Responding to Brian McLaren’s Response to Me

kinnon —  February 22, 2010 — 29 Comments

UPDATE 2: Scot McKnight's two star review of A New Kind of Christianity is up at Christianity Today. Scot says this about Brian's "Greco-Roman soul-sort narrative,"

McLaren's soul-sort narrative is a caricature of a narrative that no responsible thinker really believes or teaches in the bald, insensitive, and barbaric ways described in this book. It's a caricature of Romans 5. [emphasis added]

McKnight is less than impressed with McLaren's book and almost seems to be responding to my question of Brian on the creeds,

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. [emphasis added]

Scot does have a few positive things to say about the book – after all he does give it two stars. Please make a point of reading the full review at CT.

UPDATE: Dave Fitch weighs in with McLaren’s New Kind of Christianity – There’s a parting of the ways here – and that’s alright – Towards a New Missional Nicaea (Someday)

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I have a number of very good friends here in Toronto and spread across either side of the 49th Parallel who read my first draft of this post. They suggested I take a second run at it. Here's that run.

Last week, brother Brian McLaren wrote a long response to me in which he referred to me as a "Master Blogger." A less naive person than moi would probably wonder whether Brian's title for me, Shakespearean in it's subtlety, might be evoking images of a pajama-clad blogger engaged in certain solitary pursuits. I'll just say, "Gee, thanks for the compliment, Bri."

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My first attempt at response elicited this Batman cartoon from one friend, who suggested it might be a more succinct response than my original.

I really don't want to engage in a protracted back and forth with Brian, but I do want to mention a few things.

Brian responds to my concern with the hyperbole on the jacket copy of his book where it is asserted that "not since the Reformation have so many Christians come together to ask whether the church is in sync with their deepest beliefs and commitments" and that "the person who best represents them is author and pastor Brian McLaren."

Brian tells me that "authors don't write cover copy, and a lot of us complain about and are embarrassed by what's written, which is why we write books and not advertising copy." Fair enough. I guess I'd be embarrassed too – not that anyone would ever suggest I best represent anyone but myself, eh!

In my concerns with Brian wanting to frame how people review his magnum opus, he does a bit of mea culpa around the Curious / Fundamentalist quiz – saying he meant to be playful and apparently it backfired. Indeed. He finds himself in complete agreement with Scot McKnight in how that quiz could be misread. So was I (in agreement with Scot, that is.)

In his response to me, Brian also responds to Darryl Dash whom I quoted (in part),

I’ve found that there are ways to end a discussion before it even begins. It’s easy: you set the terms of the discussion so that if you disagree with me, then it’s clearly because you have a problem, so it’s no use even continuing.

Brian writes,

I've apparently failed to make my intentions clear enough to preclude this implication, and I'm sorry about that. Let me try to put it positively: where you see me trying to shut down debate, I feel I'm trying to create space for some important questions to be raised. In other words, many of us feel things are pretty well shut down before we start, so we have to try to clear a little space for dialogue. As you know, in many of our religious settings, that's not easy. I'm trying to do this because, like you, I encounter so many people who are being crushed and smothered in environments where they have questions but aren't given breathing room to ask them. [emphasis added]

Brian, this seems all well and good. It reminds me of Brian McLaren – speaking version; the one I've heard on a number of platforms. But as one friend wrote after reading your response to me, "I don't know how to reconcile McLaren's response to you with his book!"

I have to agree with him.

In your book, you take a very different tack with those of us who would disagree with you in how you choose to interpret scripture – particularly John 14.

[Note: A pdf of Brian's understanding of John 14, particularly verse 6 is available here if you don't have the book and aren't planning on purchasing it.]

There's an expression I have sometimes heard used in terms of rhetoric where someone "uses a nuclear device where a hand grenade would do." Brian uses the nuclear option on pages 212-214 (as well as elsewhere in the book, might I suggest) to respond to those of us with, shall we say, a more "traditional" approach to the Scriptures.

We who would reject Brian's interpretation of John 14 as a result of our "Greco-Roman mind" are (Pg 213) in "perpetual anxiety," "always driven for more, more, more," our only "logical hope for the future: a world (here or after death) where "they" are gone forever and where the only ones left are "pure us," as "(they) don't really have the same right to exist that (we) do. So that when it comes to "them," (we) only have five options:"

A: Convert & assimilate – their otherness eliminated
B: Colonize & dominate "them" – making "them" subservient/useful to "us".
C: Ignore, exclude "them" – keeping them away from "us"
D: Fight, persecute, shame & keep "them" off balance and intimidated
E: " Cleanse" the world of them through mass murder – leaving only "us"

[From the bottom of Page 213 – abridged]

Wow, Brian!

