Brian McLaren, the Misuses of Rhetoric, and Babies and Bathwater

Brian McLaren, the Misuses of Rhetoric, and Babies and Bathwater April 6, 2010

When the Evangelical Portal presents an article of particular import, I send out emails to prominent Christian bloggers and websites to let them know.  A funny thing happened when I informed evangelical bloggers about our Brian McLaren article.  More than a few of those bloggers, including bloggers who are not known as conservatives, responded that they had no interest in material that would bring more attention to McLaren’s work.  It was not that McLaren was pushing the envelope.  It was that he was leading people astray on matters of basic salvific import.

McLaren is not unaccustomed to opposition.  What is new is that many moderates, and even some who are considered liberals, are now joining the ranks against “McLarenism.”

There are (at least) two ways of interpreting this.  The first is that McLaren has diverged progressively further and further away from the truths that form the essential deposit of the Christian faith.  The second is that moderates and perhaps even liberals are being bludgeoned into submission by the conservatives, pressured into condemning McLaren even though they recognize the rightness of his cause.

McLaren himself (with a rather far-fetched analogy to the famed Milgram experiment at Yale) promotes the second interpretation in his new article at the Huffington Post.  The title, “Why Do Evangelicals Dislike Me So Much?”, is disingenuous.  When McLaren began his writing career, he was widely though not universally admired within evangelical circles.  Many evangelical authors who push the envelope socially, morally and theologically have maintained strong relationships within the evangelical community – when they are seen as honest seekers after truth who converse well and charitably with those who differ from them, and when they are seen to be wrestling with these questions in the right ways, seeking scriptural truth.  The response to McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity has nothing to do with “liking” or “disliking” McLaren.  It has very little to do with him, in fact.  It has to do with his rejection of truths, values and authorities that are absolutely essential to the Christian faith.

I will have more to say, next week, on how McLaren is throwing out the baby and keeping the bathwater.  He is making a political agenda the criterion for his “new” Christianity, rather than making the Word and the theology it implies the criterion for all social, moral and political endeavors.

But his rhetoric is frustrating.  Consider, for example, this:

“So the best way to stay out of religious trouble is to keep your opinions private whenever they differ from the most strident inquisitors in your religious community. If you feel a twinge of guilt when you condemn a person for being gay, don’t think about it. Just press the button. When you use dehumanizing language for people of other faith traditions — or of other opinions within your own faith tradition — don’t feel bad. Just press the button again. Side with your religious authority figures, not with those being criticized, scapegoated, condemned, excluded, and zapped. If you believe what you’re told and verbally zap those who differ, you won’t get in trouble.”

Either you are with McLaren or you stand with “religious authority figures” over against the excluded and oppressed.  Yet these are not the only options.  That you might maintain the orthodox Christian faith and nonetheless stand with the needy and the ostracized is apparently not an option worth considering.  This kind of rhetoric is, unfortunately, classic McLaren.  It is not truth-seeking.  It is not charitable.  It is sloganeering, caricaturing.  It is the language of a political agitator and manipulator, not someone who wants to open the Word and reason together with brothers in the faith.

Even if he maintains all the same (what I view as wrongheaded) beliefs, I would love to see McLaren return to the conversation in a more charitable form.  People like Jim Wallis and Brian McLaren once stood for a new form of Christian political engagement, one that eschewed caricature and sloganeering and listened earnestly to both sides of every argument.  Even if they failed at that ideal as often as they succeeded, the ideal itself was important.  It was worth upholding.  And even when I disagreed on particular policy ideas, I could agree with them on the ideal of charitable dialogue.

Unfortunately, I find that charitable dialogue no longer in evidence.

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