Friday, May 16, 2008

The Emergent Nehemiah?

Anyone who has read emergent pastor Brian McLaren's stuff knows that he is less than charitable to his critics. Anyone who has read this blog knows that I can be counted among his critics.

Recently, however, Mr. McLaren has identified a peculiar target in the form of a (heretofore unbeknownst to me) online newsletter. The Lighthouse Trails Research Project (that rolls trippingly off the tongue doesn't it?), whose stated aim is "Exposing the Dangers of Contemplative Spirituality" (ditto) recently took to task Kay Warren, wife of mega-church svengali Rick, for participating in Envision '08* alongside some left-wing Christian muckity-mucks, McLaren included.

The strenuous objection of LTRP has compelled McL to ruminate on the nature of fear, and its various strata**. In his words:

First, there are the fearsome -- those who like to make others afraid.

Second, there are the fearless -- those who refuse to be intimidated by the

Then in the middle are the fearful -- those who are afraid to associate with the fearless because they might incur the ire of the fearsome.

In this paradigm, the LTRP (whose moniker is better suited for a redwood preservation society, or a band of elk enthusiasts, IMO) fits neatly into the first category, employing "guilt by association" to achieve their means. Actually, the tone of their piece is one of befuddlement more than condemnation, but I'll grant him his point, since these folks are a bit off generally, and because Kay's advocacy on behalf of the poor is above reproach***.

But fearsome? Here is a picture of Deb and Dave Dombrowski

Call them the plaid Sanhedrin. At any rate, this ferocious duo has prompted McL to gush of Kay Warren's heroism:

for attending an event that includes people like (shudder) Shane Claiborne, Jim
Wallis, Jay Bakker, Doug Pagitt, and (shudder again) me.

The parentheticals are a bit disingenuous - nothing in the LTRP piece evinces shuddering or even wincing - but they serve a larger purpose than dismissing an obscure online newsletter. McL wants us to believe he is not only fearless (I'll get to that in a moment) but harmless as well. But whether McL's theological gerrymandering merits convulsion is another question entirely. McL's critics find quite a bit of shudder-worthy prose in, for example, A Generous Orthodoxy.

Nonetheless, in the narrative of the fear triumverate, McL is eager to cast himself as Nehemiah, who doesn't "want to get involved with their debates" (emphasis mine). Whose debates? The LTRP did not hold a debate, but simply offered its assessment. One could argue that the mere offering of an assessment constitutes a de facto opening salvo to such an exchange, but I find this a curious tact coming from one who has written reams of books, blog posts, and open letters castigating what he perceives to be a stingy orthodoxy.

Suffice it so say, McL has taken the ball in this hypothetical debate and carried it across the goal line. So what does he have to offer? A reference to Paul's admonishment to Timothy regarding petty debate, and a wish for God to "bless the fearsome with a good night's sleep and a better attitude tomorrow."

I would argue that McL has insufficiently engaged his critics to be so casually dismissive (is there anything more petulant than unearned smugness?), much less compare himself to an author of an OT text. But even if I grant this conceit, devoting 518 words to Mssrs. Deb & Dave for the sole purpose of dismissing them hardly merits the silopsistic hand wringing of McL's post. After all, if one does not possess the time nor the inclination to engage a debate (another day, another anti-poverty conference) then why take the time to respond at all?

There is a host of substantive criticism directed toward the Emergent church, some accurate, some less so. Opting to neglect these criticisms in favor of bullying those he concedes to be "well-intentioned but less-than-fully-informed," hardly seems fearless. Bullying via a forum that shares his theology and his politics, where amens, trackbacks and high-fives are assured, seems downright fearful.

Jesus took on the Biblical scholars of his day. They were certainly fearsome (as he would soon discover). Brian McLaren vision of fearlessness is to embarass the innkeeper and the milkmaid.
Nehemiah, my ass.

*Side note: Do emergents host a conference on poverty every weekend? I'm sure the nation's poor would be delighted to know just how many Christian conferences are conducted on their behalf. If Jim Wallis and Shane Claiborne pooled their Marriot Rewards points, they could house every victim of the Myanmar cyclone for two years.

**Now, a cynic might posit that the categories might as well read as "those who crticize my books", "those who buy my books", and "those who have never heard of my books". But I am not cynical, so I'll leave this thought for the footnotes.

***Of course, one could just as easily ask of McL what business he has associating with the likes of Kay Warren, husband of Rick, whose Purpose Driven Life, for all it's numerical prescriptivism, is so firmly entrenched in the rudiments of modernism it may as well have been written by Dedekind.


Anonymous Thom said...

I guess I am just stunned to find out that Doug Pagitt has any kind of notoriety or celebrity. I don't mean that as a criticism...I just was not aware that he was on the same field as Wallis or McLaren.

1:36 PM  
Blogger Kevin Sawyer said...

He's getting there. I've seen him on the cable panel shows quite a few times. The emergent/Sojo movement invests a lot of time into PR, and they are pretty good at setting up the false dichotomies (e.g. choosing Jesus over Lou Dobbs) that resonate with national news outlets.

3:24 PM  

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