It feels a bit ominous to read the blog reviews of Brian McLaren’s latest – A New Kind of Christianity. The book is raising quite a stink. No surprise eh? One gets the sense there is something different going on this time versus the last couple book releases of Brian’s: The Secret Message and Everything Must Change. One gets the impression we are at a pivot point, a moment that upsets the whole terrain of theological allegiances having to do with the post evangelical emerging church developments of the last ten-fifteen years. It’s like Brian is shaking up the foundations of post evangelical theology. I read the book on my flight home from the ecclesia network national gathering last week and here are some initial observations.
The first chapter was a highlight. Brian outlines all the developments that led to his emergence as a writer and the questions he has been motivated to ask and write about. He tells us about his own development in relation to the various problems with the church in N American evangelicalism. This is insightful. It reveals the basis of his appeal to all of us who have grown up with the same doubts, problems and issues with American church life, particularly American evangelical church. In this brief introduction is why we love McLaren and his influence endures. The question in the back of my mind is: Would Brian McLaren have had anywhere near the attention he’s had if he was writing his books out of the protestant liberal context?
In almost every chapter, Brian rehearses the familiar critiques against the evangelical church in America: its narrow forensic view of the atonement and the gospel, its duplicitous judgmentalism towards the gay/lesbian community, its fascination with the Bible as a fact book to be used as a propositional weapon, the church as a survival exclusivist institution, I could go on and on. This is another source of Brian’s appeal. It is safe to say many of us were looking for someone to say a lot of these things way back when during the times we were all struggling. Thanks to Brian for all this. He has been a gift. The question in the back of my mind in reading all of this was: Have we saturated this subject and indeed isn’t it time to move on from these well-worn critiques? It sure seems like even the most fundamentalist of evangelicals gets these concerns. If not why make more enemies?
Brian spends quite a bit of time developing a version of what he calls “the Greco-Roman six-line narrative,” its dualism, its separation of the next life in heaven from life on earth and its multiple negative effects on traditional Western theology (and evangelical theology) and the way we think about salvation. For many of us this critique goes way back – all the way to Harnack – the godfather of protestant liberalism. There’s some good stuff here but of course there is some overplay (as all popular books tend to do for the sake of the audience). The question in the back of my mind in reading all of this was: Has Brian himself fallen captive to the same modernizing and Platonizing tendencies in his own constructive proposals. In other words, in McLaren’s opened ended theological proposals, is not the incarnate (non-dualized) Christ – the coming of the infinite into the finite, the universal into the concrete – in danger of being conceptualized into some “ideals” which de-incarnate, de-particularize His coming into the world as the Christ/Messiah of the New Kingdom. (this was Yoder’s critique of Niebuhr). Isn’t this Western Greco-Platonic?
For instance, in the chapter on “Jesus and the Kingdom” (ch. 15) there seems to be a missing component in his exposition of Romans – the need for conversion. There seems to be a glossing over that this great reconciliation and renewal in the Kingdom comes only in the individual actually getting down and dirty and dying to his/her own flesh and participating in the renewal of all things in the life in Christ (Rom 6-8). This “entrance” into reconciliation/renewal is incarnational. Without it, the kingdom can become a gnosticized ideal. To me, this is the danger of reading N T Wright too casually (who never renounces the personal justification by faith as entry into God’s greater justice working in the world “to make all things right”).
For instance – there seems to be a missing component in his chapter on eschatology (ch. 18). He sees the end of time as open ended, as “at every moment, creation continues to unfold, liberation continues to unshackle us, and the peaceable kingdom continues to expand with new hope and promise (p. 194).” The “second coming” seems to be missing from Brian’s account. He seems to lack appreciation that God is working in Christ “to reconcile all things to Himself” (2 Cor 5:17-22) and this is leading us somewhere in time. This definitive end – the culmination of history in the second coming – is incarnational to me. i.e in history. Without it, the kingdom can be pushed into an ideal which has little to do with Christ’s reign in history. Many of us are on board with McLaren (have been for a longtime eh?) that the overly pessimistic dispensationalist eschatologies turned us inward and negative towards the justice God was bringing into the world. But in rightfully rejecting these things, has McLaren idealized the future into an ideal/a value that can be carried out apart from Christ and His comsummation of it? In diminishing the physical second coming of Christ to culminate his Kingdom (p. 197) does not McLaren do the ultimate move of Greek mythology – propose that Jesus’s redemption has nothing to do with the physical consummation of the Kingdom here on earth? Is this perhaps a reversion to the Enlightenment myth of eternal progress and the de-incarnationalizing of God’s work in Christ for the justice of the world into a wider societal progress?
