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.
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