Thursday, March 04, 2010
Brian McLaren Clarifies Some Questions About ANKoC: Part I
Brian McLaren has graciously offered to answer some of the questions I have for him about his latest book, A New Kind of Christianity, which I reviewed here last week. Given the amount of misunderstanding and rather uncharitable accusations floating around out there about Brian's book, Brian and I agreed that this might be a great way to help bring some clarity to the conversation. I had a number of different questions for him, and he provided rather lengthy responses, so I'll be posting them here one question at a time over the next several days. You'll notice that as an aspiring church historian my questions tend to run in that vein, so I apologize if I didn't happen ask the questions most burning in your own mind, but I hope some of you will find these responses illuminating nonetheless.

Here's first question I asked:

1) More than a few times in the book you seemed to adopt the "Fall of the Church" narrative common to many Protestants (and especially Anabaptists and Restorationists, not to mention the Social Gospel folks), in which the mainstream of Christianity took a very bad detour shortly after the time of the apostles and only now are we rediscovering what the message of Jesus was really about. My questions for you about this are: a) Is it really so bad as all that? Aren't there any streams in Christian history where the gospel you describe in ANKoC can be found? What happened to a "generous orthodoxy"? b) If you really do think this is a wholly new rediscovery, isn't it a little bit arrogant to claim that we're the first ones to have been able to figure it out? And more importantly, wouldn't that imply a rather pessimistic view of the Holy Spirit and her work of guiding the church throughout the past 20 centuries? c) If you're not actually saying that, then what would be a better way to understand your own view of church history?

Brian responded to each part of my question separately:

Is it really so bad as all that?

Thanks for asking about this. It's a bit disappointing to see some folks problematizing a couple issues like this so as to make any consideration of the questions I'm raising unimportant. First, I think the Anabaptists, Restorationists, and Social Gospel folks do have a point when they talk about the fall of the church. Isn't it more than a little strange that the religion that loves, follows, and worships a crucified man forges an alliance with the empire that did the crucifying and then starts painting crosses on their shields - not evoking the meaning given to the cross by the faith, namely, forgiveness and grace, but evoking the fear of crushing dominance by which an empire expands and maintains power? That's not a little thing. And it stretches into many other areas ... the religion that follows a king who washes feet and was crucified ends up mirroring the structure of the empire of the very "rulers of the gentiles" of whom Jesus said "You shall not be like them." Again, this isn't a tiny matter.

But even though I think these are major issues, if I had believed in the fall of the church narrative, I would have used the term. I wonder if people see the irony: throughout the book I'm questioning the whole paradigm that fall language sets up. Why would I import that paradigm here? The fall paradigm assumes you start with something in a perfect, pristine state and then it falls into a state of absolute evil ... an all-or-nothing matter. I don't follow that dualistic paradigm on either side of the equation. I don't think the church was ever pristine. I think it was wonderfully human from the start ... good and flawed, a mix of hope and hypocrisy, dignity and dishonor just like all of us are still today. My coming of age paradigm isn't dualistic. Childhood isn't good and adulthood bad or the reverse. It's all just there, what it is, interdependent, full of narrative surprises.

On that issue of dualism, I really think a lot of people need to try to understand what my friend Fr. Richard Rohr is saying about nondual thinking. In many ways, his new book "The Naked Now" and mine should be read together.

Aren't there any streams in Christian history where the gospel you describe in ANKoC can be found?

Absolutely! I think it's everywhere to some degree, because the gospels were read in every church service through most of history - one of the great strengths of our liturgical churches, by the way. But I think it shines out very brightly in many beautiful resurgences, but none of them perfect or pristine (I just don't think in those terms when I think of creatures ... only the Creator is light in whom there is no darkness at all, and even more amazing, that light overcomes darkness!). I would point to Benedict, to the Celts, to St. Francis and the communities that he inspired, to the Anabaptists, to the Quakers, to the early Methodists and earliest Pentecostals, and to many others. But again, none of these groups are perfect or ideal, and the others aren't terrible and fallen. I don't buy into that unfallen/fallen dualism at all. We're all in this together.

