Back in March, I noted the intensity of the debate that had been provoked by Brian McLaren’s latest book, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith.
Now that I’ve had a chance to read the book, I’m struck by how so many of the book reviews that I read before I delved in to the book have missed his point.
This is something McLaren himself says has happened with his previous books. In the conclusion to A New Kind of Christianity, he describes the reception of his book, Everything Must Change, while he was on tour promoting it (p. 254):
Over those two years … I remember returning to my hotel room night after night with a strange uneasiness. As I tried unsuccessfully to drift off to sleep, I would realize that the same thing had happened once again. During the Question & Response session, most questioners simply ignored the four crises I had talked about. Instead, they focused on arguing fine points of theology with me – all within their conventional paradigms. It was as if they said, “Oh yeah, yeah, a billion people live on less than a dollar a day. But you’re decentralizing our preferred theory of atonement!” Or “Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’re in danger of environmental collapse and religiously inspired catastrophic war, but you seem to be questioning our conventional ways of reading the Bible about homosexuality!”
The ‘four crises’ that McLaren references in the quote above are:
- The crisis of the planet (which is ecological)
- The crisis of poverty (which highlights the gap between rich and poor)
- The crisis of peace (in which the gap between rich and poor contributes to cycles of violence)
- The crisis of religion (in which the major world religions are NOT actually inspiring people to address the first three crises, but are in fact contributing to the crises)
A prime example of a book reviewer missing McLaren’s point is Scot McKnight in the popular and influential American evangelical magazine Christianity Today.
At least McKnight acknowledges the four crises that McLaren highlights – but he quickly moves on from them to focus on what he sees as the two major themes of McLaren’s book: ‘a critique of the Greco-Roman narrative, and a proposal for a new way of reading the Bible.’
McKnight then hones in on McLaren’s argument that humanity’s view of God has ‘matured.’ McKnight is right to point out that this isn’t a new idea:
I read this book carefully, and I found nothing new. It may be new for Brian, but it’s a rehash of ideas that grew into fruition with Adolf von Harnack and now find iterations in folks like Harvey Cox and Marcus Borg.
But I don’t think that McLaren was claiming that he came up with this ‘evolutionary’ idea of understanding God on his own. And it was ingenuous for McKnight to identify an evolutionary God approach as A New Kind of Christianity’s ‘singular flaw.’ McKnight writes:
No, the singular flaw is this: The flow of the Bible is not neat. It doesn’t fit into an evolutionary scheme. There are as many mercy passages in the Old Testament as there are grace-and-love passages in the New. What’s more, passages about God’s grace stand side-by-side with passages about God’s wrath (e.g., Hosea 1-3; Matt. 23-25). The evolutionary approach doesn’t work because that’s not how Scripture’s narrative works. There is wrath in Revelation and there is covenant love in Genesis. And Jesus talks more about Abba and hell than does the rest of the Bible combined.
In doing this, McKnight tempts his readers to go away with the idea that McLaren thinks that God himself evolved. That would be an easy mistake to make on reading McKnight’s review.
What McLaren actually says is that humanity’s ideas about God have moved on a general trajectory from wrathful to peaceful – never denying that sometimes these images exist alongside each other at different stages of history.
Indeed, McLaren’s argument that the Bible should be read like a work of literature rather than like a ‘constitution’ actually demonstrates that he has a similar understanding of ‘how Scripture’s narrative works’ as does McKnight, who had written earlier in the review:
Instead, Brian argues—and this is one of the book’s best images—the Bible is a "portable library of poems, prophecies, histories, fables, parables, letters, sagely sayings, quarrels, and so on." (I think of the Bible in terms not unlike this: as a collection of inspired texts that come at things from different angles and use differing terms and speak to ever-shifting contexts, but always with the ever-true truth of the gospel that leads us to Christ.)
That said, I can only imagine McLaren reading this and similar reviews and finding himself in the same frustrated state he was in while on tour for Everything Must Change. Yes, A New Kind of Christianity critiques the ‘Greco-Roman narrative’ and proposes a different way of approaching scripture, but those are not his main concerns.
His main concern – written clearly on page 254 – is the ‘same question Francis and Frank Schaeffer raised back in 1976: “How should we then live?”’
I think McLaren offers some worthwhile perspectives on how we might live in our world today. For example, there are some interesting ideas in his chapter on ‘the sex question: can we find a way to address human sexuality without fighting about it?’ I would like to hear people start talking about McLaren’s exposition of the biblical story of the Ethiopian eunuch, and how it makes a wider point about how people of ‘different’ sexualities might be treated.
It could be a start in addressing that question: how should we then live?
Book reviews that dodge that question do little to advance our understanding either of McLaren, or the ways in which Christianity is changing today.