Thoughts on Carson’s ‘Becoming Conversant…’ 1

I looked forward to reading this book. Carson is an intelligent man – it can surely only serve for good to get some debate going? But the tone quickly became clear: one rather gets the impression of an English professor critiquing his son’s primary school writing… Of the over-keen dad slamming in his best shots against his 5 year old son in goal.

We have to admit it: the emergent movement is young. It is immature. And it carries some of the problems associated with youth: arrogance, brashness, a belief that it is blazing a whole new trail, that it is re-inventing the wheel.

But, as a teacher, I worry about how these children will grow up when their parents are so harsh on them. Sure, there are criticisms to make, but it’s vital that they are made in a supportive and nurturing way. Good parents support their children through this maturing phase: not slamming them for every error, but holding them, working with them, supporting them…. Until their kids grow to see that not everything their parents did was completely embarrassing.

Why didn’t Carson offer to work with Maclaren, or within another Emerging Church context, helping them iron out the some of the valid points he makes? Why not write a book together or do some dialogue?

That doesn’t appear to be his style. Instead he rolls out his big intellectual guns against something that is just beginning to work out its way. It’s a classic example of what I mention in the book:

Too often we kill off new ideas and inspirations before they can really take root – a fact observed by Christ in the parable of the sower. We often expose new growth too quickly to the full force of the sun, leaving it ‘hung out to dry’ and at great risk of ‘burning out’ by expecting too much of it too soon before secure roots are put down. I have seen many cases of people with ‘great testimonies’ pedestaled and thrown into the spotlight to witness, only to feel the heat and wither away. The other danger is of surrounding new growth with too much to battle against – requiring it to justify its existence in the face of other stronger organisms at endless meetings. We must be aware that those with inspiration will not immediately be able to rationalise their ideas to questioning leaders keen to see that everything fits into ‘the vision’. When they are forced to, their energy is sapped and they too wither away.

We must stop and wait, and allow newness to emerge among us. And when it does we must treat it just as Mary did Christ, just as we would any other new-born. We must nurture it gently and feed it carefully. We must not demand it act like an adult, but allow it to be a child. We must understand again that new growth will take a long time, and will require a lot of long term support.

[The Complex Christ pg. 48]

We all need a good dose of this nurturing Spirit, but I don’t feel it from Carson – and didn’t when I first heard him back in 1992. I think he could have written a very differently-spirited book – one full of support and encouragement, of good ideas to help steer the right path. But he has chosen instead to shoot down. My fear is that this will be seen as rather typical of the tradition he wants to defend.


16 responses to “Thoughts on Carson’s ‘Becoming Conversant…’ 1”

  1. Kester, I have to say, the passage that you’ve quoted here has been one of the strongest points that I have taken away from my reading of your book. Excellent, excellent stuff!
    I have experienced both of these dangers of which you speak (a feeling of being “hung out to dry” and being overly-scrutinized). And, honestly, it took several years for me to re-emerge, so to speak, and attempt a new work; a new missional experiment. I still feel gun-shy around denominational/church leadership for this very reason.
    So, while I respect Don Carson, and in a number of ways agree with him on some of his critiques, I’m not all that surprised with the way he has chosen to handle it. He’s a scholar and a writer, so he has done what most scholars and writers do — he has written a book. Granted, he could’ve chosen to go about it differently, but he’s speaking out of a tradition that handles itself in this sort of way.
    So, your fear may be that Carson’s response will be seen as rather typical of the tradition that he wants to defend. I think my fear is that we will respond to Carson and others of his generation in a manner that only confirms their suspicion of us. Perhaps the grace that we say we want shown toward us (and haven’t received) is something that we should give to our elders. What ends up happening when we say we don’t want to be like our parents?–when we construct our identity focused on what we don’t want to become? Invariably, we end up becoming the very thing we say we don’t like. I’m hoping that we can break that “generational curse” (if you want to call it that).
    Anyway, good words here, Kester. Thanks for sharing it. Peace to you.

  2. That’s interesting, Chad, and a very helpful way of looking at it.
    I suppose I’m tempted to put Carson’s words down to the psychology of fundamentalism.
    My only note of caution, is that I think we should be allowed to be teenagers – Defining yourself as something you’re not, is an important developmental stage – one that requires grace on the part of those who are supposed to be more mature.
    Unfortunately, the reality is that a lot of very important movements and traditions from history would never be allowed to exist and flourish today. But that’s a whole other debate.

  3. Very good point, Mike. You’re right, we should be afforded to opportunity to be teenagers, to grow through those necessary developmental stages. I suppose my point is that we not stay there, but continue to grow on to the next stage. (Interestingly enough, this idea of moving from stage to stage is one of the main ideas of Kester’s book. Though I’m sure he would add quick to add that it takes time — sometimes periods of waiting).
    Yes, hopefully we will be given that chance to be teenagers in an environment of grace and nurture. But if we are not, we must deal with it and grow in spite of it, and strive to give those that come after us that which we didn’t receive ourselves.
    To your point about important movements from history never being able to exist and flourish, I would argue that many of these movements flourished in spite of opposition and less-than-ideal situations; and I might go so far to say, that they flourished partly _because_ of the struggle they were forced to endure. I just happen to believe that we tend to grow when faced with challenges. But you’re right, that probably is a whole other debate.

