Coloratura Christian

I sought the LORD, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed. (Psalm 34:4-5)

Sunday, April 09, 2006

What Brian McLaren's Friends Say...

Last night we went to hear Brian McLaren, the Emergent Church guru, speak at Richview Baptist Church. With the Emergent movement picking up momentum in North America, I often hear about it, but have had difficulty understanding exactly what it's distinctives are.

Of course the stereotype that comes to mind is the candelit service of 18-29 year olds, sitting on sofas drinking coffee, surrounded by art work for inspiration. The men all with their poetic goatees and piercings and the women with their post-modern counterparts.

After listening to a fairly lengthy Q&A period with McLaren, I can see why it can be difficult to define the Emergent movement. I don't think he made a single ringing affirmative about what he believes to be true throughout the evening. When asked a direct question he would often tell a rather vague story, or reply by saying, "I have a friend who said this" (implying that he agreed, but not taking credit for it and therefore not taking criticism for it either) or else he would reply with a question such as "What is the question behind that question?" While I agreed with some of his critiques of our culture, there were many times when I felt like banging my head against the wall because he would not give a straight answer to anything. Everything was so ambiguous and safe. He seemed to want to avoid conflicts at all cost.

I think this may be intentional. He was modeling his idea of humility, namely, that he wants people to become uncertain of any beliefs they hold strongly, and become perplexed (and therefore humble) and "join the conversation" that has no conclusions.

The funniest part of the evening was when someone noted that McLaren had the ability to avoid conflicts by raising the conversation to "a higher level," and asked if it was "a discipline" of his--to which McLaren answered in the affirmative. (Who would have thought that not answering questions was a "discipline!")

The saddest part of the evening was when he began to minimize the atonement, and tell a story to discredit penal substitution--well, it wasn't his story, but a "friend's" story.

And then he preceded to say that we should shift our attention from the atonement to the incarnation and think of the world not as sinful, but "sick" and Jesus as "medicine" and as the kingdom grows the medicine spreads--well actually, that wasn't his idea either, but a "friend's" idea.

When asked about the homosexual question, he said he believed it was not a theological question, but a missiological question (or was that a"friend's" conviction too?) And said it was up to each individual church to decide. If I understand him right, he is saying we should change depending on our culture. So that if we live in a community with a high homosexual population, we should be accepting and say it is alright, but if we live in a community where homosexuality is not widely accepted, we should not be so quick to accept it as kosher.

While he affirmed that abortion was wrong, he minimized it by asking why, if people are really so concerned about killing babies, are they not more concerned about global warming and it's effect on human life.

The impression I got from the evening was that the Emergent movement, in trying to engage our post-modern culture, has taken on the shape of our culture--shying away from absolute truths and believing in something that is so neutral that it couldn't possibly offend anyone.

And I couldn't help thinking of Mrs. Elton's false humility in Jane Austen's Emma. When complimented on her sandwiches, she responds with something like, "While I don't say so, my friends say I certainly know how to make a sandwich."


  • At April 09, 2006, Blogger Marlene S. said…

    Nebulous. This is somewhat how I've been feeling this week as I've been pondering what exactly the gospel is, and how I should be sharing that gospel. As I have spoken to various people (Christians) I feel like their answers have been nebulous. Sometimes I feel like they are more comfortable keeping things nebulous with non-Christians so as not to offend or "hurt" them.

    What is it with our generation that we are so afraid of clear, solid truth? Is it that we are afraid to be persecuted for affirming it? Is it that deep, deep down we actually are not convinced of its truthfulness? Or is there another reason that clear presentation of doctrine is becoming a lost "art"? I'm not sure, but I'm definitely getting more and more concerned at the "nebulosity" that is growing.

    Thanks for your perspective on the evening. Were you tired or energized afterwards?

  • At April 09, 2006, Anonymous elisha said…

    A most insightful and accurate summary.

  • At April 10, 2006, Blogger Ian said…

    You're insights are dead-on. I especially like how you highlighted his "friends" so as to remove any accountability to his own beliefs.
    It was a sad night in many respects, but I am thankful to God for the friends I have and their love for the gospel. Seeing all of you guys against the backdrop of the Emergent movement really accented the godliness you all exude.

  • At April 10, 2006, Blogger Carla said…

    Coming by way of Ian's blog - I just wanted to thank you for sharing your thoughts so eloquently, on this event.

    Carla Rolfe

  • At April 10, 2006, Blogger Christel said…

    Hi Marlene,

    I think your critique of our generation is right on. I think we suffer from both fear of man and from unbelief.

