Wednesday, September 21, 2016
Why A New Book on Emerging Church Leader Brian McLaren?
My new book, Brian McLaren in Focus: A New Kind of Apologetics (Abilene Christian University Press, 2016), was released a few weeks ago. I imagine some people might be asking, "Why a new book about Emerging Church leader Brian McLaren?" After all, Evangelicalism stopped talking about the Emerging Church Movement (ECM) around 2010 and several evangelical gatekeepers unofficially ostracized McLaren from the evangelical fold around the same time (For a particularly strident discussion of McLaren, see this Southern Baptist Theological Seminary roundtable discussion of A New Kind of Christianity.). Some of you might even be wondering if McLaren is still engaged in ministry. These are good questions. In this blog, I will answer these questions and offer three reasons why, as an evangelical, I believe now is the perfect time for a sustained assessment of McLaren's project and impact.
First, Brian McLaren in Focus is the first comprehensive assessment of McLaren's systematic theology and apologetics. It is true that the ECM is past its prime. In fact, the term is no longer used very much. But the movement, while more diffused and lacking the public attention it once received, lives on as part of a broader movement known as emergence Christianity. Events such as the Wild Goose Festival (America's version of Greenbelt) and the Progressive Youth Ministry Conference, as well as a new organization called Convergence are all fruit of ECM seeds planted during the past decade. So the movement lives on, but the height of its evangelical popularity is firmly in the rearview mirror. This distance provides the appropriate perspective for academicians to engage in a proper historical assessment.
Of course, Brian McLaren in Focus is hardly the first academic treatment of the ECM. Several ECM-focused books have been published, including two especially helpful recent monographs: James Bielo, Emerging Evangelicals (New York University Press, 2011) and Gerardo Marti and Gladys Ganiel, The Deconstructed Church (Oxford University Press, 2014). That said, Brian McLaren in Focus is the first book to interact with the full range of McLaren's theological and apologetic body of work, from his unpublished master's thesis as an English major at the University of Maryland to his latest offering, The Great Spiritual Migration (Convergent, 2016), which was released this week. It also includes fresh material culled from face-to-face interviews, a decade of personal email correspondence between the author and subject, and a foreword by Brian McLaren himself.
Second, Brian McLaren in Focus is the first sustained Arminian engagement with McLaren's project. Most of the critical engagement with McLaren through the years has come from Calvinist leaders, dating back to D.A. Carson's Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Zondervan, 2004). Brian McLaren in Focus, on the other hand, provides the first comprehensive critical assessment of McLaren's work from an Arminian perspective. This is especially poignant since McLaren's new kind of Christianity project is largely a reaction to the metanarrative of five-point Calvinism, a theological perspective that has shaped much of American Evangelicalism, including McLaren's own thinking during the early years of his ministry.
While this book spotlights McLaren's apologetic project, beneath the surface there is an ongoing conversation between Calvinism, Arminianism, modern liberalism, and other contemporary theological currents. Chris Bounds, scholar-in-residence and professor of Wesleyan Studies at Asbury University, believes Brian McLaren in Focus offers "one of the most nuanced articulations of orthodox Arminianism I have read..." One chapter of the book is dedicated to McLaren and Arminian affinity, while another chapter focuses on McLaren and Arminian dissonance. Along the way, this project suggests ways in which orthodox Arminian theology could have provided satisfying answers to many of the questions that McLaren raised in his legitimate concern with aspects of the Calvinistic narrative.
Third, Brian McLaren in Focus is not only a critical engagement; it also considers what evangelicals can learn from McLaren. During the early years of McLaren's popularity, several Calvinist critics were eagerly engaging each new McLaren book before the ink could dry. But since the publishing of A New Kind of Christianity in 2010, McLaren's books have received little attention among conservative Christians, which is remarkable since just five years prior he was selected by Time magazine as one of the most influential voices in the evangelical world. So, for conservative evangelical gatekeepers, the war on the ECM, in general, and Brian McLaren, in particular, is over and has been for some time. The only reason for a conservative evangelical to mention McLaren in the wake of this "victory" would seem to be for the purpose of recounting a cautionary tale. But is McLaren's contribution to Evangelicalism nothing more than to serve as a bad example? I don't think so. In fact, this book argues that one of McLaren's primary strengths is where Evangelicalism is currently at its weakest. To find out this point of intersection, however, you will need to stay tuned to future posts in which I will discuss seven lessons that evangelicals can learn from the example of Brian McLaren.