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.
It seems to me that there are two issues which are really at the root of Brian’s critique. For the first, I’m blaming dispensationalism. Sorry to any rapture-happy readers, but I can’t think of a point in history before dispensationalism when you had the dualistic, heaven-and-hell, disembodied take on the world you do in Darby’s approach. Now, granted, there was a kingdom on earth, but in classic dispy theology that was what Israel got. The church goes up to Jerusalem in the sky and never touches back down. Couple that with a strong sense that the world is inevitably going to hell in a handbasket and an emphasis on escapism and you get a sure-fire recipe for a gospel that isn’t good news for the world, but only for some souls.
Part of me suspects that Brian is reacting against his own upbringing in these circles. I’ve been there. I can only point out in response that, while I started in similar churches, it was conservative, Calvinist Presbyterians who challenged my own dualistic, dispensational take on the bible’s story. Drawing on the Reformers, the Puritans, Kuyper and Van Til, I was taught the same foundational truths that Brian starts with. God cares about redeeming creation; the good news is about the arrival of the kingdom. While he (and I) certainly disagrees with some of the enterprises these men undertook, you can’t tell me that the Geneva Reforms, the City on a Hill or Abraham Kuyper smacked of escapism.
Which brings me to the second issue I think is lurking behind this discussion, the one I mentioned at the beginning of this post: universalism and religious inclusivism. While Brian makes his view even more clear later, in this chapter he comes out and says (or at least hints so strongly it hurt) several times that Christianity can include non-Christians. I am convinced that this is the reason he ignores so much Christian history and thought, and why he makes such laughable caricatures of his opponents’ arguments. It doesn’t matter that they have answers to address his concerns: their answers still leave some people outside the kingdom, and so McLaren can’t adopt them.
This bias becomes evident in two ways throughout chapters 14 and 15. The first is in Brian’s mentions of empire-theology. The confession “Jesus is Lord,” Brian notes, means that Caesar isn’t. This is absolutely true. But kurios (the Greek word for Lord) has more implications than just that one. It means, in Jewish terms, that Jesus is YHWH, the God of the Old Testament, and therefore the only true way to be an Israelite was to follow him (kurios is used to translate the divine name throughout the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament.) To Gentiles in the ancient world, it meant that Jesus was Lord and therefore their polytheistic deities weren’t (Acts 17, for example.) It is true that Jesus sets up a kingdom opposed to Caesar’s kingdom, but it’s also opposed to every other facet of the kingdom of this world. Indeed, to ignore this fact is to embark upon an unavoidably Greco-Roman (gasp!) reading of the Scriptures. However, if we constrain his critique to Caesar, we can keep everybody in. After all, Christians and Muslims and Buddhists could all unite in hating George Bush, so let’s confine Jesus’s critique to the president.
McLaren’s bias toward universalism also shapes his reading of Romans. It is certainly true that Romans is a letter, written to address problems in Jewish-Gentile relations in Rome, rather than a systematic theology text (again, to plead experience, I was taught this by people who McLaren could barely tolerate.) McLaren has plenty of good observations on this point. His articulation of the flow of argument in Romans 1-3 is spot on. The problem is that, among the details of the book, he misses the very center of Paul’s case for Jewish-Gentile unity: there is something greater that sets us apart, a more significant dividing factor. It is faith in Jesus (4). It is Christ’s work (5). It is our baptism (6). It is our death to the law (7) and our justification and deliverance from condemnation (8). It is God’s choice in election (9). Worldly distinctions don’t matter to Paul precisely because the only distinction God makes is between those who are in Christ and those who are not. There is a fundamental difference between the universal availability of the gospel and its universal application; Brian cleverly avoids the issue by conflating the two.
Indeed, Romans provides us a good picture of the way we can reconcile the gospel discussion of “kingdom of heaven” with the discussion of “justification by grace through faith.” I realize Brian views this as simply trying to make a square peg fit a round hole. He repeatedly says that any such attempt is some sort of compromise, that it is only for us second-class Christian thinkers who can’t accept his New Kind of Christianity. However, it is right there. One of the reasons we as Christians are to live in unity, one of the facts that forces us to resist the lines the world draws between us, is because we have been justified by faith (5:1). It is because there is now no condemnation for those who believe (8:1). If one of the central truths about the kingdom of heaven is that it is made up of justified people, then we don’t have a contradiction anymore. Instead, we have exactly what Paul seems to want: the reason for our praxis. Since we have been justified in Christ, he says, here are the implications for how we should live out our lives together and in the world.
I realize that was a bit of an excursus, but I want to draw the two points together. In the Christian circles where I find myself, there is much talk of the “indicative” empowering the “imperative.” That is, there are truths of Christianity (indicatives) that should drive the lives of Christians (imperatives). McLaren wants some of the imperatives – we shouldn’t worship Caesar, we should overcome ethnic division in the church. However, he cannot accept the biblical indicatives that lead to this conclusion, because they have other implications which contradict his big indicative of religious inclusivism. The problem, of course, is that what we end up with are a bunch of true Christian ideals robbed of all their power. The only reason we would follow Brian’s gospel is if we already agreed with its recommendations. The love constraining to obedience which is the fuel for the Christianity of Romans is simply absent.