There is quite some buzz in the blogosphere about Brian McLaren’s newest book, “A New Kind Of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming The Faith” (HarperOne). With some notable exceptions, the buzz can be likened to a swarm of very angry killer bees. Aside from the dismissible extremists (on both sides), the arguments, attacks, defenses and so forth are often pointed, leaving many feeling quite stung. And as is most often the case, such stinging wounds inspire equally stinging responses. Frankly, I hardly know where or how to weigh in on the topic.
Let me say up front that I have not read McLaren’s new book. I had pre-ordered it, but canceled the order when I was offered a free review copy. I have since had it suggested to me that I would not be receiving the review copy, and while this remains unconfirmed, it has been long enough for me to assume it is true. I will not (yet) be re-ordering the book for a couple of reasons. The simplest being that I already spent the allocated money and so need to save up. The other reason is that I was not entirely interested in the book when I first heard about it.
This is not to be read as a slight to McLaren. Rather, since “A Generous Orthodoxy” (which I love, despite some of its notable flaws), I have not found myself able to get into the content. I think, perhaps, this is more of a reflection of where I am than on the content of his books. While I have significant differences of opinion and belief with McLaren (and there are more today than before and of greater import), I owe a deep debt to Brian for influencing my faith journey, bringing me where I am today. I still hold a great deal of respect for him, despite the differences. Having not read the book, I cannot comment in depth about the issues being addressed, but I have read a great deal online from both side (including McLaren), and a few things are weighing heavily on me.
One of the most common critique I have heard thus far is that McLaren sets up the book from the beginning in such a way that shuts down conversation. Simply put, it is said that he forces the reader into a position where they either agree with him or, through disagreeing, expose themselves as holding to misguided presuppositions that hold them back from seeing the truth. Again, having not read the book, I dug deeper into both sides of the conversation to see if this claim was true. Here is what it appears like to me:
McLaren, who finds himself in a cultural context that is incredibly polarized theologically, politically, etc., has too often been the target of ungodly attack. This is not to say he is above criticism, but rather acknowledging that he has been subject to indefensible treatment by many people. In light of this reality, it does not surprise me that Brian would very quickly want to make some distinctions for his readers up front, which I believe was his intention with the cited material. That is entirely understandable. That being said, I believe he pushed too hard, writing more for the extreme critics than for those of us who might be cautiously interested. As a result, I believe that he unintentionally alienated many of his readers.
I am not suggesting that Brian was simply misunderstood, that if we could just understand his intentions, this would all be cleared up. Of course not. First, the poor communication is his mistake, one that should be acknowledged. Frankly. it is a small issue, worth mentioning only for clarity. Second, he clearly does present beliefs that run contrary to what many of us hold as sacred. This is not an indictment, but rather an acknowledgment that, beyond the misunderstanding that exacerbated the problem, there are still very real, underlying differences.
I point this example out because it illustrates a dynamic that is problematic. Tt seems to me that both sides are so focused on their position, be it defend or attacking, that they continue to talk- yell past each others. Again, there are exceptions to this rule on both sides, but even they are not saved from getting caught in the cross fire. I recently read a very gracious critique of the book that one defending blogger (who is a notable voice and who I greatly respect) cited as unreasonable, bashing and even jealous. Was I missing something? Can we not disagree on something graciously without resorting to character assassination?
Frankly, I am ashamed. I am ashamed that on a public platform before a watching world, sisters and brothers in Christ are letting this get so out of hand. Disagreements within the Church are nothing new and will always be with us. It is right to be passionate about what we believe is true, even taking to task those with whom we have concern. I’m not advocating some limp hope that “we can all just get along”. I am advocating for some grace, self-restraint, humility and- for the love of God- maturity. Or are we hoping that the world will know we are Christians by our fights with each other?
Without question there are some serious issues at hand. I have some grave reservations about some of the theology I see being put forth in sectors of the church, be it emerging, missional, evangelical or otherwise. However, we need to acknowledge the relational dynamic at play here. For myself, I have seen people who I consider dear friends publicly go after each other, feeling helpless to do anything about it. I even fear that this post will only fuel the fire.
My hope is that we all can take some time to consider the impact (rather than the cleverness or rightness) of our words as we engage in this debate. We all know how easy it would be to use Scripture to defend the fervency of our choices, but we also know that this is the empty, self-justifying tact of the heresy-hunters and fundamentalists. Rather, we must choose the harder path of self-examination, restraint and consideration as we move forward. We must choose the path that is immediately obedient to the commandment of our King to love God and love others. No exceptions or qualifications.
Again, let me reiterate that there are wonderful exceptions to all of this. Don’t write me and ask if I was referring to you or not. That is not important. I do hope to get a chance to read Brian’s new book. I am not sure if I will review it if the current tone of the conversation continues. It is my hope that it does not.
Peace and all good.