Note: I've had a decent flow of traffic to this post the past day or two, some eight months after I posted it. That's amazing to me. But it's also saddening to me that people are reading it as some heavy condemnation of McLaren. Like I mention in my reply to one commenter, I count some of McLaren's books among my favorites. I walked away disappointed by his presentation that night because I know he's capable of so much more substance and so much better articulation. I wasn't looking for him to present his own doctrinal formulas...I was hoping for more of the thoughtful nuances that he's known for. And all I got that night was a history of the conversation and deferment. That's all I tried to say with my critique. To read me as somebody hostile to emergent is an awful misinterpretation, and I will happily clarify anything that paints me in such a light if you stick around long enough to read my reply to you. That said, I regret the tone of this entry now that I'm far enough removed from it.
Last night, I traveled to Malone University to attend a debate between Brian McLaren, emerging/emergent church figurehead, and Bryan Hollon, professor of theology at Malone. The topic of the debate was "Emerging or Diverging: In What Direction is the Emerging Church Movement Headed?" I was a little wary about how this would go, if only because I know Malone to be a fairly conservative institution and to many, McLaren is one of those heathen liberals. So I was concerned that he'd be in front of a hostile audience. To be honest, I was also concerned that he wouldn't do himself any favors...McLaren can be charitable and understated in his approach to the point where he gives away any high ground.
Thankfully, my first concern didn't completely pan out. The second pretty much did.
McLaren was given the floor first, and he first took a few minutes to clarify that the emerging church is not a movement, but a conversation. You know...that old chestnut. A movement, he observed, is something that gets hot for a few years, pastors and churches get on board, and then it fizzles out and everyone moves on to the next thing. In addition, a movement usually has an organizer and a leader, and the emerging church doesn't (O RLY?). A conversation, he suggested, is more of an evolving thing that never really ends. He also observed that when someone is in pain, they want to talk about it and find people experiencing similar pain to have that conversation. This observation was sort of left hanging there, but the connection I think he wanted people to make was that the emerging conversation is being held between a lot of people feeling pain because they can't affirm traditional Christian truths in the same way any more. But that's meeting him halfway.
McLaren then moved into how the emerging has evolved, and told pieces of the story of how the movem...uh...conversation started. This story is chronicled in several books on the emerging church such as Tony Jones' The New Christians: a group of guys got together in 1998 wondering how megachurches can reach people ages 18-35. The discussion eventually turned from how to reach a certain age bracket to how to communicate and think about faith and theology in a changing culture. He then walked people through various emphases that the conversation has taken on over the years, such as gaining an understanding of Christian history beyond the past few centuries, and asking how the gospel speaks to issues such as poverty and ecology. He then made some observations about how the conversation is actually more advanced in other cultures and countries such as places in Africa and Latin America, noting that the group realized the conversation needed to advance beyond white males. Actually, he said "most" of the group realized this (Zing, Driscoll!).
So then Hollon got up, purporting to defend the more orthodox view of things. He made some concessions about the state of the culture, even observing that if certain church trends continue, only 10% of the United States will be involved in churches by 2050. He also stated that he actually agrees with a lot of what McLaren says, but since this was a debate he needed to disagree for the sake of the event. So that was interesting.
Anyway, Hollon first cited McLaren's suggestion that Christian thinking evolves (written in my Moleskine notebook: "Yeah, so?"). He observed that that means that our understanding of Christian concepts is never complete, while the traditional claim is that we've been handed down the One True Faith whole cloth through the various creeds and dogmas. He cited a few Bible verses that suggest as much as well. A little later in his argument, Hollon seemed to suggest that belief and doctrine are keys to "understanding God." That phrase struck me weird, especially since so many great theologians state that our ability to understand God is ultimately limited.
The assumptions on Hollon's end were pretty obvious, and of course he didn't address the issue that these creeds and dogmas need to be reinterpreted for new generations and that prevalent cultural thought may influence how we do that. Hollon suggested that the faith hasn't changed down through Christian history, ignoring the differences between the Athanasian and Arian schools, the changes that came with the Reformation, the divergence in Reformed theology between Schleiermacher and Barth. See...the faith hasn't changed so long as you pay attention to only one tradition.
Hollon's final point had to do with McLaren's advocacy of the use of story and poetry to better communicate in the postmodern era. He first read all the verses of "Joy to the World," noting that many great theologians have also been poets and songwriters. And then he suggested that the story of Christian dogma is the most exciting story in history (Moleskine: "Yikes").
McLaren was offered the chance for rebuttal, which was very gooey. He said that "If what Hollon has said works for you, then great. Don't read my books. But if you have a lot of questions, my books may help you. I like what he said, even if I can't affirm some of it any more." That's a paraphrase. Thankfully, Hollon called him on the gooiness of his reply and stated that he'd hoped for more. I did as well.
At this point, the floor was open to questions, and it very quickly turned into an inquisition of McLaren. One person got up and asked this very precise doctrinal question, to the effect of, "Do you believe that Jesus Christ, God's only Son, came to earth to die as a substitute on the cross to save us from a literal hell so that all who believe may have eternal life?" McLaren first observed the Inquisition spirit of the question, and then stated that he believes that Jesus came to do a lot of things: talk about the kingdom of God, show us something of God's glory and character, etc., and that he can't reduce Jesus to a formula like that. This response actually drew applause.
I had to leave shortly after this, but I nevertheless was glad for the chance to hear McLaren speak, even if I wished he'd been a little more direct about his own positions.