Time to pin new label on Brian McLaren?

Time to pin new label on Brian McLaren? September 26, 2012

If people have long had trouble defining the word “evangelical” — the Rev. Billy Graham once told me he had no idea what the word meant — it only made matters worse when the principalities and powers of Christian publishing started adding the word “emerging” or perhaps “emergent” in front of the already vague “evangelical.”

Who are, or were, the “emerging evangelicals” and what were they emerging from? Where were they going?

I always assumed that the emerging folks were people from evangelical backgrounds who had staked out new, daring, nuanced, foggy stances on the basic doctrinal questions that, several decades ago, I wrote up as the “tmatt trio.” It’s been some time since I mentioned that trio, so here is a refresher:

(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

Let me stress, once again, that these are questions that — working as a mainstream religion-beat pro — I found useful when trying to get the lay of the land on disputes inside various Christian flocks, on the left and right. The whole point to was to get information about doctrinal basics and, in our era, these are some hot-button subjects in a wide variety of groups. The goal is to listen carefully as people answered or, on many cases, tried to avoid answering these questions.

Take, for example, the Rev. Brian D. McLaren — the writer, preacher, thinker and doctrinal futurist whose picture could almost certainly accompany the “emergent evangelical” entry in the mainstream-press religion dictionary of the past decade or so.

So here is my Godbeat question: Does the following wedding story in the holy of progressive holies, The New York Times, represent a final “jumping the shark” moment for those who want to use the word “evangelical” to describe McLaren? Here’s a major chunk of this short featurette:

Trevor Douglas McLaren and Owen Patrick Ryan were married Saturday in Washington. Guy Cecil, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and a Universal Life minister, officiated at the couple’s apartment.

Later in the day, the Rev. Brian D. McLaren, Mr. McLaren’s father and the former pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Md., led a commitment ceremony with traditional Christian elements before family and friends at the Woodend Sanctuary of the Audubon Naturalist Society in Chevy Chase, Md.

Mr. McLaren (left), 28, is a senior sales associate in Washington for, a company that sells software used on the Internet. He graduated from Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. He is also a son of Grace A. McLaren, who lives with the Rev. McLaren in Marco Island, Fla., and who is a real estate agent for Keller Williams there. Mr. McLaren’s father, who writes and speaks on Christianity and spirituality, is the author of “A New Kind of Christian” and other books.

And so forth and so on. I am aware that readers do not really know what was included in that “traditional Christian elements” rite and, as always, it is almost impossible to know what this famous writer believes about specific doctrinal issues — such as the definition of marriage.

Still, at this point, is it time for journalists to begin referring to McLaren, the elder, as a liberal mainline Protestant? In other words, evangelical readers, is it time to stop calling him an “evangelical” in public discourse?

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47 responses to “Time to pin new label on Brian McLaren?”

  1. If an evangelical cat crawls in the oven and has liberal doctrinal kittens, you don’t call them biscuits.

    What I mean to say is that while McLaren may have wound up in the same doctrinal place as the mainliners, unless he’s joined a mainline denominational church, I don’t see that it would be accurate to call him a mainliner himself.


  2. The short answer is yes.

    Just some other evangelical questions you could ask that McLaren would not line up with:
    1. Is Hell real?
    2. Is the Bible God’s inherent and inspired by God?

  3. What I’ve heard about the emergent movement is not about doctrine but about emphasis and practice. As wikipedia puts it

    The emerging church…is a Christian movement of the late 20th and early 21st centuries that crosses a number of theological boundaries: participants can be described as Protestant, post-Protestant, catholic, evangelical,[1] post-evangelical, liberal, post-liberal, conservative, post-conservative, anabaptist, adventist,[2] reformed, charismatic, neocharismatic, and post-charismatic.

    So from that, someone could agree with your “trio” and be a member of an emergent church.

    As far as the phrase “emergent evangelical” goes, I found something that I think is very important:

    A decade ago, if you asked an evangelical to sum up her faith, she likely would have quoted Romans 10:9: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Nowadays, if you ask the same question, you would be more likely to hear Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

  4. “The emerging church…is a Christian movement of the late 20th and early 21st centuries that crosses a number of theological boundaries: participants can be described as Protestant, post-Protestant, catholic, evangelical,[1] post-evangelical, liberal, post-liberal, conservative, post-conservative, anabaptist, adventist,[2] reformed, charismatic, neocharismatic, and post-charismatic….”

