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Nathan P. Gilmour
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I'm cross-posting this review from The Christian Humanist Blog, so do forgive any html oddities.
When I praise Plato and defend my teaching Republic to college freshmen, I often say that Plato's excellence lies not in the fact that he's always right but that when he's wrong, he's wrong in compelling ways, ways that inspire me to imagine a better alternative. While Brian McLaren is no Plato, parts of his most recent book A New Kind of Christianity have that Platonic character to them, getting things very wrong in ways that set me thinking about how I'd improve on his points. Other parts of the book resonate quite nicely with things that I try to do as a Christian teacher or realize now that I should try to do. But other parts still, alas, smack of the sleight-of-hand, the well-poisoning, and the other dirty trickery that make me mistrust apologetics literature of various sorts. In other words, A New Kind of Christianity is a complex book, not consistently excellent but nonetheless very helpful in places.
Brian McLaren Gets it Right
As Phil Rutledge pointed out in response to our podcast on the Haiti Earthquake, when I talk about the Bible, I tend to talk not about one unified document but a library, various not only in cosmetic details but in a more robust sense of genre, asking certain questions in this book that lie out of bounds in other books, offering teachings here that seem to stand at least in tension with teachings there. (I should note the obvious, namely that I do not speak for the other Christian Humanists on this point or necessarily on any given point.) I tend to think that the flexibility of such a collection is part of the Bible's strength, that the practice of being Christian community is richer because Christian teachers can pull from a broad range of resources depending on the contingencies of the moment without having to pretend that every moment is the same as every other moment. When we need a text that shakes us out of complacency, the Bible has a book for that. When we lean over the precipice of despair, the Bible has a book for that. And so on. I think that McLaren offers a handy next step in that thought process, noting that the Bible is a true collection of texts precisely because of the "spaces between" those strong positions of Deuteronomy or 1 Chronicles on one hand and Ecclesiastes or Job on the other.
Furthermore, McLaren highlights the God-defining character of Christ and insists that the Palestinian Jew Jesus of Nazareth and not the Aristotelian Unmoved Mover is a better starting point for disciplined reflection upon the character of God. I know that making the historical Jesus that radically central flies in the face of much systematic theology (including that of Thomas Aquinas, one of my favorites), but I agree with McLaren that such a move is ultimately more faithful to the gospel of John among other Scriptural witnesses.
Finally, when McLaren gives advice to parishioners and clergy who find themselves resonating with progressive ideas, and his counsel leans consistently towards humble and peace-seeking measures rather than grandstanding, intellectual and moral arrogance, and other vices that so often characterize folks who think they've gotten something right while their neighbors still get it wrong. His exhortation to "be a blessing" is probably my favorite part of the book.
I noted above, and I write again, this book does get some things very right, and by no means should anyone think that it's error, error, error all the way down.
Brian McLaren Gets it Wrong
That said, as someone who loves intellectual history and who values some degree of historical precision, I do blame this book for playing fast and loose with historical identifications for the sake of scoring cheap rhetorical points. One of the jokes that was current during my days at The Ooze forums was that the Emergent words for "really quite bad" were "modern" and "modernist," and the word for "so much better, don't you think?" was "postmodern." McLaren seems to have left that ugly and misleading binary pair only to settle on another pair, just as ugly and even more misleading (and also a binary that I started encountering back in seminary), the Manichean dualism of "the Bible" and "Greco-Roman religion." Resisting the temptation to examine every instance of "Greco-Roman" meaning just plain "bad," I'll point out a few that drew a chuckle from me for their historical naivete: Greco-Roman religion, apparently, has no place in it for homosexuality (175--apparently all of that Athenian praise for pederasty as superior to love-of-women doesn't count), does not allow for multiple religions (212--never mind the Roman Empire's grand scheme of syncretism that incorporated pantheons as diverse as the Celts' and the Egyptians'), and stands as a pernicious idol called Theos, who stands as enemy to the Biblical god Elohim (65--I suppose the New Testament authors didn't get the memo that the Greek language had that idol mixed in there).
The content of McLaren's "Greco-Roman" tradition came about as the fruit of a conversation he relates in which an epiphany came to him, namely that the broad outlines of the traditional Evangelical narrative (he extends it to Catholic and Magesterial Protestant traditions as well) derive not from Biblical narratives but from Plato. Unfortunately, McLaren casts Plato only as the first step in a larger metanarrative, and that move is what makes things go downhill in a hurry. In McLaren's "six-line narrative" to which he refers again and again as he digs into his ten questions, Plato is only the first stage in the grand narrative, ruined when the world falls from Platonic perfection (which sounds more like Plotinus's realm of Ideas) into the "storied" world of Aristotle.
