It is time to bring this series on Brian McLaren’s Everything Must Change to a close. I’ve focused on the economic aspects of the book. There is far more to the book than this. Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed did a broader eighteen part series on the book last fall. (In fact, six posts into my series I realized I had unconsciously stolen his series title.) It is a good series with far less snarkiness than mine. :)
I like the effort this book makes to think systemically. I think the “Kingdom of God versus the Empire” is an important theological lens. The book has its moments in raising some important issues. Yet the rhetoric and frequently one-dimensional analysis were so irksome to me that I found it hard to stay focused on positive contributions.
At the conclusion of McKnight’s series, he writes:
This book needs to be seen as a definitive book for emergent and from now on no one can speak responsibly about emergent without knowing this book. As you know, I am keen on using “emerging” for the larger movement and “emergent” for the think tank facilitated by Emergent Village. This book, so it seems to me, while not speaking for anyone but Brian, will be definitive for the emergent dimension of the emerging movement.
I agree that McLaren’s book captures the ethos of the emergent conversation (and I share McKnight’s distinction about “emergent.”) Frankly, that is what I find the most disappointing. Here are my primary contentions with the book and, by extension, with the ethos of the emergent conversation.
Parochialism of the Present
In C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape presents advice to his demon apprentice nephew Wormwood on how to divert human beings into making bad decisions (copied from Good Intentions, p. 24)
“The enemy loves platitudes,” Screwtape writes. “Of a proposed course of action He wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions; is it righteous? is it prudent? is it possible? Now if we can keep men asking “Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way history is going?’ they will neglect the relevant questions.”
McLaren’s book has no grounding in history. It seems to suggest that prior to the developments of the past couple of centuries, humanity lived in sustainable bucolic bliss. Then evil theocapitlists come along, invented poverty, and drove the masses into it. In fact, as we saw, life has been highly precarious for the masses throughout history. The changes of the last two centuries have brought unprecedented improvements to a majority of people across the globe, albeit at an uneven rate (just as with any other human innovation we’ve witnessed.)
Instead of celebrating these developments and asking how we might more justly expand the good and minimize the bad, McLaren labels all this as a theocapitalist “suicide machine,” born of the Enlightenment, and moves to “free us” from it. He denounces economic growth as an abstraction but replaces it with abstractions of “sustainable growth” and “the common good.” Instead of asking the threefold question of what is righteous, prudent, and possible, he offers ideals of sharing, loving, and oneness with nature. Concerning details of implementing this new vision he reminds us “…Jesus was unconcerned with those details; he left them up to people like us, I think, to work out.” (214) Who are these, “people like us?”
In his previous book, The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything, In Appendix I (“Why Didn’t We Get it Sooner?”), McLaren notes that all the writers who’ve had a significant impact on him are contemporaries. He gives eight reasons why he believes this is valid and why we should privilege these more recent understandings. Before giving his reasons he writes:
…Those reasons do not include any arrogant or naïve notions that we in the twenty-first century are somehow better or smarter or more enlightened than our sisters or brothers from times past. Standing on their shoulders, then, we look back and consider a number of possible reasons for our slowness to see the message of the kingdom. In fact, without their legacy we couldn’t see what we now see. (211)
How is it that we can see better and be better informed, yet we are not more enlightend? In short, “people like us” are people who “get” the secret message of the Kingdom, know that everything must change, are not obligated to learn from the wisdom of the past, throw prudence and practicality to the wind, declare themselves to have better sight, and lead people in the emerging direction of our time. I’m being a little sarcastic here to make my case but this is the vibe I get from McLaren and the vibe I feel from many emergent conversations as well. It feels very Wormwoodian. :)
I found considerable murkiness about a number of important issues in this book but McLaren’s neo-Malthusian commitment was crystal clear. It is pivotal to themes that are pervasive throughout the book. Malthusiansim actually links back to the parochialism described above. Locked in the present, it projects present realities into the future unaltered by the dynamic evolving nature of market economies.
When political and economic freedoms are present, a dynamic feedback loop is created between societal wants and resources. Wants and needs adapt and change. Improved resource extraction and processing technologies drive costs lower. Substitute resources are devised as some resources become more costly (and as noted, there are few items, even steel, for which it is not possible to conceive of renewable replacements.) Side effects of production are addressed by replacing imperfect technologies with less imperfect technologies. We have 200 years of watching this dynamic pattern unfold, yet new generations of Malthusians rise up to constrict economic behavior to save us from resource exhaustion.
