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A New Kind Of Christianity - By Brian Mclaren


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Hi all. I'm currently reading McLaren's newest book, "A New Kind of Christianity", and thought I would post a few of my thoughts on Brian's book here for discussion. Of course, everyone is welcome to join in, whether you have the book or not.

 

Although Brian's writings go back further, I was first exposed to him in "A New Kind of Christian" which came out in 2000, I believe. ANKOC is a fictional story of two friends, one an evangelical pastor and the other what I would call a progressive Christian, and how their relationship grows as the evangelical struggles with the old paradigm in which he was raised and ministered, and how it just isn't working for him anymore. I know that many of us can relate to this. IMO, Brian's most important book since then was "The Secret Message of Jesus", an offering that dealt with the notion that the church, whether intentionally or unintentionally, has either ignored or misinterpreted Jesus' message about the kingdom of God.

 

In Brian's newest book, ANKoC, he tries to ascertain where Christianity may have gone wrong and, even better, offers some suggestions or questions about how Christianity can get back to Jesus. I respect this effort, but because I haven't read the book, I can't yet say if I think Brian's assessment and solutions agree with me or not. :) So I thought it would be interesting and fun to post a few excerpt here on TCPC, along with my own thoughts, and open the floor to other conversations also.

 

The splash page of the book opens with this quote from Vincent J. Donovan:

 

"Never accept and be content with unanalyzed assumptions, assumptions about the work, about the people, about the church or Christianity. Never be afraid to ask questions about the work we have inherited or the work we are doing. There is no question that should not be asked or that is outlawed. The day we are completely satisfied with what we have been doing; the day we have found the perfect, unchangeable system of work, the perfect answer, never in need of being corrected again, on that day we will know that we are wrong, that we have made the greatest mistake of all."

 

This reminds me of our PC point about finding more value in the questions. It also reminds me of the Reformed notion that the church should always be reforming, a notion that, sadly, they have seemed to have forgotten.

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Guest billmc

In the Preface, Brian says that after speaking with a wide range of Christian leaders from across the denominational spectrum, they have convinced him that there is some bad news and some encouraging news:

 

"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."

 

Brian says: "I believe that in every new generation the Christian faith, like every faith, must in a sense be born again."

 

He later makes the tie between Christianity and the biblical women of Sarah and Elizabeth. Some, looking at Christianity (especially the "New Atheists") would say that she is past her prime, closer to a nursing home than to nursing new life. But, says Brian, "just when you think the old girl is over the hill, she might take a pregnancy test and surprise us all."

 

What do you think? Is Christianity done for? Will it go quietly into that good night? Or do you think it might surprise us and be "born again"?

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Chapter 1 is called "Between Something Real and Something Wrong." In this chapter, Brian shares with us his journey growing up in fundamentalist Christianity and his experiences with God and Jesus. The title of this chapter refers to Brian's growing sense that while encountered something real of God and of Jesus in his journey, there was also this nagging feeling that something is wrong about the way that Christianity can present God or Jesus or the Bible or humanity or God's "plan" to us.

 

My own journey mirrors this somewhat and I agree with Brian's sentiment. My own crisis of faith in my life was not brought about because I knew too little of Christianity and the Bible, but because I knew too much of it. And I also questioned whether any of my own experiences of God or of Jesus were really anything more than echoes of my own ego or, as Dickens might put it, "a bit of undigested beef." I tried disliking Jesus for a while, but found that I couldn't keep it up. God in the OT, Paul in the NT, the church through the ages - yes, I could find problems there. But I really liked and was drawn to Jesus. I still am. But it is one thing to sense that something is wrong, and it is another thing to put your finger on it, and it is still another thing to offer a better way. Deconstruction is fairly easy, though it hurts like hell. Reconstruction is another thing entirely but, at least in my case, if I was so wrong before, I can sure be wrong again...or now.

 

Brian says, of historical Christianity, "The religion that was ostensibly founded by a nonviolent man of peace had now embraced the very violence he rejected. The religion that grew in response to a man who was tortured and killed by the Roman Empire was now torturing and lilling others in league with that empire."

 

But Brian closes the chapter with hope: "...Something is happening. Something is afoot. A change is in the wind. Something is trying to be born among those of us who believe and follow Jesus Christ. That's what a new kind of Christianity in this book's title points toward."

 

Brian is not saying, "We know exactly what went wrong and we know exactly how to fix it." He is much more humble than that. He knows that we are human. And despite some of his stinging criticisms of Christianity, he knows that most Christians are loving and doing the best they can with the amount of light that they have been exposed to.

 

He is also well aware that most will probably sense that nothing is wrong and will have no interest in "a new kind of Christianity." This doesn't bother him. He's not out to convert anyone. He is simply trying to reach out to those who have been disillusioned by the Christian religion (like me), who still feel that there is something real to Jesus (like me), and who want to join together to try a different kind of Christian experiment, to try to move into the future by reclaiming some of the insights of a Jewish sage who walked the earth 2000 years ago. I'm not yet convinced I really want to jump on board. I'm getting old. I'm getting tired. But then, this kind of Christianity says that it really isn't about me anyway. So I'll keep reading.

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Chapter 2 is called "The Quest and the Questions" and deals with how we know what we know or, to be more precise, how we believe what we believe - about God, about Jesus, about life, about humanity, etc.

 

Brian writes, "For over a thousand years, all Christians have known with absolute and objective certainty that the earth is fixed and immovable in the center of the universe, and that the moon, planets, sun, and stars are securely embedded in ten majestic crystalline spheres that rotate around the earth."