I'm certain Aristotle would have been surprised to find out that he was writing a simple sequel to Plato rather than supplanting his philosophy, but even more surprising to Alexander's tutor would no doubt be that, according to McLaren, Aristotle held that forms do not have any existence, properly speaking, save as mental constructs. (If Dante's right that Aristotle is in Limbo, where he might converse with future ages' non-Christian philosophers, no doubt someone has told him by now that the forms as purely mental was actually one of William of Ockham's central contributions to philosophy in the fourteenth century.) Perhaps more surprising still would be that, after dwelling in the Aristotle trench, the eternal souls that Plato does talk about (though sometimes in terms of reincarnation) return to a "Platonic" stasis, some by achieving salvation (another category rather alien to Plato and to Aristotle) and then reaching a final Platonic (neo-Platonic?) ideal, and some by falling into what McLaren calls "Greek Hades," a construct that of course predates Plato and Aristotle by a few centuries and has little to do, in the texts I've read, with punishing earthly evil. If one says anything about Homer's Hades, one should say that it's terrifyingly egalitarian, and that's what Achilles hates so much--he's forgotten just as readily as all of the other shades about him.
If all of that sounds familiar through the haze of misused Greek texts, it's because the "Greco-Roman narrative" that McLaren would impose upon Plato and Aristotle (the tag team!) is far more akin to what Origen, Augustine, and other Christian writers would call the narrative of creation, fall, and redemption. Although certain iterations of that narrative sequence deserve criticism, McLaren does nobody any favors (especially those of us who love teaching Plato) by inventing a syncretic thought-system that simply does not exist in classical texts and then loading that cumbersome burden on some of Christianity's best tutors.
As a passing comment in the introduction to one of his chapters, McLaren notes that, although he's not been a seminarian, he has read "thousands of theology books" (78). I suppose my own counsel for aspiring Christian writers is that we read fewer books, perhaps dozens, but take the time that good books deserve to understand and live with them.
Brian McLaren Gets Sneaky
Given the unhappy choice between accusing a writer I like (and I do like Brian McLaren) of duplicity and insinuating that the same writer has forgotten or misread, I'll usually err on the side of charity and say that, for example, McLaren probably read some really bad books about Greco-Roman philosophy instead of reading translations of Plato and Aristotle themselves, and that likely led to his strange construction "Greco-Roman." But there are moments of this book that make me deeply suspicious, and although I'd prefer not to approach people I like with suspicion... well, here goes.
In an early section of the book, McLaren relates a talk he gave at a conference in which he lined up seven people on the stage, each representing a historical figure. In a diagram that I won't reproduce here (I'm going to be cross-posting this review, and so I'm trying to keep html to a minimum), McLaren labels seven stick figures as follows:
Jesus, Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther or Erasmus, Calvin or Wesley or Newton, Pope Benedict or Jerry Falwell or Billy Graham
After he briefly notes that folks who get their theology from this stream aren't "directly seeing Jesus" (36), he gives the people in the row a different set of names:
Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Amos or Isaiah or Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Jesus
His point seems to be that the reading of Biblical texts that will follow in his book, unlike the "Greco-Roman" version of things, would work forwards up to Jesus rather than backwards to Jesus, therefore giving a different sort of story.
The problems are obvious, of course: without even reaching for my bookshelf, I could tell you in which books Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Erasmus, Calvin, and Pope Benedict talk about the six figures that McLaren seems to think he's rediscovering. Beyond that, McLaren's progressive theology, a tradition that doubtless deserves a hearing in its own right and on its own terms, has its own "hidden six" that McLaren never names. So if I might offer one possible lineup, some whose influence I detect globally and others with page numbers where I detected some of their influence:
Jesus, Vico (50-51), Hegel (239), Marx (239) or Darwin (14-15), Nietzsche or Wellhausen, Foucault (31) or Freud or Bultmann, Ehrman or Crossan or Borg
Such is not to say that the Traditionalist Six automatically deserves more of a hearing than do the Progressive Six. But I do think that anyone, left-wing or right-wing, should have the honesty to name one's own influences rather than pitting one's own Bible-loving self against one's traditions-of-men enemies. All of us who come to the Christian tradition know Adam and David; let's have some honest conversation about how we're using them and how they influence us.
