Monthly Archives: March 2010

Who Is This?

For anyone interested, here’s the sermon I preached for Palm Sunday at Grace Chapel in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Sermon – Who Is This?

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McLaren’s New Kind of Christianity (9) – Improvisation Still Needs an Ending

I know my reviews of A New Kind of Christianity have been largely negative up to this point; I didn’t go into the process intending to pan the book, but it has had some glaring issues I feel need to be addressed. As we turn to McLaren’s eight question, that of eschatology (how we should view the future), I still find myself having a lot of issues. However, I want to start by celebrating some of the good that I think is present in his approach to this topic.

Brian starts the chapter by blasting dispensationalism. I wholeheartedly agree with his critique, although criticizing dispensationalism these days is about as risky as kickboxing with a toddler. He cringes at the escapist mentality it creates, producing Christians who don’t care about this world or people’s physical and emotional needs. More power to him. Continue reading

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Meeting Jesus in the Cornfields

It happened to me again the other day. I was visiting with a brother in Christ about life. He had this gleam in his eyes, and his words seemed to spill out, as if his tongue couldn’t keep up with his enthusiasm. As he talked about truth, he gestured with quick, sharp thrusts of his hand; as he poured out his desire for others to know Jesus, his stare got wet and misty.

The whole time, all I could think was “Wow… am I really a Christian?”

It’s been a long time since I felt that way on a consistent basis. Don’t get me wrong; I’m an emotional person, albiet one whose natural proclivities seem to lie on the darker parts of the spectrum of feelings. I am still moved by the truths of God and the beauty of His creation. But it’s not like what this guy seemed to be experiencing. He was on the proverbial mountaintop; I seem to spend much of my time living in the equivalent of Nebraska. Continue reading

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McLaren’s New Kind of Christianity (8) – A Hard Look at my Native Country

This section of McLaren’s book is going to be much harder to review than those discussed up until now, due to the sensitive nature of the subject matter. McLaren’s seventh question deals with human sexuality, and in particular homosexuality and the church.

Rather than dive into the chapter, I want to start by acknowledging some things. I am no saint. Through the course of my life and dating relationships, I have done a number of things that I regret. While God has blessed me with a beautiful wife, and though I have experienced his grace in growth of holiness, I have no lofty throne from which to look down upon “sinners.” I know plenty of Christians who saved themselves for marriage; I am not one of them. I have used women for my own fulfillment, both through pornography and in relationships. While there was plenty that I did not do in the past thanks to the restraining grace of God, there was much that I did do as well. Sin is sin. I deserve rejection, death and hell as much for those sins (and ten thousand others that have nothing to do with sexuality) as any man or woman, no matter what they’ve done or who (regardless of gender) they’ve done it with. While in what follows I will be arguing against McLaren that homosexuality is in fact sinful, I want to get this established up front: I speak of sin as one for whom it has been a native country, not some far-off land where only others live.

With that out of the way, let’s look at the question at hand. McLaren starts his discussion with a scathing satire of what he calls “fundasexuality,” using the paranoid and dehumanizing language these people apply to the gay community against them. I certainly agree with the starting place of his critique. There is not question that the graceless approach many Christians took to the issue, and particularly the way they handled the AIDS issues of the 80s and 90s, is reprehensible. It has far more to do with the one holding the hammer than our savior hanging on the cross. Continue reading

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McLaren’s New Kind of Christianity (7) – The Arrogance of Tolerance, the Smallness of “Everything”

With midterms done, I have time to blog again. I debated revisiting McLaren’s book; since I clearly took issue with a lot in his first five “big idea” questions, his second five application questions are obviously going to be frustrating. However, at the risk of being repetitive, I’m going to plug on through them. After all, I don’t want this to be just another blog series that falters in the middle.

McLaren’s sixth question is “What do we do about the church?” For him, the question of ecclesiology is the starting place for change. After all, since he sees modern churches as “perfectly designed and well equipped to promote and support the five paradigms we have question so far,” he needs to reimagine how they might function.

