McKnight Interview With McLaren

Most recognise Brian McLaren as a controversial figure. McLaren is one of the leading proponents of the emerging-emergent movement. I recently read his two most popular books and posted my own book reviews – A Generous Orthodoxy (book review here) and A New Kind of Christianity (book review part 1 and part 2).

I thought many would enjoy listening to and watching part of a Q & A session between Scot McKnight and Brian McLaren. In the interview, McKnight asks three pertinent questions of McLaren that many might have. The three questions basically revolve around these three issues:

  1. Why is McLaren somewhat ambiguous with his views?
  2. Does A New Kind of Christianity detract from McLaren’s affirmations in A Generous Orthodoxy?
  3. Is McLaren a universalist?

You can see the video session below:

A New Kind of Christianity – Book Review (Part 2)

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:

  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 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.

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.

A Generous Orthodoy – Book Review

Sometimes I am a little behind the times. Well, in today’s age, doing something only a couple of months later can be seen as ‘behind the times’. For example, I only recently signed up for Twitter just under two months ago. At least I was on Facebook and had a YouTube account for uploading some videos. But I finally decided to move into the world of Tweeting.

So, with a book review being posted only now on Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy is, well, way behind the times, since the book was first published in 2004. I’m talking way behind!

Nevertheless, I launch into my review…

More and more, Brian McLaren stands as the ever-controversial pastor-author, being at the forefront of the emerging-emergent church movement. I liken Brian McLaren to Marmite for Brits. Marmite is a yeast-extract that Brits (and other nationalities) spread on their toast. But here is the thing about Marmite – they say you either love it or hate it. I have never tried it, only smelled it. And the smell reminded me of a combination between beef jerky and fishfood. I’ll let you guess which side of the fence I sit with this product.

And, with regards to the more extreme pendulum views, whether this is good or bad, I think that is typically where most people find themselves with McLaren. Many see his concepts, and other emerging proponents like him, as the best thing since sliced bread. Others see him as a heretic, and I’m sure he has even received some labelling as antichrist (which I will go ahead and say is a bit ridiculous).

The subtitle for the book is quite lengthy: Why I am a missional, evangelical, post-protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/calvinist, green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian.

A mouthful, heh?!

The main thesis of the book is to create just what the title calls for: a generous orthodoxy. His desire is to create a wide enough playing field in his orthodoxy for all to embrace and enjoy.

Now, hold on there, before the charges start firing away. He is not inherently saying that ‘nothing matters’ or ‘we are all in regardless’. Some would accuse him of such, but I am not sure that is McLaren’s stance. But he is passionate enough about challenging the more exclusive, dogmatic boxes that can be created for, one, keeping ourselves in and, two, keeping others out.

Early on, McLaren starts out by sharing about the seven Jesuses he has known over his life. Again, hold your judgments. He is not saying there are actually different Jesuses to believe in. Rather he points to seven branches of the church that have helped him understand the fuller reality of who Jesus is:

  • The Conservative Protestant Jesus
  • The Pentecostal/Charismatic Jesus
  • The Roman Catholic Jesus
  • The Eastern Orthodox Jesus
  • The Liberal Protestant Jesus
  • The Anabaptist Jesus
  • The Jesus of the Oppressed

Through his life, at times, McLaren has been drawn into varying expressions of the church, and he considers this a great plus in experiencing the fulness of who Jesus is. Thus, the subtitle of the book shows his desire to allow the different and varying expressions of Christ’s church draw him in to who Jesus really is. And that is what he longs for with the whole church – a more generous orthodoxy that sees the benefits of and respect for those even outside our own circles.

But, while he would applaud certain aspects of these differing expressions, he would also be willing to challenge other aspects. I would not say the challenges are raised to pick a fight. Yes, he shares his frustrations at times with some of the over-closedness that he disagrees with in the church. But I think he reserves more stern treatment in his most recent book, A New Kind of Christianity, which I hope to post a review of in the next week or two.

Let me first start out by saying what I like about A Generous Orthodoxy.

In general, I really did enjoy reading the book. There are some good thoughts, things that must be considered in this day. As Christians, we do love to create our closed, dogmatic boxes and proclaim it as orthodoxy. And, thus, we get to say who is in and who is out. Most of us have moved away from declaring certain non-essential issues as essential for our salvation in Christ. But we still create our in and out groups. All of us do this, including me.

Therefore, I see no problem in championing a more generous orthodoxy. Of course, I don’t agree with every statement and nuance of McLaren. But I think we must consider listening to, if not his for some reason, then voices like his.

Many will accuse that this kind of ’emerging thinking’ will take us down the slippery slope in which we are all inclusivists and universalists, simply accepting any ol’ thing. I suppose, at times, McLaren would say, ‘No, that’s not what I am looking to do,’ and at other times he would probably claim, ‘Yes, I am ok with that.’ The reason is, again, his desire to stir the overly closed and dogmatic theology in our own expressions of church. It’s quite like when I talk to an extreme Calvinist, I will throw out some things to challenge their view. And when I talk to an extreme Arminian, I will toss some challenges to them as well.

