A New Kind of Christianity – Book Review (Part 1)

Back in May of this year, I posted up my review of Brian McLaren’s work, A Generous Orthodoxy. McLaren stands at the head of what is known as the emerging-emergent church movement. Though he had written books prior to his 2004 release of A Generous Orthodoxy, this was his ground-breaking book into the Christian market (and beyond). This book (and now his other books) has generally caused two reactions from Christians – either you love him or you hate him. There isn’t a lot of middle-ground for too many.

As you will see, I personally gave A Generous Orthodoxy a generous review. Nope, I did not agree with every single thing McLaren stated, as you will see in my three challenges at the end of the review. But, still, the book was good food-for-thought, at least for one who is interested in what Christianity is to look like in the 21st century.

Hey, following Jesus is not tied into my or your particular theology. I, and we, can learn a lot from those of the faith that are not within our particular group or circle. And that’s a healthy perspective to take, McLaren’s perspective in A Generous Orthodoxy. He wants us to ask how we can keep our orthodoxy a bit more generous, steering clear of overly defined and dogmatic boxes, as to include and understand those within the Christian faith but who might not be of our particular denomination or tradition.

While A Generous Orthodoxy might be considered somewhat extreme, I must say it is not as extreme as his most recent publication, A New Kind of Christianity. If some feel A Generous Orthodoxy caused a stir and was too loose in it’s theology, well, these people just might anathematize A New Kind of Christianity. It is definitely a step further down the path of the emerging, post-modern thinking. It does make one wonder if previous books were written to prepare the way for this new one, and if A New Kind of Christianity is only preparing for an even more radical step in the future. Only time will tell.

Now, I don’t say any of these things as of yet to dismiss the book. I only say upfront that some will definitely not like McLaren’s thoughts and concepts in this newer release, especially if his other writings (not just A Generous Orthodoxy) have left a bad taste in one’s mouth. For some, this book might easily be rejected as having anything to do with Christ and Christianity.

From my perspective, just as with A Generous Orthodoxy, I don’t agree with everything in this book. Some of it is a bit too extreme for me. Still, let me say this from the start – I think the book is worth a read for Christians who are living in 2010 and who want to engage with what God is doing in today’s world (at least the western world). A mature believer will read it with discernment. But, nonetheless, I would encourage mature Christians to wrestle with it.

Noting the subtitle of the book, Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith, the main premise of the book is that McLaren sets out 10 questions that he believes must be considered as we develop a new kind of Christianity in the 21st century. He challenges much of what has come before, or at least what has existed since the setting up of a Roman Christendom in in the late 4th century.

The ten questions are as follows:

  1. The Narrative Question: What is the overarching story line 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 human sexuality without fighting about it?
  8. The Future Question: Can we find a better way of viewing 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?

I won’t take time to look at every question. But I will address six of them, mainly the narrative question (#1), the authority question (#2), the God question (#3), the sex question (#7), the future question (#8) and the pluralism question (#9). Of the questions I will address, I will take this part 1 to look at the first three and then, in part 2, I will look at the final 3 questions.

What is the overarching story line of the Bible?

With regards to the first question, McLaren charges that most of Christianity has developed a Greco-Roman understanding of the biblical narrative, which looks something like this:

McLaren challenges that this six-line, Greco-Roman perspective comes from reading the Bible backwards through the lens of people since the arrival of Jesus. But if we read it forward (from Genesis to Jesus), we will come to better understand the overall narrative story of Scripture. The first flag to raise would be why he separates Jesus and Paul (or any other New Testament writer). Later on, McLaren does take time to take a look at Romans in presenting his understanding of the gospel. But one might read these chapters on the first question and wonder if he thinks Paul (or other New Testament writers) might have askewed our understanding of Christ and God.

In coming to his own realisation of the true biblical story line, McLaren said he mainly immersed himself in Genesis, Exodus and the writings of the prophets, especially Isaiah.

As I allowed Genesis, Exodus, and Isaiah – rather than Plato, Aristotle, and Caesar – to set the stage for the biblical narrative, what emerged dazzled me: a beautiful, powerful, gritty story that resonates with, gives meaning to, and continues to unfold in the life and teaching of Jesus. And this story invites our participation as well, not as pawns on the squares of a cosmic chessboard, but as creative protagonists and junior partners with God in the story of creation. (p47)

I’m not sure why he only took Genesis, Exodus and mainly Isaiah, to form his view. But those are the three main Old Testament books he takes time to address the overarching story of Scripture.

I agree that the Bible is first and foremost a redemptive story, so it’s not so much a car instruction manual with how-to-fix-every-problem that we might come across. It is a redemptive drama being played out, and within a particular ancient near eastern culture, but, interestingly enough, one that had been greatly influenced by the Greco-Roman world by the time of Jesus’ arrival. So, maybe this whole thing of demonizing the Greco-Roman ideas is not all that it’s cracked up to be.

I think Scot McKnight lays out the narrative importance of Scripture in his book, The Blue Parakeet. But before saying much more about Scripture, I move on to the second question or the authority question.

How should the Bible be understood?

