This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2011 vol. 168 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the FaithHarperOne, New York February 1, 2011
Prolific writer and speaker, McLaren is the author of popular works including A New Kind of Christian (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001) and A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004). Coming from a Plymouth Brethren dispensational background, the author addresses the irrelevance of the church in a postmodern world and urges a reinterpretation of biblical faith that is freshly applicable for today. A leading voice in the “emergent” movement, the author expresses concern that conventional Christianity is not working. Written in a personable, aggressive style, A New Kind of Christianity sets forth ten primary questions that when answered, McLaren suggests, will transform Christianity. The work contends that just about all Christianity has failed: its expressions lack vibrancy, social ills are justified via Scripture, scientific facts are feared, homosexuals are despised, and world crises are ignored. He invites readers to join him in “the quest for a new kind of Christian faith,” much as did the followers of Martin Luther (pp. 17–18, 256–57).
In the first section, “Book I: Unlocking and Opening” (chaps. 4–15), McLaren raises five questions that can potentially free people “from a prison in which we have been held hostage for a long time; once we unbolt long-held assumptions and raise these questions, new possibilities will open” (p. xiii). McLaren asks, What is the overarching story line of Scripture? How should the Bible be understood? Is God violent? Who is Jesus, and why is He important? What is the gospel? “Book II: Emerging and Exploring” (chaps. 16–22) continues with five more questions that target so-called “constricting conventional paradigms” (p. xiii) that have misguided people concerning the church, sex, eschatology, religious pluralism, and kingdom engagement. In reality McLaren’s outline for a new reformation is considerably more radical than Luther ever dreamed.
In Book I the author declares that Christian theology has misread the Bible by replacing the dynamic, engaging God (elohim) of the scriptural narrative with a static, transcendent Greco-Roman God (theos) who cannot tolerate a nonperfect world. One’s quest must begin by reconceiving the story line with which believers have all been raised: Eden, the Fall, condemnation, salvation, hell, and heaven—what McLaren calls the six-line Greco-Roman framework. The dread cosmic dictator of such a worldview “is an idol, a damnable idol” (p. 65). McLaren describes this traditional Christianity as “soul-sort narrative” (p. 215), meaning that the purpose and end of creation is the separation of souls into heaven or hell. Instead, he argues, Christians must discover the true biblical story by reading Jesus “forward” through the lens of Adam, Abraham, and the unfolding Jewish vision of life rather than “backwards” through Paul, Augustine, and the traditional church. The “more mature,” “responsible” way to understand the biblical message (p. 76) is not as a “constitution” but as an “inspired library” with its many genres of literature (p. 83). Scripture is intended (and inspired) to open horizons, engender dialogue, and “stimulate conversation” (p. 92).
The Hebrew representations of God are inferior and “immature.” Only in Jesus, the Son of God, can people encounter the “mature” revelation of God’s character and the true nature of the kingdom as one of hope, grace, and reconciliation. True Christian faith must be grounded in the full revelation in Jesus Christ as seen in the synoptic Gospels. For example Jesus defined the gospel not in terms of the redemption of sinful people but as the invitation for all people to participate in the kingdom of God—an upward, open-ended working of the Spirit that leads to a fraternity of all humankind before God.
In Book II McLaren applies his vision of a new Christianity to five major issues with which traditional faith struggles. To the question “What Do We Do about the Church?” he suggests that all forms of churches fit stages in people’s lives. Unity in diversity strengthens the church in its “one goal of forming Christlike people, people who live in the way of love, the way of peacemaking, the way of the kingdom of God, the way of Jesus, the way of the Spirit” (p. 170). Regarding “the Sex Question” Christians should be accepting of homosexuals together with all who struggle with sexual issues; both homosexuals and heterosexuals need liberation. The new Christianity must move beyond traditional impasses regarding gays and straight, married and single, celibate and sexually active “to construct not just a more humane sexual ethic in particular, but a more honest and robust Christian anthropology in general” (p. 190). Regarding “The Future Question,” McLaren sees an eschatology full of hope. He particularly rejects literalism and dispensational eschatology, warning of the dire political consequences that such views carry. Rather than the Book of Revelation depicting a literal, linear view of God’s judgment, McLaren says the future is a constant continuation of liberation.
