Brian McLaren's 'new' Christianity is not so much revolutionary as evolutionary.
Brian McLaren has grown tired of evangelicalism. In turn, many evangelicals are wearied with Brian. His most recent book, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith (HarperOne), must be understood as his latest iteration of a project of deconstructing the old and reconstructing a new kind of Christian faith. In it, he poses a question that this review will seek to answer. It is a question he asks of himself: "How did a mild-mannered guy like me get into so much trouble?" Or, as he asks one page later, "How did I get into this swirl of controversy?"
As a friend and a chronicler for two decades, I have watched Brian's work. Generous Orthodoxy gave us a critique of both sides and some glimpses of a third way, even if the book frustrated to no end by leaving too many loose ends dangling. I thought both The Secret Message of Jesus and Everything Must Change provided us with what could become an evangelical social gospel. Along the way, Brian has poked evangelicals in the eyes and chest by fixating on sensitive spots that bedevil them—not the least of which is the uneasy connection between the "spiritual" gospel and the "social" gospel. If evangelicalism is characterized by David Bebbington's famous quadrilateral—that is, biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism—then Brian has poked and, to one degree or another, criticized, deconstructed, and rejected each.
Some of the pokes, if we are honest, have been deserved. He keeps on poking in A New Kind of Christianity—harder than before, in fact. For example, the chapter on how evangelicals defended slavery skewers a problem in their biblicism. In his (unsatisfying) chapter on homosexuality, McLaren writes about a movement he calls "fundasexuality."
But I want to turn the following comment from McLaren back on him: "Sociologists sometimes say that groups can exist without a god, but no group can exist without a devil." Brian's devil is Western evangelicalism, which he caricatures often, and his poking is relentless enough to make me say that he needs to write a book that simply states in positive terms what he thinks without using evangelicalism as his foil.Bigger fish to fry
Brian is not only poking evangelicals, he is also calling everything about Christian orthodoxy—from the ecumenical creeds through the Reformation and up to present-day evangelicalism—into question. He thinks there are four crises facing the world and therefore the church today:
- prosperity that is ecologically unsus-tainable;
- equity shifts that are widening the gap between rich and poor at record levels;
- security in a world with escalating violence; and
- a spirituality crisis, since the world's religions are not adequately addressing the first three crises.
Brian blames what he calls the "Greco-Roman narrative," summing up his complaint like this: "I realized that my conversation partners [his evangelical critics] simply couldn't address life-and-death issues like poverty, the planet, and peace within the conventional paradigms they inherited. … The Greco-Roman narrative, founded on a constitutional reading of the Bible … rendered those life-and-death issues invisible, insubstantial, and unaddressable." Thus, the Greco-Roman narrative "needed to be confronted, questioned, and opened up, which then shaped the direction this book has taken."
This leads me to the two major themes of the book, which shape the ten questions Brian addresses: a critique of the Greco-Roman narrative, and a proposal for a new way of reading the Bible. The topics of the ten questions are narrative, authority, God, Jesus, the gospel (including a sketch of how to read the Book of Romans), the church, sex, the future (a kind of open-theism version of eschatology), pluralism, and praxis. Each of these, to one degree or another, is examined through the two themes.
Brian believes in an old saw—namely, the Constantinian Fall of the Church, the event and era in which the Greco-Roman narrative was developed. In short, this narrative teaches that humans were created in a Platonic, ideal, and perfect world in Eden; then the Fall occurred, which tumbled humans into the Aristotelian and real world of becoming (which is bad). Out of this becoming world, one can either escape or be saved into the Platonic-ideal heaven, or choose eternal perdition in a Greek form of Hades. Brian will later call this the "Greco-Roman soul-sort narrative," by which he means that life in the here and now is about sorting out the saved from the damned. McLaren's soul-sort narrative is a caricature of a narrative that no responsible thinker really believes or teaches in the bald, insensitive, and barbaric ways described in this book. It's a caricature of Romans 5.
The Greco-Roman narrative is directed and determined by a god whom McLaren calls "Theos," who is not that distinct from the Greek Zeus or the Roman Jupiter. Theos is much different from the Hebrew Elohim, the Lord of Genesis 1-12. How? This Theos loves spirit, state, and being, and hates matter, story, and becoming, since, once again, the latter involve change, and the only way to change or move from perfection is downward into decay. "As soon as something drops out of the state of perfection, Theos is possessed by a pure and irresistible urge to destroy it (or make it suffer)," Brian claims. Theos is "perfectly furious" about humans telling stories, because that is "something that should never happen in the world of Theos." There's more: "Theos stands above, holding his thunderbolts ready to strike, ready to melt the whole damned thing down to primal lava, ready to set it all on fire to purge all that is imperfect, so only perfect purified being remains."
This is, according to Brian, "conventional Christian theology."
The Theos-driven narrative is one in which salvation is equivalent to atonement. Justification and redemption and salvation happen "when Theos finds a way to forgive this fallen, dropout, broken, detestable creation for its descent from perfect holy being into pathetic detestable becoming." Because humans are immortal and partake in Theos's essential nature, the damned must suffer eternally while the saved experience God's joy forever.
I kid you not—this is how Brian sums up conventional theology. "This is," he says, "the 'good news' taught by much of Western Christian religion (not all of it, thank God), the religion in which I was raised, in which I have done my life's work, of which I am a part today."
