[An Interview with Tony Jones: Part 1]
Thoughts on Emergent's Role within American Christianity
By Darren King

Tony Jones, national coordinator for Emergent Village, recently released a new book titled the New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier (click here for my review). The New Christians offers a truly insightful, unique perspective on the Emergent phenomenon and - all criticism (fair and unfair) aside - is a book that has been very well received in numerous circles. This past week I had a chance to speak with Tony about his book, the future of Emergent, and how he chooses to handle the mean-spirited criticism and misinfomation that tends to pervade the medium through which Emergent was born: the Internet.

Darren King: Tony, could you begin by describing your role within Emergent Village?

Tony Jones: Ah, master networker… Dude who sticks fingers in the dike where the water’s leaking through… Guy who makes sure our IRS payments are made… Who makes sure we’re filing our 990 on time. Stuff like that.

Darren King: Do you have time specifically allotted to Emergent, or does it depend on what’s going on?

Tony Jones: Yeah, it depends on what’s going on. Sometimes, at some parts of the year, I’m really busy with Emergent stuff. And other parts of the year it’s pretty quiet.

Darren King: I think I remember reading somewhere, a couple of years ago, that yours was a part time position that might grow to become more full-time. Has the role changed very much over the last two years?

Tony Jones: It’s not changed a lot, but, I would say that it’s on the brink of changing significantly- one way or the other, but I don’t know which way. Either it’s going to expand and Emergent Village is going to really take an aggressive growth trajectory or… not. Or we’re going to go underground or something.

Darren King: When did you decide that this book was needed and what were your reasons for writing it?

Tony Jones: Well, I wanted to write a book that was a little more broad than the earlier books I’ve written. I wanted to write a book that more tackled American Christianity in general. You know, in the past my books have either been on Youth Ministry or else they had been on prayer and spirituality, which were great, and right now I’m writing a book on the Didache. But I wanted to write one big, hard-cover, 280-page book on the state of American Christianity.

Now, I’m not Martin Marty or Randall Balmer or something. So I don’t have the platform to do that. My platform is that I’ve been involved in this Emergent thing for the last decade. So that became my angle to write about the church in America. To write from the perspective of what Emergent is doing, and what part Emergent is playing in the landscape.

Darren King: So how have you perceived how the book’s been received so far? I’ve certainly heard and read good things. What’s your perception on the book’s reception?

Tony Jones: I’d say its been really positive. I think people are skeptical about the very parts I thought they’d be skeptical about. I read a good blog review today by a guy named Bob Hyatt, who’s a church-planter in Portland, and he really nailed it. I mean, the first couple chapters are about the history of Emergent. The final chapter is about the different churches I’ve visited and the characteristics I found in them. But he rightly said the middle three chapters are really the meat of the book, and that’s where I tried to address the issues that keep coming up, over and over and over and over- whenever I speak. I mean, now I’m teaching a class this week at a seminary and, here on Monday it was the same thing- “what about truth” and “where are the boundaries”? Everybody asks me the same thing.

The question is: how do you not slide into radical relativism? And, you know, my question back to them is: how do you not slide into objectivism? Meanwhile, I’ve got some critique from liberals who, because I affirm things like the physical, historical resurrection of Jesus, think that I’m still living in the supernaturalist days or something.

Darren King: That you’re opting for pre-modernism.

Tony Jones: Yeah. But, listen, those are in the minority. I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback from people and it’s very gratifying.

Darren King: When it comes to the criticism of you, and Emergent, some of its fair and articulate, but much of its feels mean-spirited, as if some people are just trying to undermine you with every opportunity they get. I remember Brian McLaren saying he consulted the late Stanley Grenz when deciding how best to handle critics. What’s your personal approach when responding to critics?

Tony Jones: Well, it is frustrating to have to continually answer the same questions over and over again. I feel like a lot of times I’m getting questions from people who are just showing up and they’re like, “Hey, you guys don’t believe in what I believe in.”

And I’m like, "Have you read anything I’ve written?"

I mean I’ve literally had people come and criticize me personally, to my face, in a public venue, and I’ll ask,

“Tell me, because I’d really like to know, you’re saying I’m a heretic and that I don’t believe in Jesus and all this, exactly where did you read this?” And they’ll literally say,

“Well, I haven’t really read anything you’ve written, its more from blogs and stuff.”

“Oh, you mean from my blog?”

“Oh, you have a blog. Ah, no, its only from blogs about you.”

