Interview With Tom Sine and Jarrod McKenna On The New Conspirators

Tom Sine’s recent book, The New Conspirator’s, has been gaining a lot of attention since it was released last month. This week he’s staying with my friend and emerging peace church activist Jarrod McKenna. Tom and his wife are staying in Australia with McKenna at the Peace Tree community, and traveling around Perth doing some speaking engagements. Today, both Jarrod and Tom were interviewed on a local Perth radio station about the book, and some of the connections between Tom’s book and what Jarrod and the Peace Tree community aredoing. You can check out the radio interview over at Rodney Olson’s website.

I’m pretty excited about what the Peace Tree is doing, and what Tom is trying to encourage through his four streams of church renewal. The four streams are missional, mosaic, emergent and new monastic. As you all know these have been around for awhile, and so it is not Tom who is guilty of my comments below, as much as all of us (I am as much an insider in this conversation as the rest of us). Yet, I have also had some cautions (or maybe criticisms) of these as categories when it comes to identifying with them as the categories that define our movements.

First, I find that they are largely lacking in having much meaning. Each of these terms are very broad and subject. When talking about each of these categories we’ve got to be really explicit about what we mean, and what we don’t mean. I’ve discussed my categories of the emerging church that I think cut to the heart of some of the main issues and questions that pertain to this criticism. I think they’re also unhelpful in the sense that they are largely uprooted from tradition. I am far more interested in hearing how Methodists, Catholics, Anabaptists, Quakers (of course), Anglicans, are being renewed. And of course, I’d like to know the answer to the more biting question, what is keeping them from being renewed as well? So when it comes to the categories how are they rooted within tradition and how do we give them some teeth?

Second, I see these terms as often having the function of being deflective of their true intent. Take for instance the”mosaic” stream. During the New Conspirators conference Ephram Smith, an African-American pastor (of an emerging church) in Minnesota, spoke about his truly mosaic church. The audience in attendance on the other hand was in large part middle-class white men. Certainly, we as white men like agree with the idea of the need for our churches to be mosaic, I’d say kingdom-like, yet I think we must at least caution our own appropriation with this. If we say we’re mosaic, it’s not because we are actually multi-cultural (and Tom does well to cite those groups that really are this) but because we’d like to be. We white guys want to be mosaic, at least on paper, but in this case, the name of mosaic acts more as a kind of signifier for what we are not, or rather what we hope (and desire) to be. It could even be the case that for some of us mosaic as a deflector allows us to remain completely within our white enclaves while displacing our guilt.

Third, don’t the other categories missional, emergent, and new monastic also have the potential to work in this same kind of deflective manner?  How many of us that write and converse about this stuff really a part of these things? Here we run into the classic problem of the innocent ideal and its distorted actualization. For Derrida, the ideal could not be reduced by the dialectical tension between the ideal and its actualization. Yet, Zizek’s reading of Christianity is that the ideal (in this case the Messiah) has already arrived, the Event has happened, now the gap (of actualizing it) remains ((Zizek, 2003:140-141)). Wouldn’t the categories work better if we exposed them for what they really are, a desire to live up this already pre-established Christ Event (is it because it’s something we’re not currently doing well at?). My concern then is that in using the names we can still fit in and yet not have to actually change.

Fourth (and the most punchy), these all seems to hold somewhat of a self-congratulatory tone to them. Saying that we are emergent, missional, mosaic, or new monastic, seems, at least on the face of it, to be something that (most) everyone in the church, if they knew what it meant, would want be identified with.In what ways do we use these terms to signify our arrival, our own job well done? These streams all included pieces of the kingdom, pieces if put in the right terms just about every Christian would agree with.

I don’t want to press this too much because I truly love what each of these groups are doing, but I think if we let it tarry just a moment we can see that there are cautions we should not neglect. Let’s consider what I’d take as the extreme example: do new monastics invite real monks to come and teach them how to live like (old) monastics. There is a sense in which calling oneself new monastic is scandalous (to old monastics). Doesn’t “new” signify a departure from the old, in what ways is (old) monasticism different/same from new monasticism? I like the general idea behind this please don’t get me wrong: a spirituality shaped around labor, practices, ritual, communities, simplicity, etc is what is needed now as much as ever. But how much of our signing onto a movement like this operates at a level of congratulating ourselves a bit too early? How many of us interested in new monasticism are really just middle class white folks, who like these values, and love thinking about the ideas, but don’t want to give up our nice houses, gadgets, and 2 car garages? I think (old) monastic is still far more subversive a commitment in our consumeristic culture than any new form of it.

There’s another instance in which this identifying with the deflection can short-circuit. As you will see in Tom’s book, there really are churches doing the very hard work of being multi-cultural (if you don’t think it’s hard in close confines of a church, look at how difficult it is with the vast space of our country), and of those who like Claiborne, McKenna, and other are really (trying) to love, work with, and live with the poor and marginalized on an hourly basis, let’s not denigrate their patient labors by stapling a catchy label to our chests while someone else does the hard work of the kingdom for us.

Again, the point of this is to open the conversation up, not tear anyone down, in hopes of allowing for the sheets to be pulled off those of us who are still waiting for the ideal to come, while others are out their seeking to live in the aftermath of the Event (of the kingdom). In this way, it’s appropriate regardless of whether you’re missional, emerging, Quaker, Catholic, Penecostal or Fundamentalist Independent, we all pray – “Lord, I believe. Help me in my unbelief” (Mark 9:24)!