 

He is making the point that the way we see things is not necessarily the way that things really are. We wear "lenses" through which we see. There is nothing wrong with this as long as we are aware that we are wearing them. Christianity has typically consisted of a set of beliefs which many Christians have accepted to be the truth because some authority told us that this was the case and with the result that beliefs were not to be questioned.

 

McLaren writes, "We need not a new set of beliefs, but a new way of believing, not simply new answers to the same old questions, but a new set of questions."

 

And then he says something I found very meaningful, "New statements (theses, propositions, answers) can inspire debate and bring us to a new state. But only new questions can inspire new conversations that can launch us on a new quest."

 

He then briefly states 10 questions that he believes a new Christianity should be asking in our day and time, questions I will post later as I reflect on the chapters.

 

While I agree with Brian that we need a new way of believing, I do think that a new way of believing will emcompass new beliefs. I don't think that 21st century Christians can rationally hold onto some of the beliefs and worldviews presented in the scriptures, in the creeds, and in our churches for the last 2000 years. Some beliefs, IMO, will lend themselves to fairly easy re-interpretation, to viewing through a different lense. But other beliefs, again IMO, will need to be jettisoned or relegated to the status of historically significant but no longer applicable.

 

Again, where I sense that Brian is going with this book is that he is not giving us a new set of beliefs, but challenging us to question old beliefs and old ways of "doing Christianity" that are no longer effective or not in keeping with what Jesus taught.

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Guest billmc

Thanks, Joseph.

 

Chapter 3 is called "A Prayer on the Beach" and the title refers to a prayer that the pastor of the pilgrims, John Robinson, said as they embarked on the New World in 1620. One of the things that John said, which I have heard repeated in Congregational Churches, is: "I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from His holy word." One of the mottos of the Congregational Churches is, "God is still speaking" or "Don't put a period where God put a comma."

 

While pastor Robinson was probably referring to the Bible, I would take it a step further and say that God has more truth and light yet to break forth through the Spirit. While I respect the Bible and treasure it, Jesus said that it is the Spirit, our union with God, that leads us into truth.

 

Some Christians look to the Bible and look to the past for the totality of truth. But there are so many things in life that the Bible and church tradition simply do not address or address through an outdated paradigm.

 

Brian asks a good question, "Are there those [in Christianity] who can claim that their denomination, their church, their version of Christian faith is anywhere close to fulfilling what Jesus intended?" I would put it this way: have we yet realized the traits and characteristics, both personally and socially, of the kingdom of God? If we haven't then perhaps there is more to do, more truth to come, more progress to be made.

 

McLaren writes, "We do not conceive of our faith primarily as a promise to our ancestors, a vow to dutifully carry on something that was theirs and we have inherited. No, it is more like God's promise uttered to us from the future, toward which we reach an outstretched and hopeful hand - just as our ancestors did. The gospel for us is a movement (Bill's input: I like thinking of the gospel as more of a verb than a noun), a pioneering adventure. But the movement is never contained or controlled by the institution any more than the wind is contained or controlled by the branches through which it blows."

 

"Our faith is vain and self-centered if it only brings blessing for us or to us. It also must result in blessing that flows through us to the world. The Lord has more light and truth to break forth, we believe, and so we raise our sails to the wind of the Spirit."

 

I heard a podcast today where the speaker said, "A religion is judged as good, not for what good it does for its adherants, but for the good that it does the world." I like that.

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Guest billmc

Chapter 4 is titled, "What is the Overarching Story Line of the Bible?"

 

My preliminary thoughts: We live, as human beings, by meta-narratives. We tend to think that their is a purpose (or purposes) to our lives, an overall meaning, even, perhaps, a design. As rational creatures who are self-aware of our beginning and our end, we contemplate what it all means and if there is some kind of God who is involved at some level. I doubt it is possible for us to escape trying to make sense of our lives. And many religious people look to ancient writings or traditions to help them gain some kind of insight into, not only what our own narratives are, but a meta-narrative for all of humanity and creation.

 

In this chapter, Brian takes a look at the typical Christian narrative. This is, IMO, where Brian really starts to pursue where he thinks Christianity went wrong. In short, he believes Christianity went wrong when it forgot its Jewish roots, forgot that Jesus was a Jewish within Judaism, and interpreted the Bible, both OT and NT, via a Greek lens. Brian has a short-hand term for this which he calls the 6-line meta-narrative. His thesis is that while this meta-narrative was the view adopted by the Church (of the AD 300 timeframe) and of traditional Christianity ever since, this is not the view of Jesus or the early church.

 

I will, no doubt, fail to convey everything here in these summary posts that Brian writes about. But I'll do my best because I think what he says deserves thought and consideration and this Greco meta-narrative that he describes was certainly the paradigm in which I was raised and came to gradually question in my own journey. What Brian does that I could not do is to present it graphically and in fairly simple form.

 

Here is the first 6-Line that Brian shares:

 

6line.gif

 

McLaren says that these 6 lines present the present meta-narrative of what current and traditional Christian religion is about:

 

Reading from left to right, these lines represent:

1. Eden

2. Fall

3. Condemnation

4. Hell

5. Salvation

6. Heaven

 

We could label this meta-narrative thus:

 

6line1.gif

 

So, according to Christianity's present paradigm, the main problem or goal is get humanity back to the perfect, sinless condition that we supposedly were in the Garden.

 

In my next post, I'll share how Brian demonstrates that this meta-narrative is not Jewish at all, but very Greek, and, therefore, not truly reflective of what the whole of the Bible or of what Jesus' teachings point to.

