A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith
A review of Brian McLaren's book, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith, by James B. Manuel
Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith. New York: HarperOne, 2009. 320 pages. $16.99. ISBN-10: 0061853984
Brian McLaren has established himself as perhaps the leading voice of postmodern or “emergent” Christianity, challenging the religious status quo in previous works such as A New Kind of Christian and A Generous Orthodoxy, among others. In his most recent work, A New Kind of Christianity, McLaren stays true to form, presenting what he believes to be the ten most crucial questions facing Christianity and the church today, and offering his subsequent answers to these questions.
McLaren’s first order of business is to deconstruct our working view of the Biblical narrative of creation, fall, and redemption, and to replace it with his “three-dimensional narrative” of creation, liberation, and the peaceable kingdom. Taking this latter view brings us revolutionary new ways of viewing Scripture, God, and Jesus.
Having established his working presuppositions about the Bible, God, and Jesus, McLaren moves to the second part of his book, where he asks more practical questions concerning the church, sexuality, eschatology, and other religions. McLaren advocates the way of Jesus, which is marked by peacemaking and reconciliation between once estranged groups – be they Jew/Gentile, male/female, straight/gay, Republican/Democrat, Christian/Hindu, etc. McLaren adopts the name “Christian” only for the most practical purposes, pointing out that Jesus did not come to start a new religion in his name; rather, he came to announce and establish the Kingdom of God on earth. This kingdom is marked by peace and reconciliation between people, and as followers of Jesus, this is what we are to work for rather than conversion and domination.
As a conservative, white Evangelical, I found more agreement with some of McLaren’s finer points than I had anticipated. For example, in his treatment of the church’s purpose from an exposition of 1 Corinthians, he states that “Its (the church’s) goal is not simply to pump knowledge into people, but to train them in the ‘way of love,’ so they may do the ‘work of the Lord,’ empowered by the Holy Spirit, as the embodiment of Christ.” There certainly needs to be educational training in the church that does not neglect the love inherent in the teachings of the Bible. However, it doesn’t seem that McLaren’s idea of “love” is completely identical to that of the New Testament. In the rest of his book, McLaren’s “love” comes to be equated with unconditional acceptance of everyone, with the goal of working toward restorative justice and the implementation of the peaceful Kingdom of God (a utopian state whose agenda, at least from McLaren’s frequent political statements, curiously resembles that of the Democratic party platform). “Love” is based on the way of Jesus, who accepted the sinner and rebuked the religious, establishing a way of peace. Paul’s idea of “love,” however, did not exclude rebuke (1Cor.6:9-11; Tit.1:13; 2:15) or even expulsion from the local body of believers (1Cor.5:5, 13). In fact, Jesus himself may not have been as nice or as “inclusive” as McLaren wishes. Jesus spoke frequently of eternal hell (Mt.5:29-30; 18:8-9; Mk.9:47-48), a doctrine which McLaren denies.
As I read through this book, I encountered numerous points of disagreement, and space does not allow me even to touch on most of them. I must consider it sufficient, therefore, to challenge the underlying assumptions upon which he bases many of his arguments. The first of these is the way he frames the issues in the first three chapters. He rather brilliantly paints himself as the reformer for a more Christlike way, while making his critics out to be akin to church dogmatists who resisted the astronomical discoveries of Galileo and Ptolemy (pp.15-16), the Catholics who sought to persecute Luther (p.17), and even the slave-driving Egyptians in Exodus (p.22). Framing the “conversation” this way poisons the well, as it attempts to instill within the reader a fear that disagreement will automatically place one in the group that is analogous to a persecuting and silencing majority. This sort of rhetoric is counter-productive to the sort of “conversation” that McLaren otherwise claims to try to initiate.
With respect to the substance of his argument, I must take issue with his presentation of the Biblical narrative. He writes on p.55:
I’ve had what seems to me…an accidental advantage working for me: I wasn’t formally trained in theology…My background was in the liberal arts, especially in the study of English language and literature. My training taught me to read for scenes and plots, not doctrines; for protagonists and antagonists, not absolute and objective truths; for character development and conflict resolution, not raw material to be processed into a system of beliefs; for resonances and common patterns among many texts and traditions, not merely for uniqueness or superiority of one text or tradition; for multiple layers of interpretation, not merely one sanctioned one.
