I’ve been wondering about the emerging conversation over the past few weeks. What happened, should we still use the language? And then someone contacted me on an old blog, asking about the emerging conversation in South Africa. The emergingafrica site is currently dead, but Roger helped me to get into some of the archives, so I’m just reposting something I wrote about a year ago on the emergingafrica blog.

Maybe just a short note before I start. I don’t think the emerging conversation is dead, I think the name became problematic and people moved. I still connect with the same people who was part of the emerging conversation 3 or 4 years ago when I go the ANiSA events, Amahoro gatherings, some academic conferences. I still see them on facebook, we are still talking about many of the same issues: justice, reconciliation, the future of the church, postmodernism, postcolonialism. Yes, the emphasis has changed, but that was inevitable, some of us might still like to connect to what is called emerging, others may not want to. But this is where I think we went:

where did emerging go – a response to Steve

Our friend and fellow blogger Steve Hays has been pushing hard on the question: “Where has the emerging conversation gone?” or “Why is the emerging conversation so quite/dead?”. That was the theme of the past three posts on this blog, so I thought a response might be a good idea. Steve’s questions seem to refer both to the broad conversation on the blogosphere concerning Missional/Emerging, as well as this specific website, and the lack of conversation going on here. I’ll try and quickly make a few comments on both. Some of this will be quite personal, and others attempts at taking a few steps back and analyzing what’s happening.

I found Emerging Africa in 2006 (then still called Emergent Africa). It was a place to connect to a group of people asking certain questions, and more specifically, a group of diverse people blogging and asking certain questions that I could connect with. However, I was never a very active Emerging Africa user. I only posted 5 posts since 2006, only 2 of which was actual posts with content I myself generated and thoughts which I wanted to engage others in. Two others was just responses on emerging that was doing the round in South Africa that I posted here, and 1 was an add on a conference.

About 70-75% of the content on this site was created by 5 people over the past 5 years1. A lot of people came in, dropped a comment at some point, but we need to take note that this site was never a large community of bloggers, but rather a small group of people connecting, and a lot sometimes visiting and making a comment or two. Steve himself were one of the 5, and he doesn’t consider himself to be emerging. Of the most active 10 people on the site, all those I’ve ever met also keep there own blogs, and are more active on their own blogs than on this one.

Those I’ve met: Maybe that need to be mentioned as well. Back when I first joined Emerging Africa, I knew none of the people on this list, now I find much more joy in visiting them in person (when I have the chance – for those in Cape Town) than.

In short: We shouldn’t expect too much from this site. For most of the active contributors over the years, this wasn’t the blogging place they put most energy into, and thus can’t be a measure of the depth of a conversation. Maybe the resource point made earlier should be considered more strongly. EmergingAfrica is a place pointing people to others. And I guess it’s also an important archive of what happened in the SA blogosphere regarding emerging.

But, then I’ll have to respond to questions concerning the broader conversation, and why most of us isn’t running blogs connected to strict emerging inner-politics and dialogue. This has been discussed a lot, as the different death of emerging conversations ran over the years. I listed some posts on this earlier this year, and others from 2008.

Let me take this earlier writings further with a few comments:

The diversity within emerging was unbearable to say the least. Dan Kimball (author of [2003]) expressed this when he refused to use emerging anymore. His choice to rather use missional should make us wary of continuing the “missional/emerging” way of making the two the same as well. I sometimes wondered about the diverse theology within the emerging scene myself, and even today it remains a struggle, because we seem to dump a number of people together under a “missional/emerging” category whom who has distinctly different approaches to theology.

Maybe this is where the waters get fuzzy. Because where does emerging start and where does it end? When I engage liberation theology, I would describe it as a form of what should go under the broad term emerging2, but others who traditionally participated in the emerging conversation would be strongly apposed to this. Furthermore, when I engage liberation theology, I find better dialogue partners than my emerging friends, these are theologians who are working on issues of justice in different ways, but wouldn’t connect themselves to what I’d call emerging. So suddenly emerging takes me to places which are not predominantly emerging, and where the typical emerging bunch (white, male, western, rich) doesn’t have the dominant voice anymore.

