What Do Osteen Crossan and McLaren Have In Common?

Derek Ouellette —  February 8, 2011

The last post caused quite a bit of confusion and apparently some offense. I lumped together three high profile personalities without explanation. I did not define my use of the term “liberal” or explain why these characters – in my mind – have fit into those categories. The post would have done better had I left the term “liberal” and the phrase “watered down” to be defined by the imagination of the reader, and not attached names to those words.

Somehow the balance intended in the post (the comment I made about the weaknesses in Conservative and Evangelical thinking) was completely overlooked, as was the fact that I lifted up “liberal” ideologies for its strengths, namely, the emphasis it places on the here and now – the real needs which people face in the real world today – adding balance to the Conservative approach.

But the point of the post was to remind those who lean liberal (a term I’ll define in a moment) not to relativise the gospel nor to forget about the eternal atonement (and it’s corollaries) which – when life is wrapping up as provocatively illustrated in the clip – is at the end of the day, most important.

On this point I agree with John Piper when he said:

Care about all suffering now, and especially eternal suffering later. (Here)

That was the point of the post.

So what do John Dominic Crossan, Brian McLaren and Joel Osteen have in common? Nothing, except that they all shared a lumping mention in my previous post and probably their united faith in Jesus Christ (however it is understood). So it is time to clarify.

Several trains of thought intersected while I wrote that post. John Crossan is an extremely liberal scholar who is a leader of the Jesus Seminar and who denies the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Clearly, the part of the Gospel which Crossan would emphasis in the clip would offer little hope for the man about to die.

For Crossan, Jesus’ mission was to set up the perfect example of how we are to conduct ourselves in this world. Christianity is about setting up a social order which rises above the evils of this world.

Brian McLaren is a leader in the Emergent Church. First, I need to be careful here and say outright that I have gleaned much from McLaren among others in the Emergent Church (just as I have gleaned much from liberal scholars like Krister Stendahl), but that the Emergent Church is heavily – and in my oppinion, to an unhealthy extent – influenced by “post-modernism” or “relativism”. A lot of people like McLaren, good. So do I. But I think there is wisdom in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 which exhorts us to “Test everything, hold on to the good”.

Last summer I gave away Brian McLaren’s latest book right here on Covenant of Love (Here). If I felt Brian McLaren’s writings were such that he flirted with undermining the entire Christian faith I certainly would not have given his book away (showing my support), nor would I recommend him to my customers. I want people to be challenged in their thinking… surely if nothing else McLaren will do that.

But I’ve read enough of McLaren to know that his concern or emphasis is that the Evangelical community has focused too much on the “abstract” Gospel of “how do I get saved so I can go to Heaven and escape Hell”, while failing to address the issues faced in this life. I would agree with him wholly to that end. But unfortunately that emphasis – in my opinion – has been almost exclusive. The pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction.

McLaren’s response to the dying man in the clip would be – at the end of the day – very similar to Crossan’s, which is mirrored by the chaplain’s response to the dying man who ask, “Is atonement even possible? What does God want from me?”. Because of the post-modernism I perceive in McLaren’s writings, his response would be:

I think it is up to each of us to interpret what God wants. (The clip)

I could be wrong and perhaps I jumped the gun on that connection.

This brings us to Joel Osteen. Osteen is a great encourager; a great communicator; a great motivational speaker and – evidently – a great author. He also stands firmly on issues which I applaud him for like when he states unabashedly on Larry King Live that Homosexual practice is outside of the intention of God. But Osteen’s platform has been shaped by a seeker-sensitive message; the very message which Bill Hybels has acknowledge recently as a mistake he wishes he never took his church in the direction of:

We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between services, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own – Bill Hybels (Here)

The problem with the seeker-sensitive message is that it produces numbers, yes, but not solid disciples (as one blogger summarizes the Willow Creek study). Keep in mind that these are generalizations and based on decades of research. If you are a fan of Joel Osteen and a solid disciple, GREAT! It’s not to say you are not. It is only to say that Bill Hybels – pastor will Willow Creek, one of the largest churches in America – found that his priorities were off. It was time to build solid disciples. To that end Hybels went back to work. I wish Osteen would dramatically follow!

So in my view, Osteens emphasis of the part of the Gospel which focuses on getting people to feel good would mirror the woman’s response to the dying man when he asked, “how can I even find forgiveness”. She answered:

Sometimes it’s easier to feel guilty, then forgiven. (clip)

I lot of people grab hold of that statement which says, “you’ve been forgiven, now you just need to let go of the guilt and feel it”. But when life itself is running short, this answer offers nothing of significance. People don’t want to feel they are forgiven in the urgency of the end, they want to know it. Thus the man’s response.

