McLaren and the crisis of evangelicalism

On GOTT, a link was posted to a recent Washington Post article about Brian McLaren and the division with American evangelicalism between conservatives and progressives (which is an oversimplification, mind you). The article briefly discusses those who disagree with McLaren:
What makes McLaren's ideas attractive to progressive evangelicals appalls the more numerous conservatives. Noting that he fails to condemn homosexuality, one conservative Web site called him "A True Son of Lucifer" for ignoring "absolute biblical truth." And last year, Baptists in Kentucky revoked a speaking invitation after McLaren said that followers of Jesus might not be the only ones to gain salvation.

"If you have some person or movement coming along calling into question the non-negotiables of Christianity, then those who espouse Christianity find such a challenge dangerous," said Donald A. Carson, professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois, who has criticized McLaren's theology.
Now I have my own disagreements with McLaren, and I have serious problems with the entire "emergent conversation" which I discussed in an early post after McLaren came to speak at Princeton Seminary. But I also have points of agreement with him, and we are of one mind in our rejection of the "conservative evangelical" agenda, epitomized by people as diverse as Cornelius Van Til, Jerry Falwell, Stephen Webb, Charles Ryrie, Pat Robertson, and Don Carson. Some of these names are political conservatives who think that America's role in world politics is to further God's kingdom. Others are theological conservatives, who think that inerrancy and double predestination are "non-negotiables of Christianity."

Carson's quote above is disturbing to me, because it is precisely the kind of empty rhetoric that will spell the downfall of both the "conservative" and "liberal" sides of Christianity. The liberal side rejects "non-negotiables" altogether to the point that Christianity loses its distinction in the world. The conservative side rejects those who reject their "non-negotiables," so that their agenda is the only agenda and any dialogue or disagreement on certain points of the faith is off-limits. I see McLaren as attempting to forge a middle way. He may not be very adept at accomplishing this, but he at least has the right idea—at least a better idea than the other extremes. What we need are people with McLaren's concerns who have a greater knowledge of church history, theology, and philosophy.


Ray Anderson said…
I agree. My own concern for the 'emerging' conversation is its tendency to 'go back' behind Paul's 'gospel' of the crucified, resurrected and coming Christ, to the historical Jesus as an exemplar of Kingdom living. The result can be a gospel of social ethics shaped by postmodern distaste for indubitable epistemological foundations. This lead to my recent book, An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches (InterVarsity, 2006), for which, interestingly, Mclaren wrote the foreward! Rather than viewing Paul as the source for a modern foundational theology--which, admittedly, became the weapon used by many evangelicals in their battle with liberal theology--Paul's eschatological theology of the coming Christ who is 'emerging' in the midst of world culture is authentically evangelical because it is neither modern nor postmodern.
Halden said…
"What we need are people with McLaren's concerns who have a greater knowledge of church history, theology, and philosophy."


And these kind of people are out there, they just don't get as much press. Jamie Smith and his new Church and Postmodern Culture series fills this hole remarkably well. See his
Halden said…
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GoobyNelly said…
I was reading the beginning of Richard Hays book, Moral Vision of the New Testament, and his beginning section on "new creation" totally blew me away. Despite my intuitions, I'd never read Paul through such a lens. Now I'm starting to wonder if this was why Barth was so drawn to Blumhardt early on.

Ray, I'm happy to see you took this route. Come to think of it, your book just came into Princeton's Theological Book Store. If I can scrounge up a few bucks in the next week, I'll try and grab it. I've really enjoyed your posts both here and over at Ben's site, Faith and Theology, and I'm glad you offered your skill to the Emergent movement.

David, right on!

Halden, have you read any of Jamie's books? I want to pick up a copy of "Taking Derrida to Church" and see how he works it. The title reminds me so much of my former youth leader, who would get concerned looks from parents when they saw Nietzche sitting on the desk next to R.C. Sproul (Sproul was put out for good measure of course - just to throw them off). :-)
Shane said…

this certainly sounds like an interesting book!

my personal beef with the emergent conversation is that it is such an americanism. we can have what we want, do what we want, be traditional if we want, be progressive if we want. rape history, expropriate orthodoxy, flirt with post-modernity. the emergent conversation is just pragmatism finally filtering down to evangelical christians.

joshua said…
what would you suggest be the central tenets of this middle ground? For a Barthian that might include a nein to natural theology, for a Hauerwas/Hays follower that might be nonviolence? I wouldn't necessarily consider either of these necessary, but you might disagree and Hays explicitly seems to say so. are you looking for a return to Nicea or Chalcedonian expressions as central? And if this is what you are after, what do you make of Juengel's quote about non repitition? All that to say, I agree with your sentiments, but wonder how you propose we find central tenets of the faith?
D.W. Congdon said…

That is a great question, and it deserves a post of its own. For now, I would simply state that mere repetition may be wrong, but contextual repetition is necessary — and yet, at the same time, I never wish to subordinate the gospel to the cultural context. I think all the current expositors of a "postmodern church" are sacrificing the essentials of the faith to a context that is empty and fading. But I also, to complicate matters, do believe that the church must be capable of communicating effectively in whatever cultural situation it finds itself in, be that "postmodern" or something else, such as the rather pre-modern societies of Africa or South America.

That said, the gospel is never out-of-date; it is never "irrelevant." But it is relevant to all times and places only because it relativizes all times and places in relation to the center and origin of all times and places in the person of Jesus Christ. That is, the gospel does not change in order to
"meet the needs" of its cultural context; the needs of every cultural context are found already in the gospel, in the person of Jesus.

