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Francis Schaeffer on the Origins of Relativism in the Church

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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Book Review: Brian McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy

This li'l book review is from a previous blogging incarnation. I believe it first saw light some three years or so ago. Some may feel that it is pointless to republish it, as Brian McLaren and Emergent seem so...


over. And that may be true to a degree. But still, there is some material here that some may find entertaining.
I began to read this book with some hesitancy. I knew it would be hard for me to review for a variety of reasons. I finished it, glad that I had read it--largely so people'd not be able to say, "Well, if only you'd read it..." anymore. But right there, we run into the first of the reasons that the book was hard for me to review: the idea, contained in "Chapter 0", that
You may be looking for dirt so you can write a hostile review. Chances are you'll find exactly what you're looking for, whether it's here or not.
Now that, genties and ladlemen, struck me--though it was perhaps not intended this way--as indicating a particularly nasty assumption that only an a priori assumption that the book was bad in some way could possibly result in a negative review.

I'll readily admit that I did not, before beginning the book, expect to find that Mr. McLaren and I agreed on much. He is well known for making statements that fly in the face of mainstream Christianity--both doctrinally and attitudinally, in my opinion. I was, however, determined to be fair and accurate to the very best of my ability. But that quote gave me the feeling--a feeling I have had as a result of comments from other quarters, as well--that any less than adulatory comments from my keyboard would automatically be dismissed as the ravings of some ignorant turnip with an axe to grind.

That didn't help my attitude in the slightest--but I went into the reading and the review determined to let it affect me as little as possible.

Mr. McLaren didn't make it easy. Early in the book, it seems he did his best to completely eliminate the possibility that I might take him seriously. Nothing could have been more effective than his statement that in most of my other books, there are places here where I have gone out of my way to be provocative, mischievous, and unclear, reflecting my belief that clarity is sometimes overrated, and that shock, obscurity, playfulness, and intrigue (carefully articulated) often stimulate more thought than clarity.
Now, you may have thought that was a delightfully wry, witty, and profound thing to say; I thought it was an easy "out" for a writer. After that statement, nothing else in the book can be effectively criticized; should one find that Mr. McLaren has committed a particularly egregious non-sequitur, indulged in a category error, made a hidden assumption or any other error of fact or logic all he or his acolytes have to do is say, "Aha, he told you at the beginning that he might do something like this, to make you think. Now didn't he do a great job? Surely you don't suppose that he actually meant that the moon is made of blue cheez whiz? You terribly gauche little man! Aaa-ha-ha-ha-ha!" It immediately becomes impossible to know whether Mr. McLaren is being serious in any part of the book.

After reading the book, there are some things I think I have in common with Mr. McLaren, chief amongst them a concern over adding unnecessary, man-made thinking and ideas to what God has said. One of the biggest issues I have with the North American Church as I know it is its habit, seemingly quite persistent, of confusing Finneyism with evangelism. The tendency of many to proscribe or discourage or belittle behaviors that are not proscribed, discouraged, or belittled in Holy Writ is another. I am occasionally driven nearly to hysteria by people who seem to want to make the simple-yet-tough commands of the New Testament into a system of behavior that is much more complex, yet simpler to obey. My reading of A Generous Orthodoxy leads me to believe that Mr. McLaren likewise decries this sort of thing.

I also get the impression that Mr. McLaren and I share an appreciation and concern for the physical world that God has made. While I would certainly not conclude that the actions he favors are the best options or that certain of his diagnoses are correct, it is clear that we agree that this world--already under a curse--can be, if not completely ruined outright, certainly heavily damaged by man's actions, sometimes beyond repair. To my mind, this is obvious. Doubters need only consult the sons and daughters of Carthage. This does not mean that we have to buy into every environmental scare thrown up to us, like anthropogenic global warming, but it does mean that any idiot tries to take reasonable care of his dwelling place.

There are other little things that I find in common with Mr. McLaren, like the experience he describes here:
...on this occasion, for a period of about 20 minutes, I felt that every tree, every blade of grass, and every pool of water become especially eloquent with God's grandeur. Somehow they seemed to become transparent--or perhaps translucent is the better word--because each thing in its particularity was still utterly visible and unspeakably important: the movement of the grass in waves swayed by the wind, the way the goldfinches perch just so on a purple thistle plant. These specific, concrete things became translucent in the sense that a powerful, indescribable, invisible light seemed to shine through. The beauty of the creations around me, which am always careful to notice, seemed on this day to explode, seemed to detonate, seemed to radiate with glory.

An ecstacy overcame me that I can't describe. It brings tears to my eyes as I sit here and type. It was the exuberant joy of simply seeing these masterpieces of God's creation...and knowing myself to be among them. It was to be one of them, and to feel and know that "we"--all of these creatures, molecules, and phenomena--were together known and loved by God, who embraced us all into the ultimate "We."

