This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Friday, February 19, 2010

McLaren.


Last week I read A New Kind of Christianity, Brian McLaren’s latest book. He argues for nothing less than a re-grounding of the Christian faith along lines quite different from what most of us know as traditional, Western Christianity. For some this will seem quite off-the-wall and threatening. Hence the nasty vilification he has received in some evangelical circles.

But there is little really new in McLaren’s book. Some of these insights go back a century or more. He brings together into a coherent presentation strands from many different places, from Matthew Fox, to John Milbank, to Northrop Frye, to Walter Brueggemann, to Harvey Cox, even Karl Barth, and so on. Some of this I learned in seminary 30 years ago. Some I remember my father talking about at our family dinner table in the late 1960’s. All this may seem new and wildly radical to some evangelicals; but many mainline Protestants have been familiar for decades with much of what McLaren is talking about.

His greatest contribution is something I heard him say at a conference last spring and which he underscores here. Instead of looking at Jesus and the New Testament through back the lens of 2000 years of Western culture, that is, through Barth and Tillich, Calvin and Luther, Augustine and Jerome, McLaren suggests that we look forward through the biblical tradition: the Torah, the prophets, the wisdom tradition. In other words, he asks that we understand Jesus from his own Jewish perspective, how he reflects and fulfills the tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures.

This is a significant turn because McLaren quite rightly contends that the original New Testament message was profoundly reinterpreted according to thought patterns imported to it from Greco-Roman philosophy. This is the lens through which we now see the text. But this lens is rather arbitrary. Not only is it not necessary, but it drastically distorts the message of the Scriptures. It crams the biblical witness into patterns and categories foreign to it. He identifies this as the “creation-fall-redemption” model (which Matthew Fox critiqued in the early 1980’s.)

I was in college when a professor first pointed out to me that there is no “fall” and no hint of original sin in the Old Testament. And there isn’t. If it wasn’t in the Hebrew tradition, it could not have been what Jesus taught; and he doesn’t. Neither does Paul or any of the New Testament writers. This is a set of doctrines that were developed later and then read into the Bible, most forcefully by Augustine. It is not even believed by the Eastern Orthodox church in the same way Augustine presented it! Thus it is in no way intrinsic to Christianity, even though most Western Christians assume that it is.

McLaren also criticizes the habit of using the Bible as if it were a legal constitution. It was never intended to be this. Rather, he realizes that the Bible is a spiritual library. It has many different perspectives and opinions. It shows development and evolution, as human wisdom and understanding increased. To use it constitutionally is to force it to function as something it was not designed to be.

The core of the book is McLaren’s take on Jesus, which is based on the clear New Testament accounts, and rooted in the trajectory of the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus did not come “to save souls from hell.” He came to liberate people now in this life from violence, poverty, injustice, and fear. Images like “Kingdom of God” and “eternal life” are clearly references to life in a community of sharing and generosity, which anticipates and manifests God’s intention for creation.

This is a great book. It has the power to change the direction of post-modern Christianity. Many will find it the most liberating and positive presentation of the Christian message they have ever encountered. Others will react with fear and hatred. Evangelicals in particular are mortally offended at what they perceive as betrayal by one of their own.

At bottom, all McLaren has done is to read the Bible carefully, minus the blinders and filters of Western cultural imperialism. He is not the first one to do this. I hope he serves as an inspiration for many more.

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