Introduction by Tony Jones, Emergent-U.S. National Coordinator (effective October 1, 2005):
In many ways, it's been a long, hot summer for Emergent. There's been media attention, which, of course, is both good and bad. There has also been a significant amount of theological and philosophical scrutiny, as some within the established Christian world have wanted to figure out exactly what Emergent believes. Well, that's impossible to really get a grasp of, since Emergent -- as an organization/movement/conversation -- doesn't have a statement of faith or belief similar to those of many more traditional religious organizations. For that reason, and because his recent books have been so thought-provoking, Brian McLaren has borne the brunt of the criticism.
Although last Spring some of us responded to our critics and asked them to be charitable in their criticisms, I have found much of the criticism of Brian in particular to be unfair and uncharitable, and much of it has caricatured and mischaracterized his work instead of taking it seriously.
It's also been interesting to me that much of the criticism of Brian this summer has run along the lines of, "I really like his missional thinking, but his philosophy and theology are dangerous." I talked to Brian about that, because those of us who know him realize that his recent theological investigations have been driven by his missional heart. For instance, Brian believes that bad eschatology (doctrine of the last things/end times/heaven and hell) has led to a misunderstanding of the Kingdom of God and to much abuse of our planet, and that, in turn, has made mission and church-planting more difficult. Those concerns led him to write a book on other ideas about eschatology; it's called The Last Word and the Word after That.
With that in mind, I asked Brian if he would write an Emergent/C and blog post about his summer, and about how his missional thinking led him to theological and philosophical investigations. This is the first of three parts that will be coming out over the next week. I ask you, not only to read it, but to pass it on to friends and collegues who you think would benefit from a better understanding of Brian's heart. (The entire post will be made available as a .pdf file in the near future, and instead of having the comment section turned on, we'll direct those who wish to discuss Brian's post to a bulletin board.)
And finally, on a missional note, I blogged about a God-encounter I had with an artist and church-planter in New York City a few months back. His name is Jeff Kursonis, he occasionally blogs, and Brian will be speaking at his place, Communion of the Arts, this Monday night, August 15. It's a church plant particularly for those in NYC who are involved in the arts, acting, music, media, and the creative professions. Pass on the word to those you know in NYC.
by Brian McLaren
In recent months, I’ve been seeing things in print, on radio/TV, and in the blogosphere that confidently say, “McLaren says …” or “McLaren believes …” Frequently, dyspeptic evaluations of my work are then generalized to discredit emergent or the emerging church (or whatever), and that’s a shame. Meanwhile, when I read these confident statements of propositional truth about me and my work, I keep wondering, “Is there someone out there posing as an imposter, pretending to represent me?”
I’ve been able to do a good bit of research, using primary sources, to determine whether the person being described by a number of critics bears any resemblance to the man I’ve known all my life. But not wanting to trust my judgment alone on a matter of this importance – knowing that I might be biased – I’ve also asked other people who know me and have read my books whether I am the same person described by these critics. I even went back to my books themselves, just to be sure I wasn't confused. Based on this research, assuming that I am who I think I am, I’ve come to this conclusion: Many things that are being confidently asserted as objective, absolute, propositional truth about “Brian McLaren” are actually the truth about a fictional character, not about me.
Now having written some fiction myself, and being a former English teacher, I know something about fictional characters. They are often based on real characters. The author uses his craft to suppress some things about the real character and exaggerate other things to create someone completely original, useful for his purposes. In this regard, some of my critics should be congratulated for creating a fascinating, scary, dangerous, highly original, and useful character who bears my name, but who is very different from me.
I continue to assume that the fictional dimensions of their analyses are simple misinterpretations and honest mistakes, perhaps reflecting my weakness as a writer more than any lack of objectivity, charity, or fairness on their part. I have been unsure of how to respond. On the one hand, I want to remain lighthearted and open-hearted and avoid any kind of defensive reaction. On the other hand, the impact of some of the mischaracterizations and false allegations could be serious. So when my friend Tony Jones suggested I simply tell my story and let that story correct misrepresentations that are spreading, that struck me as a good way to begin. Perhaps a more detailed point-by-point response will be necessary in the future, but I hope this will suffice.
I was brought up in a sincere Christian home. My parents are sweet and wonderful people, and any native kindness I have is due to their genes and example. My paternal grandfather was a courageous pioneer missionary with the Plymouth Brethren in Angola, where my dad spent part of his life growing up. My maternal grandfather – of Irish Catholic stock, educated through the eighth grade – served faithfully in a Brethren assembly in Rochester, NY, through his adult life. He remains in my memory one of the most beautiful, cheerful, and wise examples of a true Christian I have ever met. My parents raised my brother and me in the vibrant context of active church life, summer camps, missionary visits, daily devotions, frequent hospitality, generous stewardship, and a lived faith. Like many kids raised in those contexts, I “got saved” at a young age, and frequently “recommitted my life” for fear that I wasn’t sincere enough the previous times.
