In my part 1 review on A New Kind of Christianity, I started by giving the main thesis of Brian McLaren’s newest book, which is summarised by the books subtitle: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith. Those ten questions are:
- The Narrative Question: What is the overarching story line of the Bible?
- The Authority Question: How should the Bible be understood?
- The God Question: Is God violent?
- The Jesus Question: Who is Jesus and why is He important?
- The Gospel Question: What is the gospel?
- The Church Question: What do we do about the church?
- The Sex Question: Can we find a way to address human sexuality without fighting about it?
- The Future Question: Can we find a better way of viewing the future?
- The Pluralism Question: How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?
- The What-Do-We-Do-Now Question: How can we translate our quest into action?
I then took time to address the first three questions from above, mainly the narrative question (#1), the authority question (#2) and the God question (#3). In this second and final post, I will only address three other questions, those being the sex question (#7), the future question (#8) and the pluralism question (#9).
Can we find a way to address human sexuality without fighting about it?
Here, in this particular section of the book, McLaren speaks out against what he has labelled as fundasexuality. He describes it with these words:
The lifestyle I’m speaking of is fundasexuality…, a neologism that describes a reactive, combative brand of religious fundamentalism that preoccupies itself with sexuality. The term does not apply to the quiet, pious, respectful fundamentalism of straightforward, sincere people, but rather to the organizing, angry, dominating fundamentalism that declares war on those who differ. Fundasexuality is rooted not in faith, but in an orientation of fear. It’s proponents fear new ideas, people who are different, criticism or rejection from their own community, and God’s violent wrath on them if they don’t fully conform to and enforce the teachings and interpretations of their popular teachers and other authority figures. It is a kind of heterophobia: the fear of people who are different. It comes in many forms – Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, or even atheist. (p174-175, italics his)
These are quite the fiery words, or at least the label of fundasexuality could seem a low blow. McLaren believes that, if people approach the faith from the Greco-Roman narrative perspective of Scripture, the constitutional reading of the Bible, holding to an image of God as violent, as well as not properly understanding Christ (question #4), the gospel (question #5) and the purpose of the church (question #6), they will easily lean towards an attitude of ostracizing those identified as homosexuals.
He, then, takes the time to consider the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8 as a pointer to how we should deal with the ‘sexually other’ (not simply homosexuals). The eunuch was a man with some serious barriers standing as hindrances to becoming fully part of the community of faith in his time. He was a Gentile and a castrated Gentile at that. Thus, he was ‘sexually other’. Yet Philip took the time to reach out to this man, calling him to Christ and the new covenant community of faith. And, not only that, but tradition tells us this man took up a missional calling in bringing the gospel of the kingdom back to Ethiopia. Thus, McLaren believes this is an important account of how we are to engage with people of varying sexual orientations.
Through the past century, some groups the church has tended to exclude at varying times have been groups such as African-Americans, hippies and Democrats (and there are others). But, probably the greater target of recent decades has been gay people. Generally, we don’t know how to deal with them. And so McLaren’s challenge is that we look to open our doors and our lives to gay people. Of course, the accusation normally thrown at one taking this approach is that we are heading towards moral relativism, accepting anything and everything. But McLaren would deny such.
There are a few things to bring up in challenging McLaren’s thoughts on homosexuality. The one thing I do appreciate is the challenge to be radical in the way that we, as true Christ-followers, respond to those in same-sex relationships. Our past is atrocious and we must stop any forms of hate, anger and outright disregard for such people. And, we must even stop with lack of engagement and giving the silent treatment. These people are created in the image of God and we must rethink our interaction with them.
This, by no means, makes it an easy task. We are still left with practical questions of how this outworks itself. But that’s just it. We always want nice and neat answers to our questions. We want 3 keys or 5 principles to follow with regards to every area of our faith. But it doesn’t always work that way. There are some general considerations obviously. But, in the end, each case will call for its own individual wisdom.
Still, our first call is to engage with these people as image-bearers that God desires to draw unto Himself. What a radical notion, though it shouldn’t be.