Addressing “The Pluralism Question” McLaren says that Jesus is not the way, the truth, and the life as people have understood it. Rather, all religions will be reconciled to God through living out the gospel message of love and fraternity as part of the kingdom of God. Jesus “was not a gift to one religion, but to the whole world” (p. 215). “Evangelism would cease to be a matter of saving souls from a bad ending in the Greco-Roman soul-sort narrative. It would cease to be a proclamation of the superiority of the Christian religion. . . . No, instead, a reborn, postimperial evangelism would mean proclaiming the same good news as the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed” (p. 216). McLaren’s last chapters urge readers to action, first by seeking a “robust” walk with God and then by living out this new Christianity in their churches or forming new communities of faith. He urges people to ask questions, to seek and find the new Christianity that in actuality is very old, from the very proclamation of Jesus Himself.
With 2.3 billion professing Christians in the world, traditional Christianity is an easy target. Of course there is a lack of vibrancy in some circles of Christianity today. When the church is arthritic, stiff, and crotchety, who does not want to see Christian disciples reflect a freshness of life? True, misuse of the Bible has occurred regarding war, racism, slavery, and homophobia. No one denies what McLaren calls the “scientific mess” (p. 68) and the difficult tensions with the Genesis creation account. And yes—Jesus is bigger than one’s theology (p. 126). But McLaren’s response to the problems is to reinvent Christian faith. He has made up his own religion, cobbled from almost anyone who is not a traditionalist. His solution to the ills of traditional Christianity is to set aside all passages that affirm God’s holiness, justice, and wrath and to elevate all that is happy, nondivisive, and optimistic. McLaren rightly scorns traditionalism’s selective exegesis that favors biases, but then he himself does precisely the same thing.
McLaren does not like a lot of what the Bible says about God and about sinful humanity. Therefore he sets about to reread Scripture in order to excise ideas of a perfect Eden, the Fall, alienation from God, blood atonement, historic evangelism and missions, and eternal judgment. If some readers are uneasy with McLaren’s new Christianity, perhaps it is because these doctrines have been and are held nearly unanimously through all historic Christian faith and around the globe—Indian, Coptic, Orthodox, Jacobite, Nestorian, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Pentecostal. The chapter “Is God Violent?” disparages passages on divine judgment based on the “immaturity” of the biblical writers (pp. 98–107). McLaren apologizes for the Flood account: “I’m not trying to defend the view of God in the Noah story as morally acceptable, ethically satisfying, and theologically mature” (p. 110). And while God Himself does not evolve (McLaren is an open theist but not a process theist), he argues at length that the perception of God by the biblical authors did evolve.
Jesus is the full perfection of God’s revelation. Yet McLaren does not say much about Jesus other than that the real Jesus is not at all like what conventional Christians have “precritically” assumed. He is all about love, peace, and the kingdom. The Book of Revelation can be interpreted literally as divine judgment or as a book that reflects a “moment of creative possibility.” The literalist interpretation “subverts” the loving, reconciling message of Jesus, whereas McLaren’s view “reinforces” it (p. 124).
McLaren denigrates just about all mainstream Christianity over two thousand years. He deems as “immature” all those who are cautious of the new “conversation” and unimpressed with McLaren’s novel ideas. Ironically his “new Christianity” of love, peace, and reconciliation includes just about everyone except traditional Christians.
In this book the author raises difficult issues, exhorts believers to exercise genuine, thoughtful belief, and proposes a different Christian faith. McLaren joins a host of other innovators over the last two centuries, many far more theologically sophisticated than he, who have set about to resurrect a culturally obsolete Christian religion and have failed. This book will no doubt tantalize some who have experienced the darker alleys of cheap theological constructs and churches that dismayed them. But underneath McLaren’s soft tones is an American elitism and spiritual arrogance. Brisk, invigorating expressions of biblical faith are needed, but abandoning primary Christian doctrine, as McLaren has done, is the road to powerless, irrelevant religion.
—Amy Devine with J. Scott Horrell