Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Book Review -- A New Kind of Christianity

I must admit that I approached A New Kind of Christianity with high expectations. The book was able to ascend to the status of book that I bought in a retail store, which normally brings with it an elevated price tag, and this book was no different.

I must admit to having read almost all of Brian McLaren’s books. The Story We Find Ourselves In remains one of my favorite books of all time, and The Last Word and the Word After That is still one of the most challenging and thought provoking books that I have read in recent years. I found myself inspired by the careful consideration that God’s good creation was given in the former book, and angry, frustrated, and by the end rethinking my view on the afterlife in the latter. McLaren’s new book is in many ways an echoing of his recent work. In my mind McLaren has functioned in many ways like a translator of theology for the rest of us. The influences on his writing are clear throughout the book, as he takes the arguments and thoughts of great theologians and translates them into a form that the everyman can understand. This is not an indictment of McLaren for a lack of individual thoughts, but rather he fulfills an important role in the area of progressive theology. As one who considers theology the work of not just the professional, but also the layman, McLaren makes theology accessible for those who have not had the privilege/trial of attending seminary.

In A New Kind of Christianity, McLaren asks ten probing questions. Questions range from unlocking the story of the Bible addressing issues like: The Gospel question, to issues that are facing Christians today, including sexuality, pluralism, and the future. McLaren addresses each issue by providing important insights that will challenge conventional thinking, and seeks to provide a new way forward.

The book is interesting, and easy to read, however, I would strongly recommend following up on the numerous footnotes throughout the book, which provide some of the most interesting and challenging commentary in the book.

While each of the ten questions needs to be adequately discussed, I would like to spend a few moments interacting with a few of the primary issues that are brought to light in the book.

First, McLaren constantly rails against a linear 6 story line reading of Scripture that he claims has been the common reading in Christendom. This story line involves an understanding of the narrative of the Bible that includes an ideal state, followed by the fall of man. This fallen state, is solved through salvation, which provides the path to re-ascension to a platonic future state, those who do not attain salvation are bound to eternal conscious torment.

McLaren utilizes the teaching of the Greek philosophers to delineate where this story line finds its genesis. Plato vs. Aristotle have so highly influenced our reading of the Bible that we must break free from that controlling narrative, and reclaim a narrative of Scripture that rightly focuses on creation, liberation, and restoration.

McLaren advocates an understanding of Scripture that emphasizes the messages of Genesis, Exodus, and Isaiah. It is vital according to McLaren to read the Scriptures as a narrative that builds as the story goes along. For too long Christians have read the gospels without considering the foundation that the Old Testament provides, this is one of the most helpful insights in the entire book. If Christians were to understand the Scriptures in story format, with the Old Testament picture of God and His work in the world leading into the story of Jesus, our interpretation of the life and work of Jesus would be significantly impacted.

From this six-line narrative, readers of Scripture have created a god foreign to the Scriptures. McLaren gives this false god the name of Theos, a character that is both controlling, and deterministic. This god is capable of condemning those who do not follow him into eternal conscious torment. McLaren finds this version of god and judgment to be wholly inadequate. In his chapter on the Gospel McLaren expounds:

“In fact, in light of everything we know about Jesus, doesn’t it seem positively ludicrous to imagine him gathering his disciples to announce, ‘Listen guys. Here is my real agenda. We’re going to start a new religion, and we’re going to name it after me. … It’s even more ludicrous to imagine him saying, ‘And we’re going to eternally torture anyone who doesn’t accept this new religion named after me”
(Page 139).

McLaren has previously dealt with the issue of judgment in his book The Last Word and the Word After That, and this book continues along those lines furthering the discussion of what happens to those who do not belong to the Kingdom of God. McLaren here raises some critical questions that need to be addressed by Christians. If one decides to believe in eternal conscious torment, one needs to have thought through the issue, and McLaren calls his readers to just that.

My issue with McLaren’s line of thinking on this particular theme is that while McLaren wants Christians to rethink their version of judgment, he seems to disregard the clear passages in Scripture that talk about the reality of the possibility of being separated from God. I agree with McLaren that passages dealing with the topic of hell in the gospels often times do not conform to our traditional understandings when they are examined in context. However, that being said, I think a total denial of the reality of judgment goes too far in disregarding the punishment that awaits those who disregard the working of God in their lives. N.T. Wright, who McLaren quotes often, has delved into this topic, regarding the ultimate punishment of those who turn away from God as a choice of dehumanization. Less and less they mirror the image of God, and eventually they are turned over to their flesh, and dehumanize themselves to the point that they are no longer welcome in the presence of God. This lack of fellowship and loneliness is the ultimate punishment, the banishment into outer darkness because of a lack of fellowship. At different points in the book it seemed as though McLaren was heading into this sort of direction, but he never really gets there.

McLarens characterization of Theos is certainly a god that we must reject as foreign to the narrative of Scripture. The God of Scripture is not a deterministic God whose future plans for the earth is one of destruction. However, McLaren seems to move in the direction of an open theism view of the future, in which the plans of God are determined by the actions of man. A balance must be found here where responsibility for building the Kingdom of God remains on faithful followers of Christ, while at the same time realizing that it is God who will complete the task.

This book may frustrate the reader, because of the lack of answers provided. I found myself constantly wanting more from each chapter. The themes incorporated are ones that McLaren has dealt with in previous books, often times in more detail. McLaren has attempted to bring a plethora of issues to the forefront of Christian conversation, and has at times left the reader wanting more. That frustration is met with an answer in the closing chapter of the book.

“You will see that I have not tried to answer these questions definitively, but only responded to them provisionally, seeking to open up conversation, not close it down”

(Page 257).

McLaren has accomplished what he set out to do. More questions were raised in my mind as a result of reading this book. I cannot say that I agree with all his assertions. While I agree that a new narrative reading of Scripture is warranted, I cannot completely agree with the openness of McLaren’s reading on the future. I certainly would wish that more space had been devoted to the atonement, and what is accomplished in the death and resurrection of Christ; however, McLaren avoids this conversation in fear that the great crises of our world would be ignored (Page 254).

This book is both challenging and thought provoking. It will not answer all the questions, because it is not meant to. The book has hints of future work from McLaren, where issues that are raised will be delved into in greater detail; I foresee another book that will find itself worthy of the retail price.

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