Now we are still left a little in the dark as to McLaren’s full perspective on the issue. He never comes right out and says something like, ‘Homosexuality does not matter. Our doors should be open with no questions asked.’ But one can easily feel that is where he stands. It’s because he never makes it clear. And I think McLaren does that on purpose. He is somewhat of a politician and, thus, he is careful with how he words things. Keeping the door wide enough, but also not so wide as to combat against any allegations that might come from some angry folk.
He also spends a little time sharing how we have reached a very difficult period for humanity with such things like the internet, movies, availability of contraceptives, etc. Sex and alternative sex perspectives are easy to come by. As a response he remarks:
When I consider these and the many other factors that are working against sexual sanity and health, I’m amazed that we’re doing as well as we are. Which brings me back to the subject of homosexuality. By coming out of the closet regarding their homosexuality, gay folks may help the rest of us come out of the closet regarding our sexuality. And that is important, because the longer we hide from the truth of our sexuality – in all its beauty and agony, in all of its passion and pain, in all of its simplicity and complexity – the sicker we will be, as religious communities, as cultures, and as a global society. (p189, italics his)
Yes, there are plenty of sexuality secrets shut up in many a people’s closets. I would venture to say that this isn’t just true today but has been for all of human history. It’s just now, in these days, it is more and more acceptable to come out with it in the open (well, at least outside the church). In the old days, people would die with their secrets. No longer today.
And so, yes, there are plenty of folk who need to deal with their sexuality. But we need wisdom in faithfully dealing with our sexuality. We, as Christians, don’t want to put up dogmatic barriers that send people elsewhere to deal with their issues. But we also need that God-wisdom to guard against a relativistic free for all.
In all, we must note that true (or biblical) sexuality is God-given and good. God created us with hormones and a desire to be with a partner. But we also note there are parameters in which our sexuality is to be expressed, all for our benefit in the end. Again, this does not mean that the proper response to those in same-sex relationships is to ostracize them (or worse). Such pride and hate needs addressing and healing just as much, if not more, than a wrong sexual relationship. But I am convinced that biblical, good and healthy sexuality is to be expressed between one man and one woman joined together in the marriage covenant. I am left wondering if McLaren would affirm this.
I don’t know if McLaren is headed down the slippery slope with regards to all sexuality. Maybe or maybe not. I’m sure he would deny that he was. But, if, in our gracious interaction with them, we begin to accept same-sex relationships as good and godly, then does this mean we should end up accepting other forms of sexuality such as bestiality? Why or why not? How do we engage with people involved in such a practise?
I think the Scripture is clear on 1) how we should compassionately interact with the ‘sexually other’ and 2) that proper sexuality is expressed between a married man and woman.
Can we find a better way of viewing the future?
In A Generous Orthodoxy, McLaren avoided making any dogmatic statements about hell and judgment. In this chapter about the future, McLaren again sidesteps specific statements about hell. And I guess I should have expected nothing less noting his politician’s approach to the more difficult issues. But one can, or has to, infer what his thoughts are on the subject.
He again challenges the more conventional, six-line, Greco-Roman approach to Scripture, giving an alternative perspective about the future.
But we have begun exploring the future in light of the dynamic and spacious biblical narrative rather than the flat, linear, and predetermined Greco-Roman one. In that context, we see the future not as a time line on a flat plane, but as a time-space in three dimensions. In that expanding space, millions of good stories can unfold and be told. Suddenly we find ourselves not in a one-dimensional determined universe with a fixed future, but in a deep, expanding universe with a future full of widening possibilities. At every moment, creation continues to unfold, liberation continues to unshackle us, and the peaceable kingdom continues to expand with new hope and promise (p193-194, italics his)
I think it is obvious that McLaren holds to some form of open theism, which teaches that, while God knows all things, the future is not specifically determined and planned by Him. There is still a broad openness to what will take place.
While I have stronger leanings towards God’s sovereignty as expressed in a more reformed theological view, I actually don’t get too bothered with adherents of open theism (or Arminianism). I wouldn’t agree with either. But I don’t think it puts someone outside of historic Christianity.
