Brian McLaren: Critique

As an initial investigation into the emergent church, here are some thoughts on three books by a leading figure in that movement, Brian McLaren.

A New Kind of Christian

This book identifies some real problems correctly but offers no solution beyond, "Keep busy." It was my first full encounter with what is sometimes called "postmodern Christianity" or the "emergent church" and I found very little to interest me.

To be fair, I did also start to read before this some book titled "Morph!" by an author whose name escapes me (because like this book, its content was memorably unmemorable; and I dropped it after the third exegetical mistake) but I recall enough to say that it had this in common with McLaren's book. My responses were just as able to be summed up as:

I'll sum up what I learned from this book about postmodern Christianity and the so-called emergent church so far:

  1. It does correctly discern some real problems in the church today -- individualism, and decontextualizing the Bible, and modern evangelism as a sales pitch. Unfortunately it doesn't realize that it gives us more of the same. McLaren's dialogue between two characters lays heavy emphasis on personal experience (that's an "individualism" thing) and in places where I would have loved to have seen, "to find out what this part of the Bible means, let's check this commentary" all I got was stuff like let the Holy Spirit lead you and don't put the text in a straitjacket and it's pointless to argue [47] anyway.

    McLaren doesn't seem to be someone who'd care much for scholarship or even be aware of it; there's some issue made early on about how radio preachers disagree with each other, and that seems to be offered as a reason for just giving up when it comes to discerning the meaning of the text. I have seen that in other books he actually makes use of N. T. Wright, but after this one I'm hard pressed to see how he'd have any idea what Wright was talking about.

    A discussion on slavery [50] was a perfect place to appeal to contextualizing scholarship showing how early Americans misused the Bible on the point (as abolitionists of the day even showed) but McLaren never gets past simple "how do we know what interpretation is correct" and the spectre of diverse interpretation.

    "Ignorant preacher[s]" are excoriated [65] for mocking Buddha or Mohammed. I can go with that -- so what about informed apologists? It would be nice if McLaren let us know whether his "inclusive" approach to evangelism (in other words, let's emphasize how you can get in, not how you're kept out) made it clear whether it was all right for a qualified person to say when another religion was in error. Jesus indicates that there will be people ultimately excluded from the Kingdom of God. What will he tell his convert to the "inclusive" Jesus when they find these very exclusive passages from Jesus' mouth?

  2. The main purpose of postmodern Christianity is not to give you an answer but to put you off finding one by keeping you busy.
  3. Being fresh is a priority. Of course I also read this in terms of the prior book which indicated that the author (a pastor, apparently) used things like "scent" and "sculpture" in his church to send the message. That said, being "fresh" is a bow to modern entertain-me selfishness and individualism, isn't it?
  4. Emergent Christianity seems to think that making "what if" statements such as, "What if faith were more like the earth than a building?" is somehow an argument that validates the point. It doesn't. McLaren seems to have a hard time getting from "what if" to "what is".

Some people call the emergent church leaders like McLaren heretics, and maybe they are and future readings will show me this myself, but from this book at least, all I got is that McLaren is in no hurry to provide answers, perhaps because he has none, or perhaps (as would be worse) he's so afraid of offending someone that he refuses to give them.

The Last Word and the Word After That

As readers may know, I do not hold any truck for the view of hell as eternal torture. I wish to emphasize this because of the perception that may arise that I am criticizing McLaren because of he is "watering down" hell. That is false; and I might well be accused of doing the same. Rather, I am criticizing McLaren because he is irresponsible.

I read about 60 pages of the book before I had to stop reading. McLaren constantly engages a sort of passive-agressive manipulation-by-whimsy-and-sympathy narrative; this is shown in how he tries to refute the usual view of hell (which, I again remind the reader, I do NOT endorse) with emotional rhetoric rather than reason and/or exegesis.

Neither of these, however, was the straw that broke the camel's back. What did THAT was his irresponsible scholarship, and particularly, his giving credence (by presentation in the mouths of characters) for ideas that resurrection was borrowed from Zoroastrianism and that the name "Pharisee" came from the word "Farsi, or Persian". [59]

It does not matter in the least that he also presented the correct view [61] of the definition of "Pharisee" or that his lead character said the "Farsi" interpretation was disputable (while also saying that if it was legitimate, "it's very significant".) Christian postmodernism operates under the pretense of having a "discussion" and while discussion is hardly a bad thing, when it is used as a cover for error, it is appalling.

As readers may also know, I have done my research on Zoroastrianism and Judaism. I have also looked into the issue of Judaism and the afterlife. It is this research that shows me that in presenting both views as though equally valid, McLaren writes in error and that his cover of "discussion" is indefensible. As one who has already said that he finds debate over doctrine nauseating (see below), it is clear that this is merely an false reason for not doing critical research.

A Generous Orthodoxy

When it comes to Generous Orthodoxy I could almost use the same review word for word above (on A New Kind of Christian if it were not for the cited page numbers.

Is there anything I can add that's different? No, not really. McLaren says from the start that "the last thing I want is to get into nauseating arguments about why this or that form of theology" is right [23-4] which signals to the intelligent reader that he doesn't have the spiritual fortitude to do so in the first place. When an author says things like "clarity is sometimes overrated" [27] and says he goes out of his way to be unclear, what we're seeing is a lack of something else disguised as playful wisdom and self-effacement; to the point that when McLaren spends pages admitting he isn't or may not be competent to address certain subjects, one wants to ask him, "Then why are you writing books on this?"

We are all better served by reading serious works of Biblical scholarship than the works of Brian McLaren.

-JPH