You’ve asked me what I think of Brian McLaren, and I assume by that you are talking about his many writings. And you’ve asked me “how” to think about him. As a person, Brian is gracious and kind, disarming and quiet, and unlike most Christian leaders I’ve encountered, the sort of man that makes you feel important when he is with you. Character counts a lot for me, and so I hope you can meet him some day: you will experience him as a genuine (if new kind of) Christian.
You mentioned that you have read some scary things about Brian on blogs. Which raises a sadness for me: if you were to google Brian McLaren’s name and then read what (supposed) Christians have said about him, you’d have a good illustration of lions eating their young. I was recently telling a student that if Brian were a non-Christian, the one thing he’d never become is an evangelical. Some of his critics have done everything but show the grace of Christ to him. To return to my earlier point about his character, he remains gracious in spite of how many evangelicals have treated him. No matter how much we value orthodoxy, we can never justify being mean-spirited and malicious as we defend it.
Nearly everyone asks me about his Generous Orthodoxy (because it is his most theological book) or about A New Kind of Christian — one piece of fiction I have read. I think I told you in an earlier letter that, as Kris sometimes says of me, I’m not constitutionally capable of reading fiction. But, I did read New Kind.
Let me give you a piece of advice about Brian’s books: he is a deliberate provocateur, and he’s about as good at it as anyone I’ve ever met. Your questions to me concern his “orthodoxy.” He says things at times that I’d say differently, but we should read Brian for what he is doing and not as a systematic theologian. He is trying to get evangelical Christians — and you say you are “kinda and kinda not” an evangelical — to ask new questions about beliefs that have gone largely unchallenged for a century. If you read Generous Orthodoxy — many of us in the emerging movement shorten that book in writing to GO — for what it is, you will be led into all kinds of questions and Brian’s GO will drive you back to the Bible to make you think what you really do believe.
Take Mary, for instance. Brian tells a story about being near a big image of Mary and he found himself weeping. I don’t remember all the details — I’m pretty sure it is found in GO — but it shows how he can get you to think. That scene made me think about why Mary’s image is so evocative for so many today (do you find yourself attracted to her? do you think it is because “absence [among evangelicals] makes their heart grow fonder”?). It made me think about what the Bible does say — and what both the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox have taught and how the Reformers themselves had very high thoughts about Mary. And I found myself reading the Magnificat and the next thing I knew I was doing exactly what Brian intends — asking questions. Well, that’s an illustration from my life. Maybe you have others — do you?
If Brian is a provocative writer, he is also doing something that takes great courage: he’s trying to reconstruct Christianity from the ground up. Brian wants to know what is at the bottom, what is the essence, what is most important, how are we to live and what are we to believe. And, this means Brian is willing to question everything and everyone. But Brian’s questioning is not so much skepticism as it is questioning and conversation. “Conversation” is one of Brian’s favorite terms — and as an emerging Christian myself I agree with him. Let’s not fight about all this; let’s ask questions and listen to one another. Even if I find myself disagreeing with Brian at times, I do enjoy the conversation. I’d rather discuss Mary with Brian than with almost anyone I know. (Which I’ve only done briefly.)
One more thing for you to think about when it comes to Brian: he has become more and more politically active. Really, I’m not sure it is accurate to say this since I don’t know that much about Brian’s political action a decade or so ago. But, Brian is more aligned with folks like Jim Wallis, and he’s talking more about environment and social justice. One time you told me you liked my expression “purple theology.” Well confession time for me: I swiped that from Brian’s article when he spoke about “purple politics.” Brian says Christians need to be more “purple” in their politics, and I’m a big fan of that idea. I hope Brian will lead many to be genuinely purple. It seems to me that far too many Christians place sooooo much hope in the election process and think that if a Democrat or a Republican wins then everything will be better — I don’t believe that. It doesn’t make that much difference in my judgment. That is why I hope more and more of us can be purple. Brian has stated that — and we’ll have to see how it all turns out.
I’m sorry this letter got so long.
This begins a new weekly series on letters and ideas I have exchanged with young emerging Christians, bu which I’m now cobbling together into coherent letters.