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A New Kind of Christianity-A Review

I have long been a fan of Brian McLaren – both the man and his writings. We’ve e-mailed back and forth through the years, been apart of a scripture project together (The Voice), shared multiple meals, and Brian spoke an important blessing into my life at a critical time. His “A New Kind of Christian” came along for me at the perfect time; a time when I thought I was becoming disillusioned with faith, but ultimately, I was disillusioned with the version of Christian practice I’d thoughtlessly inherited. Brian showed this to me. This is, perhaps, Brian’s greatest gift; causing people to reexamine, search, study, investigate and re-conclude. In this way, Brian is a one man Hegelian Dialectic.  This is why so many people distrust and despise him and his work while others love him. In “A New Kind of Christianity, (ANKoCty)” Brian’s newest release, McLaren will not disappoint his fan or his critics.

ANKofCty endeavors to consider 10 questions that Brian says are transforming the faith. Truth is, these questions are not transforming the faith, but Brian wants them to, and he’s right to want it. The ten questions: (1) The Narrative Question, (2) The Authority Question; (3) The God Question, (4) The Jesus Question, (5) The Gospel Question, (6) The Gospel Question, (7) The Church Question, (8) The Sex Question, (9) The Future Question, and (10) The Pluralism Question are good ones, and Brian hopes to help push us ahead as we think through them together.

At the heart of ANKofCty is what McLaren calls, the “Greco-Roman” reading of scripture. This, it seems, is the root of our collective problems in terms of church and culture. Brian argues that freeing ourselves from this narrative releases us to answer the 10 questions Brian poses more faithfully. Within the Greco-Roman reading of scripture, Brian argues, there is no room for story or development, which ultimately gives rise to a “six-line narrative” that prejudices our reading of scripture. McLaren argues the “six-line narrative” leads us to all the wrong conclusions about everything – which Brian endeavors to demonstrate throughout the remaining pages of ANKofCty. In the end, Brian argues that we have read the Bible backwards with our filter coming through Paul, the apostles, Augustine, Plato and the Platonism and philosophical systems that are foreign to the true nature of the scriptures. Therefore, our view of Jesus and the Bible is not the Jesus OF the Bible, but a character – or caricature – inherited by thousands of years of interpretation lodged and birthed by the Greco-Roman narrative and Greek philosophy. This is Brian’s central thesis and gives rise to his conclusions.

I think Brian is both right and wrong. In fact, having read nearly all his books, I have never felt more strongly that he is both right on and far off course. This is what I mean: In terms of McLaren’s analysis of the Greco-Roman reading, he is dead on. The problem is that there is no way to avoid this, no way to time travel back through scripture and get something other than what we already got. This is where Brian is right and wrong. Having been raised in a “Restoration” movement, I know all too well the nonsensical pitfalls of thinking you can just skip over history, doctrine, theology, and theological and ecclesial development and get back to “the real thing.”

It cannot be done!

At best you miss the richness of the tradition that has given life to the faith that gives us life, at worst, you become a partisan to largely uneducated, ununified and incoherent belief system. If we were able leap backward over the hurdles of history to uncover a new way – or the grand old way – to read and interpret text without the obstacles course of 2000 years worth of interpretation and thought, then we would be forced to just to pick a method, system or interpretive lens and go with it arbitrarily.

Been there. Done that. Thank you very much.

All of that to say this; even Brian is coming at the text from somewhere “post-Jesus” in terms of history. Is he right in arguing that the method we’ve chosen is bad for hosts of reasons? Yes.  Is it possible for us to read and interpret Jesus the way McLaren wants us to, without the narratives that have been imposed heretofore? Unfortunately, no.

This means that all of our conclusions, even Brian’s, have to be held loosely, with epistemological humility. Perhaps it is my own ecclesial history, but something in my gut churns at the thought of dismissing church history and the schools of thought developed through it. For this reason, I’m open to the idea that I may be seeing shadows and experiencing paranoia where there need not be. I may be reacting to something not explicit in the pages of ANKofCty.

At the same time, Brian has offered the most helpful way forward on a number of issues that are becoming tremendously important to more and more people – sexuality, pluralism, etc…. He is far from convincing his critics or those entrenched in either/or, black/white, privileged / unprivileged thinking, but Brian’s conclusions, I think, are generally pointing the church in the right direction – though I need more convincing in some areas, myself. Both critics and fans of Brian know where he’s going with many of the issues addressed in ANKofCty before they turn the first page, but what is good about his work is that he provides a useable way forward for conversation (for those willing to have it). Using the Biblical text, McLaren at least gets the ball rolling and establishes what can become common language around these issues. This, I think, is the great service Brian has done for us.

