The New Christians by Tony Jones

Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier, may not come as a shock to those who have already read Jones’ books, An Emergent Manifesto of Hope and The Sacred Way. But it does provide further insights into the true nature of the emerging church. In The Sacred Way, Jones openly acknowledges his affinity with mysticism. With chapters on labyrinths, stations of the cross, the silence, centering (mantric) prayer, and more, Jones’ leaves no doubt that he embraces eastern-style mystical prayer practices. In An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, he takes it to the next level. The thesis of that book could be described as:

The Kingdom of God is already here on earth, includes all people, all faiths, and in fact is in all people and all of creation and can be felt or realized through mysticism which connects everything together as ONE.  (See review)

Those who have come to understand mantra meditation know that the usual outcome of going into altered states is a new spiritual consciousness that is open to both panentheism (God in all) and inter-spirituality (all religions lead to God). 1

In order to have this new spiritual outlook, one’s view of “truth” must be adjusted – Jones’ new book, The New Christians, provides such an outline for this adjustment. A theme of this book could go something this:

Emergents say they believe in truth, but they define it as something that is always changing and being refined, can never be grasped, and enfolds all beliefs, except the ones that insist there is only one truth.

It is not really any wonder that Jones says this – he credits Brian McLaren as “helping to birth this book” (p. 253). McLaren’s view on truth resonates with the description above.

As is typical with many emerging church books, The New Christians emphatically tries to convince readers that the “church is dead” (p. 4), at least church as we have known it. Jones uses several analogies to describe present day Christianity, such as it being like the nearly-obsolete pay phones, or a dying old growth forest, or compost (rotting vegetables). He says we can almost hear the “death rattle” of “America’s church” (p. 5).

Jones explains that the movement was spawned because a lot of youth pastors had been raised in this dying, superficial Christianity and the emerging church is their way of coming of age. But anyone who has read Roger Oakland’s powerful expose’ on the emerging church “Faith Undone” knows that the movement was actually spawned by big corporate dollars, and it is very likely that these youth pastors’ discontent for traditional Christianity is more the fault of the seminaries they attended rather than their upbringing. Many of the seminaries have been heralding this “new kind of Christianity” for a long time. Incidentally, on page 48, Jones says that those who funded the emerging church through Leadership Network in the 90s weren’t too happy about the direction these young emergents were heading. “The funding for the Young Leaders Network (later to become Emergent),” Jones says, “was about to come to an end.” But this statement is somewhat misleading, giving the impression that the emergents were financially left out in the cold. The publisher for The New Christians (and for many other emergent books) is Jossey Bass, an imprint of a large corporation called Wiley & Sons and a partner with Leadership Network. Between Jossey Bass, Zondervan, Baker Books (Emersion) and Thomas Nelson, the emerging church authors are hardly left to fend for themselves.

In Jones’ efforts to convey to readers that non-emerging Christians do not care about humanity and the earth, he goes into a gory detailed account of a chicken slaughterhouse where chickens are issued an electric shock and then their throats are slit. He says that the typical Christian just doesn’t care about the world’s abuses, tragedies, and woes, and says that when disaster hits, all they care about is whether “victims had invited Jesus into their hearts” (p. 18). Using extreme examples over and over to prove his points, Jones will leave many unsuspecting readers with the notion that up until now Christians have done almost nothing good for this world. And like his cohorts, Tony Campolo and Dan Kimball, who also paint a dismal view of traditional Christianity, Jones believes that the problems of the world are actually caused (at least in large part) by Christians. Jones neglects to admit that when disasters happen throughout the world, Christian-led organizations race to the scenes, often sooner than governmental agencies. While there have certainly been countless occurrences throughout history when those proclaiming to be Christian do fit Jones’ stereotype, he completely (and seemingly intentionally) leaves out the category of true Christianity that has been in existence since the beginning of the church two thousand years ago. A distorted attempt by several of today’s contemplative and emerging leaders would have us believe that true devoted Christians have not existed up until now, until paradigms like Purpose Driven and emerging spirituality came on the scene. This of course, is resulting in a growing hostility and alienation towards biblical Christianity today.

What is even more disturbing about The New Christians is Jones’ attack on truth and the Word of God. Jones insists that it is wrong to accept and believe the Bible to be true without using logic and reasoning. He states:

For the conservative, the sacred text of Christianity is indubitable, established by an internal and circular reasoning: “The Bible claims to be God’s truth, so therefore it’s true.”

Jones emphasizes the role philosophy and reasoning must play in determining whether the Bible is true and God is real. And in fact, he acknowledges how ancient atheist philosophers influenced the early beginnings of the emerging church (p. 43). But in reality, philosophy and reasoning does not bring people to Christ. Most philosophers are atheist or agnostic. The influence of philosophy coupled with the use of mysticism certainly explains why “emergents” are so confused.

Jones’ also believes that the gospel has been dormant throughout most of history, except during specific times when it was able to break through “human institutions.” He states:

And although it [the gospel] has been crusted over for eons, it will inevitably find a time and a fissure, an opportunity to blast through that crust and explode, volcano-like into the atmosphere. (p. 36)

If this were true, then God has failed to keep his gospel alive, or at best has only been able to allow it to come out of dormancy from time to time. Yet we know that there has always been a representation of the true gospel on the earth throughout history.

