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Evangelist and blogger David Robertson offers his take on Brian McLaren’s latest book, Do I Stay Christian?
Brian McLaren has just issued his 23rd book entitled Do I Stay Christian?A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed and the Disillusioned. The book itself, and the reaction to it, give us a window into the state of the Church in the US and indeed other parts of the West.
I have a lot in common with Brian. Both of us were brought up in the Christian Brethren, both of us are concerned about the decline of the Church, and both of us believe that the Bible addresses contemporary issues. But there the similarities end!
Brian’s formula for the salvation of the Church is a million miles away from that which Christ offers us in his Word. But it is a revealing insight into the mentality of some who claim to still be Christian but have long since left the faith of Christ.
Normally when you review a book, even one you don’t particularly appreciate, you begin by pointing out the good things in the book, and the points you agree with. In this case, that is impossible. Apart from the general truism that there are some things some Christians have done badly and that we ought to care about the poor, the planet and justice, there is little in this book to edify, build up, or stimulate.
But McLaren has already anticipated that response – he is the prophet and those who don’t agree with him are already written off as the equivalent of Christian fascists. In his simplistic fundamentalist world, he is on the ‘right side of history’ and an angel of light. Those who disagree belong to the forces of darkness.
McClaren regards his book as important. Indeed, he expects groups to meet to discuss and study it as they would the Bible. “As you read, I encourage you to underline words, sentences or paragraphs that stick out to you. Write in the margins and blank pages. At the end of each chapter, write a sentence that summarises what in the chapter was most important to you.”
He never fails to tell us about those who have been ‘saved’ because of his books. “I hear echoes of literally thousands of others in hallways, over meals, via email or in chance encounters in airports. ‘I wouldn’t be a Christian anymore, if I hadn’t found your books,’ a young youth pastor told me in a book signing line.”
Let the reader beware. We are not talking about salvation in the Christian sense – salvation from sin, self and Satan. No, this is the kind of salvation which involves signing up to progressive political doctrines and then feeling free to name them Christian.
If you want to hear about patriarchy, climate change and racism, this is the book for you. In this new version of the Gospel, the Church is the villain, and Jesus and the Bible are at best supporting players as we listen to the Gospel of Brian.
“We Christians still don’t get it. We’re the richest, largest and most well- armed religion on the planet, and if we remain unwilling to acknowledge and learn from our past, we pose a serious threat to the very existence of humanity.
Like some Christian nationalists, McLaren confuses America with Christianity. I have been in many churches in different parts of the world and have not noticed the Christian armies surrounding the churches, militias in the pews or tanks parked on the church lawns.
McLaren informs us that he thinks it is “highly likely that Jesus existed and that he was a uniquely extraordinary human being. But that does not mean I take every story about him literally.”
This is not Christianity in any sense. A Christian knows that Christ is real and trusts that what we hear about Christ in his word is true. We do not think that God lies, and we do not follow a “highly likely” person who is merely a human being.
McLaren adds, “Christians like very much to call Jesus the Son of God. Jesus much preferred to call himself the Son of Man (or son of humanity). There are many layers of meaning to the term. But the simplest and most obvious is this: a son of humanity is a human being.”
He sets up the Son of God and Son of Man as opposites. Either McLaren does not know, or he is deliberately leaving out, the fact that the term Son of Man from Daniel 8 is a title both of humanity and also divinity. When Jesus claims to be the Son of Man, he is not just claiming that he is human, but also that he is God.
“Jesus never tortured or killed or ruined the life of anyone, but the same cannot be said for the religion that claims to follow him,” McLaren continues.
I suspect that the money changers, the Pharisees and Pilate would dispute the claim that Jesus never ruined the life of anyone! And while it is a truism that Jesus did not torture or kill anyone, he more than anyone taught about the ultimate torture, the second death – Hell. Matthew 25:41, for example, says, “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me,you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
Christ himself and the New Testament could not be clearer. Here’s another example in Revelation 14:10, “They will be tormented with burning sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb.”
Given that McLaren just leaves out the bits of the Bible he doesn’t like, this is not a problem for him (he even manages to twist the words of Christ in order to claim that Christ is teaching against Hell), but it is a real problem for any follower of Jesus who takes him seriously.
The Bible is read through the lens of McLaren’s ideology and so, given that he does not accept that the Bible is the word of God, he feels free to ignore what he doesn’t like, or to change the text to suit his own faith.
He repeats the classic 19th century Protestant liberal dismissal of anything supernatural in the Bible. For example, he believes that Dr Luke was unaware of mental illness, chemical imbalances etc.
“So, going back to the exorcism and swine suicide story, could it be that demons were the best available explanation ancient people had for what we call mental illness today? Could demons be a metaphor for chemical imbalances, genetic disorders and trauma-induced breakdowns – conditions that ‘possess’ people and alter their behaviour?”