In addition, Brian explores Romans in ways many will find broadening. In fact, I read ANKofCty with my Bible open. Trust me: this does not happen often! What more can you ask of a book? Brian forced me to look into the scriptures and I found myself looking differently. That alone is worth the price of purchase. I doubt that I’ll ever be able to read Romans the same way after engaging ANKoCty.

Likely the most out of character elements of ANKofCty comes in chapters 12 and 13 dealing with The Jesus Question. To articulate his vision of Jesus, McLaren takes on two vocal critics who happen to hold in common the ability to be consistently wrong and increasingly sought-after.  For those in the know, the critics are fairly easy to recognize, though Brian does not name them. What is out of character is Brian’s pointed language. Having spent time with Brian multiple times, I’ve found him to be irenic and generous, these chapters weren’t. At the end of chapter 12, I wrote in the margin, “Bam! One in ___________ _______________’s kisser.”

Between you and I, the rebuke was long overdue. Overdue not because scores needed settling, but because this particular critic has, and often does, misread Jesus and the Bible, offering an alternative gospel, in my view. This critic seems to envision Christian leadership as a full-contact blood sport and Brian gives him what he wants. Brian skillfully disarmed the violent, warrior-only version of Jesus, which had the added benefit of fitting nicely into Brian’s overall aims in ANKofCty. At the same time, he gave one particular critic the only kind of conversation he seems to understand. Harsh! In this way, the rebuke can be described as incarnational – speaking to people in their own language.

If Brian’s goal is to get people thinking and talking, ANKofCty is a success. Clearly not all will embrace his vision, yet others will be freed to pursue the Spirit in wild and new directions. Ultimately, ANKofCty is more than worth the time. I suggest reading it community. Drink from it slowly and invest in the ideas, maybe even choosing one question and digging deep over time. This is not a book for singular and individual thought. Brian has returned to what he does best – challenging the church. And he does so brilliantly this go round.

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Disclaimer: I received this book free of charge from Viral Bloggers for the purpose of this review.

Emergent Smackdown Reflections

Much has already been written (blogged) about the Emergent church smackdown with Tony Jones, Scot McKnight. Kevin DeYoung and Alex and Bret Harris (whom I had never heard of before seeing this) at the Christian Book Expo.

You can see the video here. After you’ve watched the video, come back here.

Here are my reflections.

1. McKnight and Jones are obviously tired of being caricatured, especially by those who caricature them — and their friends — in hopes of selling books. I really, really like Scot McKnight and think he offers one of the more hopeful voices moving forward. When folks like DeYoung write polemics to the point that it upset McKnight, the church suffers from the lack of hearing McKnight in venues like these speak about more substantive matters.

2. The Harris brothers didn’t really know or add much. But what did you expect given their age and lack of exposure to things emergent? Being on the panel, in some ways, was unfair to them. However, they could have saved some of the “holier-than-thou” sentiment that I picked up.

3. Kevin DeYoung, obviously under the gun throughout the panel, is (at least from what I’ve seen) like many of the “young, restless, reformed” crew: Mean! When you are right about everything — and I mean everything!!! — you can be as mean-spirited and ungracious as you want because, hey, everyone else’s wrongness is more important to correct than your meanness. Trust me, I know. I grew up in a ecclesiological tradition that placed so much importance on “orthodoxy” — which is always self defined, though DeYoung wouldn’t accept that premise — that you can simply be mean as a snake. You can get a feel for DeYoung here. (Granted, they are Jones’ impressions, but DeYoung has not contradicted the facts as of yet — as far as I know.) I think at all times, even when writing, all Christians must remember that scripture calls us to speak words of grace. That doesn’t mean to never teach or rebuke, but it does mean that we do it fairly, generously, and charitably.

Blog Changes…Coming Soon (And Immediately)

A few months ago I sketched out a blog post about the death of blogging. In the post itself (which never met the net), I described how boring blogging had become and how I felt that there wasn’t much being said on most blogs — including this one. I posited that the reaosn for this was that most blogs and bloggers I read were ministers/pastors and or professors which meant, like our preaching itself oftentimes, their writings had to be safe in order not to “offend” anyone. Therefore there was never space for authentic questions and genuine dialogue about the sticky issues of life and faith — fundamentalism, politics, sexuality, race, war, pacifism, and the like. Not only that, but some of my favored bloggers, like Scot McKnight, had gone “corporate” moving their blogs from independent site host like WordPress and began blogging with For-Profit companies like BeliefNet. Something seemed lost. I was done! In the post I intended, in my best Nietzsche-esque voice, to proclaim: “Blogging Is Dead” and announce that I was shutting down my little corner of the web. There would continue to be Palmer, but no more Perspective.

