McLaren Revisited – 3

White Hinterland – Icarus

No sense in dragging this out.  Yesterday, I shared that McLaren is to be thanked for pinpointing the issues that the Evangelical church in America really should spend some more time thinking through.  As I said then, the questions he raises aren’t those of an unbelieving skeptic, but the struggles of many within the Church.

And yet, while I can appreciate the effort, I’m not sure this is the book I would recommend to someone trying to sort these issues out.  And here’s why…

What I found in the past to be mildly irritating about McLaren is becoming downright frustrating.  What used to be hints of universalism seem to be outright statements to that effect.  Theology that was sort of loosely connected to the Scriptures has come unpinned from it altogether.  But I’ll save you from my fundy rant.  I’m sure if you Google “McLaren A New Kind of Christianity Review,” you’ll find scores of folks outraged by what McLaren’s proposing.  Have at it.

My distaste is based on two more subtle features of his writing.  The first being what can only be described as rhetorical judo.  He phrases his beliefs in such a way that to disagree with him makes one a de facto theological neanderthal.  This happens repeatedly, but one such quote reads so:

“The way of love, this quest for ubuntu, this violet way of seeing and relating, is virtually impossible to imagine for people who haven’t reached the violet zone; they are likely to mock it or condemn it as something naive , silly, or even evil (which is exactly what we would expect from people in other zones).”

You have to read the book to know what he means by ubuntu or “violet,” but the sense is clear enough.  To question his “enlightened” way of thinking is evidence that one hasn’t arrived.  That we are all just stuck at some prior level of spiritual enlightenment.  This sort of verbal trickery is not so unlike the old classic, “when did you stop beating your wife?”  There is no way to answer that doesn’t cast one in a negative light.

Skilled argumentation aside, the other feature that one can sense in the quote above and throughout the book is a general sense of arrogance.  Towards the end, he makes some small concessions towards people stuck in an earlier stage of theological/spiritual development.  But the more pervasive tone is one of mocking and derision, and part of why it stings is that he (in my opinion) paints with too broad a brush.  He would seek to portray anyone who doesn’t agree with his progressive way of seeing things as a paranoid homophobic fundamental extremist.  He doesn’t leave much middle ground, which is unfortunate.

There are a number of other troubling features one could dwell on.  Some of his readings of biblical texts are brilliant, but others are pretty fanciful.  He also rather casually dismisses the authoritative nature of the Scriptures.  With one fell swoop, he discounts two thousand years of church history that got it all wrong.  Only now, has the real truth of what faith in Christ is all about been finally discovered.  By him no less.

At the end of the day though, it isn’t just his tone or that I disagree with one or two points here and there.  My main criticism is that I think he is simply wrong.  Not entirely wrong, but still wrong.  And if he were to ask me (not bloody likely), “Hey T, what’s the main thing you think I got wrong?”  I would respond, “your Christology.”  In my mind, he simply fails to adequately explain the person and work of Christ.  Don’t get me wrong.  He talks about Jesus.  But the picture of Jesus that he paints looks a lot like…  well, like McLaren himself.  He’s a really nice guy.  He engages in rhetorical judo.  He’s a pacifist.  He’s a good example to follow.  All that is well and fine, but it isn’t the sort of stuff that gets people hung on a cross.  I’d like to think if he were to re-look at his understanding of Christ, then the rest of it would sort itself out.  Funny how Christology always seems to be the starting point.

Ok, so I got us started saying the book was a bomb.  And to milk every possible use of the word, I think main sense in which the book is bomb-like is that it comes up lacking.  It simply fails to deliver a Christianity that looks like anything recognizably Christian.  I’m not just talking about American pop-evangelicalism either.  But I don’t think what he is proposing looks anything vaguely like historic/orthodox Christianity over the last two thousand years.  I don’t know.  Maybe that’s the point.

McLaren Revisited – 2

Local Natives – Who Knows Who Cares

So a bit ago, I got started on reviewing McLaren’s latest, A New Kind of Christianity, but I’ve obviously been sidetracked some.  Which may be a good thing.  It has given me some time to process it all a bit more and not respond purely out off the top of my head.

In that earlier post, I said that this book was a “bomb.”  Not The Bomb, as the kids are prone to describe things they think are great, but in the more traditional sense of blowing stuff up.  And blowing stuff up does seem to be McLaren’s intent.  His book is an attempt to deconstruct a certain view of Christianity in order to posit a newer version.  Hence, the title of the book.  I know…  stating the obvious is something of a gift.

