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 salesforce.com, 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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