A dozen years ago Mark Driscoll, pastor of Seattle's Mars Hill Church, and Brian McLaren, popular and prolific author, speaker, and, among other things, a board member at the unrelated Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle, were both rising stars associated with the Emerging Church movement. As sometimes happens in movements, onetime fellow travelers go different ways, becoming estranged.
Driscoll has tightened his trademark and militant grip on the answers he finds in the Bible and theology, while McLaren has entertained an ever-wider array of questions regarding his evangelical faith and Christianity in general. In his new book A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that Are Transforming the Faith (coming this month from HarperOne), McLaren engages some of Driscoll's pointed attacks and interpretations (misinterpretations in McLaren's view) of the Christian message.
To be sure, McLaren never refers to Driscoll by name in New Kind of Christianity, perhaps to avoid personalizing the conflict. Rather he speaks of "one of my most loyal and dedicated critics." But he quotes Driscoll's accusation that he (McLaren) and "some emergent types," have "recast Jesus as a limp-wrist hippie in a dress with a lot of product in his hair, who drank decaf and made pithy Zen statements about life while shopping for the perfect pair of shoes." McLaren remarks, "Quite a way with words!"
But McLaren reserves his sustained critique for Driscoll's presentation of the Messiah as cage-fighter Jesus. According to Driscoll, "In Revelation (the last book of the New Testament), Jesus is a prize-fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is the guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up."
McLaren proceeds to offer a quite different interpretation of the biblical text in question as demonstration of his own approach to the Bible. He views Revelation, correctly, as coded literature of the oppressed, intended to encourage those suffering Roman persecution rather than a call to take up a sword with warrior Jesus. This is part of McLaren's larger argument against what he describes as a misuse of the Bible as a kind of legal and constitutional document and for an understanding of the book of books as "a community library." If the former provides texts to prove already arrived at conclusions, the latter provides a dazzling array of literary types, which cannot be subjected to simple literal interpretation.
McLaren's effort in A New Kind of Christianity is to engage ten questions he regards as critical ones that need to be addressed if a new kind of Christianity is to emerge in and for the 21st century. Among the questions he takes up, some are more theological, such as, "How Should the Bible be Understood?" "Is God Violent?" and "Who Is Jesus and Why Is He Important?" Others have the status of hot social issues, "Can We Find a Way to Talk About Sexuality Without Fighting About It?” and “How Should Followers of Jesus Relate to People of Other Religions?”
McLaren is right. These are questions that many in the church, and beyond, are asking. His patient explorations will prove helpful to many who value Evangelicalism's piety but worry that it has failed to thoughtfully engage hard but unavoidable questions. McLaren is also popular among more liberal and progressive Christians who resonate with his "quest" for a new version of the old faith.
At the same time, beneath Driscoll's bombast are some serious issues. A powerful motivation for Driscoll has been connecting to young men, whom he has seen as often aimless and adrift in contemporary American culture. This accounts for his efforts to portray Jesus not as "meek and mild," but "mean and wild."
A case can certainly be made that in the average American congregation the most visibly absent demographic are younger men, and to some extent men, period. Indeed, some churches look like testosterone-free zones. Scholars as distinguished as Ann Douglas in her book The Feminization of American Culture have noted the phenomenon. Driscoll has been self-conscious both in his appeal to young men and his restyling of Jesus as a tough dude. McLaren responds that Jesus has become a victim of "identity theft." And it is difficult to see how a man who died on a cross rather than take a life or defend himself can be fairly restyled as a contemporary cage fighter.
Recently I shared keynoting responsibilities at a conference in California with Michael Piazza, who is dean of the Cathedral of Hope, a gay-lesbian mega-church in Dallas. In most respects, Piazza is even more the anti-Driscoll than McLaren. He is a leader of the gay-lesbian movement and a staff member with the Center for Progressive Renewal. And yet what struck me in talking with him was how in a funny way he resembled Driscoll. Both pride themselves on their "against-all-odds" creation of huge churches that defy the norms of the surrounding culture. Driscoll revels in swimming against the stream of liberal Seattle, while Piazza has built a huge gay-lesbian congregation in the heart of conservative, Bible-belt Texas. Maybe the new, counterintuitive formula for church growth is this: be a stark alternative to whatever the dominant culture offers?
If McLaren and Driscoll once traveled, or were grouped, under the same broad banner of Emergent Christianity, that’s no longer the case. McLaren's book is a good illustration of just how quickly this relatively new theological stream has diverged into markedly different channels.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!