Sunday, June 05, 2005

Interview with Bryan McFerrin Pt. 3: Is Emergent Actually Modernist

This is Part III of a multi-segment interview that took place at the Emergent Conference in Nashville in May. The interview is with Bryan McFerrin, author of A New Fangled Christian and also A Generous Ego.

Demergent Churches: That’s a good question, Mr. McFerrin. Where is the love in trying to hang you on the horns of a dilemma? Can I come back to that? [McFerrin nods with a smile.] I think I want to explain what motivates me first—it’s the idea that any human being would evade, or try to evade, the truth.

Bryan McFerrin: And you think I’m doing that?

DC: Well, yeah, I did. You saw where I was going with your statement about the movements and the Enlightenment and evangelical empires, and you tried to divert. Why would you do that?

BMc: That’s fair. And then you’ll answer the love question. [DC nods.]

BMc: Do you have any idea how much criticism people level at me? Do you know what it’s like to have legions of people hoping you’ll screw up and say something wrong so they can pounce on you? Just hoping to catch you doing badly, not wanting to call attention to you doing well.

DC: Well, besides my parents, no.

BMc: Okay, let’s work with that. Did you and your parents have a lot of conflict?

DC: Yeah, what teenager doesn’t?

BMc: Sure. And after a while there were the same old things they would harp on, right?

DC: Yeah.

BMc: And it just got old. You thought, why are we here again? Why won’t they leave me alone? Especially if you had actually done something out of line, didn’t you want to avoid the whole hassle? Didn’t you ever interrupt or try to redirect?

DC: Of course.

BMc: Well….there you have it. A lot of people are wanting me to fail and I thought, “Here’s another guy with an axe to grind trying to make a mountain out of a molehill.”

DC: Fair enough. I can understand you being exasperated with critics and this being same old, same old. [pause]


BMc: [chuckling] I knew a ‘but’ was coming.

DC: [smiling] Of course. I can understand where you’re coming from about getting harassed a lot but can you understand someone who is trying his best to make sense of this……….thing, this…conversation, and he senses some things are amiss, and so he tries to pursue those things to understand only to be thrown off the scent by one of the leaders?

BMc: Yes, I can understand your frustration. But back to the love question…you said yourself you knew you had me in a contradiction of sorts. Why were you so eager to nail me with it? Where’s the love?

DC: I love Christ and His bride more than I dislike awkwardness in a conversation. Also, I don’t think love is inconsonant with truth. I believe in such a thing as truth and despite what all your critics say, I think you do, too.

BMc: Of course I believe in truth. I’m glad you get that.

DC: I do, and because we both believe in truth, and because love and truth are bound up inextricably with one another, I think it was loving to pursue the inconsistency.

BMc: You really think that the aggressiveness you showed was loving? The sudden obsession to nail me with the inconsistency?

DC: Yes, because truth and love are not alienable.

BMc: No question you were loving the truth when you became so intent on pursuing me. No question at all. But….were you loving me, the person? Were you loving me?

DC: [looking off into the distance, marveling at the lookalike goatee guys milling around the conference corridors]. No, I wasn’t. You’re right. I was loving truth and I was not loving you. But you were being evasive. But….I guess I should be able to pursue and address your evasions in a loving way. I don’t have to change into Lawyer Man just because you’re throwing up verbal obstacles.

BMc: Exactly.

DC: So….can you speak to the inconsistency?

BMc: You don’t give up, do you? [smiling] You’ve raised a fair question and honestly I am uncomfortable with this. I can say, ‘Look, this is life. It’s messy. We don’t have a script we’re following. We’re trying to listen to the Spirit, trying to learn to slow down and listen to one another, and we’re going to make mistakes, we’re going to have blind spots. We’re not going to get everything right.’

DC: True that. But this is what rubs me and it’s not restricted to you in this interview, or your books and various articles that I’ve read. With all this emphasis on the evils of the Enlightenment, and your juxtaposing your Village and movement--

BMc: Conversation.

DC: --conversation—with the baby boomers and modernists of different stripes, you have been critical. If you’re going to distinguish who you are, the things you believe and do, from other people, then you shouldn’t be doing the same things.

BMc: We’re not the same.

DC: No, you’re not, but on some of things you most find fault with modernist Evangelicals, you do do those things. Look at the cadre at the core of your Village—you’re the Emergent Mafia. You’ve got conferences around the country, speaking engagements, websites, books. It is a movement, and the Emergent Mafia runs an ever expanding empire.

BMc: Nice alliteration.

DC: Thanks. Off the cuff.

BMc: Naturally. The fact that we in the emerging churches communicate does not make us modernists. The fact that some of the communication takes place through ancient media like books, or through more contemporary media like conferences, does not make us modernists.

DC: Why is that when you describe activities or tendencies that you’re apart of you call them “contemporary” and when older, traditionalist evangelicals do them you call it “modern”? If you were saying the same thing about Al Mohler or John MacArthur you’d say “modern media like conferences.” You change the terms when you talk about your own group and I want to say that conferences like this shindig were sitting in right now in Nashvilile is a modern construct.

