Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, and Some Thoughts on Being "Cutting-Edge"

It turns out that hand-wringing and navel-gazing is hardly unique to us mainline Protestants.  An article appeared in Christianity Today a week ago, openly wondering how and why the heretical trio of Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, and Donald Miller managed to break so many evangelical hearts by straying from conservative orthodoxy on matters such as universalism (Bell), same-sex marriage (Bell and McLaren), and communion (Miller).  As the article's author Kevin Miller (presumably no relation to Donald Miller) puts it, the three shining beacons of evangelical Christianity's future had all, in the span of just over a decade, flown too close to the sun with their forward-thinkingness and need for beauty before truth.  All three have then in turn, to varying degrees, been accused of selling out their principles for the sake of mainstream acceptance (perhaps the most memorable condemnation coming from John Piper on Twitter, who simply tweeted out "Farewell, Rob Bell").

Honestly, when I finished reading the article, my immediate and uncensored thought was, "Well, what did y'all expect would one day happen?"

I've made no secret here on the blog about my personal disagreement with the retrograde beliefs that many of my Christian brethren still continue to hold to in the realm of gender and same-sex equality, and from the perspective of someone who does believe in the rightness of ordaining women and gay/lesbian pastors, I simply would say this:

Part of being on the cutting edge means arriving at conclusions that others around you have not.  And once everyone catches up to your conclusions, you are no longer cutting edge, you are mainstream.  Heck, the Bible even says as much towards the end of Ecclesiastes 4, where Solomon notes that there will always be someone younger and brighter to take over for the young and bright guiding stars of the present.  The visionaries of Bell, McLaren, et al. will one day be replaced by new visionaries, people who are able to interpret and teach Scripture in such profound ways that you would never have thought it possible...if they hadn't already been doing it.

In other words, there will always be people seeking to move forward, even if you yourself are satisfied with the present, or are even longing for the past.  It is precisely the trap that mainline Protestantism fell into sometime between the 1970's (when our numerical decline likely started) and the 1990's (when said decline was really laid bare for all to see).  We were the top dogs, so to speak, and in talking to my older colleagues, all of them note the same sense of one-time complacency: a church back then did not have to evangelize, you could simply throw open your doors and the people would show up.  Now, we have to work to bring in new disciples, and people who outgrew our previous way of doing things simply left the church, many of whom have yet to come back because we don't know how to work at bringing them back into the fold.

Now, in that respect, we had--and have--a LOT to learn from our evangelical cousins.

But the flip side of that coin is just as people outgrew us mainliners for varying reasons, so too are we now beginning to see, I believe, people outgrowing aspects of evangelicalism--namely, the tendency to place the need for orthodoxy and doctrinal purity before relationships and spiritual exploration.

If you want statistical proof of this, simply click here.  Nearly 1 in 3 Christian millennials who left their church cited their beliefs about GLBTQ equality as "somewhat important" or "very important" in their decision to leave the body of Christ.

This is what happens when churches place doctrine ahead of people.  This is what happened, in so many words, I believe, to Bell, McLaren, et al.  And full disclosure--I've seen both Rob Bell and Brian McLaren speak, and both of them impressed me and struck me as preachers of the Word who are genuinely led by God.  We ignore what wisdom they have to offer us at our own peril.

But at the same time, I cannot imagine that either of them wrote and said the things that got them black-listed by their former peers and colleagues out of some need to be accepted by a wider audience--both of them were already plenty popular when they began deviating from conservative orthodoxy, and besides, the myth that people "take the easy way out" for wider acceptance is often exactly that--a myth.

The entirety of human history is written on a timeline of progression.  We once lived in darkness...but then Prometheus (or, more accurately, prehistoric humans) discovered fire.  We once believed that the earth was flat and that the sun orbited around it...but then Copernicus and Galileo proved us wrong.  We once lived our lives completely land-locked, until the Wright brothers took to the air.

And we once believed that things like discrimination and slavery on the basis of race were Biblically justified, until abolitionists--many of whom were themselves devout Christians--taught us otherwise.

Imagine what God's creation will look like tomorrow.

And then, if you are able, try not to dismiss outright the people who are trying to make it better.

Yours in Christ,

PS: I would be remiss if I also did not link you to Brian McLaren's very thoughtful response to this very issue.

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