Friday, February 26, 2010

Scot McKight reviews Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christianity

(HT: Melinda Penner at STR)

Scot McKnight is the Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University, and I am proud to say an author of two books published by Baylor University Press, on whose faculty committee I sit. Although I do not always agree with Scot, I am an occasional reader of his blog, Jesus Creed. For he writes and thinks well. In fact, after reading his just published review of Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christian (about which I wrote earlier today), I dropped Scot this note: "I just read your review of McLaren’s book on CT Online. Very nice work. You’re a much kinder soul than I am. You said all the right things in just the right way. You have a gift, and you use it well."

Here are some excerpts from Professor McKnight's review of McLaren's book:

As a friend and a chronicler for two decades, I have watched Brian's work. Generous Orthodoxy gave us a critique of both sides and some glimpses of a third way, even if the book frustrated to no end by leaving too many loose ends dangling. I thought both The Secret Message of Jesus and Everything Must Change provided us with what could become an evangelical social gospel. Along the way, Brian has poked evangelicals in the eyes and chest by fixating on sensitive spots that bedevil them—not the least of which is the uneasy connection between the "spiritual" gospel and the "social" gospel. If evangelicalism is characterized by David Bebbington's famous quadrilateral—that is, biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism—then Brian has poked and, to one degree or another, criticized, deconstructed, and rejected each.
Some of the pokes, if we are honest, have been deserved. He keeps on poking in A New Kind of Christianity—harder than before, in fact. For example, the chapter on how evangelicals defended slavery skewers a problem in their biblicism. In his (unsatisfying) chapter on homosexuality, McLaren writes about a movement he calls "fundasexuality."
But I want to turn the following comment from McLaren back on him: "Sociologists sometimes say that groups can exist without a god, but no group can exist without a devil." Brian's devil is Western evangelicalism, which he caricatures often, and his poking is relentless enough to make me say that he needs to write a book that simply states in positive terms what he thinks without using evangelicalism as his foil....Brian is not only poking evangelicals, he is also calling everything about Christian orthodoxy—from the ecumenical creeds through the Reformation and up to present-day evangelicalism—into question....
Brian believes in an old saw—namely, the Constantinian Fall of the Church, the event and era in which the Greco-Roman narrative was developed. In short, this narrative teaches that humans were created in a Platonic, ideal, and perfect world in Eden; then the Fall occurred, which tumbled humans into the Aristotelian and real world of becoming (which is bad). Out of this becoming world, one can either escape or be saved into the Platonic-ideal heaven, or choose eternal perdition in a Greek form of Hades. Brian will later call this the "Greco-Roman soul-sort narrative," by which he means that life in the here and now is about sorting out the saved from the damned. McLaren's soul-sort narrative is a caricature of a narrative that no responsible thinker really believes or teaches in the bald, insensitive, and barbaric ways described in this book. It's a caricature of Romans 5.
The Greco-Roman narrative is directed and determined by a god whom McLaren calls "Theos," who is not that distinct from the Greek Zeus or the Roman Jupiter. Theos is much different from the Hebrew Elohim, the Lord of Genesis 1-12. How? This Theos loves spirit, state, and being, and hates matter, story, and becoming, since, once again, the latter involve change, and the only way to change or move from perfection is downward into decay. "As soon as something drops out of the state of perfection, Theos is possessed by a pure and irresistible urge to destroy it (or make it suffer)," Brian claims. Theos is "perfectly furious" about humans telling stories, because that is "something that should never happen in the world of Theos." There's more: "Theos stands above, holding his thunderbolts ready to strike, ready to melt the whole damned thing down to primal lava, ready to set it all on fire to purge all that is imperfect, so only perfect purified being remains."
This is, according to Brian, "conventional Christian theology."
The Theos-driven narrative is one in which salvation is equivalent to atonement. Justification and redemption and salvation happen "when Theos finds a way to forgive this fallen, dropout, broken, detestable creation for its descent from perfect holy being into pathetic detestable becoming." Because humans are immortal and partake in Theos's essential nature, the damned must suffer eternally while the saved experience God's joy forever.
I kid you not—this is how Brian sums up conventional theology. "This is," he says, "the 'good news' taught by much of Western Christian religion (not all of it, thank God), the religion in which I was raised, in which I have done my life's work, of which I am a part today."...
Despite some keen insights, there are some serious flaws in Brian's new proposal.
Reading the Bible through the lens of Jesus Christ is indeed the way to go. But to use Jesusagainst the God of Israel he worshiped and prayed to and loved and obeyed pits us against what Jesus himself is doing.
One must also ask the root question: How do we determine what is less or more "mature"?
In particular, the evolutionary theory of God contains another fatal flaw. It's not the fact that it was tried out in the 19th-centuryReligionsgeschichtliche Schule("history of religion school") of Germany and has been shown inadequate (though it finds an occasional admirer in folks like Karen Armstrong). And it's not the fact that the category of "evolution" is about as modernistic and imperialistic of a category I can think of. No, the singular flaw is this: The flow of the Bible is not neat. It doesn't fit into an evolutionary scheme. There are as many mercy passages in the Old Testament as there are grace-and-love passages in the New. What's more, passages about God's grace stand side-by-side with passages about God's wrath (e.g., Hosea 1-3; Matt. 23-25). The evolutionary approach doesn't work because that's not how Scripture's narrative works. There is wrath in Revelation and there is covenant love in Genesis. And Jesus talks more about Abba and hell than does the rest of the Bible combined.
Unfortunately, this book lacks the "generosity" of genuine orthodoxy and, frankly, I find little space in it for orthodoxy itself. Orthodoxy for too many today means little more than the absence of denying what's in the creeds. But a robust orthodoxy means that orthodoxy itself is the lens through which we see theology. One thing about this book is clear: Orthodoxy is not central.

A New Kind of Christianity shows us that Brian, though he is now thinking more systemically, has fallen for an old school of thought. I read this book carefully, and I found nothing new. It may be new for Brian, but it's a rehash of ideas that grew into fruition with Adolf von Harnack and now find iterations in folks like Harvey Cox and Marcus Borg. For me, Brian's new kind of Christianity is quite old. And the problem is that it's not old enough.
You can read the whole thing here. One thing that stood out to me when I was going through McLaren's book last night is this: while he decries the influence of Greek philosophy on Christian theology, his whole method seems Gnostic (and thus, neo-Platonic) in the sense that he seems to think he has direct spiritual acquaintance with a pure Christianity untouched by history or flesh and blood. McLaren presents his "insights" as if they were a special sort of hidden knowledge that he alone has the appropriate motives and personal history from which he may deign to share them with us. In this way, his Protestant fundamentalist roots betray him, for he offers a sort of Religious Left version of the Trail of Blood. Moreover, by pitting the "Old Testament God of Wrath" against the "New Testament God of Love," McLaren is reviving a version of the ancient Marcionite heresy.

While reading this book I began to think that while McLaren was writing this tome he was channeling J. M. Carroll, Richard Rorty, Adolph Harnack, and Walter Rauschenbusch all at the same time!

1 comment:

Gina M. Danaher said...

Thank for this information on McLauren's book. I always appreciate the insight. I am looking forward to buying Defending Life and Politics for Christians