A New Kind of Christianity

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.

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  • http://ephphatha-poetry.blogspot.com/ Brian

    Amen! Great review! McLaren is the “Obama” of theology. And it’s very interesting to see how the Obamas of the world get treated on a large stage.

  • http://odysseusjak.blogspot.com Jack

    Thanks for your thoughts, Carl. I just started to read this book for this month’s reflections for the Lindisfarne Community.

    I feel a lot of the same things that McLaren touches upon – have for years. He has a way of putting to words what I’m feeling at a very deep level.

    What I did like most about this book (so far) is something that you touched upon — the idea that, while McLaren isn’t really saying anything NEW, he is putting it in a different way so that people who might not read Bord et al (or find it over-the-top), might find a helpful guide with McLaren.

    Thanks again.

    ~~~
    In the Love of the Three in One,

    Jack

  • Yooper

    I would not expect those who view the Word of God as mere words on paper to get what all the fuss is about.

  • brazenbird

    Thank you for this review. It is very informative. I’ve been reading a lot of Borg lately and it sounds like their ideas mesh nicely.

  • http://www.monasticponderings.blogspot.com Amy

    Carl: Yhanks for the review and even more, for the insights. You do have a way with words. Your comment that a new Christianity could “open 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)” speaks to me as well. I think of Jean-Marie Howe, and her comment of our need to realize God is already deep inside our soul, praying. Our work is to become conscious. I would say, to turn our lives around so we can finally see him in a face to face encountger. It reminds me of another quote of yours:

    “If our ultimately loyalty is to truth rather than to dogma, we must be prepared to recognize truth wherever it occurs, even if it is beyond the doctrinal bounds of our own faith tradition”

    I believe those seeking truth will find kernals and gems in McLaren’s book. And for that, it is timely.

  • Ioannis

    McLaren’s idea of “kind” in reference to Christianity is a categorical error in the frame of his recent monograph. If Christianity were amenable to categories, as the Reformers in the west must have learned by now that it is not, then its adherents would risk losing their ancient identity and birthright. For all “old” things have become new in Christ.

    Carl, I think that you have hit it on the head when it comes to arguing that nothing new emerges from the book–to which I would add nothing new emerges from the entire Emerging Church movement. I wondered while reading the book if McLaren had yet breathed the fresh air that comes from the fourth or seventh Ecumenical Synods. I noted vestiges of these Synods in what McLaren fancied as “new.”

    As for Marcus Borg’s “types,” I guess that I would have been more pleased with Borg had he chosen four or nine types, rather than two, in order to avoid a slippery slope into an either/or Borg bog. However, if there are but two types, then the likelihood of a universal slip will cause all of us to slide into the same bog. Call it heaven. It certainly feels like home.

  • Infinite Warrior

    The worst disease afflicting humankind is hardening of the categories.” ~ Bob Miller

    via, via

  • Daniel

    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.

    You know, I don’t think I’ve ever come across such a concise description of the “divide” that is going on today! You summed it all up quite perfectly. I myself have certainly wrestled quite a bit with how religious institutions with Christian monikers have contributed to so much shameful action over the centuries…

    I also think you summed up the Brian’s basic overall message when you said, “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

    But how do you yourself come to this conclusion, (about the Jesus’ true message), when you read any of the things He Himself has said? If you have abandoned biblical literalism, what sort of approach do you bring to the scripture then? Can you just attach whatever meaning you like to anything you read? How do you deal with the many, many instances where Jesus specifically talks about things like hell, or sin? How do you deal with the fact that Jesus Himself was incredibly “exclusive”? He was radically loving, but yet He also let many people walk away from Him, because they could not accept His teaching… And what did He teach? “No one comes to the Father but by me…” If these are the sayings of an “enlightened mystic”, then how could an enlightened person say so many things that contradict this message of “bringing heaven to earth, here and now”?

    “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels…” (Mark 8:34-38)

  • Ron Cooper

    I think McLaren made a good point about Greco-Roman influence, but this influence is not confined to that culture. While Sparta was the purest warrior culture that is known, all societies contain these people. In fact they pretty much run the world, so I think any new Christianity must embrace the warrior. I recommend “Code of the Warrior,” by French, who teaches ethics at the Naval Academy. She explains that an essential part of a warrior’s life is his code, which are rules and laws to live by and make his life honorable. This looks like an Old Testament religion to me. God the Father giving a code to follow.

    McLaren favors trying to create Heaven on earth instead of a transendent Heaven, but when you have been drafted into the army, trained for six months, and then ordered to charge into a battle, where you will probably be killed, you will hope for a reward in the next life. This one isn’t so good. I think you need both options.

    Intellectuals are wonderful people with their own path to God, and I think this path needs to be strengthened and clarified in the New Christianity. But the Code will always be necessary and will hopefully be made current. It is the only way one can reach out to most construction workers and unemployed inner city youths. I doubt many read this blog.

    May you stand in the fountain of knowledge where new ideas rain down like glowing, golden droplets.

    Ron

  • Infinite Warrior

    Daniel, I am so skating on thin ice here, but when such beautiful questions are hung about in the air, I feel like I’m looking at an art installation and just can’t seem to resist dancing with it. (Of course, I used to do that in silence, but there’s something about this whole Internet thing that makes it impossible not to sing along, though I’m working on resisting the urge. Truly, I am.)

