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Book Review

Turning the faith upside down?

In questioning and moving on from standard evangelicalism, most people move reluctantly and tentatively—and wisely so. A few others take off the handbrake and step on the gas. Brian Mclaren is in the second group, as this book shows. It is A New Kind Of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming The Faith by Brian D. Mclaren (Hodder & Stoughton, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-340-99548-8).  

I feel much sympathy with some of his conclusions but remain hesitant about others, where I suspect he goes too far.

The ten questions referred to in the subtitle are:

  1. The narrative question. What is the Bible’s overall story? A good one, this, where the author pointedly queries the traditional schema of Edenic perfection, sin, fall, atonement, salvation, heaven and hell.
  2. The authority question. In what way is Scripture authoritative? Another good one. Like Mclaren, I’ve lost confidence in the Bible as a detailed instruction manual for everyday living but still hold it to be God’s Word, with authority of a different kind.
  3. The God question. Is God violent, as much of the OT portrays him? No, he isn’t—as Jesus, his ultimate revelation, portrays him. But how do we reconcile the two portraits? A good question.
  4. The Jesus question. Is our traditional picture of who Jesus is authentic? Why is the Jesus of the four Gospels, along with his teaching there, so widely neglected in classical evangelicalism? A crucial question, especially in respect of his kingdom teaching.
  5. The gospel question. What exactly is the good news? Is it just about ‘accepting Christ as Saviour’? About dodging hell and achieving heaven? A key question, this, because our answer will determine what we preach and how people respond.

The above are the key issues, but they open up debates on subsidiary issues, which Mclaren deals with in the second part of the book:

  1. The church question. How will the church need to adapt if people are allowed to ask the above questions without being thrown out of fellowship?
  2. The sex question. Do we have to come to blows about topics like homosexuality, transgender issues and same-sex marriage? Why have these risen to the top of the pile in today’s society?
  3. The future question. What is our eschatology? A vital issue, and one where I suspect Mclaren departs too radically from traditional understandings.
  4. The pluralism question. How should we relate to people of other religions? We should, of course, treat them with love and respect, but is it a mistake to try to convert them to faith in Jesus Christ?
  5. The what-do-we-do-now question. How can we be open to new options in the above areas in our churches? Mclaren offers his proposals for moving forward.

He believes the church at large stands today in a similar place to the Mayflower pilgrims as they prepared to embark for the New World in their faith-quest, and that we need to hear again John Robinson’s statement to them that ‘the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from his holy word’. There is some real food for thought in all this. You must decide for yourself whether Mclaren goes too far or not but, whatever your decision, the questions will not go away.

[I read the book in Kindle format, so the numbers are Location, not Page, numbers.]

The bad news: the Christian faith in all its forms is in trouble. The good news: the Christian faith in all its forms is pregnant with new possibilities.  (76)

For about five years I felt I was standing in a deepening welter of theological fragments. My spirituality was intact – because I was learning that there is a kind of faith that runs deeper than mere beliefs – but my belief system was in shambles.  (234)

Paradigms and dogma can be defended and enforced with guns and prisons, bullets and bonfires, threats and humiliations , fatwas and excommunications. But paradigms and dogma remain profoundly vulnerable when anomalies are present. They can be undone by something as simple as a question…a question about the divine right of kings, about the origin of species, about the relation between matter and energy, about the way races can and should relate to one another, about the motion of planets, and about standard operating procedures used by the Church.  (363)

Why does Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom of God seem to morph into another gospel – of justification by faith – in other parts of the New Testament? Are the gospels of Jesus and Paul (not to mention the other apostolic writers) different and opposed to one another?  (448)

We are not reassessing and repenting of ‘Christianity’ as a sacred abstraction representing the highest and best ideals of Christians everywhere. Instead, we are beginning to reassess and repent of the actual versions and formulations of the faith we have created.  (551)

We might say that Christians are people who have entered a certain sedentary membership or arrived at a status validated by some group or institution, while disciples are learners (and unlearners) who have started on a rigorous and unending journey or quest in relation to Jesus Christ.  (577)