Rather than dwell on the specifics, I want to note two problematic ideas that run through the whole chapter. The first has to do with the shell game McLaren is playing in the name of “tolerance.” He first notes the diversity of the church, and defends it as a good thing. He expresses gratitude for all sorts of traditions. But how can we ever all get along? McLaren’s recommendation is to dispense with theologizing, church hierarchy, and the like, and to reconfigure our liturgies, thinking, church life, catechesis, hymnody, and everything else around what he sees as the central mission of the church – creating people who display Christian character – rather than something else.

Did you catch that? McLaren wants a church that celebrates its diversity by ceasing to emphasize anything that disagrees with his agenda. Of course, this doesn’t make Brian unique – every proponent of church reunification has to identify some issues that are more important than others and call for us to emphasize those things over against other distinctives. Heck, I often do the same thing with the creeds and core truths about Jesus. The problem comes when we pretend like we’re doing something else.

Case in point: I have an easy way for all Christian traditions in all places to overcome the vast majority of the barriers separating them. All they have to do is adopt the Westminster Standards (the confessional document of my denomination) as teaching the system of doctrine contained in Scripture. If they did, a lot of the things that divide us would disappear. While we would still have some practical problems in reunification, it would be an attainable goal. Heck, I could claim it’s downright intolerant to refuse this simple recommendation. After all, don’t those stupid Lutherans and Catholics and Pentecostals care about the unity of Christ’s church?

Of course, this is utterly ridiculous. It has the pretense of being embracing while accomplishing exactly the opposite. I know what everyone else has to sacrifice for unity – just not what I might have to. It’s the classic problem with the blind men and the elephant: the only way I can tell it is if I identify with the omniscient narrator, shaking my head at those silly, sightless buffoons.

This whole approach is both incredibly arrogant and ultimately intolerant. I’m fine with the idea that Brian has an agenda; heck, I would be disappointed if he didn’t. But agendas are by their very nature divisive. People can agree or disagree with them. It is therefore height of rhetorical power plays to set it up so that anyone who does disagree with your agenda is bigoted and divisive simply because they disagree. Such a course is good for nothing but self-congratulation when, shockingly enough, people aren’t willing to make the sacrifices you so graciously demanded of them.

So much for the arrogance of tolerance, but there’s another theme running through the chapter, and  that is Brian’s agenda itself. A quote might be helpful here:

“[T]he church exists to form Christlike people, people of Christlike love. It exists to save them from the great danger of wasting their lives, becoming something less than and other than they were intended to be, gaining the world but losing their souls.” (164, emphasis in original)

It’s quotes like this that drove my earlier statement that Brian is not championing something new, but rather good old 19th-century Protestant liberalism. There are so many modern evangelicals who run around terrified by the bogeyman of the social gospel, jumping at every shadow, that this accusation doesn’t carry the weight it otherwise might. I’m not saying this to be alarmist, or to call names. It’s simply true. Brian is explicitly arguing for it. And, when the bogeyman steps out of the shadows, we find that he looks suspiciously like a tired old man.

See, Brian likes to paint his insights in grand, sweeping terms: a revolution, something new, a Christianity where “Everything Must Change” (to borrow the title of another of his books.) But, at the end of the day, his “everything” turns out to be remarkably small. He responds to a Christianity that has little to say in the political sphere with a Christianity that is nothing but political. This has always been the problem with the social gospel: not that it is social, but that it is nothing else.

The biblical gospel is huge. It is multifaceted. It has a social dimension, and a spiritual one, and a cosmic one. It has a corporate dimension and an individual one. It addresses every part of humanity – their souls, their bodies, their emotions, their minds, and yes, their societies too.

I readily acknowledge that many Christians have made their faith merely about the afterlife, have reduced Jesus to a guy who stamps their passports and lets them into heaven. But, as I have argued many times before, a reductionism should never be answered simply with another reductionism. The gospel is about more than souls, but it’s also about more than bodies. Brian staunchly refuses this alternative, repeatedly criticizing people (I guess people like me) who want to “tack on” care for the world and the poor to traditional Christian theology. But I don’t think they’re being tacked on at all. The mission of Jesus and the kingdom of God have always had a place for them.

At the end of the day, the good news is like a beautiful statue. You cannot appreciate the grandeur of Michelangelo’s David simply by looking at a photograph of his face. But it is laughable to think we’re doing it’s beauty a service by insisting instead we should stare at a picture of his backside. Walk around the statue, see it in its entirety, admire how it all fits together. Only then are we looking on the kind of Christianity that can speak to the world we live in, because only then are we seeing Christ as He really is.

