Tuesday, February 16, 2010

“A new kind of Christianity” Brian McLaren

My friend and fellow blogger Ron and I are reading and reviewing Brian McLaren's latest: “A New Kind of Christianity” which has just come out.
Here is his post.

This is probably the tenth McLaren book to grace my bookshelf. This is not the book to start getting to know Brian. For me at least, his earlier books started closer to home, only a small journey from the familiar pathways of modern Christianity. True, even his earlier writing takes you out to the edge, but this book starts off in 3rd gear, and doesn't even slow down for curves. If you think you want to get an idea if McLaren has something to add to or aid your own journey, his earlier works are probably a gentler place to start.

First, some general comments.

Sometimes we are exposed to ideas that are discordant with the inner, deepest vibrations of our heart. They are jarring and off-key, they don't fit.
Other times, these new ways of understanding resonate to the very core. It is deep calling unto deep.

Most of McLaren's writing resonates with me in this way. Although his journey may be quite different from mine, it soon crosses paths with some of my questions.
He often goes farther than I have even thought of going as he ventures out sword in hand, slaying our sacred cows. No question is too heretical, too basic, or too presumptuous for him to entertain, as he searches for potential responses that will better fit within the complete framework of our faith.

I like his intention of not providing answers to the 10 questions that form the backbone of the book. Rather than assuming that there is one complete, absolute answer for each, and that he has figured it out, he approaches each question with a desire to provide an alternative response to the answers we have probably grown up with. He intends to stir up conversation, not end it. He uses the term 'response' instead of 'answer' to intentionally steer away from the 'Here's the complete truth on this' idea.

He has written the book in a particular sequence, with each question and response providing a foundation for future chapters. He seems to approach the design of the book as an architect who might first draw a few sketches of what the finished building will look like, and then draw the blueprints. Then comes the actual construction with footings, the foundation, the first floor, and then succeeding floors.

For this reason, the book needs to be read in order, as a progression. You can't skip ahead to question six without first understanding how he has built the framework through the first five.

You don't have to agree with every premise he makes—I think he would rather stir up healthy discussion, comparing and contrasting various angles. But at the same time, you can't expect to be able to enjoy the third floor of the structure without having a degree of acceptance of the overall plans and the earlier construction. Since the earliest chapters and questions deal with major foundational elements, you will likely find that you are either willing to tentatively accept his premises and carry on, or decide that they are too unorthodox, and you will move back into the old building you are familiar with. (But there is nothing like seeing even the first stages of a new structure to make you realize that the old one has its limitations.)

Although McLaren's detractors may feel he doesn't honor the Bible as the Word of God, I believe he not only does so fervently, but he has the ability to read it again for the first time. After deconstructing centuries of some aspect he considers a misunderstanding of the intent of the writer, he is able to read it again without that earlier predisposition.

Brian lays out a bit of his own journey by way of introduction, something I rather appreciated. It helps place his present thoughts within the timeline of his own odyssey.

Book One (Questions 1-5)

Question 1, the narrative question. What is the overarching story line of the Bible?
McLaren jumps in with both feet, and his talk of Plato and Aristotle, the Greco-Romans and dualism soon had me begging for mercy! I am no student of history, and didn't catch all of the drift of his thoughts until coming back to it after reading the rest of Book One. A simpler contrast of viewing the story of Jesus backwards (from now back through the various reformers and theologians to Christ himself) versus forwards (from Adam through Moses, David, and on to Christ) made more sense. Seeing how Jesus comes after many stories of God's gracious dealings with man throughout the Old Testament places him in historical sequence more accurately than through the many lenses of theologians since then. His retelling of the Old Testament stories recapture the positive, hope-filled dreams of the Jewish people, the mercy and forebearance of God and the many times he forgave and was reconciled with his people. Seeing the Old Testament story-line in this way made it easier to see God as merciful, patient and forgiving.