Beyond the invisible-influence suspicion, I had some real troubles with the ways that McLaren talks about professionally trained authority figures. In one passage he would say that folks who hold seminary credentials likely have good intentions but, because of their need to support themselves and because they haven't progressed along his (Maslow-flavored-this is another instance of invisible influence) color-coded scale of theological awareness. In another he would refer to clergy-types as prison guards (31) who are keeping folks from their spiritual freedom. And with regards to formal training itself, McLaren in this book, as in his other books, makes a point of boasting that he's not had formal seminary training (though apparently he's read thousands of theology books), but late in the game, giving advice to clergy who think their congregations might be interested in moving up a step on the Maslow-McLaren rainbow, writes thus:
Get a consultant. There is enormous power in having the guidance of a wise, gifted, and experienced person who remains outside your congregational or denominational system. Good consultants are expensive, I know, but so are good heart surgeons, and the two have a lot in common. (247)
First of all, as someone who loves Plato (the real Plato, not the one whom McLaren invents earlier in the book), I immediately recognized Plato's community-leader-as-physician riff, and I chuckled (just for a second) that McLaren was now out-Platonizing Plato. For those who have not read much Plato, his argument for appointing the best and the brightest to administer a community rather than trusting such things to democracy involves comparing justice to medicine and noting that very few people want medical decisions made on the basis of popular opinion. I would have expected such an argument to extend to ordained and seminary-trained clergy rather than freelance consultants, given the rather structured and hierarchical world of heart surgeons, but I was still chuckling.
But then, once the immediate amusement wore off, I remembered the mercenary and self-serving motives assigned to folks who actually dedicate their lives to one place as pastors and priests, and I was quite angry that he reserved none of that fury for hirelings who jet around the country collecting "consultant fees." For whatever reason, my angry self thought, McLaren prefers temporary fee-grabbers to those who practice the old monastic virtue of stability.
Then I realized that both Brian McLaren and Tony Jones pitch themselves as consultants, and after a bit of Google searching, I realized that Doug Pagitt and Len Sweet also advertise themselves as consultants. That's when the anger turned to suspicion.
Please understand that I'm an equal-opportunity religious-consultant-hater; if Mark Driscoll or Jim Dobson or Ken Ham do the same, I don't like that either. As an Aristotelian (the Aristotle whose Nicomachean Ethics I love, not the Ockham-Aristotle that McLaren invented), I believe that leadership happens best, especially for communities dedicated to reconstituting the body of the Cosmic King (that would be churches, folks), when those communities look within rather than shuffling through resumes, and I'm inclined to hold consultants far below the permanent-hire-from-out-of-town in terms of the goods they do for a community. And given that McLaren in other places fires pot shots at the folks who dedicate their lives to particular communities in particular places, I couldn't help but continue in my suspicion.
I realize that not everybody is as suspicious of out-of-town "experts" as I am, and I'd be fine if McLaren were consistently sanguine. But as it stands, it looks like he decided to use this book, which pitches itself as a moment of honesty, as a platform to promote himself and his Emergent Village buddies while calling dedicated ordained folks prison guards, and that's an inexcusable bit of duplicity.
Brian McLaren Gets the Nod
As I wrote at the beginning of this marathon review, a book's excellence lies not in its being right but in its being interesting. Given that criterion, I'd still recommend this book for folks interested in reading some philosophical-progressive alternatives to modern evangelicalism. There are some moments of sloppy thinking and others of outright self-serving dishonesty, but on balance, I can accept those sorts of things in a book that spurs me to think for a while, and I think that this book did. If you run into folks like the ones in the book's opening anecdote, folks who tell you that Brian McLaren is too dangerous a writer for Christians to read without throwing their souls into peril, do those folks the courtesy of saying what the old lady in McLaren's story told him: "I don't see what the fuss is about" (2).
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In the middle of A New Kind of Christianity, Brian McLaren gives us a picture to describe how he thinks we need to change.
"Before...we are like lawyers trying to save an old contract, adding more and more fine print on page after page, until the provisions are weightier than the original contract. (This is good work, I suppose, and must be done for a generation or two, but it is not the work to which I feel called.) At some point, though, more and more of us will finally decide that it would make more sense to go back and revise the contract from scratch. And that work has begun. It is nowhere near complete, but the cat is out of the bag..."