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I agree that one of Christianity's first mistakes was forgetting its Jewish roots. The Jews became one of the first scapegoats for Christian-fueled bigotry as Christians started to blame the Jews for murdering Jesus. Then one by one, Christianity started adding one minority after the other to their list of scapegoats to blame their problems on. You see this progression in the bible itself as the further away the gospel accounts get from history, the more antisemitic the gospels become. If Christians didn't lose sight of the fact that Jesus was a Jew, perhaps the history of antisemitism could have turned out differently. Even though most Christians today aren't antisemitic anymore, many still forget that Jesus was a Jew who was reforming Judaism and they presume Jesus was a Republican Gentile like them who wanted to found Christianity as a separate religion that shares all the same social and moral values their political party has and think the world revolves around their religion.

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I agree that one of Christianity's first mistakes was forgetting its Jewish roots.

 

This is foundational to where McLaren is going with his thinking, NG, because he is convinced (as am I) that in order to understand Jesus, we need to understand something of Judaism. This doesn't mean that we must become Jewish, but that Jesus must be allowed to speak out of his own culture and background instead of out of an imported Greco-Roman background that the institutional Church had.

 

BTW, for this thread I will use the term "institutional Church" to refer mainly to the Gentile Church of the early Catholic era, around the 300s. I'll use the term "early church" to refer to the mostly Jewish eklesia of the 1st and early 2nd century. Although I'm not too sure McLaren is making the label distinction, I find it helpful as I post my thoughts here.

 

McLaren asserts that when we look back to the roots of Christianity, which ultimate go back to the person of Jesus of Nazareth, we don't see just Jesus of Nazareth. Because we have grown up in a Judeo-Christian culture that essentially puts a set of glasses on us from the start, we look back at Jesus first through the lenses of Pope Benedict, or Jerry Falwell, or Billy Graham. And then we look through the lenses of Calvin or Wesley or Newton. And then we look through the lenses of Luther or Erasmus. And then we look through the subsequent lenses of Aquinas, Augustine, the apostle Paul, and then at Jesus.

 

So we are not looking directly at Jesus himself, but at him through other's interpretations of him. This, of course, extends to the gospels themselves. Now, I don't necessarily think this is a bad thing. As I've said before, we just should be aware that we are looking through all of these lenses of Jesus before we get to him. But McLaren makes the point, and again I agree with him, that all of these lenses are Gentile or Greco-Roman lenses that, by the time they formed their theology, had become disconnected from Judaism and how Jesus would have been understood by his own followers and culture.

 

Brian is asserting that instead of looking back at Jesus through all of these Gentile and Greco-Roman lenses, we need to look at him through his own culture and Jewish lineage. In other words, instead of looking back at him through the doctrines of all the church fathers listed above, it would be helpful to look at him through Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and John the Baptist.

 

I don't know about you, but I find this helpful. Marcus Borg says, in one of his podcast, "Growing up [his Lutheran tradition], I thought Jesus was a Swede." :P Blonde hair, blue eyes, white and blue robe. Perfect teeth and more handsome than George Clooney. Borg's point, as well as McLaren's, is not the physical appearance of Jesus, but that Christianity has lost its Jewish roots and therefore interprets Jesus mainly through a Roman paradigm.

 

Do we? Do we really?

 

McLaren gives a couple of quick examples: Nowhere in the Hebrew scriptures does it talk about original sin; or total depravity; or the Fall; or eternal conscious torment; or the rapture. This terms have been "read back" into the scriptures by a perhaps well-meaning Church but separated from the Jewish story. Instead of understanding Jesus as part of a Jewish story, we see Jesus through a Greco-Roman Platonistic and Aristolian framework. And this framework also has implications for how we see God, humanity, the world, the future, almost everything in life.

 

What does Brian mean? I'll do my best to explain his reasoning in my next post. If you're following this, thanks for reading and please hang in there. Brian can explain in a book much better than I can in these synopsis, but perhaps they can help some of us understand why Christianity is the religion it is today...and maybe if it can change.

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Remember our 6 line diagram above? This is the way that traditional Christianity interprets Jesus' life, mission, and teaching. Jesus is the "answer" as to how to get people who are condemned and going to hell because of the fall from the Garden of Eden to go to heaven by salvation. This is the typical "story" in which Jesus is said to reside: we were once perfect, we fell, we are condemned and living in a condemned world, bound for hell, BUT if we accept Jesus, God will restore us to perfection after we die, fitting us for heaven where we will enjoy and worship him forevermore.

 

The problem is, says McLaren, this is NOT the Jewish story. Jesus would not have recognized this story. Pretty bold statement, don't you think?

 

McLaren says that this story, the above 6 line diagram is actually a Greco-Roman analysis of humanity. Now, I'll be the first to admit that I am not much of a philosopher and used to find the subject boring in school. After all, I was saved and had my ticket to heaven. What use did I have for Plato or Aristole? :)

 

But Brian says that western civilization, built on the back of the Roman Empire and its Church, holds to a Greco-Roman worldview that goes something like this:

 

Plato says that ultimate reality is nonmaterial, eternal, and unchanging. According to Plato, the material, temporal, and changing objects of this world are shadow, illusion, reflections of an "isness" that is perfect and unchanging.

 

Aristotle, on the other hand, says that ultimate reality is the material, the changing or becoming, the growing. According to Aristotle, the physical, changing things of this world are very real and what is important.

 

It wasn't that Plato won out over Aristotle or vice-versa. Eventually, both views were incorporated into the Greco-Roman worldview and it became, therefore, very dualistic.

 

McLaren writes, "An enlightened or philosophic mind would always see the world divided in two, the profane physical world of matter, stuff, and change on the low side and the sacred metaphysical world of ideals, spirit, and changelessness on the high side." Please read this sentence again, this is key to where McLaren is going.