So, we get this weird place where we are no longer busy with the emerging conversation proper. To link onto Brian Mclaren (The Justice Project, p268 endnote 10), maybe we’ve discovered that the emerging conversation led us to places where others have been for some time. Maybe it was only our best theologians, and not on a congregational level3, maybe it was in a somewhat different way, maybe we contribute something unique because we were influenced by the emerging conversation, but we nevertheless find ourselves on territory which is shared by others.

So, maybe Andrew Jones was right when he said the emerging conversation was mainstreamed, as much as we might hate to hear this, and maybe this is true in South Africa as well – missional/emerging was the theme of the South African Missiological Society, not the type of place you’d have expected to find us 5 years ago. But maybe those who talked the emerging lingo was forced into other conversations exactly by there being emerging (and now I’m following the “Brian Mclaren” thread of emerging talk). We started out rediscovering the “Kingdom of God”. This forced us both into conversation with high profile theologians who have been trying to point the way for generations, but have been ignored by the Christian populace, as well as into conversation with those who are busy actually engaging injustice in the world (feminists, liberation theologians, postcolonial thinkers, economists, politicians, philosophers, activists).

So where did the conversation go? My guess is it went a hundred places. Most of these places won’t go by the name “emerging”. The more important question which should be asked if we wonder whether the conversation is dead is whether those who connected to it when emerging lingo 3/4 years ago consider there time of participation in this lingo as worthwhile seen from where they are now (I for one definitely do).

More could be said, but hopefully this take us a step further into understanding what is happening, and thinking about the place of Emerging Africa.

1) A note, the statistics mentioned reflects the real statistics of EmergingAfrica at the time, it’s not guesswork

2) This point I will definitely change when writing today. I would rather define Emerging as an approach drawing from the well of liberation theology, working towards becoming a form of liberation theology.

3) Maybe it is those in oppressed communities and groups. Women, black people, the poor, who we’ve been led to.

I finally finished Melissa Steyn’s Whiteness Just Isn’t What It Used To Be, one of the attempts to understand a changing white identity after 1994. It’s actually not a very difficult read, and I’d say an easy introduction to the discussion concerning race and postcolonial thought in South Africa. Her approach was to identify changing white narratives, ways in which whites are adapting their own self-understanding to cope in a changing South Africa. After a theoretical introduction, the largest part of the book is used to tell the stories of those who responded to her research, and share how they seem to understand themselves. She does this with the minimum academic terminology, and using catchphrases which are quite memorable. I found the five narratives quite useful to understand where I myself currently am, and how I’ve attempted to find ways of reconstructing my racial identity over time, and I believe her narratives will be useful in facilitating conversations with white South Africans concerning race.

However, my book has a number of notes which contain the number “2010” and a “?”, wondering how things has changed since Steyn did her research in the middle to late 90’s and 2010. If Whiteness in the 90’s wasn’t what it used to be under Apartheid, then I want to add that it isn’t what it used to be in the 90’s anymore either. Her subtitle, “White Identity in a Changing South Africa” still apply. White identity has changed as thousands of white South Africans left the country, and those of us who remained had to reconstruct our own self-understanding in relation to them, but also as more and more distinctly different from them, as we recognized that we didn’t leave because we didn’t want to, even when many around us did leave.

From our side, truly becoming “white Africans” as Steyn called it, has proved to take much longer than many has hoped for. As we grapple with our past, the trauma of thousands of young white soldiers never debriefed after a was of which the motivation turned out to be highly questionable at least has been surfacing. The reality of a younger generation that many hoped would grow up “color blind”, but who have inherited the racism of their fathers, who somehow grew up with a Knowledge in the Blood many hoped we were rid of, are reminding us that this issue is going to be much more complex than simply waking up and being part of a new South Africa.

