The Great Spiritual Migration – A Challenge From and To Brian McLaren

A review of Brian D. McLaren’s The Great Spiritual Migration (how the world’s largest religion is seeking a better way to be Christian).

McLaren again admits that he wants to change the substance of Christianity. The cross should be demoted to a symbol like other symbols. Brian is basically creating a god in his own image – in his words God 5.0, a god of the inclusive we, the God of all of us. His God is entirely man-made.

 

The Moderator loved it. In fact he loved it so much that he commended it to the 2000 women of the Women’s Guild who met in Dundee’s Caird Hall last weekend. He tweeted – “This is proving a terrific and challenging read. Highly recommended.”

As it happened the book he was commending, is one that I recently finished, and was about to write a review on. It’s a book that is endorsed by Steve Chalke, and Canon Mark Russell of the Church Army, and Peter Enns. It talks about justice and peace and love and equality and diversity and accepting one another. If there is a buzzword in our culture then you can be sure it makes it into this book.   What could possibly be wrong?

I am referring to Brian D. McLaren’s The Great Spiritual Migration (how the world’s largest religion is seeking a better way to be Christian).  It sounds great and it’s got all the right sounding words. Brian is a man, who like me grew up in the Christian Brethren, and who has now moved on to greater things. He is according to the book blurb, “an internationally acclaimed speaker and outspoken advocate for a ‘new kind of Christianity’. Named one of Time Magazine’s 25 most influential evangelical Christians, McLaren was a pastor for over 20 years.”   Who knows? Maybe McLaren’s New Kind of Christianity will be the antidote for decline that the Church of Scotland is seeking? Maybe the drastic dip in church attendance will be halted when churches put into practice McLaren’s new theological orthodoxy.   Even better – He’s not just written a new book – he’s coming on tour. For £10 a pop you can hear him in various venues throughout the United Kingdom – including St Columba’s Church of Scotland in Largs.

As regards the former I do not share the moderator’s high view of McLaren’s latest work. When I read through a book I normally use a highlighter and a pen to make remarks. These are some that are on my copy right now!

“Pathetic dumbed down neo-evangelical liberalism”

“What a lot of pagan waffle!”

“Contradictory, smug and illogical”

Ok-maybe I was just having a bad hair (or in my case no hair) day?! So I thought to be fair it couldn’t be that bad and I should read it over again. I did. That’s another couple of hours of my life I won’t get back! If anything, second time round it was worse!   I have to say that in a very competitive field, this is the most inane, theologically inept, and anti-Christian book I have read in many a year. To be honest I would prefer a good atheist book to this kind of pseudo-spiritual, dumbed down waffle that masquerades as Christianity. Any church that adopts this approach has in effect ceased to be a Church of Jesus Christ and has moved far away from any pretence of Christianity.

I would like to say it is a dangerous book but for two reasons I cannot. Firstly I know that McLaren and others love to be called “dangerous”. It’s so edgy and cool! Secondly, I find it difficult to believe that people would get taken in by this kind of irrational, unbiblical and historically illiterate approach.   But perhaps I have too high an opinion of my fellow citizens.   Why is it so bad?

1) McLaren denies many of the basic teachings of Christ –

The atoning sacrifice of Jesus. Teaching about human sexuality. The Bible as the word of God. In fact if you removed The Father, Son and Holy Spirit and the Bible from this book – you would still have the same conclusion. The god McLaren believes in seems to be some kind of Deistic mystical force who just happens to agree with all the current Western liberal shibboleths. In no sense is this a book that has anything to do with meaningful Christianity.

2) He demeans those who disagree with him by being dishonest about what they believe.

“Christian faith for me is no longer a static location but a great spiritual journey. And that changes everything.”

“It took me almost 5 decades to understand that the call to Christian discipleship is a call to get going, to move forward. That’s why have written this book.”

This is to be frank, quite a shocking admission. Did McLaren really profess to be a Christian and spend 20 years as a minister without knowing that Christians are pilgrims on a journey, that here we have no continuing city and that we are constantly to keep in step with the Spirit?   If he did then he should not presume that the rest of us are as ignorant of our bibles as he apparently was. But of course he doesn’t mean it. He is exaggerating not to deprecate himself but to tell us that all of us who stick with the Bible are basically ignorant, stuck in the mud, bigots who need to move on. Such charming ‘love’!

“For billions of people, for Christianity to be Christian only one thing matters: correct beliefs. Based on the priorities of many Christians and leaders and institutions, we might conclude that Jesus said, “by the beliefs you shall know them,” or “this is my command, that you believe the right doctrines,” or “behold, a new systematic theology I give unto you.” (Page 21)

Again fine sounding hyperbole that acts as confirmation bias for liberals who already believe that this is what evangelicals think. Except we don’t. Because we believe the Bible we know that they will know we are Christians by our love etc.   I know of no evangelical Christian who holds to the caricature that McLaren puts forward. It’s a dishonest form of rhetoric designed to boast about himself and demean those he disagrees with.