 

What we call reality is divided into a high side of spirit, changelessness, perfection; and a low side of matter, change, imperfection. McLaren writes, "The Greco-Roman dream was to create a high society of philosophical enlightenment and material prosperity, characterized by stasis and order, the Pax Romama (or Roman peace)." The Greco-Roman diagram would look like this:

 

6line2.gif

 

As you can see, this Greco-Roman worldview is the meta-narrative of perfect spirit beings falling into the illusion of the material world and then, through enlightenment, being restored to the Platonic ideal of perfect spirit being again.

 

Before we move on any further, any thoughts as to how this lines up with the traditional Christian view?

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What McLaren is saying in this chapter is that the 6 line story oe meta-narrative of Eden/Fall/Condemnation/Hell/Salvation/Heaven did not originate with Jewish thinking. He'll get to the Jewish story in a bit. But what he is asking us to see is that Christianity, because it lost its connection with Judaism, forced the OT, NT, and concepts of God and Jesus into the dualistic Platonic/Aristotleian worldview. The result is as follows:

 

1. The Garden of Eden, which the Hebrews scriptures simply call "good" became a state of perfection. In perfection, if anything changes, then it must change for the worse.

2. Adam and Eve's sin is labeled "the Fall", a very Platonic notion, that says that they changed state from perfection or innocence to sinners.

3. Adam and Eve, whom God, according to the scriptures never abandoned, are said to be "separated" from God and to have died spiritually, even though the Bible never says this. God's warning to them was that they would die - dust to dust - not that they would no longer fellowship with God or that they would go to hell.

4. The creation and world which, again, the scriptures describe as "good" were considered to be part of the Fall and under condemnation for destruction. More on this in a bit.

5. Jesus' teachings on Gehenna were forced into the Greek mythos of Hades.

6. Salvation, which in Jewish terms is about healing and wholeness, was reinterpreted to mean "regaining perfection" with the ultimate result of returning to the Platonic state of changeless perfection.

 

McLaren calls the god of this Greco-Roman version of the biblical story "Theos." He says that this Theos is quite different from the Elohim found in Genesis. Theos loves spirit, state, and being. He hates matter, story, and becoming. Because Theos loves perfection, anything that is less than perfect is the object of wrath and he feels he must destroy it. Theos' goal for humanity is not about change, growth, relationship but about finding a way to impute perfection back into the fallen so that he, from his high and lofty state, can once again have something to do with them, or, more precisely as a Greek god, to gain their worship. He does this through "justification by faith" that results in some of humanity enjoying perfect peace, perfect rest, perfect status, perfect and unending and unchangin joy in a spirit realm called heaven. They are delivered from the world of fallen matter to an eternal state of perfect where, because any change would be another fall, nothing ever, ever happens again.

 

What about those who reject Theos' Greco-Roman paradigm? Because they refuse to be perfect, Theos cannot permit them to enter his perfect heaven. Yet even they were created as spirit, which is eternal, so Theos cannot erradicate them either. So he banishes them to Hades, which because it is a spiritual eternal realm, cannot permit anyone to repent or change. McLaren writes, "There is a sign over its infernal, eternally locked gates: "DESPAIR ALL WHO ENTER HERE! NO BECOMING ALLOWED"

 

What remains in the end? Theos in heaven with his perfected souls and other souls in "perfect" torment.

 

McLaren admits that there are parts in this Greco-Roman view that are biblical. After all, the Bible was shoved into this framework. But it is similar to taking all the actors from one movie and putting them into a completely different movie. We would recognize the actors, but the characters and the plots would be drastically different.

 

McLaren writes, "We want to try reading the Bible frontward for a while, to let it be a Jewish story (as opposed to a Greco-Roman one) that, through Jesus, opens to include all humanity. We believe it is time to firmly escort the Greco-Roman reframing of the biblical narrative to the door and seek what master songwriter Michael Kelly Blanchard calls "the other God" - the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob."

 

Brian believes, as do I, that God is interested in restoring creation and humanity, not to a state of perfection, but to a place and people of compassion. The Father of Jesus wasn't interested in making perfect people fitted for heaven, he was (and is) interested in creating compassionate people that can bring heaven to earth.

 

On to the next chapter.

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The doctrine of original sin is one of the doctrines in conservative Christianity that I find to not only be unscriptual but also immoral. It teaches us to believe we are naturally inclined to evil and unless we turn ourselves over to the control of the Church, then we cannot be good nor can we find our own personal salvation/enlightenment through other religious paths or philosophies. It teaches us to hate our bodies and to fear any sexual pleasure. The aspect of this doctrine I find most offensive is that it teaches that innocent children are somehow born with sin and unless they are baptized, they'll go to purgatory and won't be able to experience the fullness of God's paradise. The idea that a child should be punished for a sin they didn't commit is wicked and cruel and nothing at all like a parent should do. Furthermore, the doctrine of original sin is not found anywhere in the bible. It was a doctrine St. Augustine created. I know some Christians will cite Romans chapter 5 to justify original sin but that passage is talking about death and suffering, not sin. Nowhere in the Genesis account or the entire Hebrew bible does it say anything about Adam and Eve bringing sin into the world. In fact, there are bible passages which directly state that children shouldn't be punished for the sins of their parents but we should take responsibility for our own sins like Ezekiel 18:1-4

The word of the Lord came to me: 2What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? 3As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. 4Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.
The bible also teaches that humans are created in the image of God. Unless conservative Christians want us to believe that God is naturally inclined to sin, it makes no sense to believe that humans who are created in the image of God are at the same time created with a natural inclination to sin.
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The doctrine of original sin is one of the doctrines in conservative Christianity that I find to not only be unscriptual but also immoral...