There are some who have attempted to repair this narrative, Brian admits, but he himself belongs to an influential cadre who wants to change it. He observes that "more and more of us are defecting from the project of cosmetically enhancing this story and trying to rehabilitate the image of Theos." Brian then disavows, rather surprisingly to this reviewer, the inevitability of the blinders we all wear when we try to read Scripture. Instead of reading the Bible through our shared history, he suggests, we can go back to the Bible all over again and read it forward, from Genesis to Revelation. A postmodernist will ask Brian, "Whose reading will this be?" Regardless, McLaren offers a new reading of the Bible. And what do we find? The evolving God
Here emerges the second major theme in A New Kind of Christianity—a new way of reading the Bible. The conventional model, which props ups and drives the Greco-Roman narrative, reads the Bible as a law book or an "annotated code," so that the Bible and our reading of it become a legal constitution: "We turn our seminaries and denominational bodies into versions of a supreme court."
Instead, Brian argues—and this is one of the book's best images—the Bible is a "portable library of poems, prophecies, histories, fables, parables, letters, sagely sayings, quarrels, and so on." (I think of the Bible in terms not unlike this: as a collection of inspired texts that come at things from different angles and use differing terms and speak to ever-shifting contexts, but always with the ever-true truth of the gospel that leads us to Christ.)
In this new kind of Christianity, with its new view of the Bible, Brian finds a narrative built from Genesis, Exodus, and Isaiah: God as creator and sustainer, God as liberator, and God as shalom-maker. When one reads the Bible with these images of God in mind, one finds that the Bible points constantly to Jesus, whose God is not Theos but Abba. And one finds that the Bible finally makes sense from beginning to end: It's about God's redemptive plan to restore all of creation. In these sections, Brian is doing some of his best work.
I like Brian's themes (though I think he left out some crucial elements, like atonement). Theos, he says, is not the God of the Bible (and I appreciated his caveat but never felt he escaped its grip). He sketches a view of God, sometimes seeing God as a "character" (a titillating suggestion never clarified for me), one who evolves from less mature (Noah's "ethnic-cleansing" God of "genocide") to more mature (Jesus' Abba and John's God of love). Thus, "the more dominating understanding of God will fade and give way to a more intimate one."
The maturation of God unfolding in the Bible has five dimensions: we find it in God's uniqueness, God's ethics, God's universality, God's agency, and God's character. "In some passages, God appears violent, retaliatory, given to favoritism, and careless of human life. But over time, the image of God that predominates is gentle rather than cruel, compassionate rather than violent, fair to all rather than biased toward some, forgiving rather than retaliatory. In this more mature view, God is not capricious, bloodthirsty, hateful, or prone to fits of vengeful rage. Rather, God loves justice, kindness, reconciliation, and peace; God's grace gets the final word." Brian says that we are involved in this maturation when we "trad[e] up our images of God."
This God comes to maturity in Jesus: "The images of God that most resemble Jesus, whether they originate in the Bible or elsewhere, are the more mature and complete images; the ones less similar to the character of Jesus are the more embryonic and incomplete, even though they may be celebrated for being better than the less complete images they replaced."Fatal flaw
Despite some keen insights, there are some serious flaws in Brian's new proposal.
Reading the Bible through the lens of Jesus Christ is indeed the way to go. But to use Jesus against the God of Israel he worshiped and prayed to and loved and obeyed pits us against what Jesus himself is doing.
One must also ask the root question: How do we determine what is less or more "mature"?
In particular, the evolutionary theory of God contains another fatal flaw. It's not the fact that it was tried out in the 19th-century Religionsgeschichtliche Schule ("history of religion school") of Germany and has been shown inadequate (though it finds an occasional admirer in folks like Karen Armstrong). And it's not the fact that the category of "evolution" is about as modernistic and imperialistic of a category I can think of. No, the singular flaw is this: The flow of the Bible is not neat. It doesn't fit into an evolutionary scheme. There are as many mercy passages in the Old Testament as there are grace-and-love passages in the New. What's more, passages about God's grace stand side-by-side with passages about God's wrath (e.g., Hosea 1-3; Matt. 23-25). The evolutionary approach doesn't work because that's not how Scripture's narrative works. There is wrath in Revelation and there is covenant love in Genesis. And Jesus talks more about Abba and hell than does the rest of the Bible combined.
Unfortunately, this book lacks the "generosity" of genuine orthodoxy and, frankly, I find little space in it for orthodoxy itself. Orthodoxy for too many today means little more than the absence of denying what's in the creeds. But a robust orthodoxy means that orthodoxy itself is the lens through which we see theology. One thing about this book is clear: Orthodoxy is not central.
Alas, A New Kind of Christianity shows us that Brian, though he is now thinking more systemically, has fallen for an old school of thought. I read this book carefully, and I found nothing new. It may be new for Brian, but it's a rehash of ideas that grew into fruition with Adolf von Harnack and now find iterations in folks like Harvey Cox and Marcus Borg. For me, Brian's new kind of Christianity is quite old. And the problem is that it's not old enough.
Scot McKnight is professor of religion at North Park University in Chicago, and the author of many books, including The Jesus Creed.
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A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith is available from ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
Brian McLaren is the founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Maryland.
Scot McKnight also wrote McLaren Emerging and The Ironic Faith of Emergents for Christianity Today. McKnight regularly writes on his blog, "Jesus Creed," and he wrote "The Five Streams of the Emerging Church" and "The Mary We Never Knew" for CT.
Christianity Today has a special section on The Emergence of Emergent.