A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming Our Faith
By Brian D. McLaren
New York: HarperOne, 2010
Review by Carl McColman
I think the argument could be made that evidence of just how important Brian McLaren’s latest book is, comes not just from his own gracious and thoughtful argument, but just as much from his many detractors. We have a saying here in the south, “A hit dog hollers” — in other words, the vehemence by which some corners of the evangelical world are pushing back against McLaren points to just how on target his observations really are. Blogger Tim Challies says “it’s as if McLaren is screaming ‘I hate God!’ at the top of his lungs,” and Mike Wittmer suggests that “Brian’s theological commitments place him outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy.” Meanwhile Scot McKnight, writing in Christianity Today, offers the kinder, gentler opinion that “Brian McLaren has grown tired of evangelicalism.”
Reading A New Kind of Christianity, and then these blustery critiques, from my perspective of progressive-Episcopalian-turned-Neopagan-turned-contemplative-Catholic, I have to say that I just don’t understand what all the fuss is about. Frankly, I felt that McLaren’s criticism of the church is both A) nothing new, and B) more pastoral than prophetic. The “new kind of Christianity” that is championed in this book is not so much an innovation but rather an attempt to bring the church back to its core mission of proclaiming good news (and away from its self-serving metaphysical project of promising a pie in the sky to those who obey its institutional demands). In other words, McLaren strips away centuries of Greco-Roman (mis)interpretation of Jesus and his message, and finds that this message is not so much about escaping hell to get to heaven, but rather is about bringing heaven to earth, here and now. As the central image in the Revelation to John shows, the New Jerusalem descends to earth — in other words, heaven comes here. That’s the point behind Christ’s message: the kingdom is at hand. We embrace this message to find healing and transformation now, not to scramble to get some exclusive, first-class passage on the afterlife ocean liner while everyone else has to suffer an eternity in steerage.
Anyone who over the last few decades has read Matthew Fox, John Shelby Spong, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Maggie Ross, Sara Miles, the Celtic Christian apologists like Esther de Waal or Philip Newell, or even Kenneth Leech will not find too much in McLaren’s book to raise your eyebrows over. Indeed, while authors like Fox and Spong always bothered me because their critique of the institutional church comes across as strident and uncharitable, McLaren by contrast seems to bend over backwards to articulate a vision of Christianity that is inclusionary, dialogical, and honoring of the fact that different folks see things in different ways. But McLaren isn’t just inviting conservative and fundamentalist Christians to the conversation. He is also inviting post-modernists, gays and lesbians, Jews, Muslims and other religionists, as well as those who embrace the scientific critique of religion. It seems to me that those who reject McLaren already embody a religion that is based on exclusion rather than inclusion. They can rest on the inertia of the fact that Christianity, sadly, has been an exclusionary religion pretty much ever since the earliest centuries when faction-fighting emerged among those who scrambled to be “orthodox” at the expense of everyone else being “heretical” — a process that only gained momentum with Christianity’s ascendency after Constantine and the eventual consolidation of papal power following the collapse of secular authority in Rome. In other words, Christianity has been in the exclusionary business for at least some 1700-1800 years of its 2000 year history. Those who are emotionally or psychically invested in keeping Christianity exclusionary can take comfort in this sad fact. But others of us remain convinced that to be most truly faithful to Christ, we need to dismantle the walls that divide us from one another and proclaim a renewed gospel of radical inclusion, hospitality, and gratuitous Divine love. It seems sad, and ironic, that our loudest detractors will come from people who believe that they can only be good Christians if they attack those they deem as heretical.
McLaren’s book is organized around ten questions. Every one of his questions is vitally important for anyone wishing to balance Christian faith with positive engagement with today’s world. The questions consider how we read and understand the Bible, how we respond to the violence and wrath associated with God in scripture, our understanding of Jesus and the Gospel, and how we envision Christian community. McLaren zeroes in on several hot-button issues, including human sexuality, beliefs about the end of the world, and the question of interreligious dialogue. His basic thesis — that we need to rethink every aspect of Christianity by understanding the difference between the gospel message and its Greco-Roman interpretation — could, theoretically, be challenging to me as a champion of mysticism, which very much emerged out of the cross-fertilization between the New Testament spirituality and the (very Greek) Neoplatonism of Pseudo-Dionysius and Augustine. But McLaren never says that we must jettison all pagan philosophy; rather he simply argues that we cannot allow Christ’s message to be co-opted (and corrupted) by such external forces. Put another way: A New Kind of Christianity is not anti-mystical, but it may well prove to be incompatible with the kind of mysticism that is based on shame and hatred of the body. That, however, opens the door for “a new kind of mysticism,” based more fully on John’s understanding of mysticism as mutual abiding of Christ and us in one another in love, and Paul’s understanding of the taking-on of the mind of Christ (higher, deeper, more inclusionary consciousness). This is a mysticism I could get very excited about.
At the end of the day, for me reading A New Kind of Christianity was less of a revelation and more of a confirmation and a comfort. I am sorry that so many evangelicals are upset by it, but this only serves to remind me why I left the evangelical world when I did (in the late 1970s). Marcus Borg in his The Heart of Christianity suggests that there are, increasingly, two types of Christians, and that the line dividing them crosses denominational lines. The first type of Christian “views the Bible as the unique revelation of God, emphasizes its literal meaning, and sees the Christian life as believing now for the sake of salvation later— believing in God, the Bible, and Jesus as the way to heaven. Typically it has also seen Christianity as the only true religion.” The other type of Christian “is the product of Christianity’s encounter with the modern and postmodern world, including science, historical scholarship, religious pluralism and cultural diversity. Less positively, it is the product of our awareness of how Christianity has contributed to racism, sexism, nationalism, exclusivism, and other harmful ideologies.” Brian McLaren clearly is of the second type, and I think he is to be lauded for trying to articulate a way of understanding Christianity that includes reaching out to those who are the first type. But if the reviews are any indication, I think it is obvious that many of the first type of Christian will turn their backs on his invitation. I suppose that is to be expected. However, I suspect others will bring a more open mind to the conversation, will consider the sensibility of McLaren’s ideas, and will honestly grapple with the issues he raises. And for that, we can give thanks.