    I certainly didn't feel "energized" after the evening, in fact, I was a little depressed.

    It's encouraging to hear how you're striving to share the gospel more effectively. I know I need to work on this too.

    Elisha, Ian and Carla,
    Thanks for your encouraging comments. :)

  • At April 11, 2006, Blogger Jodi said…

    I know so little about this movement. One thing I have heard is that they are moving closer to tradition. Your summary/critique makes me think otherwise. Although perhaps they leave that up to the individual church as well.
    The problem with leaving things up to individual churches is a GREAT lack of any consistancy. You will never know what the movement believes.
    It would be interesting to get a simple (or complex) statement of beliefs from this movement. Do you know any rescources on that?

  • At April 11, 2006, Blogger Austin Storm said…

    This is a very useful post, and confirms some of my unease about McClaren.

  • At April 11, 2006, Blogger SolaMeanie said…

    I think the line about not knowing anything with certainty (a close approximation) is one of the key hallmarks. How in the world does one even go about sharing the need for faith in Christ if we're not even certain about what that entails? The Apostle John wrote, "I write these things that you may KNOW etc."

    That's something the other writers of Scripture under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit can echo. The more I see of this movement, the more I am convinced this is part of a broad apostasy. We've only seen the beginning of it.

  • At April 11, 2006, Blogger Julie said…

    Thank you for writing this. You've said some things spot on, unlike McLaren's tendency.

    Also, you can't beat ending with a Jane Austen quote.

  • At April 11, 2006, Blogger Chris P. said…

    Your perceptions are most accurate. Why would anyone follow this man? Jesus knew whre He was going, set His face like flint, and did not deviate from the appointed course.
    This is not the Gospel.

  • At April 11, 2006, Blogger fool4jesus said…

    Jodi, just because they might be moving toward "tradition" doesn't mean they are moving toward anything recognizable as Biblical.

    I remember checking out a group called the "Old Catholic Church in America." Looking over their web site (, they are obviously very "traditional". The web site also proclaims that the church "welcomes all people, regardless of life situation." I'll give you two guesses what THAT means...

  • At April 11, 2006, Blogger Douglas said…


    If I had been there I would have asked Mr. McLaren if the 8 men from the Bandido's motorcycle gang that were executed in a gangland style slaying and found on the weekend, probably not that far from where this meeting of Emergents was taking place, whether they have gone to the lake of fire or not and that if he himself died from the shock of me telling him this frightening demonic event, would he go to heaven or the lake of fire?

    If those men were not born again, they will be in eternal torment now. I wonder if Emergents warn the wicked to flee the wrath of God that is coming? If that is part of their "missional" strategy?

    Welcome to the real world Mr. Brian McLaren, Sir. How many souls did you leave deceived in Auckland, Palmerston North, and my home city of Christchurch when you were here recently? A few, by the looks of it to me. No doubt some of my friends went along. Oh well, a door of opportunity I suppose.

  • At April 11, 2006, Anonymous benjamin said…

    Although I wholeheartedly agree with many of those commenting, especially on the nature of absolute truths, I would also like to defend McLaren posturing that suggests there is and should be a cut off point in which too much certainty can be a bad thing... a really really bad thing.
    re: scriptural justification of the crusades, the slaughtering of protestants by catholics and vice versa, slavery, etc.

    I personally feel humility and graciousness is largely absent from the modern mega-faiths, feigned or otherwise.

  • At April 12, 2006, Blogger Christel said…

    Hi Everyone,
    Thanks for your comments.

    I'm not aware of any simple (or complex) statement of beliefs from this movement. Paul Martin, a local pastor, has a blog that you might find helpful at

    He has been researching the "Emergent Church" and is posting a paper on it that he recently delivered at a pastor's fellowship.

  • At April 12, 2006, Blogger Chris P. said…


    The things you listed are not the fruit of Scriptural certainty.
    We are told in Scripture that we can/shoould know beyond a doubt. What men do with it is another matter.
    True doctrine is to be taught, and defended by the Word. The gospel of tolerance of all things and views, is not Scriptural.
    The typology of the Hebrews and subsequent actions by Moses and the Levites in Exodus 32 says a lot to us today. However, the sword is now the Word of God.
    What we should not be afraid to say is that McClaren is apostate.

  • At April 12, 2006, Blogger GaryDavisonJr. said…

    While McLaren might not give direct answers to what he affirms, his actions certainly show it. Excellant post btw and thanks for the link to the examingemergent site!

