“Feelings, Oh, Oh, Oh, Feelings”

kinnon —  March 1, 2010 — 8 Comments

To suggest I was surprised by some of the reactions to my previous review posts on McLaren's A New Kind of Christianity would be disingenuous. I expected push back from folk who are Brian's fans and I certainly got it. What was disheartening, however, was the level at which some responded. One person called me "mean and nasty" and said she would side with McLaren simply based on how I wrote – somehow likening McLaren to Martin Luther King and William Wilberforce – she didn't like my sarcastic tone. (I'd suggest her hyperbole filter was broken.) In response to that comment, a friend emailed me to suggest I "might win the battle, but lose the war." Mean, nasty, war, battle – really?!

Now, there is no doubt that I responded strongly to McLaren's book and there is little need for me to rehash my points. But the fact that so many people, many who had yet to read the book, found it necessary to defend Brian rather than discuss the points of my argument – to suggest that I simply "misunderstood him" rather than being willing to discuss the points raised – to label me as a conservative rather than engaging with me as a somewhat sentient human being – suggests that we have lost the art of vigorous debate and only want to engage in what we have labeled "civil discourse." But really what we mean by that phrase is "we need to be nice to each other, talk to each other gently and never tell the other person they're wrong – 'cause that just wouldn't be nice, you know."

As an aside, I found it indicative of the problems in this discourse that a "reviewer" on Amazon gave Brian's new book a five star rating even though they had yet to read it. "I really feel that I have to make comments even before I read the book. Reading the book will not change the content of this comment." [emphasis added] At least the person is honest enough to tell us that reading the book will not change how they will feel about it.

Scot McKnight wrote a strongly negative response to Brian's book that was published at Christianity Today's site last Friday (February 26th.). At one point he dismissed the cornerstone of Brian's thesis, the 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]

Now, one can choose to read that as Scot being "mean and nasty" by the strength with which he makes his argument – or one could accept that this is a noted University Professor, speaking from within his field of expertise who is frustrated by the fallacious nature of McLaren's thesis and dismisses it out of hand. Although Scot and Brian are friends, Scot is not concerned about Brian's "feelings" here because he is vigorously engaging with Brian's argument.

Scot has invited people at Jesus Creed to discuss his CT review but felt it necessary to say this,

I like Brian, and I think Brian is a good man, and I think he said important things that we evangelicals need to hear, but what I think of Brian as a person is not the same as what I think of his latest book: A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith. So, I'd appreciate it if this review does not turn into a "I like Brian" or "I dislike Brian" contest. The issue is what he has written. [emphasis added]


My wife, Imbi is finishing Tom Wright's new book, Virtue Reborn (published in North America by HarperONE as After You Believe by N.T.Wright) and will be doing a review here in the next week or so.

As is normal for us when one of us reads a book we find particularly interesting or challenging, we read select parts to the other. Imbi read the quote below to me late Saturday evening – finding what the Bishop of Durham says therein particularly appropriate to the present discussion,

Part of our difficulty in the Christian world of late Western modernity has been that the mind, the faculty of thought and reasoning, has become detached. As happens if you have a detached retina in your eye, when you're thinking becomes detached you stop seeing things clearly. "Thought"and "reason" seem to have been placed to one side, in a private world reserved for "intellectuals" and "academics."(Note for example, the way in which sports commentators use the word "academic" to mean "irrelevant" as in "from now on the result of the race is academic.") Furthermore, we often speak of our thoughts as if they were feelings: in a meeting, to be polite, we might say "I feel that's wrong", because it sounds less confrontational than saying, "I think that's wrong". Similarly, perhaps without realizing it (which itself is a sign of the same problem!), we sometimes allow feelings to override thoughts: "I feel very strongly that we should do this" can carry more rhetorical weight than "I think we should do that" since nobody wants to hurt our feelings. As a natural next step, we allow feelings to replace thought processes altogether, so that what looks outwardly like a reasoned discussion is actually an exchange of unreasoned emotions, in which all participants claim the high moral ground because when they say, "I feel strongly we should to do this", they are telling the truth: they do feel strongly, so they will feel hurt and rejected if people don't agree with them. Thus reasoned discourse is abandoned in favour of the politics of the playground. (2010 SPCK, Virtue Reborn, Pg 134) [emphasis added]

No doubt there are many who read my reviews who "feel" that I reacted in a "mean and nasty" way to Brian. Again, there is no debate that sarcasm is a voice I often use at this blog. That being said, isn't choosing to simply react to that voice rather than engage with the points I've made – in some cases rather well, might I suggest 🙂 – exactly what Wright is talking about?