I can just as easily respond by saying that I consider it an advantage that I haven’t been formally trained in English literature, and that the vast majority of my college and seminary training has been in theology and exegesis. My training has taught me to take seriously the issues of genre and “author’s intended meaning,” as well as linguistics and historical context. It has helped remove my bias of seeing the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures as a piece of English literature, and has instead taught me to interpret them as they are: prophecy, law, poetry, history, epistle, apocalypse, and yes, even narrative. Perhaps if McLaren had attended seminary (or had even read thoughtful books on hermeneutics), he too would have learned to remove at least this particular bias. He may also have learned about a method of interpretation called “narrative criticism,” which recognizes and takes seriously the literary aspects of the Biblical texts, and when used responsibly, does not neglect the genre or intent of the text under study, and certainly doesn’t necessitate the radical theological conclusions at which McLaren arrives.
McLaren’s more radical treatment of the Bible is less a result of careful exegesis or serious thought than it is of his frequent straw man fallacies against more traditional Christianity. For example, he chides Evangelicals for using the Bible as a sort of “Constitution,” and then claims that Job cannot be interpreted faithfully in such a Constitutional way. The middle of the book, in which Job’s friends try to console him with misguided advice, is later rebuked, yet still seen as “the inspired word of God” on the “Constitutional” reading. Perhaps this is another instance where it seems McLaren should have gone to seminary. That way he may have learned how to interpret Scripture within the larger context of the book without compromising the fact that smaller units of text are still the word of God, serving larger purposes in the broader discourse. No responsible exegete practices McLaren’s definition of a “Constitutional” approach to Scripture, and solid exegesis does not entail adopting McLaren’s approach of denigrating the authority of Scripture.
As a final point of critique, I must take issue with McLaren’s treatment of John 14:6. In trying to answer the question of how we should relate to followers of other religions, McLaren re-interprets the verse to allow for greater tolerance in the matter. He examines the context of John 14, and asserts that Jesus’ claim to be “the way, the truth, and the life,” has little to no bearing on the ability of other religions to save. According to McLaren, the disciples were wondering what would happen to them after Jesus’ death, and Jesus reassures them that they need only follow him. Jesus’ words were to the disciples only, and to deduce from them the truth or falsity of other religions is to betray the context.
McLaren’s attempts to skirt around this difficult verse fall short, however. While it is true that Jesus was speaking only to his disciples here, he still seems to make the blanket statement that no one (Greek, oudeis) has access to the Father unless it is through him. Furthermore, McLaren overlooks the historical context of John, which was written in a multi-cultural and pluralistic setting. John was surely aware of the various religions surrounding his audience, as well as the inadequacy of those religions to provide salvation. Pluralism is not a new phenomenon by any means. But even if one grants McLaren’s interpretation, it must be noted that the doctrine of the exclusivity of Christ does not depend on this one verse alone – Acts 4:12, for example, should pose serious problems for McLaren’s soteriology (see also Rom.5:2; Eph.2:18; 3:12).
A New Kind of Christianity presents us with a clearer picture of the path that at least McLaren’s stream of emergence is taking. In hoping to better communicate the message of Jesus to a postmodern world, McLaren has obviously worked hard to reconcile difficult issues in Christianity. His methods are lacking, however, and betray less a devotion to the truth and more a dissatisfaction with and even resentment of the fundamentalism in which he was raised. His reshaping of the Biblical narrative is not supported with much evidence, and such a reshaping still leaves serious questions about verses in the rest of Scripture (including the Gospels) that speak of hell and judgment, as well as propositions that stress doctrine and proper belief. No doubt, McLaren raises good questions, and he is obviously sincere to at least some extent about social justice and reconciliation. One cannot help but wonder, however, if in his sincerity McLaren confirms what D.A. Carson said of him when he stated that if words mean anything, McLaren has “largely abandoned the gospel.”
James B. Manuel