Friday, May 18, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: The Greatest Threat

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Immanuel Can: Wow. Brian McLaren. I’m not the biggest fan of his work, to be sure. I read his book A New Kind of Christian, and thought it touched on quite a few important issues, but made the most unfortunate hash of them imaginable. But for charity’s sake, let’s assume that’s the ancient past, so full steam ahead.

“The greatest threat to Christianity is ... misguided Christians, just as the greatest threat to Islam is misguided Muslims and the greatest threat to Judaism is misguided Jews. Religious insiders can do harm to their religion in ways that outsiders never could. This is especially true in a pluralistic world, where religions are credible to the degree they bring benefits to outsiders.”
— Brian McLaren

What does he mean?

Tom: Hmmm … I don’t know.

IC: I’m particularly puzzled by his follow-up remark: “Religious insiders can do harm to their religion in ways that outsiders never could. This is especially true in a pluralistic world, where religions are credible to the degree they bring benefits to outsiders.” How does us being in a pluralistic world contribute to the harm he perceives, and why is he so concerned about credibility based on the degree of benefit churches bring to outsiders?

Honestly, I don’t really get what he’s after there. Do you, Tom?

Protecting Our Reputation

Tom: Well, to me it sounds similar to something Matthew Vines said in his book, which is that if we would all just grant LGBT Christians “equality”, then “Christianity’s reputation in much of the Western world can begin to rebound.” It’s the same sort of concern. I think he’s saying that he’d like us to appear more reasonable by the standards of modern society. It’s like ... oh, I don’t know ... like they played a pipe for us, and we didn’t dance to their tune.

IC: Yes, I suppose that’s it. I guess he means “threatens the reputation of Christians with unbelievers”. And there might be something to that worry if (and it’s a big if) the things the world is expecting are Christian values. I mean things like truth, compassion, sincerity, faithfulness, etc. But if what the world expects is for us to become as unapologetically vile as it sometimes is, then I would suggest Mr. McLaren’s worry is wholly off base. After all, Christians ought to expect not to be well received by the world.

Tom: Agreed. His remark about the church being credible to the extent it benefits outsiders ... I’m not sure how to process that one really. Credible with God? I think we might be granting him too much credit if we assume that’s what he means.

There is a sense in which the good works of believers draw attention to the genuineness of our faith: “Pure and undefiled religion is to visit orphans and widows,” and so on. But it seems to me that the mission of the church is not really primarily to relieve suffering in this world. Yes, when we encounter it, we ought to deal with it. But the whole point of being a testimony to outsiders is that they not remain outsiders. Or at very least, that they come to glorify God as a result. To eradicate poverty, if we could do it, and then leave a world full of financially enriched unbelievers on their way to hell seems a bit pointless.

IC: Okay, so we’ve got some principled reservations about his worry over our reputation with the world. Fair enough. But now, is there any sense in which we might think McLaren could be right?

Christians and ... Muslims?

Tom: Well, I’m still stuck on what I think is a fairly odious comparison: “The greatest threat to Christianity is ... misguided Christians, just as the greatest threat to Islam is misguided Muslims”?

I’m not sure what he’s comparing here, assuming it’s still credibility with the world that’s his concern. I mean, what does “misguided” mean to him? I assume by “misguided Muslims” he means the ones who live consistently with the Koran and are currently wreaking indiscriminate havoc across the planet. They’re certainly “misguided”, if by that we mean “out of the will of the true God”. But they’re not, in my view, “misguided” at all, if by it we mean that they misread their literature or misunderstand their prophet. They are interpreting the teachings of their religion literally. It’s the peaceful Muslims who are actually inconsistent with their own faith.

So what exactly is he saying about us? I’m a bit lost.

IC: I confess, so am I. In what way is any Muslim situation really parallel with the Christian one? Islam commands its faithful to kill infidels without mercy. Christianity says, “Love your enemies”. So a “good” Muslim kills enemies, and a “good” Christian loves them. How is that parallel? What is it that McLaren sees that makes him accuse Christians of behaving like Muslims? Is the man insane, or is he trying to say something here? I’d like to hear him, but for the life of me I can’t figure out his point.

That is, unless he’s trying to say that both groups have bad PR with unbelievers right now. That could be true, but for very different reasons, and with very different implications.