In this experience, as in many others, I felt a tinge of fear along with the joy--fear that my physical being could not contain the joy I felt, that I was about to split or explode or come undone. I was simply silent, walking normally although a bit slower than usual. But I could never have shouted loud enough or danced outrageously enough to express the joy that I contained, that I received, during that walk. I cannot express it now.
I have had experiences very similar to this, though I do not necessarily think that they are exclusive to the Christian faith. I had them before my conversion, and I have had them afterwards. Buddhists sometimes talk of such things as satori, and existentialists might describe such a thing as a final experience. Some people have had such experiences during episodes of drug abuse, others during practices similar to ibuki breathing or Sanchin no kata. I have not made up my mind whether such experiences are a gift of God, intended to confirm His reality among both believers and non-believers, or simply the result of a confluence of conditions--physical, mental, and chemical--on the human nervous system. Perhaps they are both, perhaps neither. I do think, though, that it is a tremendous mistake to take such an experience as validation of one's thinking about God, which is what Mr. McLaren seems to do next. Emphasis is mine:
Because of experiences like this over the years, I know that contemplatives and charismatics are talking about the same thing.
That word--"know"--is tremendously important in light of other things in the book--namely, the repeated suggestions that knowledge can't be certain, objective, or universal.

It is a little difficult to find a completely clear statement of the point or idea that Mr. McLaren is trying to expound in the book. It seems less an exposition of Mr. McLaren's ideas than encouragement to consider that all of yours--at least, if you are a someone who believes that you can objectively know something to be universally true--might be wrong. Summing it up as best I can, the fundamental idea seems to be that it is wrong, in saying what Christianity is and is not, to go beyond the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds, that an over-emphasis on doctrinal distinctives excludes people, and exclusion is not what Jesus practiced, and neither should we. Further, the way to inclusive spirituality--a "generous orthodoxy"--is something "beyond" theological liberalism and/or conservatism, both of those being based on "modernism," an insistence that it can be objectively known whether someone is right or wrong about certain issues.

Modernism--and I do not, by the way, buy into Mr. McLaren's more-or-less tacit assumption (I gather that he feels that the point has been adequately demonstrated elsewhere) that saying that a person can know objective truth is necessarily to identify with modernist or naturalist philosophy--seems truly to be Mr. McLaren's bete noire. I do not think I go too far in saying that the whole book stands or falls on whether it is objectively true that modernism is untrue. It seems ultimately ironic that over the course of almost three hundred pages seemingly devoted to convincing the reader that he can't and shouldn't think that he is right--absolutely right--about any given spiritual matter, Mr. McLaren really doesn't seem ever to come to grips with the incontrovertible fact that if he is wrong, he has written three hundred pages of gibberish. In this--as in so many things--Mr. McLaren simply seems to take it for granted that he has the right idea.

It's also difficult to find a clear definition of what he means by the aforementioned "doctrinal distinctives." Although he says clearly that he affirms the aforementioned creeds--and I do think they could be considered doctrinal distinctives, at least insofar as they serve to differentiate Christianity from, say, the religion of Anton Szandor LaVey--and that he considers Scripture to be over the creeds, he also says
...accumulating orthodoxy makes it harder year by year to be a Christian than it was in Jesus' day. To be orthodox one has to have right opinions about far more things than one needed to have back then, when having a right opinion toward Jesus (i.e., confidence or trust in him) was about all it took.
which makes it sound like he considers not even the creeds necessary to orthodoxy. If that is the case, is there anything that does not fall into the category of a "doctrinal distinctive" which we shouldn't overemphasize? It also sounded to me that Mr. McLaren was trying to slip in something that wasn't necessarily so, that he was trying to equate "orthodox" and "Christian" and make it sound like since trust in Jesus was all it took to be Christian, that is all it took to be orthodox. But there are, and have been, plenty of Christians who were unorthodox in one way or another, ways that didn't and don't necessarily mean they weren't saved. Look at 1 Corinthians! To determine whether an unorthodox person is also a Christian person is a little more involved than that.

