Thursday, February 25, 2010
Book Review: McLaren's A New Kind of Christianity
Brian McLaren doesn't get around to explaining his underlying motivations for writing this book until the very last chapter.* There he explains that while touring a few years ago for his Everything Must Change conferences, he realized that he couldn't get the crowd to discuss the things he was really passionate about (i.e. the four global crises he addresses in EMC) because all people wanted to talk about were his controversial theological ideas. As he put it:
"Gradually I realized that my conversation partners simply couldn't address life-and-death issues like poverty, the planet, and peace from within the conventional paradigms they inherited... Those inherited paradigms couldn't simply be outflanked; they needed to be confronted, questioned, and opened up, which then shaped the direction this book has taken."

In other words, A New Kind of Christianity is Brian's attempt to lay it all out there, to come clean about where he stands on all kinds of controversial topics so that, once he's done, those who are still listening can get on with addressing more important issues along with him. And indeed, this book is a remarkably clear exposition on where Brian stands on everything from the authority of scripture to homosexuality to religious pluralism, and a whole host of other controversial questions. Never again will critics be able to accuse Brian of dodging hard questions or refusing to be pinned down. With this book Brian lays all his cards on the table.

Ostensibly the book addresses 10 big questions:

1. What is the overarching story line of the Bible?
2. How should the Bible be understood?
3. Is God violent?
4. Who is Jesus and why is he important?
5. What is the gospel?
6. What do we do about church?
7. Can we find a way to address human sexuality without fighting about it?
8. Can we find a better way of viewing the future?
9. How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?
10. How can we translate our quest into action?

Now I know a number of commentators have said that while they like Brian's questions, they are no longer comfortable with his answers, and while that is perfectly fine (as I've said many times, this emerging conversation was never about having to agree with any particular author or leader) let me say right up front that I am not among them. For those of us who have been tracking with Brian this whole time, what he says in this book really comes as no surprise and really isn't even all that shocking. For the most part what Brian outlines here is pretty much where I am at in my own theology as well.

Throughout the book Brian frames his responses to each of these questions around an overarching critique of what he calls the "Greco-Roman six-line narrative." By this he means a very pervasive view of Christianity which sees the whole story in terms of 1) Edenic Perfection - 2) Fall - 3) Condemnation - 4) Salvation - 5) Heaven for Believers - and 6) Hell and Damnation (i.e. "eternal conscious torment") for Unbelievers. According to Brian, this narrative is not actually biblical, but has crept into Christianity through the influence of Neo-Platonic philosophy and Roman Imperialism. Now I know some reviewers have critiqued Brian for wrongly laying this all at the feet of Plato, and others have pointed out that what Brian is actually critiquing is the Creation-Fall-Redemption narrative common to most Reformed theologies, and that this is significantly different than Platonism, and I think they both have a good point. As an aspiring church historian, and one who has some background in historical philosophy, I agree that Brian's account is grossly over-simplified. Though in his defense I would point out that a) in broad strokes it's not wrong, and Brian does actually acknowledge the complexity (see for instance his footnotes to chapter 4); and b) that for a book like this, it's simply not possible for Brian to get into all the nuances. Brian is trying to suggest where some of these ideas might have originated, not give a detailed account of the history of Christian theology. In so doing he makes the book more accessible to the average reader, but necessarily reduces some complexities.

However, I would also argue that ultimately it doesn't matter if Brian inaccurately labels this six-line narrative as "Greco-Roman", or if he oversimplifies the account of where it came from. Regardless, the reality is that this narrative exists, is quite common within many conventional forms of Christianity both today and throughout church history, and, as Brian argues, is not necessarily the most natural way of understanding the biblical narrative once we replace our conventional theological lenses for more historically authentic Hebraic ones (though I wouldn't go so far as to say the six-line narrative is "unbiblical," and I'm not sure Brian would either - it's all about what set of lenses you're using to interpret it). When we use these lenses, Brian suggests, we will begin to see the narrative as being less about an ontological fall from a state of perfection to a state of corruption, and more about a continually unfolding narrative in which an originally good creation (and note that "good" is different than "perfect") progressively and tragically decends into evil and systems of increasing complexity and injustice, while God continues to create opportunities for goodness and redemption to ultimately prevail. Having gone back to the Bible with these same set of lenses myself in recent years, and having found much the same thing, I have to say that I think Brian is on the right track.