“When I met a gay person, when I interacted with an atheist, agnostic or a person of another religion, even when I met a fellow Christian who understood the Bible differently, my Bible quoting inner fundamentalist seemed to whisper in my ear, “don’t trust them. Don’t open your heart to them. They are not safe. They are not one of us. Don’t fully love them. If they’re open you should try to convert them, but otherwise keep your distance. Come apart from among them and be separate!” I started to feel that my inherited way of reading the Bible was making a less open, less loving, less generous person than I otherwise would have been.” (Page 122)

Again the caricature. The faux pax confession (‘look how bad I was, look how wonderful I am now’!). And the misrepresentation and demonization of others. Maybe McLaren was this ugly, horrible fundamentalist. But he shouldn’t project his ugliness on to the rest of us.   As a Bible believing Christian I accept what it says about not trusting in princes, or calling no man father. I trust only Christ and his word. And it’s precisely because I do so that I can have the ability to love all and to fear none. I hope I fear only God.   If McLaren’s misrepresentation and dishonesty about bible believing Christians is an example of the new ‘open, loving and generous’ person he has become, all I can plead is “Lord, save us from such love’!

When he discusses history he takes the most extreme examples in order to demonise the views with which is disagreeing and he lumps everyone together.   He is very good at ad hom. As good as the atheists who, because the 9/11 attackers were ‘religious’, lump all religious people as being dangerous. Apparently as a bible believing Christian I am in the same category as the conquistadores who murdered, raped and pillaged in Latin America.

The smugness is almost unbearable. “I came to understand that even if what they said about me was completely false, unfair or inaccurate, my critics were giving me true information about their own fears, biases, assumptions and concerns.” (Page 206). You have to admit that that is a very good self-defence mechanism. McLaren, speaking ex- cathedra, cannot possibly allow himself the possibility that his new religion could be wrong, so he immediately turns all criticism into confirmation bias about his fearful, biased opponents.

3) He is Illogical and Self-Contradictory in his Assertions

“What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs, but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressing compassion, that makes amends for its mistakes and is dedicated to beloved community for all? Could Christians migrate from defining their faith as a system of beliefs to expressing it as a loving way of life? Could Christian faith lose the bitter taste of colonialism, exclusion, judgement, hypocrisy and oppression, and regain the sweet and nourishing flavour of justice, joy and peace?” Page 3

I could write an essay about how prejudiced, illogical and torturous that statement is. I discovered a long time ago – when I came to know Christ, that my faith was not ‘a problematic system of beliefs’ but it was about Christ and what he had done. Unlike McLaren’s beliefs about his ability to self-atone, I know I cannot ‘make amends for my mistakes’. I needed and need Christ to forgive me – from my sins. It’s from that, that a ‘loving way of life’ is possible. The idea that ‘a loving way of life’ acts as my atonement is horrendous and dooms whoever believes it either to a desperate cycle of good works, or a delusional self-righteousness.  He then sets up this false antithesis – you can have colonialism, exclusion, judgement, hypocrisy and oppression (if you are a traditional bible believing Christian), or sweet and nourishing justice, joy and peace – if you follow his way. Not of course that he is making any kind of judgement, or seeking to impose any of his values!

“Beliefs are commonly defined as opinions or judgements about which a person or group is fully persuaded. Although beliefs generally can’t be proven, they are treated among believers as certainty, perhaps not as absolute certainties, and as certain enough that they aren’t up to questioning. (For this reason, we might define beliefs sociologically as statements that a group requires members to affirm and not question or contradict.) (Page 49)

McLaren, as an intelligent man, must know that attacking people for having a set of beliefs, and basing that attack on your own set of beliefs, is hardly logical. In fact his description above is a neat self-description. McLaren and co do have a set of beliefs that are not up for questioning (true not many of them are beliefs about God – usually more about themselves – and most of them are the same fundamentalist doctrines of the Western liberal elites – but they are still beliefs treated as certainty and not up for question or contradiction within their own bubble).

“We need to be energised by something other than beliefs, because beliefs are not the point.… Conversely, if you believe that every human being matters and bears the whole image of God,…” (Page 33)

At least McLaren has to nous to admit that this is contradictory. To argue that beliefs are not the point is completely destroyed when you realise that this itself is a belief. Beliefs are precisely the point.   McLaren just wants to change the beliefs upon which Christianity has been based and substitute them with his own doctrines.

4) He is seeking to Remake the Christian Faith in his own image.