It's also a little difficult to get a firm handle on what he means by "exclusive." Mr. McLaren seems much concerned that the Church--following the example of Jesus--not exclude anyone.
(p. 70)The name of Jesus, whose life and message resonated with acceptance, welcome, and inclusion, has too often become a symbol of elitism, exclusion, and aggression.
I suppose that there are churches out there that really are exclusive; no doubt, there are multitudes of social clubs masquerading as churches, and these might very properly be characterized as "exclusive." But the problem is that Mr. McLaren never really clearly explains--at least to the satisfaction of this ignernt ol' redneck--exactly what the sam hill he means by "exclusive." In avoiding exclusivity, does he mean that the pews of the Church should be filled with non-believers, eager to get in on what is obviously a good thing? Does he mean that the Church should reach out in love to those around it, regardless of whether or not they are believers? It would be hard to quarrel with such a thing. Or does he mean that the Church shouldn't tell lost people that they are lost, because they might not feel welcome? That would be harder to accept. It seems that it would directly conflict with the believer's duty to warn the wicked from his way--unless, as seems distinctly possible from other passages, Mr. McLaren simply does not believe that non-Christians will wind up in Hell. Or does he mean that the church has few, if any grounds, for excluding professing believers from fellowship? Does he mean that the Church should welcome Hindus (or Buddhists, or Muslims?) as fellow believers or members of the Body?

A person could be forgiven for thinking such; Mr. McLaren goes to some trouble to suggest that a person should be able to be a follower of Jesus in, say, a Buddhist context. But I could not tell whether by that he meant that a person could simultaneously be a Buddhist, a believer in the Eight-fold path, in the veil of maya, in Brahman, and be a Christian, or whether he meant that a person could remain in a Buddhist culture, eating his traditional foods, wearing his traditional clothing, speaking the old language. Would he say that you could be a follower of Jesus in the context of Baalism? What about Molech-ism? I wonder what being a follower of Jesus would be like in the context of the cult of Thuggee? (Don't laugh, there really was such a cult; it is where our term "thug" comes from.) I could not determine for sure whether he meant all of these, none of these, or some combination of any of them.

So what is left, once it is determined that both the point to be demonstrated and the demonstration itself are less than clear--perhaps intentionally so? To my mind, it can be summed up in a single word (despite Mr. McLaren's dislike of reductionism): boilerplate. I am not sure which came first, but it seems to me that almost all of the Emerging Conversation I have heard sounds like it was taken--almost word for word, in more than a few cases--from this book. Its stories, vignettes, arguments, and observations seem to so completely dominate the Emergent Conversation/Church/Movement/Thingie that a person might easily conclude that actual conversing had stopped after this book's publication and dissemination. In fact, this statement almost seems prophetic, emphasis mine:
On top of all this absurdity, if the generous orthodoxy described in this book is valid, it implies a necessary critique of ungenerous tendencies in other orthodoxies, which could, ironically, result in this orthodoxy becoming no more generous than the others.

In other words, this orthodoxy could present itself as tolerant and generous, but really, beneath the surface, it could be just as disgusted with rival approaches to orthodoxy as any other self-proclaimed orthodoxy has been.
And this has, in fact, largely been my experience of it.

There are other things about the book, things that made it a little difficult to review, or to which I objected strongly enough that I felt like I had to comment. In no particular order:

First, the text is larded with so many loaded words and phrases that I found myself wishing that it would be possible to just reproduce the entirety of the text and respond to it bit by bit. Throughout the book, the author (and even the author of the foreword) seemed to take it so much for granted that his audience would at least be sympathetic to his point of view that massively important words are casually redefined with little or no announcement and certain attitudes on the part of the reader seem to have been taken for granted, or something is discussed in terms that may delineate only part of its reality, when embracing a broader view might lead to different conclusions entirely.

Just for example, while it would be difficult to find an explicit statement that "Capitalism is the economics of greed" in the book, capitalism is, whenever discussed, discussed in such a way that if a person did not arrive at that conclusion, it would surprise me greatly. And yes--there is a strong undercurrent of greed in some capitalists' thinking, though I would point out that greed is hardly an evil peculiar only to capitalism, and would further argue that greed, far from being an essential component of capitalism, is something of a betrayal of it. To my mind, capitalism is not about greed, it is about liberty, the freedom of men and women to work and to determine what to do with the fruits of their labor themselves, the freedom not to have their assets plundered, the freedom to crawl up out of poverty without having to have the good fortune of being born into a privileged class or to lick the hands of those above them. Properly instituted, it is the most egalitarian of economic systems, and the only one--the only one!--that demonstrably produces a real increase in the standard of living for multitudes of people. I asked my son, who within the last few years has read Hernando de Soto's The Mystery of Capital (highly recommended) and Marx's Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto (mentioned just so you know that, though unquestionably a capitalist conservative, he does not speak from an uninformed point of view), whether he thought capitalism was the economics of greed, and he answered, instantly, "No--it would be better named 'consumerism,' because what it is, is the best and fairest way to bring goods and services to a large number of people at prices they can afford."

You can see that it is easily possible to see a little more to capitalism than greed and exploitation, but I don't think you would ever know that from Mr. McLaren's references to the subject. As far as I can tell, he sees the greed and exploitation without seeing the liberty and the incredible way the poorest among us have been provided with goods and services that would have once been considered pipe dreams and this stilted view of capitalism is reflected in all that he says about it.

