“Brian McLaren: Christians in denial over evolution of faith,” screamed one headline.1 Another reprint of the same article quoted him as saying, “Evolutionary Christianity has freed me.”2 When we wrote about the Evolutionary Christianity teleseminar series, we said it was unclear what exactly the ‘rockstar of the emergent church’ (not our moniker for him) had to add to a discussion about evolutionary Christianity. Given the favorable press his teleseminar session received, it seemed worth revisiting it.3
What is the
? And who is Brian McLaren? Emergent Church
Widely hailed as a ‘rockstar’ of the emerging church, McLaren is controversial for, among other things, fasting during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan a few years ago.
Brian McLaren describes himself on his website as an “author, speaker, activist, and public theologian.” He is a former pastor and has authored many books on various topics, including A New Kind of Christianity and Naked Spirituality, most recently. He was included in Time magazines “25 Most Influential Evangelicals”, and was described there as an “elder statesman” of the emerging church. Widely hailed as a “rockstar” of the emerging church, he is controversial for, among other things, fasting during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan a few years ago.
McLaren several times referred to his “fundamentalist” upbringing. He said that as he was naturally interested in science and art, and as a natural learner and questioner, he “was on a collision course” with the sort of Christianity he was brought up to believe. He described himself as “on his way out” of the Christian faith by the time he was a teenager. He ultimately found a form of Christianity he could accept in the Jesus Movement. In faith, he values experience over dogma and ‘right belief’.
He expressed a negative view of people who ‘had all the answers’. He seemed to think of that as a narrow and dogmatic way to view the world. Instead, we should question, and learn from other views. This all seems very noble and open-minded, but it becomes problematic if we dig a bit deeper. Questioning isn’t supposed to be an exercise in and of itself—at some point, ideally we would come to some sort of answer. That answer might be refined over time as we gain access to new insights and a deeper understanding of the dynamics involved, but at some point we should be able to define a fundamental truth and say with some certainty “This is the answer.” And to be able to say this confidently is not a mark of arrogance if it is grounded in our conviction of scriptural truth.
In religion, he claims, “People are looking for the next step in their development.” And depending where they are in that progression, answers and explanations that seem to make sense to one person may seem ridiculous to someone else. In illustration, he gives the story of a Cambodian woman who came to faith after Pol Pot’s genocide. When she spoke of hearing the Gospel, he asked her what that Gospel was. She replied that really what it was is that there was a God who created the universe, and that maybe if there was a God there was some hope in the midst of all that loss. Great, but what about some instruction on how to find that God, or how to be saved from her sin?
While we would argue that the Gospel is in fact that Jesus Christ came to earth to pay the penalty for man’s sin, that He was raised on the third day, and that salvation is only through Him (to give the barest outline—see our Good News statement for a more full explanation of the Gospel), God as Creator is certainly the basis for the Gospel. McLaren, however, seemed to think of that as a primitive belief that was useful insofar as it gave the woman hope, but one gets the impression that he thinks of it as something one would ideally outgrow.
One central idea in McLaren’s argument several times is that we’ve got more knowledge today, and that changes how we interpret Scripture. This is relatively misleading. Biblical creationists could also argue that the wealth of scientific knowledge we have today actually supports biblical creation. He says, “For the first time in history we have access to all the feeling states that humans have always needed to thrive.” These states include trust, gratitude, and inspiration. He argues that for most of human history, mythic beliefs were the only way to instill these feelings, because there wasn’t the knowledge of ‘deep time’ and billions of years. The host, evolutionary evangelist, the Reverend Michael Dowd, made the comparison to how ancient people made up gods when they didn’t understand phenomena like lightning and thunder, but now we know what causes lightning and thunder. In the same way, it is implied, what we’ve learned about how the universe actually works, now that we know that everything evolved over billions of years, the Genesis ‘myth’ is, if not outmoded, in need or a serious reappraisal to see where it actually fits in an enlightened postmodern outlook.