“Oh seriously? Because that’s a great idea. What’s your name? Because I’m going to go home tonight and I’m going to start a blog about you, even though I don’t know you.”

Here’s the thing, I’m a huge fan, as you know, of the Internet and new media and everything that comes with it. However, it does afford a platform for a certain brand of uninformed critic that can be frustrating. What I’m trying to do, more and more, is to ignore criticisms of people who are uninformed, or who are offering the same critiques that have been offered before. I’m trying to take seriously when people come up with new stuff, when people have sincere, earnest questions.

Darren King: Would you say it’s something like 20% of the time that people are asking sincere, earnest questions, and the rest of the time its just attacks?

Tony Jones: Yeah, I don’t know how to gauge, whether its quantity or, you know, vehemence. But yeah, if you judge it by how loud the people are, you’re right, it’s probably that. There are certain people who don’t like me, and don’t like what I’m saying, and they know how to work Google and other search engines.

Darren King: Yeah, I work in web design and am really familiar with how search engines work, and it is frustrating that you can google a name and what’ll come up in the top 10 might be complete junk. There’s no editorial control at all to guarantee those are credible sources.

Tony Jones: Yeah, what’s frustrating for me, and others, maybe for you too, is how ill-informed people are in terms of how search engines work. So they don’t understand how Google understands authority of a website, based on inbound links and things like that. So people google something thinking that Google rates things by some other kind of permutation than they actually do, you know?

Darren King: Right. Its like people believe there are actually human beings sitting at a board somewhere and ranking results rather than it being dome by software.

Tony Jones: Yeah. Exactly.

Darren King: Tony, what would you say are some of the most common misconceptions of Emergent that you regularly come across?

Tony Jones: Well, one is that Emergent people don’t have any convictions. Don’t stand for anything. Don’t really believe anything. As if we’re like “Yeah, whatever, dude,” that that’s the MO of Emergent people. That’s just really completely untrue. I mean, I think the Emergent people that I hang out with are extremely opinionated. I mean, I look at people like me, and Brian, Chris C. and Tim Keel, Karen Ward… I mean, we’re some of the most opinionated people I know. So, that’s one of the misconceptions.

The other one I guess - that’s highly frustrating - is that Emergent people don’t really take the Bible seriously.

Darren King: That they “reject the Bible”.

Tony Jones: Yeah, I don’t even know what that means. I guess Christopher Hitchens rejects the Bible. I mean, I don’t know how many times someone can go around in public and say “I believe in the authority of Scripture. I affirm the inspiration of Scripture” and not be heard. You know, recently I’ve been having this little dialogue with Collin Hansen about our two books, on Christianity Today, and I’ve read some other blog posts from other people responding to the dialogue, and they’re like: “Tony says he believes in the authority and inspiration of Scripture… that’s not good enough! That doesn’t even mean anything!”

Darren King: Well, you didn’t use the word “inerrancy”, so…

Tony Jones: Yeah, exactly. Does he mean inerrancy? Does he mean plenary inspiration? Ah, my gosh. Seriously, you people… can we give you your own island? And have Benjamin tell you what to do?

Darren King: Yeah, ironically, whenever Brian’s asked about his perspective on the Bible, he usually says something like, “I believe of the Bible what the Bible says of itself” kind of thing. And even that’s not good enough - which is, hugely ironic!

Tony Jones: Yeah.

Darren King: Okay, getting back to the book here, on page 137 you write: “It’s the institution of the church that’s in its death throes, not the Christian faith itself”. Could you describe some of the chief signs of demise you see here. And, were you being a little hyperbolic, or do you really see the institution as being on its last legs?

Tony Jones: Well, “last legs”, I guess that’s a relative statement. I am being hyperbolic, yes, but, I do think, as I try and say unequivocally in the book, that bureaucracy is bad for the gospel. I think it has been, and I think it continues to be bad for the gospel.

I think, in regards to signs that the institution is in its death throes, I'd point to the half dozen emails I received last week from friends who were at the United Methodist General Church Convention, every one of which was basically saying, “I wish you would come here and pluck my eyeballs out, and stuff cotton in my ears, because this is driving me crazy!" Its these kinds of big meetings – the Presbyterians have their big meeting in the summer, and its not long before the Episcopalians have their next big civil war – and its just not a good way to do Christianity. Especially in an era of new media where anyone can talk to anyone. We just don’t need these bureaucracies to centralize our communications anymore.