I found subjects treated similarly throughout the book, views so one-sided as to be inaccurate, presented as though they were the most natural thing in the world. I often found myself looking at a passage and thinking that it was as if he had written that he had just visited the Pope and his wife on the occasion of their son's bar mitzvah; completely impossible, and yet it's done so smoothly and seamlessly that a casual reader might not even notice. And I saw this kind of stuff on page after page. It's not that it's so difficult to understand the problems with some of his statements, it's that they're so "loaded" that a truly adequate response would just take for-cotton-pickin'-ever.

Whenever Mr. McLaren refers to political conservatism, it is with the most thinly-veiled of sneers, usually to the effect that his bete noire, modernism, has chained conservative Christianity to political Christianity--as though this were the only and most natural outcome of modernistic thinking. But the facts of the matter are otherwise; it wasn't always this way. It was less than a generation ago that one found, in great numbers, theologically conservative Christians very much wedded to Democratic Party politics, what were once touted as the politics of the "little guy." It wasn't modernism that produced the conservative Christian swing into the Republican Party; as Ramesh Ponnuru said in The Party of Death, it was the Democratic Party's unswerving devotion to abortion on demand (the true meaning of Roe v. Wade).

I noted that Mr. McLaren didn't touch on the importance of the abortion issue in this discussion at all (or if he did, I missed it completely), leading me to suspect that his view on the subject may well have been formed without taking important facts into consideration.

From the foreword--yes, I know I'm reviewing the book, not the foreword; but Mr. McLaren certainly never repudiates what is said in the foreword, and indeed, seems to agree with it entirely, so I feel very comfortable in talking about it--by John R. Franke, Associate Prof of Theology, Biblical Theological Seminary, Hatfield, Pa, p. 10
This failure has prompted the emergence of postmodern theory with its critique of certain, objective, universal knowledge and its quest to construct new forms of thought in the aftermath of modernity.
Note that well: we have not even gotten past the second page of the foreword and it is already clear that postmodernism--which is, to judge from what Mr. McLaren says in his introduction, part and parcel of his thinking--is critical of certain, objective, and universal knowledge.

Now, you can't be a reg'lar ol' ignernt redneck like yours truly and just let that pass. It's a bad thing to suppose your knowledge to be certain and objective and universal, eh? So I suppose that would also apply to that statement, wouldn't it, Professor? It would therefore, wouldn't it, be impossible not only for me to be certain of what you have said, impossible for me to have arrived at my interpretation of what you have said without bringing my biases into it, it would be impossible for you to know for certain what you have said or to have said it without bringing your biases into it. Under such circumstances, it's no wonder that you doubt the universality of knowledge--we can't possibly, under any circumstances, have any idea what you are really saying! Not even you can! In a situation like that, you really have to wonder why you bothered to finish writing the foreword; your attempts at communicating much of anything are, by your own presuppositions, pretty much doomed from the get-go. The only thing I can think is that you somehow have arrived at the conclusion that only your own writings are capable of being understood by all your readers--and you; that they--and you--can be certain of what you mean; and that their--and your--understanding is untainted by personal foibles and biases. It is either the one or the other, you cannot have it both ways here: either what you have written is incomprehensible to anyone on the planet, including yourself, or your writings stand alone amongst those of all mankind in being universally understandable, with a certain, objective meaning! It makes one wonder how you managed to pass your drivers' license examination; the very thought of you successfully determining the rules of the road from an objective source, knowing them well enough to pass the test, and then testing your knowledge every day on the way to and from work, subject all the while to an objective standard enforced by policemen who universally know the law, boggles the mind.

And how about this, from the same page: is important to remember that postmodern theory does not support the rejection of rationality but rather supports rethinking rationality in the wake of modernity. This rethinking has resulted not in irrationality, as is often claimed by less informed critics of postmodern thought, but rather in numerous redescriptions and proposals concerning the understanding of rationality and knowledge.
Now, again: I am not a particularly educated man. I admit this. But how educated do you have to be to see and understand that what the professor has just said, more or less, is: We don't reject "rationality." We just want to redefine it, so that it doesn't mean what you have grown accustomed to having it mean, but we still want to use the word, even though by it, we don't mean anything like what you mean. As a matter of fact, we're not sure what it means! But at any rate, don't accuse us of rejecting rationality, even though we completely reject the definition you use.

