Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Yearning For A New Kind of Christianity

The bad news: the Christian faith in all its forms is in trouble. The good news: the Christian faith in all its forms is pregnant with new possibilities.
Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity (2010)

Perhaps, like us, you grew up in a fundamentalist Christian setting where all of Life's mysteries were boiled down to simple and certain formulas of timely quoted Bible verses. You always knew that there was a God who created the world and has always been in control of everything that has ever happened since. He (God is male) decides who becomes rich and poor and who goes to heaven and hell after death. And we know all this from a Bible that is a divinely-dictated, error-free, easy-to-read manual for life.

But at some point, like us, you started to feel a bit uneasy about the whole arrangement. No doubt, you were still compelled by the Jesus of the Gospels, but the churches that you were acquainted with were stuck asking the same tired questions with the same methodical answers that left you unfulfilled and probably asking more questions. All your fellow Christians seemed to be concerned with spreading the message about "getting saved" and standing up for Absolute Truth and Morality...and you were supposed to be doing the same. You wanted to embrace the mystery and complexity of life, yearning to "come out" as an agnostic on some issues, but your church warned you of that dangerous route.

There are virtually millions of younger Evangelicals who have become jaded, bugged, frustrated and/or just flat-out irate over the often closed confines of Christian conversation. Many have already checked out of Christianity altogether or have complacently blended into their churches, keeping silent lest they offend their social circles of faith. Yet many are determined to roll up their sleeves and find that Jesus of the Gospels in a real life Movement that they can join up with and live out in real time. If you have rolled up your sleeves (and even if you've checked out or blended in) and haven't read Brian McLaren, do it immediately. And if you are still content how the same old Christianity frames everything, save your time and money.

For those ready for a more dangerous brand of faith, McLaren's A New Kind of Christianity (2010) is a great place to start. The title is marketed for you, but it's a bit deceptive because none of it is, in fact, new. McLaren ties together a "generous orthodoxy" (the title of a previous book stolen from legendary Yale theologian Hans Frei) of church history, theology and biblical studies to lay out a more "catalytic faith" to replace that old "codified belief" that has dogged us for too long. Indeed, McLaren's decades of research and leadership have led him to a dynamic story about a God who is absolutely determined to redeem the world through Her own suffering love. Like a good theologian, McLaren reframes the questions for his 21st century mostly post-Evangelical American readership. He's got 10 of them:

1. Narrative (the Bible's story?)
2. Authority (the Bible's legitimacy?)
3. God (uniqueness? ethics? universality? agency? character?)
4. Jesus (significance for us?)
5. Gospel (Jesus' original message?)
6. Church (our vocation?)
7. Sex (who's having it? ;)
8. Future (heaven? hell? on earth as it is in heaven?)
9. Pluralism (other religions?)
10. Action (what now?)

McLaren starts with what he calls the "6-line, black-and-white, soul-sorting heaven or hell Greco-Roman narrative" that millions of Western Christians have been told is the story of the Bible. McLaren has good news: it's not. Here's how he displays it:

This Evangelical message about how we've all sinned and are destined for hell unless we actively receive the blood of Jesus, however, is completely foreign to how the Hebrew prophets, including Jesus, would understand the God who created the world and is determined to redeem it. In short, it is more Theos (Plato) than Elohim (Jewish):

This is "the precritical lens" that Western Christians bring to the Bible...and everything else there is:

...when theologians read the Bible through the lens of the Exodus narrative, they are called "liberation theologians," but their counterparts who read it through the Greco-Roman narrative are never labeled "domination theologians" or "colonization theologians." Similarly, we have "black theology" and "feminist theology," but Greco-Roman orthodoxy is never called "white theology" or "male theology."

It is the lens that allows many bible readers to uncover all sorts of messages about heaven and hell (as destinations after death), as well as pictures of an all-male god full of violence and condemnation and disapproval of me, a dirty sinner. That's bad news.

