Brian’s Song: confusing words on a slippery slope

I’ll start by saying that many of Brian McLaren’s books have been great reads.  I read “the church on the other side” years ago, which gave voice to some important cultural shifts as “post-modernity” was becoming a common phrase in theological circles.  Two things stood out in that book as important and true:

1. Brian didn’t challenge the notion of absolute truth.  Instead he challenged the human capacity to apprehend truth perfectly, and communicate it accurately, so that it might be perceived with perfect clarity by other recipients.  The problem isn’t in the in the existence of truth, but in our fallen human capacities.  This posture gives a much needed humility to our declarations.

2. Brian challenged churches to love people unconditionally, suggesting that out of this would come a more natural invitation and sharing.  People shouldn’t be viewed a projects, or worse, sales calls.  We need to love everyone, whether or not they ever share our deepest beliefs.  This too was a breathe of fresh blowing in after the religious right’s sometimes combative arrogance of the 80′s and 90′s.

Both of these declarations were creating much needed shifts in some churches.  Brian kept writing.  His audience kept growing, and continues to grow.  His tune has remained the same: love people, make God’s reign visible by caring for the poor, and the earth, and celebrating justice and beauty.  It’s a good tune, deeply rooted in, to use Brian’s words, “the story God is writing in the world”.

In his most recent book though, it’s: same tune, different lyrics…disturbing lyrics.  I love his “quest for honesty…and a faith that (makes) more sense.” (p6).  The trouble is, his words make less sense, at least to me.  Here’s what I mean:

1. Brian’s entire case is built on the assumption that we tend to read the whole Bible through a Jewish lens, calling into question the “Greco-Roman narrative”.  The G/R narrative leads to dualsim: in/out, material/spiritual, saved/lost etc.  If we’d only read the whole Bible through a different lens, a Jewish lens, these categories would disappear. My response: Since the New Testament was written in the thick of a Greek/Roman culture, and since the gospel is good news for all, “the Jew first, and then the Greek” (Romans 1:17), shouldn’t we be reading parts written by or for Greeks through a Greek lens?  For example, Paul’s letter to the Romans was written to Jews and Gentiles, so Paul wouldn’t assume all readers to be thinking like Jews.  His dualisms:  life/death, enemies of God/reconciled, etc. are real, and should be read as real.

Much of Brian’s “New Kind of Christianity” makes sense if his assumption that we must discard Greco/Roman thinking is true.  But if the assumption isn’t true, then he made a wrong turn on the road, and the wrong turn will take him farther and farther away from the destination.  How far?

2.  Brian writes, towards the end of the book, that he envisions an evangelism is “calling people to a kingdom that transcends and includes all religions.” This statement seems nonsensical to me.  If you read here regularly, you know that I believe we’ve things to learn from Buddhists, Muslims, and Pagans.  You know that I’m quick to point out the shortcomings of institutional Christianity.  But I hope you know this too: Everything hinges on Christ because, as Paul said, there’s no other foundation. Paul even has the gaul to get all dualistic, many times, by saying that Christ will be foolishness to some, but salvation to others.  When people reject Christ, Paul has no problem shaking the dust off his shoes and letting them know that they’re missing the boat.

Don’t get me wrong.  God’s mighty generous when it comes to salvation.  Christ’s death on the cross absorbed all wrath for all sin.  But if I reject the gift, or refuse to even believe there is a gift, or that I have need of a gift, then what more can God do, without impinging on my own will and making me a robot?  The reality is that people do reject the gift. They deny that Christ’s death is worth anything, or that He lives now.  Some deny the notion of sin, declaring that evil and good are false categories.  People are free to do this, but in Brian’s song, it seems as if it doesn’t matter;  Reject Christ, deny his existence, or his deity, or his resurrection – it’s not important.  You can join God’s story without any of that.

Really?  I don’t buy it.

In Brian’s past writings he seemed to be calling the church to make certain that we moved beyond simply declaring right beliefs about Jesus (orthodoxy) into actually living like Jesus (orthoproxy).  Thanks for that Brian.  I couldn’t agree more, and the message was, and still is needed.

In this last book though, the obsession with orthopraxy has destroyed all notions that orthodoxy matters, because when you invite people in “the way of Jesus” and quickly add that’s it’s available “whatever the new disciple’s religious affiliation”, (p216) you’re saying that I can remain embedded in a community that denies the deity of Christ, or the value of his death, or the reality of his resurrection, or the reality of sin, and still adhere to the way of Christ.

What saddens me most, is that this book will lead some in the emergent church further away from historic orthodoxy.  I’ve applauded Brian’s role, along with his emergent friends, in the reformation and restoration of missional emphasis, of actually loving neighbors, of resisting the objectification of people that so often happens at the hands of the church, of confessing or materialism, greed, and pride.  But I’ve applauded all this to the extent that this reformation is built on the “simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ”.   All of Christ matters:  his deity, his humanity, his atoning death on the cross, his empowering resurrection, his love of his neighbors, and enemies, his care for the poor and marginalized.  Brian seems to applauding half of that and saying the other half doesn’t matter.  But half a Jesus is no Jesus at all – as the left and right have proven for centuries.