    That’s perfect. In other words, the term has no content other than “we are different. We are smarter than normal evangelicals and we can believe whatever we want to believe and words no longer matter because we are postmodern and beyond all of that…”

  5. McLaren self-identifies as an Evangelical, therefore that’s what he is. I realize Excommuncate is a favorite parlor game for trads, but in this case it comes down to how McLaren describes himself. There is no Evangelical pope who gets to decide these things. While it may make some some trads uncomfortable and doesn’t fit neatly in a TMatt trio box, that’s the reality of Evangelicals in 2012. He’s not a member of a mainline Protestant church or tradition, so he can’t be placed in that box.

    • What if I self-identified myself as a daffodil? Would you then humour me by agreeing and saying, ‘My, Jaye, what a pretty daffodil you are today.’ I hope not. I would hope that you wouldn’t patronise my folly by agreeing with it simply because it’s too unpleasant to disagree. I, for one, refuse to patronise the folly of folks like MacLaren and Osteen by catering to their desire to be known as ‘evangelicals.’ When will we all just take a moment to step outside of our comfort zones and call something (or someone) what it is?

  6. MIKE:
    Self-identifies is a serious argument, for the press. But often journalists will still frame such a statement with other info. Essentially, he is a nondenominational freelance thinker, at this point. Looking at his speaking schedule, it certainly seems that his world istmatt oldline Prot as well as new evangelicals.

    Obviously, I know that there is no evangelical pope. I mean, read my post.

    • I’m sure BMcL would embrace the labels “nondenominational”, “freelance”, and “thinker.” (Those last two are especially complementary!)

      None of those should be mutually exclusive with the label “evangelical”, right?

    • FWIW … to most evangelicals, McLaren has been drifting from traditional evangelical beliefs for quite a while. He may self-identify as an evangelical, but the only people who will acknowledge that self-identification are the MSM that call him for a quote.

  7. Brian McLaren’s self-identification can hardly be reduced to one word. See the subtitle of A Generous Orthodoxy (Zondervan, 2006):

    Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/calvinist, anabaptist/anglican, methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian

  8. This is probably straining a gnat and swallowing a camel, but what leaped out at me was this line:

    “He is also a son of Grace A. McLaren, who lives with the Rev. McLaren in Marco Island, Fla., and who is a real estate agent for Keller Williams there.”

    Is that the clunkiest sentence in journalism to date? What is so difficult or stylistically undesirable in saying “His mother is Grace McLaren, wife of the Rev. Brian McLaren”?

    • Deisearch — That sentence jumped out at me too. Since “lives with” these days carries the connotation of unwedded cohabitation, I spent a few seconds trying to figure out if the McLarens were actually married. The wording is so clunky, it appears to me that the writer was intentionally avoiding saying they were married, but I’m not sure what kind of agenda there would be in doing that. I also couldn’t figure out what the purpose of a “commitment ceremony” is after the wedding — I’ve always thought that a commitment ceremony was something that was done as a substitute for a marriage (presumably because a legal marriage would be illegal or otherwise undesirable). There’s something missing from this story, but I’m not sure what it is.

      As to the question of the original post, no, McLaren (the Brian one) is not a liberal mainline Protestant. But I wouldn’t call him an evangelical either, not even a progressive one. Actually, I think the article gets this right, not giving McLaren a label but merely describing what he’s famous for. If I had to use a label, I’d probably use “emergent Protestant,” although I’m not sure how much info that label provides.

      • Seat of my pants guess: It’s probably a backhanded way of calling attention to the issue of SSM. The McLarens live in Florida where SSM is not recognized, so the paper refuses, in this way, to recognize any marriage in Florida.

        Like I say, it’s just a guess.

        • Ah… that might explain it. If so, Kenton, that’s remarkably petty. For what would like to think of itself as a serious organ of public opinion, they indulge in these kinds of little games? Really?

      • £ric, I noted the “lives with” language, but decided that the Reverend and Mrs McLaren were probably married because they share the same surname and we didn’t get her maiden name or a hypenated name or even her using a different surname, as might be the case were they engaging in the “We don’t need a piece of paper to demonstrate commitment” thing.

        It’s even stranger in that the paper has no difficulty, in the next paragraph, describing the other happy groom as “a son of Eileen and James Ryan”. We’re permitted to continue making the same old heteronormative, patriarchal, cis-sexist assumptions that she is (and always has been) a woman, she is his mother, and she is the wife of James Ryan, with whom she is living at the same address in the case of this man’s parents.