 

I couldn't agree more. This doctrine does not come from the Bible itself but is a doctrine made by St. Augustine built upon an interpretation of certain stories and scriptures.

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Chapter 5 is called "Setting the Stage for the Biblical Narrative". In the previous chapter, McLaren described how the scriptures were forced by the institutional Church into a Greco-Roman framework and that it is this framework which prevails in Christianity today. He is now turning his attention to the task of trying to help us see the scriptures through a Jewish framework in order to try to recapture what Jesus and early Christianity were really about. I don't think he is trying to say that we need to return to the first century. Rather, I think that what he is trying to say is that if we want to understand Jesus, his vision, his teachings, and his life better, we need to see Jesus through Jewish eyes, as part of the story of what God was trying to accomplish through the Jews.

 

McLaren writes, concerning his own journey in trying to take off the 6 line Greco-Roman glasses, "But it's not easy undoing many years of training in order to see the Bible with fresh eyes; the process took several years - and is still going on, actually."

 

He says, "This story [the Jewish story] invites our participation as well, not as pawns on the squares of a cosmic chessboard, but as creative protagonists and junior partners with God in the story of creation." One of McLaren's views, a view which I too hold, is that creation is not finished. Despite God resting at the end of "creation week" in the Genesis story, God has bequeathed it to us, as creations in his image, to continue the work of creation ourselves. We see this in our ability to procreate, to shape our ecology, to create music, art, science, language, culture, etc. Our universe is not static, neither frozen in perfection or in imperfection; rather, creation continues, we are still "becoming". Spong describes this as becoming truly human, as growing to be everything that we can be, mainly characterized by compassion and vivaciousness.

 

McLaren continues, "Elohim [the Jewish God], unlike Theos, doesn't pronounce this world perfect (or imperfect), but rather "good." "Very good," in fact." What Brian is pointing to, IMO, is that Elohim is saying about his creation, "Now this is a good start!"

 

Concerning what the Greco-Roman paradigm calls "the fall": "If they [Adam and Eve] eat of one specific tree, on the day they eat, they will die. Notice, the text does not say they will be condemned to hell, be "spiritually separated from God," be pronounced "fallen" or "condemned," or be tainted with something called "original sin" that will be passed on to their children. There is only one consequence indicated by the text: they will die - not spiritually die, not relationally die, not ontologically die, but simply die. And what does God do, inflict immediate capital punishment on that very day as promised? No. [God shows mercy.] God not only doesn't kill them, but rather God makes clothes for them. God does let them suffer consequences for their behavior, but not lethal ones. God pushes them out of the nest."

 

I love that last sentence. "God pushes them out of the nest." It brings tears to my eyes. It's not a banishment from God's presence, as the fundamentalists say, it is God wistfully watching his children leave innocence in order to grow. I remember when my wife and I took our son to his first day at school. He was both excited and nervous. In his world, he was "going where no one has gone before" or, at least, where he hadn't. It was an unknown to him (but not to us) and we were strong as we encouraged him that he could do this, that he was ready, that he didn't need us constantly there. He turned and waved a still-unsure bye to us as his teacher showed him his desk. We smiled and waved back...and then we went to the car...and then we cried. He was the brave one. We were bawling like babies. We knew that he was not really leaving us, but entering a new stage of growth in his life. But it hurt to let go. And we continue, as good parents, to let go. Raising children is about learning to let them go, about trusting them to find and experience life without us running and controlling everything for them. It is giving them the freedom to make mistakes and to allow them to suffer the consequences of those mistakes, as much as it pains us.

 

This is what I see in the creation myth, not the story of how Theos kicks his children out of his presence because they are no longer perfect and has to find a way to make them perfect again before he can stand to be around them, but a story of a loving parent who, though still there in the background, lets go of control so that his children can grow up to be truly in his image, not of ontological perfection, but of compassion and connection. He doesn't give up because true love never fails. And when they sin, he weeps because he knows how much it hurts them and their world. But, according to the Jewish story, they can grow to maturity no other way.

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I appreciate where McLaren is going with this chapter, although I have to admit that I am not quite used to these new glasses that he suggesting that we wear. :)

 

Like most progressive Christians, Brian does not see Genesis as a literal, historical account of how the world (earth) and people came to be. He knows that these texts were written during Israel's Babylonian exile around 400 BC and he knows that they were Israel's attempts to preserve her identity as God's people while they were captive in a foreign country. And he suggests that these text are very subversive of the Babylonian Empire if we can look past their literal interpretation to their literary meaning. What does he mean by this?

 

Brian sees a progression in Genesis of human society and socialization that leads to his understanding of Jesus' message and mission and what God desires for the earth. Without going into alot of detail, that progression is this:

 

Garden of Eden - God provides everything for humanity

Adam & Eve outside the Garden - humanity becomes hunter/gatherers

Cain & Abel - humanity becomes nomadic herders and agriculturalist

Cain - humanity becomes city dwellers

humanity become empire dwellers

 

With each step in progression or civilization, the capacity to do moral evil and social injustice increases. Brian says it looks like this:

 

Innocence

Hunter/Gatherers - shame, fear

Agriculturalists - Murder

City Dwellers - Corruption, Violence

Empire Dwellers - Oppression, Genocide

 

Despite God's attempt to fix things through genocide in the flood, Noah's descendants quickly fall back into the same old pattern. Violence, whether committed by God or by humans, does not fix moral evil and social injustice in our world.

 

So, according to Genesis, God does something new. McLaren writes, "God calls Abraham and Sarah and imbues them with a new identity as the father and mother of a nation who will be blessed in order to bring blessing to all nations. It is absolutely essential to notice what God is doeing: not damning and rejecting all nations and exempting one from damnation, not hating all nations and loving one, not privileging one superior nation to conquer and rule all others, but blessing one nation through one, choosing one to bring benefit to all. This is NOT the Greco-Roman story!"