And that cat is on a tear. McLaren attempts the impossible, essentially tossing out what you always thought was true, and starting again from scratch. The Fall of Genesis 3? That's really a coming-of-age story. The storyline of the Bible? It's really about the downside of progress, and about how good prevails in the end anyway. The Bible is a community library, and the violent, tribal God of the Genesis flood is "hardly worthy of belief, much less worship" - but those were early days, and our view of God is always changing. Jesus didn't come to start a new religion, nor is Christianity the answer in itself. In short, almost everything you know about God, the Bible, and Christianity is wrong, according to McLaren.
Disagree? It's probably because you have a Greco-Roman worldview, or worse. You may be someone who gets "authority and employment" from the old way of reading the Bible, which means you have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are. To go back to McLaren's earlier image, you're maybe a lawyer who loves fine print and who hates cats being let out of their bags. You're probably like the theologians and pastors who:
"...sew on a patch here, cover up that bit over there with some duct tape, put a nice coat of cheerful paint on that section over there, play really uplifting music to distract from that bit under there, move the furniture so that part doesn't show, and so on."
You're either misguided or have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are. Either way, it's hard to disagree without looking pitiable.
What to make of all of this?
First, I want to say that McLaren does make some good points. He puts his finger on some real problems. This isn't damning with faint praise. It's important, because it's what makes a book like this so compelling. Lots of people are going to buy what he says because they resonate with his critique.
Second, I'm grateful that McLaren has articulated his views. I suspect that there's going to be less guessing about what McLaren believes in the future. I don't think his views are a surprise to a lot of us, but they're in print now, and it's going to be a lot easier to talk about them.
Third, I'm going to predict that this book gets a lot of traction. I joined a conference call with McLaren last night and heard a number of people - including pastors - rave about the book. I think it's going to be one of those books in which the fans and critics speak past each other. The early reviews seem overwhelmingly positive. They won't be surprised if people like me don't like it. He takes some swipes at Mark Driscoll and John MacArthur, and sometimes comes across in a belittling way to evangelicals in general. He takes swipes at his critics sometimes that leave me gasping - and the fact that he does it with a friendly smile doesn't really help. This is going to be a polarizing book.
I really have to say that this is one of the most frustrating books I've read. I have a friend who says off-the-wall things. Half the time he's profound; the rest of the time he's just a bit random. I felt that way with this book. There are some potentially profound sections, but there's lots in the book that left me baffled. I can't remember reading any book that left me shaking my head so much. So much hinges on his assertion that we read the Scriptural storyline through a Platonic worldview, for instance, but I was far from convinced. His interpretation of Job, which he used to explain how we should read Scripture, left me scratching my head. His conclusions (or proposals) are so sweeping, and based on such baffling premises sometimes, that I hardly know where to begin.
Finally - and most importantly - this is not a minor tweak of Christianity. It is a repudiation of the church's understanding of the gospel. It really is tearing up the contract and starting all over again. McLaren says we've got the whole Biblical storyline, as well as our ideas of God and Scripture, all wrong. He'd rather be an atheist, he says, than believe in the God that many of us think is found in the Bible. You don't get any more basic. We are talking about two fundamentally different versions of Christianity and the gospel.
That's what makes this book so hard to critique. Supporters of the book will say that I'm critiquing it from a Greco-Roman mindset, using the Bible as a constitution text rather than as a community library. So my criticisms will be expected. McLaren's proposals go all the way back to the level of presuppositions, and unless you share his presuppositions it will be like complaining that the color red isn't blue enough. Fine, they will say, but it wasn't meant to be blue. He's not only giving us a new version of the Christian story, but he's making it very difficult to critique his new version using the resources of the old one. But I'm simply not convinced that he's made the case that he thinks he has.
Like McLaren, I believe we need to honestly examine our beliefs and practices, making corrections even when it's costly and uncomfortable. I believe that every generation needs to rediscover the gospel. But unlike McLaren, I'm not ready to toss the creation-fall-redemption storyline, or think that I've moved on from the God of Genesis 4-6. I'm simply not ready to say our old understanding of the gospel is wrong. We may need to rediscover it and be changed by it, and grow in our understanding of it. But that's different than tearing up the contract and starting all over again.
