A New Kind of Christianity (Brian McLaren): Book Review
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
The book seeks to address “ten questions that are transforming the faith.” If you are unfamiliar with the book, these ten questions are as follows:
What is the overarching storyline of the Bible?
How should the Bible be understood?
Is God violent?
Who is Jesus and why is He important?
What is the gospel?
What do we do about the Church?
Can we find a way to address human sexuality without fighting about it?
Can we find a better way of viewing the future?
How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?
How can we translate our quest into action?
McLaren has already made a name for himself within the emerging church movement, and his previous works have had a polarizing effect within the Christian community, and there is little doubt that this book will have a similar effect.
First, these are good questions, and there are many people, both within the church and without, who are asking them. “We must stop being ashamed of our questions,” he writes, “and we must stop pretending to be content with unsatisfying answers” (p. 257). I found myself liking one of McLaren’s previous works, A New Kind of Christian, for this very reason. While I found myself disagreeing with so much of his later ideas, I cannot overstate the value of his willingness to ask these questions.
Secondly, McLaren writes with a disarming, engaging prose that is worthy of both admiration and emulation. In a phone conference tonight with the Ooze Bloggers, McLaren affirmed his willingness to dialogue with anyone so long as the conversation was founded on “mutual respect.”
And to that end I seek to emulate this sort of irenic tone when I must turn to the parts of the book that I found so deeply troubling – and they are many. We must in all things be careful to disagree without being disagreeable, for publishers thrive on controversy as well as acclaim.
Brevity precludes me from addressing all ten of these questions in one review, though in the future I would like to return to these questions for the purpose of further dialogue and engagement.
I will instead distill my objections to two key issues that questions touch on in one fashion or another: (1) perspectivalism and (2) the kingdom.
McLaren rejects the traditional ways of viewing scripture. The traditional way of viewing scripture is based on finding Jesus by looking back through history (Calvin, Luther, Aquinas, Augustine and Paul) rather than allowing the Biblical narrative to unfold on its own and present Jesus as its centerpiece. The problem with our approach, according to McLaren, is that it carries with it the philosophical baggage of what he calls the “Grecco-Roman” narrative, one in which Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy has led us to rigid, dualistic categories regarding justification, atonement and the afterlife. This would later give rise to a “constitutional” view of scripture – that is, seeing it as an amalgamation of doctrines and formulas rather than allowing the narrative of scripture to speak on its own.
Now in one sense this is an excellent point. One of the positive contributions of postliberalism has been its emphasis on meeting the stories of the Bible on their own terms. McLaren advocates this, contrasting the “constitutional” approach of rigid fundamentalism with what he calls a “community library,” a way of seeing scripture as the body of literature of an ancient people.
Which raises an important question, which he was gracious enough to answer in tonight’s phone conference. If there was a danger in the Grecco-Roman narrative, surely there is an equal danger of looking at scripture through our own postmodern, postcolonial lenses?
His response was very gracious though ultimately unsatisfying. He conceded that there is a danger, but stressed the need for a multi-perspectival approach – looking at scripture through multiple cultural lenses rather than coming down on any one viewpoint.
The problem is that he is coming down on one viewpoint. A multi-perspectival approach is itself a viewpoint. And within this approach we find that he is indeed advocating one, solitary way of approaching the text, one in which the “us-versus-them” dichotomy surely arises in his selective reading of scripture.
One of my professors, Doug Blount, refers to McLaren’s approach as the “hermeneutic of taste.” He explores the text of Genesis, detailing the mercy of God towards his wayward people, without the emphasis on judgment and punishment. In so doing he ignores significant passages – the flood, Lot’s wife, Sodom and Gamorrah – favoring only those that support his view of God’s mercy.
He later justifies this approach through what might be called an evolutionary approach to scripture. Biblical writers could only describe God in terms familiar to their day. We now understand God more fully. For McLaren, “The images of God that most resemble Jesus…are the most mature and complete images” (p. 114). But McLaren seems unaware of the implicit cultural elitism of an approach that defines ancient cultures as “primitive” and our culture as advanced (at least with respect to one another).
It becomes clear that he is advocating one way of viewing the text, and he cannot avoid the influence of our current philosophical systems through some form of self-declared immunity. At best, it reflects a lack of personal awareness and examination, and at worst it is the epistemological equivalent of saying “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”
Further, viewing God through the lens of Jesus (as above) raises a still more important question – who is this Jesus?
For McLaren, the gospel is the kingdom (and vice versa). Mind you, the gospel is not about personal salvation and going to heaven when you die, as the fundamentalists would have you believe. Rather, it is about making God’s kingdom a present, unfolding reality.
Never mind the fact that John’s gospel uses the phrase “eternal life” more than any other gospel (replacing the synoptic emphasis on kingdom). For McLaren, the gospel is couched entirely in social terms, such as the elimination of poverty and hunger and care for the environment. Far from eliminating the cross from the gospel, McLaren simply redefines it in social terms, and as such the entirety of the gospel is seen through the lens of God’s program of setting things right.
True, there is a social dimension to the gospel (cf. Luke 3, where Jesus, reading from Isaiah, claims to be a liberator of the oppressed). But this should not eclipse or minimize the spiritual dimension of the gospel. What we have is a form of theological reductionism, one that ignores the spiritual dimensions of the gospel in its singular focus on social issues.
The implications of this are staggering, and while I wish to retain respect for McLaren, ignoring the importance of personal salvation is theologically dangerous ground, one that is sadly based on misreading (or even selectively reading, as demonstrated through his reading of Romans) the text, a mistake that Christ’s followers cannot afford.
It is one thing to call our current understanding of Christianity incomplete. It is another thing to call it inaccurate.
True, I don’t care much for the megachurchy, prosperity-saturated bathwater of our Christian culture either, but I still love the baby – let’s not throw one out with the other.
N. T. Wright offers a helpful illustration. In the Louvre, the Mona Lisa is behind panels of protective glass. Wright remarks that often all that can be seen are the reflections of observers, which obscure the beauty behind the reflective surfaces. But Wright says that when we become aware of these reflections, we can look through them, to see the painting beneath. Likewise, our task is not to ignore the biases, opinions and baggage we bring to the faith, but to recognize them, see through them in the hopes of finding the beauty within.
I love Brian McLaren for his generosity and for his quest for peace and truth. My prayer for him and all God’s people (perhaps myself especially) is that dissatisfaction with cultural expressions of the faith not dull our sensitivity toward God’s truth.
Truth, says Milton, is like the mangled body of Osiris – scattered far and wide and in need of reassembly. In the coming weeks, I would like to explore these questions more deeply, in the hopes of showing that what is needed is not a new kind of Christianity, but a need to gather the truth from the generations that have come before us, and to pass these truths on to those who go after. For now, there are some additional resources available on Justin Taylor’s Blog, as well as a helpful review by Tim Challies for those needing a more detailed review.
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.