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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Brian McLaren Responds to Terry Mattingly's Scurrilous Question

"Not only do I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I base my life on it.”
Brian McLaren

Brian McLaren
Terry Mattingly
[Part two of this post is now up following new comments by Mattingly]

A few months back the NBA Commissioner, David Stern, made news when during a heated interview with broadcaster Jim Rome, Stern suddenly asked Rome whether or not he still beat his wife. It was a jaw-dropping moment because Rome has never in any way been accused of beating his wife. I mention this story in light of an extraordinary post by the noted religion journalist Terry Mattingly. Terry has a theory about emergent evangelicals in general and Brian McLaren in particular. He believes that Brian is really a “liberal mainline Protestant” of the type who have questioned fundamental Christian creeds like the resurrection of Jesus Christ for decades. He even presents a list of three questions that he has used for years to determine if someone fits this “label”. The first and, by any historic understanding of Christian history, most important question Terry poses reads like this: “Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?” Terry says the reason he asks people  a question like this is "to get the lay of the land on disputes inside various Christian flocks, on the left and right…to get information about doctrinal basics…to listen carefully as people answered or, on many cases, tried to avoid answering these questions.”

Now one would imagine that for a serious journalist to say that a person of McLaren’s stature deserves to have this question posed to him then there must be something in that person’s writing or speaking to make that question seem relevant. One might even expect that if the goal of raising questions about a person’s belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is “to listen carefully” then we would expect the interviewer to actually ask the person the question. The Brian McLaren I know welcomes questions, and in fact frames his ministry around trying to answer questions he hears in our culture. So, I picked up the phone to see if Brian had ever spoken to Terry and if Brian had ever said or written anything that would in anyway be construed as doubting the resurrection of Christ. Brian said he had never spoken to Terry Mattingly and answered without hesitation with the quote attributed to him above, that “Not only do I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I base my life on it.”

Of course, I knew that would be the answer to the question. I have never seen or heard anything from Brian that makes me doubt that he loves Jesus Christ and seeks to follow Him faithfully. Brian has never in his entire public ministry said anything that would lead one to wonder where he stands on a doctrine so central to Christian identity as the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Now Brian has certainly said and written things that do raise important questions about his beliefs and interpretations of Scripture and he has never backed away from those questions. In fact, one of the things I have appreciated about Brian is that he listens to questions and tries to give thoughtful answers, something I saw in my recent interview with him for Patheos. In the course of his writing and speaking Brian has expressed beliefs that I disagree with, sometimes strongly. I know that many people will be deeply troubled by the New York Times story that Terry quotes that refers to the gay marriage of Brian’s son and Brian’s participation in the ceremony. It will require respect and a genuine willingness to listen if we are to arrive at answers to what these actions by Brian mean about his views on gay marriage and how he relates those views to Christian Scripture and Tradition. But this controversy will also be a moment that reveals the broader agenda of some who will raise those questions, and the broader character of those who would use this occasion to imply that Brian is doubting creedal Christian beliefs about the resurrection of Jesus Christ in the absence of any evidence to suggest it.

Terry Mattingly rather crudely raised the metaphor of “jumping the shark” in his post as a way of saying that it is obvious that Brian should no longer be considered an evangelical, but the manner in which he goes about explaining his conclusion makes clear that the shark that has been jumped is journalistic integrity and the person who has leaped it is Terry himself.


  1. Greg - Here's what I added to the discussion thread attached to Mattingly's post:

    "I'd observe that Protestantism, in its own time, was itself at first considered heresy. From one perspective, the history of the Christian faith can be summed up as an ongoing battle between self-appointed "orthodox" defenders of the faith and those whom they choose to labels as "heretics".

    I would also note that many of the tenets of Protestant fundamentalism (which bears a certain familial relationship, to say the least, with the Protestant evangelical tradition) were defined by the early 20th Century mass-distributed tracts known the "The Fundamentals", but the decision on what to include as "fundamental" was, from a purely abstract point of view, somewhat arbitrary. Few of the principles Jesus espoused in his Sermon on the Mount seem to have made the cut.

    Now, I suspect this had much to do with fear of communism - and at the time that would have been far from irrational - but we now live in a very different historical era; the Bolshevik Red Terror is not at our door, and so perhaps evangelicalism might be wise to open its doors to aspects of the Christian tradition left behind nearly a century ago.

    This doesn't, of course, address issues of sexuality, but I mention it to raise the point that the battle between "heresy" and "orthodoxy" is an ongoing one, and there have been a dizzying variety of interpretations, down the centuries, of what Christianity is or should be.