BMc: Ever heard of the Council of Nicea?

DC: Ever heard of consumerism? Technology? Control? Efficiency? Marketing? You must take me for an idiot if you think you can compare the Council of Nicea to Emergent Nashville ’05.

BMc: Both are conferences for talking through what God is doing, how God is leading us in mission as we transition into a new cultural epoch.

DC: What, so they had break-out sessions on the nature of Christ and the primacy of the Roman bishop? Come to the afternoon session on using non-biblical Greek words to describe the Incarnation.” Get your DVD of Arius’ PowerPoint on the begetting of Christ made specially for the Caesar. If you’re stressed out from wrangling over homoousious, come get renewed in positive energy by walking the Labyrinth.”

BMc: Are you through?

DC: I suppose. Back to the conference comparison. I can’t believe you’re saying this with a straight face. You don’t see the difference between a theological council focused on Arius’ heresy and this tech-ed up, super-hyped celebrity worship fest in Nashville? You’re going to compare the fathers of the Church resolving the crucial doctrinal dispute of their time with these cool-obsessed people here?

BMc: Why are you so harsh about the people here? These are my friends. They’re good people with sincere hearts trying to respond missionally to what God is doing in the culture.

DC: I don’t disagree that there are a lot of sincere people here doing just that. But come on, you’ve got to admit that an awful lot of people here are obsessed with being cool. And expressing it.

BMc: Again, you’re really harsh about this. I think they are reflecting the culture and loving the culture. They’re not here to bash the culture. I should say, we are not here to bash the culture. We love culture. We love people in the culture and thus it’s natural that we would look like the culture.

DC: You don’t think it’s a little weird that so many of the people here look alike?

BMc: Not at all. What is wrong with them sharing similar tastes, love for similar bands, artists, literature. It’s our affinities with what God is doing in the culture that pulls us together for conversation.

I think you’re judging people when you could be thinking that their sharing of similarities is the most normal thing in the world.

DC: I agree it’s normal….if normal is freakin’ pathetic.

BMc: Why are you on such a high horse about this? What, you’re not human? You somehow transcend the social nature of being human? You’re not like everyone else? Are you some caricature of rugged individualism? You don’t need people like the rest of us do, don’t need to fit in like the rest of us do, and so you stand there, outside and above us, judging us for needing one another. That’s what’s freakin’ pathetic, and I mean that literally. If you’re so distant and solitary, you’re the one who is a freak. Look around, the rest of us are the normal ones. We need each other and acknowledge it and it’s normal and natural when we share things in common like styles of dress and modes of speech. That’s normal.

DC: What happened to winsome McFerrin? The guy who famously doesn’t get upset with his critics? Where’s your love?

BMc: I do love you. I really do. But you piss me off and I can be pissed at you and love you at the same time. But I don’t appreciate your unloving attitude towards hundreds and thousands of your brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s arrogant and unloving and in love I’m going to call you on it.

DC: Really. And do you call them on being arrogant and unloving to modernist Evangelicals? When I hear insults of modernists Evangelicals at some of these breakout sessions I’m wondering where the love is.

BMc: I don’t condone that. If you really read my books and hear me speak you know I do not treat my traditionalist evangelical brethren badly at all. I seek to be at peace with everyone. Repeatedly I have actively encouraged Emergent people to be loving and charitable toward those traditionalists who are our critics.

DC: That’s good. That’s as it should be.

So….why can’t you take the next step on the consistency issue?

BMc: Which is what? What is the next step you have in mind?

DC: To acknowledge publicly and often that you’re like them.

BMc: I have no idea what you’re saying.

DC: Okay, I’ll try again. Let’s use what you said about pathetic Emergent types needing each other and that sharing a love for the culture has them looking like the culture and that’s the most normal thing in the world.

BMc: Okay. Yes, that’s what I said. I stand by it.

DC: So if I get you right, you’re saying I shouldn’t judge these cookie-cutter pomo, self-important, cool-obsessed people because it is NATURAL for them to be alike because they share affinities. The fact that they share these outward manifestations shows that they share affinities and so it’s natural for them to be alike.

BMc: Yes, I agree with all that. You’re reading me right.

DC: Okay. Now let’s connect the dots. The outward manifestations clue us in to the inner affinities that are shared. My contention is that Emergent types, particularly at Emergent Crack Houses like this conference are actually very similar to Enlightenment, modernist Evangelical conferences.

True, a lot of the content is different. But the deeper cultural aspects are similar. Similar hype, similar marketing machinery, similar celebrity worship. This shows that you actually have affinities with these modernist Evangelicals, just like all the goatee wearing fearless dudes here show their cultural affinities by looking the same. You’re actually very similar to your Enlightenment evangelical opponents. You and Emergent are actually quite modern, and that’s what makes your incessant explicit distinctions from modernist Evangelicals so deeply ironic. You’re just as drunk on modernity as they are, but you’re drunker because you criticize them for being what you are. You just do the same stuff with a different style--

BMc: You want me to respond to that diatribe?

Stay tuned for the next installment of this multi-part interview.