One might almost think you were calling 'us disagreeable folk,' ethnic-cleansing fascists. I hear members of the audience suggesting, "Godwin's Law" or at least "reductio ad Hitlerum". If this doesn't "shut down debate" then what does. Now, I would agree that a nuclear device is rather effective at "creating space" but there is little left to talk about after using it.

You bemoan Greco-Roman minded, traditionalist readers of Scriptures as creating an "us – them" environment – but might I humbly suggest that that is exactly what you are doing, Brian.

The Wizard of Ads, Roy Williams (casual friend and publisher of my little book from 2006, A Networked Conspiracy) seems to respond to this very thing in another very good Monday Morning Memo. It begins with excerpts from Moses life story, but this is what I'd like to highlight,

If history can be trusted as a guide, we’re now entering the time of a power struggle. Everywhere it will be “us” versus “them.” And both sides will believe they work purely for the common good. "God is clearly on OUR side."

“You don’t care enough about global warming,
or free enterprise,
or civil liberties,
or the rights of the unborn,
or the downtrodden in Tibet.
You’re not committed to family values
and you don’t recycle.
You don’t support our troops.
Frankly, we’re disappointed in you.
You’re not doing your part.
Shape up.”


The coming zealot will want to make sure you’re doing your part for the team. You’ll be interrogated, evaluated and castigated. When you have capitulated, you’ll be authenticated, approximated and appropriated. In the end you’ll be assimilated. [emphasis added]

As your zealotry, Brian, revolves around your Greco-Roman thesis, let's deal with that again.

Your response to me would suggest you didn't recognize that I was using humour (it's a Canadian thing) when I did the whole Paul – Greco-Roman dance. In fact, I pointed you at Dr. Mike Wittmer, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at GRTS and his blog post that deals with this Greco-Roman mind "theory" in your book. You make no mention of Mike in your response so I have no idea whether you have had the time to read Mike. (As an aside, my buddy, the iMonk, did a great interview with Mike last July – which is how I learned about Dr. Wittmer.)

Your book strongly suggests that you do not trust the motives of people like Mike – with his seminary education, his Hebrew and Greek reading, his seminary associate professorship, in fact. You appear to see people like Mike as "guards" who keep us "content under the dome", using a Truman Show analogy,

The chains, locks, bars, and barbed wire that hold us are usually disguised so well that they have a homey feel to us. We see our guards not as guards at all, but as pleasant custodians in clerical robes or casual suits. They've been to graduate school where many of them mastered the techniques of friendly manipulation, always with a penetrating smile and a firm, heavy hand on the shoulder. We like them. They like us. [ANKoC, Page 31]

So in spite of your view of Mike as one of the guards, I'm wondering, if just for me, you could give him a hearing. Mike says this about your theory,

Since Brian’s entire book hinges on this Greco-Roman thesis, I need to say a few words about it.

1. Brian does not give an argument for this thesis. He simply says that it dawned on him in conversation that the traditional understanding of the biblical narrative came from the Roman Empire, which picked it up from Plato. Brian’s hubris here qualifies him for Stephen Colbert’s Alpha Dog of the Week. Brian’s entire book rests on his belief that Christians have confused the biblical narrative with Plato and Caesar, and yet he does not give an argument as to why this is so. We could just take his word for it, except that there is good reason to think that he is wrong.

2. The Christian understanding of creation, fall, and redemption differs dramatically from Plato’s pagan version.
a. Creation: the Bible says the entire world, including its physical aspect, is good. Plato taught that the material world is evil (matter is the matter).
b. Fall: the Bible teaches that our problem is moral rebellion, with ontological consequences (such as death). Plato taught that our problem is ontological (we are trapped in bodies) and epistemological (we are ignorant of our true home).
c. Redemption: the Bible teaches that salvation is moral, with ontological consequences (e.g., resurrection). Plato taught that salvation occurred through education.

At every point in the story Christian orthodoxy contradicts Plato’s narrative. So how exactly does Brian think that our story came from Plato? [emphasis in original]

Mike writes a lot more about your book at his blog. I think you might find some of it edifying even though I expect you will think him a zealot on the other side of the "us-them" barrier.

Since that first Greco-Roman Pauline comment of mine, I stumbled across this post from Nathan Gilmour. He is not a Theologian, but rather is finishing his Ph.D in English. Nathan does, however, read Hebrew and Koine Greek, which probably impacts his understanding. Nathan has a multi-paragraph response to your Greco-Roman thesis and in that he says this,

If all of that sounds familiar through the haze of misused Greek texts, it’s because the “Greco-Roman narrative” that McLaren would impose upon Plato and Aristotle (the tag team!) is far more akin to what Origen, Augustine, and other Christian writers would call the narrative of creation, fall, and redemption. Although certain iterations of that narrative sequence deserve criticism, McLaren does nobody any favors (especially those of us who love teaching Plato) by inventing a syncretic thought-system that simply does not exist in classical texts and then loading that cumbersome burden on some of Christianity’s best tutors.

