Monday, March 08, 2010

"A New Kind of Christianity" by Brian McLaren

Though I'm quite sure he would deny that anyone owed him anything, I owe Brian McLaren a debt of gratitude. Over the years, Brian's writing has breathed fresh life and vitality into my faith. To say that I was excited when Viral Bloggers offered an opportunity to review his newest book would be an understatement along the lines of claiming that Bono is kind of interested in social justice, or that Glenn Beck exaggerates a little.

Reviewing the Reviews

As I was finishing the book, I watched as reviews began to pop-up on the internet. The less-than-surprising news is that hard-core Calvinists (including the "New-Calvinists") hate it with a white-hot hatred they normally reserve for child abusers and made-for-TV movies on the Lifetime Network. Reading their reviews, you would think that Brian had done something to them personally, or had betrayed them in some sense (which is weird, sense they haven't liked most of his books). I was disappointed to pick up on this vibe even in a review by Michael Wittmer, whom I had generally considered to be one of the more level-headed thinkers from that perspective. Scot McKnight, whom I have a great deal of respect for, and who is not really thought of as a Calvinist, wrote a review for Christianity Today that, while much kinder and more respectful in tone, claimed that Brian wasn't really saying anything new, but was simply re-packaging the Classical Liberalism that was typical of German Theology before the 2nd World War as typified in Adolf Von Harnack. This struck me as odd, because Brian clearly intends to transcend such polarized categories (not merely repackage one category in a fresh way as "the right one"), and the point at which Brian's thought draws this criticism from McKnight, is actually closer to the much more contemporary (and 3rd-way) thinking found in the work of Peter Enns.

Most of the critics' objections essentially stem from concerns about orthodoxy. Maybe it's because I'm from a non-creedal tradition, but I've never quite resonated with the orthodoxy/heresy argument. (I realize I may have just painted a target on myself...but that kind of illustrates my point, doesn't it?). For starters, an enormous amount of what has historically been defined as "heresy" was so classified by people who were publicly executing people they disagreed with, in the name of the crucified Christ! I'm fairly sure that misses the point of the Gospel to a much greater degree than having different ideas about whether God and Jesus are made out of the same substance. Secondly, when certain subjects are off-limits for questions, it looks like we're not actually interested in "truth", but rather merely maintaining the status quo. Additionally, for large portions of church history, the "orthodox positions" were precisely wrong (slavery, women's rights, etc.) I could go on and on...but I won't.

The Actual Book

A New Kind of Christianity, is the book that many of us have been wanting McLaren to write for years. Ever since he sparked our imaginations with the fictional conversations between Dan Poole and Neil Edward Oliver in A New Kind of Christian, we've been dying to see those ideas teased out in non-fiction. He structures the book around 10 crucial questions, identifying the first 5 as theological in nature, and the remaining 5 as practical.
  1. The Narrative Question: What Is the Overarching Storyline of the Bible?
  2. The Authority Question: How Should the Bible Be Understood?
  3. The God Question: Is God Violent?
  4. The Jesus Question: Who is Jesus and Why is He Important?
  5. The Gospel Question: What Is the Gospel?
  6. The Church Question: What Do We Do About the Church?
  7. The Sex Question: Can We Find a Way to Address Sexuality Without Fighting About It?
  8. The Future Question: Can We Find a Better Way of View the Future?
  9. The Pluralism Question: How Should Followers of Jesus Relate to People of Other Religions?
  10. The What Do We Do Now Question: How Can We Translate Our Quest into Action?
McLaren's approach isn't coercive. He explains that he isn't attempting to answer these questions definitively but rather is responding to them and inviting us, as readers and willing participants into the conversation. He is seeking to get conversation out of the polarized deadlock that it is so often bogged down in, because of the bounded categories (liberal, conservative, etc.) imposed in modernity that serve to insure no real conversation can ever take place (which reminds me of the state of a certain country's political system...but I digress).

What Brian offers here is a beautiful and thoughtful way forward. Is it perfect? No. And he never claims that it is. Will his responses satisfy everyone? Uh, I've never read any book that did that. However, to Brian's credit, he doesn't pander to any particular category's concept of "orthodoxy." A New Kind of Christianity transcends unhelpful categories and sparks hopeful conversation that I believe could point the way forward. That is, if we have ears to hear, and eyes to see.



2 comments:

Kass said...

Thanks for writing this. All the reviews I've read about this book have ranged from scathing to semi-critical. I appreciate the positive tone you've taken in reviewing this book.

www.kathypride.com said...

If I had discovered the writing of Brian McLaren sooner, rather than the harsh condemnation of Christians who loved me, perhaps I would have let God in to represent Himself sooner...