Heretic’s Guide to Eternity: What was I thinking?

Jossey-Bass Publishers, one of the publishers of the new “emergent” group of authors, used to sent me review copies of some of their books, saying that they liked my thoughtful, honest reviews. That is, until I slammed one of Brian McLaren’s books. Apparently they only appreciate positive honest reviews (or, they simply have a new publicist with a new list of favorites). I’ve nearly given up on the whole emerging church bunch, as they seem to be lost and wandering, looking for mystery, experience and meaning. If the Church had an emo branch, they’d be it. I’m thinking we change the name to “emogent.”

So, what was I thinking, to order a copy of Spencer Burke’s The Heretic’s Guide To Eternity (co-authored by Barry Taylor)? I guess I was hoping against hope that I’d find a thoughtful, theological look at the inclusivist view of grace. Inclusivism is a very broad term, usually seen as more “moderate” views of God’s grace, as opposed to the more “exclusivist” positions held by many conservative Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians but not reaching the other extreme, “universalism.” Again, I was hoping to find a thoughtful, theological look – but I should have known better.

As it turns out, Burke appears to be as emogent as they get. I admit I’ve not reached the mid-way point yet, but it’s pretty clear where he’s going, and other reviews I’ve read, such as the one at Jesus Creed, confirm this. He spends an inordinate amount of time opposing the concept of religion, without ever defining how he is using the term. Basically, he doesn’t like anyone telling him what to do (again, emo). He is rejecting any sort of organized, methodical approach to Christianity, instead proposing a kind of universalist, nebulous “spirituality.” He even redefines grace to suit his own spirituality:

Religion declares that we are separated from God … Grace tells us the opposite; we are already in unless we want to be out.

… grace tells us there is nothing we need to do to find relationship with the divine.

It’s all very pretty and new-agey. But, as much as I am a champion of grace (ask those who know me), you do have to write off Paul, not to mention Jesus himself, to come to a conclusion like this. I do believe that grace is extended further than the fundamentalists tell us, but Burke’s concept of grace is simply not grace. You might as well sit on a mountain somewhere with a pyramid on your head.

Burke is perhaps most well-known as the founder of The Ooze, one of the first post-modernist Christian websites; I think it existed even before everything became emerging (does that make it pre-emergent?). The Ooze is still around, but I don’t go there. It seems to be a fairly mainstream place, but broad enough to include references to people like Steve Sjogren, NT Wright and Brian McLaren.

Now, I’m not known for being a traditionalist, or for being “religious.” In fact, I was postmodern even before I knew it existed. I’ve been challenging church forms and practices for 30 years, and I still do. However, I’ve had the benefit of 20 years of involvement in a creedal church, and being involved in many various church expressions since then. I tend to agree with the postmodernists that modernism has failed; however, to simply dismiss anything known as religion in favor of existentialist, romanticist, individualist or experiential expressions of spirituality is indeed heresy (as well as naive and foolish). Here, I would agree with Burke: He does, so far, seem to be a heretic, and not in the sense of a Martin Luther.

I am afraid that the Emogents, in wanting to strip away modernism, have forgotten that Christianity existed before modernism. And, we also can’t err in thinking that the modernist church didn’t develop some valid theological concepts along the way; all of modernism wasn’t bad. We’ve already moved past the initial wave of post-modernism and are now somewhere else, perhaps post-postmodernism. Post-modernism, in my opinion, brought nothing new into the picture, but only helped to deconstruct some modernist errors.

I will have to say though, I was impressed that Spencer Burke named his son Alden.

I do plan to continue reading the book, and maybe I’ll be surprised along the way. There’s always hope… However, as Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed does a pretty fair review of the book in 4 parts (why didn’t I read this first?), chances are I won’t bother to do another post on this book unless something really strikes me.

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