Sunday, January 10, 2010
Everything Must Change: A Review
Five years ago, just married, my wife and I were trying to figure out which seminary to attend together. Would we go the hard-core fundamentalist route [Talbot] or the diverse, evangelical route to Fuller? One of our most important conversation partners during this time was a former eastcoast Evangelical mega-church pastor named Brian McLaren who, at that time, had penned a half-dozen books with titles like A New Kind of Christian, A Generous Orthodoxy and More Ready Than You Realize: Evangelism as Dance in the Postmodern Matrix. McLaren's Masters Degree is in English Literature, indicating a a shift away from the anti-intellectual strand of American Evangelicalism well documented by Mark Noll in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. His vocation is clearly communicating a brand of progressive evangelicalism that calls into question most of the basic assumptions and presuppositions that hard-core fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals take for granted. Is the gospel really a message that guarantees forgiveness of personal sins and an eternal destination in disembodied heaven after we die? McLaren says 'no.' Is the Bible really a self-evident truth manual to guarantee the certainty of Absolute Truth? McLaren says 'no.'
In 2007, McLaren published his primer on major global crises and why followers of Jesus should care about them and make it their vocation to do something about it: Everything Must Change. McLaren's journey to this book is deeply personal, trying to grapple, all his adult Evangelical Christian life, with the limitations of the personal, spiritual gospel handed to him by his forebears. The book is nicely bookended with personal testimony from Christian friends (with different skin color from the Euro-American McLaren) from (A) Africa and (B) the American innercity.
From Khayelitsha, South Africa to local evangelical pastors:
...you're always telling the people they need to be born again, but after they're born again on Sunday, they're still unemployed on Monday. They may be born again, but what good is that if their problems are the same as before? You know as well as I do that if they're unemployed, they're goign to be caught in the poverty web of substance abuse, crime and gangs, domestic violence, and HIV. What good is that? All this born-again talk is nothing but nonsense. 
From McLaren's African-American friend in response to efforts of suburban churches to help poor people in the inner city:
Look, we know how to read, and we should be teaching our own kids. What I wish you would do is something we can't so easily do for ourselves. I wish you would get organized and go down to Congress, and go to the White House, and go to other branches of government, and get them to change the laws and policies that keep our people so poor and our schools so ineffective. If we go in there, they don't listen to us. We have no power, no clout. We don't wear the right clothes, and we don't write letters and speak with the kind of English they respect. But you could do all those things, to try to confront systemic injustic. You could use your power and privilege on our behalf. That's what I wish you would do. 
McLaren listens to the 'perspective of the periphery' and then goes to work, doing theological and social-scientific research and then popularizing this scholarship for ordinary, everyday Christians to grapple with. He has taken our best scholars and introduced their work to us in a manner that is easy to understand the implications. It comes to a head at the end of the first 1/3 of the book by laying out clearly the difference between the 'conventional view' of the Bible [to explain how to go to heaven, to lgitimize certain religious institutions, to define in detail universal timeless truths, to provide a detailed timeline for the end of the world] and the 'emerging view' [the story of the partnership between God and humanity to save and transform all of human society and avert global self-destruction]. Reading the Bible through the wrong lens, McLaren proposes, is like trying to put together a puzzle with the wrong box cover!
The rest of the book is an explosive account of what happens when we rethink the Gospel in light of the systems that dominate the world [what he calls the suicide machine]. McLaren takes readers through a fresh reading of Scripture and unveils how Jesus confronted the counterfeit nature of our prosperity, equity and security needs. It turns out that Jesus modeled and commissioned an alternative regime, a political, social and economic renewed way of life that 'subverts the common sense of the Roman Empire.' Here's how McLaren interprets Jesus primary message for people to 'repent for the kingdom of God is at hand':
The time has come! Rethink everything! A radically new kind of empire is available--the empire of God has arrived! Believe this good news, and defect from all human imperial narratives, counternarratives, dual narratives, and withdrawal narratives. Open your minds and hearts like children to see things freshly in this new way, follow me and my words, and enter this new way of living. 
Jesus' response to our global security crisis is what McLaren calls the divine peace insurgency whose goal is 'to resist the occupation, liberate the planet, and retrain and restore humanity to its original vocation and potential.' Jesus' response to the global equity crisis is what McLaren calls God's unterror movement, cells of hope, kindness, empowerment and service. Jesus' response to the global prosperity crisis is a new global love economy:
a wise relational economy that measures success in terms of gross national affection and global community, that seeks to amass the appreciating capital of wise judgment, profound forethought, and deepening virtue for the sake of rich relationships.
The question I keep hearing from those who are grappling with the implications of McLaren's work is, 'Where is this vision of the Christian life happening in the United States?' Surely, there are pockets here and there, but there continues to be a widespread default either-or narrative in the American Body of Christ: Fundamentalist-Evangelical or Lberal Mainline? McLaren represents a 'third-way' that has been around from the early days of Christian faith, but has been a minority strand [especially since the transitional days of Constantine in the 4th century] perhaps because it demands so much. As usual, McLaren leaves the difficult task of mobilizing others who are compelled by this 'new kind of Christian' that perhaps was the 'original' kind of Christian.
*For more, check out McLaren's Open Letter to Conservative Christians in the US on Health Care.