One of the most useful things I’ve ever learned was how to take what is good from a bad book. Well, not a bad book per se, but a book that is unconvincing, unhelpful, or just flat out wrong on the whole. I have yet to meet a bad book from which I couldn’t learn something.
Interestingly enough, I learned this lesson while reading Wild at Heart, by John Eldridge, the book that famously kicked off the now very popular “rah rah manly man lets-all-go-into-the-woods-and-pound -on-our-chests” Christian men’s movement, which teaches us that being a true Christian man is mainly about being a tough guy, riding a motorcycle, watching Gladiator, and teaching your son how to shoot things (rather than, you know… following Jesus). The first time I read Wild at Heart I wanted to throw it across the room. In fact I think I might have. (Leslie, do you recall?) Eldridge’s view of God is completely inadequate and entirely sub-biblical. Then I sat next to a guy on a plane who’s life had been totally transformed by the book and I felt like I should probably give it another shot. I read it a second time with a more sympathetic ear and tried to listen closely to what Eldridge was getting at (as I would want from someone reading a book I wrote) and I ended up gleaning some very helpful insights from the book even if I disagreed with it on the whole.
That lesson has served me well. Most recently it has helped me to glean some useful wisdom and insights from two books that are also, on the whole, flat out wrong. And they both go wrong in the same way. They both severely overcorrect, like someone trying to get a car out of a gentle skid who, instead of making a soft, deft correction, cranks the steering wheel all the way over and flips the car off a cliff.
Brian McLaren is no stranger to controversy, and much of it started with his book A New Kind of Christian. The title itself is off-putting, suggesting that those who don’t “do” Christianity McLaren’s way are therefore “old” and outdated. But from what I’ve seen, McLaren is a good writer and I wanted to give his book a fair, charitable, sympathetic reading. To be honest with you, it scared me how much I agreed with him at times.
This book, in keeping with the emerging church shtick, is presented as a conversation (everything is a “conversation” in the emerging church because propositional statements are seen as narrow-minded and intolerant. Holding that view is, evidently, not narrow-minded nor intolerant) between two new friends who are working through their frustrations with contemporary evangelicalism. One conversation partner, Neo, is presented as someone who has left the evangelical church and is now able to critique it (objectively, evidently) from the outside, while the narrator, Dan, is a frustrated pastor seeking counsel from Neo.
It is a well-written and engaging “conversation” to be sure. Clearly these conversations are conversations McLaren has had before. And, as I said, it was scary to me how often I agreed with Neo (i.e. McLaren). And yet sometimes I wanted to throw the book across the room so badly that I probably would have if I hadn’t been reading it mostly at Lifetime Fitness and I might have caught some strange looks. You would find it hilarious how many times I wrote something like, “YES! YES! EXACTLY!” in the margin, followed a paragraph or two later by something like, “YOU GOTTA BE KIDDING ME! TOTALLY NOT FAIR! HE KNOWS THAT’S NOT HOW IT IS!”
For example, the following conversation between Neo and Dan resonated deeply with me. Neo’s words are in italics (Remember, Dan is a pastor of a typical evangelical church):
“Are you afraid to tell your people what you’re really thinking? Yes, I feel that all the time. Do you feel trapped by your profession, like you have to choose between your own personal pursuit of truth and the requirement to give an orthodox sermon every Sunday? Yes, yes, exactly. Do you sometimes feel that your seminary professors are looking over your shoulder and scolding you? Every day. Are you struggling with some specific doctrines or theological positions? Yes, several. Do you have anyone to talk to about all this? Well, there’s my wife, Carol. But it really upsets her to see me questioning. Anyone else? No. Nobody.” (13)
Absolutely. And I can’t imagine that McLaren and I are the only pastors who have wrestled through these sorts of things. But what is so frustrating (and what made me want to throw the book into the free weights area) is that most of Neo’s (McLaren’s) solutions so drastically overcorrect that they clearly steer away from the fundamentalistic, byline, boilerplate evangelical answers to everything, but end up flipping off the cliff into unbiblical, heterodox, postmodern mealy-mouthed emerging/emergent church bull.
Time and time again, in reading this book, McLaren let me down. Time and time again he hit on some issue that really bothers me; that I really do agree plagues the evangelical church and that needs to be carefully addressed. And time and time again he failed me with answers that at best are hollow and at worst are heresy.
Here is one particularly frustrating example that I see not only Neo (McLaren) use, but I have heard Rob Bell use:
“…Evangelicals don’t say that people who disobey their parents should be stoned, as the Bible teaches in Leviticus, or that people whose genitals are mutilated should be excluded from worship, as the Bible teaches in Leviticus, or that it’s a sin for women to wear jewelry or have a short haircut, as the Bible teaches in some of Paul’s writings…[McLaren continues to list examples] …No, they have a grid of decency that keeps them from applying the Bible literally in these situations. But they seem generally unaware of this grid; they think they rigorously apply the Bible literally, and no one else is as faithful as they are….” (49).
My exact words in the margin next to this passage are: C’MON, SERIOUSLY?! THIS IS RIDICULOUS!” McLaren is smart enough to know that informed evangelicals don’t just randomly decide what they want to obey and what they don’t based on some arbitrary “grid of decency.” He knows there are good biblical-theological answers to these issues, but he just chooses not even to acknowledge them because of his agenda. McLaren would be furious if someone misrepresented his positions so badly, but he rarely does traditional evangelicalism the courtesy of fairly articulating its positions. He prefers, instead, to set up straw men positions that are much more easily mocked.
So, in the end, I like the questions McLaren raises. They helped me articulate some of my own questions that I have for traditional evangelicalism. I just thought his answers to these good questions were usually shallow, naive, and unbiblical. I hope there are people out there having this “conversation” in a more honest, candid, and informed way. I’m glad I read the book. I just wish he hadn’t written it. Lots of young people are going to read it and adopt the ill-informed, pseudo-intellectual, borderline arrogant attitude of its protagonist.
UPDATE: Here is another helpful and (more?) balanced review.