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Book Review

Christians and people of other religions

This was my second taste of the writing of Brian McLaren (of ‘emergent church’ fame). It left me thinking deeply, but more than a little unsettled.

Lots of current books legitimately question some aspect of traditional evangelical faith. Many have left me theologically and practically richer. There are some, however—and this is one of them—that have left me wondering if what’s left, should we embrace their teaching, bears any resemblance at all to that faith. It is Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross The Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-faith World by Brian D. McLaren (Hodder & Stoughton, 2012. ISBN: 978-1-444-70369-6).

It asks how we Christians should treat people of other religions, or of no religion. We would all agree with its answer in some respects: with kindness, respect and friendliness. But we might baulk at its plea not to try and convert them to the Christian faith and, instead, to look to see them find the kingdom of God through their own religion. Yet McLaren is not saying, ‘All religions are just different paths to God.’ He insists on maintaining the uniqueness of Christianity but has problems with some aspects of Christian doctrine and what we have traditionally called ‘evangelism’. His primary concern is to see people of every religion say goodbye to hostility towards those of other faiths, and suggests some approaches that might make it possible.

The idea of ‘church’ gets watered down, with the emphasis shifting to ‘human beings’ (Dave Tomlinson has taken the same line in his recent book How To Be A Bad Christian—And A Better Human Being). The difference between ‘us’ (as Christians) and ‘them’, in other words, must be eradicated. But how, I ask myself, can we allow that and, at the same time, maintain the New Testament’s clear distinction between sheep and goats, ‘once you were darkness but now you are light in the Lord’, the children of God and the children of the evil one, the wheat and the weeds?

‘Love’ is everything, the author insists. Because it is the nature of God himself, love must characterise his people, too—which is right. But his view of what ‘love’ means requires him to reject the penal substitutionary view of the atonement and the idea that God requires appeasement. He rejects the doctrine of original sin, too. And he has no room for hell in any form. I certainly don’t believe that everyone who fails to make a personal commitment to Jesus as Lord and Saviour will burn in hell for ever, but I can’t be a universalist either—and that outcome, though not stated categorically, is the one to which his argument clearly points.

That there is some truth in other religions no-one can deny. And we agree that the Holy Spirit can use that truth to draw people closer to God. But I think McLaren goes too far. While I have drawn some very helpful insights from his book, I feel he may have thrown out the ‘real Christianity’ baby with the ‘worst aspects of American evangelicalism’ bathwater.

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

[To see how I have changed my views on some aspects of the Christian faith read my article Shifting Ground]

Drunk on dogmatism, we can say and do shockingly profane and unholy things.  (154)

…a third option, a Christian identity that is both strong and kind. By strong I mean vigorous, vital, durable, motivating, faithful, attractive and defining – an authentic Christian identity that matters. By kind I mean something far more robust than mere tolerance, political correctness or coexistence: I mean benevolent, hospitable, accepting, interested and loving, so that the stronger our Christian faith, the more goodwill we will feel and show towards those of other faiths, seeking to understand and appreciate their religion from their point of view.  (219)

I expect some readers to find the book baffling because it proposes not minor changes within the existing paradigm of Christian identity, and not even major changes, but rather a different paradigm altogether.  (244)

How do we disassociate from the hostility without abandoning the identity? How do we remain loyal to what is good and real in our faith without giving tacit support to what is wrong and dangerous? How do we, as Christians, faithfully affirm the uniqueness and universality of Christ without turning that belief into an insult or a weapon?  (372)

Shouldn’t it be possible to have a strong Christian identity that is strongly benevolent towards people of other faiths, accepting them not in spite of the religion they love, but with the religion they love? Could my love and respect for them as human beings lead me to a loving and respectful encounter with their religion as well?  (517)

Ultimately, a hostile or oppositional identity values us as inherently more human, more holy, more acceptable, more pure or more worthy than them. After all, if they were good, they would ask to be admitted under our sacred canopy and they would join us in circling around our sacred centre.  (941)

The antidote to strong-hostile religion is not weak-benign religion, but strong-benevolent religion.  (998)

Just as we need corporations to convert from dirty fossil fuels to clean, sustainable energy, we need the religion industry to be converted from its reliance on the toxic energy of oppositional identity and hostility. We need to research, develop and deploy the renewable and renewing fuel source of divine-human kindness and benevolence.  (1065)

From Constantine to Columbus to the other Conquistadors to the Colonisers to the present, we have mixed authentically Christian elements of love, joy, peace and reconciliation with strictly imperial elements of superiority, conquest, domination and hostility.  (1243)

If we are going to envision, articulate and embody a strong-benevolent Christian identity, we must be willing to critically revisit even those central Christian doctrines we believe to be firmly rooted in the Bible.  (1418)

‘God loves us’ is only a fragment of the truth, a dangerous fragment, in fact; it must be reunited with ‘God loves others too.’  (1465)

We can be sure that to ‘the others’ themselves, our doctrine of original sin, at least as popularly understood and translated into attitude and action, does not turn us into good neighbours.  (1531)

Sadly, Christians, Muslims and Jews, for all their differences, have imitated one another again and again in misunderstanding and misapplying this doctrine of chosen-ness. Rather than receiving God’s call as a vocation to be the other for the sake of others, they have received the call to be us controlling, us overthrowing, us absorbing, us distancing, us expelling, us outcompeting, us resenting . . . rather than us being a blessing to others.  (1718)

This Trinitarian vision of God helps us imagine a relational universe of one-anotherness, community-in-unity, unity-in-community, being-in-interbeing, where benevolence towards the other is at home, and hostility towards the other is foreign, invasive, out of place.  (1865)

The Holy Spirit pre-exists all religions, cannot be contained by any single religion, and therefore can’t be claimed as private property by any one religion. That means that Pentecostals don’t own the Holy Spirit, nor do Christians, nor do monotheists, nor do theists.  (2145)

The primary message of this story [the Prodigal Son] is not addressed to rebellious younger sons sowing their wild oats, as we normally suppose. The primary message is addressed to hostile older brothers who feel right and superior and offended, who won’t join the party by joining God in welcoming and celebrating ‘the other as brother’.  (2308)

How we teach our children really matters, for Bible stories no less than Quranic suras can easily be turned into terrorist weapons.  (2780)

The Bible isn’t a constitution. To read, interpret and apply the Bible as if it were a constitution is a category error. It’s more accurate to say that the Bible is a library filled with diverse voices making diverse claims in an ongoing conversation. Faithful interaction with a library means siding with some of those voices and against others.  (2916)

We will read and teach the Bible responsibly and ethically, following the strong and benevolent examples of Paul and Jesus. We will pick all passages that advocate hostility, vengeance, exclusion, elitism and superiority to remind us of where we would be and who we would be if not for Christ. And we will choose all passages that advocate reconciliation, empathy, inclusion, solidarity and equality to remind us of where we are going and who we are called to be in Christ.  (2951)

In a table-centred [rather than altar-centred] eucharistic understanding, atoning or appeasing sacrifices are simply unnecessary. Nothing need be done to appease a hostile God, because through Christ, God has self-revealed as inherently gracious and kind, seeking reconciliation, not hostile and vengeful, needing appeasement.  (3011)

Here are the links to my other reviews of books by Brian Mclaren:

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