All I’m hearing is some New Age, one size fits all, God is love crap! (clip)

I’m not meaning to imply that Osteens message is New Age. But the “soft Gospel” without the “hard Gospel” sounds very much like the “New Age gospel”. I’m not saying it is. Only that it sounds like it is. It is the hard, uncompromising Gospel which separates Christianity from various forms of New Age philosophies. I wish Osteen would be more direct more often.

This brings me to my final comment, an explanation of my concluding remarks in the previous post. To quote myself:

Whether we are talking about liberal gospels such as Brian McLaren and John Dominic Crossan or watered down gospels like Joel Osteen, we need to move back to the real Gospel which will address the real needs of this world, and the next. It’s not “either/or”, but “both/and”.

You’ll notice that throughout this post I used the term “emphasis” in reference to how our three personalities portray the Gospel (from my perception). “Crossan would emphasis”, “McLarens… concern or emphasis”, “Osteen emphasis”. My statement above was worded poorly because it seemed to pit what these authors say against “the real Gospel”.

What I intended to communicate was that these personalities emphasis a portion or a piece of the Gospel, but that their portrayals are far from holistic. In their emphasis of their concerns they leave big parts of the heart of the Gospel out. “The real Gospel”, by my thinking when I used the term, was a reference to the whole Gospel as opposed to just pieces of it.

Of course to some degree McLaren and Osteen communicate the “real” Gospel (and maybe to a lesser extent, Crossan, though I doubt it). But that neither a social Gospel (McLaren) nor a seeker-sensitive Gospel (Osteen) offer much to a person on their death bed (again, see the clip). Because both McLaren and Osteen each in their own way emphasis only a piece of the Gospel it may be said that the Gospel, as they emphasis it, is watered down (i.e. it is not holistic).

Thus I repeat my concluding remarks: It is not either/or but both/and, or to quote Piper again:

Care about all suffering now, and especially eternal suffering later.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Brian MacArevey

    Thanks, Derek, for taking the time to clarify.

    I have to ask though…could you explain which “part of the gospel” Osteen is de-emphasizing?

    Also, do you really think that it would be appropriate to classify McLaren as a relativist? It seems to me that he has very strong convictions (which he acknowledges), especially with regard to the uselessness of a fundamentalist approach to both the scriptures and evangelism.

    Finally, isn’t the matter of “emphasis” somewhat subjective? I mean, don’t we always presume that we, ourselves, are the “middle ground”? You seem to think that the “balance” is found in an equal emphasis of the life here and now, and the life hereafter…(is this accurate?) If so, why would you assume that this is more balanced than the positions of Osteen and McLaren.

    Thanks again Derek :)

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      Hey Brian,

      Forgive me for not answering your questions directly. The best policy is an honest policy. I don’t have any sources to reference on hand and can only operate with imprecision from memory.

      I do not think that a via media is a subjective matter. But I do agree that emphasis is a subjective matter by nature, everyone emphasises parts of whatever which is most important to them. No shame in that. Recognizing and acknowledging that is a part of what it means to be a responsible interpreter of ourselves and the things outside of us that we interpret. But I also believe that we should attempt to balance those areas we think are important with the via media (which I don’t think is necessarily subjective).

      Still working this stuff out 😛 At the least the point of the post is that I believe we should balance an emphasis on the “here and now” with the importance of the “then and there”. I think in different ways both McLaren and Osteen emphasis the here and now to the extense (often, but not always) of the hereafter.

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      I think Trevin goes further then I do in his critique of Osteen, but generally speaking, he captures my issue with Osteens “message”.


  • Martin Davies

    Hello Derek, I’ve joined via Facebook and I applaud what you’re doing on this site.
    I like your stance on not writing McLaren and Osteen off.
    McLaren’s sophisticated/cerebral stance is a strength AND a weakness, he also defies easy categorising – as far as I can make out he isn’t a Universalist but holds to an Inclusivist outlook – and has some fresh thinking about witnessing to those of other faiths. He’s certainly written very powerfully about Kingdom Theology.
    Osteen isn’t as innovative certainly, but has the gift of encouragement (even if it is Gospel-lite).
    I’m unfamiliar with Crossan’s work.

    To me, both McLaren and Osteen’s biggest failing in their approach is their willingness to submit to their respective formulas in an attempt to impart the truth of, and make sense of, Christianity. Squeezed between a progressive approach on the one hand, and an untempered prosperity gospel on the other, we end up with a limited view of God.

    That said, it’s an aspect of their approaches that I’m critiquing. I think both have some real strengths, not least their ability to communicate. And both have helped me uncover deep truths.

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      Martin, I appreciate you visit! :) I’m a gleaner. Osteen and McLaren of much to offer.