You explicitly reject the creation, fall and redemption story that so many of the early Church fathers rather strongly support. You don't buy the concept of the atonement where Jesus became full payment for our sins or even full victory over the powers of darkness who enslaved us. Original sin would just seem so silly to you.

In a comment reminiscent of Penn Gillette on proselytizing, Christopher Hitchens could almost be seen responding to you in an interview for Portland Monthly with Unitarian Minister Marilyn Sewell earlier this year.

Sewell: The religion you cite in your book is a generally fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take the stories from the scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement (that Jesus died for our sins, for example). Do you make any distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?

Hitchens: I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.

Now I'm just a simple and sinful blogger who makes my living in television production. I only have an undergraduate degree and that's from way back in the late '70's. I hated Philosophy in University and have never read Plato or Aristotle – although apparently I did have a few Platonic relationships while in University.

Door-w-woodgrain-1-1.jpg

My truly uneducated concern with your Greco-Roman Thesis, Brian, is where was the Holy Spirit all that time? You and your friends basically agree that the church has been off the rails since Constantine – until you all began working to put the Church back on the rails. [Warning: Sarcasm Phaser has been set to Stun.] Was the Holy Spirit on vacation? Did he have some kind of outside-of-space-and-time virus? Because according to your thesis, the Holy Spirit is strangely absent.

As I see it, when Jesus said that when He left us, He would send the Paraclete, the One who would walk beside us, the Holy Spirit, Jesus didn't mention any best-before expiration date,

"By the way friends, just so that you know, around May of 325, my Holy Spirit is going to be taking a break. I'm not sure when He'll be back. But, don't worry. He will come back."

I realize that this has become a sarcastic response and I'm sorry that I don't feel bad about that, but this is what I meant when I wrote in my previous post about you and your book, "Elvis has left the building. There's no there there." Your writing strongly suggests an ineffectual Holy Spirit. And I simply won't buy that. Rather than a low view of the Holy Spirit, it appears to be a no view of the Holy Spirit.

Now, I could continue in this vein with many of your other points but I think it all boils down to your approach to the Scriptures.

You tell us at the beginning of Chapter Six – The Biblical Narrative in Three Dimensions that you feel you have "an accidental advantage working for (you). You weren't formally trained in theology." You go on to say, "My training taught me to read for scenes and plots, not doctrines; for protagonists and antagonists; not absolute and objective truth…" I think we get the drift.

Because you've been trained to read Shakespeare you would suggest you have a better understanding of how to read the Bible. Are you really suggesting that every other Christian theologian or simple student of the Word, whether Evangelical Protestant, Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, reads the Scriptures with no sense of poetry, story, narrative arc or anything else you may have been taught whilst at Graduate School at the University of Maryland? As Dr. Wittmer points out, 'every seminary of any worth teaches something called hermeneutics'. Is this not the very thing you suggest they don't?

Your "accidental advantage" leads you to insist that we have "gotten ourselves into such a mess with the Bible" that there will be "no new kind of Christianity without a new approach to the Bible." (Pg 67-68) Your solution is the Bible as Library – or may I call it, the Biblary.

Let me bring this rather long response to a close with an appeal once again to the Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright from this paper, which was a part of the book Scripture’s Doctrine and Theology’s Bible (2008 Baker Academic – Grand Rapids, MI, pages 59-71)

To say that I want to begin to address this with some remarks about Scripture and narrative may provoke a sigh from at least some dogmaticians: "That is so last century, so postliberal. They are even giving it up at Yale now. Can any good thing come out of narrative?" Well, as a reader of Scripture, I perceive that the canon as it stands not only is irreducibly narrative in form, enclosing within that, of course, any number of other genres, but also displays an extraordinary, because unintentional to every single individual writer and redactor involved, overall storyline of astonishing power and consistency. You could say, of course, that this is all due to those who chose the books and shaped the canon, but if you look at the ones they left out, you would have to say either that even if you put them all in, you would still have the same narrative or that if you put some of them in (the gnostic Gospels, for instance), you would precisely deconstruct what would still be a huge, powerful narrative and offer instead a very different one from which, ultimately, you would have to exclude more or less everything else that is there. The gnostic Gospels, if made canonical, would eventually act like the baby cuckoo in the nest, kicking out all the native chicks, but if the chicks got together where they had landed on the ground, they would still have a massive family likeness.

