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It is something of a surprise to me just how many Christians are unfamiliar with Brian McLaren. Although by no means a household name, Brian McLaren is probably one of the top five most influential writers/thinkers within (and to some degree outside of) evangelicalism. While you or your family may not be reading his books or his website, I can almost guarantee that one or more of the leaders at your church are. Initially, McLaren was nearly synonymous with the "emerging" church movement, but lately he has become more independent of this association; not because he has made a deliberate break with them, but mainly because he has outgrown them. And even though he is saying many of the same things as the emerging church, McLaren has a much bigger platform from which to say it.
Due to the strong influence that he has as a "pastor to pastors," any time McLaren releases a new book it is a pretty big deal within the walls of the church. And because he is giving voice to concerns that many pastors and church leaders have expressed and thought about themselves, his writings indirectly resonate from American pulpits nearly every Sunday morning. His newest book, A New Kind of Christianity, claims to describe what Christianity might look like if it were "not afraid of questions." Questions are a really big part of McLaren’s ministry. In fact, the subtitle of the book is: "Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith." Now I am certainly in favor of questions; I think that far too many people are far too easily satisfied with conventional ways of thinking and doing things. I agree with McLaren that questions can effect change; but I disagree with him and his book’s subtitle because it’s not the questions that cause the progress, it’s the answers. And unfortunately, this is where McLaren is his weakest.
The word "new" is one of McLaren’s favorite words. It not only appears in the title of the book, it also appears on nearly every page (at least once). McLaren has become disillusioned with the "old" ways, he is convinced that Christianity is on the verge of a "new" thing that will revolutionize the faith. Before the reader even gets to the first of the "ten questions" promised in the subtitle, he has heard McLaren talk about: new possibilities, new generation, new way of believing, new quest, new dynamic direction, new questions, new friendships, new understandings, new territory, new path, new life, new inner ecology, new spirituality, new way of seeing, new horizons, and my personal favorite, perpetual fountain of youthful newness. I could have found more but I think you get the picture; Brian McLaren is obsessed with "new." He is thoroughly convinced that the answers to his ten questions lie in some new and undiscovered (or at least unattempted) way of doing things. He has been frustrated and unfulfilled by the "old ways" and he believes that his (and Christianity’s as a whole) fulfillment lies dormant somewhere, waiting to be found.
In his quest for a "new kind of Christianity," McLaren reminds me of another group of men who were also looking for "something new." In the book of Acts, Luke tells us that when Paul was in Athens waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him, an opportunity arose for him to speak to the men assembled on Mars Hill. Luke informs his readers in an aside comment that the men of the Areopagus "used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new" (Acts 17:21). The men of Mars Hill, like McLaren, were also obsessed with "new things." They were also convinced that answers to life’s questions could be found in something yet to be discovered. When Paul preaches the gospel of Jesus Christ to them (which for them would certainly have qualified as "something new"!), Luke tells us that their responses to his message were varied. Some sneered, some wanted to hear more, and some believed (17:32-34). I think in some ways—although he would probably never admit it—Brian McLaren thinks of himself as a modern version of the Apostle Paul. I think he has been told for so long by so many people that his ideas and views of the Christian faith are so radical that he has actually begun to believe it. At any rate, you have to have a pretty high estimation of yourself and your message to write a book called A New Kind of Christianity.
I don’t say this to in any way disparage Brian McLaren or what he is attempting to do. I think he is asking very good and important questions. My problem is not with his questions, but with his answers. This is where the really difficult part of trying to do a review of anything McLaren (or any of the emerging church writers and speakers) has written or said. McLaren himself doesn’t call what he gives "answers;" instead, he calls them "responses." This is a clever way of avoiding taking any responsibility for where the words in your books and lectures may encourage people to go. In reference to this, McLaren writes:
In the coming chapters we’ll consider each question and then some provisional, preliminary, incomplete, but promising responses that I’ve cobbled together or gleaned from others on the journey.Responses, please remember, are not answers: the latter seek to end conversation while the former seek to stimulate more of it. The responses I offer are not intended as a smash in tennis, delivered forcefully with a lot of topspin, in an effort to win the game and create a loser. Rather, they are offered as a gentle serve or lob; their primary goal is to start the interplay, to get things rolling, to invite your reply. Remember, our goal is not debate and division yielding hate or a new state, but rather questioning that leads to conversation and friendship on the new quest. (pp. 22-23)
All of this sounds really swell and loving and pastoral, but it doesn’t tell us anything. If a writer is going to go to the trouble of writing a 300-page book dealing with ten questions with the potential to "transform Christianity," isn’t the reader entitled to a bit more than "gentle serves" and "incomplete responses?" In reality, his claim of only giving responses is deceptive because McLaren actually does give answers to these ten questions. However, he doesn’t want to come out and claim that his answers are necessarily the right ones. This has the same effect of a weatherman telling his audience that there is a "chance of showers" tomorrow; if he’s wrong no one really cares, but if he’s right and it does begin to rain he looks like a brilliant forecaster. Either way, the weatherman wins. Like an experienced weather forecaster, McLaren has learned that giving "responses" does not obligate him to defend his answers if they turn out to be wrong.
In the beginning of the book, McLaren relates a personal story that further reveals his deliberate avoidance of conflict. When faced with the prospect of going to seminary to become an Episcopal priest, McLaren relates why he decided not to go:
I loved God, and I loved the idea of serving God and helping people spiritually, but I didn’t feel like a great fit for the religious bureaucracy and politics that are an inescapable part of the life of a religious professional. I thought I could do more good for the spiritual cause outside the institutional church than inside of it. So I became a teacher and felt very fulfilled living out my faith in the environment of a secular university. (p. 3)
Now I have no qualms with McLaren deciding to become a teacher rather than a priest; to further what he calls the "spiritual cause." I wish more Christians would think this way. We need more Christian influence and presence in every field of work. God calls each of His children to "tend the garden," whether that garden is a church, a classroom, or a garbage truck. God calls us to faithful and obedient service in whatever He calls us to do. If McLaren didn’t feel called to the pulpit then I commend him for not going. However, notice that the reason he gives for not wanting to be a priest is because he had no stomach for the "religious bureaucracy and politics" that go along with it. But he apparently had no trouble with the "bureaucracy and politics" that are an inescapable part of a secular university. And since he didn’t self-publish his book, I can only guess that McLaren also has no problem with the bureaucracy and politics that are an inescapable part of the publishing business. The fact of the matter is that bureaucracy and politics are an inescapable part of life in ANY discipline or occupation where people are involved. McLaren’s aversion to "religious" bureaucracy and politics is especially telling and I think it explains a lot about how he views Christianity in particular and religious faith in general.
Because McLaren is such an influential figure within the church (ironically he is now smack in the middle of the religious bureaucracy and politics) we will take a look at his ten responses over the coming weeks. I’m not particularly excited about or looking forward to doing this, but I think it is an important and necessary task. I have said that I believe he is asking some very good questions; questions that deserve more than simple one or two sentence answers. I think an exercise like this is helpful because it reminds us to look backward, as well as forward. McLaren’s preoccupation with the "new" blinds him in part to what has already happened in church and world history. The ten questions are really nothing new, they are as old as the church itself. The early church had answers to these questions, as did the medieval, the Reformational, and the modern church. But, as we shall see, ignoring their answers simply because they are "old" is really no way to begin answering these questions for the church of the 21st century postmodern era.
To be continued…