I think it's great some of you like Brian a lot and believe him to be a very nice man. I wouldn't debate that point with you for a nanosecond. But it is not Brian's character or personality I have "done battle with" but rather the ideas in his book. Ideas, might I add, that say some pretty "mean and nasty" things about those who disagree with those ideas. (And I back that statement up with actual quotes and page numbers in the previous reviews.)



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.

8 responses to “Feelings, Oh, Oh, Oh, Feelings”

  1. Hi Bill,

    I responded to your comment on my blog. Don’t know if you’ll get that or not.

    I don’t think you were mean or nasty. Sorry some interpreted you that way. I do think sarcasm and hyperbole are very difficult to translate in this medium we love – the Blogosphere. I have a friend (my beloved) who doesn’t get sarcasm at all, face to face, so I can’t imagine she would ever get it reading a blog. Being a long time reader of your blog, I have gotten a feel for your sense of humor and saw your pokes at Brian in that vain. But, someone who was a first time clicker on your blog could probably read your sarcasm as serious attacks on Brian.

    What I find difficult with your critique so far, is that you appear to be responding to the WAY Brian communicated his suggested “responses” to the questions. That is, you seem to feel like Brian defined the rules of engagement and because you were not “with him” you found yourself on the opposite side of the fence. I didn’t read the first 80 pages of his book that way. I think he spent a lot of time setting his reader up for the fact that he was going to question everything and if you were opposed to that, his questions and responses might come across like ultimatums. I don’t think that’s what Brian is doing.

    Furthermore, I see Brian’s deconstruction of the Greco-Roman narrative as a wrestling with The New Perspective and the thought line say, Brian Walsh, puts forth in Colossians remixed. With a little Open Theism thrown in to boot. The folks who see Wright, Walsh, and Greg Boyd as heretics seem to be who Brian is poking in his book. And, you seem to be enthralled with those folks, so I found it hard to understand why you reacted the way you did. I agree with you that Brian has taken the implications to reading these guys a little farther down the road, but if you haven’t read those guys, it appears Brian has fallen of the edge of the world. If you have, it doesn’t seem so extreme.

    Am I way off here? If I am, I’m more than willing to recant. I love your blog and love the perspective you bring to all this. Just a little surprised you find yourself on the other side of the aisle.

  2. Jason,
    Thanks for the response here. I obviously have great appreciation for Wright (and have directed a number interviews with him), know Brian Walsh as a casual friend (we were at Sundance together a year ago) and like Greg Boyd a lot. I would hardly say I am enthralled with any of them. (OK, possibly with Tom Wright, but…) Brian's book is hardly in the same conversation or on the same page as The New Perspective from my rather humble understanding. And if you go to the Wright links in my review posts you will find them to be definitely and definitively over and against what McLaren is saying in the book.

    I would not debate that I have responded to the "WAY" Brian has framed how he wants his ideas to be engaged. It is a legitimate critique in my opinion. If Brian can shame his interlocutors into silence then he has won part of his "battle" for hearts and minds. But I have also specifically pointed to Brian's arguments themselves and find that you are simply writing me off for not doing that.

    And the folks who see Brian's ideas as heretical (rather than calling Brian an unbeliever) are correct in my not humble but accurate opinion.

    You seem (note the word "seem") to be responding with glee to Brian's attack on Driscoll and MacArthur and that is colouring your response to the book. I am no fan of either man but this is not an argument about personalities. It is, however, an argument about what constitutes orthodoxy and in that regard, McLaren has left the building. (See McKnight's comment #8 on his post linked to in the body of this post.)

    Are there some good questions in Brian's book? No doubt. But, as McKnight said in his CT review,

    Brian's devil is Western evangelicalism, which he caricatures often, and
    his poking is relentless enough to make me say that he needs to write a
    book that simply states in positive terms what he thinks
    without using
    evangelicalism as his foil.
    [emphasis added]

    As long as Brian keeps writing about how much he hates his roots, people like me, who once considered his ideas worthy of consideration will simply move on, ignoring him. (Which I have not done to this point in time.)

