambasting ideological foes of Christianity. In reality, "us versus them" quite accurately expresses the ingroup-outgroup models of behavior found in the social world of the Bible, and the NT is salted with examples of this model as particulars demanded it. Jesus' own inclination to use parables in teaching "outgroup" members in itself implies an "us" in contrast to "them". Medearis' denunciation of this model is a fantasy of modernist tolerance and accommodation. 

22-3 -- Typical of emergents, Medearis makes far too much of his own cleverness in supposing he discovered something. He poses a question asking the reader to define what the gospel is, and after naming various theological components such as eternal life and justification by faith, smirkingly observes that something is missing from the list: Jesus.

I for one find it unlikely that anyone (despite Medearis' anecdotes) forgot that Jesus had something to do with the gospel. It is far more likely that Medearis is making an attempt at semantic sleight of hand by confusing categories: Jesus is a person, and the gospel is the message he proclaimed; to say Jesus "IS" the gospel is like saying Barack Obama is the United States of America. From a category perspective, Medearis' question should have been, "Who is at the heart of the gospel?" This is a quite pertinent example of emergents wrapped up in their own cleverness thinking they have proved some sort of point, when they have actually arrived at that point by way of semantic gerrymandering. 

25 --As another example of semantic sleight of hand, Medearis says with regret that he tried too often to "win allies to my point of view rather than pointing to Jesus." When Mederais points to Jesus, is he not thereby implicity expressing his point of view that Jesus is someone worthy of being pointed to? Emergents frequently engage, I find, an epistemic fantasy in which they suppose that simply because they are not engaging in formal, structured argument, they are not trying to win people to a point of view. 

26 -- In a related vein, emergents (who are not alone in this aspect) are fond of posing "Jesus" in opposition to everything else thus: "There is a place for doctrines and dogma and science and history and apologetics, but these things are not Jesus -- they are humanly manufactured attempts to make people think having the right ideas is the same thing as loving and following Jesus." 

What escapes Medearis here is that without that doctrine, that history, that apologetics, there is no reason to distinguish his "Jesus" from the Jesus who makes Mormon bosoms burn, or from the Jesus who is merely an imaginary friend as the atheists say he is, or the Jesus who is cast as a Hindu avatar who went to India at age 13. The illusion emergents have here is that if they wave "loving and following Jesus" around with a pious flourish, they have dispensed with any priority towards a faith that has epistemic grounding. 

Like it or not, to get to the point where one follows and loves Jesus, one must first contemplate ideas that give way to a decision to follow and love Jesus. Thus even Medearis must have had a "right idea" to get where he is now. 

30 -- Again exemplifying tragic epistemology, Medearis tells a story of four substantially failed ministry attempts of his, followed by a fifth that was successful: He was sent to do prison ministry, and decided he would "simply [tell] them about Jesus." Since his prison ministry ended up more successful, Medearis jumps to the conclusion that it was "just" telling them about Jesus that caused the success. 

Having worked in prisons, I rather doubt it was that trite. More likely, it was the simplicity of the message per se that was most helpful, as opposed to it being "just" about Jesus. But even if that were the case, it is ridiculous to extrapolate so broadly from a single (or even a handful) of random personal experiences, in particular and specific settings, to "this is how it always ought to be to done with everyone." 

36 -- for reasons I cannot fathom, it seems that all emergents make the same mistake of thinking Simon the Zealot was part of the militant Zealots group of the later first century. it would be well here to revisit what I wrote of this some years ago:

Here, what "the more credible portions of the Gospels" are is not delineated, but seems to indicate, "those that agree with the point of view of James Still" - and indeed, those who hold to this absurdly outdated theory of Jesus-as-Zealot must inevitably resort to parsing the NT at will in order to maintain their viewpoint. It will not be our purpose here to take a complete look at these theories; rather, we recommend that the reader consult Hengel's magisterial work on the subject [Heng.Z], and an earlier, much smaller work [Heng.JRev], which will make it quite clear that there could have been no significant correspondence between Jesus and the Zealot movement. (See especially pp. 297-8 of the former, where Hengel notes seven major divergences between Jesus and the Zealot movement.)