And with just what do the good professor and his colleagues propose to "re-think" rationality? Is it going to be the old rationality? One would think not--its adequacy is suspect, or it wouldn't be being re-thought. Is it going to be the new rationality? How? No one knows yet what it might be like; it is still under discussion, discussion that has no way of determining if its results are valid. Indeed, it seems to be a pre-ordained result of the discussion that no one will know for certain whether the results are valid! What you really have, then, is not so much the re-thinking of the way we think as it is the search for a way to validate the a priori assumption that certainty and objectivity and universally valid thinking and knowledge are impossible--yet in the act of attempting to demonstrate any conclusions on the matter, the professor must refute himself! Here he is immediately up against the old problem people who embrace mysticism have always been up against: in order to critique rationality, logical thought, you have to use it, leading immediately to a flat-out contradiction. Or you have to just toss out a flat denial of reason's validity without substantiating your argument. Of course, mystics have never been terribly troubled by flat-out contradictions in their thinking anyway. They seem to regard them as a mark of intellectual sophistication.

And, of course, having re-thought--my goodness, it's a gutsy move to start writing a foreword or a book (anything, really) dealing with valid forms of thought and knowing before you, personally, have settled on what is and isn't rational--and still re-thinking rationality, because you don't like the sort of knowledge embraced and implied by the old kind of rationality, it's fairly implicit that your critics are, by your new anti-standards, irrational. So, right there, on page 10, I'm already saying, as Mr. Boortz says from time to time, "Thanks a pantload!"

Is it going too far to say that Mr. McLaren sees having certainty in what one believes to be dangerous, possibly even evil? I don't know for sure, but comments like this:
p.194 There was a strange confidence and certainty that Calvin's system gave his followers, and that confident certainty, while comforting and productive, also proved dangerous at times. It allowed Calvin himself to oversee the execution of fellow Christians for disagreeing with his system...
would make it hard to blame a person for thinking so. There was more to this paragraph, and to say that I thought it was one-sided is an understatement.

One chapter in particular--chapter 0--struck me as being an extended exercise in preselecting one's audience. One reason after another is offered why one should not buy the book, probably leaving, in the end, only people who are inclined to agree, or are perhaps not too discriminating, or are reading it for some other reason (like writing a review). It was hard for me to reach the end of that chapter without thinking that Mr. McLaren had done his best to eliminate criticism by discouraging people who don't share his thinking from buying the book. For example:
Speaking of smoke, this book suggests that relativists are right
in their denunciation of absolutism. It also affirms that absolutists are right in their denunciation of relativism. And then it suggests that they are both wrong because the answer lies beyond both absolutism and relativism. I'll bet that sounds like nonsense to nine of 10 readers, which should bring the words store credit to mind.
And it would have, as statements like this strike me as indicative of the sort of false profundity that, on having said that something simultaneously is and is not, congratulates itself on its sophistication and separation from the rubes. But I didn't buy the book, I borrowed it from the library for the specific purpose of reading and reviewing it.

With Mr. McLaren, as with so many others, I repeatedly find myself thinking, "Where the mess have you been going to church? It ain't no place I recognize." When he talks about evangelicals and conservative protestants, I don't see the people that I've gone to church with for years (at least not for the most part); when he talks about the "Jesuses he has known," I'm not sure that the people in the pews would recognize the Jesus he describes. Maybe he's had consistently rotten luck with the churches he's attended; some people seem to have the gift of "rotten church luck." I believe that what Mr. McLaren says about fundamentalists, evangelicals, and conservative protestants falls far short of the truth in many respects. His descriptions of fundamentalist beliefs seem reminiscent of the description a person might give of karate had he seen only white, orange, green, and purple belts performing it: yes, technically it's "karate," but as Bilbo said to Smaug, "Truly songs and tales fall utterly short of the reality." For example, I have never heard anyone "bottom-line" Christianity to being in or out of Hell, as though Francis Crick had made no contributions to the state of mankind despite his current course directly toward Hell. Rather, I've heard it preached--to use a fairly popular way of putting it--that if the point of Christianity were only to get a person into Heaven, the instant a person was saved, God'd kill him. The point is to become like Christ. How many times have I heard it preached that it is the doers of the Word, not merely the hearers, who are blessed? In another spot, he characterizes fundamentalists as quibbling pointlessly over the meaning of love God and love thy neighbor, specifically asking "Which God?" and refusing to be satisfied with the answer "whichever one Jesus was referring to," and asking "Who is my neighbor?" Now, I can readily imagine a fundamentalist asking which God it is that is under discussion and not taking some contentless claptrap--perhaps Jesus was referring to Allah? to Brahman? Who knows? Knowledge, after all, is uncertain, subjective, and particular to the person doing the knowing!--for an answer. But I cannot imagine very many but the new and untaught asking "Who is my neighbor?" They all know that story and its point. Perhaps it was the particular church that he was raised in that gave Mr. McLaren his painfully limited view stilted view of fundamentalists; perhaps he simply cannot see what I see so clearly; perhaps he does not want to see; I do not know.

