Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Emerging Evangelicalism: learning from ethnography?

"This book is about American Evangelicals. More precisely, it explores how some Evangelicals are consuming and enacting knowledge produced as part of the Emergining Church movement. Even more precisely, it is an ethnographic analysis of identities fashioned, practices performed, discourses articulated, histories claimed, institutions created, and ideas interrogated in this cultural field. Emerging Evangelicalism, we will come to see, is a movement organized by cultural critique, a desire for change, and grounded in the conditions of both modernity and late modernity." (p. 5)

It only seemed fair to let James Bielo outline his own argument rather than me do it for him, so there you go. I'm reading this book to review it for Anvil Journal (UK) and started off thinking that a) this would be another typical ethnographic study that does not attend to any theology, and 2) that it would concern itself primarily with USA and have little or nothing to say to me in a British context. On the first issue I have been wholly wrong: Bielo may be an anthropologist and ethnographer, but he clearly knows and is attentive to the theological concerns of traditional evangelicalism, and asks searching questions of the Emerging Evangelicals and their theological priorities. On the second issue, it is clear that Bielo is concerned mainly with USA, but the particular Emerging Evos with whom he deals operate on the world stage -- Hirsch, Bell, Warren, McLaren etc. -- and so the import of this study can and I hope will be felt across the Atlantic.

I have to confess I was a little biased: I'm always a bit funny about reading non-theologians accounts of trends and movements in theological culture (and it seems to me that Evangelicalism is at least partly a theological culture with specific cultural practices that emerge from that), and especially concerned about anthropologists. (I know it wrong, but it's how I feel: I blame my conservative heritage). I suspose I have an innate suspicion about people who are not concerned with dogmatics (I can and am laughing at myself here...) But I have learned so much from this study! It has been helpful and interesting theologically and pastorally, and continues to be so as I read on. Bielo has a real grasp of the major concerns of the Emerging movement, and wants to lay bare its concerns and practices for others to appreciate. This has been its affect on me. What comes out is a kind of mission movement that wants to be culturally appropriate and creedally orthodox: this is inspiring if nothing else.

So, go and read it...

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