McLaren says that these evolutionary beliefs that couldn’t have been known prior to the modern age are “so much richer than the mythic beliefs we had before.” “Mythic” beliefs like God’s creation of the world, His providential love for humanity that caused Him not to abandon us even after we rebelled? “Mythic” beliefs like God coming to earth in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, and then dying the most ignominious, horrific death that the people of that day could dream up to pay for our sin? “Mythic” beliefs like Him rising on the third day? If one is a myth, how are the others historical? Because the same ‘science’ that says the earth is billions of years old and that all life evolved says that dead people don’t come alive again on the third day. One wonders what is McLaren’s logical basis for accepting one ‘myth’ (and I hope that he does accept the Resurrection, because one must believe that to be a Christian) while rejecting the other. Where does the truth begin, after all?
‘We know more today’
Dowd points to the scientific knowledge of how the world works that has been revealed in the last 200 years “that couldn’t have been revealed to the Apostle Paul, that couldn’t have been revealed to Moses.” One almost expected him to continue “that couldn’t have been revealed to Jesus,” but thankfully at least he didn’t consciously take that step.
I have no problem with saying that Paul didn’t know about nuclear fission, and that Moses didn’t know anything about atomic theory. In a sense, we do know some things that Paul and Moses didn’t know about. But I don’t think that’s what Dowd was saying here. He’s speaking specifically of the evolutionary understanding of the world’s history and life. And if that ‘story’ (both participants in the teleconference session were very fond of the word ‘story’) is correct, then it’s not just that Paul and Moses didn’t know some stuff, it’s that they thought some stuff was true that actually wasn’t. And if that’s true, then that throws a spanner into the whole of Scripture, because if they could be wrong about something that important, if God could have misled them, or if He could have been misinterpreted there, then how can we believe Scripture when it says that Jesus is the only way to salvation? “If I tell you of earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you of heavenly things?” (John 3:12).
But do they believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation? In a series called Evolutionary Christianity, one could be forgiven for expecting some semblance of Christian thought, and at least nominal acceptance of some of the really core beliefs. But if they believe that the Bible is revelation from God in any meaningful sense that puts it on a plane above, say, The Code of Hammurabi or Mastering the Art of French Cooking, it certainly doesn’t show in their statements. They talk about ‘ancient Genesis myths’ and ‘Egyptian creation myths’ without differentiating any substantial difference as far as inspiration is concerned. These stories, along with apparently everything else, “emerged in conversation” with each other and other creation myths, each trying to solve problems in the others. In this view, we’re asked to view the myths not in terms of ‘true’ and ‘false’, but how ‘helpful’ or ‘unhelpful’ they are. They claim that ‘from this standpoint we can see the deep wisdom in virtually all of them.” But I would argue that this view actually disrespects the texts themselves, which make truth claims, and so should be evaluated on that level. And it almost goes without saying that this is certainly not a biblical way to view them.
They claim that even in these stories, there’s a sort of “evolutionary unfolding.” But the stories still haven’t evolved completely. McLaren makes the statement that we don’t yet have a unified statement that allows us to see each other as brothers and sisters worldwide, or one global family; our creation stories are apparently still at a level that “facilitates cooperation at a smaller scale.” But we do have a better, more unifying creation story that allows us to see ourselves as one human family—the creation account in Genesis proclaims that every single human being is descended from Adam and Eve, and everyone alive today is descended from Noah and his three sons. This is a very recent common ancestor, which makes us all very closely linked, as modern genetic evidence suggests. But this creation story would not allow us to see each other as brothers and sisters if it was not based upon actual history.
The ‘benefits’ of an evolutionary outlook
McLaren spends a lot of time talking about what Genesis doesn’t mean, but he doesn’t actually get around to saying what it does mean. He says that it’s a really good story that explains what’s fundamentally wrong with us, why we want to do things but we don’t, why we break our word, let people down, etc. But unless one takes a literal historical view of Genesis and the Fall, one wonders how one can define what is morally wrong or right? But he has an answer for this. Lest we think for a moment that he’s actually taking a high view of Genesis where it really explains why we are the way we are, he quickly says, “But now we understand that we have instincts that don’t match our world.” He argues that the instincts that we have now helped our ancestors to survive, but those instincts are not appropriate for the modern world in which we live. But if they were appropriate in ancient times, why do we have ancient codes that condemn those tendencies? All this view does is make man, not God, the ultimate authority of what is wrong or right.