        The phrasing “He is also a son of Grace A. McLaren” made me laugh as it sounded like he was the product of some sci-fi cloning experiment (“So, they took DNA from this guy and more from this woman and melded it together and then …”).

      • The wording while inelegant is a way to establish that the McLarens are not what Miss Manners calls a “social unit’. People I know who are divorced or separated but still live together use this sort of language so their friends understand how to deal with them. Again Miss Manners explains the situation: a couple is a social unit, you can not invite one without inviting the other. When people explain that even though they appear to be a couple but they are not, you can invite one and not the other. This is a common situation, at least among people I know. There are many couples where each has decided to go their own way while still living together. My copy of Miss Manners’ book was published nearly 30 years ago, she found it necessary to explain the etiquette involved back then. If you are having a dinner party, you can invite either of the McLarens but you must invite both of the Ryans. Simple good manners.

    • There is definitely something behind that sentence. Did Mrs. McLaren attend the “ceremony with Christian elements” or is Mr. McLaren on this journey by himself?

    • As a journalist, I would like to head off any excessive exegesis of this sentence. It’s worded awkwardly because the NYT wedding announcements are a formulaic and antiquated feature obliged to use formulaic and antiquated language. The writer is obliged to first describe the ceremony; in this case, that necessitates mentioning Rev. McLaren, who officiated. Had Rev. McLaren not officiated in the ceremony, the writer would have simply gone on to state that the younger McLaren was a son of the Rev. and Mrs McLaren of Marco Island, Fla, just as his husband was described as a son of Eileen and James Ryan of South Amboy, NJ. It’s a formula (which parent is mentioned first, and by what titles, may be a preference stated by the family). However, having already introduced the reader to Rev McLaren – but not to his wife or his residence – the writer is obliged to then include that information in an awkward but formally correct way. That really is all that is going on here folks.
      And I think that a father can be expected to celebrate his own son’s wedding without it being seen as a political or religious statement or “journey,” but that’s me.

  9. Jerry: They forgot “missional”.

    For what it is worth, I have never seen the “e” people called “evangelical”. It is always “the emerging church” or just “emergent”. (Lower case SIC)

  10. I’ll bite. Why is “catholic” thrown into the mix? In the emergent context, what does that signify?

    • Since it is with a small-c, catholic can signify belief in a universal Church, but one without a defined border. With a small c, catholic means universal.

    • He’s got several words in there that are usually capitalized and that (unlike “catholic”) don’t mean anything other than their capitalized meaning — calvinist, anglican, methodist, etc. Several of his descriptors are also mutually exclusive, so I think McLaren’s point is basically for them to mean everything and nothing.

    • Throwing in my two cents as a Latin Rite Catholic, I think it’s the along the same lines as the Anglican “branch theory”, i.e. a full and constituent member of the Church Catholic, along with the Orthodox and the Romans, but not Roman Catholic.

      It’s sort of a faddy way for “modern/ancient” non-denominational ’emergent’ style churches to lay a claim to the customs, traditions, and practices of the ancient churches, but without tying themselves into a specific denominational identity (e.g. we use icons and chant and candles, because we want to emulate the contemplative practices of the liturgical churches and claim a direct line of descent and heritage from the Universal Church, but we don’t use “big C” Catholic as that leads to people confusing us with being Roman Catholics, which we aren’t because we come from Reformed etc. backgrounds, so we go with “small c” catholic meaning “universal”).

  11. Isn’t Universal Life the church that will ordain anyone over the Internet? Here is their complete ordination application:

    I love that the submit button reads “Ordain me.”

    So here’s a journalism question: is it really appropriate to describe someone as a “Universal Life minister” when it’s a title that anyone can obtain in less than 30 seconds? Heck, come to think of it, I’m a Universal Life minister and have been for over 15 years. I “ordained” myself as a joke in college. And, for the religion beat, does Rev. McLaren have an opinion on the fact that his son was married by someone “ordained” over the Internet?

    • Mike, I imagine the Universal Life “ordination” is only so that the friend of theirs could register the marriage civilly as a “minister of religion”, instead of having the couple traipse down to the registry office or courthouse for a public official to write it into the book. The “commitment ceremony” held by his father would be the ‘religious blessing’ element of the marriage.

      At least, that’s how it sounds to me.