Question 2, the authority question. How should the Bible be understood?
If Question one didn't scare you away, number two pushes even more buttons. Rather than trying to destroy Christianity, the Bible, or people's faith (as some will no doubt say), I believe he is doing the opposite. He tells us that we can learn more from the Bible by not expecting it to be something it doesn't claim to be. By not forcing it to have a specific answer to every specific question, we can rather learn the themes and story-line of the Bible—and from that learn how to live. He gives a “deeply disturbing” illustration of how individuals and groups claimed biblical support for slavery for many years.
Through his attempt to read the Bible as he feels it was intended to be understood he is finding solid reasons to return to a faith based on love and compassion, justice and ethics, centered on the character of Christ, rather than the pride and self-promoting system often seen masquerading as Christ's church. He freely admits that the challenge is to unlearn the old habit of expecting the Bible to be a constitutional system of laws, a book to answer every question (but is willing to let you take a bit of time to work through this one).

Question 3, the God question. Is God violent?
McLaren presents the unfolding of God's character as a timeline—and we have not yet reached the end of it. There is a common understanding that God was more violent and vengeful in the Old Testament, and more gracious in the New. McLaren breaks this rough dichotomy into more stages, but sees them more as a revelation of His character over time, not a change in it. As well, he correctly points to Jesus as the way to understand God. We must not try to shape or control Jesus by our pre-conceived view of God from elsewhere in the Bible, but to shape our understanding of God from how He is presented to us in Christ. Jesus shows us what God is like; all our conceptions of God need to line up with Jesus.

Question 4, the Jesus question. Who is Jesus and why is He important?
I loved McLaren's allusion to the ballad of Ricky Bobby's table grace. Hilarilously and poignantly it illustrates a common trait among us as Christians—we tend to make Jesus into whatever we like (and set aside the parts we don't) and have the nerve to believe that our view is 'objective' and 'true'. In this section he demonstrates his appreciation for God's purpose in scripture by drawing an incredible number of very specific parallels between the Gospel of John , and the Old Testament (particularly Genesis and Exodus).

Question 5, the Gospel question. What is the gospel?
In a nutshell, his premise here is that the gospel needs to be a new kind of Christianity based on the teachings of Jesus. Instead of interpreting the Gospels through what we think Paul is saying, interpret Paul through what Jesus said and did.
A couple quotes:
“We're not claiming some new revelation or new authority figure. We're following the best Christian tradition of going back to Jesus and the Scriptures.”

“Shouldn't you read Paul in light of Jesus, instead of reading Jesus in light of Paul?”

Book Two (Questions 6 – 10) next week!


shallowfrozenwater said...

wow, i really want this book a LOT more than i did before reading this.
by the way Al, i'm coming to Victoria around Easter and i wonder if you might have some time to sit and have a coffee? just curious.

Al said...

Absolutely, Ian, I'd love to be able to meet in person. Let me know when you are going to be available.

As another review of the book said, you'll either love it or hate it.

jstainer said...

I'm very on the fence when it comes to Brian McLaren. One second I love him and the next I am wincing at what he says!

But this review made me use an Amazon gift certificate I had been saving up to purchase this book today along with an NT Wright book I saw.

Looking forward to chewing on it for a bit and experiencing the smile/wince relationship all over again.

Al said...

One thing I appreciate about McLaren is his desire to stir up conversation. Although he certainly shares his interpretation of things, he isn't necessarily expecting everyone to totally agree with what he has to say.

I've had other people recommend NT Wright as well. I guess I need to check him out as well.

shallowfrozenwater said...

hi Al. i'm in Victoria. my sister in law works at one of the retail places at Hillside Mall and i wonder if you want to sit down for a coffee at some time in the next little bit. i don't know about the timing just yet, i expect that i'll just get my bearings for now but i'd like to connect. i also sent a little note to Ron about going to check out the mission, wherever that is. get back to me either here or on my blog if you like.

Al said...

Ian! I'd love to get together. This week is fairly busy, but I'm sure we can find a time that works for both of us. You might want to join Ron & I at CARTS on Friday night, unless you are occupied.
Call me at 250 415 8380.


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