Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Scot McKnight Reviews Brian McLaren

In the latest issue of Christianity Today (which I read only sporadically), Scot McKnight, who teaches at North Park University and blogs at Jesus Creed, reviews Brian McLaren’s latest book, A New Kind of Christianity. 

McLaren, pastor of the mega-church Cedar Ridge Community Church in Maryland, has been a kind of guru for the “Emergent Christianity” movement among 20-somethings and early 30-somethings.  I have found the Emergent movement too vague and fuzzy for my taste, but I have not been among its critics because I also recognize it as a possible renewal movement in U.S. Christianity. It has been especially helpful in sparking a new social conscience among younger evangelicals who are rejecting the Religious Right which has dominated evangelicalism since c. 1979 and the rise of the so-called “Moral Majority.” (I come from the older “Evangelical Left” movement which grew out of the encounter of white evangelicals with the Black Church in the Civil Rights movement and encounter with the Vietname War. So, themes which Emergent folk find brand new, I experience as a–usually welcome–recovery from before the hijacking of the evangelical ethos in American Christianity by Religious Right fundamentalists.)  McLaren has seemed to be to embody the strengths and weaknesses of Emergents well.

Likewise, I have found McKnight to be a good conversation partner in theology.  So, I read his review with interest.

On the whole, I found it to be balanced.  McLaren does tend to paint all Western evangelicalism in broad fundamentalist strokes and to trumpet his own liberation from all that in the overheated prose of the convert and true believer.  If you are looking for nuance, McLaren is not your speed. McKnight does also highlight McLaren’s strength in “poking” (McKnight’s word) evangelicalism’s weaknesses, especially it’s largely conformist social conscience.

McKnight is a careful historian of early Christian origins, so he is annoyed at the overly broad strokes in which McLaren paints a “Greco-Roman narrative” which, McLaren claims, sidetracked and distorted Christianity early on.  But McKnight goes overboard in painting McLaren as a new Adolf von Harnack (although I do find echoes of John A. T. Robinson and John Shelby Spong!).  And McKnight’s attempt at guilt by association lumps McLaren in with the likes of Karen Armstrong, Harvey Cox, and Marcus Borg–who are all very different scholars and who do not form any kind of school, much less any new form of the Religionsgeschictlicheschule of 19th C. Germany.

Because McKnight has great respect for the theological work of the early church councils (especially Nicea and Chalcedon), a respect which I share, he dismisses McLaren’s contrast of the “Greco-Roman narrative” and its “Theos god” with the Abba of Jesus as simply the “old saw” of a the Fall of the Church with emperor Constantine.  As one influenced by the Anabaptists, I take exception to the idea that the Constantinian Fall of the Church is merely an “old saw.” One can admire later developments (as I do) while still recognizing that Constantine’s “conversion” began a process (completed under Theodosius) that dramatically changed the nature of Christianity–and in many ways for the worse.  The shift from an outlawed and often persecuted religion most popular with women and slaves to an imperial religion that was soon persecuting Jews, pagans, and heretics, is not a slight shift or mere adjustment.  It was a calamity and the term “Fall” is not unadvised, even if it does tend to obscure positive developments later. 

In short, I suspect that BOTH McLaren and McKnight paint in overly broad strokes when tightly weaved arguments and detailed portraits are needed.  McLaren wants to outline a paradigm shift (to employ an overused term) in Western Christianity, but he’d already done this in A Generous Orthodoxy.  McKnight correctly notes that McLaren has been partially successful in generating a new social gospel among (younger) North American evangelicals.  I also think McKnight is onto something in claiming that evangelicalism serves as a “necessary devil” (a foil) for McLaren and I always think that theologies of reaction too easily become overreaction.  But the same applies to McKnight. Although he notes strengths, he doesn’t really review McLaren in an evenhanded way. He comes to the book irked by elements in McLaren’s earlier work and expecting to be further irked here–and is not disappointed.

McLaren and the Emergent movement he represents are still too “fuzzy” and vague, but McKnight seems caught between roles:  that of cautious advisor to Emergents and one of defender of the Evangelical old guard.  McLaren’s book (all his writings) needs evaluation and review from someone sufficiently distant from these internal struggles for objectivity and Scot McKnight falls short.


March 3, 2010 - Posted by | book reviews, ethics, pop culture, theology


  1. Michael, I’d be very interested in reading your analysis of Brian McLaren’s new book.

    Comment by Canadian Presbyterian | March 4, 2010 | Reply

    • Well, I just gave it–highlighting places where I thought McKnight was on target and places I thought he went overboard.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | March 4, 2010 | Reply

  2. Thanks, your comments are helpful. Do you know of any reviews that go through the book in a systematic way?

    Comment by Canadian Presbyterian | March 8, 2010 | Reply

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