...Bruce Winter in After Paul Left Corinth [38] notes that the word "zealot" was applied to a disciple of a teacher, and had been used for a long time in the academy to describe the exclusive loyalty that was expected of a student. It may be no surprise that Luke alone, a Gentile writer, uses the term for Simon

This is not merely a trivial point, for Medearis used the presence of Simon as a supposed member of the "Zealot" party to answer a question posed in a public forum about terrorism. As part of his response, he noted that Jesus accepted a terrorist of the day into his inner circle. Since this is manifestly false, it is already irresponsible as is; but it is made worse by the fact that it would also mean Jesus harbored and protected in his ministry a wanted criminal.

This is a perfect illustration of why Medearis' clumsy and breezy preference for what he so arrogantly designates as "Jesus" over doctrine, history, and all else is misguided. Unfortunately, inspired by the fact that ONE (!) Muslim came up to him after the service and remarked that Medearis didn't talk about theology or doctrine (which he had "heard before") but rather "about Jesus in a way I've never heard before," he concludes -- based on that thoroughly inadequate and anecdotal sample -- that he did a better job than otherwise.

In reality, there can be no separation between Jesus and all the rest of it. The identity of Jesus is intrinsic to, and inextricable from, all those contexts. Medearis' naivete here is much like that of the fundamentalist who professes to preach "just the Bible" and gets a bent beak when you suggest that refinement may be had by understanding the linguistic or social context of a passage. Medearis "Jesus" is an emasculated and decontexualized message rooted in little more than subjective personal experience to which the convert is expected to become addicted under the pretense of it being some sort of "personal relationship".

39 -- Particularly disturbing is Medearis' proclamation that it is not "our job to explain everything," though in context he notes particularly such matters as the Crusades and the Inquisition. This is only partially right: It is not every Christian's job to explain every single thing, but it is our job as disciples to at least know where to go for answers when the honor of Christ is besmirched. In the end, however, it is clear that the problem is not so much that Medearis shows that it isn't our job, but that he is too disaffected to take the job on in the first place. He writes further of a confrontational atheist professor of his in college who railed against Christian evils and made him feel uncomfortable, and then plaintively asks, "What exactly were we supposed to say?"

Is Medearis serious? How about (depending on the argument), "Professor, serious historians of the Inquisition like Henry Kamen tell us..." Is this that hard to do? No, it is not. But Medearis describes such things as this, or as the problem of original sin, as a "weight" [41] he is relieved to have off his back, and that is despicable.

Again: This is not to say that everyone ought to be fully informed on every conceivable issue, but the solution is not to ignore the problems under the pretense of "just pointing to Jesus" as though you were thereby relieved of the responsibility.

45 -- Even more disturbingly, Medearis asserts that the reason why some Christians try to explain things is "because they're insecure themselves." By that reckoning, apologists and scholars are the most insecure Christians around, and that in turn is a gratuitous insult. Perhaps that would explain why Medearis himself used to explain things, but here again, all he would have done to eliminate that insecurity is erect a fabricated "Jesus" (no different than one that might be constructed by a Mormon, or a Hindu guru) that is amorphous and indistinct enough that every possible objection passes through him.

48 -- Further indicating that this is so, here is how Medearis summarizes his message: "We don't have to explain Him. All we have to do is point with our fingers, like the blind man in the book of John, and say, 'There is Jesus. All I know is that He touched me, and where I was once blind, now I see.' "

Perhaps it ought to occur to Medearis that physical blindness being cured is something which is quite plainly evidential in nature; it can be tested, evaluated, and critiqued for effectiveness. On the other hand, his attempt to apply this passage to something internal is entirely misguided: While it can be tested for results, it is incapable of being distinguished, internally, from an artificially bulletproof delusion like the Mormon burning the bosom. The problem though is encapsulated when he says, "we're wrong when we put our faith in our reason." But that's not quite what we're to do. Rather, we're supposed to back our faith (loyalty) with reasons to be loyal. If it were otherwise, the missionary sermons in Acts would hardly appeal to evidence such as the empty tomb.