Thus, I think if we are going to recover both the distinctives of the Good News and be attentive to the needs of our time, we can do no better than realign ourselves with the traditional catechetical teachings rooted in the Apostle's Creed (and Nicene Creed), the Lord's Prayer, and the Decalogue. Of course, we are not simply repeating them or the teachings of the catechisms that were written for different contexts. But when we teach through these basic elements of the faith, we will discover a gospel that is both situated in the reality of Jesus Christ 'there and then' and in the reality of us 'here and now.'

I will try to explicate this more in a future post, coming soon.
WTM said…
I (still) firmly believe that if all the people spending time / money / energy reading McLaren would simply read some of the classics of the Christian theological tradition, we would be in a better place that we are heading with only McLaren. McLaren is galvanizing a population of young(ish) left of center evangelicals who have developed instincts about what it means to be the Church that differ from those of their parents. I'm even willing to admit that some (not all) of these instincts are better. But, why waste energy getting riled up and confirmed in your instincts? Read something that will make you deepen your vision and refine your instincts, and that will make you a church theologian - which is what the church really needs. McLaren may get you excited about the church, but he will not make you a church theologian - Augustine, Thomas, Calvin, Luther (what, WTM recommending Luther?) and Barth will.
Anonymous said…
Only an atheist hellbent on the church's destruction or one who believed that seminary language games (been there, done that) were the essence of theology would think the need in the church now is for more reading of Aquinas, Barth, et al. The rhetorical excess of seminaries and theological blogdom show just how little is at stake in the discussion. It is largely irrelevant (by design? the more neo-logisms the better?) and inapplicable to the church (intentionally written only for academic peers).

"The theologian is the one who prays" and the fact of the matter is probably about 5% of the church prays and few find it more compelling than TV. We know about rules, systems, philosophies etc, but few can communicate or exhibit the transforming power of this religion. Christianity of all stripes is discrediting itself to the world and its own adherents by it's ineffective practice and un-compelling display.

Whatever McLaren's faults, I think he is trying to say that everyone's talking but no one knows what or better who they are talking about. Thus a pragmatic turn is called for. Spirituality and mission are of prime importance for him and it is all rooted only in what has proven itself from ancient tradition (what have explications of Luther or Calvin done for US lately?). Obsessive theological study is just an alternative route to the church's death providing a hobbyhorse for academic obsessives on the way.

If this is too "practical" well then so be it.

GoobyNelly said…
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GoobyNelly said…

I have distaste for academic snobbery as you do, and agree that all theology that addresses the Church needs to be done with sensitivity to the congregation. How and when it gets translated will obviously depend on the particular language-game of the congregation involved. Theology that is just obsessive mental masturbation is no longer theology.

It goes without saying that just because people who read "the Fathers" have turned into total snobs doesn't mean that reading these theologians makes one a snob. Anyone who reads these theologians and comes away with such an attitude obviously did not read them well, since their intention was not to point to themselves but in the direction of Jesus Christ. All theology declares "He must increase, I must decrease." These theologians have stayed with the Church so long precisely because they at least attempted to be faithful to God in their inquiry.

"Whatever McLaren's faults, I think he is trying to say that everyone's talking but no one knows what or better who they are talking about. Thus a pragmatic turn is called for. Spirituality and mission are of prime importance for him and it is all rooted only in what has proven itself from ancient tradition (what have explications of Luther or Calvin done for US lately?)".

Correct me if I'm wrong, but it sounds like you're saying that we need to take the pragmatic turn because we cannot know God and thus we dare not speak of him. If that is so, how then should we go about this spirituality, if we do not know that to whom we pray and (more importantly) that to whom we listen? How should we go about this mission if we do not know whom we serve? What are we left with but mysticism?

Why have "spirituality and mission proved themselves in the ancient tradition"? Are these somehow antithetical to the spiritual discipline of theological thinking? No! Ancient spirituality and mission were born out of ancient theological thinking. This has very little to do with the fact that they happen to be "ancient," which we're in danger of romanticizing today.

Theology asks "who" before it attempts to answer the "what" or the "how." If our spirituality and mission are not grounded in the being of God, they will simply be mirror reflections of ourselves and our snobby ideas of transcendence and relationship (however well-meaning they maybe be for the faith communities we so often dumb-down).

The concern for the success of religion in America via American pragmatic philosophy is detrimental to the Church because the being of God is rendered irrelevant. How is this any different from the "Purpose-Driven Life," or watching motivational speakers on TV for that matter? This is all too practical and all too compelling. To reject pragmatism does not mean we give up on the pragmatic task as theologians and pastors. That would be a "false dichotomy," I believe.

No one here suggests simply explicating Calvin and Luther. However, reading them faithfully is important, and teaching others to do so as theologians would mean learning how one can read Scripture and pray, how one can redeem this world for the better. Reading Calvin and Luther is practical. I would think that Guder was at least conversant with Luther and Calvin before and while writing about being "missional."

A theology that does not look back through all of the history of theological study is already at a severe disadvantage because it refuses to learn from the successes and mistakes of its forbears.

McLaren is right on when he keeps the conversation from turning into a snobby church-bashing event. The question is what are McLaren and pastors today going promote as the positive flip-side to rejecting modern Church life? McLaren has certainly seen enough to know what to do with more knowledge, and he shouldn't fear for turning into a snob. As Talib Kweli says, "Information is the newest religion," so any form has the potential to make us a snob. I'll be happy to know as much as McLaren does, and to act as responsibly as he has as pastor.
David Shedden said…
David, thanks for this short post - I'm intrigued by the emerging movement. Now that I'm here at PTS, I'm quickly realising how significant it is becoming in the US (in the UK the church is just dead, period.) A 'sister post' might be entitled 'McLaren and the crisis of non-evangelicalism' - but, I'd have to chat to you about that. Publishing my thoughts might be dangerous. Cheers.