Carson & McLaren

One of the leading voices in the Emergent Church is Brian McLaren. He’s written a number of books proposing a new kind of Christianity. He’s a very good author and really, really readable and likable. He is not a theologian. That was pretty obvious to me. DA Carson has written a book titled Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church. It is first shot at the Emerging Church from the traditional evangelical perspective. In it, Carson is technically accurate in his assessment but, I fear, he still misses the point. Here is how I summarized it:

As we turn to consider criticism of the EC offered by D. A. Carson, it is necessary to stress once more that one must understand what it means to be missional in order to understand the EC. The subtitle of A Generous Orthodoxy consists of a long list of different categories McLaren considers himself to be (it is like a table of contents on the cover of the book). The very first item on the list is ‘missional’. Similarly, in his book The Church on the Other Side, self-described as a guide “for navigating the modern/postmodern transition” strategy (chapter) ten “Subsume Missions in Mission” is really a discussion of being missional. It appears, then, that McLaren considers missional to be an important part of his vision for the new, emerging church. And yet, Carson never really acknowledges it. In chapter six of Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church Carson offers a critique of McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy. Obviously he cannot interact with every chapter in McLaren’s book, but it is significant that he completely skips chapter five, “Why I Am Missional”. Furthermore, the word “missional” is not in Carson’s index. It simply does not come up in the book. Scot McKnight did an in-depth review of Carson’s book on his blog and said:

I don’t see enough in DA Carson’s book about [being missional], and for that reason alone the book is incomplete. It doesn’t undermine what he says about epistemology, but it makes one wonder why in the world he spent all his time on epistemology when the movement and its leaders constantly speak of holism and missional and the like. I wish we’d gotten more about this: maybe a whole chapter on “missional” and the “holism” of the Bible.

It appears that since Carson is very good with epistemology and has done a lot of interaction with post-modern thought, he has approached the EC as a church movement that is post-modern. This is a fair assumption since it is partially an accurate representation. However, since Carson skipped the issue of being missional, his criticisms fail to consider why McLaren might be saying some of the things he is saying. Yet Carson suspects that there is more to McLaren than meets the eye:

Though I have never met him, McLaren is, I suspect, a man it is very hard to dislike. There is a humorous cheekiness in him, a disarming self-deprecation, an over-the-top vitality to him. Not least when he is the most outrageous, you simultaneously want to wring his neck and give him a brotherly hug and say, “Aw, c’mon, Brian, be fair! That silly argument is unworthy of you!”?knowing fully well he’s likely to hug you back and say, with a twinkle in his eyes, “I know that. I’m not quite as stupid as you think. But I got you thinking about some important questions you’ve been ducking!” What do you do with a guy like that?

Carson then notes McLaren’s playful admission of intentionally being “provocative, mischievous, and unclear,” then following a longer quote from McLaren, he adds, “Vintage McLaren, this. The over-the-top mea culpa disarms you, then he slyly provides a prooftext and hints that he may be obeying Scripture after all.” In the end Carson remains unconvinced that McLaren is doing some of this on purpose and presses on with his critique.

One cannot help but think that had Carson grasped the significance of being missional, that is to be a cross-cultural missionary in your own country, his critique may have turned out differently. Indeed, I strongly suspect that there is more going on with McLaren than meets the eye. I cannot help but think that if you scratch his post-modern paint, beneath you will find an orthodox evangelical. But McLaren, considering himself to be a foreign missionary, will not allow his true colors to show for fear of losing a hearing with his target people group. Further, as Carson intimates, McLaren’s vagueness may also be intended to shake lose some of the unhelpful cultural accretions that have grown up around evangelicalism (especially, I think, since the 1980s) so that the movement does not become stagnant and irrelevant. If that is the case, the McLaren would do well to listen closely to Carson’s critique of the EC (mis)understanding of post-modernism. Not everything McLaren is reevaluating is unhelpful accretion; some are solid, necessary, helpful doctrines.

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