Christians and Jews

Tom: McLaren is reacting to a piece by a fellow named Michael Lerner, who calls himself a Rabbi. His teaching seems to consist of calling on Jews in Israel to repent for fighting back when Palestinians send rockets their way. Lerner doesn’t talk about Muslims or Christians, but McLaren seems to have decided to apply what Lerner says willy-nilly. I’m not sure I even agree with most of what Lerner says. He’s all about having compassion at all costs and he’s overwhelmed by the media accounts (naturally sympathetic to Hamas and the Palestinian cause) from the last few months. What he would like Israel to do instead of what they’re doing is quite mysterious to me, even after reading the article.

In any case, he’s muddling the political affairs of Israel with the religion of Judaism, and neither comes out well.

IC: Ah. So we must assume he has some political view of Christianity in mind, is that right? But if so, I still don’t get the parallel. How is the State of Israel comparable to Christianity? Does he say anywhere what he might actually have in mind? It’s very hard to “repent” when no one has any idea what he’s speaking about.

Tom: No kidding. It sounds like both the rabbi and Mr. McLaren may belong to that professional sackcloth-wearing, ash-toting gang that have no answer to any of the world’s ills but can’t wait to line up to condemn those who have the responsibility assigned to them to take a shot at solving the problem — or at least attempting to reduce the casualties.

But forget the politics. I’m not sure politics belongs in a discussion of what the church ought to be about and how it ought to conduct itself.

The Gates of Hell Will Not Prevail

IC: Yeah, McLaren is definitely a lover of the dramatic overstatement. I do think it’s impossible to genuinely “threaten” the Church if Christ is building it, as he said. But he’s trying to capture something; I’m just not sure what it is, other than that he wants us to work more on public relations.

Tom: If your concept of Christianity is this thing that Christians do, and build, and perpetuate by force of numbers, strategy or human effort, I suppose it is possible to threaten it. But if you have, as you say, a biblical concept of the church as something that Christ is building and that cannot be stopped, the idea of a “greatest threat” seems kind of silly.

Perhaps McLaren is thinking of things like Terry Jones in Gainesville, Florida, who thought it was a good idea to burn 200 Korans. He got his few moments of fame, hundreds of death threats and a reported $2.2 million fatwa calling for his death. But these are not “threats” to Christianity, not in any real sense.

Moreover, how does the Church manage a Terry Jones, assuming we want anything to do with him?

IC: No, you can’t really control a Terry Jones. Nor, it seems, does protesting that you’re “not that kind of Christian” impress anyone. They never believe that. The world is always looking for a cheap excuse to condemn us, and seizes gladly on one wherever they find it. That’s why Christians get blamed for everything from the Crusades to the Holocaust, even though there’s nothing Christian in either one. PR is hard to do when your audience already thinks with such spiteful prejudice. But I think what we can do is make sure that the charges against us are the right ones, such as believing in truth, living in ways that the world finds condemning, standing for the gospel, being merciful to people the world thinks are “trash” and preaching Christ.

If we’re going to have bad PR, let’s just make sure it’s the right kind of bad.


  1. I do not think very well of the general trajectory of B. McLaren over the past two decades. In other words, if he's leading I am not following and neither do I encourage others to eat his food.

    But on this specific topic, as it relates to the integrity of believers with Christ, I think he is stating something which others before have said in greater detail. I am willing to side with those who opine: "Perhaps the NA church is so effete in it's witness and evangelism for the fundamental reason that it is so different from Christ". The great disparity of the evangelical world in the west and the radical lives of the early followers of Christ is quite remarkable. And I do not want to paint everyone with the same brush. It's not "we're all out to lunch". But it's easy for unbelievers to see the worldliness, silliness and ignorance of great swaths of those who profess to be "Born Again". I confess, that I am embarrassed my own failures in this area, but I cringe when I read and hear about the issues which many Christians are holding to.

  2. Yes, as I said above, I felt that some of the issues he touched on --the critiques of modern Christianity he raised -- were quite legitimate. Yet his proposed solutions were comparatively mad.

    I think he believes the solution to the problems of being modern Christians is to become Postmodern ones. But the problem with modern Christians was that they were too much products of a fallen society; and the problem with PoMo Christians is precisely the same: they're just taking their lead from society, reinterpreting Christian life in terms of critiques raised by various secular "social justice" groups or from secular critiques of modernity.

    So I'll agree that we should give McLaren credit for raising some good criticisms, but I really, really would not advise that we, as you put it, "eat his food."

    Well said indeed.