Then two things happened: (1) People started talking to me about my blog and about the things (read: ideas, thoughts, opinions) that they liked and disliked. Since I believe that writing best serves the world as discussion-starter, even the fact that some folks disagreed with me fulfilled the intent of the blog, and (2) Mark Love started blogging. Mark is not only a great speaker/preacher and the best missional mind in my ecclesiological tribe, he is my “pastoral coach,” a name I came up with for lack of anything better. Mark, for me at least, has the freedom to actually say some things, and as you would suspect, says it well. So I decided to file away my eulogy on blogging and committed to posting a blog entry from time to time. 

But now something else has happened that renews my faith in the power and usefulness of blogging. I have been invited into 2 new blogging adventures, and I’m excited about the possibilities for both.

The first is a project shepherded by Dr. Love himself. The object is to discuss missional ecclesiology. When the site goes live you will hear from learned professors, pastors and ministers working in church contexts, spiritual directors, and laity. The group is broad, and I expect will continue to broaden. We are men, women, African-Americans, Caucasians, scholars, young and old, as well as some international voices. But I don’t want to spoil it for you. You’ll get more information as the launch dates approaches.

The second is a partnership with The Ooze called Viral Bloggers. The folks at The Ooze identified some blogs/bloggers they liked and asked us to partner with them in the great American pastime of generating commerce. Every so often, I will review a forthcoming or recently released book aimed at the Christian literary market. I’ll post the review here, and copy/paste the same review over at Viral Bloggers. 

What will this do for you? It will help folks like you — in these economically testy times — identify which books are worth your dollars. At the same time, Viral Bloggers is a great place to find out what others are saying and what is happening in the Christian community (especially those of us with a slightly missional, emergent, social-justice bent). Some of these books will find there way to your bedside table and/or serve as starting points for small groups. 

What will it do for me? Well, none of your business :-) No. While you’re saving money by only purchasing the books you’re really interested in, I’ll be…well, none of your business! But there are some perks for me, too.

All this to say that I have entered the world of “Poly-blogging” or “Multi-blogging,” contributing to multiple blogs. Whether poly-blogging is for people who have large blog followings or for folks whose blogs don’t have the muscle to stand alone, I’m not sure. I don’t know how many readers other bloggers have.  All I can say is that I hope this reading (and largely non-commenting) blog community will join in the fun at these two other blog-stops on the road to Christian dialogue and conversation.

Missional Misgivings Misgivings

Some of you may have read Dan Kimball’s “Missional Misgivings” article over at Out of Ur. If not, let me get you up to speed. Kimball argues that missional advocates — at least one he was on a panel with — believe that the mega-churches (sometime called “attractional”) are dying and that younger people in the city are not interested, that missional advocates criticize attractional churches for not seriously engaging discipleship, and that missional churches have an unproven track record. In the end, Kimball suggest that the pressing matters of evangelism in the local church are what motivates him “missionally.” 

First, let me say, that I like Dan Kimball and his book, “The Emerging Church” made a lot of sense for me at a crucial time. Unfortunately, many folks have misused Kimball’s work, brought in candles and sofas to their worship gatherings, called it emerging and complained that it didn’t work. That was a misuse of his work, and he deserves better. That being said, I had some great misgivings about his “Missional Misgivings”.

My first misgiving, is that Kimball, as many others have done, is bilateral in his understanding. Like the critics he critiques, Kimball, falls into the trap of seeing missional and attractional as opposed to one another. What Christian would argue that Jesus is not attractive? This, from my read, is not what people mean when they use the term “attractional.” It is not a question of missional vs. attractional, but rather a question of direction. At the end of the day, is more of your energy and resources used to bring people in or send people out. In a healthy churches both are happening. And to speak to their leaders of those churches as if attracting and sending were opposed to one another would be foreign concept. Therefore, Kimball’s argument — and that of the missional leader he is responding to — is fundamentally flawed.

Second, Kimball places more import on numbers than I, quite frankly, think is appropriate. Don’t get me wrong, evangelism is crucially important, conversions are important. Essential. But Kimball’s review too easily dismisses two communities — a self-described missional church of 35 and a small house church — because they did not “multiply” or “plant”. I understand the complaint, but is Kimball suggesting that a house church that feeds the homeless somehow represents the Kingdom of God less than the mega-church down the street who is “converting” people? Here’s where reading the gospels can be helpful.  Kimball is equating conversion with the totality of kingdom work. However, I kind of remember Jesus saying something to the Pharisees about going to extreme measures to convert people  to a version of religion that didn’t reflect God’s people-priority, would make them twice the children of hell…or something like that. A better way to say this may be this: If you’re converting people to a religion that’s not dealing with the homeless, that may not be a God-focused religion.