  12. Catholic with a large c also means universal. I was just wondering what the emergents mean by universal. I know that some denominations use the term Christian in a manner that excludes some who call themselves Christian. So there are probably different meanings to catholic/universal, as well.

  13. Matt:
    He is emerging from a world in which words have historical, doctrinal meanings and into one in which they mean whatever he says they mean, on behalf of his, what, tribe? I do not know the correct postmodern terms. Then again, I am Orthodox — with a large O.

  14. The big issue, as others have mentioned, is that McLaren no longer fits neatly into the established categories. He is no longer an evangelical, although you could get away with ‘progressive evangelical.’ While he looks and sounds like a liberal mainliner, he is plainly not one because he is not a member of a church historically considered mainline. ‘Emerging Protestant’ as a label is problematic, because ’emerging’ or ’emergent’ as a category has proven so difficult to define, since it is largely amorphous, unorganized, and its doctrinal positions (such as they are) are in a state of constant flux. So while it may be more-or-less accurate as a label, it isn’t likely to be that helpful.

    To call him an evangelical is plainly misleading, but I’m not sure what is a viable alternative.

  15. It always amazes me that Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Moonies, Seventh-day Adventists, etc. get negative and “non-Christian” labels slapped on them when outright Christian rebels and mostly cultural Christians who reject the divinity of Jesus (like Spong) are still openly called Christians without challenge.

  16. I agree with Jettboy. The proper label for McLaren is “universalist.” If he must be described as a Christian, then the modifier “heretical” is appropriate, although that probably would not pass your editor. Perhaps “heterodox” would do.

    • To invoke “heresy” demands clear definition of “orthodoxy”

      Given that one of McLaren’s opuses is A Generous Orthodoxy he can make it what ever he is in the mood for.

  17. Folks, back to journalism.

    The tmatt trio is not about McLaren. And it’s not an orthodoxy test. It’s about asking questions that yield interesting info and these questions work well in this era when covering debates in Christian denominations and groups. Other groups would require different questions.

    The goal is to pay close attention to the content of the answers. That is all.

    I agree that the term “evangelical” has become vague to the point of being almost meaningless. That’s part of what the post is about. And, yes, there is no evangelical pope. There is no evangelical creed. There is no evangelical body of work by the Church Fathers. Etc., etc.

    I simply wanted to start a debate about how to accurately describe McLaren in the public press. I think simple references to him as an evangelical leader have jumped the shark. It’s time for more specific info, in his case. This thread has contained some helpful debate.

    As for the 20 or so comments I have spiked, not so much…..

    tmatt, in Kiev at the moment

  18. McLaren came out of evangelicalism, but he is hardly evangelical. Oh, and he “lives with” a woman I assuje is his wife, right? And oh, his son is gay? Explains a lot of his passion on that issue, I’d say.

  19. McLaren came out of evangelicalism, but he is hardly evangelical. Oh, and he “lives with” a woman I assume is his wife, right? And oh, his son is gay? Explains a lot of his passion on that issue, I’d say.

  20. Why don’t EVANGELICALS tell us the meaning of ‘evangelical’; – Who is in & who is out?; What is the criteria?; Who determined the criteria?; When was the criteria determined?; Whose biblical interpretation was used to determine the criteria?; What about the fact that Evangelicalism as a movement was only born in the early 19th century? What kind of debates took place in the 18th century? Can’t we allow Rev. Brian McLaren to explain himself – what HE MEANS when He says, “I’m an Evangelical?”.

  21. “Progressive Christian” is the best term for McLaren. He’s not a member of the mainline, so that doesn’t apply, and he doesn’t fit any definition of evangelical that existed before the “emergent evangelical” phrase became common not more than a decade or so ago.

  22. Dear Mr. Mattingly,

    I am just wondering why you’d call it the “tmatt trio” when it is actually a quintet. You’ve posited 5 very distinct questions, no? I am also wondering if you’d agree that 4 of 5 (at least) are somewhat ambiguous. Not that it matters all that much, since, as constructed, they will still undeniably lead to interesting discussions between you and your interlocutors.



    • Dear Mr. Mattingly (again),

      I’ve just returned from reading Mr. McLaren’s response to your column. I see he, too, notes that you’ve asked five questions, not merely three. I also note his response was really rather lovely. He certainly doesn’t seem upset with you; the second line of his essay suggests you might even be on to something. What do you think of his response? (Or have you written about it and I’ve missed it? Heck! I am new here!)