    If things were so cut and dry, don't you think we wouldn't see such fantastic doctrinal and creedal diversity, such a bewildering range of practices and styles of worship?

    To invoke "heresy" demands clear definition of "orthodoxy" - but based on whose denomination or sect, whose Bible, whose hermeneutic ?"

    I also invoked the Monty Python "Spanish Inquisition" sketch (I just couldn't resist) but above is my "serious" response - BruceW

    1. If Terry had stuck to his beginning point about whether or not Brian fits into the "evangelical" label any longer he would have had at least something to discuss fairly, seeing how Brian is himself ambivalent about the term's usefulness in American context. But he did not do that. Instead he used the circumstance of Brian's son and Brian's actions in the wedding as a vehicle to introduce a set of questions that, particularly with regards to the resurrection, is clearly a question of what the vast majority of Christians througout history would regard as heresy if answered negatively. Its a terribly misleading post.

    2. I think that's a good pivot, yes. And to what extent can one be a "doubting evangelical"? Of course that raises, in turn, "what is faith without doubt? Zealotry?". I'd guess it comes down to this - those for whom the doubt is so great that they can no longer enthusiastically promote the faith, no longer evangelize, are no longer evangelicals. Leaving theology mostly aside, that would be my best guess. I'd note that since World War Two, and the consequent theological questions raised in the wake of the Holocaust, the Liberal Mainline Protestant denomination have retreated from the missions field; they are no longer as "evangelical" as they once were. Where is the zeal that inspired the latter-19th Century wave of Presbyterian missionaries who set out to evangelize China? Now, non-denominational evangelical house churches lay claim to that legacy. But you already know this, I'm sure.

  2. I suspect that you’re misreading Mattingly on two counts.

    First, as he explains in the post you’re critiquing, that list is the “tmatt trio,” a set of three questions he came up with “several decades ago” in order to get a more concrete sense of individual’s religious beliefs. His rationale is that blanket terms like “evangelical” tell us virtually nothing about an individual’s religious beliefs, and terms like “liberal” and “conservative” have political connotations with little or nothing to do with theology. See, for example, this post from 2006.

    So I don’t think that the question is “scurrilous.” I think it’s a good way of hammering down, more concretely, what various “Evangelical” or “emergent” leaders believe in, when that’s not completely obvious.

    As for the second area that I think you’re misreading Mattingly, you seem to criticize him for not raising these questions with McLaren himself. But that’s not his job, nor does he hold himself out as a traditional reporter. If you follow his work with GetReligion, you’ll quickly see that he’s not an ordinary religious blogger or ordinary religious news reporter. His focus is on the quality of press coverage of religious stories: not about writing religious stories himself, or doing theology.

    In other words, he has set himself up as something of an “ombudsman” for religious news. Critiquing him for not going out and asking the questions he thinks reporters should ask would be like critiquing Margaret Sullivan (the New York Times’ public editor) for not writing her own, better version of the articles that she criticizes.

    As it is, you did the reporter’s footwork on this one, and followed up with McLaren. In response, you got a clear answer to the first of the three questions. Now, those of us who aren’t very familiar with McLaren now have a somewhat better sense of what he believes in. Good on you for following up with him (and asking the questions that the Times didn’t). And good on Mattingly for asking illuminating questions (even if you knew the answer to one of them already).

    God bless!

    1. Joe, would that Terry's blog were as sincere in its goals as you are in your response. Terry believes Brian is in effect a "liberal mainline Protestant" with deep doubts about the core Christian doctrines and makes clear he has felt that way for years, yet he has never spoken to Brian and the three questions he poses are questions that beg for sopme sort of justification as to why he has raised them. The only "evidence" he gives is the New York Times arrticle which by any fair reading says absolutely nothing about Brian's view of the Empty Tomb, without which our faith is dead. To seize on the marriage of his son to raise questions abot Brian's belief in the resurrection, which is what he has done, is, among other things, scurrilous. It might also be called "journalistic sleight of hand" wherein the writer conjures up suspicions and doubts where there is no grounds for it. I do agree that Terry sets himself as an "ombudsman" of religious reporting and I am saying that this post on Brian is a clear example of why he is wholly unqualified for that self-appointed task. He is not fair in what he has done in this case, and his post is utterly lacking in the quality and fairness he presumes to judge others for. He has seized upon a moment in which Brian is in the media in a way that is not easily squared with the term "evangelical" in America, but instead of just making that point he has tried to put Brian into a doctrinal box of profound doubt about the core of the Gospel's claims about Christ. This is by any standard of journalism, religious or otherwise, shallow and corrosive to the common good. It is, like I said at the start, akin to David Stern's dramatic change of subject to something that is wholly unfair to the person he is questioning.