  • At April 12, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    To Jodi especially: There was something on a few months ago which was Brian McLaren saying, "Why I am a conservative/liberal, Calvinist/Armenian, Baptist/Presbyterian, and on & on in the same way...

    The only thing you could make of it was this man and this movement seems determined not to stand for anything. It's deliberate. I don't know how they can bear to have absolutely NOTHING real or true that they can rely on. Anything goes, and whatever you believe is OK, and whatever I believe is OK too (even if they are opposite "truths". I know they are heavily into Contemplative Prayer. Maybe they have emptied their minds too much! Lighthouse Trails Research has a lot of good (bad) stuff on McLaren. Hope you find what you are looking for, and then avoid it!

  • At April 12, 2006, Anonymous Jeremy Duncan said…

    Interesting comments.

    You said, "The saddest part of the evening was when he began to minimize the atonement, and tell a story to discredit penal substitution."

    I have always felt that reducing the atonement to one particular metaphor reduces the impact of what God has done. I have met Brian before and I have never got the impression that he would seek to "discredit" the substitutionary metaphor, but simply to encourage people to appreciate the scope of the at-one-ment in diferent metaphors.

  • At April 13, 2006, Blogger Clint said…

    Thanks for your input.

    There was an unfortunate problem with Mr. McLaren's presentation re: the atonement.
    With the various views of the atonement which he articulated quite well, he really 'levelled' them out as if they were all equally valid and of equal weight.

    I too think that some of the other metaphors (eg. Christus Victor) need to be understood a bit better. But the reason that Church history has debated these views is in order to refine which view is the best, and incorporates the emphases of the others. Only penal substitution can do that. It has the multiplexity to accomodate the others which are quite flat by themselves.

    In this light, Mr. McLaren's ambiguity regarding penal substitution amounts to a discrediting of it. Rather than appreciating the depth of significance which Christ's death has accomplished, only a few abstracted pieces were shown.

    Maybe you could offer some clarity on this point regarding Mr. McLaren from your interaction with him? Thanks.

  • At April 13, 2006, Anonymous Jeremy Duncan said…

    I have had the opportunity to speak with Brian only twice though I will have a chance to spend a couple days with Tony Jones (Director of Emergent Village) later this year. All that to say I can't speak for Brian but I am engaged in the conversation.

    The atonement has always been expresses in numerous different metaphors, including substitutionary atonement (SA), first articulated in the early 1500's, which became popular in the modern era because it is the easiest to follow the logical economics of.

    The early church was much more concerned with living in the atonement than relecting on the logistics of it. As culture evolved and cartesian thought took hold people needed a more rational reflection and so SA was important.

    Today people like Brian, and myself would argue that parts of our culture are moving past a purely logical frame. They are looking for new ways to talk about and imagine the atonement that is less concered with the economics and more concerned with the mystery and relationship of it.

    SA reminds me that Christ paid the price for my sins.
    Moral influence reminds me that Christ shows me what it means to love and to be loved, which is central to our identities as creations of a loving God.
    Christus Victor reminds me of Christ's ultimate victor over death and that I share in that with him.
    All of these (and more) are important ways to image or understand the at-one-ment of God, and I don't believe that any disparage or detract from the others. To value Moral Influence is not to minimize SA or vice versa. Agian I am thinking less in terms of economics, ie. which is best, and more in terms of mosaic, each adds to the beauty of the atonement.

    To a logical modern mind I can see why SA may be the most important metaphor.
    To others with a more post-modern (emergent) worldview it is the interplay between all of the metaphors that open me up to the amazing mystery that God chose to reconcile "me" to himself.

    Remember, Christians understood the atonement in very different terms before the modern era and they may in different terms after the modern era.

    What we can always trust in though is that despite our evolving language and metaphor God's atonement is always constant.

  • At April 13, 2006, Anonymous ReneeM said…

    Hey there... bit afraid to cmment :) BUT I must put in my two cents. The Emerging Church movement is just that... a movement... not a denomination. So you REALLY can not balnket statement anything doctrinally, because they are coming from all different denominations. Presbyterian, Methodist, Catholic, Lutheran, non-denominational, pentecostal, charismatic, Nazarene...

    I didn't like your post, because I didn't want some of it to be true :) How is that for honesty?!?! On my blog I posted about the emergent church and what it has meant to me... some things I will mention here that seem to relate. I have NEVER studied God's Word SO much in my life... straight from His Word and not another book... and prayed over it. Is every church like that? no. And I know you'd agree that not every one in your denominations are either. There is definitely a passion for Christ I see that I have found lacking in every church I have been a part of (NOT that that is all other churches, only the ones i have been apart of).

