Christ and Pop Culture
Where the Christian faith meets the common knowledge of our age
Follow Patheos Evangelical:
Southern Seminary hosts a panel discussion on Brian McLaren’s newest book, see it here.
I wasn’t going to say anything, but here it goes anyway . . .
I should start by saying that in recent years, Brian McLaren has become one of my favorite authors. His books in the New Kind of Christian series impacted my life and my faith in ways that are reverberating. I was excited to learn of his new book, but hadn’t been able to pick it up yet.
Last week I watched the panel discussion online, trying to be fair as I listened. It was difficult, but not surprising or shocking in any way. I attended and worked at Southern Seminary for two and a half years up until this January, so the content didn’t take me off guard. I decided I needed to read the book before I said anything though.
I began the book today, and just as I suspected, it’s incredible. The ten questions McLaren touches on are many of the same questions that I have wrestled with of late and what many of the conversations I have in private with my close friends have been about – I never felt to comfortable addressing these topics on the campus of Southern for obvious reasons.
McLaren is once again kind, compassionate, fair, and well thought in his new book. This is one of the main reasons things like this panel discussion are so troublesome to me. Never once have I heard McLaren come anywhere close to calling someone “the craftiest of the serpents of the field” or say that their “father is the devil” because of their beliefs, but this is just what Jim Hamilton, rather un-surprisingly, did during the panel discussion. I’m rather tired of people resorting to these antagonistic, name calling tactics to get their points across. Is it necessary? Helpful? Loving?
No, it is not. And it doesn’t prove your point either. Rather, McLaren even says in the book that his responses to the ten questions are not meant to be tennis ball slams, intended to win a debate, but are rather lobs to the other side of the net, meant to begin the conversation. In response, he gets slammed by a panel of same-minded individuals who’s purpose is to prove how wrong he is.
Why not invite McLaren to take part in the panel discussion, or even another emergent thinker? Heaven forbid, I know. If you’ve had any experience at Southern Seminary you know the chances of such a conversation taking place in Alumni Chapel is about the same as Cornell’s chances of winning the NCAA tournament (What? They’re still in it? Whoops).
Anyway, the contents of the panel discussion are of no surprise to me, but serve as a reminder why I no longer could be on the campus of that seminary. I respect their right to have such a panel discussion, but in no way do I endorse the one sided blasting of a man who wasn’t even there to defend himself. How many students are going to read up on the book to get McLaren’s take after such a thrashing? Hopefully there are some who take the time to give it a fair shake, even if they disagree.
I’ll end with this quick story: Last year I attended an evening service at a local church here in Louisville in which Brian McLaren had been invited to speak. It was a great message, as he spoke about the ideas presented in his new book “Everything Must Change.” As expected, many local Southern Seminary students attended, and during the Q and A session, some of them began to bombard him with questions that had nothing to do with the topic at hand as I sat in my seat, embarrassed. Instead, they tried to corner him in his thoughts about certain doctrines. He handled it all patiently, and with a bit of humor. After it was over, we all went to another room for punch, cookies, and fellowship. One of my fellow students entered the room red faced and said “Can you believe this?!?” as I greeted him – referring to McLaren’s response to the public interrogation.
Later that evening, my wife and I had the great pleasure of meeting Brian. I apologized for the display during the Q and A and thanked him for his compassionate demeanor. We had a great talk and he was extremely kind to us, asking us questions about our lives and what we planned to do. I’m thankful for men like Brian McLaren and I hope that instead of fighting and bickering, we can all be willing to handle our disagreements with much more grace and purpose. I know I need to learn this as much as anyone.
“How many are going to read up on the book to get McLaren’s take after such a thrashing?”
I don’t know, but I’m not the best example as I don’t plan on checking out the SBC panel despite the thrashing you gave it. It would have been nice had SBC been here to defend itself. Maybe if we cross our collective fingers, Jim Hamilton will arrive to defend his honour.
[Note: I do not know who Jim Hamilton is. Note further: it's altogether likely that I may never know.]
It’d be nice if you could point me to somewhere that gives a sympathetic summarization of McLaren’s book so I could see both why it’s so frustrating to teetotalers and simultaneously so invigourating to people who post articles in opposition to the lovely Scott Schultz. Because in all honesty I have a hard time seeing myself ever delve more than ten pages into this kind of book (though to be fair, I did read all but the last five pages of a Donald Miller book and in my imagination, they’re probably pretty close insofar as how little they might interest me).