  3. T Matt's questions aren't scurrilous, Greg, in the least. It's great that Brian believes in the resurrection, but what does that mean exactly? His own post at his blog site in response to both T Matt and you is not clear on that matter, to the point that he opines that some will think it's evasive. I've read three of Brian's books (A Generous Orthodoxy, The Secret Message of Jesus, Everything Must Change) and don't know where he stands on the matter. After all, progressive theologians such as Marcus Borg also say that they believe in the resurrection, but they don't believe in it in a way that matches evangelical beliefs. (Yes, I've read a few of Borg's books as well.)Does Brian believe in a literal bodily resurrection, that something difficult-to-define happened to the disciples that amounts to a resurrection of sorts within themselves, and/or something different? Brian has never been totally clear on this matter, IMHO, and he seems to prefer "both/and" responses without totally defining what he means when answering many questions (i.e., not just concerning the resurrection).

    Furthermore, it's not like T Matt is raising a novel question. Brian's been criticized numerous (from my observation, countless) times for being evasive in his answers by many observers over the years. Even Brian's friend Scot McKnight opined in his review of A New Kind of Christianity that Brian needs to start discussing what he actually believes rather than attacking and caricaturizing evangelical beliefs. McKnight also argued in that review that Brian's beliefs are not orthodox. So T Matt's trio, as applied to Brian, are hardly original to him. Many people have asked the same, or similar, questions.

    1. Chip, I would welcome you or Terry to explain specifically anywhere that Brian has ever doubted the resurrection of Christ as real, physical occurrence. I would also welcome you to point out anywhere that Scot McKnight has said that Brian was not "orthodox" in his beliefs. I did not say that Brian's beliefs are beyond scrutiny and I certainly don't doubt that a strong argument could be made that he does not fit into someone's definition of an evangelical. What I find "scurrilous" is what I explained in my post--he accuses Brian with no evidence pointed to of being one who "avoids answering questions" about his beliefs about the resurrection and is "foggy" about his beliefs about the resurrection. There is a huge difference between questioning a range of different doctrines/interpretations as Brian often does, and doubting the resurrection of Christ. Implying that a person doubts that is very much striking at the heart of Brian's religious identity as a Christian, not merely as an evangelical.

    2. Greg, I don't know Terry and have no connection with him. But, in all due seriousness, it doesn't take long to look around the net and find Brian's avoiding answering questions (concerning a variety of topics, not just the resurrection) the subject of many a criticism about him. My point is this: I have never seen him define what he believes about the resurrection, and the paragraphs from his recent post don't clear up anything. He believes in "the resurrection event" (quoted from his post) -- well and good. But is that the historic Christian understanding of Christ's bodily resurrection, the "resurrection event" in the disciples' hearts (as per much liberal/progressive theology, which sometimes -- but not always -- cites this to the exclusion of a literal bodily resurrection), both, or something different entirely?

      Elsewhere, in a Q&A on his blog, when questioned about Paul's belief about resurrection, Brian says, "I believe in Christ's real and actual resurrection in history" -- again, wonderful, and normally that would leave me with no further doubt about Brian's beliefs. He goes on to talk about 1 Cor 15:42 and the resurrected body that makes sense. But then Brian says, "I avoid being overly dogmatic about what form a resurrected person takes ... My confidence is, with Paul, that to be absent from the physical body is to be present with the Lord ... that we are no less with the Lord after death than we are before death" (the ellipses are Brian's own). I agree with that statement, but is a bodily resurrection in view? I would say yes based on the first quote and what immediately follows it, but the second quote makes things uncertain, particularly with Brian's use of the word "form." There are other examples in Brian's Q&A, as when, in response to a question on Pentecost, he says that Jesus's spirit left his body upon death and returned to his body -- to those who believe in him -- at Pentecost. Brian says that this does not impact what happened Easter morning, but he never explains the connection; again, clarity is lacking.

      Regarding Scot McKnight: Here's the link for the review he did for Christianity Today: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/march/3.59.html

      Read the entire lengthy review to follow Scot's arguments. The next-to-last paragraph contains Scot's view of McLaren's orthodoxy:

      "Unfortunately, this book lacks the 'generosity' of genuine orthodoxy and, frankly, I find little space in it for orthodoxy itself. Orthodoxy for too many today means little more than the absence of denying what's in the creeds. But a robust orthodoxy means that orthodoxy itself is the lens through which we see theology. One thing about this book is clear: Orthodoxy is not central."