Using this "new" foundation, Brian then tackles the rest of his questions. While I don't have the time to go into detail on each of them, just to summarize, Brian suggests 2) that we should read the Bible not as a legal constitution but as a community library; 3) that the violence of God in the Bible should be understood as earlier and insufficent understandings of God in a continually evolving and deepening revelation of God's character which ultimately culminates in the Divine Incarnation in Jesus, through whom we need to completely rethink our view of God; 4) that Jesus himself is the bringer of "a new Genesis, a new Exodus, and a new kingdom come"; 5) that the gospel is all about this new kingdom - a kingdom of peace, justice, and inclusive love; 6) that churches, in all their denominational diversities, should strive to become schools for learning how to practice Christlike love and which embody and communicate the good news of the kingdom; 7) that reading the Bible in the "new" ways he suggests (i.e. not as a legal constitution) and apart from the "Greco-Roman" narrative will lead us to stop condmening gays and lesbians, and help us think more maturely about a whole host of pressing issues regarding human sexuality; 8) that our eschatology should not be about an impending "end of the world", but about a continually unfolding creation and ever expanding kingdom of peace and liberation; 9) that within this kingdom we can welcome the religiously "other" without condemning or trying to assimiliate them, while still holding true to our own commitment to Jesus and offering Jesus and his kingdom to others as a free and gracious gift; and 10) that our quest for a new kind of Christianity needs to lead us beyond mere ideas into practical action in the world towards the goal of healing, liberation, unity, and ubuntu - an African word that means something like "one-another-ness, interconnectedness, joined-in-the-common-good-ness, and profound commitment to the well-being of all."

What pleasantly surprise me the most is how Brian deliberately based his case for each of these positions on a fairly in-depth and well-supported reading of key biblical passages. He wrestles with Genesis, Job, Revelation, John, Romans, and many other passages. He doesn't shy away from the "hammer" passages either (John 14:6 for instance) that his critics often use to try and nail him as a heretic, but instead dives right in and offers compelling alternative readings of them. In other words, while critics might disagree with his interpretations, no one can justifiably accuse Brian's views of being "unbiblical". And interestingly, few of the critical reviews I have read so far - and they are legion - have even bothered to take on Brian's use of scripture. They are content to critique Brian's views as "different" from their versions of Christian orthodoxy (and therefore automatically "wrong") but fail to address the biblical passages that undergird them.

Indeed, this accusation of un-orthodoxy is by far the most common response among critical reviewers. They rightly ascertain that Brian's version of the biblical narrative and the gospel, his view of scripture, and his opinions on homosexuality and religious pluralism are significantly different than most traditional evangelical views, and for most of these bloggers, stating that much is simply enough. To say that he is different is synonymous with saying his views are not "Christian" (and some do say explicitly that). They claim that Brian is light-years off the map of "historic Christian Orthodoxy", and that his views are "a repudiation of the church’s understanding of God and the gospel". But of course all this simply begs the question. Brian admits up front that he is offering a different take on the biblical narrative (it's right there in the title "A New Kind of Christianity"), but the question is not whether it is different, but whether it is right. Are Brian's proposals a better way of understanding the biblical narrative and the message of Jesus or not? Frankly I haven't found many critics who have bothered to engage Brian on that question at all.

I also find these accusations fairly ironic in light of my own recent experiences attending a moderate-to-liberal mainline Presbyterian seminary. Yes, by evangelical standards, Brian is pretty far off the map. However, by mainline Protestant standards, Brian barely even registers as a "liberal" at all. After all, Brian still wholeheartedly affirms the ancient creeds, which of course means he's a Trinitarian and believes in the divinity and bodily Resurrection of Christ, not to mention a whole lot of other beliefs that would fall under the category of "historic orthodox Christian faith". For instance, elsewhere Brian has affirmed that:
"I certainly believe in the need for saving faith, for forgiveness, for hope beyond death, for the pursuit of orthodox articulations of belief, for overcoming the damning effects of sin, for rejecting wholeheartedly the idea that we can be saved by our own efforts or through religion, and so on."

