Brian McLaren: A New Kind of Christianity?

image Two weeks ago at the Re-Emergence conference in Belfast, Phyllis Tickle said that in the past 18 months, she had detected ‘emergence’ Christians beginning to distance themselves ever farther from the evangelical roots from which so many of them had come.

The controversy brewing in the US over Brian McLaren’s new book, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith, seems to confirm that observation.

National Public Radio in the US ran a segment on Friday last week, detailing a seminar about the book held at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. One of our doctoral students at our School, Jayme Reaves, alerted me to this broadcast.

The Southern Baptists and other evangelical Christians interviewed for the segment expressed concern and alarm over McLaren’s ideas and his influence, especially among evangelical Christians under 35.

I haven’t yet read McLaren’s book. But the NPR story reports that McLaren has offended the most in his recasting of “Jesus’ mission on Earth, and even the purpose of the crucifixion.”

McLaren says,

"The view of the cross that I was given growing up, in a sense, has a God who needs blood in order to be appeased. If this God doesn’t see blood, God can’t forgive.

"God revealed in Christ crucified shows us a vision of God that identifies with the victim rather than the perpetrator, identifies with the one suffering rather than the one inflicting suffering".

The reaction of Southern Baptist theologian Jim Hamilton to this?

"It is a new kind of Christianity that is no Christianity at all."

Christianity Today, a moderate evangelical magazine founded by Billy Graham, has also reacted negatively to McLaren’s book. Scot McKnight’s review of the book claims,

Brian’s devil is Western evangelicalism, which he caricatures often, and his poking is relentless enough to make me say that he needs to write a book that simply states in positive terms what he thinks without using evangelicalism as his foil.

Brian is not only poking evangelicals, he is also calling everything about Christian orthodoxy—from the ecumenical creeds through the Reformation and up to present-day evangelicalism—into question.

While I wait for my copy of the book to arrive, reading the beginnings of the debate about McLaren’s work has crystallised for me some of the key questions that those loosely gathered round ‘emergence’ Christianity seem to be approaching a lot differently than evangelicals:

What was Jesus’ purpose on Earth?

The emergence discussion is emphasising Jesus’ worldly work among the ‘sinners’ and the poor.

What’s the meaning of the crucifixion and resurrection?

The emergence discussion is reading the crucifixion and resurrection not as blood sacrifice that allows us to get into heaven, but as a challenge to the unjust social, political and religious structures of our world. Think Peter Rollins’ ‘Resurrection as Insurrection.’

How should we read the Bible?

The emergence discussion is dismissing literal readings of the bible and focusing on narrative and on story. An even more radical approach than McLaren’s is Rollins’ ‘fidelity of betrayal’ motif, in which the way to be faithful to a text is to betray its surface or assumed meaning.

3 thoughts on “Brian McLaren: A New Kind of Christianity?”

  1. So much for debate between evangelicals and emergence Christians …

    I’ve just seen this blog post by ‘Mason’ in Grand Rapids, who says of his plans to attend Peter Rollins’ upcoming Insurrection tour:

    While discussing the upcoming tour with friends, I was struck by the fact that some were insistent that their potential attendance was kept ‘off the record’ as it were, because of their ministerial positions.

    In other words, they were concerned about the response if they listened.

    Not if they went back and taught what Rollins teaches, not if they endorsed him to the church, but if people knew they simply listened.

    You can read the complete post here:

  2. I too have followed the debate about this book with interest….imho brians book is a stetement of classic liberal or ‘progressive’ theology which is then recieved against the very polarised and contentious evangelical vs progressive debate within the Christian tradition in the States…hence the very negative reactions in the evangelical camp. There are very significant differences at stake in the theology of both which is easy to downplay.

    I have encountered quite patronising, sneering (dismissed as fundies) and arrogant attitudes towards evangelicals from progressive Christians both in NI in conversation and reading blogs from the States…I been guilty of this myself. It is sad but the reality of the situation


  3. I don’t know enough about the book to comment on its content, but from what I’ve read about it, it looks like the sort of title “progressive” Christians would be happy to claim as their own. Like Rodney, I have seen progressive Christians take a dismissive attitude towards Evangelicals as a whole, often failing to differentiate all Evangelicals from what might otherwise be described as “fundies”.

    I share Gladys’s observation that the “emergent” Church is moving itself away from its institutional church roots. I think the current polarised debate struggles to find a place for the growing number of “radical” or “emergent” Christians who differentiate themselves from Evangelicals and Liberals.

    Radical or Emergent Christianity is not a “combination” of liberalism and evangelicalism, but may contain characteristics of both. With the overlap between these three identified groups, they cannot be boxed very neatly.

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