Can we dare to wonder, given an ending that has more evil and suffering than the beginning, if it would have been better for this story never to have begun?  (633)

If we locate Jesus primarily in the light of the story that has unfolded since his time on earth, we will understand him in one way. But if we see him emerging from within a story that had been unfolding through his ancestors, and if we primarily locate him in that story, we might understand him in a very different way.  (662)

As a good – no, make that perfect – Platonic god, Theos [God in the Greco-Roman mould] 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. In fact, as soon as something drops out of the state of perfection, Theos is possessed by a pure and irresistible urge to destroy it.  (747)

Every time we use terms like the fall and original sin, I believe, many of us are unknowingly importing more or less of this package of Greco-Roman, non-Jewish and therefore non-biblical concepts, like smugglers bringing foreign currency into the biblical economy, or tourists introducing invasive species into the biblical ecosystem.  (762)

As I allowed Genesis , Exodus and Isaiah – rather than Plato, Aristotle and Caesar – to set the stage for the biblical narrative, what emerged dazzled me: a beautiful, powerful, gritty story that resonates with, gives meaning to, and continues to unfold in the life and teaching of Jesus.  (813)

God is faithful to Joseph, and through Joseph, God is gracious to Egypt, and through Joseph, God is even gracious to Joseph’s wicked Cain-like brothers. Joseph is blessed, not to the exclusion of anyone, but for the blessing of everyone. Blessing triumphs. Goodness triumphs. God triumphs.  (937)

[Re Exodus 1:8-14]  Anyone who has been orientated to the biblical story in the book of Genesis immediately hears bells ringing: harsh labour . . . brick and mortar . . . the fields. In Genesis, hunter-gatherers (Adam and Eve) were ejected from their original garden. In their life as agriculturalists ‘east of Eden’, they would work the fields with harsh labour. Then, when agriculturalists (like Cain) were driven from farm life to city life because of their violence, they eventually began building an empire (called Babel) of brick and mortar – exactly the kind of empire that in Genesis filled God’s heart with pain because it was ‘filled with evil continually’.  [975]

God hasn’t already pre-recorded history so that it waits like digital information on a disk, already ‘made’ but only being ‘played’ in real time…  life is ‘live’. History isn’t a ‘show’ – not even a ‘reality show’. History is unscripted, unrehearsed reality, happening now – really happening.

Lions lying down with lambs: today that would mean Christians, Jews and Muslims throwing a picnic together, or left- and right-wingers forming a band and singing in harmony, or nuclear weapons engineers being redeployed to develop green energy.  (1095)

The Bible, when taken as an ethical rulebook, offers us no clear categories for many of our most significant and vexing socio-ethical quandaries.  (1159)

There is a kind of Bible-quoting intoxication under the influence of which we religious people lose the ability to distinguish between what God says and what we say God says.  (1187)

Some say we should ‘interpret Scripture with Scripture’, but they never quite make it clear which Scripture trumps the other.  (1328)

If God says Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar or Elihu spoke nonsense , yet they were quoting or paraphrasing statements in Deuteronomy, which in turn claims to be quoting God, does that mean Deuteronomy is nonsense too? Which God is to be believed? Is it the God speaking in Deuteronomy, who says, ‘Do good, and good will always happen to you; do evil, and evil will always happen to you’? Or is it the God that says the simple moral formulas of Deuteronomy are nonsense when echoed by Eliphaz , Bildad , Zophar or Elihu?  (1515)

Do we have a voice in the biblical drama? In other words, does the Bible tell us to shut up and listen because everything is settled? Or does it invite us to be part of the conversation?  (1559)

[Re the book of Job]  Can we trust God’s voice to be God’s voice? Or is even ‘God’ a character in the story too, not the actual God necessarily, but the imagined God, the author’s best sense of God, the fictional character playing God for the sake of this dramatic work of art? This is a powerful and perhaps terrifying question.  (1574)

