Friday, April 14, 2006

Where Emergent Goes Bad (1) - Over-generalization

The Steady EC Diet – Over-generalization and Guilt-by-Association

Brian McLaren paints with extremely wide brushes. He categorizes people and movements with the accuracy of one of those extra-wide rollers you can buy at Home Depot! This becomes absolutely frustrating in all his written work I have read. The end result is a blurring of categories by rampant overgeneralization and a redundant guilt-by-association. This becomes annoying in the extreme. Frankly, I think it makes his stated goal of “having a conversation” nearly impossible. He may assume speaking in this way provokes his readers and forces them to think through their unconscious pre-suppositions, but after a few pages the reader feels like he is trying to reason with a child.[1]

Note some of these examples:

If fundamentalist means other things—such as requiring belief in a foundationalist epistemology, assenting to something like a dictation theory of biblical inspiration, upholding a sectarian and elitist approach to non-Fundamentalist Christians, and identifying judgmentalism and anger as fruits of the Holy Spirit, then there’s little chance I’d be welcome in their company, which is probably for the best. And if the previous sentence full of technical religious jargon went over your head, thank God and don’t worry about it.[2]

As he so often does, McLaren paints up everyone in a certain group (in this case, fundamentalists) in what he considers to be all of their faults. He does not list any possible strengths of the group (in this statement) nor does he allow that there may be some variance within the group. He then links together these characterizations into an either/or proposition – with the bad “either” always being conservative evangelicalism. This is uncharitable at best and divisive at worst. Unfortunately, in my opinion, it is also extremely McLarenesque and often Emergentesque![3]

Another example from A Generous Orthodoxy comes to mind:

Rather than trying to capture timeless truth in objective statements systematized in analytical outlines and recorded in books and institutionalized in schools and denominations, narrative theology embraces, preserves, and reflects on the stories of people and communities involved in the romance of God—always beginning with and always returning to the treasury of stories in Scripture: the good, bad, ugly, and undetermined lives of those who have sought God and found God and lost God and served God and heard and ignored God and opposed God and betrayed God and returned to God and loved God all the more for having been forgiven much. In the process, it seeks to understand the direction and purpose and meaning of the larger narrative (the story of emergence) that these individual stories constitute.[4]

I think McLaren is too smart to not know what he is doing here. And yes, that means I am questioning his motives.[5] The baby is writhing on the front lawn even before he can be thrown out with the bath water. McLaren has decided what he doesn’t like from the beginning and everything is painted in that light. Can a believer not hold “timeless truth in objective statements” and at the same time seek “to understand the direction and purpose and meaning of the larger narrative?” This is a false dichotomy, or at least a gratuitous overgeneralization.

A recent interview of McLaren in Criswell Journal demonstrates the same tactic:

I wish people were more interested in the question of how the Religious Right has changed our evangelistic context. The name ‘Jesus’ is heard differently now than it was thirty years ago because of the amazing ‘success’ of the Religious Right. If I say ‘Jesus’ to many of my friends, they don’t think of someone who came to forgive sin; they think of people who want to shame people for their sins. They don’t think of someone who had special good news for the poor; they think of people who want to give every possible advantage to the rich because they think the poor are to blame, largely, for their poverty. They don’t think of someone who overturned the status quo, but of people who represent the status quo. They don’t think of someone who talked about turning the other cheek, but of people who defend preemptive violence. So, I wish people would seek to understand the rising dissatisfaction surrounding how the Religious Right has ‘rebranded’ Christianity, and how Emergent and other conversations like it are seeking to rediscover the Jesus of the Scriptures and fairly represent him and his message to our world.[6]

Carson summarizes this tendency in EC in this way:

...a fair amount of its heat and overgeneralizing seems to spring from the mistaken assumption that most of traditional evangelicalism is just like the conservative churches from which they came. That betrays the narrowness of many of their backgrounds and helps to explain why their rhetoric and appeals to postmodern sensitivity sound so absolutist: this is the language and rhetoric on which they were weaned.

His solution to this in part is:

...there are lessons to be learned by reading history more broadly, by becoming intimately familiar with Christians in other languages and cultures, by enlarging the frames of reference in which we can comfortably move. We are then far more likely to become self-critical.[7]

Thus, EC needs to make a more careful diagnosis. Although much of what is identified as sickness in evangelicalism is accurate, this habitual over-generalization (i.e. all fundamentalists are angry and proud of it) and guilt-by-association (lumping together straw-man definitions of good attributes with genuine spiritual ills) clouds the real issues and makes the proposed cure very suspect.

[1] By this I mean the kind of child who won’t answer the question, keeps trying to change the topic, won’t leave off until he gets what he wants, purposefully speaks in innuendo to get stabs in along the way and that type of thing. I am not suggesting McLaren himself is childish or immature, but I am saying this writing style is quite detrimental to real discussion. It is almost condescending. I did not sense this to the same degree in his public speaking, although it was certainly present.

[2] Orthodoxy, 117.

[3] For example: “Catholic contemplatives, it seems, have had an easier time with joy than non-charismatic Protestants, preoccupied as they tend to be with modern rationality, abstract theory and depressing topics such as total depravity.” Orthodoxy, 177

[4] Orthodoxy, 289-290.

[5] He himself admits to be wrong-headed when he writes in the Introduction: “A warning: as in most of my other books, there are places here where I have gone out of my way to be provocative, mischievous, and unclear, reflecting my belief that clarity is sometimes overrated, and that shock, obscurity, playfulness, and intrigue (carefully articulated) often stimulate more thought than clarity.” Orthodoxy, 23.

[6] Criswell Theological Review CT n.s. 3/2 (Spring 2006) 5-14. Accessed online at,2%20InterviewwithBrianMcLaren(Streett).PDF on March 31, 2006.

[7] Conversant, 86 and footnote 32. Carson’s critique suggests that the majority of EC leaders have come out of rather aberrant, legalist, fundamentalist, almost works-righteousness churches that really had no spiritual life in them to begin with. This false representation of genuine Christianity is then assumed to be what every other evangelical church is like – hence the very narrow and over-generalized view presented by EC leaders. This conclusion is substantiated by the published testimonies of most of the EC leaders.