A New Kind of Christianity

At any given time I'm reading a book or three on theology or philosophy. So I recently read Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christianity and I thought I'd review it here.

McLaren is a prominent voice of the emergent church, and I've read several of his books, including A New Kind of Christian upon which I briefly commented here.

Like most people, I find some things in the modern institutional church to love, and some things to critique, and thus I hoped to find some common ground with
McLaren in this his latest published work.

And, lo and behold, I thought I'd found that common ground when I first gazed upon the table of contents. For there I found as the first among his 10 questions "that have a potential to unlock us from a prison" (p. xiii) a question upon which I've focused my teaching ministry.

That is, the "Narrative Question" or "what is the overarching story line of the Bible?" To address this question I've written much around here about what I call the "teleological perspective" of Christianity.

That is, looking at the Bible as a single, connected story - a play written by God himself outlining his overarching plan for human history (past, present and future) - a plan based on covenants that ultimately consummates in his Kingdom in the New Heavens and New Earth.

My main point is that the Bible shouldn't be chopped up into small anecdotes taken out of their historical context. As tempting as that may be, to use such anachronistic anecdotes to cajole or coerce an audience into believing whatever we may desire, the Bible must must be interpreted as a single historical story.

So when it appeared that
McLaren was going to address this very issue - I thought I might have found a soulmate.

But alas, more reading proved that nothing could be further from the truth.


McLaren sets out in A New Kind of Christianity to deny several key ideas that I strongly affirm. I'll only mention two here that cut out the heart of the Judeo-Christian story as I teach it, including:

THE INSPIRATION OF SCRIPTURE


McLaren denies that the Bible is in any sense a constitution for us today. Nevermind David's words in II Samuel 7 as God showed him "The Plan" for the distant future. That overarching plan, that plan that included the distant future, that plan that includes us today and our futures - David called that plan torah, or legal constitution. But again, nevermind that!

Rather, for McLaren, the Bible is an "inspired library". He says, "this inspired library preserves, presents and inspires an ongoing vigorous conversation with and about God, a living and vital civil argument into which we are all invited and through which God is revealed." (p. 83)

This sounds innocent enough, until you read further and realize that he actually believes the God depicted in the Old Testament didn't really exist (he says that God was too violent).

It sounds OK until you realize that McLaren is obviously a proponent of "reader-response" theory with regard to the interpretation of the Bible. In other words, the meaning is not really in the text itself, but in the mind of the reader. In other, other words - you may assign meaning to the scripture!

He says "for us to be naive about the 'eye of the beholder' regarding the Bible renders us vulnerable to repeating yesterday's atrocities in the future. Slavery, anti-Semitism, colonialism, genocide, chauvinism, homophobia, environmental plunder, the Inquisition, witch burning, apartheid - aren't those worth taking care to avoid, for God's sake?" (p. 85)

So in a nutshell, McLaren says we need to rid ourselves of traditional interpretations and adopt a more modern, more educated view of these things.

By the way, he devotes much ink to placing the traditional view that "homosexuality is sinful" right alongside the promotion of slavery, segregation and apartheid, as well as the Inquisition and witch burning.

Nice move, eh!
?!

So for McLaren, God did not inspire the words used in Scripture (verbal inspiration). God didn't even inspire the concepts! Rather, much of the Bible is merely the projection of violent, power-hungry mankind upon the canvas we call "God".

Wow. To say I see it in exactly the opposite way would be gross understatement.

THE BIBLE AS GOD'S SCRIPT FOR THE PLAY OF HISTORY

Given the above, it should go without saying that McLaren doesn't see the overarching story that I see in the scriptures. Alongside the vague narrative that he actually does propose - he denies a number of facets that I along with most of historical Christianity affirm, such as:

- The final judgment at the end of the age

Judgment and punishment of non-covenant keepers is a persistent theme of both the Old and New Testaments. The idea consistently expressed throughout both testaments is that mankind must keep covenanant with God, or God will punish mankind - ultimately by removing the sinner from his kingdom.

While views of this punishment range from eternal torment to exclusion from the New Jerusalem - most evangelicals agree that there will indeed be punishment and separation from God.