If you catch wind of this Brian… I welcome your thoughts.

As always, I welcome everyone else’s too.

About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • http://arrowthroughthesun.blogspot.com BenMc

    Just listening to a Q&A with Jeremy Begbie and he was asked what would St. Paul say to the emerging church (he writes a lot about the phenomenon, and fairly, I think). He said he thinks the emerging church is too homogeneous, and it comes from their not understanding the power of the cross to bring people together. I think the beginning of 1 Corinthians may be an important starting point here. Well, the whole book is good too come to think of it. :)

    • thomas

      BenMc – I really enjoy Jeremy Begbie’s insights as well. I was wondering where the Q&A you refer to is from, as I wouldn’t mind tracking it down and listening to it myself if it’s available online somewhere. Thanks!

  • Devin

    Although I’m a McLaren fan I think you bring up some great points. I do wonder though, if that is what he really meant. He says some things in “A Generous Orthodoxy” that make me think he would agree with you. For instance, he says, “..I don’t think Christian’s would like Jesus if he showed up today…I think we’d call him a heretic and plot to kill him too.” He admits to being a bit bombastic with that statement, but I think it reveals his discomfort with a Christianity and Christians that “..very much like the idea of an American God and a middle-class Republican Jesus.”

    Basically, he seems to think we’ve all probably got it wrong and that the labels we apply are probably just adding to the mess. The focus should be on the fact that Jesus is our Lord and that Heaven will sweep away most of these labels and we’ll find those who were willing to live the truth of Jesus regardless of our earthly desire to endlessly divide and sub-divide. McLaren just seems too focused on Jesus as our Lord in “Generous” that I find it hard to believe that he’s abandoned that, but I haven’t read this latest.

    I hope he reads your review and responds!

    - Devin

  • Becca

    I cannot imagine the God I know to be the kind reject those whom he loves for not believing in exactly the right way, for not understanding, with our limited minds, the complexity that is our creator. However, we do, and maybe Brian McLaren has, run the risk of creating a God in our own image instead of seeking a God in whose image we, all of us, were created. To be fair, I haven’t read the book. I have often struggled with the nature of Christ, his death, the meaning of his life. I find myself holding to historical orthodox simply because it is difficult, it is outside of me, and it is something I cannot make sense of. These qualities seem to line up with some critical parts of the nature of the God I know. I think the New Testament (referred to as the Greek scriptures) was definitely written in Grecco Roman dualism. But that doesn’t mean I agree with dualism in general. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman and often woman is other, we are what is not man, in a dualistic mindset.

  • Linda

    Seminary president Albert Mohler along with professors at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary had a panel discussion about this book, you can view it here:

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  • Linda
  • Alana

    Thanks for bringing it back to Jesus. It is so critical that Christ remain at the center of both our beliefs and our actions.

  • Brad Davis

    Orthodoxy seems to be determined by those in power, the winners so to speak. What evangelicals call orthodox- the things one must “beleive in ” in order to be a real Christian no longer speak to most of the people in our culture. In emphasing orthopraxy over right beliefs McClaren is asking for a christianity that has more to do with a way of life, than mental assent to propositional truth. Brian is offering a way of being Christian to folks who have written off those who are more concerned with orthodoxy than with the homeless/war/injustice etc.

    The only lense I can read the Bible through are my own. What the Bible says to me in my culture is what matters. There are things in the Bible that do not speak to me, in fact they are offensive to me. Such as when Paul tells women to basically shut up. Therefore, since I still desire to be a Jesus follower I need a different way of looking at the Bible- different from what the orthodox evangelicals have said about the Bible for the last 200 years. So, I do away with inerrancy and verbal plenary inspiration. Neither of those 2 doctrines regarding the Bible are necessary to follow Jesus and they are a hindrance to many.

    I’m thinking that just about everyone is already a part of God’s story. That is, everyone has their existence in the God “in whom we live and breathe and have our being.” Making orthodoxy a requirement for some kind of salvation pretty much means basing salvation upon where a person is born. Born in the Bible belt, or Fresno, pretty much means you will be into orthodoxy as a condition of salvation. Born in some little village in India… not so much. A loving, faith-filled Hindu man told me he did not need Jesus’ forgiveness. Does that mean he will spend eternity in hell? Follow him around and follow me around… our lives probably look a lot alike- so I go to heaven because I believe certain doctrinal statements- yet we both live our lives in faith, and try to love folks we come into contact with.

    The biggest step we can make as new kinds of Christians is to get over the one monolithic truth idea. It is a construct of modernity plain and simple.

    Note: the above is just the rambling of an exfundamentalist who use to know everything- including who the little horn of Dan. ch. 9 was- and who now knows very little. And, I like it that way.