In this section, McLaren continues to challenge much of evangelicalism’s reading of Scripture in the vein of the Greco-Roman style. Or, to put it another way, reading it as a constitution. Again, the Bible is a narrative story, first and foremost.

He hits hard at what we might identify as fundamentalists, though his swing is broader to take in most of evangelicals. McLaren states:

Our quest for a new kind of Christianity requires a new, more mature and responsible approach to the Bible.

We pursue this new approach to the Bible not out of a capitulation to “moral relativism,” as some critics will no doubt accuse, but because of a passion for the biblical values of goodness and justice. Our goal is not to lower our moral standards, but rather raise them by facing and repenting of habits of the mind and heart that harmed human beings and dishonored God in the past. We have no desire to descend a slippery slope into moral compromise; rather, we admit that we slid down the slope long ago, Bibles in hand, and we need to climb out of the ditch before we are complicit in more atrocities. Repentance means more than being sorry – it means being different. (p76-77)

His greatest example of a wrong kind of approach to Scripture is how it was used to promote slavery. Plenty of people in generations past utilised Scripture in arguing positively for the practise of slavery. And we know that wasn’t/isn’t healthy. McLaren also mentions how Scripture has also been used in backing up other atrocious behaviours such as anti-Semitism, apartheid, chauvinism, environmental plundering, prejudice against gay people, and other such issues.

He defines the constitutional approach to Scripture in this way:

It shouldn’t surprise us that people raised in a constitutional era would tend to read the Bible in a constitutional way. Lawyers in the courtroom quote articles, sections, paragraphs, and subparagraphs to win their case, and we do the same with testaments, books, chapters, and verses. (p78)

If we approach Scripture incorrectly, we will approach life and humanity incorrectly. Therefore, Brian McLaren’s solution is that we stop reading the Bible as a constitution and more as a community library.

So, whatever the Bible is, it simply is not a constitution. I would like to propose that it is something far more interesting and important: it’s the library of a culture and community – the culture and community of people who trace their history back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…The biblical library, similarly, is a carefully selected group of ancient documents of paramount importance for people who want to understand and belong to the community of people who seek God and, in particular, the God of Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets, and Jesus. (p81)

McLaren reminds us that ‘the Bible says’ and ‘I say the Bible says’ are not, many times, two equal statements. And, so, as we approach Scripture, McLaren would call us to remember this:

As we listen and enter into the conversation ourselves, could it be that God’s Word, God’s speaking, God’s self-revealing happens to us, sneaks up, surprises and ambushes us, transforms us, and disarms us – rather than arms us with “truths” to use like weapons that savage other human beings? Could it be that God’s Word intends not to give us easy answers and shortcuts to confidence and authority, but rather to reduce us, again and again, to a posture of wonder, humility, rebuke, and smallness in the face of the unknown? (p93)

The next question to consider is the God question.

Is God violent?

Here, McLaren takes up the argument that there is a difference between the Hebrew God, Elohim, and the Greek God, Theos. I personally think this could be a little confusing, since the New Testament word used for God is Theos. Now, McLaren is presenting a characterisation of the Greek idea of God as opposed to the Hebrew idea of God. But, it could still get confusing knowing that plenty of first century Jews would have spoken of Theos in their teachings and writings.

Permit me to post a longer quote in helping understand McLaren’s thoughts:

Now, before I address my uneasiness about those images, I need to say again that nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures do I find anything as horrible as Theos. Yes, I find a character named God who sends a flood that destroys all humanity except for Noah’s family, but that’s almost trivial compared to a deity who tortures the great part of humanity in infinite eternal conscious torment, three words that need to be read slowly and thoughtfully to feel their full import. Yes, I find a character named God who directs a band of nomadic former slaves to fight and claim from more powerful nations a piece of land for themselves, but never does this God direct them to expand their borders, brutally gime through slavery and genocides as Theos-Zeus-Jupiter likes to do. Yes, I find a character named God who does a good bit of smiting, but those who are smitten are simply smitten and buried, and that’s it. They are not shamed and tortured by God after death – forever and ever, without end. Now, I am in no way interested in excusing or defending divine smiting, genocidal conquest, or global quasi-geocidal flooding; I’m just saying that even if these are the crimes of Elohim/LORD, they are far less serious crimes than those of Theos. (p98-99, italics his)

Obviously this also touches on his view of hell, but we will come back to that later on in my part 2 of the review. Though some of McLaren’s ideas presented with regards to the first two questions are arguable, here things start getting a little more dubious. I believe we are left too confused on the nature of God in the whole of Scripture.

He, then, begins to present a somewhat progressive, or maybe evolutionary, view of God as presented in Scripture.

But over time, the image of God that predominates is gentle rather than cruel, compassionate rather than violent, fair to all rather than biased toward some, forgiving rather than retaliatory. In this more mature view, God is not capricious, bloodthirsty, hateful or prone to fits of vengeful rage. Rather, God loves justice, kindness, reconciliation, and peace; God’s grace gets the final word. (p102)

To be honest, I think I understand what McLaren is going on about. Of course, God’s nature does not change. But it’s the revelation of His nature that becomes clearer and more full as we move through the Scripture. It is what theologians recognise as the progressive revelation of Scripture. All that we know about God did not drop out of heaven into a book the day He created Adam and Eve. Rather, God was revealing Himself within a particular culture and throughout their time. God is a patient God, and that’s a good thing. If He had revealed Himself all at once, it would have been an overload for us. Thus, the slow and progressive revelation of Himself now recorded in Scripture and summed up in the final Word, Jesus Christ.

