Q & R: Why do Evangelicals dislike you?

Here’s the question:

Hi Brian,
I was at a conference the other week, and my attention was grabbed when they mentioned your name with some negative connotations. I was wondering if you are able to articulate why you think the evangelical church has a problem with what you’re doing? Is is a particular doctrine … I’m just not understanding their position, and they didn’t go into too much detail.

Response after the jump:

Thanks for your question. I’m from an Evangelical background, so I understand the ethos pretty well. The truth is, large numbers of Evangelicals love what I’m doing and are highly supportive … younger Evangelicals especially, but plenty of older ones too. I constantly meet and hear from Evangelicals who tell me that the usual Evangelical spokespeople (I won’t mention names) don’t speak for them, and if it weren’t for voices like mine, they’d disassociate with Evangelicalism altogether.
I also meet a lot of Evangelicals who say, “I love what you’re doing, but I can’t admit this in my church.” (In this regard Tony Jones jokingly says that in some Evangelical settings, my books have to be read hidden inside a Playboy cover.) A lot of folks live with a lot of fear of being criticized by their more conservative brethren (or sistren). The level of fear runs pretty high in many religious communities and brings with it many negative side effects. As the Proverb says, “The fear of man brings a snare.”
Along with open support and covert support, there’s a lot of ambivalence too. I think of a chance meeting I had with one Evangelical leader. He looked at me somewhat askance after I introduced myself, and then said, “Ah, McLaren. I don’t like your work and I disagree with you on almost every point. But I hope you succeed … because my sons are far from God and far from the church. They can’t stand the kind of Christianity I represent, but they really like you. If they have a future in the church, it will be through people like you.”
Three kinds of Evangelicals are completely and vocally unhappy with my work, and frankly, they should be. If they’re right, I’m very very wrong. Of course, if they’re somewhere south of perfect, perhaps I’d have something to offer them … in the unlikely tradition of Balaam’s donkey, of course.
1. Religious Right Evangelicals. These sincere and passionate folks – whether hard-core theonomists or soft-core neo-conservatives – see Christian faith as an inherently conservative force (politically, economically, and socially). I see the faith as a catalytic force, an agent of transformation to welcome “God’s will on earth as in heaven,” so it transcends those static left-right polarities altogether. More specifically, these folks sincerely and wholeheartedly supported the war in Iraq, the use of torture, Guantanamo, anti-gay laws, etc., and I spoke against these things, so it’s no surprise that I’m not on their “in-list.” One of these folks (a well-known radio personality) even accused my friends and me of being allied with Al Qaeda, because we didn’t support military action against Islam! Sheesh.
2. Strict 5-Point Double-Predestinarian “Truly-Reformed” Calvinists. I spent many years as a card-carrying (should I say “tulip-toting”?) Calvinist. I understand its appeal from the inside, because it’s a highly coherent (from the inside), self-reinforcing closed system, and it gives its defenders a feeling of true superiority, in a humble-yet-exclusively-privileged sort of way. But I believe Calvinism (of this strict, 5 point, TR – or “truly reformed” – sort) rests on some erroneous assumptions. One of those assumptions is what Lesslie Newbigin called the greatest heresy of monotheism, namely, a misunderstanding of election as being for exclusive privilege rather than for suffering and service for the common good. In addition, many Calvinists define the gospel as a theory of atonement (penal substitutionary atonement, to be specific). I define the gospel as Jesus and his announcement that the kingdom of God is at hand. (More on this in SMJ, if you’re interested.) Obviously, Calvinists of this sort (especially strict Westminster Confessionalists) believe I’ve left the reservation.
By the way, there’s another way to understand Calvin – as a brilliant, open, progressive and creative leader rather than a tense reactionary, entrenched enforcer/inquisitor. But that’s another story.
3. Finally, other kinds of fundamentalists also tend to find me unhelpful – They feel I’m too tolerant of evolution, women in leadership, gay folks, Muslims, etc., etc. Of course, it’s much worse than that. I actually see in evolution God’s creative genius, and I don’t just tolerate women leaders, gay folks, and people of other religions, I love them without judging them and I enjoy their company without fine print. I try to do the same with fundamentalists, too.
Perhaps above all, the fundamentalist ethos tends to assume that it has the important questions answered – end of conversation. But I’ve been raising questions – important ones and I hope faithful ones – including questions about the conventional views of hell, salvation, the gospel, and the Bible. (My upcoming book will focus on ten of these important questions.) All this renders me, in some minds, a dangerous influence, and again, I can see why they would feel that way, coming from where they’re coming from.
But again, even though some folks are very vocal, and their polemics are traditionally hot and spicy with lots of references to the fires of hell, the truth is that I hear from many Evangelicals who are supportive of my work for every one who is hostile. And even the folks who have been somewhat nasty in print or online – when you meet them in person, they can be surprisingly and refreshingly kind and charitable. Religious polemics (especially online) can bring out the worst in people sometimes, you know? And the Holy Spirit can bring out the best in people.
I should add – if you know an evangelical who has heard negative things about my work, could I ask you to ask them to read one of my books for themselves and not just go by hearsay? They might start with Secret Message of Jesus.
I should also add – I’m a flawed and far from perfect person, and so I’m sure that I have earned much criticism through my own failures in thought, word, attitude, and action, by what I’ve done and what I’ve left undone. Since I know my real flaws of character and failures of behavior even better than my critics, I am even less impressed with myself than they are. Beyond that, only God knows how much mercy I’ve received, and only God knows how stupid, shabby, and bad I can be. So as a result, only God knows my obligation to be understanding to those who see me as a problem, and only God knows my obligation to show them the mercy I’ve been shown … not to mention my obligation to listen and learn from all constructive critique. In this, I appreciate your prayers as I always have a lot of room to grow.