I had no problems finding the Daily Grind coffeehouse in Fulton. It’s right across the street from a church where Drea and I have some friends and where we visit occasionally. I showed up around 8:10 to grab a coffee and a good seat before 8:30 when things were to begin. I was half-expecting a sizable crowd, so I was pleasantly surprised when only a handful of people showed up. A few of us figured out that we were there for the same thing, so we introduced ourselves and exchanged the usual friendly small talk before McLaren arrived.

It doesn’t take much more than Google-ing Brian McLaren’s name to realize that he’s one of the most controversial Christians in the public eye today. His books about faith, postmodernism, and the emerging church have stirred the pot, to say the least. His demeanor, however, wouldn’t suggest this. An average-looking, middle-aged, bald guy with glasses, McLaren has a warm disposition; soft-spoken, sensitive, contemplative, the kind of guy you can tell is really listening to you.

A few more have arrived at this point, and McLaren begins by having us introduce ourselves. I realize I’m surrounded by a very diverse group of Christians, including two Lutherans, one Presbyterian, one Jewish-Episcopalian, one Eastern Orthodox, and two Southern Baptists (of which I’m one…technically).

After introductions, I’m thinking McLaren’s just going to open up the floor to anyone who wants to discuss something. Instead, he looks right at me and says something like, “Drew, is it? You look like you’ve got something on your mind.”

Say whaaa…?

Once I get over the fact that this guy who’s been the subject of Time Magazine articles just addressed me directly, I share my questions and reflections, as we all do. While I imagined this would be more of a Q & A, “meet the author” type thing, it was much more informal. The eight of us just kind of sat there talking for like two hours, drinking our coffee as the snow fell outside. It was awesome. 

It’s true (and not surprising) that McLaren’s been called a heretic. We tend to dislike it when a person calls our way of thinking into question, and it’s easy to write that person off if they’re questioning a belief that’s been in place for a long time. I imagine that the religious establishment is irritated by McLaren the same way they were irritated by Luther’s 95 theses, Galileo’s rejection of the earth-centered universe model, or Civil War era Christians who didn’t believe that the Bible condoned slavery. My theory is that Western Christians like myself call McLaren a heretic because he believes that certain beliefs and practices of Western Christianity are antithetical to the teachings of Jesus. That’s a pretty bold statement, and while I’ve never heard (or read) McLaren be unkind or self-righteous about it, he certainly doesn’t mince words. That’s the kind of thing that will get you labeled a heretic.

With that said, I myself don’t agree with everything McLaren believes, but I do think he’s onto something good. One thing I completely agree with him on is that we need some “new wineskins” for the Gospel in our postmodern culture, and we may even need to rethink what the Gospel truly is in the first place. After all, can anyone deny that the Church has severely misinterpreted the message of Jesus in the past, and even the present?

I appreciate McLaren’s willingness to admit that he doesn’t have all the answers. He’s been criticized by fundamentalist types for his “ambiguity” and “vagueness”. I suppose there’s some truth to that, but honestly, I don’t think any of us have all the answers, and I think many us pretend to have answers to things we don’t have them for. And, come to think of it, maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if we relied a little less on pastors and Christian authors to spoon-feed us the truth. I’m just speculating here, but I wonder if McLaren is being intentionally vague not to confuse us, but to pique our curiosity and invite deeper exploration through prayer and Scripture reading?

In any case, there are some things that McLaren is not ambiguous about. In fact, he addresses some issues that Evangelicals seem strangely apathetic to: poverty, racial prejudice, environmental stewardship, post-9/11 Muslim relations, peace, justice. In this vein, he’s making a clear statement: that Christianity isn’t just about going to heaven after you die, that it also matters what happens here and now. Salvation is for reconciliation with God, but also with each other.

For some reason (Christian subculture, perhaps?), these two dimensions of the Gospel seem at odds with each other. If you emphasize only the individual dimension, you’re labeled a fundamentalist. If you emphasize only the social dimension, you’re labeled a liberal. No doubt McLaren’s books address the latter more heavily, but I think it’s worth considering that his target audience might be those of us Christians that have always emphasized the former too heavily. If by laying it on thick from the social side he can bring those on the individual side into a more balanced view, perhaps he will have succeeded.

I’ve certainly benefited from his books. They’ve caused me to think about things I might not have otherwise; his writings about the kingdom of God have been particularly meaningful and enriching for me. If you’re interested, I would recommend reading them with a lot of prayerful consideration and definitely an open mind. (I loved A Generous Orthodoxy, if you’re looking for a place to start!)

Sorry if my thoughts are little scatter-brained here. Evidently I lack the discipline to better organize them! In any case, I hope none of this is misinterpreted as a full-fledged endorsement of McLaren. I guess my main point is that he’s worth checking out. If you already have, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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