Frankly, compared to some of the liberal Christian theologies I have encountered here at seminary, Brian is still rather conservative. And in fact, what he is saying is not entirely new either. It has deep resonances with many different streams of Christianity throughout the history of the church, from the mainline liberal/social gospel tradition, to Anabaptists, the monastics, Eastern Orthodoxy, and many of the early Church Fathers and Mothers, not to mention non-Western and Third World post-colonial theologians, among many others. Indeed, one of the questions I have for Brian is whether he recognizes this fact, and in what prior streams he himself sees examples of his "new" kind of Christiany in, since to be honest, too often in the book it did feel like Brian was falling into the common Protestant trap of writing off the whole of Christian history since Constantine and acting like we've only just now rediscovered what it's really about. And while I do think there is a continual unfolding of truth through the Spirit, which means the gospel in our time is never going to look exactly like it has in the past, at the same time, I don't think it's a good idea to imply that the Spirit has not been active at all until she got to us. Not that I think Brian actually believes that, but it came across that way more than a few times in what he wrote. As a historian, I'd like him to be a bit more careful with that sort of thing.

Another thing that I'd have liked Brian to be a bit more careful about is the way he talks about those who disagree with him. At times in the book it came across as if he was painting with a very broad brush and rather condescendingly implying that anyone who disagreed with him were fundamentalists or fear-based, or reacting out of their vested interests (in jobs, positions of authority, etc.) Of course this has been a frequent criticism from a number of critical bloggers, and Brian has actually taken the time to respond to it and clarify his intent. As I suspected, he did not intend to paint with a broad brush at all, and really was only talking about those of his critics who do in fact fit his description of hateful, fear-based fundies, but that he certainly didn't mean to imply that this is everyone who happens to disagree with him. Nonetheless I wish Brian would have been a little more careful about this and offered a few more qualifiers to explain who and what he was actually talking about. As it was, I fear he may have unnecessarily alienated a good number of readers who felt he was unjustly caricaturing them or too quickly dismissing their own deep convictions.

There are probably a few other points I would quibble with as well in the book, but they would just be nit-picky, and areas that I'd rather converse about than critique (his evolutionary views of religion and social progress for instance). The bottom line for me however, as I said before, is that I still like where Brian is going and the responses he gives to these ten questions. I don't think he has given a definitive last word on any of it, nor (contrary to what some are assuming or perhaps hoping for) is he drawing any sort of line in the sand and forcing other "emergent" folks like myself to necessarily agree or disagree with him on any of it. Yes, some of us will agree with Brian and others will have reservations, but those who think it's all about whether we agree or disagree with Brian are simply misunderstanding the fundamental nature of the emerging conversation. Brian is simply offering more food for thought, fodder for conversation, and an invitation to continue the journey with him regardless of whether or not we are entirely on the same page. I for one am happy to go with him.

*Disclaimer: In the interest of putting any potential biases up front, I should say that 1) I received a free copy of this book to review for this blog. That fact, however, has not bearing whatsoever on my opinion of it one way or another. Honestly if you think a $25 book is enough to make me sell-out my deepest convictions, what are you even doing reading my blog? ;) And 2) Brian is a personal friend. I know him. He knows me. We've hung out. That potentially does affect my opinion of this book, though hopefully only in the sense that I am thereby inclined to read it more charitably and carefully, and in that I have more direct experience and a larger degree of context with which to interpret what he says, and thus can perhaps achieve a greater degree of clarity about what I think he really means.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 10:14 AM | Permalink |


At 2/25/2010 11:07:00 AM, Anonymous Liz

Mike - I'm reading the book myself and am soooooo glad to read your review. I was beginning to think that I maybe I had gone off the deep end because #1 I haven't been shocked by what Brian has written and #2 I agree with a lot of what he is saying.