Also like many kids raised in the church, I needed to self-differentiate so that my faith, if I was to keep it, would be my own. I spent a few years in mild adolescent rebellion and growing skepticism about the existence of God. During this time, I was befriended by a few committed Christian men – including one from Young Life and one from the Jesus Movement - who challenged me, believed in me, let me ask my troubling questions, and helped me come to a point of sincere, personal Christian commitment. They continued as my friends, disciplers, and mentors through the years. I was exposed to the charismatic movement as well, and although I never fully accepted traditional Pentecostal theology, I learned first-hand about the reality and power of the Holy Spirit.
My concern for evangelism began early. While in high school, I started a Bible study but never thought of inviting Christian friends to it: my primal Christian impulses were evangelistic and I invited some nonChristian friends. Meanwhile, another fellow in my high school started a Jesus People group for which I played the guitar. When he “fell away” and got involved in drugs again, I became the de-facto leader of the group. It was a completely student-led enterprise and soon grew to involve nearly a hundred kids. Eventually, while I was in college, this group became a local church, supported by my parents and some of their friends. God graciously sent me some additional older brothers in Christ to mentor me and encourage me at that time, a young man with a lot of responsibility for his age. They set an example of older leaders coming around a younger leader with encouragement and support – an example I have tried to follow now that I am the age they were back then.
I remember praying almost every morning of my four years in college for at least one opportunity to share my faith – or identify myself with Jesus in some way; that prayer was answered nearly every day through my undergraduate and graduate education. During those years, I wrote songs and traveled quite extensively performing evangelistic concerts. From time to time, I am still contacted by people who met me in my early twenties and either then or some time later came to faith in Christ.
So, my introduction to Christian leadership began early – and was primarily focused on evangelism, disciple-making and church-planting. I have been boringly consistent in these emphases to this very day.
The little church that grew out of the high school Bible study, like many well-intentioned endeavors of the Jesus Movement, started well and ended badly. During its demise, I remember thinking, “I’ll never do that again!” Around that time I got married, and Grace and I began attending a wonderful Episcopal church which the rector described as being “Anglican at the altar, evangelical in the pulpit, and charismatic in the pew.” I learned much about “a generous orthodoxy” from that experience. I even considered entering the Episcopal priesthood, but eventually decided against it, realizing that my primary calling was to those outside the institutional church, and the priesthood would put me in a more ecclesiastic role.
In graduate school, I wrote my thesis on then-living novelist Walker Percy. He struck me then, and even more now, as an American C. S. Lewis – earthier, funnier, less restrained, no less thoughtful, equally rooted in Christian faith. Between 1954 and 1974, he published wide-ranging articles that were collected in The Message in the Bottle (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux). The first time I came across the word “postmodern” must have been in his essay of the same title. As I re-read the essay thirty years later, I realize afresh how formative Percy’s thought has been in my thinking. I believe these lines from the 1970’s capture my essential ambiguity about the idea of postmodernity – not (as some critics seem to read into my work) a naïve desire to blindly accommodate to it, but a sense of both its danger and opportunity.
What does [the Christian novelist] see in the world which arouses in him the deepest forebodings and at the same time kindles excitement and hope? … What he sees in the Western world is the massive failure of Christendom itself….
[W]hat the novelist sees, or rather senses, is a certain quality of the postmodern consciousness as he finds it and as he incarnates it in his own characters. What he finds – in himself and in other people – is a new breed of person in whom the potential for catastrophe – and hope – has suddenly escalated… The psychical forces presently released in the postmodern consciousness open unlimited possibilities for both destruction and liberation, for an absolute loneliness or a rediscovery of community and reconciliation.
… The wrong questions are being asked. The proper question is not whether God has died or been superseded by the urban-political complex. The question is not whether the Good News is no longer relevant, but rather whether it is possible that man is presently undergoing a tempestuous restructuring of his consciousness which does not presently allow him to take account of the Good News…. It is possible that a different kind of communication-event occurs in the door of the church than occurred fifty years earlier. (112-116)
Studying literary criticism in graduate school, I encountered other dimensions of what is now called postmodern thought but then was known as post-structuralism, the new criticism, and deconstruction. I remember my head spinning; I wasn’t sure of what to make of it all.
Part 2 of 3 will appear tomorrow, August 10th