There’s more to representing the kingdom than the head count in the pew. Perhaps, crazy as it may sound, the path is actually narrow. It’s easy to make caricatures here, but does Kimball want to say that a church that converts a lot of people but doesn’t do as much for the homeless is more of what God intends? My point is simply this: Different communities represent the Kingdom in different ways, they have different strengths.

Scriptures call is a big one, don’t we have room for all of us to offer our gifts without saying, “Your priorities aren’t my priorities, so I’ll dismiss you?” Kimball says he’s not a numbers person, yet that’s all his article is concerned with. He says missional churches don’t have a proven “track record” with “measurables.”

Third, a natural by-product of Kimball’s numbers focus, is that he misrepresents what missional ecclesiology is about. I don’t want to get into the nuances of missional church here, but there’s much more to missional than growing your church, and there’s more to it than “social justice” or “outreach” too. Sadly, this is how Kimball understands “going missional” (along with too  many others). Rather than go into all that, I would point you and Kimball here to listen to Patrick Keifert describe what we mean by missional. Hint: It’s more than soup for the poor.

Fourth, Kimball ends his assault with these words, “I hope there are examples of fruitful (read: numbers) missional churches that I haven’t encountered yet. I hope my perception based on my interaction with the missional movement is wrong. But for now, I would rather be part of a Christ-centered megachurch full of programs where people are coming to know Jesus as Savior, than part of a church of any size where they are not.” My question for Kimball is this: Who wouldn’t?

We all want to be a part of a church where people are coming to know Jesus. Kimball’s statement is like saying, “I want to be in a marriage where the husband and wife love one another.” That statement has nothing at all to do with the merits of either mega-churches or missional churches. Are there people in both who aren’t concerned with the full witness of the gospel? Yes. Are there people coming to know Jesus? Yes. Kimball here falls prey to a classic misunderstanding of the gospel, that “conversion” is simply a transaction that merely changes one’s status before God (Read Mark Love on the challenges of  Penal Substitutionary Atonement as the primary image of salvation). The assumption is that once someone has made an orthodox confession of faith (plus whatever other rituals their community practices) then they now “know Jesus.” Unless I’m unique, my experience is that most of us trust Jesus and spend the rest of our lives getting to “know” Him. 

I understand what Kimball is saying, “You say you’re missional, but are you reaching people?” and it’s a good challenge to what I call the “coffee-house theologians” who take pride in their smallness and perceived purity. But his negative assertions are misplaced, and likely a reaction to some “holier-than-thou” personalities he’s encountered. He confesses that his perception is based on his interactions with people. Perhaps, Dan should extend his missional education into other avenues.  I would encourage Kimball and others to investigate missional ecclesiology beyond  snippets on the web, what so-and-so said and published interviews with people who know very little about the subject. As with everything, we need to seek out learned scholars and best practitioners before we pronounce the death or inefficiency of something. So here are some good places to get started.

Allelon — For Missional Leader

Gospel and Our Culture Network

Church Innovations

** Note: Please see Dan Kimball’s response to this post in the comments section!

The Voice New Testament: The Epistles etc…

I’ve been blogging about different things lately and have gotten away from finishing my series of reviews concerning The Voice: New Testament. We’ve covered the look and feel of it and the gospels, so today we’ll conclude with the epistles etc…

My friend, Chris Seay, retells the Pauline epistles and I think they are very well done. As folks take a look at The Voice, the first thing they do is look to “troubling” passages — passages dealing with woman and homosexuality mainly. Once you purchase your copy of The Voice, you can check out the text you find most interesting, but I have found that the epistles attempt to be true to the language and intent of the author while realizing that The Voice is geared to an emerging generation. All that to say this: Those looking for accuracy concerning difficult text will find it. Those looking for sensitivity (one of the core values of The Voice) will find that as well.

Outside of difficult texts, I’ve was overjoyed to find personally meaningful text like the Christ hymn in Philippians 2 and heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11 to be fresh while retaining much of the NRSV pacing and rhythm — the poetry! In addition, it is in the epistles that the notes included within The Voice are the most helpful. Without being obtrusive, the notes offer a ton of important background information without feeling like someone is draining the joy out of your reading. Those new to the scriptures will get some advanced training in these notes.

Conclusion:

I have started to use The Voice — not for my personal study — but for teaching. Audiences have found it fresh and accurate. What I like most about The Voice is that it offers something for everyone regardless of familiarity with the Biblical text. Advanced students will be refreshed, newbies will get a beautiful, poetic read of the teachings of Jesus and those in between will be enlivened by a accurate, articulate perspective of things they thought they always knew.

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