McLaren’s approach is to ask some questions concerning the Christian faith that he feels have been inadequately answered.  They aren’t your typical apologetics type questions (well maybe a couple of them are) from the skeptical outsider’s point-of-view, but rather they are the nagging doubts posed from someone inside the faith.  And while someday I might get around to discussing where I don’t see eye-to-eye with McLaren, today I’m affirming that these are vital questions with which the people of God need to wrestle.

He has something like ten questions, and you can look at them for yourselves.  Here’s my take on what the critical issues are that he’s addressing:

1)  How are we to understand the Bible? This question further breaks down into a couple other questions…

What is its essential message?  His contention is that the church pretty much for the last 1700 years or so has gotten it all wrong.

In what sense is it the “Word of God?”  Is it “inerrant?”  In what way is it authoritative?  And so on…

2)  How are we to understand God? Of course since the Christian’s understanding of God is based (even if sometimes only loosely) on the Scriptures, one can see how important the first question is for answering the this one.  He grasps with both hands the thorny issue of God’s violent nature as portrayed particularly in certain sections of the Old Testament.  Having spent the first few months of the year in those places, I can certainly sympathize with his attempts to come to terms with that… even if I don’t necessarily agree with where he lands.

3)  How are we to understand Jesus? Again, tied closely to both questions that come before.  Here, he’s attempting to move away from the fairly one-dimensional figure that typically gets put forward.  He’s not just some cosmic super-hero, but a living person who would have breathed the air of 1st century Palestine.  All of which leads to the next question…

4)  How are we to understand the Gospel? By now, you won’t be surprised to hear that he doesn’t really buy into what I’ve sometimes heard described as the “Four Happy Hops to Heaven.”

From here, the conversations spills into discussions about what does all this mean for the church, ethics, mission, etc…  But these first few questions are at (at least in my opinion) the heart of the matter.  And here’s the kicker, he’s right.  These are the issues that lie at the core of the Christian faith… God as revealed in Christ (and therefore Scripture) necessitates a response on our part. And how we respond is the watershed decision for how we go about the rest of our lives.  And I find myself agreeing with him that some of the ways these questions have and are continuing to be answered aren’t satisfying any longer.

Yet, while I agree that these are the questions that need to be asked, where I part ways with McLaren is over the answers.  He seems to be saying, “all the old answers are junk and we need consign them to the trash heap.”  While I would probably join most others who think about this sort of stuff and say, “the old answers need to be re-looked, updated, and expanded upon, but they aren’t necessarily total crap.”  The old “baby and bathwater” thing.

Ok, well I’m starting to venture into what I’m hoping will be a third post on the book, but let me say loud and clear again…  I applaud McLaren for raising the issues that I think demand our attention.  These questions matter and so do our responses.

McLaren Revisited – 1

Frightened Rabbit – Swim Until You Can’t See Land

A few months ago, I shared my take on Brian McLaren.  Since then, his latest book, A New Kind of Christianity, dropped like a bomb on the evangelical landscape.  I don’t choose the word “bomb” to be dramatic.  Cause you know, being dramatic has never really been my long suit.  But I think the word fits, and if you stick around, I may actually get around to explaining why.

Anyway, I got going on a review of sorts, but before too long, I realized that it was in violation of a personal blog rule…  if it can’t be read before a standard length song finishes playing, it’s too long.  So I’ve made the judicious decision of turning one post into three (or more).

It all began about a month ago when I realized the book was out.  But before I could even get my hands on it, there were reviews coming out left and right.  In general, I try to avoid any reviews of a book that I might end up reading so as not to be influenced one way or another before I’ve had a go at it.  In this case, it was especially difficult, but I was moderately successful in being able to steer clear of them.  However, the few bits I did read were less than positive.  I’ve come to expect that when it comes to McLaren.  People are rarely neutral in their opinion of him.

And yet, something about the negative feedback was different this time around.  The tone of the reviews was a bit more heated than the dispassionate critique more typically directed against him.  And so, rather than predisposing me towards a less than favorable bias ahead of time, the whirlpool of negativity produced the opposite effect.  Instead of joining the McLaren-bashing bandwagon, the comments galvanized my resolve to hear him out.  I’d read other books he’d written.  I’d even heard him speak.  Sure, I didn’t buy everything he was peddling, but it never sounded to me like “he hates God,” as one reviewer suggested.  Come on… lighten up.

to be continued… (I know.  You can hardly wait.  And just in case you are taking notes…  No drama.  No bandwagons.)