thoughts in response to “Brian McLaren’s Contextualization of the Bible”, by David Hesselgrave, in Evangelical Missions Quarterly (EMQ), January, 2007
in part 1 of this series, i give the background for why i’m posting this series. and in part 2, address hesselgrave’s opening thesis that approaches like being provocative, mischievous and unclear, or messages that embody or precipitate shock, obscurity, playfulness and intrigue have no place in the communication of ‘divine truth’. this, i contended, was dismissive of the vast majority of jesus’ teaching, and certainly of jesus’ communication style and methodology.
after that opening section, hesselgrave moves into a section on mission (called “mclaren’s new ‘missional mission'”).
he agrees (to some extent) with brian that mission is a significant issue facing churches today. but the unpacking of the concept of mission creates some big problems for hesselgrave. i’m not surprised. this is a contentious issue. so it’s no surprise (and fair) that he brings up brian’s thoughts from the “incarnational” chapter in AGO (a generous orthodoxy). it’s odd that hesselgrave gives no indication that these ideas (or this idea) are 10 or so chapters later in the book than the “missional” chapter he refers to. But I guess that’s not a foul – just a bit odd.
when we were working with brian on AGO, we all knew, including brian, that the ‘incarnational’ chapter was a lightening rod, in some ways. in fact, we changed the title of the chapter a couple times, before landing on incarnational. i’m not sure i can give the chapter a fair summary in one sentence (in fact, i’m quite sure i can’t). but i’ll quote hesselgrave:
in [mclaren’s] view, christian missionaries should first consider adherents of other religions to be their neighbors, and then converse and dialogue with them in ways that will enable themselves and buddhists, hindus, jews and muslims to become ‘humble followers of jesus.’ rather than inviting buddhists, hindus, jews or muslims to become christians, it may be advisable to help them to become ‘followers of jesus’ while remaining in their buddhist, hindu, jewish or muslim contexts.
I would love to hear a varied panel of missiologists (not just 2 – this isn’t a didactic issue) – specifically those engaged in work with muslims – dialogue about the issues raised in this section. My limited understanding of missions these days (and, particularly, of missions to muslim populations) is that evangelistic missions has progressed far beyond what hesselgrave suggests, and is much closer, in many cases, to what mclaren suggests. i asked my dad about this, and he said it has been a great and hot debate in missions for a decade or more, particularly with those ministering in muslim contexts. interestingly, my limited perception tells me (again, this is part of why i would love to hear, or read, a healthy dialogue on this) that the road to missionaries experimenting with — for example — muslims become followers of jesus, but continuing to function within their muslim cultural context, came about through a primarily pragmatic route. brian and many of these missionaries seem to land in the same place, but brian gets there through a theological line of reasoning. either way, i’m just baffled that a noted missiologist like hesselgrave wouldn’t at least tip his hat to the fact that brian’s ideas are not new to evangelical missions! it’s not a ‘settled issue’ by any extent, but the ideas — this theology — is being practiced and implimented by evangelical missionaries all over the world.
at the end of the ‘towards an analysis’ subsection of this part of his article, hesselgrave makes a very distrubing, imho, comment:
That does not change the fact that [McLaren’s] view of mission is fundamentally flawed. In the first place, missionaries are not sent so much to invite those of differing faiths to come to Jesus as they are to take Jesus and his gospel to these individuals.
This sentence reveals (WAY more than the author brings out, and likely way more than he realizes) a major correction the emerging church is addressing as it pertains to our/the church’s response to culture. The ec believes (if it’s fair to universalize anything that ‘the ec’ ‘believes’!) that God is present and actively working in culture. so, for missions, this means “in all cultures”. our role (as the church, or as individual christ-followers, or as missionaries) is to connect with the work of god already present. The author’s claim sounds like (i do not know him, so i am not saying he embodies this — i’m addressing the argument) an arrogant conquest mentality of ‘bringing god to a godless culture’.
next, in part 4, i’ll ruminate on this important sentence of hesselgrave’s: but the fundamental problem with mclaren’s view of mission and his missiology is not just hermeneutical; it is epistemological.
scottb of theopraxis.net has posted a comment with a link to a 1999 article from emq that is so fascinating to read in light of hesselgrave’s article and mclaren’s suggestion. here’s scottb’s comment, with the link:
For a fascinating take on the varied responses to the approaches to missions that you’re mentioning, here’s another article from emq from a few years ago.
This is a great intro to the topic and I think really highlights why Brian’s take on this, while controversial, needs to be taken in the context of the broader discussion that’s been happening for quite some time on this very topic (as you’ve suggested). A lot of people who got up in arms about that particular quote were either not aware of this discussion or (like Hesselgrave) not presenting both sides of the debate in their critique, implying that the debate isn’t happening.