Here's the last of my questions for Brian McLaren about his most recent book, A New Kind of Christianity. You can read the rest here: Part I, Part II, Part III.4) How do you respond to recent criticisms that you have mis-represented evangelical theology with your Greco-Roman six-line narrative?
Many forms of the real Christianity experienced on the ground by many people - in both Protestant and Catholic settings - has many of the negative elements of the six-line narrative I talked about. Of course there are positive elements right along with the negative ones, which brings us back to the "let's try to get beyond dualism, even though it's an ingrained habit for all of us" discussion we had earlier. Of course I'm not talking about the best idealized forms of the faith that every group holds in their hearts.
And of course, I said this in the book many, many times. Here's one example from p. 27:
We are not reassessing or repenting of "Christianity" as a sacred abstraction representing the highest and best ideals of Christians everywhere. Instead, we are beginning to reassess and repent of the actual versions and formulations of the faith we have created We are acknowledging that the Christianities we have created - or constructed - deserve to be reexamined and deconstructed, not so that we may slide into agnosticism, atheism, or secular patriotic consumerism, but so that our religious traditions can be seen for what they are. They are not simply a pure, abstracted, and ideal "essence of Christianity," but rather they are evolving, embodied, situated versions of the faith - each of which is unfinished, imperfect, and sometimes pretentious, and each of which is often beautiful and wonderful, renewable and serviceable too.
I should add - as at least one respondent did on one of the blogs - that not only is the six-line narrative what a lot of people in our churches are hearing, but it's also what a lot of people outside the church are hearing, which is a big deal for those of us who believe in evangelism.
Again, I can see how some folks would not see this. If they think John Stott's Basic Christianity or C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity is reflected much in actual Christian faith on street level ... they haven't been where I've been. In most places in the global south in my experience, Benny Hinn and Joyce Myers (I'm not equating them, just making an observation) are a thousand times more well-known and influential than John Stott or C. S. Lewis. Most Muslims don't think "Jurgen Moltmann" or "Karl Barth" when they think Christianity: they think "George Bush" and "Pat Robertson." Most non-churchgoing Americans don't think of the kind of sophisticated, historically-rooted faith debated in our best seminaries; they think of the kind of faith presented on "TBN" and so on. So I hope my book will stimulate the good folks at North Park Seminary and elsewhere to realize that we're actually colleagues in a rather urgent mission ... seeking to embody and advocate for a more faithful, thoughtful, socially responsible, and ultimately Christ-like Christian faith. That's of course what I mean by a new kind of Christian faith.
Labels: A New Kind of Christianity, Brian McLaren
posted by Mike Clawson at 1:26 PM | Permalink
At 3/08/2010 03:10:00 PM, Nathan P. Gilmour
First of all, thanks for posting this interview--it's been handy to see where folks have been taking McLaren differently from how McLaren takes McLaren.
I suspect your answer is "Wait until installment 5," but did you ask him at any point why he saddled Plato and Aristotle his "six-line narrative"?
Incidentally, I do see some tension with his occasional disdain for seminarians and traditions of theological inquiry on one hand and his insistence that his critique is aimed at televangelists on the other. Seems to me that the answer to public ignorance of complex inquiries should be systemic programs of education, but when those folks who dedicate their lives to such pursuits are "prison guards" in one of ANKoC's interludes, it's hard to see the book as friendly to the pursuit.
At 3/08/2010 05:04:00 PM, Mike Clawson
Unfortunately there isn't going to be a Part 5. I did actually consider raising that question with him, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that it's really more your concern than mine. I agree that Brian oversimplified the history of Greek philosophy, but I don't think he got it as wrong as you imply that he did. Maybe I'm just reading him differently, but I didn't see him actually laying it all at the feet of Plato and Aristotle, but just trying the describe the general milieu of Greek philosophy in the early centuries of the church. It seems undeniable to me that certain strains of Greek thought were in fact rather dualistic re: matter/spirit, etc. (Neo-Platonism? Manicheaism?) and that some of these attitudes did in fact seep into the church. And Brian did acknowledge in his footnotes the greater complexity.
At any rate, I guess I'm just not as worked up over it as you are, and didn't feel the need to pursue it with Brian. I'd be very interested to hear him engage with you criticisms, but I don't feel they really detract from his overall point (which is that, wherever it came from, this narrative does exist in the church, and that not all of it comes from a Jewish/biblical view of the world), and that is really what I am more concerned with.
If you want to put your concerns in the form of a succinct question though, I could see if Brian would be up for responding to it. Or I could see if he wants to do it over at your blog.
As for the seminary thing, I think again, I'm just reading Brian differently. I didn't see him trashing the value of any and all seminary education. I think he does value that, but at the same time, I think he also rightly points out that there can be problems with it too. I think we'd all have to admit that whatever the positives of higher education are, that it can also at times create some significant blind-spots and/or power-plays that empower certain theological gatekeepers and prevent the circulation of new ideas - especially within the far more restrictive world of evangelical seminaries (which I suspect Brian primarily had in mind).
At 3/08/2010 06:43:00 PM, Nathan P. Gilmour
I suppose you're right that, as someone who's spent the last three years teaching Plato and Aristotle to undergrads, I probably do have more invested in getting them right. (Incidentally, my new college has given me the green light to reinstate that course as part of their new honors program.) For what it's worth, I'm sure you remember times when I've gotten similarly irked when people laid stupid assertions at the feet of Derrida over at theooze.com. I still maintain that there's no particularly good reason to reduce Greek philosophy to a monolith any more than there's good reason to reduce postmodernism or the Enlightenment or any other complex array of phenomena, but I do tend to be fussy that way.
I will agree, though, that folks who know McLaren personally and folks with an axe to grind have been reading this new book very differently than I have. :)
At 3/08/2010 08:31:00 PM, Mike Clawson
I definitely appreciate your passion for academic accuracy Nathan. And while I have read a lot of Plato and Aristotle (among other Greek philosophers), I'm certainly not as well versed as you are and have to defer to your expertise on whether or not Brian represents them fairly or not.
However, I did just go back to re-read your initial review of ANKoC and in response to your concerns I think what I would say is that (as I read Brian) I'm pretty sure that by the term "Greco-Roman Narrative" Brian was not intending to represent what any particular Greco-Roman philosopher thought or taught. I think he was in fact using the term "Greco-Roman Narrative" to designate a later syncretistic combination of Christian/Jewish beliefs, Roman Imperialism, and Greek philosophical ideas (which had their origins in Plato and Aristotle, but may or may not be directly found in them). In other words, what Brian was describing as "Greco-Roman" is neither wholly Greek, nor wholly Roman, but rather how later Christian thinkers took various strands from each of these and recombined and changed them to fit within their own Jewish/Christian narrative (and also how they changed the Jewish/Christian narrative to fit with these other strands).
That's why while I think everything you point out about Plato and Aristotle is correct, ultimately I think it might be besides the point, since it seemed to me that Brian's main point was not to do a strict analysis of Platonic and Aristotelian thought, but rather point out how some of the ideas that originated with them later came to influence Christian thought so as to create a new, third thing.
That's just my take on it anyway.