What happened to a "generous orthodoxy"?

I guess it must have seemed that I was being ungenerous to versions of Christianity that became violent in the Roman way? There I would want to echo Paul - the problem isn't flesh and blood people; the problem is a "spirit" in the Walter Wink sense, a spirit that, as Jesus said, motivates people to kill other people and think they're doing God a service. And I feel I need to be very direct when addressing that spirit, because it's still around, and frankly, I think if it were to express itself in today's world as it did in, say, racism or apartheid or anti-semitism or colonialism or crusades or inquisitions in the past, its beachhead would be in two places, first in the nation today that is most like Rome in the ancient world, and second, in the networks today that are most like the Zealots in the ancient world.

If you really do think this is a wholly new rediscovery, isn't it a little bit arrogant to claim that we're the first ones to have been able to figure it out?

Of course that would be arrogant. But I never say anything like that. If there is a wholly new discovery, it's the revelation of God that comes through Jesus. That's been there all along, and it's up to us in every generation to receive that revelation and take in all of it we can. I'm sure I've only imbibed the tiniest fraction of it, so I would never ever claim to have "figured it out!" I do echo John Robinson's words, that the Lord always has more truth and light to show forth from his holy word. And I do believe that Jesus was right when he said that there are things that his disciples at any moment can't bear to hear, so the Holy Spirit brings us along as we're ready and able to learn - not just as individuals, but as churches, denominations, nations, civilizations. So I just want to be listening to what the Spirit is telling us now, just as our ancestors sought to hear what the Spirit was telling them then.

I try to make this clear in the book again and again - I'm not in any way saying we've arrived. Sheesh, that would be arrogant! (Although, ironically, those who are claiming that I say this seem in some ways to be saying it themselves - as in, "He hasn't arrived; We arrived a long time ago!") Again, we've got to get beyond that dualism that wants to say "we're right, they were wrong; we've arrived, they haven't." I try to model a different way of seeing things in the book, but it's notoriously hard to break old habits, both for me and for my readers, I'm sure. I try to make clear: my metaphor isn't dualistic statements/debates/states, but rather narrative questions/conversations/quests. So just because we're trying to get something through our heads now ... that doesn't mean we have any right to feel superior, that we're now in the "good" state and others are in the "bad" state. We wouldn't be getting what we're getting now unless our ancestors got what they got before us. We wouldn't be doing calculus if they hadn't created algebra. We wouldn't be doing Einstein if they hadn't done Newton. It's not us better-than them, but us because of them, us and them on a common quest across not only generations but millennia. It's not better and worse, good and bad.

And more importantly, wouldn't that imply a rather pessimistic view of the Holy Spirit and her work of guiding the church throughout the past 20 centuries?

I hope what I've just said addresses that. I'm not denying for a minute that the Holy Spirit was at work. I see the Spirit at work everywhere; today I'm listening, maybe tomorrow I won't be, which is why we all need to pay attention to our hearts, our receptivity, our repentance. This is so much about spirituality and heart, not just intellect and argument.

But I don't want to miss the importance of your question, so let's take the story of slavery, which I address in Chapter 7. Back in the 19th century, people could have said the same thing to the abolitionists. "Are you denying that the Holy Spirit has been at work in us all these centuries when we have accepted slavery as normative? Aren't you being pessimistic about the Holy Spirit? And arrogant too?" And of course, pro-slavery advocates did say exactly these things. For me the key is stepping out of the whole dualistic mindset that sees one group as perpetually right and another group as hopelessly wrong. I just don't see it that way. This also relates to the brief section where I talk about movements and institutions near the end of the book. I don't think that God is in movements and not in institutions, or the reverse. I think God is in both ... and God is trying to get each to contribute and listen to the other without becoming the other.

If you're not actually saying that, then what would be a better way to understand your own view of church history?