On top of this false narrative, McLaren's points out, many Christians make the Bible out to be something that it is not. Greco-Roman narrative Christians construe the Bible as a self-evident Constitution that conveys Absolute Truth (unless your are too sinful or liberal). This counterfeit lens has led millions of sincere Christians to find themselves on the wrong side of history, justifying slavery, segregation, apartheid, anti-semitism, colonization, war, ecological rape and religious triumphalism (remember the crusades?) while benching womens and gays/lesbians as second-class citizens and sinners.

On the contrary, McLaren portrays the Bible as a library of divinely inspired documents that are written by humans who see God through a glass darkly (I Corinthians 13:12):

...human beings can't do better than their very best at any given moment to communicate about God as they understand God, and that Scripture faithfully reveals the evolution of our ancestors' best attempts to communicate their successive best understandings of God. As human capacity grows to conceive of a higher and wiser view of God, each new vision is faithfully preserved in Scripture like fossils in layers of sediment.

As it turns out, when we passionatley and critically engage with the Bible we discover a God who is, first, the very best and most powerful of a pantheon of gods, but eventually seen as the ONLY God (in a world of illusory "gods"). We read, first, of priestly paintings of a God who is worshipped through ritual and cermony in an immaculately sanctified building conducted by professional religionists, but eventually there emerge prophetic enactments of a God who equates worship with compassionate service to the most vulnerable members of society. This God has gory glimpses of violence and jealousy early on, but has a heart filled with steadfast love compassion, climaxing in the merciful, forgiving, self-sacrificial loving Jesus who is "the image of the invisible God." There is a shift of understanding of exactly who God is throughout Scripture, but Christ serves as a hinge or focal point to give us coherence today.

And, as we shift our reading strategy we find ourselves peering through a new lens:

If the Genesis story sets the stage by giving us a sacred vision of the past, and if the Exodus story situates us in the sacred present on a pilgrimage toward external an dinternal liberation, then the story of the peace-making kingdom ignites our faith with a sacred vision of the future, a vision of hope, a vision of love. It represents a new creation, and a new exodus--a new promised land that isn't one patch of ground held by one elite group, but that encompasses the whole earth. It acknowledges that whatever we have become or ruined, there is hope for a better tomorrow; whatever we have achieved or destroyed, new possibilities await us; no matter how far we have come or backslidden, there are new and more glorious adventures ahead. And, the prophets aver, this is not just a human pipe dream, wishful thinking, whistling in the dark; this hope is the very word of the Lord, the firm promise of the living God.

When we change the lens to reflect a more historically accurate Jewish understanding of God and salvation, we'll find the real treasure. This is great news.

A lot of sincere folks are afraid of McLaren. They've been told that he's too liberal or even heretical. "Be careful," say are told, "He's got some dangerous ideas." Dangerous indeed. McLaren is creatively communicating biblical studies and theology (35 pages of endnotes) from some of the best scholars on the planet, a theological dream team of sorts: Walter Brueggemann, N.T. Wright, Marcus Borg, Ched Myers, William Herzog, Rita Brock, James Cone, John Dominic Crossan, Leonardo Boff, Jon Sobrino, Gustavo Gutierrez, Richard Rohr & Joan Chittester (among others). These scholars are so dynamic because they are recovering a more radical (Latin for "roots") Christianity that is about scandalously following Jesus (contemplatively, socially, politically, economically) all the way to the cross. McLaren is dangerously bad news for those who benefit from the status quo.

No doubt, this ain't Franklin Graham's father's Christianity. No quick decisions or one-prayer roads to heaven. It is a new set of questions that more accurately frame Jesus and the Way he called us to. But the answers, for McLaren, are just the beginning of a conversation that can only begin when we read in good faith. After all, reading McLaren is like sampling beers with good friends: some sips will be smooth, while others will have a bit of a hoppy bite. And, no matter what, as it is with beer, every sip of McLaren should culminate in a dialogue.


  1. It seems like this newest McLaren book is not a waste of time?!!! Excited to dive into it, whenever my husband buys it...hehe. I finally finished Everything Must Change and LOVED IT!!!!

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