I read maybe four sentences of the Challies review of the book and he quotes (or misquotes) McLaren saying that a quote-unquote Greco-Roman understanding of God presents him as a “damnable idol.” It’s always uncomfortable for me when people describe other people’s understanding of God as being damnable. I mean, what if he’s wrong and God just happens to coincide with the quote-unquote Greco-Roman understanding of him. If that’s the case, McLaren just said (if this is indeed what he said) that believing in God as he is would be damnable. Not a happy thing to say about God. I prefer agnosticism in such matters to the potential of blaspheme.
But maybe I’m just not as dogmatic and intolerant as McLaren? Who’s to say?
So yeah: any assistance as to both what McLaren says that’s pissing off the baptists so much and what McLaren’s book says that gives you the morning pee shivers from reading it would be awesome.
Well, I certainly don’t think that my response was a thrashing of the panel discussion. I was disheartened by the content, sure, but as I said, they more than have the right to continue these panel discussions and I’m sure they will.
I actually didn’t want to listen to the panel discussion, I’m sure for many of the same reasons you don’t want to read McLaren’s book, but I wanted to hear what they had to say, so I did. What I found was what I expected, although I attempted my best to listen with fair ears. If you want an account for McLaren’s book, you’re going to get one of two different reactions, and you know what those are. So I guess you could read the book, or not.
The point of my comment was not to thrash the panel for their opinion, but to point to their tact and how unhelpful it has been and continues to be. I also added that I, myself, struggle with the same things and need grace in that area as well. Therefore, I’m not exactly sure why you’re so upset.
As for Jim Hamilton, I know him and he’s a nice guy. He’s said things such as this before which have bothered me, and I’d be happy to say so to his face. Would he say the things he said about McLaren had McLaren been there at the discussion? I doubt it, but who knows.
If you really would like a rundown of McLaren’s beliefs and things he’s said in the past, I’d be more than happy to talk about those things. If the issue is that you have an idea of what McLaren talks about, but you don’t like it and want me to convince you why you should, well anything I say probably won’t change what you think. Sometimes people just have different opinions of things. I’m totally okay with the opinions of people on Southern’s panel, the point was to compare how they conveyed those opinions compared to how McLaren conveyed his.
Kiel, I’m familiar with that quote of his as well, and I’ve had an equivilent discomfort with it. I plan on reading his book, but in the meantime, could you clarify what he may mean by that?
Might I suggest that the reason for a Christian to like someone’s content should not be based on that individual’s humility and demeanor alone. Nor should the response of Southern Seminary’s factuly be discounted simply because it was done with less grace.
Kiel, we seem to have these discussion regularly on here in regards to the theology of various emergent theologians (Rob Bell). Can you articulate specifically why their approach to key doctrines, traditional orthodoxy, or the Scriptures does not seem to bother you as much as it does me and others? I understand appreciating their rejection of legalism, their humility, etc. but that’s a different issue than one’s view of the atonement, the Bible, hell and more. Thoughts?
Well, it hasn’t been any secret that in the past several years, many from the conservative camp have been a little uneasy about what McLaren and many other emergent thinkers have been saying. I read D.A. Carson’s book on McLaren a couple of years ago, where he basically calls McLaren out for some of his beliefs and calls him a heretic. Mark Driscoll and many others have done the same thing for the same reasons.
From what I can tell of the book so far, there isn’t that much more startling information that would lead anyone to believe that that already does. He’s taking a look at ten questions he’s found that are most prevalent as he’s traveled and spoken around the globe, and questions that will shape the future of Christianity.
He’s remains pretty critical of the fundamentalist view of scripture that has been held for some time now and takes a look at what we might have been missing in how the Biblical narrative should read. I’m not far enough to map all of this out yet, but would be happy to as I progress through the book.