McLaren speaks out against some of the hard-nosed determinisms of Christianity, one being what he would identify as the ‘soul-sort’ determinism where everyone will be sorted into either the destruction/damnation or the redemption/salvation bin. Some words that might explain McLaren’s view are as follows:
Parousia, in this way, would signal the full arrival, presence, and manifestation of a new age in human history. It would mean the presence or appearance on earth of a new generation of humanity, Christ again present, embodied in a community of people who truly possess and express his Spirit, continuing his work. This would be the age of the Spirit and grace rather than law and law-keeping. It would be the age of God’s presence in a holy people being formed in all cultures rather than God’s presence localized in a holy temple centralized in one city. It would be the age of love rather than circumcision or other in-group markers as the prime identification of the people of God. It would be an age in which the cult of animal sacrifice and related atonement mechanisms would be passé. (p198)
This doesn’t sound outrageous in and of itself, though there is theological debate on whether the parousia is an actual physical coming of Christ or a Christ’s judgment coming upon Jews culminating in AD 70. But, to read this statement, and knowing the greater point of McLaren in this chapter in challenging dogmatic eschatological views, the statement is not so out of bounds.
But my problem is what N.T. Wright has labelled as evolutionary optimism (see Surprised by Hope, p93-100). Though McLaren would argue that he is looking to ground his faith in Christ and the Scriptures, there seems to be somewhat of a human-optimism to his ideas (I don’t use ‘humanistic optimism’ as to avoid an overly negative connotation).
What I mean is that it appears that McLaren thinks we, as humans, can fully bring the utopian kingdom on earth. While I believe the kingdom of God is coming on earth as it is in heaven, and I do believe the body of Christ is called to participate in this, this is ultimately the responsibility of God, since it is His kingdom. Of course, McLaren would agree with that. But reading his words makes me feel that he is too optimistic with regards to the ability of human beings doing this (maybe even human beings that are not believers in Christ). History typically tells us we fall short. I say this not with an overly negative eschatological view, as I actually hold a more positive view. But this seems to put too much faith in the ability of humanity to cooperate with God.
And what to final judgment. McLaren states:
As a first step in seeing judgment in our new eschatological context, we must stop defining it as condemnation. God’s judgment in the 3-D biblical context is not merely retributive – seeking to punish wrongdoers for their wrongs and in this way balance some sort of cosmic equation. No, God’s judgment is far higher and better than that; it involves “putting wrong things right.” It means reconciling and restoring, not merely punishing; healing, not merely diagnosing; transforming, not merely exposing; revaluing (or redeeming), not merely evaluating. (p203-204)
It’s quite obvious, at least from inference, that as one read’s on, you can easily gather that McLaren is more of a universalist (or universal reconciliationist). I am not sure if, for him, that would works itself out in that all people will avoid hell-judgment or that hell is a place where all people will be brought to reconciliation with God. But, nevertheless, it seems holds to some kind of universalism.
I agree that judgment is ultimately about putting things right. But I also believe this will involve dealing with those who are not united to Christ by faith. Whether that is eternal conscious judgment or that each mortal human will simply cease to exist (the view of conditional immortality), that could be debated. But, at this point, I cannot accept a universalist approach to Scripture. There seems too much there, even in the New Testament, in making it easy to reject such a view.
How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?
If it wasn’t enough to address the sexuality question, McLaren now treads into the area of how do we deal with those of other religions. Near the beginning of this chapter, he shares this hard reality about Christianity:
If we want to get on the right side of the life-and-death divide, we need to start with some sober, serious, old-fashioned repentance, starting with this admission: Christianity has a nauseating, infuriating, depressing record when it comes to encountering people of other religions (and a not much better record when encountering people of other brands of Christianity either). (p208)
Whether one agrees with McLaren’s thoughts on how to engage in a pluralistic society, we must at least note that the above statement is true. Our history as Christians is sad, very sad, when it comes to our actions towards other peoples and religions in the name of Jesus. Oh, yes, others have done it as well. Thanks for reminding me. But I’m not too certain that our response should be to point back at them and accuse them. We are Christ’s, right? It will take centuries to make up for what we’ve done, if we even get there. But we can only make adjustments if we first acknowledge our wrongs.