“My most direct answer would be that we are migrating towards a profound conversion in Christian faith. Were seeking a change in the content, not just the can; in substance, not just in style or structure.” (Page 9)

“What if the basin towel, symbols of loving service, and the bread and cup, symbols of self giving love, became as important as the cross in our buildings?” (Page 69)

McLaren again admits that he wants to change the substance of Christianity. The cross should be demoted to a symbol like other symbols. Brian is basically creating a god in his own image – in his words God 5.0, a god of the inclusive we, the God of all of us. His God is entirely man-made.

In this project he has been joined by other ex-evangelicals who still want to call themselves evangelical and keep the good bits (the money, the people and the worship). Steve Chalke, and Rob Bell are his compatriots in this unholy trinity. He also mentions others like Peter Enns, Dave Andrews and Rachel Held Evans.

What disappoints me about this is that other Christians, who say they don’t agree with McLaren, nonetheless are prepared to regard his views as a legitimate expression of Christianity – when they are in fact the teaching of anti-Christ. I was a subscriber to the online Christian bookstore, Eden. When I saw that they were promoting The Great Spiritual Migration I wrote them the following:

Dear ‘Eden’.

I am sorry to see that you are promoting Brian McLaren’s ‘Spiritual Migration’ for church leaders. It is a long time since I read such a depressing and anti-Christian book, written by a professing Christian. It is this kind of error and heresy coming into the church that has caused us so much harm and weakened us in the United Kingdom. I cannot support an organisation that promotes such a book,

Result? – A curt letter back saying I had been unsubscribed and no attempt made to justify their position or deal with my concerns.   And a lost customer.

5) He is Dishonest about the Bible

“Abraham had no Scripture, no temple, no laws, no doctrines, no clergy, no atonement theories, no concept of heaven, no concept of hell, no vestments, no sacraments, no creed, no baptism and no name for his religion “(page 50)

He is just making this up. Even a cursory knowledge of the Bible would let him know that this is not true. Is Hebrews 7 in McLaren’s bible? Abraham tithed to Melchizedek the priest – the clergyman!   Was the sacrifice of his son not a theory of atonement?   Again McLaren knows this but he is at best trying to be smart and at worst just openly deceiving people.

“We must admit that we are not ready for the task now. We are carrying so much old baggage, so many “weights that so easily entangle us” (see Hebrews 12:1).” – This is just yet another example of how he misquotes Scripture. The ‘weights’ are the sins that so easily entangle us – not the theology of the bible. This quotation out context of a bible he rejects anyway is sadly all too typical.

Part two of the book is entitled “ the theological migration from a violent God of domination to a non-violent God of liberation.” Again setting up a straw man argument in terms of his own liberal theology and paying no attention to what the Bible actually teaches.   It is clear that McLaren wants as Niebuhr famously quipped” “A God without wrath brought men without sin, into a Kingdom without judgment, through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”

6) He is Dishonest About the World.

 McLaren lives in an illusory world. Where globalisation and the hippy version of love conquers all. Where the purpose of Christianity is simply to reform the world (as well as God) in the image of modern Western liberals.

In this imaginary world he talks about how using multifaith collaborations he has come to see that when Paul speaks about one body with many members he is not just talking about individual Christians but rather about gifts amongst the religions! Paul of course was not really against idolatry, or paganism or false worship – they are just different expressions of the same gospel!

Even more astonishing according to McLaren we live in a world where everything is holy. Really? I don’t think that a child being raped is holy, or the earth being polluted is holy, or indeed Christ being mocked is holy. I don’t live in that world. I live in a world which a holy God regarded as so degraded and ugly that he sent his Son to die for that world and redeem and beautify it.  He died to make us holy – not because we are holy.

Here is another great example of this kind of fanciful thinking.   Quoting M Scott Peck “life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.” (Page 200) This is a piece worthy of Pseuds Corner in Private Eye! Once we know that something is true, then it is no longer true! I really need to grasp this. Imagine the possibilities. Once I know I am poor, I am no longer poor. Once I know I have cancer, I no longer have cancer!

7) He is so unoriginal

I realise that there are those who are excitedly talking about McLaren’s work being a ‘new kind of Christianity’. It’s not. There is nothing new under the sun.   This is just a rehash of 19th Century Protestant liberalism reincarnated in a 21st Century American style broad evangelicalism.