You cannot, in the end, take the anticanonical rhetoric of much contemporary writing to its logical conclusion without ending up having the canon again, only now as the alternative narrative. No: what we have, from Genesis to Revelation, is a massive narrative structure in which, though Paul, the evangelists, and John of Patmos are, of course, extremely well aware of the earlier parts, no single author saw the whole or knew about all its other parts. It is as though engineers from different workshops were invited to produce bits and pieces of cantilevers which ended up, when put together without the different work-shops knowing of it, producing the Forth Bridge. [emphasis added]

The Forth Bridge is magnificent – a marvellous example of man's ability to design beautiful and functional structures. Allow me to point, however, at something else we humans seem even more able to create – convoluted, structurally unsound, monuments to our own special wisdom. The Sutyagin house – a rather telling example.

Using the graphic below, may I suggest that as N.T. Wright sees the beauty of the Scriptures' construction like that of the Forth Bridge, Brian's description of the Scriptures as a library, a much more haphazard collection of stories, myths and a little bit of truth – is like that of the construction of the Sutyagin house – a house which has now been demolished.

Wrightmclarenbibles-1

Let me bring this to a final end here by reminding folk that though I disagree with Brian's book vehemently – I still regard him as my brother-in-Christ, however badly mistaken his theology might be.

kinnon

Posts

A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

29 responses to Responding to Brian McLaren’s Response to Me

  1. Wow – you sound so angry and it seems that you have people cheering you on in that direction – I guess even if Brian is wrong I would rather be on his side – at least he doesn’t sound so mean and sarcastic in his response to you.

    I am also reminded that William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King, Jr also endured a lot of criticism when they went up against the “traditional” understanding of scripture.

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  2. Hansel and Gretel’s bread trail back home was eaten by birds. They became lost and could not find their way back home.

    The doctrinal trail that used to lead back to the redemptive core of Christ has become obscure and has been “eaten” by intellectualism, philosophy, literary prowess, and the insatiable search for the mercurial “new”. Perhaps the greatest and most effective deceptions are the “guides” who confess a level of orthodoxy and creed acknowledgement, and who are far more gentle and humble than are many who espouse historical orthodoxy.

    In the end, we may find that truth was far more profound and relevant while being wrapped in simple elegance. The church has lost her path, however we must search for THE path and not create another, more exciting and post modern, and one which leads away from the woodcutter’s house.

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  3. Hmmm…this reminds me of the scene from Lewis’ “The Silver Chair” when the Lady of the Green Kirdle threw her magic powder on the fire and tried to lull Jill and Eustace and Prince Rilian and Puddleglum into believing, with her soothing voice, that there were no sun-lit lands under blue skies, that the sun was just a bigger lamp and Aslan was just a bigger cat … and the only thing that would snap them out of her spell was the harsh smell of burnt Marshwiggle feet that resulted when Puddleglum realized the source of their bondage and stamped out the fire.

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  4. Bill, I hear passion and conviction here.. as well as some frustration. But I don’t hear a closed conversation. And you’ve hit some of the issues bang on. I’m hoping Brian will write another response..

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  5. Liz, I would point out that Paul to the Galatian church probably sounded rather angry as well. One must also point out that anger is godly in its purest form. If I say I love my wife, but then she gets raped and murdered, and I am not angry about it, you must question my love for my wife. If I say I love something (in the care of those who do not like this book, TRUTH) then I must likewise hate the LIE.

    And would also point out that the Bible (specifically) Elijah used sarcasm in dealing with the 400 Prophets of Baal. When they called their “god” and he did not come he told them that their god was either on a long trip or relieving himself in the bathroom.

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  6. Hmmm … Liz, Wilberforce and King, Jr. did go up against a traditional understanding of scripture, but they did not tear down the foundation, scatter it about and say the whole thing was wrong.

    Please, think very carefully about what you are saying here. You seem to be saying that you’d rather have velvet shackles than freedom that bites. You are indeed free to choose that.

    For me, I will choose Christ and his freedom, even though it bite, every day. And every time.

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  7. Liz, if you’ve read Bill’s blog for a while you should be used to his sarcastic way of tackling rather serious issues. Can we look passed the style (and whatever we may read into it) and deal with the actual issues?

    If Brian has consistently spoken up in the past against a “us vs. them” mentality, he should be able to explain why we’re supposed to pick sides now again.

    And I sincerely hope that we all don’t mix up strong disagreements with some kind of inevitability to pick sides. We’d all like to think that God is on our side of the argument. What if He’s on neither side? What if He’s just on our side, period?