But, I must admit that, as I read this text, I felt a peaceful, restful spirit from the pages. Some would claim I’m just opening the door to a false spirit, but I don’t think that true. The words of McLaren do give a sense of wanting to open the door for better collaboration and acceptance of one another across the varying circles of Christ’s body. For some, that is anathema. For some, that is the call of believers. Again, I’m thinking Marmite here.

Personally, I do believe it very worthwhile in considering, learning from and receiving from the varying expressions of Christ’s church. Matter of fact, I have come to appreciate some aspects of varying branches that I wasn’t aware of, such as the Anabaptists. McLaren is quite a proponent of Anabaptists, as he grew up in such a church. Even recently, there are some things within the Eastern Orthodox church that I have come to appreciate. And, dare I say it, even understanding the heart behind icons. Uh, oh.

There are three things I would challenge McLaren on.

The first is that I believe he has taken on too much of a martyr complex. It’s not overwhelming in the book, but he knows many are not going to like what he has to say, so he might say things like, ‘I know people will disagree with me, even call me a deceiver. But I really am looking to stand for what Jesus stands for.’ Something like that.

And, of course, I suppose those who love him will rally behind him and say, ‘Ahh, they have no idea what they are talking about when they hurl insults at you, those religious and dogmatic types. They will never change. Jesus will deal with them like he dealt with the money changers in the temple.’ Something like that.

I would encourage McLaren to get on with his specific message and not focus so much on the detractors and accusers. Of course, you have to address these things at times. So it’s not out of bounds. But I would simply try and steer clear of embracing much of a martyr complex.

The second thing is not so much a challenge, but I at least recognise that I am not in the same place as he is with regards to the question of hell, which he addresses in his chapter on being missional, chapter 5. I am just approaching his chapter in A New Kind of Christianity that looks at the question of the future. I suppose he will go into more detail in that book than in A Generous Orthodoxy. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he avoided some issues.

For McLaren, of course it is ok to not build a dogmatic case. It is clear from more recent words that he does not hold to eternal conscious punishment. I am not sure if he is an annihilationist or more inclusivist in a universal reconciliationist view that ultimately, through the work of Christ, all will be reconciled to the Father. There are respectable theologians that hold to all three views. I have typically leaned towards the first, eternal conscious punishment, as my seminary professor of eschatology was of that view, having written two books on the topic. But I am much more open to annihilationism today, and I at least will respect the words of those who are universal reconciliationists.

Thus, McLaren is not too worried about defining his view about hell, though he has a view. And maybe it’s to avoid even more accusatory words, which is somewhat understandable. Instead of defining hell, he would say his desire is rather to get on with being a blessing to the world, harking back to the original words of God to Abraham – I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Genesis 12:3).

Regardless of one’s dogmatism on hell, or their particular view, I am definitely up for getting on with being a blessing and making Christ known to others. I’m not sure about quite a few theological issues, but I am sure that Christ came to bring the kingdom rule of God that sets captives free and reconciles them to the Father.

I know I am a lot more defined than Brian McLaren. With theology, I love systematics, that is systematizing theological topics across the Scripture. For example, studying what the whole Scripture has to say about the kingdom of God, or church, or the Holy Spirit, or humankind, etc. This is somewhat the other side of the coin to biblical theology where we would more regularly study the Scriptures book by book, chapter by chapter, verse by verse.

Hence, I am quite defined in my theology. And I believe that is why McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy serves a purpose for me (and people like me). Thoughts like these are refreshing to one like me who is a bit more ‘heady’ and ‘systematic’. That’s why I enjoy diving into both devotional and fiction books – to get my head out of proper theology at times.

The final challenge would be that these words are really only relevant to the church in America and western Europe. Well, at least at this point. Maybe one day these words will be relevant to Africa, India, the Asiatics, Central and South America. But I would rather Christ consummate all things upon His return than await that day, for it might be a little while longer until those peoples deal with much of these issues. But, while I might suggest to a ‘western’ friend or colleague to read McLaren, I would not suggest it to my African or Asian or Hispanic friends. In general, I don’t think it would be too relevant to them. But I think McLaren is more writing to and challenging the American church.

In all, Brian McLaren has written this treatise, and has probably been read by multiple millions now, to stir the church to open their hearts and minds to those outside their own circle. Sure, this has been going on for a few decades now, swinging the pendulum away from super-dogmatism and closed-mindedness. But his words come in trying to swing the pendulum even further, as he believes this is important in the post-modern, twenty-first century world. People will continue to label him as heretic or be quite cautious in receiving much of what he says, but such will only strengthen us and him as we face the challenges.

Here stands a man that is continually grappling with how to make Jesus relevant to the world he lives in, a world that is more and more extremely varied and eclectic. To my understanding, that was the major launching pad for the emerging-emergent church – how do we reach the upcoming, emerging, post-modern generation. Even if I don’t agree with every belief and practise, I still recognise that as a worthy consideration.

One final challenge to readers of this article. I would encourage you to read McLaren, or others like him, before speaking forth and posting your judgments. I have been guilty of this myself with varying theological beliefs and church circles. It’s not good. It’s not Christlike. When we make our judgments from third or fourth-hand information, we will fall short of being faithful in using wisdom and discernment, and even more, I believe we will fall short of being like Jesus. For this, I am challenged.

As I said, I will post some of my thoughts about A New Kind of Christianity soon. At least for that book, I will not be too far behind, since it was only released a few months ago.