“To accept Jesus and to accept the God Jesus loved is to become an atheist in relation to the Supreme Being of violent and dominating power.” (Page 101)

“In short, I could leave the genocidal God of some biblical passages behind an already generous God revealed in Jesus.” (Page 131)

 He sets up the classic old straw man argument of the loving Jesus of the NT against the violent God of the OT. Only those who are ignorant of the Bible would be able to fall for that. Or those who just don’t believe in him anyway and are just looking for an excuse not to do so. Dawkins in chapter 3 of The God Delusion agrees totally with McLaren. But both Dawkins and Hitchens at least had the suss and honesty to realise that Jesus claimed that the God of the OT was his Father, that the OT Scripture could not be broken (it was a true record of the will and character of God) and that Jesus said far more horrific things than anything in the OT, ie. in his teaching about hell.     McLaren of course thinks that he knows better than Jesus. Or to put it another way – he won’t say that – he’ll just invent a Jesus who amazingly happens to agree with McLaren on everything!

Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing.

Last Sunday I preached on Acts 20 and especially Paul’s warning to the Ephesian elders that “savage wolves will come in among you and not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard. Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears”.

 This is happening in the Western evangelical church today. Even from our own number (McLaren, Chalke, Bell, Enns etc.) there are those who have arisen who are savage wolves – seeking to devour the flock of Christ.   If Eden and other Christian groups were around in Ephesus in Paul’s day doubtless they would be publishing books such as ‘the Pauline perspective re-evaluated’, or ‘the great spiritual migration from Paul to the new orthodoxy’.   And there would have been those evangelical leaders who would have misused the teaching about love to attack Paul for being so passionate that he cried for three years!   ‘That’s a bit OTT, Paul. Simmer down. Be nice.’

And Africa needs to beware!

The Western anti-colonialists are preparing a new type of colonialism.   “They realise that as Africa became more educated, churches will need better training for church leaders – including more thoughtful ways of reading and interpreting the Bible.” McLaren has such a lack of self-awareness that he doesn’t see the irony of the fact that at the same time as complaining about influence from the West he himself is seeking to bring this liberal influence from the West!

And we need to beware in our churches here.   McLaren is quite explicit about his Trotskyist style entryism.   He suggests that because there are Christians who still hold to the Bible that people who think like him should form little churches within a bigger church hoping that their influence will spread like yeast amongst the dough. These are the new Gnostics. The new super spiritual elite. The ones who have the extra biblical secret.  And like poison they hope to infect the whole body.

Why am I so strong about this?  Because I don’t like seeing people being poisoned.   I love the Lord, I love his people and I love his world. The only hope for this world – for the peace, justice and joy that McLaren says he wants, is in the Gospel he has written this book to deny. I may not have the passion of Paul, but I aspire to it.

I read this earlier in the week from John Owen:

“The issue between these men and us is this and no other: We persuade men to take the Scripture as the only rule, and the holy promised Spirit of God, sought by ardent prayers and supplications, in the use of all means appointed by Christ for that end, for their guide. They deal with men to turn into themselves, and to attend unto the light within them. Whilst we build on these most distant principles, the difference between us is irreconcilable, and will be eternal.” (Works vol 4 p159).

An Apostate Church

Lets return to the Moderator of the Church of Scotland and his enthusiastic endorsement of McLaren’s heresy, before the 2,000 guild women.   The night before at the induction of Andrew Robertson to the new church plant in Charleston, Robin Sydserff of Chalmers Church in Edinburgh made a bold and courageous public statement – as a former Church of Scotland minister, he spoke of the Church of Scotland as being apostate. I realise that there are those within the C of S who are faithful Christians who will find that a hard statement – but is it a true one?  If Scott McKenna can deny the cross with impunity, and if McLaren’s anti-Christ views of Christ and his word, can be so wholeheartedly endorsed by the Moderator, what other conclusion can there be?   Individual Christians, ministers and congregations may and are remaining faithful to the Word of God within the Kirk, but there is surely no doubt that he denomination as a whole has departed from the ‘faith once delivered to the saints’ and is no longer ‘the pillar and ground of the truth’. Ichabod

The Challenge to McClaren

If McLaren and others think this is way OTT and indeed wrong – as I suspect they might – let me offer a wee challenge. Brian, why don’t we have a ‘dialogue’ (I believe ‘conversation’ is the ‘in’ parlance) – you choose the time and place. I am not over hopeful that this could happen – because one of the things I have noticed about the new ‘liberal post-evangelicals’ is that whilst they are really into ‘dialogue’ and ‘conversation’ with Muslims, pagans and atheists, they don’t seem too keen to dialogue with Christians who actually believe the bible – they prefer to demonise and use us as the fall guys for their rhetoric.   But I live in hope. Lets have a convo – and let the God who answers by fire – be him be God!

  1.  Having seen the number of people who have been taken in by McLaren can I suggest that you pass this article on to as many as possible?  People do need to be warned.

David Robertson is the Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland. He’s also the minister of St Peter’s Free Church in Dundee and director of Solas the Centre for Public Christianity.  This article is used with permission.