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(RNS) Southern Baptist theologian Jim Hamilton doesn’t write a lot of parables. But he recently posted an original one on his blog in a bid to delegitimize a popular author who Hamilton says is falsely advertising himself as an evangelical.
In the parable, author Brian McLaren transforms a Whole Foods Market into a McDonald’s, yet misleadingly retains the “Whole Foods” name.
Hamilton says that’s exactly what McLaren is doing in his new book, “A New Kind of Christianity.”
In short, McLaren’s refashioning Christianity into something altogether different, but still claiming the “Christian” name, while leading the unaware astray, Hamilton said.
McLaren’s “is the same kind of `Christianity’ that colluded, went along with, Hitler’s program in Germany,” says Hamilton, associate professor of biblical theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
“Leading theologians in that era of Germany regarded the Bible and history of the Christian faith in the same way as Brian McLaren does, which is: `This is outdated. Let’s replace it with something up to date.”‘
In attempting to marginalize McLaren, Hamilton has plenty of company. In March, the flagship seminary took the rare step of convening a panel to debunk a single book: McLaren’s.
Faculty members slammed McLaren, an English teacher-turned-pastor, for allegedly telling the God of the Bible, “you cannot be God.”
Bloggers, meanwhile, have described McLaren’s approach as “dangerous,” “seductive” and “heretical.”
In his book, McLaren, who says he comes out of a fundamentalist background, questions long-held assumptions of Christianity. He bristles at the notion of worshiping a God whose wrath sometimes appears unjustified. He engages the Bible as literature, in which God is a main character, rather than as an authoritative type of “constitution” for the church. And he suggests people need divine salvation from human evil, not from a sovereign God.
“There are a lot of people who can’t — for intellectual, ethical and other reasons of conscience — accept a lot of the assumptions that (fundamentalist Christians) demand that we accept,” McLaren said in an interview.
“I’m trying to be helpful to other people who will never fit in the conservative or fundamentalist framework.”
To explain why he’s so disliked, McLaren noted in a recent Huffington Post essay that his critics often share his views but won’t openly admit it. His reason: “Their consciences are in conflict with their beloved religious authority figures (and) the best way to stay out of religious trouble is to keep your opinions private.”
Observers, however, say the backlash to McLaren is about more than conservatives toeing the party line. In their view, there are big things at stake for theological conservatives, who fear McLaren might be just clever enough to lead a generation astray.
On one level, nothing short of the eternal destiny of souls hangs in the balance as conservatives fret about McLaren’s emphasis on social justice and de-emphasis of traditional beliefs, according to Christian Smith, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame.
“In the end, it would be a matter of salvation (for concerned evangelicals), because you would have people in church for no good reason, who don’t really believe in the gospel or Jesus,” Smith says.
On another level, Smith adds, McLaren hits a sensitive nerve among conservatives who worry about consequences of eroding theological integrity. Always wary of encroachment from a hostile surrounding culture, these evangelicals fear that young Christians won’t grasp the tenets that make Christianity distinct.
McLaren’s formulation of a less doctrinal, more activist faith “is threatening because it’s attractive to a lot of people, especially young people,” Smith said. “What (McLaren’s critics) really don’t want to see is older evangelicals continue to be the kind of the people they are, and a new generation comes along and heads off in a different direction (with) very little clue that Christianity has content.”
Concerned evangelicals are firing back at McLaren for what they see as an assault that originated within their own ranks. Though McLaren still claims the evangelical moniker, many of his evangelical foes insist he’s no more evangelical than they are Catholic, Muslim or Jewish.
McLaren’s opponents speak of “McLarenism” or “McLarianity” to distinguish his teachings from those of orthodox evangelicals. Among those unhappy with the advancement of “McLarenism” is Kevin DeYoung, a Michigan pastor who regards it as a “theological innovation” that abandons Christianity by disavowing original sin, divine sovereignty and other essential doctrines.
“One of the frustrating things with reading McLaren is he can be rhetorically manipulative,” said DeYoung, pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Mich. “He paints himself as a martyr so that those who dare to disagree are just adding to his heroic defense of this new kind of Christianity.”
Yet not all evangelicals are resisting McLaren, who ranks as a leading figure in the amorphous “Emerging Church” movement, which claims no specific beliefs or organizational structure. It was standing room only when he spoke last December at Fuller Theological Seminary, an evangelical school in Pasadena, Calif. While his theology may not have been entirely persuasive, his approach proved appealing, according to Kurt Fredrickson, associate dean of Fuller’s doctor of ministry program.
“A lot of evangelicals who are now students have grown up in a situation where they were not allowed to question or to doubt,”
Frederickson said. McLaren “is saying, `I know you have questions about issues. The world is not as simple or black-and-white as people may have taught you growing up. … I want to create a safe space for discussion about this.’ And he’s not saying this as a doubter or an atheist, but as a convicted follower of Jesus.”
By G. JEFFREY MacDONALD
Copyright 2010 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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