Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Book in progress - "A New Kind of Christianity" by McLaren

I'm still in process of reading Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith, and for the most part I really appreciate it.  McLaren coherently describes the conventionally-accepted framework of the Biblical narrative, which he calls the "Greco-Roman model," and contrasts it with a narrative that takes into account the story of God's calling and working through the Jews leading up to Jesus.  He is likewise helpful in posing the contrast between Bible-as-constitution (his characterization of the various "inerrancy" approaches), and Bible-as-library, an approach that takes the breadth and nuance of biblical writers into account.  He's at his best, IMO, in his discussion of the centrality of Jesus and the gospels as the lens/filter/paradigm through which all scripture, both Old Testament and Epistles, must be read.

Unfortunately, I can't recommend the book unreservedly, because peppered throughout nearly every chapter, McLaren can't seem to get away from a need to throw in comments that essentially paint the gay rights agenda as the civil rights moral issue of the day.  Again and again, he lumps "homophobia" (a sloppy word if I ever saw one) with slavery, apartheid, Jim Crow, and the like, as places where the church has been on the wrong side of history and justice.

I haven't read other writing by McLaren, so perhaps I missed an argument he's made more coherently somewhere else.  I don't presume to understand where he's coming from on this.  But he seems to have made a category mistake that I find all too frequently among Christians who are recovering from their fundamentalist afflictions, of accepting without critique the claim that homosexuality is an identity, and therefore issues of how we respond to gays are necessarily civil and human rights issues.  Wholly unconsidered (at least in the present book) is the notion that homosexual practice might, in fact, still be sinful even if one is not a right-wingnut (As I have previously written, I suggest that gay practice is simply a subset of adultery, which remains equally unacceptable for the believer whether straight OR gay).

I'm sorry to say that this constant drumbeat distracts from an otherwise-helpful and -challenging set of questions that the church would do well to consider.  That said, if you can see past the distraction, I do recommend the book.

Edit:  Well, I was wrong about the argument being somewhere else---I just read Chapter 17 over lunch, where McLaren goes through his argument in greater detail.  I would not say his argument is compelling, though it is indeed interesting, as he makes the case that a binary (just male and female) sexuality is an "ideal concept" a-la Plato just as much as some of the Greco-Roman notions of God are Platonic rather than Biblical.  He goes on to basically say that our more nuanced understanding of biology today militates against such simplistic reading of sexuality.

McLaren then points out--quite correctly according to my reading--the fact that Christians in general, and Evangelical Christians in particular, seem little different from everyone else regarding sexual practice (premarital/extramarital sex, divorce), though perhaps we experience more guilt and conflicted feelings than others.  He concludes by suggesting that perhaps we need as a church to re-examine the whole concept of sexuality based on our current base of knowledge and centered in the love of Jesus.  He seems (to me at least) to leave open the notion that even serial or contemporaneous polyamory/polygamy, as well as the spectrum of GLBT issues, might not be outside the pale of Jesus-followers' practice in this new consideration.  In fact, I'm not sure he believes there's any place for sexual mores EVEN AMONG THE COMMUNITY OF BELIEVERS in the light of current biology and loving Jesus' way.
McLaren is correct that religion has been the bastion of a lot of stick-in-the-mud, head-in-the-sand obstinacy.  In this chapter he reminds us of the church's opposition to everything from Galilean and Copernican cosmology to South African apartheid.  But I think he, too, needs to be confronted with a question:  Are you saying that just because constitutionalist church hierarchies have insisted on a thing, that it must necessarily be wrong?  And how is this different from the Corinthian church Paul was blasting in 1 Corinthians 5?

I will reiterate that McLaren asks a lot of useful questions in this book...questions the church needs to confront.  But I think he's gone over the edge on the sexuality issue, and he seems to me to have forgotten that Jesus, while loving and associating with "sinners," still called them to "sin no more."  The conservative church still needs to be called to account for its demands that the unredeemed world start acting like they say Christians should act, before they can be "saved."  But dismissing all acknowledgment of a moral standard is not going to help get that message across.


Mason said...

I think you make a good point about his assumptions on that debate.
I'd argue that he makes another set of assumptions, one which really irked me, that the creation-fall-redemption story is a Greco Roman twisting of the Bible.

It irks me first because C-F-R is a linear story, which is how Hebrew thought worked, but not how Greco Roman thought did. They had instead a cyclical idea of history.

Also because I think the way he paints it is a parody of what people actually are saying. It rings true on some levels (and no doubts we've gotten off track in all sorts of ways), but if it isnt what people think than beating it up just makes you feel good.

Now, I've actually read five or six McLaren books, and I like a lot of what he has been saying. But scholarship matters, and I feel like he uses the Greco Roman thing as an out all the time in this book, when it's in fact a rather sketchy idea.

Dan Martin said...

I take your point, Mason. Would you agree that his error is not the critique, but rather the labeling, of an incorrect narrative that truly exists in Christian thought?

The so-called "six-line-narrative" McLaren describes--of a perfect, Platonic--pre-fall creation, the fall, and then the bifurcation of creation into the eternally-damned group and those restored to the prior perfection, is in fact a narrative that takes more from Plato and Gnostic notions of perfection (Plato for the notion of the archetypal Ideal, Gnosticism for the notion that restoration to perfection equals immateriality), than it does from the biblical narrative. In labeling it Greco-Roman, McLaren ignores other streams of Greek and Roman thought; it would be probably more accurately described as "Augustinian Platonism." But it is still a real problem in Christian theology, don't you think?

Anonymous said...

Dan, I think that you are right to have some critique, but you do so with much humility and credit to Brian. I appreciate this about your approach. I am not sure I am ready to accept what I understand about his approach to biblical authority... but, this is an area where my questions linger on.

Also, I read the chapter on sexuality, and did not find it convincing in an exegetical sense... because he doesn't go there enough... but some of his social observations (if memory serves me right) seemed to have some merit. Nevertheless, what I really wanted to say is that you ought to read:

1. A New Kind of Christian (and the two books that he follows up with)
-- I think that these books would be fun reading for you and would have much that you would enjoy or say, "hmmm... this is my story"

2. A Generous Orthodoxy
-- This is simply a read that I think any Christian should read.


Dan Martin said...

Actually, they were both on my list, Kurt. I was less sure about reading them after the drumbeat of NCC, but on your recommendation maybe I'll give it a shot. Wright's "After You Believe" is on deck for me right now, though.

On the question of biblical authority, I'm with you. You know well (from this blog) that I'm not in the typical Biblical-Inspiration camps, but I do feel that it's important to seek the "words of God" within the Biblical text and treat them as such. I'm not sure Brian would accept that any of the text is God's words, and there we would definitely part company.

I still think that the angry "heretic" language that gets thrown at McLaren is inappropriate, even though I now see that I would disagree pretty vehemently with him on some points.

John Hobbins said...


Thanks indeed for a careful and gentle-spirited review.