      And from earlier (second web page):

      "Brian is not only poking evangelicals, he is also calling everything about Christian orthodoxy—from the ecumenical creeds through the Reformation and up to present-day evangelicalism—into question."

      And regarding Brian's evangelicalism (same page):

      "If evangelicalism is characterized by David Bebbington's famous quadrilateral—that is, biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism—then Brian has poked and, to one degree or another, criticized, deconstructed, and rejected each."

      And about both evangelicalism and Brian's lack of directness concerning his own views (same page):

      "Brian's devil is Western evangelicalism, which he caricatures often, and his poking is relentless enough to make me say that he needs to write a book that simply states in positive terms what he thinks without using evangelicalism as his foil."

    3. Having to cut a quote for space led to an incoherent second sentence in the second paragraph. It should have read, "He goes on to cite Paul's words in 1 Cor 15:42 about the resurrected body that seems to confirm this conclusion."

  4. Dear Mr. Metzger,

    Blessings to you on this very fine day.

    I haven't a horse in this race, so my words come with little more than curiosity. I do not know any of the people involved in this particular controversy (so to speak); I don't know you, or Messrs. Mattingly and McLaren, or anyone else.

    What strikes me is that you've chosen to fixate on the first of Mr. Mattingly's alleged trio, i.e., the question about the resurrection. You seem agitated that Mr. Mattingly would suggest Mr. McLaren is not a believer in the resurrection of Christ. But Mr. Mattingly did not merely ask that one question (if he actually did ask it), he actually asked five questions:

    1. Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

    2. Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father but through me" (John 14:6)?

    3. Is sex outside marriage a sin?

    Note that there are indeed five very distinct questions here. Note, too, that they are each problematic in their formulation. I mean, there are seemingly an infinite number of answers available to us. Quickly, a few:

    A. I could believe in the actual physical resurrection of Jesus and still assert that the "biblical accounts" are not accurate. Why? Because it depends on what one means by "accurate." Accuracy is in the eye of the beholder; Jesus may have come back to life, but I don't know EXACTLY when, or how; or what his hair color was at the moment of his revivification. If "accurate" means what is implied by the second question, "Did this event really happen?", then the gospels seem clear in their minimalist way: this DID happen. Moreover, I could believe that Jesus was resurrected but was NOT divine. I could believe in the resurrection of a mere mortal. I could believe Jesus was raised and yet deny the Incarnation. I could claim to be confused by the ambiguities of the gospel reports. I could claim the gospels "literally" report a resurrection but that the gospels are fictions.

    B. I could believe that Jesus is the sole means of salvation and yet doubt that Jesus is a "literal" Way, Life, or Truth. What does "literal" even mean in the question as written?

    My point here is that there are five interesting though ambiguous questions presented by Mr. Mattingly, and yet you've managed to be upset by only one of them. Why not all of them? Isn't it actually Mr. Mattingly's #3 that he is applying since gay marriage is tangentially being discussed? If not, why not? Is it merely because the wrong answer to Mr. Mattingly's #1 appears so devastating? What about #3?

    Anyhow, peace to you, always.


  5. Dear Mr. Metzger,

    Wow. Very interesting. I just returned from Mr. McLaren's blog; I read his very lovely response to Mr. Mattingly. Really interesting.

    I see Mr. McLaren has seen what I have seen and noted above: that there are five rather complex questions (they are complicated because they are ambiguous, in my opinion) that Mr. Mattingly has asked. But none of this seems to upset Mr. McLaren at all.

    One aside: Mr. McLaren referred to Peter Mayer's song, "Holy Now." I have met Mr. Mayer several times; he stays with my neighbors (good friends) nearly every year. I do not see him each time, of course, but we have had opportunities to speak face to face. Anyway, his religious pilgrimage is from Catholicism to Unitarian Universalism. "Holy Now" is a big hit in UU circles. I do not know if he still attends his UU society at home, but I imagine he does.

    Borrowing from the title and the chorus of Mr. Mayer's song, I ask this: Is it really true that "everything is holy now"? I wonder what Mr. McLaren's answer would be. I know he writes that he is not a naturalist; but the idea that holiness imbues everything strikes me as potentially problematic.

    Again, peace to you.


  6. http://www.fnur.bu.edu.eg/