If Brian McLaren’s new book reflects the “emerging church” in evangelicalism, then the movement may be all form and little content.
By Patton Dodd
In his new book, “The Last Word and the Word After That: A Tale of Faith, Doubt, and a New Kind of Christianity,” Brian McLaren dismantles the standard Christian view of eternal hellfire and replaces it with a multicultural campfire. The book is the last installment of a trilogy that has, depending on whom you talk to, either dramatically altered the face of young evangelicalism in America or enjoyed 15 minutes of Christian fame. McLaren is a saint to some, a sinner to others, his eternal status (perhaps) hanging in the balance.
After the first book, “A New Kind of Christian,” found a large readership in 2001, McLaren was anointed the godfather of a sub-sub-movement in evangelicalism known as the emerging chu.ah, a.k.a. Emergent. Characterizing the movement is tricky for two reasons: a trend among young evangelicals self-consciously trying to rethink and redo evangelicalism was already underway, and observers have had a hard time knowing whether emerging churches (or emerging ministries within established churches) number in the hundreds or in the dozens, and whether their numbers are rising or falling. It’s also unclear, as a Christianity Today cover feature noted last fall, if emerging churches amount to a real reconsideration of the Christian gospel (as McLaren would have it, a postmodern recovering of orthodoxy), or if they are merely evangelicalism made hip—services with dim lights, multimedia presentations, and Coldplay-esque music. Either way, McLaren’s readership and influence is not limited to Emergent; his books and speaking have been seen as something of a godsend by many young evangelicals who are looking to liberalize without becoming liberal.
To be sure, if the thousands of people who are buying McLaren’s books are actually reading them, a real reconsideration might be occurring. The “New Kind of Christian” trilogy tackles head-on several major ideological problems facing Christianity, including postmodernism, biblical authority, the evolution/creation debate, theologies of atonement, pluralism, and, as the primary subject of “The Last Word,” hell and judgmenps Perhaps the most salient feature of the books and the emerging churches is their focus on the power of narrative as a meaning-making activity, as a way of speaking with those outside the faith, and as a way of explaining ourselves to ourselves.
The trilogy itself is a case in point, as it is essentially an extended theological-cultural essay masquerading as a story. The quasi-novels follow the journey of Dan Poole, an evangelical pastor in the D.C. area, as he questions everything he believes. Dan, whose name approximates the pilgrim hero of another Christian trilogy, is led by a Virgil-like scientist-philosopher-ex-pastor named Neil Everett Oliver, who prefers to be called by his initials, Neo. Until the last book, that is, when Neo (and, to be sure, McLaren) is embarrassed by the once-cool association with the hero of yet another trilogy, “The Matrix,” and demands that everyone return to calling him “Neil.”
When the books begin, Dan is considering retiring from the pastorate and becoming a high school teacher. He seeks advice from Neo, a Jamaican-born science teacher with degrees in philosophy and divinity, and an ex-pastor himself. Rather than pointing Dan to the nearest teaching certification manual, Neo befriends Dan and encourages him to face his questions. Thus begins a journey of several years, with Neo deprogramming Dan’s fundamentalism and leading him into a new kind of Christianity. Along the way, Dan learns that we are living in a postmodern era, and modernist approaches to faith that emphasized certainty are fading fast. He is taught to reconsider the Bible as a story, not a source of rationalized ideology. He rethinks the meaning of sin, redemption, and judgment. For good measure, he also meets his first intersexual, and soon decides that he doesn’t know whether homosexuality is all that bad. Dan’s journey is completed during a retreat at a Minnesota cabin when he’s initiated into Neo’s community of friends—a group as colorful (black, Latina, Minnesotan) and delightful as any Dan has ever met.
Such a summary is too brief, even unfair, but the books themselves are written in summary fashion. The most remarkable feature of the trilogy, in fact, is how much ground McLaren manages to cover in less than 200 pages per book. Questions big and small that have rumbled through the mind of many an evangelical (including this one) find open air on these pages as Dan painstakingly reconsiders the whole evangelical shebang.
The problem with such an exercise is that hardly anything save the central themes of each book—“We live in a postmodern era” in “A New Kind of Christian,” “The Bible is a meaning-making story” in “The Story We Find Ourselves In” (the best book of the three), and “Our cnaventional thinking on hell contradicts God’s goodness” in “The Last Word and the Word After That”—gets much more than a momentary consideration. The result is a kind of anthology of doubt, with occasional sketches of possible solutions.