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  8. Bill, thank you for your post… it is very helpful (and as a fellow Canadian, I appreciate your sense of humour).

    I must admit that I was a bit startled by your last statement: “Let me bring this to a final end here by reminding folk that though I disagree with Brian’s book vehemently – I still regard him as my brother-in-Christ, however badly mistaken his theology might be.”

    Particularly when reflecting upon your quote of Hitchens: “I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.”

    Someone who denies Jesus Christ as creator, denies original sin and sin nature, denies the need for the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ yet calls themselves a Christian is actually worshiping a false christ. I cannot call that person a brother in Christ because they are not of the same Christ that the Bible reveals to us.

    Paul commended the Bereans for searching the scriptures daily to test that what was being taught to them was of God. When we test what Brian McLaren teaches against scripture, it radically fails the test.

    In fact, his post-modern / emergent way of twisting, turning and questioning the meaning of scripture bears striking resemblance to the means by which the serpant deceived Eve in Gen 3:1. The serpants attack was not an overt request to directly disobey God, but rather an attack on interpretation of God’s Word “Did God really say…”. One might argue that original sin occurred before the actual act of eating the forbidden fruit… that it actually occurred at the time of the act of human pride, arrogance and rebellion in the human heart when God’s very Words were challenged, questioned and and re-interpreted to justify the actual action of disobedience.

    Brian might be a very nice, kind and gracious fellow, but if he is preaching a false christ, I cannot call him a Brother in Christ.

    Best regards,

    Scott

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  9. Thanks for your comment, Scott. Please see the post I link to in that last sentence that unpacks this further.

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  10. Lots to comment on, Bill, but at this late hour the thing that got me the most was this masterful sentence:

    “I hated Philosophy in University and have never read Plato or Aristotle – although apparently I did have a few Platonic relationships while in University.”

    I snorted! Nice.

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  11. Bill, your recent posts seem to pointing out where you see evil, even where others are unable to see it. I’d urge you to spend some time reflecting on today’s meditation from Richard Rohr:

    Jesus gives us a totally different way of dealing with evil—absorbing it in God (which is the real meaning of the suffering body of Jesus) instead of attacking it outside and in others. It is undoubtedly the most counter-intuitive theme of the entire Bible.

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  12. Bill, I’m not too keen on weighing into the specifics of this book, but 2 aspects of your post got me really thinking.

    Firstly, I commented the other day with some parallels I saw between some of the emergent tendency toward revolution and certain views of Marx and Engels. What I missed then was the Greco-Roman thesis. There’s an essay by Friedrich Engels “On the Early History of Christianity” (published 1894) that argues (based on Bruno Bauer) that only the very earliest church (long before even most of the NT was written) was a genuine form of Christianity, and that the church rapidly absorbed Greco-Roman ideas – he shows “Philo’s and particularly Seneca’s influence on emerging Christianity”. Apparently the earliest church was a subversive movement of the proletariat.

    Secondly, I think your pointer towards NT Wright is significant beyond just Wright’s unfolding of the grand narrative. Wright has also been quite foundation-shifting in some viewpoints (e.g. he’s not averse to proposing an interpretation of a parable that goes against the way it’s been interpreted as long as anyone can remember). However, Wright is (a) incredibly well-studied and backs views up with great reasoning and (b) orthodox and supportive of the church. We might mix metaphors and say he can tip over sacred cows but avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

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  13. I had the same thought as Scott. How can you call someone a “brother-in-Christ” who denies everything that is known as Christian? And, I’m sorry, your response to Scott doesn’t satisfy. I can see your point(maybe not agree with it) that Brian isn’t a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but he is certainly not a Christian-as the term is historically known. He does not display any knowledge of the second birth that Christ spoke of to Nicodemus. He displays nothing more than what is commonly known as “works-righteousness”-living as Christ taught (specifically in the sermon on the Mount), but without any heart knowledge of his sin and need for a Savior.

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  14. “Thus says the LORD: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls” Jeremiah 6:16

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  15. Hi Bill,

    I have to say, I too am suprised at your unwillingness to call Brian out as a “no-longer-Christian”. I’m sure he’s gracious, I’m happy that he’s been used to bring people to Christ, I’m willing to allow that he’s got a pastor’s heart and I’m in no doubt that his writings have struck a chord in you and many a Christian – and that they still do to this day! However, to deny what he is denying is to deny the gospel as two millenia of Christians have understood it to be (not to mention the declaration of the Bible about these things).

    And this despite his protestations about adhering to the creeds.