Ultimately, what one will come away with from Jones’ book is that Jones (and all emergents, he says) believes that truth cannot be pinned down and set in concrete. What is true for today may not be considered truth tomorrow. And he isn’t talking just about negotiable societal and cultural ideologies. He is talking about doctrine too. In fact, that is really the point he wants to get across in this book. Emergents love the Bible, he says, but they are not going to be so arrogant “[t]o assume that our convictions about God are somehow timeless” and to think they are “establishes an imperialistic attitude that has a chilling effect on the honest conversation that’s needed for theology to progress” (p. 114).

This progression of theology that Jones speaks of is not limited to areas of theology that are often and legitimately debated by Christian scholars. No; Jones says even the doctrine of atonement cannot be set in stone. He says it is “arrogant and a bit deceptive” (p. 77) to suggest that there can be any one understanding of atonement. He was referencing the difference between a traditional Christian pastor versus Brian McLaren, who has called the doctrine of hell and the Cross “false advertising” for God. 2 Jones states that to “try to freeze one particular articulation of the gospel, to make it timeless and universally applicable, actually does an injustice to the gospel” (p. 96). He says we must “refigure our theology” (p. 104) and that “emergents” are “looking for a Christianity that’s still exploratory” (i.e., theology is flexible – p. 108) and “a gospel that meshes with our own experience of the world” (p. 110). “Theology is not universal, nor is it transcendent” (p. 112), he claims, but it is “temporary” and we “must carry our theologies with an open hand” (p. 114). He adds:

[E]mergents reject metaphors like “pin it down,” “in a nutshell,” “sum it up,” and “boil it down” when speaking of God and God’s Kingdom, for it simply can’t be done (p. 114).

One of those “theologies” Jones refers to is that of homosexuality. He explains: “What I can proclaim with confidence is that in a hundred years, the church will not be debating gay marriage anymore. We will have reached consensus and moved on.” He adds to that: “[E]mergents are pretty humble about the positions we hold today and about the issues that we consider most important” (p. 116).

However, reading Jones’ book is probably not going to help readers get a grasp of just what these positions are. Jones’ is all over the place with his ideas and ultimately says even these ideas are forever changing and being reformed based on the experiential and “comes in all sorts of forms” (p. 160). Quoting Brian McLaren, Jones goes so far as to say that the moment we think we have truth and theology figured out, “we cease being faithful…. The Bible is a companion on the faith journey, not a textbook of proofs” (p. 168).

In the end, Jones leaves his readers with this: “Jesus did not have a ‘statement of faith'” (p. 234). In other words, Jesus was just as vague and unsure about what is truth, atonement, righteousness, the gospel, as are the emergents today. But this is a complete and horrible distortion of Jesus Christ, who did indeed have a statement of faith. In fact, everything He said was a statement of true faith, and He spoke as one knowing exactly what truth is:

For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Matthew 7:29)

And He also stated: “Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth.” (John 16:13)

Jones says that end-times, last-days thinking Christians “propose the dubious theology that the world is going to get worse and worse and worse until it gets so bad that God has to intervene” (p. 98-99). And like many, such as Tony Campolo, Jones suggests that those who believe in wars, increasing sin, “false teachers,” and “antichrists” are the cause of environmental issues (p. 100). In reality, while it is true that every person in the world who owns a car contributes to pollution, many of the earth’s major environmental problems stem from abuse of land by corrupt governments and profit-hungry corporations (i.e., human sinfulness), not because of Christians who believe what the Bible says about Christ’s return. That’s absurd!

Finally, and not in any way least, Jones makes a case for mysticism when he says that “[E]mergents will use all of the means available to them to quest after this truth we call God.” He says this on the heels of explaining that his wife (a Yoga instructor), has gotten into alternative health. Jones say emergents “quest after God using the tools of the medieval mystics and the ancient monastics (i.e., contemplative prayer)…. some will even be open to sources of truth that are external to traditional [biblical] Christianity, be it philosophy or another religious system (p. 159).” And it is in these other religious systems that Jones and the New Christians find “truth.” He puts it well:

In the aftermath of the myth of objectivity [absolute truth], of fideisims and airtight systems, we’re left to embrace our subjectivity, to revel in it, for it is only when we accept our own biases that we allow them to be shaped by contrary opinions and biases. One place where this is most poignant is interreligious dialogue” (p. 155).

Fellow cohorts who place their names on The New Christians endorsement include Tony Campolo, Brian McLaren, Shane Claiborne, Dan Kimball, Jim Wallis, Mark Ostreicher (from Youth Specialties), and a number of others who have proven over time that they too have joined the ranks of a spirituality that cannot lead people to Christ but only to confusion and lostness. And it is for this reason we hope that The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontiers will not end up on the library and classroom shelves of Christian colleges and seminaries and certainly not in the youth groups of Christian churches and organizations.

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