There has been much furor over Rob Bell and his recent book, Love Wins. Bell is just one of several authors, pastors and writers who make up the core of the movement called Emerging Christianity. Julie Clawson and Nadia Bolz-Weber, whose blogs I link to (way below on this page) are both emerging Christian authors.
However, the first name on most lips in the emerging movement is Brian D. McLaren. Like Bell, McLaren grew up within the evangelical Christian tradition, then departed from it, but not toward old Christian liberalism. McLaren himself claims to be a part of a world-wide reevaluation and rediscovery of the entire Christian experiment.
I have not read everything McLaren has written. However, even after four books, I can offer an opinion on his views. If you believe what I write and teach is pretty terrible stuff then McLaren’s views are just as bad as mine because he and I agree on quite a bit. Some examples:
- Brian McLaren does not read the Bible by starting with Christian doctrine about the Bible. Neither do I. When my classes are in Genesis toward the beginning of A Year in the Bible and people want to talk about Genesis, chapters 1 & 2 in terms of various arguments about the methods which God may or may not have used to develop creation into what it is today, or about Genesis, chapter 3 in terms of things which either Paul or Jesus said, I direct folks to what I call “the Watergate question:” “What did they know and when did they know it?” The same goes for Abraham and Moses: “What did they know and when did they know it?”
In other words, what was the author of Genesis or Joshua or I Samuel conveying to his audience in that day about their situation? That is usually the biblical question. And when we ask the same questions as the biblical authors asked we get a much better understanding of the whole story of God than we do when we ask our questions of the text. McLaren devotes a good deal of A New Kind of Christianity to questions about how to get back to the intent of the original biblical story-tellers.
- McLaren discusses what he calls “the sacred dream of the peaceable kingdom,” a theme which appears first in the law and later in the nation, especially, though briefly, in the reign of King David, only to be picked up by the prophets and refreshed during Israel’s time in Babylon when it is focused on a future servant of God who would restore the fortunes of Israel.
Using slightly different terms, I teach the same thing throughout AYB.
- McLaren does not explain Jesus in terms of the second through fourth century Greco-Roman theological discussion about Jesus as “modern” systematic theology usually does. He begins with creation and works forward, through Genesis, Exodus and the law, through King David to the prophets, to captivity in Babylon, through the founding of a new nation in the old land. That is how McLaren gets to Jesus.
So do I. Jesus is the culmination of several traditions of the old covenant narrative, good, old story lines which sometimes seemed mutually exclusive and contradictory in their day, like the “bless the nations” theme which comes all the way down from promises made to Abraham and the “conquer the nations” theme which comes down just as strongly from Deuteronomy through David and onward. How does Jesus fulfill both blessing and conquest? Now there is a good question which arises right from the whole, old story of God.
McLaren implicitly does not want to explain Jesus’ incarnation in terms of “persons” and “natures” in a “hypo-static union.” He wants to see Jesus as God’s answer to glory and the visitation of “the One Jesus called Our Father.”
I agree. That is how I teach Jesus.
- McLaren notes the modern failure of biblical authority, based as it is on proof-texting. He even uses the specific example of U.S. justifications of slavery prior to the Civil War to illustrate the failure of chapter-and-verse biblical authority. He quotes passages in which proponents of slavery claimed that Christianity itself would fall if the “unbiblical” views of abolitionists were successful in doing away with the ‘biblically sanctioned’ institution of slavery. He then notes, with some chagrin, that the method which those 19th century preachers and writers used to defend slavery by and through Scripture is the same method which he had used many times in sermons which he had preached himself!
The very same issue concerning my use of scripture crystallized for me during and after a 2005 visit to the historic Belle Meade horse-breeding plantation on the southwest edge of Nashville, Tennessee. The family which built that wealthy spread accumulated a massive fortune in just two generations on the backs of their slaves. The owners were good, bible-believing, God-fearing Christians who saw no problem at all with one person owning another and profiting completely from his or her labor. And they could prove from the Bible, chapter and verse, they were right. But they were wrong. And if they could be so wrong, reading and using Scripture in that way, then I was also wrong, at least wrong in how I was using the Bible.
- There is something more basic than “chapter and verse”. McLaren and I agree; it is the story of God. McLaren understands that in the long story we people are all called to participate in the redemption of creation, not to wait until we can escape from the earth to get to heaven. “Redemption is the restoration of creation” is a theme which I carry all the way through A Year in the Bible, beginning in Session 2 and continually reaffirming all the way through Session 52.
So, as I continue to read McLaren, I find his views to be more biblical than a lot of what passes for Christian “orthodoxy” today. Today’s “orthodoxy” insists we are all leaving earth for heaven at the end of our lives, never to return. “Biblical” Christianity today assumes God is only interested in redeeming human beings, whereas both McLaren and I (and many others) recognize that it is God’s aim to redeem all creation and everything in it.
Have I found problems with McLaren’s views? Sure. No two thinking people think alike. However, most of what I have found is simply a turn from the theoretical to the practical and experiential and a move away from pat answers to complex and even unanswerable questions. McLaren is a man who understands that faith has much less to do with a list of answers to theological questions and much more to do with one’s character, with the actions one takes, alone or together within community, based on trust in God. In the very first chapter of Finding Our Way Again, McLaren draws the significant distinction between Christian faith as a system of beliefs and Christian faith as a way of life. Modern Christianity has largely become the former but truly, the biblical story points us toward the latter.
Very occasionally in the past two thousand years, it has been dangerous to hold a specific system of beliefs. At such rare times assent to doctrine has been the risky upostasis (substantial, living proof) of genuine faith. However, whether a Christian believes this, that or the other thing has usually not made a denarius’ worth of difference to anyone. It has been several centuries since people in our society persecuted Unitarians or Nestorians (are there any Nestorians today?). Does anyone care if you believe in the ontological trinity? Yet the scriptures call us over and over to live risky lives of faith which inevitably push back at what is oppressive in our times. We are to live out of love in a world which does not understand it. Doctrine, Christian teaching, is important. McLaren says as much in within the dialogue which is the substance of McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian. And hey! I am a teacher! I teach that sound doctrine helps set the frame for faith as a way of life. But doctrine is no substitute for faithful living.
I have not finished reading McLaren but so far I have found an honest pilgrim who has been willing to upset some rotten theological apple carts which have long and seriously needed overturning. I find in McLaren a person I am coming to respect, a person who has demonstrated the courage of his convictions in the face of genuine hostility from some who claim to name Christ as their Lord and Savior. Of course, I have not read what is purported to be his most important work, A Generous Orthodoxy. Maybe that is where I will find the grounds for all the fear and furor, the views which have earned McLaren a reputation as a dangerous heretic.
Stay with me on this one. I will keep reading and I will report what I find.
Next week… On the Fall: I disagree with McLaren.