You find the usual objection to sola scriptura, that God is the ultimate authority, not the Bible. I always find this objection completely vacuous; of course God is the ultimate authority; that is why what He says is ultimately authoritative. If you want to tell me that God is your ultimate authority, the first thing through my mind is always, "Fine, I understand that; what has He been telling you? By what means has He been telling it to you? By Urim and Thummim, perhaps? If you have definitive communication from God Himself to the effect that something He has said in the Bible is no longer binding or useful, is there some reason you wouldn't go public with your claim that God has, through you his prophet, said something different? If what He has said to you isn't different from what is in the Bible, exactly what is your issue?"

If the communication you've received from God agrees with the Bible, or if you're saying that what you're hearing from God isn't authoritative for faith and practice, I have a hard time understanding exactly what your issue with sola scriptura is; if what you say you've heard from God disagrees with the Bible, then what this ignernt ol' redneck needs from you is not some pious-sounding pronouncement that God is your ultimate authority, but some reason I should believe that what you are saying is theopneustos, God-breathed, communication from God on the level of scripture. If you can't provide such a reason, my suggestion is that you put a sock in it before you make more of a fool of yourself than you already have. It sounds like you are trying to pass off the opinions of men as authoritative communication from God.

And, of course, you find another common objection: the Bible is narrative, the history of what God has done in the world and through his people, and it is wrong to try to draw strong doctrinal positions from it; the story of what the right thing to do during the invasion of Canaan does not necessarily reveal moral truth for today. One cannot overlook that by extension, this reasoning would provide one of the ever-popular "outs" for those who would legitimize homosexual behavior in the Church; that is, the story of what Hebrew society--or the Apostle Paul--considered wrong millennia ago would not necessarily imply that all homosexual behavior would be wrong today. To say otherwise would be to ignorantly treat the Bible as a "rule book." The only reason that I do not say that homosexuality is why the whole subject of the Bible as "narrative" is brought up is that it would be putting words in the mouth of Mr. McLaren and his acolytes; they do not (usually) say explicitly that their concern is to allow practicing homosexuals to remain in good standing--perhaps even a bishopric?--in the Church. But it does seem to me that their concerns, when they bring up the "rule book" line of argument are always sexism, racism, and homophobia--especially homophobia. Personally, I do not think the "rule book" stuff would ever be brought up were it not for their concern with these subjects.

I always find the "narrative argument" vacuous, because it seems so clear that it is merely a pretext for justifying homosexual behavior within the Church, and the same people who make this objection--and Mr. McLaren is not the exception!--don't let it stop them from drawing doctrinal positions from scripture. For example (more could easily have been provided):
I am here to be their neighbor according to the teaching of my Lord...
Which he knows how?
...and if I am not a good one, my Lord says they have no reason to believe or even respect my message.
and because while a good deal of the Bible is narrative, a good deal of it is also direct doctrinal exposition, a good deal of it poetic, etc. It is oversimplifying matters considerably--I am tempted to say "conveniently"--to--ahem(!)--reductionistically approach the Bible solely as narrative. It seems to me that this issue is only raised when some objected-to Biblical teaching needs to be explained away.

Mr. McLaren seems to have a lot of problems with Hell. He says, in a footnote, that it is an important subject and has a place of importance in Christian theology, but he will not take--at least explicitly--a position on whether only believers in Christ stay out of it, whether everyone stays out of it, or whether believers and some others stay out of it. His position seems to be that who is in and who is out of Hell is God's business, and that we are supposed to serve and just not worry about it. While I appreciate his concern that Christians serve, I cannot help but think that his--I cannot think of another way to put this--lack of concern over Hell is very helpful, either to those who have friends, relatives, or loved ones (or who are concerned about people they haven't even met) they are concerned about, or to those who might be in danger of hellfire. I can't help but wonder what Mr. McLaren would tell the mother who is dreadfully concerned that her unbelieving, middle-aged son and his wife and children might wind up in the lake of fire; would he tell her not to worry about whether they believed in Jesus as savior or not, as long as she served them? What kind of service would that be?

I said that he will not take an explicit position on who (if anybody) winds up in Hell; I do think that his silence on the subject speaks--nay, sings--volumes, but without hitting the notes he thinks it does.