    I understand the questions are not addressed to me and obviously can’t speak for anyone else, but also can’t resist sharing the answers that resonate with me as true.

    this message is not so much about escaping hell to get to heaven, but rather is about bringing heaven to earth, here and now

    An ever-so-slight difference between McLaren’s and my understanding is that it’s not about bringing heaven to earth here and now, but being aware that Heaven (already) is “within and among us” here and now [Luke 17:20-21]. Put another way…

    The learned think that microcosm is concealed in the creation of man and macrocosm is the outer space that surrounds us. For enlightened beings it is just the opposite. The outer universe is microcosm and the macrocosm is hidden in human beings. ~ Shams Tabrizi

    Mind-blowing. That said….

    how do you yourself come to this conclusion, (about Jesus’ true message)

    “I” don’t. The meaning of Jesus’ teachings has never come shining through of their own accord in my experience until and unless “I” (and everything associated with “I”) is absent, and the only thing ever in the way of the heaven within me ever becoming manifest in the world is the very same (egoic) “I” that’s covered over my true nature nearly since the day I was born. This is also a concept central to teachings of self-less-ness and self-sacrifice. This egoic “I” is not who I am. It’s what I’ve been taught and conditioned to think I am — which is why Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” [Matt. 18:3]

    If you have abandoned biblical literalism, what sort of approach do you bring to the scripture then?

    None. The thing about language and written texts that employ it is that each and every word we say or write is symbolic — metaphor, parable, allegory, story — rather than the reality the words represent. That being the case, everything we read — from sacred texts to poetry to novels to scientific papers and everything in between — is read “figuratively”. To say the above passage (Luke 17:20-21) means that heaven is right under our noses is perhaps as literal as it gets.

    Can you just attach whatever meaning you like to anything you read?

    No. Or, actually, “I” could, but if “I” did, it wouldn’t be true, would it?

    How do you deal with the many, many instances where Jesus specifically talks about things like hell, or sin?

    People understand the concepts of hell and sin a myriad ways, but when Jesus speaks of hell, it comes across in my mind as a state of suffering brought about by our imagined separation. Nothing (and no one) is actually separate from anything (or anyone) else. As for sin…

    How do you deal with the fact that Jesus Himself was incredibly “exclusive”? He was radically loving, but yet He also let many people walk away from Him, because they could not accept His teaching…

    “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.” I’ve been promising myself for a while now that I will make time at some point to go through the Gospels and note every instance that Jesus “turned to his disciples and said” something along the lines of “See? That guy just didn’t get it. His head is already full — of his own thoughts, his own desires, his own ‘knowledge’, his own agendas, his own expectations — his own ‘I’.” (On the other hand, I may just make a fridge magnet out of the paraphrase. He said that a lot.)

    And what did He teach? “No one comes to the Father but by me…”

    He taught that “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the ‘Father’ except through me“.

    The learned think that microcosm is concealed in the creation of man and macrocosm is the outer space that surrounds us. For enlightened beings it is just the opposite. The outer universe is microcosm and the macrocosm is hidden in human beings.

  • http://www.suprarational.org Ron Krumpos

    You spoke of a “new” mysticism with higher, deeper, more inclusionary consciousness. In my book on comparative mysticism, “the greatest achievement in life” I found this form of conscious (suprarational for want of a better word) to be the fundamental means of spiritual knowing for Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim mysticism for more than 1,000 years.

    It is “new” to those who have never experienced it. In fact, it is “new” every time any person does so. It is an awakening to the nature of being itself, by what ever name or term we wish to use. It may be Christ consciousness, Buddha nature or other English translations from Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Sanskrit, or Pali.

  • Infinite Warrior

    suprarational

    Sri Aurobindo termed it “supramental“. You may be interested in his book, The Life Divine, if not already familiar.

  • http://www.suprarational.org Ron Krumpos

    I have read “The Life Divine” twice. It is 1,000 pages…for that alone I deserve moksha (liberation). As you know, his index alone is 98 pages.

    While at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I majored in Philosophy as an undergrad and for my masters. I compared the teachings of Sri Aurobindo with whichever western philosopher we were studying. Few of my professors knew much about him; they give me high grades rather than admit their ignorance.

    After graduating, I visited his ashram in Pondicherry while a tour manager for the Chicago Council of Foreign Relations. Auroville is an interesting city. While not perfect, it is meant to be a an ideal community of peace loving people.

    In addition to supramental, Aurobindo uses overmind. It is too easy to get caught up in terminology, especially when we create our own terms.

  • Infinite Warrior

    It is too easy to get caught up in terminology

    True that. In fact, at times, I think that’s the only thing we are actually trapped in. I’ve noted in the past right here at Anamchara that “supramental” itself has been adopted in some quarters as a label for one’s self to the exclusion of others when, of course, that’s not at all what Aurobindo had in mind. The same goes for the limited descriptors of the “spiral of consciousness and culture” at the center of so much contemporary Integral “theory” (as opposed to awareness-consciousness).

    I actually like the term “suprarational” because “rational” thought is, in fact, the most prevalent barrier to the Integral that exists in our times. This was clearly seen in his own time and the ramifications of it were presciently foreseen as well by Jean Gebser with whose work, especially if you were an undergrad in Philosophy, you are likely also familiar. (I only wish the author of the blog who introduced me to Gebser’s work was readily attributable for the introduction.)

    As for neologisms, they’ve come in very handy in my recent experience. What some are calling a “Clash of Civilizations” (and perhaps even brought it about with the suggestion) is, I believe, a “confla-eq-fusion” of immovable ideologies. Interbeing (and we can credit Thich Nhat Hanh for this one) is, perhaps, one of the finest neologisms in circulation in our times.

    Thank you for making your PDF freely available on the Web. It’s a wonderful compilation.


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