McLaren’s New Kind of Christianity (3) – Library or Literature?

As McLaren moves from his question about how to read the Bible to his second question about how it is authoritative, I have to offer up an apology. For a number of years, Christian authors have hammered on the idea that a certain sort of postmodern epistemology underlies – and ultimately undermines – his thinking. I’ve argued against this inditement in the past, accusing it of being simplistic and not really getting at the root of the problem.

I was, apparently, quite wrong.

McLaren proceeds to discuss Scripture by making a distinction between reading the bible as a “constitution” – that is, a set of legal statements and sub-statements to be arranged for courtroom argument – and a “library” – a collection of contradictory works arguing around the same topic. Obviously, he sides with the latter.

To be honest, the amount of argument McLaren makes for this distinction is mostly garbage. He seems to emphasize two points.

  1. Reading the bible as a constitution has led to “slavery, anti-Semitism, colonialism, genocide, chauvinism, homophobia, environmental plunder, the Inquisition, witch burning, [and] apartheid.” Since we can in fact justify all these things using the bible (I’m astounded by the way he quotes simplistic pro-slavery arguments and seems to agree that they’re good biblical cases), we should abandon any view of the bible that sees it as a coherent, internally consistent work.
  2. The book of Job cannot be constitutionally inspired because Job’s friends say things which are clearly wrong. I must confess that, at this point, I started laughing uncontrollably. Apparently, “there isn’t an easy way out of this problem in the constitutional approach to the Bible, in which God’s message is supposed to be found in the plain words of the biblical text.” While I wouldn’t describe the bible as a “constitution”, I’ve never heard anyone, even the most rabid fundamentalist, have any trouble explaining this using their own categories: God inspired Job’s friends’ wrong responses in order to authoritatively show us a wrong response. Then God steps in and gives the true answer. To pretend like nobody has ever offered such an answer is to mislead the reader, much like the discredited scholar insisting in the face of dozens of books and articles that “no one has yet answered my argument.”

But there is a deeper problem in all this. I would propose that McLaren’s library-like approach to Scripture as the only alternative to the constitutional approach is a glaringly huge false choice. Either the bible is a legal constitution, or it is a collection of different works in disagreement with each other? Might I suggest that the Bible is something else, something an English professor could appreciate? Might I suggest we should approach it as literature?

Let me clarify my terms here. By literature, I don’t mean that it is ahistorical or made up. Rather, I mean that it communicates truth framed within historical narratives, poems, wisdom-sayings, letters, and other genres. As such, it is fair to protest against simplistic readings and decontextualized quotations of a text. One thinks of the misguided “Touch Not, Taste Not, Handle Not” hymn of the temperance movement. We should read poems as saying things poetically. We should read characters in their proper roles withing the story – not only as divine mouthpieces and protagonists, but also as foils (Peter in the gospels) or antagonists (Ahab, Herod).

But this in no way necessitates that we abandon the internal unity or agreement of Scriptures. For most of history, every literary genre was used to communicate truth (see the preceding post on story in the ancient world). It was only the Enlightenment which made truth-statement the purview of constitutions and scientific documents and relegated all other forms of expression to the subject world of “opinion” or “expression.”  Indeed, it might be worth questioning whether McLaren’s insistence that the only alternative to his approach is a “constitutional” one shows that he’s not as free from the shackles of Sir Francis Bacon as he might like to think.

I’ll leave the literature discussion there for now; discussing more fully what such an approach entails would take us far afield from Brian’s book. Instead, I want to discuss his argument on another level. We need to note just what McLaren is saying. He insists that Scripture is full of “internal tension” (81) and even “internal debate.” (82) This feeds into his willingness to regularly pit Scriptural figures and statements against each other, as he does for instance in his upcoming discussion of homosexuality. While he does state that Scripture is an “authoritative library,” (82) he never defines what this might mean, and thus it is left sounding suspiciously like nothing more than an “optional requirement” or an “absolute possibility.”

I have no desire to get into the name-calling match which usually accompanies such labels, but it’s really unavoidable. This approach, from the reading of texts to the library analogy, is a classically Protestant liberal take on Scripture. It’s straight out of Schleiermacher (and yes, I have read Schleiermacher, I’m not just name-calling). I don’t say that to be dismissive. I have every desire to debate and dialog with liberal theology, and the last thing I want to do is look like I’m calling for a witch hunt. However, I want to point this out for two reasons.

First, McLaren is obviously reacting strongly to a fundamentalism that abandoned the biblical call for social justice, environmental concern and political change. He thinks this happened because of their constitutional reading of the Bible. However, it seems to me that it was the rise of Protestant liberalism which radicalized fundamentalism in the first place, leading to both their political problems and their “constitutionalism” (where it occurred). When theologians and denominations that proto-fundamentalists saw (I would argue rightly) as abandoning anything resembling the historic Christian faith began to argue for social issues, those people who felt the need to defend this faith also (I would argue wrongly) rejected wholesale the political agenda of the liberals. Might I suggest that to argue for a reading of Scripture which, leaving its merit or lack thereof aside, looks an awful lot like the same thing is only going to restart this cycle all over again?

The second thing that has to be said about this Protestant liberal take on Scripture is that it isn’t “new.” It’s just not. I’ve read any number of books published over the last 150 years which have made the same case. Many of them have even used the same analogies. I realize that to acknowledge this is to unavoidably sully pristine rhetoric with the dirty stuff of history; after all, the statistics Brian likes to cite show that the churches born out of this theological enterprise are largely a historical failure, suggesting it might not actually be the best way forward. However, since he seems comfortable enough saddling the rest of us with slavery, the crusades, the Inquisition and capitalism (one of these things is not like the others…), it’s only fair to ask for the same historical honesty on all sides.

One of the clarion calls of the emerging church is that we need a new take on Christianity, one that “works” for the present generation. I disagree with the pragmatism of the statement, but even if it were true, I can say with certainly that there is nothing new (or working) about the sort of answers I’ve gotten from the book so far.

1 Comment

Filed under Flirting with the Written Word

One response to “McLaren’s New Kind of Christianity (3) – Library or Literature?

  1. Pingback: McLaren’s New Kind of Christianity (7) – The Arrogance of Tolerance, the Smallness of “Everything” « A Broken Loaf and a Little Wine

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