More in the way of odds-n-ends:
From this viewpoint "getting it right" (the message and the methodology, that is) is beside the point; the point is "being and doing good" as followers of Jesus in our unique time and place, fitting in with the ongoing story of God's saving love for planet Earth.
If "being and doing good" is the point, do you not wish to communicate this? What is something you wish to communicate, if not a message? If not getting the message and methodology right is beside the point, it surely follows that in this case, "being and doing good" are of no great importance. If this conclusion is unacceptable, it seems to me that the premise--"getting it right" is beside the point--must be rejected.
While some Protestants seem to let Jesus be Savior, but promote Paul to lord and teacher, Anabaptists have always interpreted Paul through Jesus, and not the reverse. For them the Sermon on the Mount and the other words of Jesus represent the greatest treasure in the world. Jesus' teachings have been their standard. And although they have failed in living them--as we all have--at least they've let their failure be obvious by letting the message of Christ dwell richly in their hearts.
This "Paul vs. Jesus" thing is recurrent through much of modern Christianity, and it appears that Mr. McLaren is not immune in imagining that the man Jesus said was his chosen instrument for taking his message (not that it was important to "get it right," apparently) to the gentiles actually taught something of which Jesus did not approve. Or so it appears to me.
By the way, even though I could have parenthetically referenced I Corinthians 8:1-3 or 13:1-4 to validate the previous points, I did not. I assume that thoughtful and noble readers will want to test what I say in reference to the Scriptures rather than me trying to save them the time and effort of doing so through the time-honored practice of proof-texting (Acts 17:11).
And of course, should these thoughtful, noble readers find that the Scriptures indicate that Mr. McLaren is in error, and should they attempt to cite those Scriptures, what will they be accused of? Proof-texting, more than likely. This seems little but an attempt to rule Scriptural citations "out of bounds" when attempting to critique Mr. McLaren's thinking.
This isn't to say that doctrine doesn't matter--not at all! Let me go on record as saying that I believe sound doctrine is very, very, very important...
And yet, given his fundamental approach to knowledge--that is, one critical of certain, objective, and universal knowledge--what does it mean for Mr. McLaren to say that doctrine is very important? How can he know it? How can someone else know what he knows? Mr. McLaren would have us follow the example of Jesus--which would, of course, if were possible to be known, constitute doctrine in action, but there is no way, operating with his premises, for that example to be objectively, universally, and certainly known.

This section, toward the end of the book, seemed to sum up the material as well as anything could:
But please understand: that's not what I'm talking about, not at all! I know it might appear to be so because I and others, while we aren't "for" pluralistic relativism, do see it as a kind of needed chemotherapy. We see modernity with its absolutisms and colonialism and totalitarianisms as a kind of static dream, a desire to abide in timeless abstractions and extract humanity from the ongoing flow of history and emergence, a naive hope to make now the end of history (which actually sounds either like a kind of death wish or millennialism).

In Christian theology, this anti-emergent thinking is expressed in systematic theologies that claim (overtly, covertly, or unconsciously) to have final orthodoxy nailed down, freeze-dried, and shrink-wrapped forever.

Emergent Christians (post-liberal, post-conservative) see pluralistic relativism as a dangerous treatment for Stage 4 absolutist/colonial/totalitarian modernity (to use language from cancer diagnosis), something that saves a life by nearly killing it. It's dangerous medicine--but stagnancy, getting stuck too long in the cocoon, is dangerous too. (As in any good story, all of our choices run between Scylla and Charybdis, between dangers to the left and right.)

Again, I understand why people often accuse me (and others on this emergent path) of pluralistic relativism. If you hold to a modern, exclusivist, absolutist, colonial version of Christianity, anything not "us" seems to be "them."

But please, ask yourself: is it possible that there is a way of seeing and being that is beyond modern exclusivism/absolutism and beyond pluralistic relativism? Could there be an approach that avoids stagnant, modern fundamentalism and narcissistic boomeritis? Is it possible that modern, exclusivist, absolutist Christians are right--pluralistic relativism is dangerous? But is it possible that the way ahead is not to stop short of a pluralistic phase, but rather to go through it and pass beyond it, emerging into something beyond and better? Do you see why words like postmodern, post-liberal, and post-conservative keep coming up--why the word beyond is so prevalent these days?

In this chapter I am trying (with Ken Wilber's help) to make clear that I believe there is something above and beyond the current alternatives of modern fundamentalism/absolutism and pluralistic relativism. I know this is so hard to envision because I struggled to envision this myself for about 10 years and have only begun in the last few years to see it, and even now, only faintly. This "above and beyond" is, I believe, the way of Jesus, which is the way of love and the way of embrace.
I thought that was an important passage; a few things just leaped out at me, things that I believe are reinforced in other passages throughout the book. For instance, if a systematic theology covertly or unconsciously claimed to have final orthodoxy nailed down, how would he know that it did so, if knowledge is not certain, objective, and universal? Wouldn't it be possible for that systematic theology to be true in the cultural context of the theologian's faith community and his own personal context? Another thing: it seems to me that "...its absolutisms and colonialism and totalitarianisms..." is kind of strong language to use for the idea that there is truth that is true regardless of what I or my faith community thinks of it, that it can be communicated and known to be the same truth by more than one person. A person who holds that idea is necessarily colonial? Totalitarian? Again, thanks a pantload. Another thing: here we are, pretty much at the end of the book, and Mr. McLaren's summed-up position appears to be: there's gotta be something better than this, but he doesn't know (How can he? Again, knowledge is not certain, not objective, not universal...) what it is, what it might look like, how it might work. It is something that after many years of work he sees only faintly and cannot really describe, but asks us to believe that it is the way of Jesus, love, and embrace--by which a person might conclude that all the stuff that isn't included in that faintly-seen vision isn't the way of Jesus, love, and embrace. It frankly doesn't seem a very loving and embracing position to me, but then, Mr. McLaren probably didn't mean it the way it sounded.