Now, this is where McLaren might need to rethink his view: The Old Testament is full of God’s justice, love, grace and tender care. And there is enough judgment in the New Testament to keep us on our toes as well (the death of Herod Agrippa – Acts 12:20-23; those who were ‘falling asleep’ in their selfish approach to the Lord’s table – 1 Corinthians 11:17-34). I know McLaren would not hold to the whole argument that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are two different Gods. But his thoughts tend to divide and dichotomize God.

His whole premise is that, as we move through Scripture, we advance from a violent tribal God to a Christlike God. And if we stop approaching Scripture from the six-line, Greco-Roman standpoint and the constitutional reading, we will see this full and complete (the more mature) movement. And, I believe McLaren would argue that, even today, we can further that true vision of what God is truly like as we let go of these two fundamental beliefs of most Christians.

This is why we cannot simply say that the highest revelation of God is given through the Bible (especially the Bible read as a constitution or cut and pasted to fit in the Greco-Roman six-line narrative). Rather, we can say that, for Christians, the Bible’s highest value is in revealing Jesus, who gives us the highest, deepest, and most mature view of the character of the living God…

Of course, some will claim I’m dishonoring the Scripture by saying these things, but in fact, I’m trying to properly honor Jesus as the Word of God to which the words of Scripture bear witness. The Scriptures are indeed unique and precious – inspired by God, as Paul said, and useful to teach, reprove, correct, and train us in right living so we may be fully equipped to do good works (2 Tim. 3:16-17). But just as the bronze serpent that had been an agent of healing in Moses’s day could later become something of an idol (2 Kings 18:4), so Christian individuals and communities can unwittingly become false Trinitarians, worshiping Father, Son and Holy Scriptures. (p115-116)

Though McLaren hits Christians hard with his thoughts on the narrative, authority and God questions, I can concur with these words above to a degree. Recently, I have become a little concerned when a person or church’s statement of faith says that the Scriptures are our ultimate authority. Well, actually, for the Christian, I believe that our final authority should be He whom we are named after – Christ.

Now, I know. The Scriptures are the God-breathed, inspired word of God and testimony to Christ. We can be certain of its origin and nature, as it testifies about itself. But I would rather state that Scripture becomes one of the great authorities and testimonies of Christ, not the only. Matter of fact, I would even argue that it is the church, the body of Christ, that is also theopneustos, or God-breathed. Jesus breathed on the disciples (John 20:22) and sent the Spirit (pneuma-breath) of God at Pentecost to empower His church (Acts 2).

That should suffice for now in this part 1 of my review of A New Kind of Christianity. While I do not agree with everything McLaren says and I think his challenges are a bit extreme at time, I still believe his questions are worth noting and pondering. Though one, like myself, would not agree with all he has to say, his voice is a prominent one today. Hence, the importance of engaging with his thoughts.

I’ll take up the sex question (#7), the future question (#8) and the pluralism question (#9) in my part 2.

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4 thoughts on “A New Kind of Christianity – Book Review (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention A New Kind of Christianity – Book Review (Part 1) « The Prodigal Thought -- Topsy.com

  2. I haven’t read the book and only skimmed through A GENEROUS ORTHODOXY several years ago. Some thoughts:

    I don’t have any evidence that McLaren is a skilled or even able exegete in Biblical Hebrew or Greek, so if he does speak at length about anything of the sort, I’d do some research before accepting what he says.

    Likewise, I don’t know what his background and studies and expertise are in ancient Israel or ancient Greece or Rome or ancient philosophy, so I’m not sure how much value to put into his statements about what “Theos” is like compared to YHWH, Elohim, etc.

    From the above summary you give, he seems to give short shrift to the Resurrection, which seems to me to be the defining event of not only who Jesus is but the reason He matters, Paul matters, the New Testament matters, the Psalms and the Prophets matter, we matter, etc. While Evangelicals and other Christians may need to rethink things about the resurrection and the atonement, etc., a la N. T. Wright or others, I think until they really begin to think not just from a cross-centered perspective but from a Resurrected Christ perspective will they begin to know how to think about these 10 transformative questions.

    Carry on, ScottL!

  3. Eric –

    Thanks for the comment. McLaren was actually a literature professor by background. He would say he kind of stumbled into pastoral-church leadership. So I don’t think he would say he is a Hebrew or Greek expert. But he seems widely read, probably due to his literature background (maybe even philosophy). But we all have the ‘selective reading syndrome’ where we either read what we believe will be good or if we read something we don’t agree with, we completely disregards. Makes some sense, but it can close us a little off.

    I can’t remember if he talked about the resurrection too much, and maybe he did in his Jesus chapter (question #4). But to not remember might be a pointer of how much he addresses the resurrection. I just can’t remember.

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