Sunday, September 25, 2016

Evangelicals and Hannibal Lecter (Part 1 of 8—Seven Lessons Evangelicals Can Learn from Brian McLaren)

While researching and writing my new book, Brian McLaren in Focus: A New Kind of Apologetics (Abilene Christian University Press, 2016), I was particularly struck by one thing: how effectively conservative gatekeepers have ostracized Brian McLaren from the evangelical fold.

A quick history lesson. Think back to 2005. Brian McLaren was selected by Time magazine as one of the most influential evangelicals in America. During the previous five years, he had become one of the leading voices in the younger evangelical movement, in large part due to the success of two books—A New Kind of Christian (which won a Christianity Today award) and A Generous Orthodoxy. In fact, Robert Webber called McLaren "the guru of younger evangelicals."

By 2010, however, the self-appointed conservative gatekeepers had successfully expelled McLaren from the fold for heterodoxy and no self-respecting evangelical college, university, publisher, or media outlet dare favorably interact with McLaren without fear of reprisal. The evangelical blacklisting of McLaren has been remarkably thorough. Today, Evangelicalism is a McLaren-free zone. McLarenphobia is rampant throughout the evangelical kingdom. In fact, evangelicals are seemingly unaware of McLaren's current ministry or extensive ongoing publishing record, including his most recent book, The Great Spiritual Migration, which was released earlier this week.

As a professor of philosophical theology at Indiana Wesleyan University, nearly all of my 18-to-22-year-old evangelical students have never heard of Brian McLaren until I introduce them to his thinking and writing. This is a remarkable shift in a relatively short period of time and further evidence of how far and wide McLarenphobia has spread. Why have these evangelical young people never heard of McLaren, someone who was once wildly popular among younger evangelicals? Very simply, because evangelical pastors don't talk about him. And they don't talk about him because the evangelical publishing industry is afraid to acknowledge McLaren, apart from citing him as a bad example.

Not only are evangelical bookstores afraid to stock McLaren's books, they are even afraid to carry books about McLaren. When Abilene Christian University Press began marketing Brian McLaren in Focus, two major Christian booksellers (Lifeway and Family Christian Stores) refused to stock the book. When my publisher explained that the book was a critically appreciative engagement with McLaren's theology and apologetics rather than a blind hagiography both stores still refused to carry the book simply because McLaren's name and face were on the cover. The fear of a customer misunderstanding the purpose of the book was greater than the commitment to promoting careful critical thinking about a legitimate topic.

Additionally, when I was at the Wild Goose Festival this past July, I spoke to a marketing executive from a major evangelical publisher who told me he was happy to see the book I had just written because he believes McLaren deserves a careful, balanced assessment. He then went on to confirm the reality of McLarenphobia at his publishing house when he said they were prohibited from using endorsements from McLaren on the back cover of their books for fear of reprisal.

Now, don't get me wrong. McLaren's theological proposals grew increasingly provocative from 2001 to 2010 and deserve careful scrutiny, something I provide in Brian McLaren in Focus. Yet, I wonder if evangelicals lost more than they gained by blackballing McLaren from their ranks. In fact, I am convinced that evangelicals, many of whom are entrenched in a can't-win culture war, could learn a great deal from McLaren even if they continue to reject many of his doctrinal revisions.

When writing the final chapter of my book, I decided to ask several Christian leaders what they thought McLaren could offer Evangelicalism a decade following his Time selection as one of America's most influential evangelicals. I posed this query to John Piper, John MacArthur, Al Mohler, D.A. Carson, Mark Driscoll, and Kevin DeYoung since each had critically engaged McLaren during the past decade. In fact, their collective strident engagement contributed greatly to the unofficial expulsion of McLaren from the evangelical fold.  (For an especially vociferous example, see this 2010 faculty roundtable discussion at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in which McLaren was called the craftiest of the serpents of the field, the son of Satan, a wolf in sheep's clothing, a wolf without sheep's clothing, and a self-serving author who manufactures problems that he is uniquely positioned to solve as a paid consultant.)

Unfortunately, none of the above evangelical leaders chose to respond to my question. It is always risky to build an argument from silence, so I cannot say with certainty why they declined to comment. Perhaps it is because they believe McLaren has nothing to offer Evangelicalism beyond a cautionary tale. Perhaps they believe McLaren is no longer worthy of discussion. Perhaps they were simply too busy.

While the above conservative gatekeepers (none of whom actually know McLaren personally) refused to speak with me, several other Christian leaders who do know McLaren gladly answered my question about McLaren's legacy. Here is a sampling of their comments:

•  Tony Campolo, a founder of the Red Letter Movement, wrote, "Brian's emphasis on a holistic, inclusive gospel is an important ongoing message for Evangelicalism."

Tim Conder, founding pastor of Emmaus Way and Emergent Village, said, "The tone of kindness and curiosity that Brian has always nurtured in his preaching, teaching, writing, and spiritual guidance stands as a powerful example to the conservative Christian community."

Frank Schaeffer, author of Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God, wrote, "Brian offers evangelicals a great gift that they ignore to their own loss, namely, a viable vibrant faith based on how one lives and who one is rather than on a checklist of theological teachings."

John Franke, co-author with Stanley Grenz of Beyond Foundationalism, offered, "One of the lessons evangelicals could and should learn from Brian is the value of a generous and charitable spirit. Brian has won a lot of supporters because of his demeanor. Evangelicals lose support because of their lack of graciousness and generosity. Even Hannibal Lecter despised rudeness!"

In other words, can't evangelicals at least be as civil as Hannibal Lecter? I believe Brian McLaren's example can move us in that direction. In the coming weeks, we will consider seven lessons that McLaren can offer the evangelical movement.

On Tuesday, we will start with the lesson of maintaining relational fidelity in our quest for doctrinal purity. Stay tuned.


  1. I am working through "The Great Spiritual Migration" right now and find it very engaging. I believe Brian McLaren is one of the great question-askers that we need. Looking forward to future posts.

  2. Glad you are enjoying McLaren's new book. I hope to offer a review on this site in the coming weeks!

  3. The "gatekeepers" of "Christian" publishing are today's Pharisees who will promote whoever sells--ie: Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, Benny Hinn, etc. But below the surface, the true gatekeepers are not the publishers but the book buyers who hold the most power. Thank God for the Internet that makes "gatekeepers" of the past less and less powerful