And, too, it can't be ignored that Mr. McLaren's "way ahead" that is somehow "beyond and better" than "modern exclusivism/absolutism" and "pluralistic relativism" is nothing more than common "third way-ism," which has been common currency among statists of varying stripes for quite some time. They are perpetually looking for something "beyond" capitalism and socialism, for example. But somehow, it always seems that their "third way" turns out to be nothing more than socialism--again. You can find an excellent discussion of third way-ism in Jonah Goldberg's excellent Liberal Fascism.

Ultimately, gentle readers, the book struck me: as a great number of statements, few of which are clear--that, perhaps, on purpose--most or all of them yielding less than friendly interpretations that leave the Emergent Conversation/Church/Movement/Thingie perpetually defending this gentleman by saying, "You just don't understand what he meant." There is more, so much more, that I would like to comment extensively on. Mr. McLaren's incredibly one-sided and/or outrageously skewed views of Reformed theology, for example. After reading this
Whether it's God who makes us puppets, or whether it is genes, physics, socioeconomics, or psychosexual aggression, it doesn't matter much to me. I have little time for determinism. If it's true, then I can't help but not believe it, because after all, I have no choice. (And if you believe it, ditto.)

Again I think Calvin's actual interest in determinism is overrated; he wasn't creating it but rather was reflecting a widely held belief that went back at least to Augustine. But after Calvin's death, I think a terrible convergence occurred, something like the Perfect Storm, when the massive low-pressure system of theistic determinism (Calvin-the-next generation via Beza and Co.) synergized withthe strengthening hurricane of mechanical determinism (Sir Isaac Newton) and then drew strength from the high-pressure system of rationalistic philosophy (Descartes and others). The perfect storm produced a whole new landscape where mechanisms were seen as the ultimate reality, and where God was promoted to chief engineer, controlling the whole machine. I do not believe in this modern mechanistic God or this closed, mechanistic universe.

I do not believe that this universe is a movie that's already "in the can," having been "produced and shot" already in God's mind, leaving us with the illusion that it's all real and actually happening. I find it hard to imagine worshiping or loving a deterministic, machine-operator God.
one can more readily understand how it is that it seems that the Emergent Conversation/Church/Movement/Thingie's most persistent critics tend to come from the Reformed wing of the Church--and I also took it as a tacit admission that Mr. McLaren subscribes to Open Theism.

As I said earlier, the book is really begging for a detailed, almost line-by-line dissection. Unfortunately, I just ain't got the time.


  1. Did you know that Brian McLaren was listed in Time magazine's 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in American in 2005?

    I have to admit that I have not read any of his stuff except for maybe excerpts of his work but he did have one quote that I really liked. "I believe that people are saved not by objective truth, but by Jesus. Their faith isn't their knowledge, but in God."

    His views on the homosexual issue I can also say that I agree with. He has basically said that while homosexuality may or may not be a sin, we still need to treat those people as if they are still God's children because they are.

    But at the same time, there are probably things about his theology that I don't agree with.

    I think in regards to his thoughts on certainty, I look at those and half-way agree. I mean, I think a person should be certain about their faith in the way that they would say, I am certain that Jesus was the son of God and that my faith in Him is what saves me and be certain that Jesus did die on the cross and was risen 3 days later. But at the same time, you can't always be certain about things like what year the earth was created or what happened to Jesus between the ages of 12 and 30. There are some things I think that we just can't know or can't be certain about while there are other things that we can be absolutely certain about. That make any sense?

    A preacher once told me, in regards to reading a particular person's work, or listening to a particular theologians writings and what not, that you should chew up the good and spit out the bad.

    Have you ever read any Rob Bell? I like his stuff, particular Velvet Elvis and Jesus Wants to Save Christians.

  2. Otter, I would agree with what you said, vis-a-vis certainty. My issue with Mr. McLaren is that he would disagree--that is, he will tell you with the straightest of faces that there are not, to use your words, "things that we can be absolutely certain about."

    That is going too far. It is one thing to concede that we are human and liable to mistakes; it is another to say that we can know nothing for sure.

    I've read some Bell quotes online. Couldn't say I was impressed. I tried reading, I think, "Velvet Elvis" once and couldn't get through it. My personal opinion was that it was horribly boring and badly written--what part of it I forced myself through. So I quit.