    Now, I’m happy to accept that Christians believe some crazy things. I am confident that there are people in the liberal Church of my youth who are saved, though they deny the Bible’s inspiration and go into weird and wonderful foreign waters. But according to you, Brian does not hold to historic Christianity. Apparently, his book defining a completely new Christianity is heretical in its wholescale reframing of Christianity, but he himself is not a heretic.

    My question for you, then, is: When will Brian be a heretic? And even more to the point, (because I am not of the opinion that heretics are necessarily non-Christians), What will Brian have to do or say to be considered a “no-longer-Christian”?

    And another question: Brian may not be a wolf (as described in Acts 20:29 for example), but given all you have written, surely his portrait can be found in Acts 20:30!

    Please note: I have not read any of Brian’s books. I have no dog in this fight. I am merely going by your own words and wondering how you can escape these conclusions. Could you explain further?

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  16. Scot, Jim and Ali,

    Ultimately only God knows where Brian stands in terms of what he believes, as God knows with each of us. I appreciate what you three are saying but please note that I have taken a very hard stand against what Brian espouses in his latest book – calling it heretical. I do not think it my place to decide whether Brian is a non-believer or not. As a friend once reminded me, there is only room for One Person on the Judgment Seat of God – and that person ain’t me.

    That may not satisfy you but that is where I stand.

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  17. Yeah, not so biblical, but if that’s where you want to position yourself, no worries.

    Do remember, it is possible to say someone has stepped over the line judging by their confession and do it in a loving way.

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  18. Brian is not the first person who has wanted to rewrite the Gospel to be more accommodating to a contemporary audience. This is what I see him doing.

    Having taught a New Testament introduction class to undergraduates, I can understand why he feels the need. I was absolutely surprised by their absolute ignorance about the Bible. There is no other word to describe the total lack of any reference point between these students and the people, stories and message of the Bible. That doesn’t mean that we have to create a Christianity that is compatible to their level of knowledge and interest, or even their values. It just means that we have hard work to do to communicate the story that exists in the Bible.

    I do find that there are competing narratives that are spiritual and religious, without being biblical. They aspire to give people a sense of connection to things that are sacred. And what I’ve found as I’ve talked with people who reject traditional Christianity is that they don’t see the connection between the Big Idea of the Gospel, and the small ideas of how they live their lives on a daily basis. They are not interested in the Big Ideas, but in the small ones.

    From my perspective, the general attempt to rewrite the Christian narrative for a modern/post-modern context ends up not creating a Christianity that has universal appeal, but rather a Christianity that is my own private religious faith. It reminds me of what I read in a Self Magazine article from 1997. Here’s the first paragraph.

    Spirituality being the individual subject it is, I think you should know where this reporter is coming from. There is a Buddha in my backyard, a Mexican santo on my mantel and a yoga mat in my bedroom. But my heritage is definitely Protestant: My father’s father was a Congregational minister, my great-grandfather on my mother’s side a Presbyterian minister, and regular church attendance was a given in our household. I myself joined the church at 13 but became a skeptic in college and renounced organized religion as hypocritical. Yet I returned to the fold a few years later when I thought that I — my two children — could use spiritual support. The community of my big-city church, the opportunity to interact with people from many walks of life and different races, nourished me immensely. Now I am churchless again. I grew tired of being preached to. Instead, I follow my own path — relying on messages from many traditions instead of the doctrine of any one religion. I practice yoga and look to its ethics for guidance, but I do not consider myself given over entirely to any one way. I believe I can grow in understanding — as long as my mind and heart are open.
    Self magazine, December 1997, p. 134.

    If religion is a collection of beliefs and activities that give life meaning, it doesn’t matter what we believe as long as we are earnest. But if religion is a representation of an understanding of the purpose of life in this world that transcends my own life, then what we believe does matter. What we can’t do is divorce ourselves from the social, cultural, ideological and personal contexts that affect how we view these ultimate questions. As a result, we should individually approach these questions with a good deal of skepticism about our own personal motives.

    Based on what I’ve read here, Brian’s latest book is a very personal description of his own journey. Does it constitute a redefinition of historic Christianity? I doubt it. He joins a long line of people both liberal and conservative who have gone before him to attempt a transformative restatement of the Christian faith.

    As one who has had theological training, and who also reads regularly with great benefit and enjoyment Plato, Aristotle and other Greek and Roman philosophers, the traditional view of atonement is a Hebraic idea. This is one of the reasons why Paul rejects Hellenistic philosophy, and why even to this day, theologians see the 4th century BC Greeks as antithetical to the Christian faith.

    The most prevalent Greco-Roman idea today is the belief that through learning and discipline that human beings can progress and find completeness. Read Aristotle’s Ethics on mastering the virtues. It is so very contemporary. The individualism captured in the Self Magazine quote is Greek, not Hebrew. It is important to understand that historically the Christian faith and the church have been an uneasy amalgam of the Greco-Roman and the Hebrew. That is our historical context as Christians.

