Evangelical Author Puts Progressive Spin On Traditional Faith

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By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 10, 2006

Lyndsay Moseley was no longer inspired by the evangelical Christian faith of her youth. As an environmental activist, she believed that it offered little spiritual support for her work and was overly focused on opposing abortion and gay marriage.

Then the 27-year-old District resident discovered Brian D. McLaren of Laurel, one of contemporary Christianity's hottest authors and founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in upper Montgomery County.

"He always talks about the environment as a priority when he talks about the church being relevant to the world," Moseley said. "He's leading a [spiritual] conversation that needs to happen," one that "I've been hungry for."

McLaren has emerged as one of the most prominent voices in an increasingly active group of progressive evangelicals who are challenging the theological orthodoxy and political dominance of the religious right. He also is an intellectual guru of "emerging church," a grass-roots movement among young evangelicals exploring new models of living out their Christian faith.

Progressives, who range from 11 to 36 percent of all evangelicals, according to various polls, are still overshadowed by the Christian right among evangelicals. But the steady popularity of McLaren's books over the past eight years signals an expanding diversity of thought in this important political constituency.

McLaren, 50, offers an evangelical vision that emphasizes tolerance and social justice. He contends that people can follow Jesus's way without becoming Christian. In the latest of his eight books, "The Secret Message of Jesus," which has sold 55,000 copies since its April release, he argues that Christians should be more concerned about creating a just "Kingdom of God" on earth than about getting into heaven.

Along with such other progressive evangelicals as Washington-based anti-poverty activist Jim Wallis and educator Tony Campolo, McLaren is openly critical of the conservative political agenda favored by many evangelicals.

"When we present Jesus as a pro-war, anti-poor, anti-homosexual, anti-environment, pro-nuclear weapons authority figure draped in an American flag, I think we are making a travesty of the portrait of Jesus we find in the gospels," McLaren said in a recent interview.

Scot McKnight, a professor of religious studies at Chicago's North Park University who has studied McLaren's career, said that "he wants there to be greater cooperation among Christians, and he thinks evangelical Christians have aligned themselves too closely with the Republican Party. He wants to see Christians . . . pursue what is right, regardless of the political party's platform."

What makes McLaren's ideas attractive to progressive evangelicals appalls the more numerous conservatives. Noting that he fails to condemn homosexuality, one conservative Web site called him "A True Son of Lucifer" for ignoring "absolute biblical truth." And last year, Baptists in Kentucky revoked a speaking invitation after McLaren said that followers of Jesus might not be the only ones to gain salvation.

"If you have some person or movement coming along calling into question the non-negotiables of Christianity, then those who espouse Christianity find such a challenge dangerous," said Donald A. Carson, professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois, who has criticized McLaren's theology.

Though a "creative, sparkly writer," added Carson, McLaren has "got so many things wrong in his analysis that his work is not going to last that long."


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