He says that we should be grateful for those tendencies, because they helped our ancestors to survive; without them, we literally wouldn’t be alive, in that view. But then, is he calling sin good, just hundreds of thousands of years ago? McLaren derides the view that we are the way we are because our great-great … grandmother ate an apple, saying that it has “no explanatory power, no gratitude.” Well, for starters the Bible doesn’t say it was an apple, but nonetheless the event actually has a great deal of explanatory power, if you believe that’s what actually happened. It would certainly take some “explanatory power” to justify a God who created us with impulses that would allow us to survive and evolve, and then to say that those very things He created us with are sinful.
McLaren claims that since he realizes this, he doesn’t struggle with his sinful nature, and that he doesn’t feel guilty like he used to. He uses the example of seeing a beautiful woman, and says, “Of course I think that woman should be carrying my child!” But he says the understanding of evolutionary psychology means that he knows why he’s attracted to the woman, and simultaneously allows him to reject those impulses. Dowd agrees, saying that the view that certain behaviours consign people to Hell while others get people into Heaven is a very “pre-moral” way of looking at things that may help some people at a primitive moral state, but that this way of perceiving right and wrong creates an “inner world” of shame, hypocrisy, and leads people to be unacceptable. Sexual attraction (not always directed appropriately) is one part of our makeup that was advantageous as we evolved, but that isn’t always now. But that seems to be trivializing and justifying the sin of lust, which Jesus certainly didn’t just shrug his shoulders at and say, “Oh well, you evolved to be that way” (cf. Matthew 5:27-28).
The claim itself that a Christian isn’t struggling with their sin nature is problematic, because even with all of its definite calls to holiness and rejection of sin, the Bible is very candid about the human propensity toward sin. 1 John 1 says that if we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us, and that if we claim we have not sinned, we make Jesus out to be a liar and His word is not in us (vv. 8, 10). Is this what McLaren and Dowd are claiming? Perhaps, but I think it is more likely that they are redefining the problem until it is practically impossible to call any propensity towards wrong action sinful.
An underlying problem
He referred to creation as one might refer to a crazy old aunt—he had to acknowledge it was there, but wanted to change the subject as quickly as possible.
As disturbing as some of these comments were, the underlying attitude toward Scripture, and Christianity in general, was far more serious in my opinion. One waited in vain for any statement that was unapologetically and specifically Christian. He seemed to be apologizing for Scripture rather than presenting an apologetic; he referred to creation as one might refer to a crazy old aunt—he had to acknowledge it was there, but wanted to change the subject as quickly as possible. Even religious terminology was apologized for with phrases such as “if I can use such faith-based terms”, etc.
Not everyone who becomes an evolutionist will go down the slippery slope to liberalism and eventually unbelief. But examples like McLaren and Dowd show that the slope is not simply hypothetical. Simply because some theistic evolutionists are otherwise evangelical and orthodox does not make that an ‘okay’ view for Christians to hold. We’re not saying you can’t be a saved evolutionist—we’ve never said that. But we see over and over again that how one takes Genesis can be indicative of one’s view of Scripture in general. What was demonstrated in this teleconference was not just disbelief in Genesis, but a rejection of a biblical view of sin (sin becomes things that we evolved to help us survive several hundred thousand years ago) and salvation (there are good things in other faith traditions, other ‘myths’). In its place, they’ve embraced the evolutionary worldview and a ‘many ways to God’ approach while retaining some ‘Christianisms’ to make it easier for evangelicals to swallow.
Unfortunately, many lay Christians are eager to appease the world and make Christianity more acceptable and appealing in the hope that many more will accept the faith. But, in the process, McLaren and his ilk have defined Christianity out of any true meaning or purpose. Their imaginative ‘cleverness’ have made them nothing more than willing dupes for the true religion of evolution, which is atheism. As such, atheists must be rubbing their hands with glee. If the world was to think that this is what Christianity means, then the church is on the fast track to nonexistence.
Christians should not be surprised that the gospel will be rejected by many. There is no need to redefine it. Man’s nature is to be rebellious to His Creator and evolution provides a great excuse to ignore God. True Christians need to make a stand for the truth claims of Scripture and its big picture, which has been totally lost in this almost complete reinterpretation of the gospel. We should take heed of the admonition of the Lord Jesus Christ (the Creator God revealed in the flesh) when He said:
“If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you” (John 15:19).
History shows us that appeasement has had little success when dealing with sin.