Friday, December 31, 2010

A New Kind of Christianity, by Brian McLaren

When I saw that this book had such sharp reviews from opposing sides of the opinion spectrum, it caught my attention. So, after opening up a Barnes & Noble Nook for Christmas, the first book I downloaded onto it was Brian McLaren's latest book, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith.

To start off, I might offer a warning about this book to the theologically mild mannered out there. My own theology has certainly been a place of journeying, reconsidering, questioning, and quite frankly honest struggle. And this book ain't making that business any easier.

Mr. McLaren's basic thesis is that our society is on the verge of another shift in thought and theolgy similar to the Enlightenment or the Protestant Reformation. As post-modernity moves into full swing it is becoming more evident that older schools of thought and theology are having more trouble addressing today's questions. McLaren's prescription: not a different way of seeing our usual faith or belief system, and not an alternate approach to "doing" church or programs, but very much a radical New Kind of Christianity.

McLaren takes issue with modern Christianity's basic approach to reading and interpreting the Bible. He submits that we read scripture backwards, through the lens of Martin Luther, who reads through the lens of the Roman Catholic tradition which reads through Augustine who in turn reads through the eyes of the patristic church fathers and so on all the way back to Antiquity. Instead, McLaren offers that we should reconsider reading the Bible forward, starting from Genesis, moving on to Exodus, through Isaiah and culminating in the person of Jesus. What I mean by this is, What did Abraham believe about God? How did Moses understand the Divine? What was Isaiah prophesying about concerning God's shalom? And how did Jesus fulfill those prophesies ushering in the the Kingdom of God?

You might be thinking, "Well, my church already reads the Bible forwards." And I apologize for my poor attempt at summarizing McLaren's thesis, but, chances are, actually you don't. Rather, like me, you probably read the Bible through what McLaren calls the Greco-Roman narrative. (Sadly, there's not space or time to fully describe this narrative and it's ramifications.) This is the understanding of scripture that took a tight hold and hasn't let go when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire (the same empire that executed Jesus) under Emperor Constantine. Though he didn't say it in these words, McLaren fears that when that shift took place, the essential message of the gospel changed.

The Greco-Roman narrative of Christianity is highly influenced by a Platonic (Plato) view of the world, which says that spiritual things or the unseen parts of the universe are the better, the perfect parts of existence and the material, fleshy, human worldly portions of existence are less, fallen, dirty, changing. Plato's gods existed in the spiritual, the perfect, never-changing realm and we, because things change and evolve in our world, live on the wrong side of the Platonic tracks.

What does all this mean? McLaren thinks it means that the Greco-Roman narrative of perfection, fall, and either redemption or hell forever, is a result of a theology not held by Jews at the time of Jesus. Rather, the good news that Jesus was proclaiming and fulfilling was that prophesied by Isaiah when he preached on a coming era of reconciliation, jubilee, peace, community, and all that lions laying down with lambs mess. a.k.a God's shalom.

Now, depending on your theological acuity you may or may not be hearing the gravity of what McLaren is up to in my limited and honestly poor description. To put it bluntly, McLaren is proposing an understanding of Christianity with a different gospel that most conservative and even not so conservative folks out there. And the reason for this is the influence that the Greco-Roman narrative has had on Christianity for the last 1,600 years.

Now, there's sooo much more in this book that what I've said. Again, it's a book of questions. His topics are God, Jesus, the gospel, church, sex (particularly homosexuality), the future, pluralism (what do we do with other religions) and praxis. However, each topic is approached through a non-Greco-Roman orthodox. And what he comes out with is, if nothing else, extremely thought provoking.

Some of you reading even just my simple review will have immediate strong feelings toward what McLaren is doing. I, myself, am reserving judgment as I need much time to chew on it. There's no doubt McLaren, a pastor for 20 some years, loves God and cares for the church deeply. That no doubt will make it difficult as he has already been branded a heretic by loads of conservatives and fundamentalists. But, honestly, even if you agree with those who condemn his approach, I believe it does no good to simply lambaste him judgmentally and move on. Rather, I'd invite you to perhaps read for yourself and engage what he's saying.

The questions he's asking in this book are not going away, so whatever your response to them or to McLaren, you'd be wise to grapple with them yourself.

As for the technical. McLaren is a gifted writer with a powerful vocabulary. There were times when it took all of my seminary degree just to keep up. He declares at the beginning that his comments on the ten questions of the book are responses, not answers. They will generate discussion, no doubt. I have to give the book the ever coveted Nathan's-two-thumbs-up award. Whether I'm all aboard the B. McLaren express or not, I have to give him credit. I believe he's honestly trying to work for the good, and bravely taking lots of criticism in the process.

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