In Defense of Brian McLaren

Brian McLaren (foreground) and Tony Jones, Yal...
Brian McLaren (foreground) and Tony Jones, Yale Theological Conversation, Yale Divinity School, February 2006; Photograph: Virgil Vaduva (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mick Turner

Brian McLaren takes a substantial amount of vitriolic criticism from the Fundamentalist and Evangelical camps of Christianity. Calling him everything from an outright heretic to an ambassador of Old Scratch himself, McLaren is high up on the Public Enemy List of those in the church that are blinded by tradition, antiquated doctrine, and yes, even personal ignorance.

It is easy to see how McLaren winds up in the crosshairs of these folks so often. In his writings, workshops, speeches, and interviews he consistently calls for the need to develop new, more relevant wineskins in which to present the Christian faith and in so doing, often steps on sensitive theological and doctrinal toes in the process. The response from the more conservative faction of Christianity has been less than loving and more akin to slanderous attacks on the man, his thought, and his ministry.

I find this a tragic turn of events, because the church is sorely in need of prophetic voices like that of Brian McLaren. As the Body of Christ continues to hemorrhage members in staggering numbers and comes under an increasingly negative view from the very people it needs to reach, it is plainly evident that something new and vital is needed to stop the bleeding. And that is exactly what McLaren describes in his numerous books and articles.

Squarely facing the weaknesses in the modern church, McLaren is not timid about calling into question areas where the church has gone off the rails. For example, the American church has slowly but consistently imbibed our cultural ethics of rugged individualism, hard work, competition, and social stratification. Over time, this marriage of church and “Americanism” has given birth to an institution that is far more concerned with supporting the social status quo than serving Christ. Other writers have pointed this out, most notably David Platt, but McLaren seems to draw more fire from the Evangelical zealots. This is unfortunate because by confronting the realities of the situation as it now stands, he is issuing a clarion call for the Body of Christ to get back on track and put serving Christ back at the forefront of its endeavors. In assessing the current identity crisis in the church, McLaren cogently asserts:

……….religion, even the religion we are committed to and in which we have found God and purpose and meaning and truth, can become captive to a colossal distortion. It can become a benign and passive chaplaincy to a failing and dysfunctional culture, the religious public relations department for an inadequate and destructive ideology. It can forego being a force of liberation and transformation and instead become a source of domestication, resignation, pacification, and distraction.

This is not to say that the church in its present form does not perform much-needed service. There are numerous examples of congregations legitimately standing in as the arms, hands, feet, and heart of Christ in areas of desperate need. Yet many times these very acts, though serving a useful purpose, are often inconsistent and done from improper motivations rather than a genuine, heartfelt response to Christ.

Ideally, the church should serve as an institution of both service and education. It should educate the members in the real reason that we are called to selfless, sacrificial service in the first place. In addition, the church should be making its congregants acutely aware of the areas of dysfunction in our culture and how the message of Jesus and his kingdom apply to those dysfunctional areas. McLaren continues:

A right understanding of God and faith can train people to hold their heads high, to doubt the lies of a dysfunctional society and to work for its transformation. But a misguided understanding can be an opiate that keeps their heads down in submission or desperation so they continue to serve the societal system that is destroying them, believing its lies, performing according to its self-destructive script.

Perhaps nowhere is this process of cultural imbibing and downward spiral more evident than in the unholy alliance forged by Evangelical and Fundamentalist segments of the faith with the Republican Party. This unfortunate, illegitimate marriage took place in the run up to the 1980 election and has deepened and expanded over the past three-plus decades. As a result, study after study indicate that people are staying away from the church in massive numbers, stating that if one has to be a Republican to be a Christian, then, no thanks. For their part, the Christians seem alright with this state of affairs, evidently either oblivious to or in total disagreement with Jesus’ prime directive of “go and make disciples.” What is even more ironic about this is the fact that the typical Republican platform, at least in national politics, is antithetical to the teachings of Christ. How this phenomenon grew and continues is mind boggling.

The fact is, the church needs to distance itself from either political party. The pulpit is not a place for politics and it is imperative that the church as a whole understands this. The reality of the matter is this and I am not too timid to say it: By joining at the hip with the Republican Party, the Evangelical wing of the church has done more damage to the Body of Christ than any event in modern history. I can relate story after story after story of people who have told me they steer clear of the church because of its perceived alliance with right wing politics. Friends, this is not what Christ envisioned for his bride.

I know this may enrage some of my readers but we have to get honest with ourselves about this issue. As long as the Religious Right, and those that support them, have such great influence in the Christian church, the exodus from the church will continue unabated. Further, with dwindling numbers and an increasingly negative image in the public consciousness, the influence of the church on contemporary culture will be further eroded. I find it highly ironic that the very push to impact society through political action and partisan politics has fostered the opposite result. The sooner leaders of this wing of the church wrap their heads around these undeniable realties, the sooner healing can begin.

One thing we cannot opt for is more of the same.

I would encourage those of you who sincerely have great affection for the church and those with a vision of what a great resource the Body of Christ can be in addressing the problems of today’s world to read some of Brian McLaren’s books. I don’t agree with everything McLaren says and I doubt you will, either. Yet I do recognize a prophetic voice when I hear it (or read it). I do agree with much of McLaren’s thinking and further, I appreciate the fact that he acknowledges that he doesn’t have all the answers, yet feels hopeful that answers can be found through creative dialogue and mutual respect.

I would specifically recommend three of his books, perhaps read in this order: The Secret Message of Jesus; Everything Must Change; A New Kind of Christianity. Prepare to have your thinking challenged, especially if you are of a classical Evangelical or Fundamentalist frame of mind. Still, I implore those of you in this category not to avoid McLaren just because you might disagree with some of his ideas. The fact is, we need to have our thinking challenged on a regular basis. It is only through challenge to our status quo that we can grow and this principle is especially true when it comes to our spiritual development.

All of us, no matter what theological framework we are aligned with, need to explore thinkers from other schools of thought. It is only by engaging in this sort of eclectic study can we fully grasp the wonderful range of responses to God’s incredible act of grace through Jesus Christ. If you could see my bookshelf, you would know that in this case I practice what I preach. I have read a wide range of authors, from Chuck Colson to Marcus Borg and just about anything in between. And I have benefited from all of them in one way or another.

I am certain you will as well.

© L.D. Turner 2012/ All Rights Reserved

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