He later asserts (76), "I point to [Jesus], and He does all the heavy thinking. I don't have to convince anybody of anything." No, but as a disciple, you do have a responsibility to honor Jesus by way of defense when necessary. Again, of course, this may not be Medearis' particular role in the Body, but for him to pretend that it is universally not a responsibility is both irresponsible and contrary to the example of Jesus himself and each of the apostolic-era teachers.

57 -- Medearis uses a quote from Donald Miller that also encapsulates the problem: "How can I defend a term [Christianity] that means ten different things to ten different people?" Well, actually -- you do this thing called "ask questions" and then you "get answers". Again, raising your hands in despair isn't the responsible option.

67 -- One of Medearis' excuses for evasion of responsibility is that it is God's job, not ours, to decide who is "in" and "out", and that it is difficult for us to decide such things (75). But this too is merely an evasion, especially since he later admits that such a line does exist (69). Defining the boundaries of orthodoxy is in no sense the same as deciding whose beliefs are within those boundaries. Once again, Medearis thinks all we need to do is tell people to "follow Jesus," but without the boundaries, which "Jesus" will Medearis be recommending?
  • The one who was the literalization of an initiation symbol in Gnostic mystery rites?
  • The one who was just some average Joe God picked out (adoptionism)?
  • The one who was magician and a homosexual?
  • The one who was one of many manifestations of God?
  • The one who is also the archangel Michael?
  • The one who is the Spirit brother of Lucifer?
  • The one who is a symbolic representative of the Christ Spirit?
  • The one that was a black man, or an Irish priest, or a cynic sage, or a pacifist, or an expression of the Gnostic redeemer myth?
While some of these are facetious, and I could offer many more, it remains that Medearis is believing in his Jesus on the back of his forebears like Athanasius who suffered greatly to be sure that he didn't have to think that hard today.

71 -- Not too amazingly, Medearis shows the documented emergent talent to speak out of both sides of his mouth, as he attempts to make out Paul as a preacher in his mold based on a single passage in Corinthians where Paul says he determined to know nothing but Jesus (1 Cor. 2). The fact that a significant portion of the rest of Paul's letters amount to Paul firmly drawing lines between truth and untruth escapes Medearis, as does the fact that the point of Paul’s statement is not that he came preaching a highly simplistic message of the sort Medearis is preaching, but is made as a contrast to the pneumatic public speaking displays of his Corinthian opponents.

85 - A place that shows that Medearis misses the point is where he asks, "Are we saved by our brains or our hearts?" I ask in reply: How can your heart make a correct decision if your brain is not used?

88 -- I was not surprised to see a story raised similar to one I alluded to in an earlier critique of Spurgeon:

He tells an account of an elder divine who evaluated a younger man’s sermon -- apparently on some text that did not have Jesus as a subject -- as a poor one. The younger man asked if he had not done a competent job of exegesis, and asked of various other faults; the elder man said none of those were the problem. The problem was that the younger man hadn’t brought his sermon back to the topic of Jesus.

Now while this may seem like admirable piety, in reality it is badly misguided. In this I see the seeds of such things as modern Sunday School material that strains mightily to make even obscure OT texts relevant to a modern Christian life – when they aren’t. In turn, this leads to a perception (rightly) that Christians force meanings into texts that simply aren’t there.

Medearis quotes Spurgeon as saying to a junior preacher, "Son, until you can find Christ in Ezekiel you will not share my pulpit again." My reply to Spurgeon: "If you can find Christ in Ezekiel, you're straining it far out of its intended context."

Our critique of the first half of this book is finished, and we will conclude next time. For this half, I would close with a rather disturbing comparison.

Years ago, I critiqued a cult leader named John Clark severely, and catalogued the responses of his followers, one of which said the following:

I knew that I probably didn't need to read [Holding]s article] any further. However, I tried. Like you said, I, too, am willing to be wrong and consider. Reading his website reminded me so much of where I was in 1988 - - confusion!
. . . . I could not understand the big scholarly words, Bro. John. But I understand the tender Voice of my Savior. My prayer for the "scholars" is that they quit hiding behind the big words and just humble themselves before Jesus. Then they could just rest and receive from Jesus what they need.

It should disturb us greatly that Medearis' own professions are identical to that of this cult victim.

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