The journey of pastor, leader and author Brian McLaren is one that has attracted a lot of attention. He has sold a lot of books and spoken to thousands of people around the world. Over the years traditional conservative evangelicals have often reacted against Brian. This growing mistrust, sometimes for good reason, has only grown over the last five years in particular. Others, who are more liberal (some are anti-evangelical and anti-confessional) have followed each new book by Brian with incredible interest and profound appreciation. Consider the endorsers of Brian’s book, first a list of respected evangelicals and now, generally speaking, a list of fairly liberal Christian leaders and authors. I started reading Brian when his first book came out years ago. On the whole I would describe my view back then as one of appreciation. I encouraged missional thinkers to read him and to wrestle with his ideas, especially what he wrote in his first book: The Church On the Other Side. This is a book I still highly recommend. But about five years ago, with the publication of his three volume set of fictional works (A New Kind of Christian), I began to wonder where he would end up in his own faith journey.
First, in total fairness and for the sake of complete honesty, I have spent some time hanging out with Brian. I like him a lot! He is a neat guy. He is a self-effacing, humble and warm-hearted. He puts on no airs, welcomes interaction and disagreement and has always treated me with respect. I have discussed a few controversial points with him and found him as generous as you would expect from the author of a best-selling book titled: Generous Orthodoxy. (I required my apologetics classes, a few years ago, to read this book and discuss it with me. Overall, I rather liked it, with modest caveats.)
When I was still editing the Reformation & Revival Journal: A Quarterly for Church Leadership, I asked Brian if we could review Generous Orthodoxy and invited him to respond to a panel I assembled to critique his book. That panel included a professor of theology from a conservative Reformed seminary, an esteemed United Methodist minister who is a professor of theology in a mainline seminary and a working, thinking pastor who is one of the brightest guys that I have ever known. Brian responded well to the piece we did and in a later edition of Generous Orthodoxy praised it as one of the most fair-minded critiques of his work that he had read. I felt really good about that effort and Brian’s openness.
When Donald A. Carson’s book, Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church, was published we decided to do a major multi-author review in Reformation & Revival Journal. Much of Caron’s debated book was a devastating critique of everything related to the word emergent. It took special aim at Brian and clearly underscored some major problems that Carson saw developing in Brian’s published thoughts. Again I used three reviewers to gain some perspective on Carson’s controversial book. We all had certain reservations about Carson’s take no prisoners approach but we also agreed that we were not sure where Brian was going in his theology, at least from what we could tell by reading him. I think it was safe to say that he was in a state of flux. Brian has never been a true theologian. He is a popular, engaging communicator for mission and new ways of thinking. He is well-read but does not always do the most careful scholarship. This is part of his appeal.
During Jim Belcher’s research on his popular book Deep Church I arranged an interview with Brian, Jim and me to help Jim get information for his now well-known book. We discussed a number of topics and disagreed on some of the things we discussed. Brian never became angry or aggressive but remained cordial, helpful and non-defensive toward Jim and me both. This lunch was related to the Ancient-Future Faith Conference held at Northern Seminary a few years back. What has been increasingly clear to me, for at least five years, is that Brian McLaren was growing tired of evangelicalism. He seemed deeply disturbed by the whole enterprise and was willing to question everything. With each new book his frustration, and his concerted efforts to reform Christian thought around a whole new paradigm, was growing. What was also quite clear, if your have followed Brian’s very public journey through his books as I have done, was that Brian seemed on a trajectory that would take him further and further from ancient-future faith and historic Christian orthodoxy. Evangelicals, like myself, were actually growing weary of the next Brian McLaren book because we feared that it was only a matter of time until he would make it clear that he really had abandoned the confessional and historical markers that are essential to orthodox Christianity.
Now comes Brian’s newest book: A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith (HarperOne). Scot McKnight, one of the most respected orthodox blog writers on the Internet, refers to this new McLaren book as Brian’s “latest iteration of a project of deconstructing the old and reconstructing a new kind of Christian faith. In it, he poses . . . a question he asks of himself: "How did a mild-mannered guy like me get into so much trouble?" Or, as he asks one page later, "How did I get into this swirl of controversy?" Here is how Scot begins his very important review (which I urge you to read in full to get the whole of Scot’s powerful treatment of Brian’s newest book):
As a friend and a chronicler for two de
cades, I have watched Brian&
#39;s work. Generous Orthodoxy, gave us a critique of both sides and some glimpses of a third way, even if the book frustrated to no end by leaving too many loose ends dangling. I thought both The Secret Message of Jesus and Everything Must Change provided us with what could become an evangelical social gospel. Along the way, Brian has poked evangelicals in the eyes and chest by fixating on sensitive spots that bedevil them—not the least of which is the uneasy connection between the "spiritual" gospel and the "social" gospel. If evangelicalism is characterized by David Bebbington's famous quadrilateral—that is, biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism—then Brian has poked and, to one degree or another, criticized, deconstructed, and rejected each.
But Brian is not just pushing back against evangelicals in his new book. As Scot McKnight further notes: “He is also calling everything about Christian orthodoxy—from the ecumenical creeds through the Reformation and up to present-day evangelicalism—into question.” There are two major themes in Brian’s new book, themes which shape his ten questions. These two major themes are: (1) A critique of the Grecco-Roman narrative, and; (2) a proposal for a new way of reading the Bible. The topics of the ten questions that Brian suggests are transforming the faith of Christians as narrative, authority, God, Jesus, the gospel, the church, sex, the future (Scot says this chapter a kind of open-theism version of eschatology), pluralism, and praxis.
