Category Archives: Flirting with the Written Word

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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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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McLaren’s New Kind of Christianity (5) – Either/Or is a Good Album; Also, a Fallacy

In answering his fourth question “Who Is Jesus and Why Is He Important?” McLaren frames the conversation in terms of two critics. The first one describes Jesus in a quote as a “prize-fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed” (as per Revelation 19.) The second says that “the only reason Jesus came was to save people from hell.” Now, whether these two quotes are meant in context as holistic statements of theology (knowing the sources, I suspect the first isn’t and the second sadly is,) there is no question that in themselves they are reductionistic. Jesus certainly comes with love and tenderness as well as the “commitment to make someone bleed,” and we have to ignore 90% of the Bible (and I’m being generous) if we think the only reason Jesus came was to save souls from hell, that he had no plans for this world or our lives here.

However, the great danger of fighting a simplistic argument is that we will be simplistic in the opposite direction. When one person says the president is  a “pinko godless terrorist scumbag” (yes, my more conservative readers, that is simplistic)  it is not helpful to argue back that he is in fact the Messianic hope and deliverance of  our poor, huddled masses. Not only will you utterly fail to persuade your opponents, but you’ll be just as guilty as leading people astray with your false picture. This sort of response is exactly what I think happens in these chapters. Brian responds to the badass, soul-saving, world-ignoring Jesus stereotype of his critic with a some-what Jewish Ghandi figure who just wants us to all get along. Neither one is a full articulation of who Jesus Christ truly was. Continue reading

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McLaren’s New Kind of Christianity (4) – It Starts with B and Comes with Lightning

I’m a little short on time tonight, but I wanted to get a post up discussing McLaren’s third question and answer, Is God Violent. This is going to be a machine-gun list of some thoughts about his argument.

First, a word about the idea of the “evolution” in our thinking about God. Once again, I’m left worried we’re smuggling the Enlightenment in the back door, and in a huge way. The whole argument for a progressively-more-sophisticated view of God occuring in Scripture, and from its time to the present, is the very definition of chronological snobbery. Those primitives in the past (and also, might I suggest, other parts of the world which still have this view of God) need advanced, civilized Western thinkers like us, with our Hegel and Bacon (or now our Derrida and Foucalt), to tell them how the world really works. While McLaren doesn’t out-and-out say it, the narrative of progress certainly underlies his argument, and as a good postmodern it should worry him more than it seems to.

Second, does the bible have an “evolving” view of God? Absolutely. Things about God certainly become clearer over time. Abraham didn’t have a tabernacle. The Exodus community didn’t have a king. The Prophets didn’t have Jesus. God’s plan develops and becomes clearer as we read chronologically through the Bible. There is a sort of evolution, like that of a seed growing into a flower. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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McLaren’s New Kind of Christianity (2) – Homer, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I’d like to take a brief excursus here and discuss one of McLaren’s arguments in more detail. He hangs a great deal of weight on the idea that the bible is fundamentally a story, a statement which I would agree with. His big beef with how Christians today interface with Scripture is that they have modernistically reduced this story to a set of propositional truth-statements about the world. Again, a generally-true statement, although the devil is in the generality.

The problem I have is with the way McLaren uses “story” to justify what is in actuality a postmodern reader-response take on the Old Testament. I have neither the desire nor the space to discuss reader-response criticism as a whole, but I want to submit that this approach to story is fundamentally different than the one that existed in the ancient world – more on that after the break. Continue reading

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McLaren’s New Kind of Christianity (1) – Stop Hijacking My Vampire Slayer

I have a little time between reading things for school, so I decided to try blogging through a book. For variety, and because I know a lot of people who are interested in it, I picked up Brian McLaren’s recently-released A New Kind of Christianity.

I want to provide a little context first, because there is no question that McLaren is a polarizing figure. I’m not a hater, I’m really not. I resonate with many of the frustrations about Evangelicalism that McLaren and his friends in the emerging church are leveling. I too want a Christianity which is engage redemptively with the world around us. I use the same language to critique some of the problems in the church – it’s dualistic, it’s Platonic, etc. Heck, in moments of indiscretion, you might even hear me call myself “postmodern.” All of this explains why a part of me wants really badly for this to be a great, insightful, redemptive book.

But all I can think about is an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Faith, Buffy’s evil foil, takes over her body. She looks like Sarah Michelle Gellar. She has the same whiny but self-assured voice and posture. She even says the things Buffy would. But there’s something terribly wrong. She’s seducing Buffy’s boyfriend, taking advantage of her friends, and generally making a mess of everything the true heroine believes in.

This is exactly how I feel a third of the way through the book. Brian McLaren hates dualistic, Platonistic Christianity. I do too. But by those words he means he hates the Fall, atonement, salvation through Christ alone, and any claim to final knowledge about truth. I mean something much different.

(Incidentally, someone might want to explain to him that the ancient world didn’t combine Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, that it was actually the Stoics who were the big philosophical influence on Rome, and that Rome as a whole was much more inclusive and religiously relativistic than it was obsessed with doctrine and creeds. His story about Greco-Roman thought on pp. 37-45 made the historian in me both laugh and convulse at the same time – an uncomfortable experience, I assure you.)

Brian McLaren wants to escape the Enlightenment. So do I. But I certainly don’t mean an escape from “answers” to questions in favor of “responses,” whatever that is supposed to mean.  Nor do I have a desire to lump every Protestant theologian who has ever lived into the category of “children of the era of Sir Isaac Newton, the conquistadors, colonialism…, nationalism, and capitalism.” (8)

Brian McLaren wants a more Jewish understanding of Jesus. Again, I would say the same words. But for McLaren, Jews of the first century are suspiciously light on the judgment and set-apartness and exclusivity that I had (apparently mistakenly) believed to be hallmarks of the way they interpreted the Old Testament and its many passages about, well, judgment and set-apartness and exclusivity.

I realize this sounds harsh, but I’m not out to burn any witches. I’m just astounded by the breathtaking audacity with which McLaren declares a new Christianity built neither on rock nor even sand, but wish-thinking. It’s even harder because he tries so hard to still look like Buffy (which, admittedly, would make a fantastic photo on the book jacket’s About the Author section.) With a little rhetorical flair, he manages to compare himself and his allies in one chapter to Galileo, the founding fathers, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Albert Einstein, and (in a good way) Charles Darwin – and still sounds humble doing it! People I love, people I care about, will point to the humility, buy the martyr narrative, and proceed to discount the concerns which others will quite justifiably have with the book’s argument as just another oppressive, hidebound bunch of traditionalists who can’t believe that the earth is round.

But I’m still working on the book. More posts to come. I hope things get better, but I’m sadly not optimistic.

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