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.