To me, it's a story of growth. But I think we'll get deeper into that in your question about evolution. For now, try this: what if the church sits in relation to God the way science sits in relation to the physical universe. Both are communities. Both are interacting with their appropriate subject. But are making their very best observations at any given moment. Both are filled with statement and counterstatement, theory and countertheory. And both are making painstaking progress over time. There are both breakthroughs and setbacks, advances and retreats. It's not smooth and neat or predestined. There are some rabbit trails and dead ends. Later forms don't mock their ancestors, but neither do they feel afraid to move beyond the assumptions of their ancestors to ask new questions and sometimes overturn old theories. Nobody says (today at least) that Einstein was unorthodox because he dared to see the world outside the lenses given him by Sir Isaac Newton. They see Einstein as the successor to Newton, as standing on his shoulders, so to speak. So I see church history as a kind of parallel to scientific history ... just as reality is always there for science to engage with, the Spirit of God is always present for us to engage with. And just as science can get so involved with its theories or internal politics or funding squabbles or pursuit of wealth that is sometimes loses its way, so can we. But reality - and God - are always waiting for us to return to, to engage with, to learn from, to be curious about. How does that work? (I wish I would have included something like this in the book, now that I think about it ...) No analogy is perfect, of course ...

By the way, this analogy would provide another reason why the Bible and the spiritual life are so important to me, which is one of the things that my most liberal friends might still see as conservative and evangelical. If stones and light and water and organisms are the realities that scientists engage with, it seems to me that the Scriptures and life in the presence of God are the realities that we Christians engage with. And that's why I appreciated in your review that you mentioned how the book has some engagement with Scripture in each question. I was shocked to see some of the commenters on the blogs completely ignore that, and actually claim that there was no Scriptural engagement. I guess we all see what we want to see, and find it hard to see what we don't want to see. I really hope that readers will take my engagement with Scripture seriously - grappling with Jonah, Job, John, Romans, Acts, Genesis, etc.

Thanks Brian. I'll be posting Part II tomorrow.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 2:42 PM | Permalink |


At 3/04/2010 05:26:00 PM, Anonymous Chad Holtz

Brian, thank you for clarifying some of these important themes and thank you, Mike, for providing a format to do so.

I have been amazed by the amount of misinformation floating around about this book. It tells me at least 2 things: One, many are predisposed to hate it and can't for the life of them read with the charity and grace they claim saved them and two, those in the middle are reading some critiques (and critiques ONLY) and coming away with warped ideas about what this book is trying to say (I'm thinking about Scot McKnight's review about "The Evolving God" which I deal with on my blog).

This is a great way to sort some of that out (I hope!) I'll direct people here.



At 3/05/2010 06:59:00 AM, Blogger RoboPA

Thanks Brian and Mike for this! I've been reading "Naked Now" for a few weeks now (it's so deep, it requires slow reading and reflection), and will start Brian's book after my class is over.

Looking forward to seeing you (Brian) at my school next Friday (Moravian Seminary).


At 3/09/2010 01:40:00 PM, Blogger Bill Samuel

As one who agrees with the bulk of what Brian writes, I can say that one of the things I've had the most problem with is giving the impression that these ideas are new, implicit in the title of ANKOC and A New Kind of Christian before it. I realize there are acknowledgments of the wisdom that has come before in many places in his writings, but still there's an overall impression that grates.

It's good he here explicitly acknowledges that many in earlier generations have gotten the main points. However, there still is a flavor of "we've got it better than those who went before" in his describing the history of Christianity as one of growth.

Brian is a naturally optimistic person, and I suspect that's partly why he portrays it this way. But I don't think the analogy to scientific progress is a good one.

The real truth seems to me is that we take steps backward and forward, and in every generation there are Christians with different approaches. I'm not a church historian, but I question whether a thesis of linear growth in understanding can be substantiated. And it winds up having an air of arrogance, even though I know Brian is not an arrogant person.