Two Books You Don’t Need to Read (Part 1)

newkindofchristian.jpg…but you should probably be familiar with.

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title itself is off-putting, suggesting that those who don’t “do” Christianity McLaren’s way are therefore “old” and outdated.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.

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10 thoughts on “Two Books You Don’t Need to Read (Part 1)”

  1. “To be honest with you, it scared me how much I agreed with him.”

    Well, test results HAVE placed you as an Emerging theologian, so you shouldn’t be too surprised. 🙂

    This was basically the same feeling I came away with after reading his Generous Orthodoxy book earlier this year. Time and again, he would nail a great point, and then mutilate the remedy to it in the next paragraph. And then on the next page, he would pull out his trusty straw man. He is possibly the most dishonest author I’ve ever read, since I am sure he knows better. It’s unfortunate that the church didn’t address these issues twenty years ago before post-modernism got so deeply rooted; we’re reaping the whirlwind now.

  2. Darius,

    I haven’t read Generous Orthodoxy yet. Got any notes on it? If it’s dishonest as ANKC I’d rather not spend the time to read it, but it would be good to get more detailed thoughts from you on it.

    The other book is for Part 2. It’s a cliffhanger…

  3. B.

    My time is oh so valuable (as you know) and my reading skills are that of a 1o year old. so let me just say thanks for reading the crap, and telling me to avoid it.

    Thanks.

    JRS

  4. I don’t know much about McLaren as a pastor, but I did read the ANKC trilogy and found myself…swayed. I feel like if I read it again, I would react much differently. The second book “The Story We Find Ourselves In” deals primarily with evolution and the third, “The Last Word, and the Word After That” deals with our modern understanding of Hell, which, McLaren argues, is mainly derivative of artistic depictions of Hell (ie. Dante) and that Jesus provides us with a very different understanding of Hell (ie how can Hell be a place of outer darkness and a place of sulfuric flames at the same time?)

    What gripped me in ANKC was the loneliness and longing for a place to grapple with tough questions that Dan seemed to have. I agree with you, Bryan, McLaren’s answer seems to be blatant deconstructionalism, which keeps people’s Christianity racing like little hamsters in a steel wheel. I would contend that we already have fickle hearts…we don’t need any extra help.

  5. p.s.
    I thank God for places like Keystone and Fusion where people have the permission to wrestle with orthodox realities without feeling like they’re in danger of being booted out of the community.

  6. Thanks for your reviews and nuanced critique of McLaren especially. Just a few thoughts to toss into the mix here:

    You wrote: “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)”

    In fairness to the emerging crowd, my understanding is they seek to create room for questions, discussion, and dialogue. I don’t hear a lot of people condemning those who disagree with them as if “conversation” must be accepted propositionally.

    Your response kind of muddies the waters a bit because the real problem we face when conversation is our mode of operation (as opposed to propositions) is that too much is accepted as true. There is a muddle of opinions and views and then we don’t spend enough time sorting out the ones most consistent with historic, orthodox Christianity and the revelation of the Spirit through scripture. One risks being to exclusive and the other risks being too inclusive.

    I think you’re right that McLaren does not always do justice to the more nuanced Evangelicals out there, however, I know I fit the bill for some of his straw men (I really wrestle with ways to interpret the OT at times as in the example you quoted) and I know plenty of people who fit into the “straw man” category he developed. McLaren is from the Evangelical fold, the fairly conservative brethren group to be exact, and he does have pastoral concerns. This stuff has come up, so I don’t think he’s making it up, even if it isn’t representative of the whole group. His treatment could certainly use some qualifiers and distinguishing touches. I think it is to the credit of Evangelicalism that we have such a broad spectrum of beliefs that one attempt at critique falls short, though I think it has valid points. I think McLaren would probably agree with you on that point in fact.

    I think it is worth noting that ANK is a work of fiction. No matter how tempting it may be, keep in mind that you can’t necessarily stick the words of Neo or Pastor Dan into McLaren’s mouth. He’s written plenty of other books where you can find out exactly what he thinks, and I believe that he agrees with a lot of what Neo has to say. However, part of his goal is to create conversation and to raise questions, and to that end he has chosen fictional characters. We have to accept his terms even if it feels a bit like a cheap trick to play around with potentially dangerous ideas. Check out A Generous Orthodoxy and The Secret Message of Jesus if you really want to get a firm handle on where McLaren’s at.

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