As I said before, he addresses questions that I have been asking as well. I appreciate that. These conversations are so much easier to have in person than they are online – mostly because I’m terrible at expressing myself on the internet, but also because there’s so much to say. A few of my friends and I absolutely love to get together and talk about this stuff. It’s been a freeing experience to know that others have questions about the nature of God and who scripture tells us he is. Is God violent? How does that manifest itself? Does the nature of God we see in scripture mean that he damns people to hell that don’t repent? What is hell? If I don’t believe that God does damn people to hell based on one decision, what does that mean about my faith and my relationship with God?
I could go on and on with these, but the point is that people who are not only comfortable asking these kinds of questions, but questioning what the church has been saying for some time and maybe even questioning whether certain ways of thinking are relevant anymore causes some people to get pretty upset. And if you think that asking these questions and offering non-orthodox responses to them may mean you’re not really a Christian, then you might be willing to say that someone is the son of the devil. I can’t imagine what would make me say that about someone, since I wouldn’t claim to be right beyond the shadow of a doubt, but I see how someone who thinks a certain way could get to that point.
I wish someone smarter than me was here to answer all of this, by the way.
I’m the only Christian in my family. I became a Christian in high school and started going to church. So for a little over a decade, I’ve been slowly building my faith and understanding what I believe. For the most part of my Christian walk, I’ve accepted orthodox Christian doctrine. When I moved to Louisville, I was a big fundamentalist. I used to sit around with my friends and bash people like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren (although I’d never read their work). I remained this way for the first year in Louisville until life circumstances brought me to a place where I began to really look hard at what I believed and why I believed that way. Because someone told me that’s what the Bible says and that’s how you read it? Because it’s always been that way?
Enter me checking out Velvet Elvis from the Library. I read it, and was broken. I realized all the questions I’d been bottling up inside me where going to have to spill out and I was going to have to deal with my doubts and fears about things. I met other people around this time who where having similar experiences and I began reading other works by authors who weren’t conservative Calvinists.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve undergone a renovation of my faith, so to speak. I feel refreshed. I’ve described it as taking a broken down car into the shop. It has to be taken apart to work correctly, and while it’s being worked on, it doesn’t work at all. However, when the work is done, it runs better than before. That’s my story from the past few years. It’s not everyone’s and it doesn’t have to be – we’re all on faith journeys and they all look different. That’s very beautiful to me.
Once again, these conversations are difficult to have over the internet. I apologize for not only being inept at communication, but for not being the best person to talk about this. But if you’re asking why I’m not bothered by what people like Rob Bell or Brian McLaren are saying, the best I can do is say that God broke me and humbled me. What they’re saying is where I’m at and others are there too. Some of my good friends aren’t there, that’s okay – they’re experiencing God and their faith journey in a different way and their gifts and who they are fit that perfectly. I guess our experiences of God are different and how we come to know and understand him are different. I believe one day it will all be known to all of us, but for now, it’s a little messier than that.
“If you want an account for McLaren’s book, you’re going to get one of two different reactions, and you know what those are.”
Actually, I don’t. Beyond the fact that the SBC panel is evidently not at all a fan (apostasy?) and my general feeling that the emergent thingy (of which I know McLaren to play some part) is just a natural part in the continual pendular swing that protestant church has engaged since its inception, I don’t have the faintest idea what he has to say. That’s why I asked.
I did, after commenting, bow to curiosity and listen to the opening minute or two of the panel. I got to where Bruce Ware retitled the book and realized that there would probably be nothing helpful in the video. The expectation of this kind of reaction is part of why I asked for a summary of McLaren’s book from a sympathetic source. I’m interested in what he has to say that’s so wonderful, but my time is more valuable than his book probably merits. So that doesn’t come off as an unnecessary slam against McLaren, I also won’t spend my time reading books by any of those involved in the panel either.
I don’t know why you think I’m upset about anything. I’m not. Well, the “damnable” quote is bothersome, but people say stupid things all the time (cf. SBC panel), so that certainly doesn’t upset me. It does lend evidence toward the idea that McLaren is prone to the same mannered excesses as the SBC crew. Which would be fine if all of them were just some backwoods bloggers with 32 pageviews per day, but as visible leaders of the church, they all kind of come off like intolerant morons (McLaren included).
Maybe they aren’t, but that’s sure how they look to the outsider.
Well, when I’m done with the book, I’ll be happy to give you a rundown of what he says. It probably won’t be extremely soon, since I don’t have enough money to spend on it, so I’m reading it bit by bit in bookstores. Yes, I am a bad person.
