Hansen Wendlandt's Reviews > A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith

A New Kind of Christianity by Brian D. McLaren
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Jul 26, 2011

really liked it

The argument is rather simple: Christianity has been perverted by certain cultural thinking, real devotion requires us to peel back those layers, and what remains will be the truth capable of changing one’s soul and the world. McLaren offers this fresh, exciting paradigm of the faith (much of which is rather obvious to Christians not cloistered in conservatism), for the most part with accessibility and wit. The devil, of course, is in the details, such as six-line narratives, Greek vs Hebrew thought, constitutional Scripture, the prism of belief perspectives… And there are glaring questions about his argument. With respect to hermeneutics (thus endemic to any project like this, and almost forgivable), it is always hard to clarify, much less prove, what counts as ‘perverse’ cultural thinking and what counts as ‘pure’ Christianity. With respect to Religion, McLaren offers great critique of the “comic parody or tragic catastrophe or veritable travesty”(26) of cultural Christianity, but (perhaps on purpose?) sometimes does a weak job of building up a new image of the faith. At the extreme, one could ask if A New Kind of Christianity is really a complete enough ‘kind’, or even close enough to what most people tend to label as Christianity. With respect to the cultural battles baptized in religiosity, McLaren wavers between being quite fair (too fair?) to his opponents, occasionally with too cutesy rhetoric, and sometimes being the real inspiration and hero of emergent/liberal Christianity.

Not everyone will share McLaren’s motivation for a new kind of Christianity. Some believers are so indoctrinated with a Christianized message of caring more about “protecting the rich from taxes than liberating the poor from poverty”, that they do not see how their ‘brand’ of the faith was been “discredited” (7). They will not get far with this book. But if you agree that “something isn’t working in the way we are doing Christianity anymore” (8), you can at least take a step (through a far-too-long introduction) toward his description of the problem and ‘a’ (not ‘the’) reply (not ‘answer’).

The first issue that McLaren takes on is the “overarching story line of the Bible”. Is it Eden-Fall-Condemnation-Salvation/Heaven/Damnation, as Sunday Schools teach and endless preachers preach; or does Scripture tell the story of God’s unending compassion and forgiveness? The fourth chapter explains his claim that the so-called ‘six line narrative’ of conventional Christianity is not Biblical (which he defends well enough), but is rather Greco-Roman (which he does not bother to defend very much, to the chagrin of anyone who has enough Greek philosophy and Roman history under his or her belt). The next chapters present and defend the alternative ‘redemptive narrative’, in the controversial detail of exegesis. Whereas conventional (and usually primitive) Christians struggle to move past the Old Testament tropes of punishment and smiting, McLaren defines the overarching story of the Bible as this: “God does not abandon humanity in its tragic story of injustice and oppression. Instead, God gets involved, siding with the oppressed, the vulnerable, the downtrodden, working as their ally for their liberation.” (57) I can agree with that conclusion, although for less sociological or hermeneutic reasons than he has. Namely, I’m more impressed by humankind’s natural predilection to seek negativity, than by the possible endurance of Greco-Roman cosmology, which certainly influenced the early faith in profound ways, but does not, in my reading, match up nearly as cleanly as McLaren wants it to.

Biblical authority (or more so, ‘authoritarianism’) is the next shibboleth. From defending slavery during the Civil War to proof-texting about capital punishment these days, “quoting Bible verses to buttress ethical positions clearly protects nobody from being a moral buffoon.” (69) The conventional Christian, according to McLaren, views Scripture as a ‘constitution’ etched in stone (though, through interpreters, who wield a ridiculous power), whereas the original characters did, and we should, view it as a living, conversational ‘library’. In other words, “does the Bible tell us to shut up and listen, because everything is settled? Or does it invite us to be part of the conversation?” (93) Particularly concerning ‘inspiration’ and the nature of Scriptural authority, McLaren describes his position well: “if it is truly inspired by God, [it] wasn’t meant to end conversation and give final word on controversies. If this were its purpose, it has failed miserably. But if, instead, it was inspired and intended to stimulate conversation, to keep people thinking and talking and arguing and seeking across continents and centuries, it has succeeded and is succeeding in a truly remarkable way…” (92)

Against the typical conservative objection that such non-literal reading loses the moral force of God’s inspiration, McLaren argues that this redemptive paradigm is the moral high road. “We are on a quest to find other ways to cherish, understand and follow the Bible.” (85) Rather than getting in a moral tug-of-war between those possibilities (and there are obvious positive values tugging in both ways), my greater concern is that McLaren’s alternative position on the Bible is too weak. He says, “revelation occurs not in the words and statements of individuals, but in the conversation among individuals and God.” (90) True enough, but Scripture is the Word of God, not simply a conversation of words. A “unique and unparalleled role” (85) is just not enough, where the Word of God is concerned. On the other hand, my favorite aspect of this section is McLaren’s scope. He is not content even if all Christians were to learn to re-read the Bible as anti-racism, anti-war, pro-women, pro-gay, pro-environment; he is concerned just as much about the problem that we will “still use the Bible in the same way [proof texting] to defend [or deny] any number of other things.” (76)

The third main issue on the New Kind agenda is the nature of God. When one reads from a six-line constitutional narrative, it is easy to envision an ugly, punishing God, not “worthy of belief, much less worship.” (109) When, instead, one turns to a redemptive library narrative, it is just silly to imagine a God “who tortures the greater part of humanity forever in infinite eternal conscious torment.” (99) Specifically, McLaren traces five points of evolution in Scripture’s presentation of God: uniqueness, ethics, universality, agency, and character. In short, rather than dealing with the Sunday School question of the difference between the God’s of the Old and New Testaments, McLaren describes an evolution from a jealous God, to whence “God is like Jesus.” (114)

Concerning God’s son, “just saying the name ‘Jesus’ does not mean much until we make clear which Jesus we are talking about.” (119) Does Scripture really portray a “Divine Terminator” (126) with tattoos and weapons of anger, or the man who preached and worked for the poor and oppressed? What about the gospel message that Jesus brought? “For Jesus, the gospel was very clear: the kingdom of God is at hand,” (138) not some secret to figuring out the six-line narrative, not some formula for understanding the constitutional Bible, but a kingdom of God’s will for peace and justice, for all.

So, what do we do with all of this? How do we rethink and reposition our actions, based on this new Christian agenda? The 17th chapter is one interesting reply, sure to be controversial more because the topic is sexuality than for what McLaren says. So many Christians are “fundasexualists”, stuck in a “heterophobia” (174-5), with non-Biblical, culturally anti-scientific ideas about how God created us, whereas the Bible urges inclusivism and shows examples of “nonheterosexuals in missional leadership from the very beginning of the Jesus movement.” (186) Not only are we called to equality and kindness, but just as gays should feel comfortable about coming out of the closet, straight folks need also “to come out of the closet regarding our sexuality.” (189) No matter how one feels about homosexuality, issues of adultery, pornography, and all that go into our own healthy sexuality should be more important to us.

For most of the book, McLaren is deft to present the competing positions without value judgment. At the 20th chapter that effort (and it is an effort) falls short, with an enlightening theory of seven faith stages or zones: survival (superstition), security (prosperity gospel), power (strict determinism), independence (principles), individuality (personal salvation), honesty (morality) and healing (peaceful community), all alongside “an ultraviolet quest for sacredness.” (233) The ‘lower’ stages see God how they are able, while “if more of us don’t grow violet [to the highest stage], our world will grow more violent.” (235) It is not so much a castigation of primitive and less mature religious perspectives, but a path forward, not to a fixed destination, but to a future of a peace and justice.

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