    I welcome this discussion because it forces each of us to search our own understanding of Christ, his purpose, the church and the faith to see what we truly believe. Thanks Bill for making it such a provocative discussion.

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  19. Wow Bill! I really want to respect your critique because I think you raise a few good issues (along with several, what appear to me at least, major misunderstandings of what Brian is saying – though perhaps it’s just a matter of interpretation), however I have to say that it’s really hard to get past what seems to me like a massive amount of snark, sarcasm, and general passive aggressiveness. I’m hoping you meant it all in a sense of playful banter, but that’s not really how it comes across.

    One example of passive aggressiveness that I notice out there in the blogosphere a lot (and perpetrated by myself on plenty of occasions too I’m sure) is when folks critique the way something is said rather than the actual content of what is being said. For example, you bring up Brian’s five ways that “Greco-Roman” Christians (and I have problems with that label of Brian’s too) can respond to religious “others”, and yet all you do is complain because his options seem too harsh and unfair to you. But what you don’t do is offer a sixth option that you think better represents what those who disagree with Brian’s own approach might advocate. I mean, if Brian is being unfair and misrepresenting y’all, then it shouldn’t be too hard to show that your alternative is substantially different than his five options. On the other hand, if your answer to this question does in fact fall into one of those five categories, then shouldn’t you just own that and deal with, no matter how much you don’t like the way it comes across? (Just speaking personally, back when I was still a conservative evangelical myself, I’d have to be honest and say that my own answer, and the one that seemed most prevalent in the evangelical circles I ran in, was option A. We did in fact want to convert everyone in the world to the Christian religion, and fervently prayed and worked towards this end.)

    Personally I think this is one of Brian’s gifts, and what I think angers his critics so much: i.e. his ability to frame things in ways that make their negative implications very clear and unavoidable. After all, you might not want to call your approach “convert and assimilate”, but isn’t that ultimately what evangelicals advocate we should try to do with all non-Christians? Or, to take another issue raised in the book, it might not be pleasant to recognize that the conventional six-line narrative of Christianity (whether we call it “Greco-Roman” or whatever, I think it’s undeniable that something like it exists in Christianity) essentially divides all of humanity into a small handful who are “saved” and a vast majority who will suffer eternal conscious torment, nor is it pleasant to honestly consider what “eternal conscious torment” really involves and whether we can worship a God who would do that to his creations, and yet it is what many Christians appear to actually believe (I know I certainly used to). I guess what I’m saying is don’t attack Brian for just putting clearly what many Christians actually believe. If you think he’s misrepresented you or your friends then provide your alternative, but if it’s what you actually do believe, then don’t just shoot the messenger for saying what you don’t want to hear.

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  20. How about:

    F) Love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself?

    I have met very few Christians that want to convert and assimilate people. Preach the gospel? Yes. Converting seems like God’s job, not humans, dontcha think? (By the way, I would include “preaching the gospel” as part of F) above.)

    “the conventional six-line narrative of Christianity… essentially divides all of humanity into a small handful who are “saved” and a vast majority who will suffer eternal conscious torment”

    I don’t doubt that many Christians believe this but the six line narrative that McLaren talks about is a major distortion of the Creation-Fall-Redemption narrative that I’m most familiar with (the Dutch Calvinism mentioned above). McLaren should be familiar with this narrative too, since he referenced Bob Goudzwaard quite extensively in EMC.

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  21. Actually, I think the point is that we do have a LOT of worries with the pat answer that “only God knows where Brian McLaren stands…” and using that as a reason to say he’s still a brother in Christ. Bill is correct in saying that God will be the judge, but God also expects his children to be discerning and not to follow just anyone who claims the name of Christ without testing what they teach against scripture.

    So, to Ali’s point of “not so biblical”… let’s get Biblical:

    First, regarding the seriousness of introducing heresy into the church: 2 Peter 2:1-3 (NIV) – “But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.”

    Second, regarding our responsibility as Christians to “test the spirits”: 1 John 4:1 (NIV) – “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

    Third, regarding our responsibility as lay-people to be discerning about who we choose as elders / pastors / deacons: 1 Tim 3:8-10 (NIV) – “Deacons, likewise, are to be men worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.”

    As I said in my previous post, “when we test what Brian McLaren teaches against scripture, it radically fails the test.” The scary thing is that many people who are following what Brian teaches think they are saved, when in fact they are still unrepentant, lost and need to be introduced to the true Jesus Christ and what it means to be forgiven of their sin and saved.