I think similar questions could be asked about his positions on the gay/lesbian question, the grounding of the authority if Scripture, etc. In each chapter there’s a lot to agree with. But I’m left asking has he de-incarnationalized Christ into a set of conceptualizations/ideals to be sought after as individuals carrying the Christian banner?
A Parting of the Ways is a Good Thing
This all gets to my final point: Brian’s NKoC, for better or worse, articulates the theology of a specific coalescence of emerging church people – that group most associated with the former Emergent Village. Right? It seems that the same people who regularly defend Emergent (as part of Emerging) and a lot of the positions therein are also doing the legwork here in defending Brian? To me this is a good thing. Help me out here but why should anyone at Emergent have a problem with that? It signifies a clarifying coalescence around Brian and all those who were what once was Emergent. Meanwhile, as TSK or Jeremy Bouma or the several others announce they are leaving associations with Emergent previously, it appears a realigning is happening. I see this as a grand clarification. I see NKoC as aiding and developing this clarification.
In the meantime NKoC is promoting a similar clarification among the other streams. For better or worse, three major streams have emerged in the Emerging meltdown of the past few years. They are Neo Reformed stream, the Emergent/Emerging Stream and the Missional (often Anabaptist) Stream.
1.) The Neo-Reformed is armed with a host of great blogs as well as a theological “coalition.”
2.) The post-Emergent Village Emerging stream is certainly being carried on by the Christianity 21, the Transform group, the Ooze and the Emergent Village website itself.
3.)The Missional stream is the most scattered , from the missional blogs of the Great White North (upon which Mike Morrell has labelled – and gotten a lot of heat for it – the Missional Right), to Len and Forge to Alan Hirsch/Shapevine to the old GOCN to many others. In my opinion this last group needs some theological coalescence (the group I most associate with). Much like “the Gospel Coalition” has done for the Neo-Reformed and the McLaren, Jones and Pagit trio and their edited book series (along with others like John Franke) has done for the emergent stream. We need to work on what our commitments are theologically (especially ecclessiology, soteriology and the prolegomena)
My point is however that I see Brian’s book polarizing the coalescing of these three streams in a positive way. (Is this what Trevin Wax is already saying over here.) At the very least it will coalesce the group that is around McLaren, polarize the Neo-Reformed stream and push us Missional folk to articulate more what our theological commitments are. This is crucial for the next step in post evangelical N. America because it is only by clarifying our differences and having on-the-ground rooted communities working out this stuff that a post-evangelical faithfulness can be demarcated in N America. The ideal would be to see all three streams (after clarification) come together in submission to Christ in a kind of mini-post evangelical Nicaea for the future of the missional church. But if we don’t clarify each others commitments, all we’ll ever do is be in a heresy-hunting, defensive posture, protecting our own turf. It won’t be productive if you ask me. As I said once before, all these differences can only be worked out ON THE GROUND, in real life communities led by the Holy Spirit in the same way it always has. Perhaps then, out of this fertile ground, these three clarified streams can lead to a sort of Nicaean like development for the post evangelical crowd in North America. This kind of unifying is impossible however without the prior clarifying that is being forced on us by McLaren. I contend this is a good thing, even if some claim Nicaea was a bloody mess.
So, thank-you Brian McLaren.
If there are any comments on all this, I’ll be grateful for feedback, although I can only respond as best I can. I’m busy carrying on a back log of pastoral, professor and personal writing work. So please grant me patience?