Friday, March 12, 2010

Christianity and McLarenism: A Response to "A New Kind of Christianity" - Part I

Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christianity is ambitious, direct and defiant. Although McLaren always couches his prose in a "Let's just raise some questions here and think about some possible answers" kind of manner, there should be no mistake that in this book he is advocating exactly what the title indicates: a completely new kind of Christianity that rejects historic orthodoxy, biblical authority and the Gospel of salvation from sin through the atoning death of Jesus Christ appropriated by personal repentance and faith. And he wants you to accept his new faith.

Brian McLaren once was an Evangelical, but he is no longer one. I don't know how much more clear and honest he could be about it than he is in this book. That is fine - there are no apostasy laws in the US and he can leave Evangelicalism and convert to Liberal Protestantism if he wants to do so.

But he needs to stop cashing in on his one and only claim to fame,which is that he used to be an Evangelical. This "used to be an Evangelical" status is the only thing that makes him remotely interesting to anybody. His views are mostly a century or more old and come from the dying wing of Protestantism. He has nothing really new to say. So the only angle he has is "Look isn't that a daring thing for an Evangelical to say!"

That worked back in the days of A Generous Orthodoxy and it persisted through The Secret Message of Jesus and Everything Must Change. When those books came out it was just barely possible to view him as a left wing Evangelical, a recently lapsed Evangelical or a progressive Evangelical. His followers were able to dream that what McLaren is today, all of Evangelicalism will be tomorrow.

At The Secret Message of Jesus stage, I was still willing to defend him as an Evangelical raising questions that needed answers and so I opposed the effort of some of my colleagues to ban him from speaking on campus. I knew that many of my students were reading him and falling for the old social gospel line as if it were new and so I thought engagement was the way to go. I guess I'm still engaging by writing this review, but I no longer think that McLaren can be regarded as an Evangelical asking questions: he is now a liberal giving answers. And he is calling for Evangelicals to abandon their faith and embrace his. Again, it is a free country and he can preach whatever message he wants. What he cannot expect is for the rest of us, who love our Evangelical theology and heritage, to treat him as one of us just so he gain an audience from the ranks of confused or gullible Evangelical young people. Pastors have a solemn responsibility to warn the flock against heresy, so McLaren should not take it personally. It is not about him, but rather about his heretical doctrine.

I don't intend to summarize the contents of the book and I don't want simply to repeat what others have said already. There are a number of good reviews of it on the net and anyone familiar with Google can find them. I've already noted some of the best ones - by McKnight, Bouma and DeYoung - on this blog. Here are two more by Nathan Gilmour: here and here.

What I want to do is to clarify where McLaren goes off the rails in this book and why he is a bad and heretical teacher to whom you should not listen. I know the blogosphere is often used as a place to throw around random comments and spontaneous opinions, but I offer what follows as a serious set of reflections that have taken about five years to formulate and which are set forth more in sorrow than in anger.

1. Up From Evangelicalism: McLaren's Theological Journey
In chapter 1 McLaren describes a crisis of faith he went through as a pastor: "I experienced a kind of spiritual crisis that started me on a quest: a quest for honesty, for authenticity, and for a faith that made more sense to me and to others." (6) He says that throughout this process his spirituality remained "intact" even as "my belief system was in a shambles." (8) He describes what replaced his lost beliefs as not a new set of beliefs, but rather as a "new way of believing," whatever that is supposed to mean. What he is getting here is not entirely clear, but it is clear from the book as a whole that he has traded in his old, traditional, Evangelical doctrines for modern, liberal doctrines.

2. Scrubbing off that Nasty Tradition Using the Handy, All-Purpose "Greco-Roman Narrative"

In chapter 4, McLaren shares what he calls "the Greco-Roman Narrative," which he claims is a story line borrowed from non-Christian culture and imposed on the Bible by the church in the 4th century. This false narrative is basically the traditional "Creation - Fall - Redemption" story line embodied in the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds and taught throughout the history of the Church by pretty much every branch of Christianity.

But Brian McLaren has discovered that everyone from St. Augustine to Karl Barth has misread the Bible drastically and disastrously - except him. He doesn't quote any scholarly sources for his revisionist claims; he says this critique came to him in conversation with a friend. Maybe he got it from The DaVinci Code.

Aren't we lucky to be living in the age of McLarenism? Poor St. Anselm and St. Thomas, poor Martin Luther and John Calvin, poor John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, poor William Carey and Billy Graham. They all got it spectacularly wrong. But McLaren has now straightened it all out. This is what you must be able to swallow in order to embrace McLarenism.

The Greco-Roman narrative is the story of Western civilization, for McLaren, rather than the Bible. He claims to interpret the Bible in simple Hebraic categories rather than all those nasty old Greek categories, just like Adolf von Harnack and 19th century culture Protestantism. So McLaren's Jesus is more of an Teacher of Ethics than a Divine Savior. He proclaims the Kingdom of God, which is interpreted in ethical-political terms, and calls us to participate in building this kingdom on earth.

You can hear the chanting faintly from beyond the barricades: "Hey, ho - Hey, ho, Western civ. has got to go." If we could just tear down Western civilization - which for McLaren means Constantine, the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch burning, ecological disaster and capitalism - then we would have eliminated the obstacles to the coming of the Kingdom of God. (Or, we might have made the world safe for Islamic domination - but he does not consider that possibility.)

This handy little device enables McLaren to throw over the side the entire tradition of the Church for the past 20 centuries. He can pick through the rubble and appropriate a bit here and there according to his own preferences, but any doctrine or idea he doesn't like is instantly vaporized by his "Greco-Roman Narrative Zapper Gun." Original sin - poof - gone. Biblical authority - poof - gone. The uniqueness of Christ - poof - gone. And so on.

3. Don't Blame God - He is Doing the Best He Can!
McLarenism worships a different God than Christianity does. The God of Christianity is the sovereign Creator of the cosmos and Lord of All. He is Judge of Evil and He is holy. In McLarenism, however, God is a rather kindly, even indulgent, father who makes threats and then fails to follow through. He threatens Adam and Eve with death if they eat of the tree of the knoweledge of good and evil, but when they do so he does not kill them. And there is no Fall into sin (p. 50), it is just "a classic coming-of-age story, filled with ambivalence - a childhood lost, an adulthood gained." (p. 51) A hunter gatherer society turns into an agricultural society: that is the meaning of Genesis 3. God is less the Judge of all the earth and more of an indulgent parent working with his rebellious but lovable children.

Later in the book, McLaren's god comes into focus as not omnipotent and it becomes clear why McLaren cannot conceive of such a god actually judging the world in righteousness. (See next point). McLaren's god is a limited being who interacts with the world in order to try to steer and prod it in the right direction, but who is not sovereign or in control.

The god of McLarenism is the god of process theology in which god and the world are interdependent: "God is like a parent guiding a child with a will of her own." (p. 196) McLaren denies that eschatology refers to the end of this world. It is just "the beginning of a new spiritual-historical age or era." (p. 197) I suppose that would be the post-Western civilization age. The cosmos is evolving and we participate, along with god, in this process of evolution. Since god is not fully in control, it makes no sense to blame him for evil. We just need to work harder to eradicate evil ourselves and god will help us.

- To Be Continued in Next Post -

1 comment:

Gordon Hackman said...

Thanks for writing this review/critique. The thing that most strikes me here is just how thin and inadequate the whole notion of treating the fall narrative in Genesis as a coming of age story seems.

I keep thinking that McClaren has become like a tamer version of Bishop Spong.