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.

Brian thinks that eschatology should shape our agenda for the present; that the future God is building should instruct our priorities for our lives, and that if God is about building a world of peace and justice, we should join with this work. Again, I couldn’t agree more. The injustice spawned by our concern for some ephemeral spiritual place we mistakenly believe is our highest ambition is inexcusable. I long for heaven and earth to be made new; I am called to be an agent of this newness right now, today.

Brian wants us to be excited about the possibilities for social change and kingdom growth in the present. I can only issue a hearty amen. Let’s go do battle with the powers of darkness; their gates cannot stand against the onslaught of the kingdom.

All of these themes are good. However, what staggers me is Brian’s insistence that any of these require a “new Christianity” to handle. I learned such ideas from theologians at least a hundred years dead… and I rather suspect that Brian did as well, albeit of a different stripe.

Brian spends a great deal of time arguing for what we could term “full preterism” (he would reject that label as “part of the old  six-line narrative,” but if the Greco-Roman shoe fits…) He argues that there is no “second coming” of Christ, and that all the apocalyptic, future-looking language in the New Testament was fulfilled between Easter and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. While we’re still on the topic of agreement, a number of the specific texts he notes in this regard are actually about the events surrounding the destruction of the temple. That said, there are some glaring holes in his argument. Not only is his interpretation of the “appearing” of Christ in places like 1 & 2 Thessalonians unargued (His appeal to N.T. Wright to prove that all eschatological passages are historical-apocalyptical in nature makes me wonder how closely he’s read Wright, who certainly seems to believe that there will indeed be a future time when Christ returns and makes all things right), but he ignored two of the most telling pieces of biblical evidence for Christ’s future return: the Ascension and our future resurrection. Any eschatology in which my body being raised doesn’t prominently feature seems biblically suspect, to say the least.

Again, I have to note the two themes which have run through the book and occur again here. First off, Brian’s reading is not new. It is once again the view of eschatology which characterized (and in some places still characterizes) liberal protestant theology: Jesus isn’t about returning to make things new, but rather calls us to lives of peace and justice through which our golden age will be inaugurated. By this point, I’m not even going to point out why this is a problem. I’ll just note that, as usual, we get newer, better mousetraps that still consist of the same old spring, bar and piece of wood.

Also par for the course: Brian hammers his adversaries in their most extreme form(dispensationalist escapism), and then dismisses every alternative view with a single sentence (really just one sentence – it’s on the middle of page 196). We once again have to wonder why it is that Brian seems so comfortable dismissing everyone without argument – and we once again suspect there is an agenda of universalism underlying the argument (the only thing dispensationalism and postmillenialism have in common is that not everybody gets in at the end).

One last note on the chapter. Brian hangs a lot of weight on a “3-D” view of the future that makes humans into significant actors who can shape and develop the kingdom. He contrasts this with a “predetermined” view which sees the end as already having been fixed. I’m all for a view of the present that is multi-dimensional, that sees us as actors on God’s stage working out how specifically God wants us to play our parts. But this doesn’t preclude a fixed ending. Indeed, in improv acting it’s usually helpful to know how a scene is going to end, or else you might decide the female lead is going to end up happily married to you, while she plans on cutting off your head. Indeed, Brian has a pretty fixed idea of where the future is heading: wars will cease, poverty will be eradicated, suffering will end. I agree, with one minor addition: the Son of Man will sit on His throne, we will be raised imperishable, and sin will be no more.

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