Scot McKnight has a very thoughtful analysis of the Emerging Church in Christianity Today, that focuses on the work of Brian McClaren:
Despite what some critics assume, Brian McLaren, the most controversial of emergent leaders, does not represent all things emerging. But he does represent the more progressive wing, and his latest books offer a glimpse of where that movement might be heading.
To understand McLaren, one must appreciate two things. First, his books are “works in progress.” He’s working things out in front of us all, and he isn’t offering final words on anything. Second, he’s exploring how the gospel, seen as the kingdom vision of Jesus, impacts both global crises and Christian discipleship. So although I continue to have questions for McLaren (see below), I believe he can be a rich source for Christian imagination, vision, and reflection.
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McLaren’s vision is, simply, to return to Jesus and to rework and revitalize Jesus’ kingdom vision. In The Secret Message of Jesus, McLaren explores a variety of phrases, including “empire of God,” “dream of God,” “revolution of God,” “mission of God,” “party of God,” the “network of God,” and the “dance of God.” McLaren self-consciously brackets the “conventional” gospel message he grew up with among the Plymouth Brethren and reads Jesus, to cop the words of Marcus Borg, “again for the first time.” What McLaren discovered was Jesus’ thoroughly social vision, and he believes that most people—especially the conservative evangelical group in which he was nurtured—buried the kingdom vision of Jesus and distorted the gospel. “What if,” he asks in what must be seen as a window to everything he is doing, “the religion generally associated with Jesus neither expects nor trains its adherents to actually live in the way of Jesus?”
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I wish more believers would follow McLaren’s cue and think about the implications of the Bible for global and systemic issues; that Christians would return to the Bible and ask, “What, then, is the gospel?” as well as its necessary follow-up, “How do we live out the gospel today?” For far too many, the gospel preached is not leading to any serious engagement with the global crises of our time.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t have questions about McLaren’s theology.
Clarity Despite his many proposals in these last two books, McLaren would rather ask a question and create a conversation than propound a solution. This style is an attribute of a good teacher. Yet having said that, I want to voice the frustration of many: McLaren’s willingness to muddy the waters, which is characteristic of Generous Orthodoxy, goes only so far. Many of us would like to see greater clarity on a variety of questions he raises.
McLaren grew up among evangelicals; we’d like him to show the generosity he is known for to those who ask theological questions of him. The spirit of conversation that drives much of his own pastoral work urges each of us to answer the questions we are asked, and the Bible encourages those who ask those questions to listen patiently and to respond graciously. The lack of the latter has so far inhibited the former. This can be taken as a plea on behalf of all concerned to enter into a more robust, honest conversation.
The Cross What role does the Cross play in the emergent kingdom vision? One way to get to this is to see how McLaren concludes chapter 10 of Everything Must Change: “How ironic that the cross—the icon of the dominating Roman framing story—became the icon for the liberating framing story of Jesus. And how much more ironic if we who believe in Jesus don’t get the irony.”
It is right here that I want to dig in. In brief, what McLaren has written about the Cross in these books approaches French intellectual René Girard’s theory—namely, that by the Cross God identified with the victim and both unmasked and undid evil, systemic violence, and injustice. In Secret Message, McLaren says that at the Cross, “God exposed and judged the evil of empire and religion” and that the King “achieves peace not by shedding the blood of rebels but by … shedding his own blood … [The] crucifixion of Christ can in this light be seen as a radical repudiation of the use of violent force.”
Well, yes, I say to myself—after having written two books dealing with the Atonement. Yes, I believe this unmasking role of the Cross is not only true, but also vital to a political reworking and revitalizing of the Cross. Given the sociopolitical focus of these two books, perhaps McLaren didn’t think any more needed to be said.
But I feel obliged to ask, “Can we have more?” Emergents believe that penal substitution theories have not led (as they should have) to a kingdom vision. What I have been pondering and writing about for a decade now is how to construct an “emerging” gospel that remains faithful to the fullness of the biblical texts about the Atonement, and lands squarely on the word kingdom. Girard said something important about the Cross; so does McLaren. But they aren’t enough.
This is an essay well worth reading. You can find it here.