Shawn McCraney is a former Mormon who became a “born-again” Christian and eventually left Mormonism, received some ministry training through Calvary Chapel, and launched his own ministry in Salt Lake City to evangelize Mormons. In the past few weeks Shawn has gone public on his television show denouncing the term Trinity as “garbage” and explaining his own doctrine of God in ways that have been confused at best. I flew out to Utah to meet with Shawn, had very friendly and enjoyable conversations with him, and appeared on Shawn’s show Heart of the Matter. I also posted a few messages on Facebook regarding the controversy.
On March 12, 2014, Shawn McCraney’s lecture on his TV show was a critical response to his critics, whom he characterized as scholars, theologians, and apologists who impose their exclusively “linear thinking” on the church to rule, control, and dominate. There is a “teachable moment” here because the issues that Shawn’s argument raises have relevance beyond the specific controversy over his teaching.
Shawn professes to value knowledge and the contributions of scholars, but he describes himself as a “Christian artist” who views Christianity in an artistic way that the linear-thinking scholars simply cannot appreciate. But if an “artistic” thinking person can appreciate the “linear” thinking of scholars, why cannot scholars likewise appreciate the “artistic” thinking of people like Shawn? I think they can. But just as people who profess to be scholars can and sometimes do make egregious mistakes, self-described artists who profess to see the world in a fresh and unpredictable way might be fooling themselves. The “Christian artist” label does not excuse Shawn or anyone else from the responsibility of speaking faithfully to the truth. The charge that someone is teaching erroneous doctrine cannot be answered by merely asserting artistic license.
Early in his lecture Shawn asked, “Just how different can a believer be in personality and worldview and still be considered a Christian?” By “worldview” Shawn apparently means the way in which a person views the world, either logically or artistically, although I didn’t catch a definition of the term. The answer to his question, if I understood it correctly, is that believers can be quite different in many ways and still be considered Christians. However, that isn’t the real question here, is it? No one is suggesting that people who are artistic or storytelling or relational or physical in their personal makeup and orientation rather than logical or scholarly cannot be Christians. Most Christians are not intellectually oriented. Believe it or not, we intellectuals noticed that a long time ago. One of the first Christian intellectuals himself commented on that fact, in a passage that Shawn quoted (1 Cor. 1:18-23). Really, we do understand this. That’s not the problem. No, the problem is the content of Shawn’s doctrinal teaching, which at best is unsound and at worst, in the estimation of at least some observers, is heretical. This concern about his teaching is either justified or it is not. How do we tell? Like it or not, we must try to think clearly about the question.
Shawn himself engages in “linear thinking” when he feels comfortable doing so. His lectures are just that, lectures. He has a point he wishes to make, and he presents reasons to support the conclusion he hopes his listeners will accept. Shawn cites the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible, appeals to biblical scholars and theologians when he thinks they support his views, and formulates objections to statements made by his critics. He is actually much more capable of engaging in such logical, rational thinking than perhaps people realize and engages in such reasoning far more often than his self-description as a Christian artist would suggest. The appeal to his supposed artistic personality is itself presented as an argument: the logicians are wrong because they overgeneralize from their own experience and preference and don’t recognize that there are different yet equally valid ways of thinking. Which reminds me of the famous observation that there are two kinds of people in the world—those who think there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t. (Sorry.) When Shawn argues, for example, that the Bible presents truth in a grand narrative rather than in a systematic theology, he is presenting an argument based on the very kind of logical, linear thinking he complains is being used against him. That argument is either a sound argument or it is not. The value of the argument can be judged only on the basis of its factual support and logical validity; its value is not aesthetic, creative, artistic, emotive, or relational.
It’s really a matter of the right tool for the job. If we want to stir people’s emotions, touch people’s feelings, or appeal to their intuitive sense, we use art – music, story, drama, soaring speech, visual displays, and so forth. If we want to inform people’s minds, then we present facts in a reasoned manner. If we want to explain a text of the Bible, then we use skills relevant to reading and interpreting texts. This doesn’t mean ignoring non-linear elements of biblical texts. It doesn’t mean running roughshod over symbolic language, emotive appeals by the biblical speakers and writers, or forcing the Bible into overly simplistic and rigid philosophical systems. Sound reading of the Bible appreciates the power of its narratives and the color of its poetry. But the Bible also presents didactic material that calls for careful, reasoned thinking about the subject matter. The epistle to the Romans is a theological treatise, not an Easter drama.
According to Shawn, logic and linear thinking came from the Greeks. I’ve heard this one before. Friends, logic came from God, not from the Greeks. Logic, order, rationality, reason, and coherence are all reflections of the nature of God, just as much as beauty, joy, creativity, and artistry. The Greeks did not invent logic; they came up with a formal system for recognizing and teaching logic.
Shawn emphasizes, fairly enough, that knowledge has value only in the context of love. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1b). Amen. Knowledge without love makes people prideful. A person who claims to know God but is devoid of love does not know God, because God is love (1 John 4:7-8). Shawn feels that some of his critics have been long on knowledge, or at least in claims to knowledge, but short on love. Perhaps he is right. Yet Shawn also seeks to refute his critics with arguments. Again, perhaps he is right. But there are two issues here: (1) Is Shawn’s doctrine biblically sound? (2) If it isn’t biblically sound, can this point be made in love? It would help if these two questions were kept distinct.
I wish Shawn would discuss whether the category of “heresy” is ever a valid category. If a teacher claims that Jesus did not rise from the dead, is it inappropriate to label this teaching as heresy? Are there any heretics? Shawn says, quite correctly, that Christians should tolerate different views on nonessentials. But what are the essentials and how does one know if something is an essential or not? This is a reasonable question and it requires a reasonable answer, grounded on the teaching of Scripture. Shawn insists that he believes the whole Bible, accepts everything it teaches, and that therefore he should be accepted as a Christian. I view Shawn as a Christian, albeit one whose doctrine is in serious question, but his reasoning here is quite flawed. Jehovah’s Witnesses also insist they believe the whole Bible, accept everything it teaches, and that they are Christians. Is that good enough? Shawn would say, I’m guessing, that they are not really Christians because they deny that Jesus Christ is God. If so, then Shawn is acknowledging the legitimacy of using doctrine to test the claims of those who present themselves as teachers of God’s word. And I assume that Shawn does not think he is being unloving for excluding Mormon teaching from his new television network. Why not? Obviously, he is “imposing” a doctrinal test here, and rightly so. Then is it necessarily unloving or wrong for Christians to express the opinion that Shawn’s denial of the doctrine of the Trinity might be heretical? The question is a valid one, however we answer it.
Robert M. Bowman Jr. (born 1957) is an American Evangelical Christian theologian specializing in the study of apologetics.