Brian paints a picture of what he believes is “conventional Christianity.” He has been doing this with increasing vigor in his last several books. The problem is that his picture here is not even close to the real thing. Brian suggests that what we need to do is re-read the Bible. When we do this what we get is “the evolving God” (McKnight’s term).
McKnight sees some keen insights in Brian’s thinking that we can learn from, insights which are almost always there in Brian and very often provocative and helpful. This is part of what brings me back to Brian even though I am growing weary of the whole enterprise with each new McLaren book. Scot suggests that Brian’s most important contribution is to encourage us to read the Bible in a way that keeps Jesus Christ central to the narrative. So far, so good. But the problem becomes self-evident if you know the history of the last two hundreds years of how various people have read Jesus and interpreted him, especially in the liberal circles of higher-critical reconstruction of the Bible. Brian uses, “Jesus against the God of Israel he worshiped and prayed to and loved and obeyed and pits us against what Jesus himself is doing” (McKnight). The problem is that Brian’s approach to Jesus has been tried and it has proven to be highly questionable to put this mildly. McKnight adds, painfully it seems to me since we have both loved and highly regarded Brian, “Unfortunately, this book lacks the ‘generosity’ of genuine orthodoxy and, frankly, I find little space in it for orthodoxy itself. Orthodoxy for too many today means little more than the absence of denying what's in the creeds. But a robust orthodoxy means that orthodoxy itself is the lens through which we see theology. One thing about this book is clear: Orthodoxy is not central.”
The problem with Brian’s new book, as Scot McKnight suggests, is that his ideas are not really new. They are very old. They are built, consciously or otherwise, on the kind of things taught by the famous Adolf von Harnack and then popularized by modern liberal theology of the most extreme sort. McKnight concludes: “For me, Brian's new kind of Christianity is quite old. And the problem is that it's not old enough.”
Sadly, I have to agree. I thank Scot for having the grace to write such a generous review and the courage to tell thousands of readers how Brian McLaren has moved away from ancient-future faith, or robust orthodoxy. He seems to have been moving this way for some time but there is not much doubt that this is where he now is in this new book. This is no cause for celebration. Some bloggers and reviewers will say, “I told you so.” Others will use this book to attack other authors and Christian leaders who they believe are following Brian on this road to something that is generous but no longer orthodoxy. (I have been so accused, which anyone who reads me fairly can tell easily enough is patently ridiculous!)
Frankly, it grieved me to read Scot McKnight’s review. I never celebrate when a man I have known and loved, and still love, wavers off the beaten path of the ancient faith. I will continue to follow Brian McLaren but my guess is that he will have less and less to say to me personally given my deep commitment to the gospel of Christ and the creeds of the ancient church. I am sure that he will now and again force me to think in healthy ways but overall I simply cannot follow his obvious course when “orthodoxy is not central.” Orthodoxy, by the very word itself, means that which renders health. Brian’s agenda will bring spiritual illness to man. I have personally given my whole soul to the paths of both orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Brian seems to have wondered off that path. I find this a great sadness, especially for Brian himself. I hope he will write a book, someday, that reveals a Brian who turns back toward the ancient paths, the way of faith confessed by classical Christians for two thousand years.
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It is quite easy to poke holes in modern evangelicalism, and doing so can bring popularity and notoriety in the short term. But as a general principal, I think that God always calls us to find the good, solid parts of the foundation left to us by Christians of previous generations and build on those, not to deconstruct/demolish everything and try to remake the Church to our own liking.
John, thanks for writing this. Very helpful indeed.
I continue to appreciate your willingness to make a sincere effort to separate things out in a charitable way. This kind of analysis is very useful. I could see my own past faith journey mirrored to some degree in the frustrations of Brian as one who also became very tired of evangelicalism as I’d experienced it.
I think the only things that kept me from going off in unorthodox directions (God’s grace underlying all) was that I had already dipped into Eastern religious thought and even some occult views (superficially) earlier in my life, so I knew there was nothing to go back to in that regard. Also, when I felt tempted to just drop the whole Christian thing the words of Peter remained in my mind as an irreducible core resistant to every spiritual fantasy I dreamed up. “Who else will we go to? You have the words of eternal life.”
Timely and thought-provoking. I have watched this metamorphisis in Brian for some time and I am glad to see someone like Scot McKnight have the courage to say the things he did (from my perspective, happily surprised although sad over the ordeal like you John).
In the end, maybe the next major internal theological war among Evangelicals will be between those who call for retrieval for the ancient path versus those who want to give it an extreme makeover and total overhaul (retrieval vs. reinvention).
Unforunately, the right and left witin Evangelicalism is getting as polarized as our American political system.
Evangelicalism is in need of restoration and renewal as well as retrieval. May God make a highway in the desert!
John, I would be interested to read your thoughts if you have the time (and inclination) to read Brian’s latest book.
Not that I would necessarily expect your conclusions to be much different from what they are having read Scot’s review. It’s just that I find reading a book for myself is a somewhat different experience from reading a review of it.