Many love Brian McLaren and his books. It comes across as a breath of fresh air to them. Most probably are simply aware of his name and that he is popular but beyond that don’t really know what he has to say. Some are wondering if he is a Christian though few would dare to answer that negatively. It just wouldn’t be good P.R. After all, he is promoted by Willow Creek Community Church, Saddleback Community Church, Christianity Today, Rob Bell and many other big names. I suppose in order to answer the question we would have to know what one’s definition of Christian is. If the definition is someone who was born in the United States, attended an Evangelical or Fundamentalist church and then went on to pastor an Evangelical church the answer would be yes. If the definition is someone who wants to call all people to social action, eliminate poverty, eliminate sickness, redistribute the wealth, and create a Utopia on earth in the name of God, then yes he is a Christian. If the definition is someone who has accepted the atoning sacrifice and physical resurrection of Christ it becomes more questionable. As Brett Kunkle points out in Essential Concerns Regarding the Emerging Church McLaren doesn’t know why Jesus died on the cross and floats out the option of that being an act of “divine child abuse.” McLaren writes:
“…a couple of weeks ago I realized that I don’t know why Jesus had to die.”
Quite a number of biblical teachings suffer at the interpretive tool McLaren calls his “framing story.” His “framing story” is essentially his worldview and his worldview has been shaped by many who in years past and even present would not be invited in to teach in the very Evangelical churches and institutions who have embraced McLaren. As I have read McLaren’s books I had the eerie feeling that I have read this stuff before. His latest book, Everything Must Change confirms my suspicions. The books is a rehash and attempted repackaging of liberal theologian and Jesus Seminar member John Dominic Crossan about whom we wrote our article The Hysterical Search for the Historical Jesus. McLaren also aligns with and draws from the grandfather of the Social Gospel, Walter Rauschenbusch, Socialist and Black Liberation Theologian Cornell West, Karl Marx and a number of others.
The societal sins (with the exception of ecology) as determined by McLaren, follow very closely along the lines of Rauschenbusch and his Social Gospel.
As one reads McLaren’s book Everything Must Change we can begin to understand why his view of the atonement is so low or non-existent. The historical accounts of Genesis are rewritten from rebellion against God to something else. For Eve (and Gwen Shamblin would like this) the problem was overeating:
It’s interesting to note the importance of consumption in the biblical narrative. When the crisis of human evil is introduced in a passage beginning in Genesis 1:29 and ending in 2:20, forms of the words “eat” and “food” are used about twenty times. Consumption is closely linked with human evil. Adam and Eve live in harmony with creation in a garden, surrounded by food-bearing trees. But to be a human is to live within creaturely limits in God’s creation – reflected in self-restraint in regard to eating the fruit of “the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:17). If they break the limits represented by the fruit hanging on that tree, they will taste death (or as we said earlier, the will decompose).
Eve exceeds the limit, drawn to consume a fruit that “was good for food and was pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom” (3:6). Adam joins her. As a result, an avalanche of alienation crashes into the human story – alienation from God, alienation from one another, alienation from oneself, and alienation from creation.(p. 209-210)
We always thought the problem in the account of Cain and Abel was that Abel offered the sacrifice which God required and was accepted while Cain’s sacrifice was rejected because it wasn’t the one which God required. We were wrong for as McLaren continues we find that for Adam and Eve’s offspring the problem was class envy and empire building:
In the following chapters, brother is alienated from brother and a form of class violence enters the story, as the class of pastoralists (symbolized by Abel) are exterminated by the class of agriculturalists (symbolized by Cain). Soon new forms of institutionalized violence arise in great cities, so horrible that they are swept away by a flood of judgment. Eventually empires emerge, reflecting the imperial dream of unifying people under one dominating language and culture in Babel. Genesis provides a genealogy for all the pain and evil in the whole social structure of humans on planet Earth; it all can be traced back to a problem of consumption beyond limits.(p. 210)
Salvation isn’t something which happens individually as we personally are offered “shalom” or “peace” with God through Christ’s death, burial and resurrection:
With no apologies to Martin Luther, John Calvin, or modern evangelicalism, Jesus (in Luke 16:19) does not prescribe hell to hose who refuse to accept the message of justification by grace through faith, or to those who are predestined for perdition, or to those who don’t express faith in a favored atonement theory by accepting Jesus as their “personal Savior.” Rather, hell – literal or figurative – is for the rich and comfortable who proceed on their way without concern for their poor neighbor day after day. (p 208)
What does “born-again” mean?:
If we resituate ourselves in this new story, if we find identity, meaning, and purpose in this good news, we find ourselves beginning again, born again, facing a new start. As recomposed, resituated, de-deranged people, we can begin rebuilding our societal system, not as a suicide machine, but as a beloved community, the kind of garden city envisioned in John’s Apocalypse (Revelation 21:1-4).
This all very much reflects the views of Walter Rauschenbusch. The Wikipedia entry points out:
Concerning the social depth and breadth of Christ’s atoning work, Rauschenbusch writes: “Jesus did not in any real sense bear the sin of some ancient Briton who beat up his wife in B. C. 56, or of some mountaineer in Tennessee who got drunk in A. D. 1917. But he did in a very real sense bear the weight of the public sins of organized society, and they in turn are causally connected with all private sins.”
Is Brian McLaren a Christian? I cannot know his heart or standing before God but like Rauschenbush, Crossan, Marx, Cornell West, there does not appear to be anything in his beliefs or teachings which resemble the gospel which Paul preached and by which he tells the Corinthians they are saved (1 Corinthians 15: 1-4) or the “faith delivered once for all to the saints.”(Jude 3) Perhaps now that he has abandoned anything resembling biblical orthodoxy he can move on to embrace mysticism.