McLaren, however, redefines judgment by claiming that instead of punishment for non-covenant keepers, God will merely make all the mean people nice.

Wow.

- Resurrection and the kingdom to come

My view, and that of many Third Quest scholars more intelligent than I, is that the Jewish expectation of the Messianic Kingdom was well-developed by the first century, and that Jesus understood it, and that he planned to fulfill it literally.


In other words, the Bible tells us from beginning to end that God will set everything straight in the end. It tells us that Messiah will return, resurrect those that are his with bodies that won't die, bring New Heavens and a New Earth, rule from the New Jerusalem with perfect justice, etc, etc, etc.

If you'd like, dig around here to find lots of articles I've written on the topic of the Coming Kingdom.

In this way, God will ultimately fix the huge problems of our world. While this in no way absolves us of "living now, as much as we can, as if we were in that perfect kingdom" (as I state constantly), it does mean that we will NOT be the ones to ultimately and completely fix the world. That's Messiah's job when he returns.

McLaren at first seems to agree, but then says our future is not achieved "by God working apart from humanity via miraculous skyhooks. No, a better future comes as we join Jesus first in dying (metaphorically by dying to our pride, our agendas, our schedules, our terms, or literally through martyrdom as witnesses for God's kingdom and justice), and then in rising through the mysterious but real power of God." (p. 200)

Huh? Basically McLaren believes the future is really up to us - that we are on a journey of our own making.

Again, while I believe we are responsible under the New Covenant to live in anticipation of the Kingdom, and do our best to build the Kingdom in everything we do - I put my faith in Jesus' ultimate return to the planet as the comprehensive fix for the huge problems of our world.

Worst of all, McLaren astonishingly redefines parousia, the word interpreted for 2000 years as Messiah's "appearing" or second coming to the earth.

With a few taps on his keyboard, McLaren wipes out the hope of Jesus' return. Gone are the Messianic hopes of the ancient Jews, gone are the promises of Jesus and the words of Paul and John on the topic and the understanding of the orthodox church on the matter since the first century.

And he replaces all that with the depressing notion that the parousia has already occurred. It happened, he says, when Jesus was resurrected (p. 197-200).

Bleh.

Throughout the book, Mclaren uses faulty logic, inconsistent hermeneutics, straw men, anachronistic interpretations of history and on and on and on.

And so I realize as I continue typing that there's no way in a blog post to identify and refute all the claims made by McLaren in A New Kind of Christianity. It would require a full-length book to deal with all the problems.

Perhaps a more fitting title for his book would have been A New Twist on an Old Universalist Pseudo-Christianity. I think such a title would more honestly represent its contents.

But I am thankful to Mr. McLaren for one thing.

For as I said, I believe there are things to love and things to critique in the modern institutional church.
But despite the fact that I have no problem questioning the status quo, McLaren would still call me An Old Kind of Christian.

And hey, after understanding his belief system as set forth in this book, I would gladly accept that as a compliment!

2 comments:

Word said...

Mike, you taught my son at Kivu this summer, and not knowing your theology, I was a little nervous about what you might impress upon him. But your excellent critique of emergent guru Mclaren at least tells me that you do believe the Bible is the inspired word of God and it means what it says. My desire is for my son to see God bigger, as magnificently as he can see Him, and to see himself as a beneficiary of extraordinary grace. Thanks for being God- and Christ-centered rather than man-centered in this post.

Mike said...

Word,

Thank you so very much for the privilege of teaching your son this summer. My wife and I have two sons (ages 9 and 17) - so we understand being apprehensive regarding the teaching our children receive.

It has been my goal this summer to introduce "The Big Picture" of Judeo-Christianity to our Kivu students. From Genesis to Revelation - we walk through the historical events, the covenants, the Messianic expectations and a few other layers.

The goal is for the student to see the shape of the Christian story from beginning to end, so that they may begin to see their individual "life-stories" within the larger context of the greatest story ever told.

My prayer is that your son and all the other precious young people that have joined us this year will follow Jesus ever more closely into his kingdom!

Thank you for your comment!