Brian McLaren is an influential opinion leader for many emergent and other postmodern Christians all over the world. He has recently released his latest book ‘A new kind of Christianity’ and, as a result, is attracting new salvo’s of criticism from across the evangelical church spectrum.
My purpose in writing this article is not to critique his work (for this see my review) but to raise the question of how we should evaluate a book such as this.
I have read most of the several reviews that have appeared on the internet and few are favourable. Some of the reviewers are perceptive, others are superficial, but others just can’t resist the temptation of casting aspersions on the man himself. Some label him a heretic, intending this as a personal slur rather than its true meaning of simply describing someone who holds an opinion that contradicts established religious teaching. Others claim that he is attempting to brainwash (or do they mean Brianwash) us poor gullible orthodox evangelicals. One reviewer accused Brian of being an apostate and of hating God. I find this unfortunate.
Where does this sort of criticism get us?
Firstly, it polarises opinion.
McLaren’s fans will tend to shut their minds to any quality critical observations when they come packaged with personal invective. The only people who get anything out of the critique are those who are already predisposed to agree with the reviewer. So what’s the point of the critique?
Secondly, it positions McLaren as a martyr.
He makes a point of describing himself as a gentle soul and writes ‘how did a mild-mannered guy like me get into so much trouble?’ Attacking him personally plays to this and distracts the reader from where the focus should be, on the ideas presented.
McLaren repeatedly claims to be simply asking questions, exploring alternatives, and seeking discourse (conversation). Actually, he goes a lot further than this in his latest book and comes close to stating, at last, just what he does believe. However, his style is still more engaging than assertive.
Anyone who attempts to respond to his ideas with dogmatism will most likely alienate the very people who most need to hear the counter arguments.
A gentler, or to use a Mclaranism, more generous approach, is to engage with the questions he poses in a respectful yet honest manner.
Another way of effectively communicating a critique of a work such as this is to pose further questions that call for deeply reflective responses. For instance, Brian recasts the Genesis account as a ‘compassionate coming-of-age story’. He says that the biblical text (Gen 2:17) does not claim that eating fruit from the wrong tree would result in spiritual separation from God, condemnation, or original sin. Instead of pouncing on this with orthodox fervor it would probably be more effective to ask the question “What does this say about our need for a Savior?” or “In light of this, why did Jesus need to die on the cross of Calvary?” A reasoned response to such questions would open up the subjects of sin, atonement, salvation, and spiritual regeneration. Would this not cause even the most ardent McLarenite pause to think?
Some of Brian’s ten questions are well worth answering, but I don’t believe that they are, to quote his subtitle, ten questions that are transforming the faith. Actually, every generation has asked these questions, but the answers found have, in the main, yielded evangelical orthodoxy. For the record, I have serious problems with most of Brian’s major contentions and I have addressed these in my post entitled ‘A new kind of liberalism’ found HERE.
However, I don’t think it helpful to anyone to demonise the man or to publically doubt his motives or his spiritual status.
My best advice is to let his ideas stand the test of biblical evaluation using reasoned interpretational methods. In this way, the ideas and philosophies presented will be exposed for what they really are, we will come away having learned something from the process, and Brian will be left with his integrity intact and his martyrdom denied.