However, I would like to say that even if I disagreed with Brian I would never say things that I have been hearing some say about and to just seems like a very poor way to demonstrate the way of Jesus.


At 2/25/2010 11:29:00 AM, Anonymous Bradm

Why does McLaren on the one hand want to get back to "more historically authentic Hebraic" lenses to view the Bible, but then on the other hand - in relation to the OT's depiction of God's violence - want to paint these early Hebraic lenses as insufficient?


At 2/25/2010 12:04:00 PM, Anonymous Miko

In light of "he realized that he couldn't get the crowd to discuss the things he was really passionate about (i.e. the four global crises he addresses in EMC) because all people wanted to talk about were his controversial theological ideas," it seems kind of silly to keep carrying the theology around. While I'll admit that the attempts to reinterpret the parts of the Bible that make God appear somewhere on the jerk-to-monster portion of the personality spectrum are often insanely clever, I'd think that those who are primarily interested in solving real-world problems like poverty would eventually just give up on the reinterpretation and chuck the Bible.


At 2/25/2010 12:16:00 PM, Blogger PrincessMax

Mike, thanks for taking the time to apply your analytical brain to this book. I'll admit, there was a time in my life that whenever someone mentioned a new theologian to me, I searched your blog first to see what you thought of him or her. :-)

I really like what Bradm is asking. Do you have a thought? My impulse (as someone who engages fairly regularly with Hebraic lenses AND their modern manifestations) is to say that if we go back that far, we can reconstruct a new trajectory for the Christian faith based on the paths of minority voices that lands us in this "new" kind of Christianity. Kind of like going back to where you last saw your keys in order to find them again.

Miko, I would say that for some of us, there is a super-natural force tugging at our souls, keeping us tied to spiritual communities and the scripture that forms them. I wish I could be so pragmatic as to chuck the Bible but there would be a big hole in my life if I did. I know that this is not he case for everyone and there are plenty of secular folks who have done just that in order to better work for justice.


At 2/25/2010 01:02:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Bradm - Rebecca (i.e. Princess Max) has hit on it. Brian is suggesting that we read the biblical narrative as a trajectory, a conversation, and a progressive unfolding of God's self-revelation, so that we look through Hebraic lens not to simply re-appropriate ever stage of the journey, but to see the direction of the trajectory that leads up to Christ.

I also agree with Rebecca that if we want to follow the ongoing trajectory since Christ, it might be worthwhile to go back through church history and look at it not through the conventional lenses of the power players (i.e. Popes, Emperors, major theologians, dominant institutions, etc.) but through the "minority report" of subversive and Spirit-filled movements (e.g. the monastics, Franciscans, mystics, Anabaptists, etc.)

Miko - again I second what Rebecca said. Brian doesn't simply chuck religion because he recognizes that for many people it is still a very powerful force, and he is more interested in harnessing that force for good than simply trying to work against it or in spite of it. For instance, in Everything Must Change he doesn't just deal with the crises of poverty, the environment, and violence, he also frames these in terms of an overarching "spiritual" crisis in which we have collectively lost our ability to imagine a better way and a better future.


At 2/26/2010 01:23:00 AM, Anonymous Autumnal Harvest

Bradm, Mike also has a longer answer to that question to that in a previous blog post that I found pretty interesting:

BTW, Mike, in IE8 the movies in the right sidebar of your blog are messed up - they float off to the right, out of the sidebar.


At 2/26/2010 10:19:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Thanks AH - I haven't used IE in so long I guess I didn't even notice. I'll see about fixing that :)


At 2/27/2010 11:15:00 PM, Blogger Tripp

best review of it yet! mike morrell has now been moved down to second.


At 3/01/2010 01:47:00 PM, Blogger David Henson

Really great review. And I deeply appreciate you pointing out that he hasn't discovered some "new" Christianity, but that it's been around for ages and ages, and that he's not some crazy liberal.

I'm a crazy liberal, and I know crazy liberals, and B-Mac is no crazy liberal. :)

I think what he has to say is groundbreaking for a lot of evangelicals, and that's fine, but the mainliners out there are reading his stuff and saying, "and...?"

