home | FAQ |

Q & R: How Would You Define You, Part 1

Here's the Q:

Brian - there's been a discussion about you going on regarding a book by Geoff Holsclaw and David Fitch. Tony Jones quoted this:

“But their answers have often lacked the substance on which we can live, and what goes by the name of ‘emerging church’ now appears to have settled into another version of mainline Christianity.”

Then Tony adds:

But none of this is really the point. The point is this: If you want to have credibility in the world of evangelical publishing and seminary education these days, one of the ways to do it is to distance yourself from Brian McLaren. Get it? Brian has gone from a board member on several evangelical seminaries and mission agencies to persona non grata.

I was wondering if you want to weigh in on what Fitch and Holsclaw said, and what Jones said as well? How would you define you?

Here's the R:
I'm sorry to say I haven't had a chance to read Prodigal Christianity yet. I am working on my own book with a September deadline, and am super-focused on reading that relates directly to that. I am confused and a little surprised to see this quote about me and some friends of mine because I have a lot of admiration and affection for Geoff and David. Perhaps in context their intent isn't as dismissive as this sounds. I have always considered myself their friend and ally. I hope they won't mind if I continue to do so.

The term "emerging church" has become, I suppose, as problematic as the term "missional." As (I've heard) Jacques Derrida said about "deconstruction," I can't be held responsible for everything that is said and done in association with this term.

I agree with Tony that there's a common rhetorical strategy among Evangelicals that I myself have indulged in, as has Tony by his own admission: trying to seize the middle ground as morally high ground. If you have critics to your right, the only way to gain some space to differ "to the left" is by throwing somebody farther to the left under the bus, so to speak. (I'm sure groups with critics to the left would do something similar, but I don't have much experience in groups like that.) (And apologies for using the conventional left-right labels.)

One example: years ago, I spoke with disdain about a "mainline liberal" writer - my attempt to bolster my Evangelical credentials and seize middle-moral high ground by throwing "a liberal" under the bus. I had actually never read anything he had written, but people I respected thought he was dangerous. So I echoed them, needing to bolster my reputation to my right, a sign of my immaturity and insecurity on my part. Again, things I'm not proud of.

Some time later, I was asked to speak at the same event as this person. He was easy-going and gracious. I suppose he knew what I had said about him, but he didn't throw it in my face. Anyway, at the end of the event, there were long lines of people waiting to talk to us and get books signed. His line was much longer than mine.

So when my line dwindled away, I had the chance to eavesdrop on what people said to him. Person after person said, sometimes tearfully, "Thank you. If it weren't for your books, I wouldn't be a Christian," or "Through reading your book, I became a Christian," or "I left the church 30 years ago, but when I read book X, I came back." That's pretty moving for an Evangelical to hear, you know? I realized that this fellow was actually an evangelist, reaching people for Christ who never would be reached by my more conservative friends, or by me!

Anyway, I agree with Tony on the problem of seizing the middle. One of the challenges of getting older is that you have to keep leaving behind rhetorical "tricks" that you considered acceptable (or were completely unconscious of) when you were younger.

I don't fully understand why Tony is as critical of mainline Protestantism as he is:

Yes, you’re [...] right I have something against mainline Protestantism! Have you not been paying attention?!? My entire PhD dissertation is an attack on mainline polity. My christology is an offense to many mainliners. And I could go on.

I agree that there are problems with Mainline polity, but every bishop, district superintendent, and denominational official I meet agrees, and they're trying to change things for the better. I think that Mainliners have gotten the memo about fifty years of decline, and they're realizing that the future will be different from the past and present, for better or worse. I'm continually impressed by the vitality and devotion and love I experience in what I was told were "dead" churches. (I'm sure there are some of those churches out there, but I guess I don't get invited to them.)

If the Evangelical "brand" continues to constrict and contract (I hope that won't be the case - thanks to people like David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw and others), and if the new pope does not signal a long term "aggiornamento" in Catholicism but rather a blip after which retreat from Vatican II continues (I hope that won't be the case either), then Mainline Protestantism is the world's only large-scale expression of Christian faith that maintains significant space for free inquiry and progressive thinking. So I want to encourage, help, nurture, and contribute to Mainline Protestantism, not attack it. I actually think Tony agrees: I think his "attacks" on Mainline Protestantism are a lover's quarrel. His own background is Congregational, which (I think?) is considered Mainline, right? [Note to Tony - would love your comments on this.]

Anyway, any quarrel I have with my own Evangelical heritage is also a lover's quarrel. If Evangelicals continue to hold the line - or regress - on key issues, a whole lot of people will suffer, including the children and grandchildren of Evangelicals. If more Evangelicals can break free from being invaded and occupied by a regressive, reactive fundamentalist ethos, a lot of people will be way better off.

Which is why - again - I am grateful for people like David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw, because I think they're taking Evangelicals many steps in the right direction. And even if I'm saddened by their assessment of me and my colleagues, I think I understand why that assessment would be made.

That's enough for today. I may return to this next week, because what interests me more than the comment on "mainline" is the comment on "substance." Thanks for drawing this to my attention.