    I guess, I would say, don't throw the baby out with the bath water. And make sure what you are discarding is actually doctrinal error and not personal discomfort for the new or your own personal interpretation of what you think the scripture is saying.

    For the record, I DO believe Jesus IS the Son of God, who had to die for our SIN, the Bible is the INNERANT Word of God, and if God says it is sin, I am agreeing.

    That is my first thoughts... but there is so many more, so I'll stop there, and maybe come back later if you don't mind?

  • At April 14, 2006, Anonymous ReneeM said…

    Also, I would suggest maybe seeing if you can get ahold of Dan Kimball's book "The Emerging Church" - it gives a fairly good perspective... talks about the pros and cons... modern culture vs post modern culture type stuff. I liked it - I DON"T come from a post modern back ground... dispensational, no modern day miraculous gifts, once saved always saved... etc. you get the picture. And I adore my family, and love my rich heritage. AND when I read this book and spoke "home" to me.

    Really enjoyed your comments Jeremy

  • At April 14, 2006, Blogger Christel said…

    Hi Jeremy,

    Thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful and thorough comment. I agree with some of what you’re saying such as the simple statement that “Christ died for our sins” is not able to encompass all of the wonderful truth of the gospel. Christ certainly is our example of sacrificial love, and the Bible certainly speaks of Christ’s victory of sin and death and us sharing in His victory.

    I can see that you are a very intelligent and well articulated man, however, I’m a little skeptical about your statement that substitutionary atonement was never articulated before the early 1500's. While I can’t speak to all of church history, I can speak to the earliest Christians from what is written in the Bible.

    Because I believe SA to be a biblical truth that is central to the gospel, I am disheartened to see it minimized or even discredited by any influential leaders in the Christian community.

    Your statement that “The early church was much more concerned with living in the atonement than reflecting on the logistics of it.” confuses me. How can you live something that you don’t understand? I suppose if you don’t understand what Jesus accomplished, you would subjectively decide for yourself what He did, and it would look different for each individual. This disturbs me because some would view Christ’s atonement wrongly, minimizing the glory that is due Him.

    “What we can always trust in though is that despite our evolving language and metaphor God's atonement is always constant.” Adjusting language to help people understand the atonement is a good thing, Adjusting the core of what the atonement is to make it more palatable to people is not alright (i.e. people don’t like to be told they’re sinful).

  • At April 14, 2006, Blogger Christel said…

    Hi Renee,

    Thanks for your post and for your honesty. :) I am encouraged to hear how much you’re reading your bible and praying over it! I am sure you are right that each church that embraces the Emergent Movement is different. (By the nature of what Emergent is.)

    I am rejecting elements of the Emergent movement based on “doctrinal error and not personal discomfort of the new.” I hope I never, as you said, “personal[ly] interpret...what [I] think the scripture is saying” without careful study. However, I could err and if someone shows me that I am wrong by scripture, I am happy to revisit the issue.

    I am curious to know what you “didn’t be true” in my post. I will take your recommendation and try to read that book. Thanks again for your comments and feel free to “stop in” as much as you like. :).

  • At April 14, 2006, Anonymous Jeremy Duncan said…

    Christel and Clint,
    First off, thanks for the open and honest dialogue. Too often people either swallow anything emergent without thinking the implcations through or they fall back on empty hyperbole and angry rhetoric to discredit anything tied to the movement.

    To your comments Christel, I agree that SA is a biblical concept. However the modern image we have of penal substitution is a modern invention. When we think of judges and penalties it is a very different image from the ancient Jewish mindset.

    Again I would not want to discredit or minimize SA at all, but I am moving past a place of good, better, best economics. As I place more value on alterate metaphors, I am seeking to broaden my experience of the atonement not to redistribute a finite amount of credibility.

    Let me expand that with an economic metaphor: If I add 1 unit of credibility to Moral Influence I am not taking that away from SA. I am simply ading more credibility to the pool. Making the atonement more credible to myself and my community.

    Think in terms of Mosaic not hierarchy.

    You asked the question, "How can you live something that you don’t understand?" I would argue that this is a modern question. Before cartesian, rational thought, everybody lived things they didn't understand. They didn't understand the weather cycles or the seasons, they didn't understand the heavens or the stars, they didn't understand the science of physics or psychology. They lived a very different faith; one that trusted in the msytery of the seasons, in the mystery of the kingdom and in the mystery of the atonement. There is something we have lost as we have sought to explain away all of the mystery of faith.