 

McLaren says that Genesis ends with, through the story of Joseph, the Jewish theme that God has not abandoned humanity to perdition but has purposed to overcome evil with good. He writes, in setting this stage, "We might say it is the sotry of goodness being created and re-created: God creates a good world, which humans damage and savage, but though humans have evil intent, God still creates good, and God's good prevails. Good has the first word, and good has the last word."

 

To be honest, I'm not quite convinced. I mean, what McLaren says makes sense to me and I think he does a good job of leading us to see that God is a good God who wants good for all humanity. But I'm not convinced that God is "in control" to the extent that good will ultimately win. It is certainly my hope. And I would like to believe it. And I strive and live for it though I don't think it is a guarantee. But the problem may be on my end - too little faith. Or maybe I still envision God too much as Theos. I'd like to believe that, in the end, we all live happily ever after. But I'm not sure if that fairy-tale ending was planted in our hearts by God or if it is an attempt to simply keep us moving forward in hope.

 

On to the next chapter.

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Guest billmc

Chapter 6 is called "The Biblical Narrative in Three Dimensions." As we've seen from looking at the 6 line Greco-Roman narrative, traditional Christianity has taught us that the main problem with mankind is that we have offended God (or Theos) with our sin and, therefore, we can't go to live with God in heaven until our offense against God is taken care of. Jesus is said to be the answer to this quandry because, it is said, our sins were imputed to him and his sinlessness is imputed to us, if we believe in him.

 

Brian is attempting to outline for us a "new" kind of Christianity that endeavors to look at the narrative through a Jewish lense and to try to gain insight into Jesus' message and mission that way.

 

From the last chapter, McLaren has offered us another way of looking at sin, not primarily as an offense against a holy God, but as humanity becoming more and more harmful to each other, growing through stages of civilization development that lead to more and more evil that can be committed against more and more people. In McLaren's view, in my own words, the problem isn't so much that we have directly offended God's character with our sin, it is that our sin marrs God's good creation, especially in the way that we treat each other.

 

So Brian says that the first narrative is God is a creator and that we are situated in God's good, evolving world. It is not, as the Greco-Roman view says, that the world is completely fallen and completely evil. Our world is still good, there is still beauty, life, meaning, and connection to be found here. Yes, there is evil. But the Greco-Roman view says that the only way to rid the world of evil is to destroy the world. The Jewish view says that the way to rid the world of evil is to overcome it with good.

 

The second narrative is that God is a liberator. God frees us from internal and external oppression and forms us into his people who, in his image, are liberators also. The Greco-Roman view can also portray God as a liberator, but in that view, God liberates mainly through relocation. He removes people from the earth and takes them to heaven. In the Jewish view, God's liberation is not so much tied to "going to be with God" as it is "God is with us." The Greco-Roman view says that God liberates us by changing our environment. The Jewish view says that God liberates us by changing us.

 

The third narrative is the sacred dream of a peaceable kingdom. The prophetic Jewish images were not of streets of gold or angels playing harps or mansions over hilltops. Rather, they were of lands flowing with milk and honey, swords beat into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, no more war, the earth filled with the knowledge of the Lord (Isaiah 11). The prophets indeed described the peaceable kingdom as a new heavens and a new earth, but this is not a spiritual plane in Greek mythology. It is a dream of homes, vineyards, fruit, and, perhaps most of all, of all nations walking in "the ways of God" (Isaiah 65; Micah 4). In this peaceable kingdom, God has poured out his spirit upon all flesh, eliminated inequities between men and women, young and old, rulers and slaves (Joel 2:27-29). It is about the abolition of bows, swords, wars. It is about God dwelling with humanity in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy (Hosea 2:18-19).

 

Traditional Christianity, if it deals with these images, either relegates them to a future time/place on earth or to a future time/place called heaven. But Brian asks, "What if we say them [these images of the peaceable kingdom] less as an eternal destination beyond history and more as a guiding star within it, less as a literal description and prediction and more as a poetic promise and hope, less as a doctrine to be debated and more as an unquenchable dream that inspires us to unceasing constructive action? What is we saw them as a good future unfolding in time, not a perfect state beyond time?"

 

He continues: "The future in this approach is waiting to be created; it is not fatalistically predetermined." I like this. Now, I've been in Christianity long enough to know that Christians, for the last 2000 years, have traditionally expected Jesus to physically return at any time to, usually, remove his people from earth before he destroys it to make a new one - Earth II. I went through the "88 Reasons Why Jesus Will Return in 1988" and the Y2K nervousness that Jesus would come back before midnight on Dec 31, 1999. But what if the kingdom hasn't come simply because we have often refused to be agents of it? What if, theistically speaking, God is waiting for us?

 

McLaren goes on to say something that would greatly disturb many Christians (as if he hasn't already), "History is unscripted, unrehearsed reality, happening now - really happening." Brian is saying, IMO, that God is not "in control" and that things are running perfectly according to his plan on his cosmic Rolex. Instead, God has put the seed of the kingdom inside us and is what for our cooperation. In other words, we really would be "the body of Christ" on earth.

 

Now, I'm not so stupid as to think that humans have not tried utopian societies before. Although I'm not a historian, I suspect that most of these fail due to the Greco-Roman structure they often seek to use as their foundation. On the other hand, there have been some communities (the Amish and Mennonites) that, though not 100% effective, do seem to bring something of the peaceable kingdom to earth, do they not? We want a quick fix. We don't want the hard work. We want God's divine intervention. We don't want the kingdom to depend on human involvement.