I can appreciate that our experiences take us in many different directions and that you are coming to terms with what you believe in a different manner than I. I would ask you to consider what,exactly, is your authority? That is to say, how do you determine what, on your faith journey, is truth and what isn’t? For traditional Christians we have argued that the Bible is our authority, here God revealed specifically who he is and what we are to believe about him. So help me understand how you determine what’s true and what isn’t?
Frankly, I’m thrilled to be mentioned in this thread. And that’s my primary reason for going ahead and commenting.
As for MacLaren and the SBC panel, I watched a bit of it, too. Having not read much MacLaren, but still being fairly conversant with things emergent (and being, in my own way, a bit of a postmodern theological hipster myself), I want to express my befuddlement at why the Emerging Church hasn’t gone far enough and simply plead with its audience to move into mainline Protestant denominations. Virtually everything they desire can be found in the PCUSA, ECUSA, or the ELCA.
You want liturgy? They got that. You want social justice? They got that. You want dialogue and conversation? They got loads of that. You want creeds and traces of “Ancient Faith”? Yep, they got that. You want women in high places? They got that, too. You wanna stay away from the fundamentalists? Mos def the place to be. You want cultural relevance? They’ve got oodles. Not so keen on wrath? Of course.
I promise, I’m not poking fun at anyone here or elsewhere. These are just the facts. Mainline Protestantism has been doing Emergent for the past century. I am 100% serious. This is not a slam in the slightest against the mainliners or emergent folk. I simply can’t tell the difference aside from their respective self-identifications.
And while anybody is thinking through these issues, there is one book that comes to mind, one which I would recommend. It’s not a perfect book, but if gives some very concise, helpful direction in weighing the very same subjects that MacLaren fans are discussing. It’s called Christianity and Liberalism and I think it gives some good food for thought to the searching mind.
I think the reason such a call hasn’t been made is because of the very statement you made – as in, they’ve been doing this for the past century. The idea behind McLaren’s new book and many emergent ideas is that there isn’t this one particular denomination or ideal that has been set that we need to achieve, no one destination in the journey. McLaren describes the idea of having a constitution and continually adding on amendments until someone finally says “wait, why don’t we just scrap this and start over, making a better and more relevant document?”
It’s not a matter of women in ministry or a more liberal take on doctrine, it’s a matter of change and progression that leads to a relevant faith for the current time. If that means a certain view on women in ministry or how we interpret scripture, that’s fine, but it’s not about finding a denomination that believes certain things that line up with what emergent thinkers are saying. I think, if anything, it might be a call to stay in whatever church you’re in and work towards a more relevant faith within your own community.
Yeh, you’re probably right.
David, the problem we’re going to run into is that even if I say the Bible is my authority, you and I are still going to disagree on certain things within the Bible. What happens if both you and I take a completely literal view of Scripture, but you decide that women shouldn’t be pastors and decide that they should – based on our understanding of the same, literal text that we both believe is without fault? Who decides who’s right? Who decides who’s wrong? Does anybody have to be wrong?
This is obviously just one issue, but there’s plenty of them. I believe that the Bible is God-breathed and is a useful tool. I don’t believe in “bibliolatry” in which the Bible is worshiped first and foremost. The Holy Spirit is the one who guides us and speaks to us and allows understanding. Yet even if we both agree that we both have the Holy Spirit and we both believe the Bible to be completely true, we still have disagreements. This leads me to believe that from community to community, some of these issues might have a different right answer. Is it possible that God is working differently in your community than mine and is revealing himself in a different way? I believe it is. It’s not a matter of contradiction either, in my mind.
The Bible has been used to promote slavery, persecution, manifest destiny, and genocide in the past. We look back now and see how foolish that was, but people then were convinced. What things are we convinced of now that will be ridiculous several generations from now that will be obvious then? It’s the same as people believing and being convinced that the earth was flat. What a silly notion, right? But at the time, it made sense and everything pointed to that, even though it wasn’t the truth.