    • raincitypastor

      There’s quite a bit I’d like to write in response to this Brad, but without some sort of transcendent revelation outside of your opinions and mine, the conversation wouldn’t go anywhere. The need for an authority outside of ourselves isn’t a construct of modernity – a quick look at history shows us that it’s a construct of the human condition. The only issue at stake is: which authority will you choose? Having chosen the Bible and believing it to be God’s revelation, I’ll study it, learn from what it has to say, wrestle with its meaning, have questions, and allow my convictions to alter as I learn new things – but I won’t walk away because like Peter, I say, “where else should I go…?” and the question remains unanswered. There’s nothing more compelling, subjectively or objectively, than Christ, his declarations of the human condition, his provision made to change us, and his promise of a future reign that’s just, healed, and beautiful. Like you I don’t have all the answers, but I’ll keep coming back to the same well to drink.

    • Lamont

      Brad.
      I’m praying for you my friend! If you do have faith Brad, then exercise It! Believe what the Bible teaches!
      You may not like what it says, but God wrote it for our Benefit!
      To have “FAITH” means to “TRUST” and if your going to “TRUST” (have “FAITH” ) in Jesus, you will have to “TRUST” what the Bible say’s about Him. The Bible is Jesus’ (God’s) Words to us .You cannot “know” Jesus (God) without the Bible! Just because you don’t understand the “why” of, something in God’s word, doe’s not in any way, shape, or form, give you the right to reject it! That’s idolatry! Instead, it should drive you to seek
      for understanding! Ask, Seek, Knock, remember? ((Luke 11:5-13 )
      If you say you have “Faith” then ask Jesus for understanding! Jesus said: “You do not have, because you do not ask!” (James 4:2 B).
      There is a reason why Paul said that women should be silent in church (beside the obvious :) ) perhaps this is a good place to start … http://www.enjoyinggodministries.com/article/men-and-women-in-ministry-1-corinthians-1434-35-and-the-role-of-women-in-the-church/
      The doctrine of Bible inerrancy is vitally important!
      Here, do some homework…
      http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/BiblicalInerrancy.html
      http://www.modernreformation.org/default.php?page=articledisplay&var1=ArtRead&var2=1126&var3=main&var4=Home

      Here’s a website with some MP3′s and articles that could assist you with that particular aspect of the Bible.

      If you have any questions, I’d be happy to answer them for you as best I can, or point you to someone who can.
      Like a child Brad (as the Master said Himself) you must TRUST THE LORD ATHIS WORD!

      Pro 3: 5-6 Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
      and do not lean on your own understanding.
      6In all your ways acknowledge him,
      and he will make straight your paths.

      Hope this helps!
      Lamont.

    • Linda

      Is it not ironic to say you are a person ” who now knows very little. And, I like it that way.”, yet you say “The biggest step we can make as new kinds of Christians is to get over the one monolithic truth idea.” ?????

  • ann

    I agree with a lot of what Brad wrote. I am a follower of Christ, but I hate the idea that orthodoxy might be a requirement for salvation, and thus, salvation would largely depend on where you were born. That is not fair, and I am very scared that it might be true (this thought has caused a lot of anxiety for me for the last couple years). If Christ’s resurrection was only for the people who believe the right things, I can’t convince myself that this is good news.

    • Linda

      Ann,

      I got news for you, good news – Christ died to save sinners, and there are sinners all over the world, so people all over the world can be saved. But nobody will turn from sin and trust in Christ unless they see their need for Him and trust that Christ alone can save them. So it is obvious they will have to know and believe certain things to be true about Jesus BEFORE they can put trust/faith/reliance in Him for salvation – like His deity and his atoning death and resurrection.

      Believing certain things about Christ as facts will not save you either (that is mere intellectual assent),, which even the demons have. A person must repent (turn from sin) and place their faith (trust or reliance) in Christ alone to be saved.

  • Lamont

    Ann
    God is not obligated to save anyone! “Grace” would be a meaningless word if God were “obligated” to save every human being! The Same with mercy!
    We “only” deserve God’s wrath! Ever read Romans 9. God said: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.
    Salvation is of the LORD, it is not dependent on mans “WILL” or, or “Effort,” or, “LOCATION!”
    (Where did you read these things? Not from the Bible!)
    The only thing that would be fair, would be for all of us to go to Hell! Because that’s all us sinful people deserve!
    Yet, praise God that he sent Christ, and called us out of darkness, and “Made” His light shine in our hearts!
    As He say’s in 1 Cor 4:6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

    God will save everyone that He chose before the foundations of the world! So, if you Trust in Jesus, it’s “because” of His grace and Mercy!
    Eph 1:4 …even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love….

    That’s great news!

  • Duncan Parlett

    There should not be a division between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. In fact, our orthopraxy depends deeply on our orthodoxy – but by that I mean what we truly believe, not just parroting some doctrine. In my experience, it is those who growing deeper in Christ who are moving forward in loving people or taking care of our world.


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