McLaren is confused about who God is and what the Bible says, and for a teacher, shows a remarkable ignorance of basic Christian theology – which he caricatures in order to denigrate and mock. For example, he cites the pastor who wrote to him: “But the idea of a Big White Guy on a Throne in the Sky … that stopped working for me a long time ago. It’s really why I left the pastorate. I’m just not sure if there’s any room in Christianity for somebody like me.” I
f that pastor really believed that God was a Big White Guy on a Throne in the Sky, he should never have been in the pastorate. There is no room in Christianity for teachers who are so ignorant and confused about God. You cannot proclaim what you do not know.
In McLaren’s somewhat irrational theology, he claims that there is something bigger than God – the Creator of all things.
He writes: “What could be bigger than God, you ask? Jesus called it the kingdom of God, the idea that God and creation are part of one integrated reality that unites all things in one beloved community.”
It’s not just that McLaren places the “integrated reality” above God; he also feels to need to set God free – as he entitles chapter 19! But it is ‘setting God free’ to be an amorphous nothing. The personal, loving God of the Bible is changed into the pantheistic God who is ‘all over the place’.
As he writes, “Where is God in this picture? God is all over the place. God is up there, down here, inside my skin and out. God is the web, the energy, the space, the light—not captured in them, as if any of those concepts were more real than what unites them—but revealed in that singular, vast net of relationship that animates everything that is.”
He continues, “When Mohammed testified in 613 that he had received a revelation from the God of Adam, Abraham, Mary and Jesus … the same God worshipped by Christians, Christians could have welcomed him as a brother, or at least entered into respectful dialogue.”
Again, McLaren either doesn’t know, or deliberately misrepresents, the Christian teaching about God. It is of the essence of Christianity that God is the Trinity – and that the second person of the Trinity, Jesus, is God. Muslims regard this as blasphemous. It is condescending, Western, imperialistic paternalism to tell both Muslims and Christians that they are both wrong and that in reality they do worship the same God.
McLaren, like any doctrinaire progressive, lays out his doctrines with the absolute conviction that he alone has the truth, while simultaneously claiming that those who think that they have the truth should be avoided.
He talks of uncertainty, but his book is shot through with certainty. Climate change, patriarchy, critical race theory are his new fundamental doctrines and everything is seen through the eyes of US politics.
Those who follow the Bible’s teaching about marriage and sexuality are apparently part of the patriarchy who need to be resisted in the name of the Christ who taught them. He assures us that science has shown the Bible’s teaching on sex and sexuality to be wrong.
Along with the arrogance and the hubris, there is an astonishing lack of self-awareness, which is why he is able to write critically about a confirmation bias which rejects “anything that doesn’t fit in with our current understanding, paradigm, belief system or world view” – while at the same time rejecting anything that doesn’t fit in with his current understanding, paradigm, belief system or world view!
It appears as though McLaren has moved from one form of apocalyptic fundamentalism to another, even more hopeless one.
“Having grown up in an apocalyptic religion – obsessed with the rapture, the end times and heaven, and singing ‘I’ll Fly Away’ – I suddenly find myself in an apocalyptic world from which I cannot fly away!” he says.
Perhaps the whole book is best summed up by McLaren’s admission that he doesn’t really care if people follow Christ or not: “As I was completing Part Two of this book, I realised that I really don’t care if you stay Christian.”
That is not surprising given that in this, or indeed in his previous books, he is unable to acknowledge Christ, or identify what a Christian is. What is surprising is how such a banal, blasphemous and boastful book is promoted in some Christian outlets, even some which profess to be evangelical.
For example, I heard one evangelical begin his interview by stating:
“He (McLaren) is a thinker that many have found a lifesaver as he has given voice to their questions about the Christian faith as it has been traditionally understood.”
Instead of challenging McLaren, the interviewer commends McLaren and does not oppose his contention that we need to re-write and re-read the Bible. He even asked McLaren for advice for people who find themselves in more ‘conservative’ congregations (this is progressive speak for people who actually believe the Bible, and is not a reference to either politics or tradition), before then going on to “trust that the book will be a help to many”.
The justification for this promotion of McLaren’s heresies is the same as for other ‘Christian’ teachers who reject the teaching of Christ: ‘Well, I don’t personally agree, but we have disagreements in the family, and we must learn to respect and affirm one another.’
Jesus didn’t agree. He spent far more time warning about false religious teachers, and shepherds who were really wolves, than he does warning about atheists (e.g. Matthew 7:15). If McLaren does not worship the same Jesus, or have the same Father, in what sense does he belong to the family?
Ironically the interview concluded with Jude 1:3, “Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.”
There was little contending. McLaren left Christianity a long time ago. To continue to promote him as a Christian is like opening the gate to the wolf, and in the name of love telling him to help himself to the sheep. If we love the Lord, if we love people, if we love Brian, then we will resist his teaching and instead boldly and lovingly proclaim the real good news of Jesus, as opposed to the false gospel of Brian McLaren.