A few years ago, I was struggling with some of the issues McLaren raises. But I found that some of the answers being proposed were less, not more, satisfying. I believe that our biggest need is not for a new Christianity, but instead to rediscover some of the contours of the gospel we may have forgotten. We don't need a new contract; we need to "guard the good deposit" that's been entrusted to us (2 Timothy 1:14).
We really don't need a new kind of Christianity. We need to do a better job of rediscovering, and living in light of, the one we already have.
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My brother-in-law and I kind of played a game with this book on our way down south for Christmas. He'd just bought it. We traded off reading aloud in order to talk about it. His expertise is in theology, logic, and pastoral ministries, mine in rhetoric, church history, and the history of exegesis. Gradually our discussion centered on the gaping holes in McLaren's argument. Eventually we'd read a paragraph, even a sentence, pause, and ask, "Where's the logical fallacy?" Sometimes there were two. I teach college freshmen and am always on the lookout for game-like ways to learn about how to put an argument together, or not. They'll love breaking down a section of this book. It'll give them confidence. The fallacies are so easy to spot, like a rich vein of ore pushing at the surface of the text. We can go straight from McLaren to Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. I'm kind of excited.
His most egregious and probably most frequent fallacy was the "either-or," the false choice between two completely opposite, oversimplified, reductive alternatives, presenting no reasonable middle ground whatsoever. Most of the time this choice is between a "Greco-Roman soul-sorting six-line narrative" and his new kind of Christianity, between a "constitutional" mode of reading the Bible and his own "community library" mode. This kind of relentless binarism is what he critiques in the Greco-Roman way of telling the truth; this kind of interpretive hubris is what he critiques in the "constitutional" way to read. There are hasty generalizations, false analogies. He uses the words "hypothesize" and "perhaps" as truth claims, continuing his argument in the next sentence or paragraph as if what he suggested but failed to prove was in fact reliable enough to sustain an argument. In this or many other instances, he suggests or asserts (with occasional selective examples) and pretends he has proved. This comes off as a lazy way to argue--to toss something out there and see if it sticks without doing the hard work of research to see if it's verifiable. His endnotes parody scholarly conventions, often consisting of snappy comebacks to his concerned "loyal critics." A major portion of his chapter on sex consists of a vastly oversimplified and irrelevant account of the Copernican revolution. Rather than arguing his case about sexuality directly and in detail, he simply reasons: church authorities were wrong that the sun revolved around the earth; therefore, they are wrong in their current pronouncements on sexuality. For someone who lauds the virtue of love, McLaren's reading of Christian history is remarkably uncharitable. In nearly every case, he blithely and uncritically accepts controversial secular and atheistic criticism of the oppressiveness of the Christian past--and, again, doesn't do the research to justify himself or the skeptics he reads. With friends like McLaren, Christianity doesn't need enemies. But then, he's quite clear that he is no ally of traditional Christianity in any guise other than his interpretation of the early church, because Christianity was contaminated by the Greco-Roman soul-sorting six-line narrative early in its history and has yet to recover, until today, when, in his chapter on the essential Gospel, McLaren maps out his particular vision for Christianity's future that involves a radical break from its past. Yet McLaren fails to justify himself or his comrades as the kind of authoritative voices who can compel such a radical break. Failing to prove almost anything he says, he suggests that we should listen because he is speaking. Perhaps he has earned this authority in circles I do not frequent, yet in this reading I am not sure why he has earned it.
McLaren will sometimes tell snippet stories about how Christians who disagree with him are malicious and rude, calling him terrible names. This is a logical fallacy called "Poisoning the Well." As we read, though, I came to identify more and more with the anger of the people about whom he was reporting. This is, for instance, the first one-star review I've ever given on Amazon. Whether or not McLaren is a deceiver, he writes like one. His rhetorical pose is that of a charlatan, a snake oil salesman, using rhetorical and logical tricks to camouflage the weakness of his argument, the poverty of his thinking, and the paucity of his proof. If I believed what he believed, the fact that someone like "the man who wrote this book" believed it would give me pause. I do share some of his views on, say, pacifism and the immanence of the kingdom of God, but at the occasional moments when I was tempted to feel an "amen," I was embarrassed to, or, worse, couldn't do so in good conscience because a prose of such incessant manipulation might be manipulating me yet again.
This book is one of the most condescending and contemptuous toward its audience that I have ever read. Its argumentative strategy assumes that you and I will fall for cheap rhetorical and logical tricks. Don't.