  4. We certainly shouldn’t stay there. I think the (heavily archetypal) story of the Prodigal comes in here.
    The father shows no explicit criticism of the younger son. Indeed, he appears to condemn it as it comes from the older son. It simply doesn’t need saying, and he instead simply keeps watch, longing for him to return.
    When he does, the whole symbolism of the restoration (ring etc.) tells us that the journey of the son is now to become the father – a point made very movingly by Henri Nouwen in ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ (one of my favourite books ever).
    The younger son can’t remain infantile for ever – that would surely require proper criticism. But nor can the father helpfully intervene and hurry along his maturing… A lesson many of us parents need to learn well – and one I hope and pray leaders do too.

  5. I didn’t know the “emerging church” still talked to their parents. I thought they had run away from home never to return?

  6. Isn’t the “non-emergent church” the older brother, and God the daddy?
    While I realise that it is good to have parental figures in “top-down” church, isn’t ti better to view them as the older brother and keep God as mummy/daddy. I’m not entirely sure though if this would give the top-down church to unfair a portryal in this analogy.
    Any thoughts anyone?

  7. Interesting perspective D, and one that could be supported by some interpretations of the parable.
    Borg (see Thoughts… 2) sees the central part of Jesus’ mission as critiquing the ‘domination system’ of the time – and this included the Temple system/teachers of the Law etc.
    In this sense, it’s pretty likely that Jesus meant people to see the older brother as these Pharisees etc., and by extension we could then see some parallels with the ‘old school’ church: the desperation to please, but the hard and judgemental heart…
    The point Nouwen makes of course is that BOTH sons need to become the Father… But both have different lessons to learn to do that.
    And those different lessons are?
    [ btw, anyone interested in what next after TCC – I’m really interested in doing some stuff on stories/archetypes/fantasy cycles etc, in the context of the stories we tell as communities of faith etc… But that’s a long time off 😉 ]

  8. Thanx K (are u really Krusty the Klown?). Erm, sorry, remember I’m a noob – what’s TCC? I’ve made some guesses but these contain swear words. And stories… well I’m a sci-fi and comic fan… most of these have faith-elements within…

  9. Surely the only people who care what Carson thinks are those from an Evangelical background? (and not even all of them…)
    As an Anglican, Carson’s not my older brother or my dad – maybe at best a wacky, raving uncle several times removed…

  10. The uncle that always gets drunk at family gatherings and takes off all his clothes? Or the uncle with the worst jokes – not even bad taste or dirty – just plain sukky?

  11. Sure, he may not be from the same family, but he’s expending a lot of energy cussing mine!
    Seriously though, if we are to take Christian unity seriously it DOES matter when people jibe like this – whatever background they have. He has serious influence, and it’s important it’s used wisely.
    So a curry and a few beers with DF would def be the right thing 😉

  12. Understanding McLaren

    It’s safe to say that Brian McLaren has received a good share of the criticism aimed toward the emerging church….

  13. What do you do if you have major concerns about Brian MacLaren? I do feel that he has helped me to balance me out but I do have major reservations on his ideas of the Kingdom of God, to a lessor extent Gospel, etc. I feel Carson was a little harsh but at the same time some of his points were accurate. Some of his points were off. To reject it as a whole is wrong if there is some truth in what he is saying. I’m not defending Carson nor am I attacking Brian MacLaren. I just feel that the church must have standards that are know and evident and that the Bible and the Holy Spirit should be the guides not our own “new ideas”. That is not to say “new ideas” are wrong but that those “new ideas” must be within the framework of the Bible AND the Holy Spirit.
    All movements of God started with a clear understanding of the foundations and moving forward from there. It never started by tearing down the foundations.

  14. I don’t think I’ll become a regular in this blog, but I do want to say that if you people want to go any further in your dialogues, then you must be honest with yourselves and fair with your “opponent.” I liked the previous post made by DH on August 10. Personally, I don’t agree with Mclaren very much, but I found DH’s honesty and grace-full words to be refreshing and encouraging.

  15. DH: ‘To reject it as a whole is wrong if there is some truth in what he is saying.’
    Absolutely right. This is exactly what I’m advocating, but is precisely the point at which Carson’s argument stumbles. (see 2nd post on this)
    And, J, again the spirit of these posts was to attempt to be fair, in the face of what I considered to be an unfair text precisely because it lacked ‘grace-full words’ and was actually quite unfair (and lacking accuracy on basic facts) about its opponent.

  16. Rhirhok

    “Too often we kill off new ideas and inspirations before they can really take root”
    I think we need to remember that not all new ideas and inspirations are good. There are a lot of bad ideas from religious and non-religious people that do need to be killed off before they can take root. Ideas have consequences, often times severe consequences. This is why teachers will be judged more strictly.
    I have not read Carson’s book, but if he believes there is danger in certain ideas being offered by the emerging church, then I understand why he wrote the book the way he did. Of course, he may be wrong, but that is beside the point.