We haven’t reached some peak of understanding. Our great grandchildren will know much more about the universe and the way things work than we do now, and likely the same will go for our faith as God reveals himself more and more and in new and different ways. I heard somewhere that there was only a handful of books written about the Holy Spirit before the 20th century. Why? Wasn’t the Holy Spirit around? Of course, but as time progressed, it seems that we gained a deeper understanding of the Spirit and his work. It took hundreds of years before the doctrine of the trinity was accepted and understood, even though the word trinity is never mentioned in scripture.
I believe in the authority of scripture, but I also understand that our understanding of things evolves and grows with time and I don’t want to be muddled in old ways of thinking when the world around us is growing and evolving. Does that make any sense? Probably not, but I gave it a shot.
I pretty much agree with most of that last comment Kiel. I think the only area in which we part ways is when you say, “from community to community, some of these issues might have a different right answer.” Though you later point to instances in which the community was obviously mistaken (e.g. on slavery), you seem to tend toward a more optimistic view of the disparity between the interpretations of different traditions. I, on the other hand, skew to a more pessimistic view (I’d usually say realistic, but for the sake of ecumenicism, I’ll refrain*) and believe that rather than communities having different right answers, it’s more likely that all the communities have different wrong answers.
I think the end goal of our two views generally ought to meet on similar ground (i.e. tolerance for opposing viewpoints). I for one care little for dogmatism on most topics within the pale of Christian theology and find such trajectories to be shortsighted and unhelpful. It sounds like here you must be defining yourself apart from the typical emergent trajectory then because in most cases, my handful of conversations with voices favouring emergent directions tend as much toward dogmatism as SBC stalwarts—just on different points and in different directions.
*note: that was nice of me, huh?
Golly, the Dane, that was nice. I wouldn’t say that the emergent crowd leans as much towards dogmatism as the SBC, but that’s just from the experiences I’ve had with both. I also don’t claim to be emergent – I have disagreements with some of the things that people have said, even Brian McLaren. The difference is, I can feel comfortable in disagreement with them, there’s no feeling when reading anything Brian McLaren (for example) writes that puts me in a position to either agree or be wrong. I think that’s important and it’s something I didn’t experience too much on the campus of Southern Seminary, outside of a few small groups of people.
I do believe we need to have a common ground of tolerance, even if that means swallowing a bit of pride and trusting that God is faithful in the lives of others who are seeking him, not just ourselves. This was a HUGE struggle of mine that I’ve been broken over, and am still being broken of daily. It’s a hard thing to be tolerant, especially when you’re convinced you’re right. But I think it’s the Christian thing to do and God is far too complex and mysterious for any one group of people to claim the whole lump of truths and shove it all into a systematic theology textbook that you can take or leave.
I’m not reading anything more than what the Dane first wrote and that was enough to put a smile on my face for hours (or at least 5 min).
I have been following this civil discussion and thinking about whether or not its worth chiming in or not. I appreciate the tone of the discussion but I feel like we are talking about two different things.
It seems the frustration with the panel is leveled at the fact that they indicated thinking that much of McLaren’s teaching is demonic or satanic. That is unnecessarily polarizing rhetoric that weakens one’s argument. It is probably unfair overstatement.
I haven’t listened to the panel–so I don’t know, but plenty of people are fair and generous and polite and likeable but nonetheless wrong on some big issues. I feel this way about McLaren. I am not trying to be mean, I value much of what he says, especially what he has to say about social justice and his calling of Christians to be involved in such issues. However, I think he is wrong on the gospel. I have read enough of his books and articles to firmly believe so. And I think he very winsomely draws out much of what is wrong with the church but his answers to what is wrong is to step away from orthodoxy through the sacred art of questioning everything rather than recovering orthodoxy from Scripture.
I think the emergent folks have some valuable things to say about culture and context but it worries me when those ideas are pressed so far that we have no solid ground for really knowing anything at all.
I think McLaren’s questions are worth asking, I just think many of his answers are wrong–especially the most important ones (the cross, truth, etc.) I can cite specifics if you would like. I feel that I can say that with no ill intent toward McLaren or anyone who really loves his books.
So overly antagonistic and mean-spirited rhetoric aimed at getting people not to read an author out of fear of what he says = wrong.