And, in doing so, we can also change our perspective by moving towards gracious and helpful interaction with those of other religions and faiths, just like we should with regards to those in same-sex relationships. Our approach with both groups of people should be to emulate Christ and his compassion, even to the extent of turning the other cheek if we are wronged.
Still, in the end, McLaren’s more universalist perspective, if that word faithfully defines his view, comes forth.
If we could break free from the Greco-Roman soul-sort narrative, think of what could change. We Christians could offer Jesus (not Christianity) as a gift to the world, and we would no longer consider it a requirement of faithfulness to insult other religions and call their founders demonic. We would no longer envision a day when all other religions would be abolished and only our own will remain. We would no longer consider ourselves normative and others as “other.” We would stop seeing the line that separates good and evil running between our religion and all others. We would be freed from the tendency to always think “insider/outsider” and “us/them.” We would learn to discover God in the other, and we would discover a bigger “us,” in which people of all faiths can be included. (p215)
Again, I don’t have a problem with these words, per se. But knowing McLaren’s wider perspective as presented in the book, I think it easily leaves us devoid of calling people to truly follow Christ. Following Christ is not inherently about doing some good things and leading a kind lifestyle. Though non-Christians can engage in humanitarian aid, loving and kind acts, serving, etc, none of that brings one to Christ in and of itself. In the end, I am still convinced one must be born from above. I’m not even saying that has to happen through a ‘Damascus Road type experience’. But conversion is essential to truly following Christ. Stepping into covenant relationship with Christ is paramount.
McLaren spends the final few pages of this chapter taking a fresh look at John 14:6, a favourite verse with regards to evangelism: I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
I don’t even mind his thoughts on this verse and the wider context of John 14, though, again, I might not agree with all of his exegesis. Still, entrance into the kingdom of God comes via faith in the Son of God. That does not boil down to adhering to a book full of confessions and statements about the faith. But it does mean that one sees that God’s provision for new life and the new creation is Jesus Christ Himself, through his death and resurrection. That is very essential.
Thus, I would challenge McLaren to remember this indispensable part of our faith and the gospel as explained in the New Testament. We are calling people to follow Christ, which is initiated in a new birth conversion.
And thus, my two-part review comes to a close. It was long, but it could have been longer if I had taken time to address the other four questions.
Let me again reiterate that I believe it would be good to read A New Kind of Christianity – read with discernment but also read without a dogmatic closedness that will not allow for any learning. The ten question posed in this book are well worth thinking through, as some of McLaren’s thoughts were also well worth it. Yet, I still believe some of his words fell outside of Scriptural teaching, possibly nearing a line that we should be careful not to cross. But the book remains a voice into the Christian faith of the 21st century. And, thus, I recommend that we take up the book and engage with his thoughts.
For another review, I would recommend Scot McKnight’s article in Christianity Today.
If you would like to get more of an introduction into the 10 questions of McLaren’s book, A New Kind of Christianity, you can view the 10 videos at Theooze.
McLaren does appear to be leaning toward Universalism. Not sure he’s all the way there. What I do appreciate about Brian is his willingness to ask the hard questions and wait for the discussion to follow. To his credit, Brian does listen thoughtfully to his critics. My gut tells me that much of his writing is a window into a soul on the move. I do trust Brian’s deep and sincere yearning glorify God as well as to wrestle with both the biblical text and the struggles of our times. This is not a man given to a ‘duck and cover’ response like many published writers in our day.
I had a chance to glance at A NEW KIND OF CHRISTIANITY at Barnes & Noble today, and from what I read, I think it might appeal to me and/or resonate more with me than MERE CHURCHIANITY, which I have not read in full, either. Borders is holding a copy for me for pick-up tomorrow and I can use my 40%-off coupon! The intro/preface made me respect/understand McLaren’s varied experience and qualifications to write about this subject.