 

Brian concludes this chapter by saying that the Jewish story "represents a new creation, and a new exodus - a new promised land that isn't one patch of ground held by one elite group, but that encompasses the whole earth." It's not about God destroying the earth and most of her peoples, it is about God redeeming the earth through his people.

 

It is an interesting dream. I wonder if it will ever be anything more than that.

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Sidenote: I ask and hope that everyone who follows my posts will forgive my occassional typos and wrong words. I know the right words in my head (usually) but the medicine I am on to control my epilepsy interfers with how the words come out, both from my mouth and through my fingers. I do try to proof-read most of my posts, but I often fail to find and correct many of my errors. They seem to slip through despite my best efforts. So please forgive my mistakes and point them out to me if you can't piece together what I originally meant.

 

Thank you.

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Chapter 7 is called, "How Should the Bible Be Understood?"

 

McLaren says, and I have no reason to doubt him, that he loves the Bible. But the Bible, read through a certain lense, presents a number of problems to modern readers.

 

He writes, "Fundamentalism again and again paints itself into a corner by requiring that the Bible be treated as a divinely dictated sentence textbook providing us true information all all areas of life, including when and how the earth was created, what the shape of the earth is, what revolves around what is space, and so on. The Bible, when taken as an ethical rule book, offers us no clear categories for many of our most significant and vexing socioethical quandaries. We find no explicit mention, for example, of abortion, capitalism, communism, socialism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, autism, systemic racism, affirmative action, human rights, nationalism, sexual orientation, pornography, global climate change, imprisonment, extinction of species, energy efficiency, environmental sustainability, genetic engineering, space travel, and so on - not to mention nuclear weapons, biological warfare, and just-war theory."

 

McLaren is concerned, as am I, that the scriptures are too often used by the powerful to sanction their own agendas, knowing that most Americans will simply "go along" because "the Word of God" is quoted and it seems appropo. He says, "I was appalled during the buildup to the Iraq war in 2002 to hear radio preachers pull a Bible verse about God "crushing Satan" under "our feet" to justify a preemptive war. It's an old and tired game: quoting sacred texts to strengthen an us versus them mentality that, in today's world, could too easily lead to a last tango, nuclear-biochemical kamikaze Crusade jihad."

 

He points out something most of us here already know: "To the defenders of slavery the Bible was unquestionably on their side. Wouldn't it make sense for us to try to understand how so many Bible-reading, Bible-believing, Bible-quoting, and Bible-preaching poeople could be so horribly wrong for so terribly long?"

 

There are three New Testament passages that exhort slaves to be obedient to the masters: Eph 6:5-8; Titus 2,9,10; Col 3:22-24. In the book, 'Nellie Norton: or, Southern Slavery and the Bible: A Scriptural Refutation of the Principal Argument Upon Which the Abolitionists Rely: A Vindication of Southery Slavery From the Old and New Testaments', the author writes:

 

"The world is wrong [in taking a stance against slavery], and the South must set it right."

 

"The welfare of the negro is best promoted when he is under the restraints of slavery."

 

"The Bible is a pro-slavery Bible, and God is a pro-slavery God."

 

"The North must give up the Bible and religion, or adopt our views of slavery."

 

"Slavery is taught in the Bible, and instituted in heaven."

 

"[To speak against slavery] is to abominate the law of God, and the sentiments inculcated by his holy prophets and apostles."

 

"In the catalogue of sins denounced by the Savior and His Apostles, slavery is not once mentioned...not one word is said by the prophets, apostles, or the holy Redeemer against slavery...The Apostles admitted slaveholders and their slaves to church membership, without requiring a dissolution of the relation."

 

Few today would side with the author of 'Nellie Norton'. We seem today to feel it in our bones that slavery is morally wrong and injust, despite what the Bible might say or not say on the issue. It took the Southern Baptists Convention until 1996 to admit that they were wrong about being pro-slavery. And this denomination, perhaps more than any other, says that it believes the Bible. To me, it is sad that when progress is made in the area of the humane, it is usually the secularists, not the Christians, who are at the forefront. Christians do seem to come around, eventually, but why are they (we) the last ones to jump on the wagon of human progress?

 

McLaren writes: "We've gone through a similar process [discovering how wrong we can be] with regard to anti-Semitism, segregation, and apartheid. Many of us have gone through a similar process regarding the status of women in the church, and some of us regarding the status of gay, lesbian, and transgendered people. We are also going through a similar process regarding stewardship of the environment, religious supremacy, and (I hope) the sanctioning of war."

 

He concludes this chapter with, "Our quest for a new kind of Christianity reuqires a new, more mature and responsible approach to the Bible." Amen, Brian.

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Hi Bill,

 

Just some ramblings on that last chapter.

 

It seems to me he waited to chapter 7 to get to the heart of the issue. True change in Christianity, IMO, first requires a deprogramming of the church institution teaching that has been drilled in our children's heads from early youth. That teaching and false premise as i personally refer to it is that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. Once it is accepted as total truth rather than a mixture of myth and inspiration along with other things, in spite of good intentions, the mind is brought into subjection to a book called the Bible rather than the Spirit of God.

 

 

Joseph

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Chapter 8 is called "From Legal Constitution to Community Library" and McLaren writes about the way that traditional Christianity reads and uses the Bible.

 

He writes, "In short, we read and use the Bible as a legal constitution. It shouldn't surprise us that people raised in a constitutional era would tend to read the Bible in a constitutional way. Lawyers in the courtroom quote articles, sections, paragraphs, and subparagraphs to win their case, and we do the same with testaments, books, chapters, and verses."

