Thomas Hohstadt is concerned about the emerging movement. Will it “become a mere blip on the radar of time?—a stylish fad for the disaffected few?—a rapture for nerds?—a grace for geeks? . . . And, we wonder if we’re just past mistakes? Is the movement “déjà vu all over again”?” (4)
Hohstadt believes that the emerging movement has overly polarized differences between itself and the contemporary church. He writes, “This book is an apology for those mistakes and a wakeup call for my friends in the emerging church movement” (4).
While modern thinking possesses harmful excesses, gullible postmodernists have too easily thrown out the baby with the bathwater. Objective absolute truth is not an illusion. One interpretation is not as good as any other. After all, “To say there are no absolutes is in itself absolute” (10). Truth is “not something we create – it’s something we encounter” (11). We must beware of the narcissism of postmodernists that strenuously deconstruct Truth. Instead, we must recover “a ‘knowing of the heart’ that transcends our subjectivity – our intellect – and our differences” (14).
Though we live in the “real” world, a more “real” world is coming into existence through the work of Christ and by the Spirit. “In other words, the ‘actual’ universe is the one coming into being. So our present faith is pregnant with the future, with the not-yet inside the already” (23, bold italics his). It is our expectation of this future – and our actions rooted in this hope – that contributes to the incoming of Christ’s kingdom: “Indeed, everything we ‘expect’ we are bringing into being. No matter how small, no matter how insignificant, every movement, every moment, has a never-ending ripple effect—engaging and shaping history” (23). Therefore, our expectations should be big! We should expect no less than the impossible – for God’s Spirit is at work in and through us. Through our faith the benevolent Mystery breaks into the present and transforms it (92).
Hohstadt has no interest in a “cool” spirituality. Too often, our attempts to make the faith “cool” are a “sellout to show-business” or a “caricature of culture” – a mere accommodation to a rapidly changing youth culture. The emerging church must not find its legitimacy in the latest buzz or it faces swift insignificance (104). Baptizing culture is dangerous because “[c]ulture is not the same as Spirit” (104). Relevance is not the same as “recency” (105): “After all, something new can become an overnight cliché just as easily as something old. In other words, the most ‘relevant’ is not necessarily the most ‘recent’… There’s a difference, after all, between ‘trends’ and ‘transcendence’” (105-106).
We must not forget that the Gospel “is totally autonomous to culture—completely unconstrained by culture. For the Good News is transpersonal, transcultural, and transrational” (106). Transcendence is not found in trendyness but in “the tension [of] ‘being in tune with the Spirit’ and ‘being in touch with culture’” (106). His final warning is the most piercing: “The emerging church risks the re-emergence of a pagan culture. And, emerging leaders won’t be able to criticize culture if they’ve already become culture” (106).
He is most critical when it comes to the language of salvation. He believes that “many emerging church leaders avoid the whole salvation issue! In its place, they offer a ‘relaxed’ repentance, a ‘designer’ deliverance, a ‘cool’ salvation, a ‘multiple choice’ belief” (55). In the process, the language of sin is often lost – “most emerging leaders are too ‘sophisticated’ for that” (55).
Hohstadt is concerned that the emergent movement not make the same mistakes as the liberal church. While focusing on politics “much of the liberal movement abandoned its interior life—its transrational or spiritual life—to the conservatives. Liberal churches, of course, sincerely embrace their own gospel. Yet, that gospel often reduces ‘the huge mysteries of God to the respectability of club rules’” (96).
We should not completely abandon conservatives. They play an important role in the preservation of the faith: “This protection, this preservation, has always proven the ‘backbone’ of society—the substructure, the cohesion, the unifying factor. It represents, after all, our collective memory, the history of our experience, the proven benefits of our knowing, the ‘time capsule’ of our glory” (97). And yet, as we all know, tradition can be misused.
Instead of being bound to our culture, Hohstadt invites us to “rediscover its transparency” (116): “Transparency comes when everything we do points beyond itself—when all events surpass their appearance—when we see right through to something profoundly pristine and pure. Our every action, in other words, becomes transcendent, transpersonal, transcultural, transrational, trans-everything…. For only then is our faith enlarged—only then do we see a ‘bigger picture’—and only then do we share a more generous orthodoxy” (116, emphasis his).
We need to recapture a language that does not describe “what is” but “what is coming to be” (118). Like Abraham and the mystics, we must speak “of nonexistent things… as if they [already] existed” (119). It is a new song, a language of beauty, that points beyond itself to the transcendent. It is a language of paradox and mystery. It is the language of metaphor, which uses common objects to represent deeper levels of meaning: “We trace the power in a metaphor to either itself or something other than itself… We realize truth through it, but not in it. It represents something ‘not there.’ It is ‘virtual.’ It is ‘vicarious’” (128, bold italics his).
Hohstadt’s vision is profound, his insights provocative, and his challenges worth considering. His call to transcend rather than accommodate to our culture provides a helpful corrective to the hip, trendy, cool Christianity that passes as emergent. The truly emergent church will connect to something more ancient, mysterious, relevant, and beautiful than the latest cultural trend.
Quotes excerpted from Beyond the Emerging Church: The End and the Beginning of a Movement by Thomas Hohstadt
© Richard J. Vincent, 2007