An evangelical doubter myself, I’m not inclined to take McLaren to task overly much regarding where he lands on various theological quandaries—except to say that he lands too little, perhaps for aesthetic reasons that I’ll explain in a moment. McLaren is, however, being roundly taken to task in conservative evangelical quarters, sometimes fairly, sometimes pettily. But I speak from experience when I say that there is not enough readily accessible material for young evangelicals who desire to negotiate a deeper, more complex understanding of their faith. McLaren’s books may offend evangelical tradition (they do), and they may not offer a clear enough alternative to the cultural contradictions of evangelicalism (they don’t). But he has been bold to instigate a public airing of those contradictions, and his critics would be wise to spend their energies on reordering McLaren’s project rather than merely lambasting it.
McLaren refers to his genre as creative nonfiction, though noncreative fiction might be a better descriptor. I mean not to be mean, but much of what is “created” in the story of Dan and Neo is fictional window dressing. There are plot points, and there are characters, but they serve only to frame the ongoing conversation between Dan and Neo—“Franny and Zooey” meets M. Scott Peck, complete with charts and graphs. (Both Neo and McLaren—in interviews—are constantly drawing diagrams to illustrate their points.) Neo and Dan are self-conscious about themselves as members of a dialogue, and clearly believe that civil conversation is the only way through the morass of religious complexities.
More than story, it is this idea of a conversation that matters most to McLaren. He refers to Emergent not as a movement, nor a network, but as a “conversation.” When interviewers ask about the emerging phenomenon, he takes care to respond by renaming it “the emerging conversation.” And he walks (er, talks?) the talk. Like the Neo created in his image, McLaren is unfailingly, even self-consciously, civil, open, and generous, especially when responding to a rejoinder. My favorite instance of this is a near-comical one—a conversation within a conversation that McLaren blogged (a blog being the de facto home of postmodern dialogue). McLaren transcribed the Christianity Today story on his site, interjecting every few paragraphs with a response, as in an email dialogue. At one point, when the article quotes a critical comment from Wheaton philosopher Mark Talbot, McLaren responds with a fictional dialogue between himself and Talbot, where, as it turns out, they really don’t disagree that much at all.
Of course, it’s easy to agree with someone who isn’t there. And while reading McLaren’s books, it’s hard not to suspect that you are watching a one-sided conversation. Neo always knows where the conversation is headed. Throughout the three books, Neo is a force. He knows a lot about everything. His lines are filled with knowing allusions to authors and historical movements, allusions that go largely unexplained. McLaren has sometimes referred to these books as Socratic, but the conversations that Dan has with Neo and Neo’s equally astute friends (like those at the Minnesota cabin) function more like pedagogical demagoguery. Is this the kind of conversation that Emergent is? Hans-Georg Gadamer argued that conversations that do not contain the element of surprise are not really conversations at all. When we begin a truly open dialogue, he said, we let go of the destination; we are not sure where we will be when we are finished. If one party is in control, then no exchange is taking place.
It’s also easier to talk when the setting is just right. With McLaren pulling the strings in the “New Kind of Christian” trilogy, Neo and Dan enjoy long, rhythmic conversations—in cars and bars, on hiking trails and in hoffee shops. These conversational settings are uniformly described in idyllic terms—the weather perfect, the noise level just right, the food perfectly warmed, the beer cold. At one point in the third book, Neo feeds pigeons near the park bench on which they are sitting, and one of the birds ends up sitting on his leg, eating morsels from his hand.
Discourse can and should lead somewhere, it should be civil, and it’d be great if it could always occur at long dinner parties and parks with friendly (and clean) pigeons. But it shouldn’t be surprising when feathers are ruffled, when nasty arguments occur, and when talks disintegrate. Each of McLaren’s three New Kind of Christian books contains an introductory disclaimer to the effect that if you think you’ll be offended, don’t read it. Fat chance. Public conversations are public, and everyone is invited. When those conversations are about contentious issues—say, hellfire and damnation—the inviting party has to realize that some participants are more likely to throw down a gauntlet than to consider changing their views. I hope we can be as civil as McLaren describes, but I also hope that our conversations are real. If the idyllic, controlled conversations of these books is the model of conversation Emergent folks have in mind, it might be tough for them to live up to McLaren’s vision. And if he is going to keep talki w about whether or not people will go to hell, he may have to get used to people telling him that he can.
Patton Dodd is a doctoral candidate in religion and literature at Boston University and the author of My Faith So Far. His last piece for SoMA was A List of Screwy Christian Stuff. Visit his website at www.pattondodd.com.
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