  3. Th Wright quote has me pondering, Bill. Could it be that the sarcastic tone you used, which represents a certain emotional state, sets people off. That is, they are then invited to see the frame as an emotional and personal one, rather than an intellectual and theological challenge?

  4. Len,
    Not sure how you get there re emotional state – unless you suggest that passion is antithetical to "an intellectual and theological challenge". Let me say again that I believe sarcasm to be a fair response to Brian's thesis. I also look to examples of sarcasm from people like Chesterton and Lewis (though I am not suggesting I'm remotely in their league) and even the Apostle Paul who sarcastically suggested those who felt circumcision was necessary for Christians should just go all the way and emasculate themselves.

  5. thanks for saying this so simply and so eloquently, len.

    sacarsm comes from the Greek σαρκάζω (sarkazo) meaning ‘to tear flesh’ . In most sacred traditions, tearing flesh is done with care & within a community context.

    Bill, you seem proud that you have the truth worked out perfectly – something that Jesus followers like Lewis or Mary of Magdala or Paul or Sallie McFague or even Tom Wright rarely claim. McLaren makes no claim on this perfect order, nor does McKnight or even fundamentalists on the left or right.

    As a commentor on your blog, I am led to ask where does love (which will remain) come into your behavior. Where are the fruits of the Spirit that the community in Galatia – and all faith communities – work in earnest towards ?

  6. This is one issue where it seems easy to pick our passage and stick with it. On one hand Paul wrote

    2Ti 2:23 Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.
    2Ti 2:24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient,
    2Ti 2:25 correcting opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth,
    2Ti 2:26 and that they may escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.

    and on the other he also wrote

    Gal 5:12 I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!
    Php 3:2 Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!

    I’m not exactly sure how to reconcile Paul’s instruction with his example…but it does seem like there are times that warrant an vigorous response. Even Jesus lost it on people.

    If you were trying to debate Brian and prove your point I believe your tactics were self-defeating. If you were trying to polarize people for and against him, you succeeded.

  7. If I wrote a blog on how no thinking human could be an evangelical. Used arguments like old earth vs new earth. Genesis isn’t literal, the gospel aren’t congrous, and the concept of messiah is borrowed from ancient Egypt, the Bible was cherry picked by Constantine and his desire to extend the empire. Could we have a rational debate? I doubt i could with many of your readers. I suggest those who live in glass houses. Debate the merits of Brians book but don’t pretend to be offended by the same tone you used in your post.


  8. Bill, I’m catching up on the past month of posts after wrapping up a book project late last night. There’s so much to respond to in your post and in the comments.

    Perhaps my most succinct reply is to mention that I have a series going on this week at my blog on Christians being diverse, respectful, and redemptive.

    Being from south Jersey/Philadelphia, sarcasm is my native tongue, so I’m generally tracking with you here. No problem on my account. However, I have decided to stop using it on my theology blog because I tired of being misunderstood. That’s just my experience with it. Having said that, your regular readers, I would hope, should be able to catch your drift most of the time.

    If I may hint at where I’m going with my own series, I’d like to suggest that the end result is where we need to focus: “What will my [blog post, comment, or reply to comment] accomplish?” If we cannot find a redemptive, constructive, God-honoring goal for our words, then we should rethink things. However, following Wright’s lead, that doesn’t mean we hold back on legit critique, which is what McKnight did, in my opinion, very well.

    Some have suggested that the title of his review was a bit over the top, but I would hope that, should I ever write a book like Brian’s that Scott McKnight reviews, I would receive the same kind of treatment from Scott. And if Bill reviewed it, I’d get a little sarcasm as well. No problem here.

    Rob, you raise a lot of questions worth addressing, but regarding Constantine… have a look at The Lost History of Christianity by Philip Jenkins. His research into Eastern churches, largely ignored so far by scholars such as Harvey Cox who advance the theory you share, offers some significant perspective on the selection of biblical books. His finding? The Eastern church actually had a few less New Testament books than we have in the West, not more.


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