Related to a devotion to neo-Malthusianism for many is a deep conviction about cataclysmic human-caused climate change. I continue to be amazed at the fundamentalist-like embrace of claims made by highly politicized representatives of this nascent area of science. For so many intellectuals, it is such an affirming confirmation of what they have always known concerning how evil market economies are that the science behind it, and priority setting questions it may raise, are irrelevant. Prudence is rarely considered a virtue with this issue. While McLaren clearly is among those who are persuaded of grave danger, he at least tends to cast climate change within a broader context of other environmental concerns.
(Based on quotes and footnotes it appears that McLaren’s thinking on these issues is heavily influenced by Herman Daly’s Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development. Daly is a leading ecological economist, a sub-discipline that is responsible for the latest revival of Malthusian economics wedded to ecological studies.)
In God at Work, David Miller of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture writes:
Many of today’s leading senior theologians, ethicists, and clergy are deeply influenced by Christian Socialism, branches of Barthianism (that accent the action of God, the finitude of the person, and Barth’s early theological support for socialism), liberation theology (emphasizing state-controlled economic structures, rejecting free markets, and viewing capitalist businesses as oppressors), and even some Franciscan and monastic strands that glorify poverty and simplicity. In particular, many of today’s religious professional were trained in liberation theology as a normative way of thinking that was fashionable in mainstream seminaries and divinity schools during the latter three decades of the twentieth century (and that remains so in many programs.) Liberation theology’s preferential option for the poor is often interpreted in material terms (no spiritual) and has resulted in a de facto bias against the theological and human possibilities of the marketplace and those involved in the business world. In similar fashion, many of today’s leading systematic theologians, ethicists, and clergy are heirs of Christian socialism, which was popular among many leading mainstream theologians, including to varying degrees Rauschenbusch, Tillich, Barth, and Reinhold Niebuhr, during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. Both Christian socialism and liberation theology rely heavily on Marxist categories of analysis, and historical interpretation, and methodology, which presuppose a prima facie rejection of: capitalism, nonstate-controlled forms of economic organization, ownership of private property, and the role of religion. (89-90)
Everything Must Change is a progressive work that accords well with the above. By progressive I’m referring to those who see society and its institutions as highly malleable, capable of being shaped and managed by government toward equitable ends (however equitable may be defined.) Conservatives tend to be folks who believe considerable wisdom has built up over time about the functioning and interrelationship of social institutions. They are reticent, whether by government or other means to make sweeping changes, thus “conserving” and preserving the wisdom that has been established from the past. There are virtues and perils with each of these as I described in the post about The Macrosociology Dilemma.
One of the most perplexing problems I have with emergent is that when it comes to ecclesial issues, the idea of non-hierarchical networks of people relating freely to each other is openly embraced. Instead of churches and fellowships, there are “generative cohorts” organically interacting with each other. From this seemingly uncontrolled chaotic environment, unplanned order emerges. That is the whole idea behind “emergent.” Switch this imagery to economics and you have an almost libertarian view of the world. Yet when McLaren (and many emergent friends) turn to questions of economics, freedom is distrusted. Oversight, constraint, and limits by hierarchical bodies become the default mode of operation. I’ve never quite grasped the reconciliation between the two visions.
The very title of the book, “Everything Must Change,” could be regarded as the progressive motto. I don’t find the vision offered in the book to be particularly innovative. If anything, it strikes me as a revival of Baby Boomer era (1960s and 1970s) Christian political progressivism, whether of the Mainline denominational variety or of the more Evangelical variety espoused by Jim Wallis. While at a conference recently I heard Ron Sider comment that while he was getting too old to be much of an idealist he was encouraged to see some in the church (including emergent types) coming around to what he and Wallis and others have been promoting for 35 years. This is not some new third way.
I don’t know Brian McLaren but from I what I do know, I get the sense that he is a guy who loves Jesus. I have no personal axe to grind. What I’ve written goes to the content of his book and, by extension, to the content of what I see as the dominant ethos of the emergent conversation. I’m in strong disagreement with significant aspects of this ethos. In fact, I fear the result of well intentioned visions like this is the creation of a suicide machine.
I said at the beginning of this series that I wasn’t sure this series was a good idea. I’m still not sure it was. Some of my readers prodded me to share my thoughts on the book. I’ve learned a lot by trying to process my thoughts but I don’t enjoy spending a lot of time being critical of others. I’d rather write about positive visions I see. So I’m redirecting my attention back to that now. I hope, if nothing else, I’ve offered some alternate perspectives to consider.