In the middle of A New Kind of Christianity, Brian McLaren gives us a picture to describe how he thinks we need to change.
Before…we are like lawyers trying to save an old contract, adding more and more fine print on page after page, until the provisions are weightier than the original contract. (This is good work, I suppose, and must be done for a generation or two, but it is not the work to which I feel called.) At some point, though, more and more of us will finally decide that it would make more sense to go back and revise the contract from scratch. And that work has begun. It is nowhere near complete, but the cat is out of the bag…
And that cat is on a tear. McLaren attempts the impossible, essentially tossing out what you always thought was true, and starting again from scratch. The Fall of Genesis 3? That’s really a coming-of-age story. The storyline of the Bible? It’s really about the downside of progress, and about how good prevails in the end anyway. The Bible is a community library, and the violent, tribal God of the Genesis flood is “hardly worthy of belief, much less worship” – but those were early days, and our view of God is always changing. Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion, nor is Christianity the answer in itself. In short, almost everything you know about God, the Bible, and Christianity is wrong, according to McLaren.
Disagree? It’s probably because you have a Greco-Roman worldview, or worse. You may be someone who gets “authority and employment” from the old way of reading the Bible, which means you have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are. To go back to McLaren’s earlier image, you’re maybe a lawyer who loves fine print and who hates cats being let out of their bags. You’re probably like the theologians and pastors who:
…sew on a patch here, cover up that bit over there with some duct tape, put a nice coat of cheerful paint on that section over there, play really uplifting music to distract from that bit under there, move the furniture so that part doesn’t show, and so on.
You’re either misguided or have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are. Either way, it’s hard to disagree without looking pitiable.
What to make of all of this?
First, I want to say that McLaren does make some good points. He puts his finger on some real problems. This isn’t damning with faint praise. It’s important, because it’s what makes a book like this so compelling. Lots of people are going to buy what he says because they resonate with his critique.
Second, I’m grateful that McLaren has articulated his views. I suspect that there’s going to be less guessing about what McLaren believes in the future. I don’t think his views are a surprise to a lot of us, but they’re in print now, and it’s going to be a lot easier to talk about them.
Third, I’m going to predict that this book gets a lot of traction. I joined a conference call with McLaren last night and heard a number of people – including pastors – rave about the book. I think it’s going to be one of those books in which the fans and critics speak past each other. The early reviews seem overwhelmingly positive. They won’t be surprised if people like me don’t like it. He takes some swipes at Mark Driscoll and John MacArthur, and sometimes comes across in a belittling way to evangelicals in general. He takes swipes at his critics sometimes that leave me gasping – and the fact that he does it with a friendly smile doesn’t really help. This is going to be a polarizing book.
I really have to say that this is one of the most frustrating books I’ve read. I have a friend who says off-the-wall things. Half the time he’s profound; the rest of the time he’s just a bit random. I felt that way with this book. There are some potentially profound sections, but there’s lots in the book that left me baffled. I can’t remember reading any book that left me shaking my head so much. So much hinges on his assertion that we read the Scriptural storyline through a Platonic worldview, for instance, but I was far from convinced. His interpretation of Job, which he used to explain how we should read Scripture, left me scratching my head. His conclusions (or proposals) are so sweeping, and based on such baffling premises sometimes, that I hardly know where to begin.
Finally – and most importantly – this is not a minor tweak of Christianity. It is a repudiation of the church’s understanding of God and the gospel. It really is tearing up the contract and starting all over again. McLaren says we’ve got the whole Biblical storyline, as well as our ideas of God and Scripture, all wrong. He’d rather be an atheist, he says, than believe in the God that many of us think is found in the Bible. You don’t get any more basic. We are talking about two fundamentally different versions of Christianity and the gospel.
That’s what makes this book so hard to critique. Supporters of the book will say that I’m critiquing it from a Greco-Roman mindset, using the Bible as a constitution text rather than as a community library. So my criticisms will be expected. McLaren’s proposals go all the way back to the level of presuppositions, and unless you share his presuppositions it will be like complaining that the color red isn’t blue enough. Fine, they will say, but it wasn’t meant to be blue. He’s not only giving us a new version of the Christian story, but he’s making it very difficult to critique his new version using the resources of the old one. But I’m simply not convinced that he’s made the case that he thinks he has.
Like McLaren, I believe we need to honestly examine our beliefs and practices, making corrections even when it’s costly and uncomfortable. I believe that every generation needs to rediscover the gospel. But unlike McLaren, I’m not ready to toss the creation-fall-redemption storyline, or think that I’ve moved on from the God of Genesis 4-6. I’m simply not ready to say our old understanding of the gospel is wrong. We may need to rediscover it and be changed by it, and grow in our understanding of it. But that’s different than tearing up the contract and starting all over again.
A few years ago, I was struggling with some of the issues McLaren raises. But I found that some of the answers being proposed were less, not more, satisfying. I believe that our biggest need is not for a new Christianity, but instead to rediscover some of the contours of the gospel we may have forgotten. We don’t need a new contract; we need to “guard the good deposit” that’s been entrusted to us (2 Timothy 1:14).
We really don’t need a new kind of Christianity. We need to do a better job of rediscovering, and living in light of, the one we already have.
Update: Again, Mike Wittmer has a great post on the book. Well worth reading.