I thought this was wonderfully thorough, appropriately critical and ground in something greater than the nauseating evangelical v. emergent bickering so common for these reviews.

Well done and thank you.


At 3/02/2010 03:22:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Thanks David.

And I do think Brian has a word for liberals too. Compared to much of the liberal theology I've encountered, Brian is definitely a "third-way" between evangelicalism and classic liberalism. Both sides could stand to learn something from him and the synthesis he provides.


At 3/04/2010 12:59:00 PM, Blogger Josh M.


I'd love to hear your thoughts on RJS' latest post at Scot's blog - basically indicating that Brian's view of the gospel is not wrong but not deep enough:


At 3/07/2010 11:31:00 PM, Anonymous Joel Buursma

Hi, Mike. I was confused when I heard you writing about ANKOC & now I understand. I appreciate much of this. One thing that stuck out:
"that the violence of God in the Bible should be understood as earlier and insufficent understandings of God ... which ultimately culminates in the Divine Incarnation in Jesus, through whom we need to completely rethink our view of God;"
Yes, but what about all the violence in Revelation? For me, it is unsatisfying to try to make the case that God is never violent (even against evil? what about justice?), but that (a) God is patient & wants the best of us, (b) God alone is perfectly just & His violence is just and (c) I am not God and have no business taking things His domain into my hands. I need to follow Jesus and let God be God.

Also, as a computer guy, I liked the Ubuntu reference. Microsoft and Apple are bastions of top-down control, and versions of Linux like Ubuntu are all about freedom & "power to the people". Like Enc. Britannica vs. Wikipedia, but with software. So all your pomo friends should start using Ubuntu now. ;-) (I wouldn't be surprised if many of them have already picked up on this.)


At 3/08/2010 03:01:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Interestingly enough Joel, Brian actually directly deals with those passages in Revelation in his discussion of whether or not God is violent. He suggests an alternative reading of Revelation that takes into account it's metaphorical/symbolic nature, and suggest that those who see it as a prediction or sanction of divine violence are in fact missing the point.

I'd really recommend reading the book for yourself to see if you like how Brian develops this thesis. I'd also highly, HIGHLY recommend another book by New Testament scholar Brian Blount entitled Can I Get a Witness? Reading Revelation through African American Culture for an even better discussion of whether Revelation actually supports an ideology of power and violence or in fact undermines and critiques it.


At 3/08/2010 03:07:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

One other point I wanted to make is that when we talk about God's "violence" or justice against evil, it's important to remember Paul's statement that "our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the powers, principalities, etc...". In other words, God's does in fact work against the powers and systems of evil in this world, but in a way that brings freedom, not violence, to the actual flesh and blood human beings caught up in that evil. As Greg Boyd paraphrases, "if it has flesh and blood, it's not your enemy," and I don't think it's God's enemy either.


At 3/08/2010 04:33:00 PM, Anonymous Agnostic Pentecostal

Great review Mike! Very thoughtful and thorough and as unbiased as one should expect. Thanks for taking the time to address other critics' concerns as well. You've definitely gotten me interested enough to actually get the book.


At 4/06/2010 08:16:00 PM, Blogger JFM

' he hasn't discovered some "new" Christianity" '

No, it would be an old heresy.

You guys re stuck in seminary/Starbucks wannabe-ism. Have fun in your mainline churches when you are too old to continue wearing goatees.


At 4/06/2010 08:23:00 PM, Blogger JFM

" I wish I could be so pragmatic as to chuck the Bible ..."

And this receives a pat on the back. Nuff said. You guys are self-worshippers, not God-worshippers. Anderson Cooper should be your prophet. Hate to be so shrill, but since you are determined to explain away anything you find primitive, lets just call you the modernists you are. Just because you know people far more liberal than yourselves, does not mean you are not ragingly liberal in your essence. And yes, I mean that as a bad thing. You make the New Calvinists look like good scientists.


At 4/17/2010 08:10:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

thanks for the hate brother. not sure what you hoped to accomplish by posting that here, but I hope it made you feel better.