    When Brian shows evidence that he has repented and teaches the Christ of the Bible, then I will call him a brother in Christ… not before.

    Regards, Scott

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  22. Scott,

    I hear where you are coming from.

    I’m just wondering.

    I’m Arminian in my theology, believe in original sin, free will, prevenient grace, and that it is God’s desire that none perish, though many will. I believe that Jesus is the unique Son of God – fully God and fully man, that the Scriptures prophesied His coming and He fulfilled those Scriptures. I believed He died for our sins and rose again on the third day. After an extended period after the Resurrection, He ascended into the heavens. I believe there is no other way to God than through Jesus – fully affirming what He said in John 14:6 as being universal truth – rather than specific to the situation (as McLaren suggests). I believe Jesus will come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead.

    Do you think I’m a brother in Christ?

    Bill

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  23. Hi Bill,

    Oh, the significance of a single letter! 😉

    I will assume that “believed” in your sentence “I believed He died for our sins and rose again on the third day.” is actually a typo, and that you really meant to say “believe” 😉

    Do you also “confess Jesus is Lord”? If so, then yes, I consider you a brother in Christ.

    Regards, Scott

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  24. Scot, Jesus is Lord and I believed and still believe. And my favourite hymn is When I Survey The Wondrous Cross.

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  25. maybe loving and preaching or sowing, reaping and keeping on one side of the divide looks allot like convert and assimilate on the other. the danger of someone like Brian saying this is he’s not someone who’s only seen it from other side but someone who many thought was on our side.

    one could argue however that Brian’s new kind of christianity is an attempt to convert and assimilate too

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  26. Sorry Mike. I feel Brian’s entire Greco-Roman argument is fallacious and feel no real need to offer an F of whatever sort.

    Of course, perhaps when I have evolved as far as you apparently have, I will feel and write differently. Stay tuned.

    Oh. And when a writer of Brian’s skill creates a trajectory for Christians who disagree with his “Greco-Roman soul-sort narrative” that ends with them becoming genocidal fascists – sarcasm is a very appropriate response. I’m surprised you can’t see that. But perhaps we read different books.

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  27. Bill,

    Brand new poster, was drawn in by your first response to Brian’s NKOC. Wouldn’t crusades, Rwandan genocides (90% Christian at the time), the Reformers and Catholics killing Anabaptists all point to very real, very sincere Christians attempting to wipe out the opposition? Was Brian’s point that his current opponents would do this or that this has been an outcome of the us vs them mentality previously?

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  28. um guys, we do realize 1) it took the early church four centuries to agree on a christological formulation that said Jesus is God and that still did not settle an impossible matter, and 2) that this kind of quibbling is precisely what led to the rise of Islam (that and some loss of trade routes by Byzantium and Persia who were too busy fighting one another in the early 7th century). Old Mo was right to poke fun at the Jacobites, Nestorians, Melkites and Byzantines and Copts all of whom had nearly ex-communicated one another by the fifth century. (yes I know I am exaggerating here, but doing it to prove a point).

    In order to show you this issue is an impossible one, and has always been more about the assertion of power rather than spiritual truth (just as it was about Alexandria asserting its dominance over Antioch when Nestorius was used as a pretext to condemn thousands of honest folk in Syria), I ask you two questions 1) who and what is God and how could we get our heads around who or what he is anyway with any real precision? and 2) how could we state with any certainty that an equivalency exists between something we cannot define and another thing, regardless of how extraordinary, important, and seemingly reflective of the divine as was Jesus? Please go ahead and jump into the fray here, but realize its a fray littered with literalist carcasses (carc-asses? yes that too).

    I don’t know if you have ever tried to read Augustine’s On The Trinity, but I have. And the way he talks about the three in one there as three substances, as if this is some kind of chemistry problem where we assign a molecular structure to one entity and then say “here it is again” in the other two persons of the trinity is just wrong headed. You are trying to make metaphorical and religiously efficacious language conform to the kind of language used in the chemistry lab. I would say you are just jealous at how many people are excited about the whole emerging church phenomenon. Does it need critiquing? Yes, certainly, but not in the way you are going about it. Read Peter Rollins on the issue of idolatry and language and you’ll see the emerging church discussion has alot to bring to the table here, along with wisdom. Wisdom is lacking in trying to talk of the trinity in 9th grade chemistry-set language.

    Does Maclaren seem wishy washy on his christology? I answer that with another question: does the christian tradition seem wishy washy on it as a whole, which suggest overemphasis is waste of time and a case taking our eye of the ball, which is about the Kingdom.

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  29. Are you suggesting we carc-asses should not make carcasses of those dirty, no-good, wishy-washy, mamby-pamby heretics? 🙂

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