Reading someone’s book and saying no this is contrary to Scripture and more specifically the gospel = fair and worth saying. I would say at this juncture that I have read much of the emergent folks (Bell, McLaren, and Don Miller–if he counts?) and I have yet to hear them fairly and honestly address the biggest objections many fair-minded evangelicals are bringing up about their writing. I feel like the default answer is that evangelicals are being prideful and selfishly dogmatic and mean-spirited. I think both have failed to engage in civil discussion.
I have never thought of myself as Bibolator, maybe I am who knows, but I think the Bible is inspired by God and I think it is the surest testimony of God and truth. And I think it is clear enough on the gospel that I can say McLaren is no longer a preacher of the biblical gospel. Maybe I am too caught up in my own evangelical context to see otherwise, but that is what I see and given that McLaren’s books are selling as much as they are, I feel that is worth saying and I think it is tied to the question David asked–what is our authority on truth? Where do we find truth and how can we know truth? McLaren’s authority is no longer the Bible and I think it is fair to say that he is so tied up in contextualization that it is impossible to speak with any clarity as to what is true.
I didn’t intend to be unfair or polarizing in this comment, I am just trying to say honestly what I see as someone who has given McLaren some thought and actually read some of his stuff. If I am being unfair or wrong about McLaren please show me how. I mean that with all sincerity.
Drew, that’s a completely fair answer and I think a lot of people feel that way. I think that your humility and civility when addressing the issue is very called for. Unfortunately, that’s not the usual response.
Also as unfortunate is that you’re not likely to get the answers you want to hear anytime soon from people like Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, etc. It’s just a divide that seems to exist and I’m not exactly sure how to reconcile it. I had a long talk with my wife last night in which I talked about how even yesterday as I sat reading “A New Kind of Christianity” and found myself wanting to stand up in the middle of Borders and shout “Yes!” as I read each paragraph, it makes me feel strange. Have I gone off the deep end? Am I in danger of abandoning the Gospel? The old me would say yes, but I can’t bring myself to believe that now.
I don’t have a good explanation either, but I feel better about my faith and even stronger than I have in the past. I don’t have it all figured out and I’m certain that I never will. What my wife told me last night is that God doesn’t turn his back on people who are seeking with all their heart to know him, and that comforts me. I enjoy what Brian McLaren has to say and I can’t help it. I pray that I’m not wrong or that I’m not turning my back on truth, because I think a lot of people would feel that way.
I believe that part of the gospel is Christ dying for the sins of the world, and that’s a really important and huge thing. But I also think that there’s so much more than that to the gospel – it doesn’t stop there. The mysteries of God and his story and our story and how he’s working within our story to create something new and beautiful and the part that we somehow play in that are just so much to wrap your mind around. And he’s not just working in the Christian church – he’s everywhere, in every tribe and tongue and culture, revealing himself and comforting, loving, restoring, healing, and making things new.
I guess to conclude this mush of stuff that doesn’t seem to pertain to anything specific is to say that I feel the discomfort that some get when they read things that people like Brian McLaren write. But I also feel much more of the excitement, passion, and joy that comes when we discover the relevance of the Christian faith in a new world that changes each and every day. I’m excited about what the future holds, and I hope that despite the differences that exist, that we can all somehow still work together in all of this to make a difference in the world and take part in this amazing story that God is unfolding and asking us to be a part of.
Thanks for the feedback Kiel. I appreciate your honesty. I pray for more civil discussion and willingness to answer these all to important questions.
I agree that the gospel is bigger and even more far reaching than Jesus dieing for sins but certainly not less so. You are hitting on where I find some of the emergent folk particularly unhelpful–they take that idea to mean that evangelism as we have understood it for the vast majority of the history of the Christian church is insensitive at best and unnecessary at worst. I would say my primary calling as a Christian is to make disciples of Jesus which is MUCH bigger than just preaching that if people don’t repent they will go to Hell, but certainly not less than that. McLaren in my understanding, would have little time for such notions, which is where we (McLaren and I) part ways and have to say, “well I guess we have different agendas” or maybe as Paul warned against “different gospels.”
Anyway, thanks again for sharing where you are at. This has been an interesting and worthwhile discussion. I will also admit that sometimes when I read McLaren, I want to shout “YES!” too but often times that yes leads to remorse at where he took that idea too far. So I feel for where you are at and pray your hope is in nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
Follow Patheos on