I am not saying that the Bible reveals a process of evolution within God’s actual character, as if God used to be rather adolescent, but has taken a turn for the better and is growing up nicely over the last few centuries. I am saying that human beings can’t do better than their very best at any given moment to communicate about God as they understand God, and that Scripture faithfully reveals the evolution of our ancestors’ best attempts to communicate their successive best understandings of God. As human capacity grows to conceive of a higher and wiser view of God, each new vision is faithfully preserved in Scripture like fossils in layers of sediment.  (1722)

The doctrines of the incarnation and deity of Christ are meant to tell us that we cannot start with a predetermined, set-in-stone idea of God derived from the rest of the Bible, and then extend that to Jesus. Jesus is not intended merely to fit into those predetermined categories; he is intended instead to explode them, transform them, alter them for ever and bring us to a new evolutionary level in our understanding of God. An old definition of God does not define Jesus: the experience of God in Jesus requires a brand-new definition or understanding of God.  (1886)

The more I read and re-read Romans and tried to make sense of its message, the more I became convinced that Paul never intended his epistle to be an exposition on the gospel. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John would soon fulfil that exposition role quite well. Instead, Romans aimed to address a more immediate, practical question in the early Christian movement, less than twenty-five years after Jesus’ death and resurrection: how could Jews and Gentiles in all their untamed diversity come and remain together as peers in the kingdom of God, without having first- and second-class Christians on the one hand, and, on the other, without being homogenised like a McDonald’s franchise with the same menu, same pricing, same bathroom soap?  (2351)

When we are unlocked from our conventional paradigms regarding the biblical narrative, the Bible, God, Jesus and the gospel, the formation of Christ-like people of love naturally becomes the grand unifying preoccupation and mission of our churches.  (2681)

The Church, then, in Paul’s mind, must be above all a school of love. If it’s not that, it’s nothing. Its goal is not simply to pump knowledge into people, but to train them in ‘the way of love’, so they may do ‘the work of the Lord’, empowered by the Holy Spirit, as the embodiment of Christ.  (2772)

As we move outside the Greco-Roman worldview, we are able to ask the same kind of uncomfortable questions about absolutist Platonic dualism that Jesus raised regarding the Jewish Law. Just as he asked, ‘Was the Sabbath made for people, or were people made for the Sabbath?’ we can ask whether humans were made to fit into an absolute, unchanging institution called marriage, or whether marriage was created to help humans – perhaps including gay humans? – to live wisely and well in this world.  (2883)

In a participatory eschatology, when we ask, ‘What does the future hold?’ the answer begins , ‘That depends. It depends on you and me. God holds out to us at every moment a brighter future; the issue is whether we are willing to receive it and work with God to help create it.  (3209)

Jonah, in his second suicidal moment, begs for God to kill him, as if to say, ‘I’d rather be dead than have to live in a world where you love both our enemies and us’, a remarkably common sentiment among religious people still today, it seems.  (3324)

We could trace Paul’s line of thought in 2 Corinthians 5, where he says that because Christ died for all (5:14–15), God is not holding the sins of humanity against them (5:20) – not just the sins of Christians, we must note, but the sins of all humanity. This realisation causes us, Paul says, to see others in a new way – including, no doubt, others of other religions.  (3444)

There is a way to be a committed follower of Christ that doesn’t require you to be flatly and implacably against other religions and their adherents.  (3698)

Like Luther, we can learn to struggle with the versions of the faith we inherited without giving up on faith altogether, and we can discover what he called ‘a totally other face of the entire Scripture’.  (3742)

We need to acknowledge that, among the many forms of spiritual suffering, there is a kind of intellectual and theological suffering, a painful death of old ways of being Christians and a joyful resurrection into new ways that some of us are called to undergo.  (3992)

I’m ambivalent about the word Christianity since I don’t believe Jesus came to start a new religion, nor do I believe Christianity (or any religion) is the answer. Of course, I believe it can be part of the answer, but only if it doesn’t see itself as the answer.  (4217)

Here are my other reviews of books by Brian Mclaren:

Buy hard copy

Buy for Kindle

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