3. The danger of guilt by association and selective quotation
Toward the end of his speech, Mark had some good things to say about the importance of incarnational ministry. He understands that “the world has changed” and that “the assumptions of modernity no longer hold.” He talked about the need to be about both “God’s Word and God’s world.” On the whole, pretty good stuff.
But as good as Mark’s comments on incarnational ministry, some of his criticisms of the emerging church were equally careless.
At times, he blended a more-or-less accurate assessment of emerging Christianity with something less than the whole enchilada. Like when he said emergents believe in having conversations about what God said—true—as well as whether God meant what he said—not necessarily true. (I’ve linked to it a couple times already, but for a good introduction to the emerging church by someone who understands that it’s not a monolith, go here.)
Another example was when Mark addressed Rob Bell’s comments on the virgin birth in his book Velvet Elvis. According to Mark, Velvet Elvis “actually calls into question the virgin birth of Jesus Christ.” He even characterized Rob as saying, “‘Now I believe in the virgin birth, but I’m just saying we don’t need it.'”
What’s interesting is the way Mark combined direct quotation (reading an excerpt from Velvet Elvis) and loose paraphrase—without telling his listeners which was which. By doing this, Mark misrepresented what Rob actually said. In Velvet Elvis, Rob affirms his belief in the virgin birth as part of the historic Christian faith—one he wants “to pass… on to the next generation.” Rob’s point (at least what I took from it) was that for him, even if the virgin birth were somehow disproved, he would still find Jesus more compelling than anything else out there. That’s not the same as saying, “We don’t need the virgin birth,” or calling it into question.
Elsewhere, Mark criticizes Rob’s use rabbinical sources in his interpretation of the New Testament because, in Mark’s words: “If you don’t love Jesus, you’re a bad Bible scholar.” (Never mind that the oral traditions of rabbis like Hillel and Shammai predate Jesus.)
But the rabbinical sources can help us better understand Jesus because much of what he taught was interacting with other rabbinical interpretations of scripture. Jesus himself, though he lived before the term rabbi evolved into a formal title, followed many of the common practices of rabbis—such as choosing a select group of disciples and teaching in the synagogues. Many of the sayings and even exact phrases Jesus used (such as “binding” and “loosing” in Matthew 16:19) come straight out of the rabbinic tradition.
Here again, Mark builds his case on selective quotation—or more precisely in this case, no actual quotation at all. He says that Rob “holds up rabbinical authority as the key to Bible interpretation and hermeneutics.” In the more than three-and-a-half years I spent at Rob’s church, I don’t remember hearing him claim that rabbinical authority is the key to biblical interpretation. The reality is that Rob, like most good pastors and teachers, uses a number of sources to help him better understand the scriptures.
Elsewhere, Mark goes after Brian McLaren, but his criticism rests largely on Brian’s endorsement of a few books—including one by John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg (who are not evangelicals) and another by Steve Chalke (who is evangelical). Of Crossan, Mark says he “does not give us anything biblical regarding the person and work—including the resurrection—of Jesus.”
I’ve read two of Crossan’s books and one of Chalke’s. I’m smart enough to know I don’t agree with everything they write—particularly Crossan, who doesn’t believe Jesus rose from the dead. But that doesn’t mean they can’t offer some valuable insights that I can benefit from. I’m also smart enough to know that endorsing a book doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with everything that’s in it, either. Listening to people with different perspectives is part of what sharpens us.
Mark—and others—may have legitimate reasons for disagreeing with someone like Brian McLaren. But any case they wish to make would only be stronger if they built it on what the person actually said and not who they’re associated with or which books they read.