    That doesn't mean we can (or want to) go back to before we understood these things, but as we remember all of the biblical metaphors (because these are all biblical) surrounding the atonement, the mosaic reminds us both of the expanse of God's love and our need for real faith.

  • At April 14, 2006, Anonymous Jeremy Duncan said…

    Let me make one clarification. The original idea of substitutionary atonement dates back to Anselm of Canterbury around who lived in the 11th century. The modern Protestant reformed form of the metaphor more appropraitely called penal substitution dates to the early 16th century.

  • At April 14, 2006, Blogger Clint said…


    Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    I think I am becoming convinced of your encouraging desire to grow in your knowledge and enjoyment of the person and work of Christ. This is a commendable endeavor.

    I confess that I am more skeptical about Mr. McLaren if only for the fact that his lack of a developed, engaged and nuanced position on the atonement issue stands in stark contrast to his obvious familiarity with it. I find his silence deafening.

    As for your points I have a few quibbles, but hopefully helpful ones.

    First, I'm curious about what the 'modern image' of substitutionary atonement is that you are critiquing. If it is a modern criminal courtroom, then I agree with your criticism. However such a criticism does not mean that there is an absence of "judges and penalties" in the context of Judaism.

    Even more pronounced is the condemnation of a judge with whom one has been in a covenant, as Israel was. This kind of transgression has all sorts of relational consequences. And it is this covenant lawsuit which is borne by a relational substitute, the Messiah. Isaiah 42:6 anticipates the Messiah actually being the embodiment of the covenant!

    All of that to say that the courtroom (penal) language is appropriate, but with covenantal tones, not impersonal modern ones.

    (With these points I trust you would agree).

    The second point is that the Church Fathers were advocating vicarious sacrifice in penal terms long before Anselm. The Reformers were attempting to be catholic (small 'c') by rooting their understanding in the rich traditions of the Fathers, and of course, a humanist interest in original sources such as the Greek NT (cf. Erasmus).

    Finally a couple of mere observations in an already too long comment.

    Your embrace of mystery appears to me to be an attempt to redress the blurring of archetypal and ectypal theology. The former being God's infinite knowledge of himself, and the latter being the limited knowledge of himself that he has chosen to reveal.

    Modern pop theology that wants to put God into a box, blurs the distinction--and is rightly criticized. But we must not be led to think that just because God allows us to know himself within parameters, that his revelation is untrue or intended to be unknowable. I find this to be a helpful distinction.

    Last of all, I wonder how many of your accurate critiques of 20th century evangelicalism would parallel the same critiques made by the Reformed-Patristic tradition. 20th century Evangelicalism was shaped by the revivalism of Charles Finney (lots of Moral Influence there!), an inherent anti-intellectualism, and lo-brow legalism.

    I am against such pale portraits of the faith. I merely ask you and others who reject it as well, to consider the Reformed-Patristic trajectory as a vigorous, yet pious alternative.

  • At April 14, 2006, Blogger reneegrace said…

    what I didn't want to be true... I guess that is just a peek into my weaknesses. Without Christ I would be Bahai I think... all roads lead to God and all that... yada yada. (yeah for God's grace for me!)

    Also, because I relate much to the postmodern way of thinking, and the Emergent Church recognizes the shift in the way the postmodern mind processes etc, I don't want McLaren to disagree with me on things I believe to be intrinsic to one's faith in Christ. Because those "against" (probably poor choice of words) have valid issues with some things you have pointed out!

    It would be a shame for all the GOOD stuff to lose validity and serious attention due to one man's view on key foundations of our faith. ( and some other's views as well)

  • At April 15, 2006, Anonymous Jeremy Duncan said…

    Great comment. First, you're right my critique is largely of the courtroom image of penal substitution. Absolutely a more covenental, relational image would bring us back to a more Jewish understanding of Christ's work. That said the courtroom image has served its purpose throughout the modern age in making the atonement accessible. (logical, transactional) We just need to realize that accessible today doesn't mean the same thing as it did 100 years ago.
    That very blurring of God's infinite knowledge of himself, and the limited knowledge of himself he reveals, is what has caused most post-moderns to walk away from Christianity. A reimagining of that distinction (mystery) is what has sparked new faith and commitment in myself and many others.

    With that in mind you make an important point.
    "But we must not be led to think that just because God allows us to know himself within parameters, that his revelation is untrue or intended to be unknowable."

  • At September 30, 2006, Blogger mar-mar said…

    i am studying aspects of the emergent church for use in my sys theo II paper, and really appreciate your insight into this've probably heard of it, but D.A. Carson has a helpful book on this subject called "Becoming conversant with the Emerging Church"


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