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