But I’d say Steyn remain an important read for white South Africans today.

Steve Hayes asked four questions from those who attended the South African Missiological Conference. I’ll just answer them today:

1. What do you think was the best paper/presentation?

I think that of Tom Smith. Not necessarily because of some amazing academic insight (although I don’t doubt for a moment that Tom can make a contribution to the South African missiological scene), or because he’s a good friend, but because Tom gave us a story. Not a wow story of someone fixing the world in a few days, but a small story that says a congregation can actually take on challenges which is even more daring than what many at the conference would have thought necessary. I say this was the best, because I saw how voices from different sides of the conversation all thanked Tom for what he said, and how his story was used again and again afterwards. The only paper I think I might vote for rather than this one might have been that of Willem Saayman, but that is only from what I gather from Reggie’s tweets, since I couldn’t attend it.

2. Please give an abstract of the most important points.

Abstract of the most important points in Tom’s story? Well, he’ll do a better job, but let me try.

    • Attempting to work on reconciliation in practice is difficult.
    • Reconciliation between black and white people in South Africa require deep friendships

I hope Tom will write on his paper. But you can also follow much of what he said by reading the stories he writes on his blog.

3. What was the most important/significant thing you learned at the congress (not necessarily from the paperts — chatting to people over coffeee late at night often yields better insights)

The names of a number of local theologians which I must read.

4. Were you inspired to do anything as a result of the congress? If so, what?

Go and read these voices. Break out of my enclosed white theological space even further.

Our little community of people moved to another house over the past few days. Some from our moved away, most stayed on, and we we’re blessed (to my wee bit more evangelical friends reading this, there is no sarcasm in my tone) with a real-life philosopher. One that not only know how to pronounce Foucault’s name (already worth mentioning in the Afrikaans community), but actually know what the guy wrote as well! So if my posts become somewhat more philosophical this year, know that community is happening.

Moving has become a habit over the past few years. This is the fourth place I call home in 4 years. Looking for a place to live, and thinking about what space mean, has become a habit as well in the process. Our current home, as with the previous one, has the world of Apartheid still fixed into it. Last year I somehow just ignored is (actually considering this fact was too difficult), this year it was in my face, and easier to consider, so I’m writing about it.

South African homes in suburban areas have a small single room built outside which is/was usually used as a maid’s (a word which is much more degrading in the Afrikaans language than the English language) room. It was the place where benevolent rich suburb-dwellers gave a place to stay for poor woman who were lucky enough to get a job cleaning their home. Now don’t get me wrong. I know of many houses where there is an extremely good relationship between the domestic worker and the owners, and many who really took the trouble to build a relationship with this person over years. But still the room speaks for itself.

2.75 x 3m large, it is smaller than any of the rooms in the house, and this was supposed to be a full living unit for someone. The bathroom is simply a toilet with a shower-head about it (see picture), no washing basin, no tap whatsoever in either the room or the bathroom. Furthermore, the existence of this room is a reminder of the fact that to get a job, some woman had to leave her husband and children behind. Somewhere a child grew up without a mother, since she wasn’t allowed to live close enough to where she work, and thus had to make use of this room in the suburbs. And obviously be locked up in it after the bell sounded to mark the time when all blacks should be of the streets.

This is now my office. As I’m reading and writing about contextual theology, postcolonial theology, emerging theology, I’m doing it from the context of this room which signifies the Apartheid era. No one took the time to clean it up. The estate agents and previous renters obviously didn’t even consider the fact that a white man might want to use this room for something. And who would want to clean this room for a black domestic worker? In this room I found a small diary from 2008, written in an African language which I don’t understand. This small reminder of the Apartheid era was still used a year ago. I cannot read the diary, but I wonder whether the theology that will be written in this room will help the plight of the black woman who wrote that diary.