 

"[We] seldom question whether the [biblical] passage in question was actually intended by the original authors and editors to be a universal, eternally binding law. As a result, we turn our seminaries and denominational bodies into versions of a Supreme Court. At every turn, we approach the biblical text as if it were an annotated code instead of what it actually is: a portable library of poems, prophecies, histories, fables, parables, letters, sage sayings, quarrels, and so on."

 

"Biblical writers never understood themselves to be writing a constitution that would be read by people hundreds or thousands of years in the future and thousands of miles away. No, they were writing for their own times, to address specific problems and questions of their day."

 

In seeing the Bible's authority as a library, McLaren says, "An authoritative library preserves key arguments; an authoritative constitution preserves enforceable agreements."

 

Chapter 9 is called, "Revelation Through Conversation" and McLaren continues with his thoughts on how we use the scriptures.

 

"We human being can interpret the Bible to say and mean an awful lot of different things. We can easily confuse "The Bible says" with "I say the Bible says," which we can then equate with "God says. (A friend of mine says that the average religious leader begins by humbly speaking with Godl then he speaks humbly of God; then he speaks proudly for God; and finally he speaks arrogantly as if he were God.)" :)

 

"From all sides it becomes clear that the Bible, if it is truly inspired by God, wasn't meant to end conversation and give the final word on controversy. If this were its purpose, it has failed miserably. But if, instead, it was inspired and intended to stimulate conversation, to keep people thinking and talking and arguing and seeking, across continents and centuries, it has succeeded and is succeeding in a truly remarkable way."

 

"Could it be that God's Word intends not to give us easy answers and shortcuts to confidence and authority, but rather to reduce us, again and again, to a posture of wonder, humility, rebuke, and smallness in the face of the unknown?"

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I've almost finished reading Brian's book and rather than going through the rest of the book chapter by chapter, I will simply address what the chapters are about in brief.

 

Brian next turns his attention to the way God is sometimes portrayed as being violent in the Bible. To me, these are a couple of the best chapters in the book because Brian advocates that 1) earlier views of God in the Bible were inherently tribal coming from a tribal people and 2) in his opinion, the God that the Bible points to should be interpreted or most clearly seen through the life and character of Jesus. I.e. God's nature is not most accurately seen in the OT or in the apostle Paul but in Jesus.

 

Brian then turns to the subject of Jesus, who he was/is, and why he is so important. He sees Jesus mainly as a proclaimer of God's kingdom, a view that I find quite appealing. And Brian asserts that the gospel is not about how to get people to heaven but about how to bring the characteristics of God's kingdom as portrayed through the Jewish eyes of the prophets to earth.

 

Subsequent chapters deal with subjects such as sex, eschatology, pluralism, the role of the church, changing Christianity from a set of beliefs or theology into action, and how we live in and impact community around us.

 

In closing, I've read most of Brian's books. He is a good writer and I appreciate his style of asking us questions instead of telling us what to think. He never comes across as a "leader for the Emerging Church" as some Christians have labeled him. Rather, he seems like a well-spoken everyday Joe who is not so much trying to invalidate all other forms of Christianity, but trying to offer us a way of being Christian in this century and in our time. I especially appreciate in this book that he is trying to help us recover our story from its Jewish roots. And he is not afraid to ask the hard questions. Yes, he offers us to hints and teasers along the way, but they have mostly to do with reframing the questions and reminding us that we need each other in order to move forward. Unlike others in pop Christendom, Brian never pretends to be "the Answer Man." We tend to think that God is found in finding the answers to our lives. Brian is saying that perhaps God is discovered and known in asking and wrestling with the questions. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the ones who most need to read this book are the ones least likely to do so. But then, the kingdom starts like a mustard seed, does it not?

 

"A New Kind of Christianity" is far from being a guide book or a road map for another religious denomination. Instead, it is a book that invites us to question if and how traditional Christianity deals with the important concerns of our culture and our world. And Brian thinks and hopes that traditional Christianity is about to give birth to a new move of the Spirit of God that, rather than solidifying institutional religion, is actually an influence for good and compassion in our world. It's a good dream. One which I hope for myself.

 

Thanks for reading and following along.

 

Peace,

billmc

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Guest billmc

Billmc, my favorite atheist podcast, Reasonable Doubts, had an interview with Brian Mclaren in their most recent episode that you might be interested in listening to. http://www.doubtcast.org/podcast/rd68_new_kind_of_christianity.mp3

 

Thanks, that was a good interview. Both Brian and Jeremy were very civil to and respectful of each other.

 

Personally, I wish Brian had actually come out and said that, no, God never really did tell Joshua to go kill the Canaanites or that it was a myth. But that would be a stance that would distance him even further from his evangelical roots and, perhaps, the emerging movement. Or perhaps he really still thinks God commanded it.

 

The interviewers were also searching for a method that Brian might use to decide which scriptures he thought were inspired and which ones weren't. Again, Brian and I do see things exactly the same as I would have responded, "The love of God as seen in Christ." And the interviewers don't seem to have any knowledge of the preterist point-of-view about Jesus as an eschatological prophet.

 

Nonetheless, I thought it was a fair interview and they gave Brian a lot of talk-time to actually explain his viewpoint without constant interruptions of "yeah, but's." I hope they do another one in the future as I think the conversation could be profitable from both sides.

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That's one of the reasons why the Reasonable Doubts podcast is my favorite atheist podcast. A lot of atheist podcasts are heavily biased to the atheist side and just make fun of religion the whole show, but I like Reasonable Doubts because they give a fair and balanced criticism of all sides of the theist vs atheist religious debate. They're always respectable to their guests and they don't make stereotypical judgments of people like they don't call all religious people delusional.

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