Gordon Bietz Responds to Brian McLaren

Brian McLaren, author of "Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?" spoke on Sabbath morning, September 7, at the Adventist Forum Conference. Several people had been asked to prepare responses, including President of Southern Adventist University Gordon Bietz. This is the response Bietz gave:

Dr. McLaren quotes Ivan Illich:

“If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story.”[i]

It seems the assumption of Dr. McLaren, because of his study of religions and or his experience of religion, is that there needs to be an alternate story. Certainly if one accepts the Dark Ages picture of a crusading Christianity as representing today’s Christianity, the story is in need of changing; however, my experience of the faith has been and is more aligned with the Good News rather than the “bad news” of victims and villains.

I don’t feel a need for an alternate way because I have never felt or believed it was “my way or the highway.” So, I guess I don’t feel a need to repent of my Christianity. I am always open to rethinking and re-energizing my faith, and I am open to crossing the road. We can always learn from each other, but I don’t find this reformulation of the faith re-energizing.

As to the challenges to this new way, I would focus on what is doctrinal and missional.

McLaren quotes Diana Bass[ii] and her definition of doctrine in his book.

Indeed, the word doctrine, a word fallen on hard times in contemporary culture, actually means a “healing teaching,” from the French word for doctor. The creeds, as doctrinal statements, were intended as healing instruments, life-giving words that would draw God’s people into a deeper engagement with divine things.[iii]

I believe that is exactly what doctrines can be, in spite of those who would pervert their use into walls to exclude others. A few illustrations from Adventist doctrines illustrate a healing teaching.

  1. The emphasis on religious liberty assures that any approach to evangelism or recruitment does not border on manipulation or coercion. Everything we do in relationship to others must hold sacred their individual freedom and conscience.
  2. The Adventist doctrine on hell is probably one of the most healing teachings of our church. Our belief is that hell is not an eternal fire from an angry God, but rather a self-immolation of those whose characters can’t stand the presence of God. Hell is not created by God to get rid of rebellious creatures; hell is created by creatures who are fleeing the love of God.
  3. The Sabbath day of rest provides a picture of a loving God who sets aside for us a sanctuary in time to bring us to peace. As Abraham Heschel says, “There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.”[iv]]]
  4. And I would mention the doctrine of The Remnant or chosen which is not a club to belong to, but a message to deliver, and anyone delivering the message is “the Remnant, whatever their faith.

I find identity in those doctrines and I can be committed to that identity and preach that identity without condemning those with different views. I can have a strong Adventist identity and be loving and benevolent toward “the other.” I feel no need to reformulate the healing doctrines I believe.

From a missional perspective, Dr. McLaren’s approach reminds me some of the “Jesus Only” movement. It sounds wonderful—Yes, Jesus only. Let us rid ourselves of the religious trappings and denominational constraints, and let us focus on Jesus only. Do we want to do what Thomas Jefferson did, choosing for himself what scriptures represent Jesus and rejecting those that don’t?

I know we all have our own biblical cannon that is a result of focusing on certain passages that resonate with our worldview, but he seems to go a bit far when he says in his book:

Walking that path [of reconciliation] requires us to go back and reread our Scriptures and “flip them,” faithfully picking and choosing - subverting hostility in the strong pursuit of love.[v]

That could mean the elimination of passages that are judgmental—times when Jesus found it necessary to clearly point out the errors of the religious leaders of His time.

13 But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in. [vi]

I believe the Bible as a whole has an authoritative voice. It is not a “totalitarian regime of homogenized propaganda,” but neither is it purely open to “a matter of the heart” for that level of authority for guiding the life is really no authority at all.

Jesus was very clear about the obligation of the Christian to share the Good News—not in an in-your-face way, which isn’t good news, but certainly teaching healing doctrines. I simply don’t assume “an oppositional religious identity that derives strength from hostility.”[vii]

McLaren paints a picture of the hating Christians whose evangelistic goal is void of love and full of hostility. He has found some illustrations—straw men—to hold up and use as an excuse to rewrite Christianity. I prefer to take the Christianity of Jesus—love God and love your neighbor—which results in following Jesus’ directive of Matthew 28.

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”[viii]

Jesus was quite clear about evangelism.[ix] I like what one of the founding women of the Adventist church said about evangelism:

Christ's method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Saviour mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, "Follow Me."[x]

It seems like Dr. McLaren would agree with that statement as well, except for the “Follow Me.”

Do you know why the chicken went only half way across the road? Because he wanted to lay it on the line. So I will lay it on the line: I think the problem Dr. McLaren seeks to solve is clearly stated by Heschel.

“The problem to be faced is: how to combine loyalty to one's own tradition with reverence for different traditions.”[xi]

It seems to me that he focuses less on loyalty to his own tradition while he expresses a lot of reverence for the traditions of others. We need both.

I find if I am truly filled with the love of God, I have love for all His creation, and love treats others as I would like to be treated—accepting, full of grace, full of love. And because I love, I am eager to share “healing doctrines” that portray a God of love.

I like the poem by Charles Edwin Markham:

He drew a circle that shut me out

— Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win;

We drew a circle that took him in!


[i] Attributed to Ivan Illich (Austrian former priest philosopher, social critic, 1926-2002)

[ii] Diana Butler Bass, Christianity after Religion (New York; HarperOne, 2012), pp 134-135.

[iii] Diana Butler Bass, quoted on page 98 of “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? By Brian D. McLaren

[iv] (http://lylemook.com/2008/10/12/heschel-sabbath-quotes/)

[v] Brian D. McLaren, “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?” page 203

[vi] The Holy Bible: King James Version. (2009). (Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version., Mt 23:13). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

[vii] Brian D. McLaren, “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?” page 57

[viii] Matthew 28:18–20 (NIV)

[ix] Mark 16:15 (NIV) He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Acts 1:7–8 (NIV) 7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

[x]MH 143.3

[xi]Abraham Joshua Heschel





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