Previous Posts on McLaren’s New Kind of Christianity:

  1. Stop Hijacking My Vampire Hunter
  2. Homer, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
  3. Library or Literature
  4. It Starts With B and Comes With Lightning
  5. Either/Or is a Good Album; Also, A Fallacy
  6. That Incompetent, Subtle Conspiracy

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In Defense of Marriage

In college, there was a point where I decided to become a vegetarian for several months. No particular reason; I’ve never had ethical issues with eating meat (at least not free range meat, but that’s another post), nor was I particularly interested in the health arguments for cutting it out of your diet. In fact, I was rather fond of meat. Nonetheless, I decided to give it a try.

It wasn’t a bad experience. I ate a lot of lentils, falafel and the like. However, the thing I learned the most from this time was that I wasn’t just fond of meat – I really loved it. Even though it’s been years since I gave up the experience, I still savor a steak or chicken breast in a way I never had before. The goodness of meat had gone unnoticed until that time, but now I can’t help being thankful for a pot roast or pork chop. That might sound hyperbolic, and I suppose it is, but it’s also true.

Lately, I’ve been visiting with several single friends about marriage, and I think they’ve been fed a bit of a distorted view of it. Near as I can tell, a lot of people in the Christian circles I move among have reacted to an idolization of marriage they experienced by dramatically downplaying its goodness. In order to keep single people from thinking a spouse will solve all their problems, they continually talk about how hard it is, how much it exposes their sin, and the struggle and frustration that accompanies trying to love someone well. Now, I still believe we need to take the rose-colored glasses some people look through at their future husband and wife, throw them on the floor, and stomp them to pieces. However, we musn’t replace them with the opposite. I fear that sometimes we end up telling people to instead replace those glasses with sunglasses, blocking out the joys and beauties that marriage also provides. Continue reading

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McLaren’s New Kind of Christianity (6) – That Incompetent, Subtle Conspiracy

I’ve always loved film noir movies. One of the things I enjoy most is their complex, twisting plots. While there’s all sorts of tools to develop these plots and catch the audience off guard, perhaps my favorite is the character revelation. You find out some hitherto-unknown fact about a character in the film, and your entire read on who they are and what they’re doing changes. You come to understand that there has been an underlying motive to their choices. Their seemingly-random actions, their quirks and inconsistencies, suddenly make perfect (and often chilling) sense.

I’ve mentioned at several points in my discussion of McLaren’s book that there is an underlying motive which keeps him from accepting the answers most Christians have to his objections. As Brian sets out to answer the question “What is the gospel?” the motive finally becomes explicit: Brian wants a completely religiously-inclusive Christianity, a kingdom of God which everyone, Christian or Muslim or mystic, can aspire to. “A new kingdom is much bigger than a new religion, and in fact it has room for many religious traditions within it.” (Lest anyone feels that his quote is taken out of context and only means other Christian traditions, I’ll tip my hand a little: Brian is going to make this inclusivism explicit in chapter 19, so I’m assuming he means the same thing here.)

The reason I bring this up now is because it is the only way I can understand his conclusions in these chapters. McLaren says the evangelical gospel is “justification by grace through faith,” and then proceeds to talk as if the idea that the gospel was actually the “good news of the kingdom” was something which no Christians up to this point, or at least very few of them, had ever heard. Like many of his critiques, there is a certain popular-level appeal to this one: many Christians do have a simplistic view of the gospel. But there has always been in Christianity a robust strain of theological reflection which has emphasized the resurrection, serving God in this world, the new heavens and the new earth. Granted, they used slightly different language. Also granted, heaven and hell aren’t completely absent in their thinking, as they seem to be in McLaren’s. But to accuse them of being unaware of the importance of the kingdom or its this-worldly impact is nonsensical. Indeed, it seems odd to me that Brian would in the same book decry the long history of Christian involvement in the political sphere because of their (this-worldly) agenda for political change and then claim that Christians have only ever cared about heaven or hell and refused involvement in advancing the kingdom of heaven. It’s like arguing that a political party is oafish and incompetent, and also has an elaborate conspiracy to subtly destroy the country. You can’t have it both ways. Continue reading

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