Can Brian McLaren answer three simple questions? Apparently not.

In an interesting video interview, Scot McKnight tries to pin Brian McLaren down and get him to just say what he believes about several key issues. As McKnight points out, a frustrating theological ambiguity pervades most of McLaren’s writing: “Some of us detect a provocative ambiguity while others wonder if there is not deliberate refusal to clarify your views.” So, he tries to get McLaren to offer clear responses to the following three questions (the questions are a bit longer, but I pared them down to their main point):

  1. Why not just come out and tell people what you believe?
  2. Are you really orthodox?
  3. Are you a universalist?

McLaren’s answer to the first question was his best answer. He thinks people find the ambiguity frustrating because they are heresy hunters and just want to see if he agrees with their checklist of theological truths. This is unfortunately true much of the time. And, he points out that ambiguity and misdirection can be powerful literary devices, and can cause people to think more deeply about issues than a straightforward presentation would. Of course, this doesn’t explain why he can’t seem to be clear no matter what he’s writing, but it was a good point nonetheless.

His second answer was frustratingly evasive. He affirms the “faith” of the early church (e.g. their attitude of dependence, humility, worship), but rejects “the Greco-Roman narrative,” which he thinks repeatedly (though not necessarily) leads to oppression and violence. He sees himself as exploring ways of articulating Christianity in new cultural contexts by exploring alternative theological narratives in the tradition of Patrick, Francis of Assisi, the Anabaptists, the social Gospel movement, and the liberation/feminist theologians. But, he offers absolutely no  help in understanding the content of these other narratives and how they relate to the content of the Greco-Roman narrative. Presumably he wouldn’t continue to use Chalcedonian language to describe the incarnation. Fine. What language would he use? And how does the conceptual framework inherent in that language relate to the conceptual framework operating at Chalcedon? He still doesn’t say.

His answer to the third question was just annoying. He basically rejects the question. He affirms that there is an afterlife, but he argues that the question presumes an us/them and in/out mentality that he rejects. And, he contends that the Bible is far more concerned about God’s will being done on earth than on whether people go to hell. And, I’d actually agree with him on both of these points. But, none of that means that the question doesn’t make sense (which he claims). If we are alive now and if we will be alive in the future (whatever this future life looks like), then it is perfectly legitimate to ask about the nature of that existence. And, even though people going to Hell is not a dominant theme in the Bible, it is a theme. McLaren basically just uses some shifty language to dodge the question…again.

So, despite McKnight’s attempts to pin him down, McLaren continues to dodge important questions. I agree with him completely that people should not focus on these theological issues to the neglect of the important social problems that he mentions. But, this should not be an either/or. You can engage a broken world with mercy and compassion, while still speaking clearly about what you believe. At least I think I can. Apparently McLaren can’t.

Here’s the whole interview.


About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on August 15, 2010, in Misc and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Jesus told his disciples and Paul told his readers(and I paraphrase) ‘maybe you’re not ready to handle the bigger truths because you have not mastered the foundational truths.’ Do you build the roof on the hosue before you’ve laid the foundation?

    • I’m not entirely sure where you’re going with this. Are you saying that McLaren is trying to deal with more foundational issues and that’s why he doesn’t want to speak clearly about other things?

      • Since Dennis has not responded, if I may be so bold as to take a stab at what I think he meant, I’d say this: McLaren said in response to the first question, that he didn’t want people to dismiss what he had to say by first determining if he was theologically pure from their perspective. In other words, it’s difficult to present your position or make your case if the people you’re directing it to are predisposed toward a bias against you. If you start with the most controversial points, the ears often close to hearing anything further. That said, I really do understand Marc’s frustration in the ambiguity of McLaren’s reply to the last question. But, but, I think I understand why it’s there, and I alluded to it in my defense of the comments by Dennis. If you believe the most important thing you have to say concerns “X”, and people keep harping on what you believe about “Y”, and you know your beliefs about “Y” are likely to create dissension, and therefore a bias about everything else you have to say, it is sometimes best to refrain on pontificating on “Y” until you can first get your point across about “X”.

      • I think that’s a fair point, but that kind of approach can also backfire on you pretty badly if you’re not careful. Ambiguous responses just make people press that much harder to find out what you really mean, and they can end up focusing on that even more.

  2. Where do I start?
    I find several statements McLaren makes within this interview to be very disingenuous. I’ll only deal with two. First, when asked about whether or not his writing has a “provocative ambiguity” in which he intentionally keeps people guessing, he answers in two ways: 1) The guessing keeps people thinking. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Christians need to re-think their theology from time to time. This thinking should bring about clarity. Clear, however, is the one thing McLaren never is. He wants to deconstruct the narrative people live within, but doesn’t want to replace it with a more clear biblical framework. 2) He says that knowing what a writer believes is not as important as asking yourself what a writer has to say to you. This is postmodernism at it’s best! The reader interprets the meaning in this view, which also seems to be how he approaches the Bible. This is two-faced because McLaren certainly has an agenda he wants to get across (although he himself admits he can’t really explain what this agenda is.)

    Secondly, I disagree that the Greco-Roman paradigm (Us. Vs. Them) that he insists is so evil, is all bad. His definition makes it sound awful, and surely it has been used this way in history. When the gospel of Jesus (a phrase McLaren never uses in this interview, so I’m assuming this is what he means when he speaks of the hijacking of Christianity by the Greco-Roman narrative), is used to commit atrocities like the Crusades, surely the church should agree this is not what Jesus intended. But then to make a blanket statement that we are to have no type of mentality that distinguishes between those that love and follow Jesus and those who don’t is ludicrous. It’s like saying you want hospitals to quit distinguishing between the sick and the healthy and just treat everyone the same. “Who cares if they guy doesn’t need a heart transplant, give him one anyway!!” In some instances, it is a great thing for everyone that distinctions are made. It is good for Christians to distinguish between the saved and unsaved, not so they may act superior, but so that they may take the gospel message to those who need it.

    Thus, if by Greco-Roman narrative, McLaren means using the gospel to act superior to everyone else, then I agree that paradigm needs to change. However, if by Greco-Roman narrative, he means that we need to quit making distinctions between those who are saved and those are not, then McLaren is simply being un-biblical. This fits with his inclusivistic paradigm, that is not found within the pages of the Bible.

    “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” – John 3:36

    “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separated the sheep fro the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on his left.” – Matthew 25:31-33

    • Wow, somebody’s vexed. But, I think you’re right on the first point. Although ambiguity can be used as an effective teaching device, you can’t stop there. Ambiguity is a means, not an end. In many ways, I see McLaren as wanting to be the guy who always gets to ask the questions, but never has to do the hard work of offering any answers. Even with that, though, he doesn’t seem to realize that the very questions that he asks presuppose some answers (even if he’s not willing to articulate them).

      On the second point, I’d definitely agree that the Greco-Roman narrative isn’t necessarily destructive. He even concedes as much, though I’m not sure how sincere that was. He does raise a legitimate point when he asks if this is the only narrative from which we can construct our theology. The us/them has often been used to exclude people who don’t theologize from the same perspective. My criticism here, though, is that he doesn’t do enough to talk about where there should be agreement as well as difference if we’re all theologizing about the same ultimate truths.

      And yes, if the Bible talks about eternal destiny, so must we.

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Can Brian McLaren answer three simple questions? Apparently not. « scientia et sapientia --

  2. Pingback: Week in Review: 08.20.10 | Near Emmaus

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: