Book Review: A New Kind of Christian, by Brian McLaren
Let me come clean at the outset of this review. I picked up this book with some wariness, assuming that I would be a critical friend of its perspective. After finishing the book and reflecting on it, I would call myself more of a friendly critic, finding it less helpful than I would have hoped, and more dangerous than I would have thought.
This book is an account of a journey out of that kind of reactionary conservatism that acts as if it is already in possession of all answers to all questions—as if omniscience were one of God’s communicable attributes. The way McLaren has chosen to write his suggestive critique is in the form of a fictional dialogue between two characters—Dan Poole, a tired and middle-aged pastor, weary of external trials and internal questions, and Neil Edward Oliver, a high school teacher (and former pastor) and Pastor Dan’s own sherpa guide into the inviting wilds of postmodernity. This second character is called—acronymically—“NEO” throughout. Yes, he really is. This well prepares the reader for the subtlety which marks the book.
Questions of literary merit are best left to others. Just know that I had the temptation to review the book with a Peter Kreeft-like dialogue between J. Gresham Machen and Father Stephanie, rector of the nearby Church of the Holy Inarticulate Conception. But I resisted.
Certainly truth can come in the garb of fiction. This is no new insight of our narrative-loving age. From the brief parables of Jesus to Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly, and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, works of fiction have long been understood to be appropriate vehicles for bringing uncomfortable facts to light. Behind the masks of characters, we may entertain and empathize, criticize and consider ideas which, had they appeared straightforwardly, we would quickly dismiss or wrongly defend. But art not only reveals; it also conceals.
Throughout the book, there are many flashes of wisdom that reveal the author’s pastoral experience. The pastorate is difficult. Lack of success does lead to a willingness to change. Those who have a “believe the worst” suspicion are distracting and debilitating. It is hugely important to work with young people. But this book was not written about any of these topics. Nor was it written simply bring the reader to engage empathetically with the characters. It was written to change the mind of the reader.
In his autobiographical introduction, McLaren says that this book is about exactly what its title would suggest: learning “to be a Christian in a new way,” (x). This, he’s suggested, was for him the only way forward, other than hypocrisy on the one hand, or apostasy on the other. But are these changes our only alternatives?
Certainly all Christians must recognize the importance—even necessity—of change. Apart from embracing change, we Christians have no salvation. The churches of the reformation have at their core an understanding of the need for always being reformed according to the Word of God.
This isn’t to say, of course, that all changes are good. Until fairly recently (let’s say, until the Enlightment) in the West, change was taken as almost equivalent to decay. Though this is hard for us to believe in our day of progress and assumption of advancement, “novelty” was for a long time a pejorative term. The great historical changes that were in the foreground of our Protestant parents’ thinking were the fall of Adam from the garden, and the apostasy of the Church from the gospel. With such changes in mind, the Protestant reformation was a conservative revolution. Its attempt was not a realization of a new vision but the recovery of a lost one. In that sense, there is something in the genes of Protestantism that is conservative—wanting to keep—even recover—the good. Even the New Testament itself was a set of revolutionary writings only in the most conservative way. The New Testament documents, from the earliest epistle to the latest gospel, were written not to augment, but to confirm and assure the faithful continuance of the message of the gospel to the rising generations.
McLaren mentions how Martin Luther felt (xii), presenting Luther’s need to break through to a new paradigm as akin to the situation Christians today face. Yet while Martin Luther certainly did grieve over what he saw happening with Tetzel and indulgences, he was fundamentally motivated by a positive certainty as a result of his biblical studies—that our justification is by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. It was this positive assertion that was at the heart of the Protestant paradigm shift, nothing less. It was motivated neither by simple dissatisfaction with thestatus quo (though that was certainly present) nor by optimism for a different and better possible future (though that too was there). Rather there was a certainty of God’s Word to us in Christ that both demolished old systems and led to the re-erecting of still older, New Testament ones.
The questions of what exactly needs to be changed and what needs to be conserved are the most important and crucial questions. And these questions McLaren’s artful dialogue may conceal in rhetoric more than reveal in argument. Sometimes McLaren calls for softening our rhetoric (e.g., replacing good and bad with appropriate and inappropriate, p. 22). But other times his own rhetoric is harsh, like that against modernity. Or here’s another example: “the modern version of Christianity that you have learned from your parents, your Sunday school teachers, and even your campus ministries is destined to be a medieval cathedral. It’s over, or almost over,” (p. 38). But do such rhetorical flourishes—and there are more in the book—really tend to encourage community and discourage the individualism that McLaren wisely cautions us against?
I wish another character had been introduced who was a thoughtful, confessing evangelical. He or she could have asked such questions as “What things may we be certain of without being smug?” “Is categorizing ever good? Can categories ever bring accurate clarity, and even free us?”
Well, since I’m writing this review, perhaps I can serve the role of this third character. Let me ask four basic questions.
IS MCLAREN SEEING A REAL PROBLEM? YES.
HAS MCLAREN RIGHTLY DESCRIBED THE PROBLEM? IN SOME SIGNIFICANT PLACES HE HAS, though one does have to put up with a good bit of hectoring in order to read the descriptions. So, for example, on page 23, proponents of the idea that God does not know the future “suggest new interpretations” while proponents of the idea that God does are “traditionalists” who “cry ‘heresy.’”
Here are four examples of some of the problems which McLaren has rightly noted:
- The evident lack of transformation in the lives of many evangelicals (e.g., xiv).
- The meanness of fundamentalists (e.g., 9).
- The shallowness of much that passes for evangelism, whether through coercion or intimidation (62). The mass-marketing of conversions and the ubiquity of the unbiblical phrase “accepting Christ as your personal savior” (105). The distorted counting of conversions (108-109).
- The privatization and wrong individualism which have come to characterize vast tracts of American evangelicalism. McLaren’s concerns about systemic injustices are healthy, and are appropriate concerns for Christians to have (pp. 100-101). So, too, are his concerns about the importance of generosity in an age of affluence (112).
In all of these areas, among others, McLaren raises good (though not novel) concerns.
BUT HAS MCLAREN RIGHTLY TRACED THE CAUSES OF SAID PROBLEMS? HERE I AM LESS CERTAIN. Much of McLaren’s analysis is composed of stereotype. It is simplistic. Let me give a few specific examples.
1. To regard fundamentalism as the problem, when McLaren can easily attach the label to either conservative or liberal (as Neo does on page 9), shows a more shallow understanding than the reality we face requires. The problem with the terrorist hi-jackers of September 11, was not that they were simply fundamentalists, but that the fundamental ideas they held to so certainly were themselves tragically wrong.
2. History is distorted. Postmodernists often write of “tyrannizing metanarratives” that is, sweeping explanations of history and reality that twist facts in order to justify their own coherence. But surely the way the adjectives “premodern” and “medieval” are thrown around throughout this book (eg., on pp. 42-43) are themselves distorting (an ironic problem for a teaching that suggests that “the need to put everything into nice neat categories is part of the problem,” [p. 47]). Must categorization always be simply the creatures of small minds in need of mental neatness?
At its worst, this book posits a new, simplistic dualism which will result in the exact opposite of what its author desires—a reducing of everything to either modern (and therefore to be dismissed) or otherwise (pre- or post-) and therefore to be carefully considered. The book abounds with dichotomies between the bad old and the good new (e.g., pp. 29-31). Because of the way he understands the changing of the ages, old comes to equal obsolete. Dispensationalism, Calvinism, charismaticism, and mainstream evangelicalism are all dismissed, it seems, fundamentally simply because of their age (xiv-xv). As an historian, I would dissent from McLaren’s suggestion that a concern for factual accuracy and objectivity only typifies “moderns.” And has the modern period really been marked by a marginalizing of imagination and intuition (as he suggests on p. 17)? Are all of our theologies really “basically modern”—including our Chalcedonian Christology, our Nicene trinitarianism, and our Anselmic understanding of the atonement?
Do we really want to be guided by what he admits is the “gross simplification” of saying that control, machines and analysis mark the modern age, and then vilifying them (pp. 16-18)? Neo’s paean to the postmodern world, inviting us to “become postconquest, postmechanistic, postanalytical, postsecular, postobjective, postcritical, postorganizational, postindividualist, post-Protestant, and postconsumerist” has far more rhetorical heat than light, and is more akin to the sweeping denunciations of Christian fundamentalists so detested in this book, than it is to anything that is likely to engender more careful, searching self-criticism. Or consider this statement: “Remember, modernity only wants abstract principles, universal concepts, and disembodied absolutes. . . . all truth is contextual,” (106). Oh the irony of self-refutation!
3. He divides what should be joined and joins what should be divided. Dichotomies that pit goods against each other don’t solve the problem, rather they’re part of it, (e.g., p. 130). Why not care about being saved from Hell and sin, about getting into Heavenand being good, about having our sins forgiven and being good neighbors?
On the other hand, McLaren sometimes seems to delight in reconciling opposites, showing that there opposition is only apparent, only due to our modern perspective. But, to regard evangelicalism, or Protestantism as merely one “tribe” or one “wing of the church” (e.g., p. xvii) is to dismiss the truths rediscovered at the Reformation at a stroke (though I assume that McLaren would in no way wish to do that).
But again, on page 41, Neo suggests that the distinction between liberal and evangelical is about to become “inconsequential.” I can hardly think of a more consequential distinction, if we’re to have any ground to be authentically self-critical, than to have a reliable word from our Creator. Or to suggest (as he does on pp. 48-49, 83) that liberalism and conservatism are really two parts of a whole, would dismiss all the proponents on either side of the issues in dispute. The “they both have a point” conclusion is, at best, misleading, at worst, condescending and dangerously naïve. In this, he seems to appear charitable, even while unintentionally abandoning crucial points.
Such apparent even-handedness (whether in “four views” books or CT editorials on questions of God’s knowledge) serves too often to de-emphasize the question, or even de-legitimize the whole discussion. It can too easily encourage doctrinal apathy in a church already theologically anemic. Certainly to attempt to transcend the differences with Rome, expressed in the formal and material principles of the Reformation (ie., scriptural authority and justification) is no progress.
4. The book’s presentation of other religions is inaccurate. Presenting Christianity as having similar problems to Islam when it comes to conversion by the sword and violence (as he does on pages 62-63) sounds better the less you know about it. A Christian understanding of human nature leaves conversion forever beyond the work of what any coercion—physical or otherwise—can accomplish; whereas in Islam, physical force can quite appropriately (in a theological sense) be used to bring someone’s will sufficiently into submission. McLaren suggests that the world’s religions act as tutors, similar to the Old Testament law, keeping people until the Christian gospel arrives. But this is to ignore the role that special revelation has, and also wrongly suggests a broad moral consensus, which everything from Buddhist atheism to the Hindu practice of burning widow’s with their deceased husbands belies.
HAS MCLAREN RIGHTLY POINTED THE WAY FORWARD? I AM LESS CERTAIN STILL.
1. On the good side, McLaren calls us to self-examination, and though he is mistaken in seeming to assume that criticizing “your own modern viewpoint” is something new, the call to self-criticism is both biblical and difficult (p. 35; cf. II Cor. 13:5).
2. The call for nuance in understanding the Bible is welcome, but should have been better practiced by McLaren himself. The objections that Neo makes on page 49 to the evangelicals selectively literal reading of the Bible finds no answer in the book. Yet even an elementary reading of Christian theology shows that since the New Testament period Christians have always understood that God has worked variously in different times, and that salvation history has a time for the nation Israel, a time for the Babylonian Exile, a time for the Messiah’s coming and crucifixion, the Spirit’s out-pouring, and Christ’s return. All of these are unique events, and all of them are significant for how we understand “difficult” passages. By “flattening” the Bible, de-contextualizing it, we certainly would run into the kind of difficulties that the character Neo enunciates.
3. The Bible itself must be understood to be the judge of any of our traditions, our reasoning, or our interpretations of all spiritual experiences. Any lessening of this will simply lead us away from God. Though Neo prefers the image of a spiderweb over a building with a foundation to explain how the faith is anchored, the image of the building with the one foundation is the biblical image (cf. Eph. 2:20). The call for respecting the various ways that different cultures would approach God seems to ignore the quite exclusive practices that God dictated to Israel in the Pentatuch, Gentile converts in the New Testament epistles, and to ignore the long Christian tradition (pre-dating the modern period) of wanting to be careful to approach God only in those ways in which He himself had told us to approach Him. Creativity and cultural accomodation seem far less important to God than fidelity to His revealed will.
4. McLaren suggests that what Jesus was really about was a holistic reconciliation of God with the whole created order. But if that assertion serves to de-center the cross and the preaching of the gospel, then we would be immeasurably impoverished by following it. His repeated emphasis on the implications of the gospel seem to obscure what precisely is the good news. He fails to combine the better parts of liberalism and evangelicalism. Rather, I fear that this book ends up defending the positions of Shailer Mathews, Walter Rauschenbusch and Harry Emerson Fosdick, even if more in the language of H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ transforming culture, or N. T. Wright’s presentation of a this-worldly, de-apocalypsed gospel. Too, this concern for reconciling cultures as a whole seems to be too critical of our own, and not critical enough of others. Surely in the New Testament, Paul was not at all shy about criticizing either a wrong Jewish xenophobia or the futility of the thinking of the Gentiles (e.g., Eph. 4:17).
5. McLaren’s concern for a wrong focusing on the objective by evangelicals has perhaps led him into the opposite error. So hell is considered fundamentally in terms of the experience of the condemned (91). Such a re-focusing is presumed to be more bearable by us. But is there to be no consideration for God, or for why He might choose to punish some eternally, or for what He has revealed about this in His Word? Biblical language about Hell, it is suggested, is evocative, not “technical,” (95). But why pit the two against each other? What will evoke more feeling and response in us than a careful, factually accurate description of even the tiniest part of God’s wrath? Is complexity and messiness always taken to be authentic, and the innate human desire for understanding and comprehension always warned against as reductionistic? Is there nothing of the image of God in His command to Adam to subdue the earth (Gen. 1:28), or Paul’s inspired instructions that all be done in decency and order (I Cor. 14:40)? And why is theology only presented as “how people have sought” God, rather than as about God’s revelation of Himself (161)?
6. McLaren’s book—strangely—seems to ignore—or at least underestimate— the constructive role of the local congregation. So Neo tells Dan that those things that had made him “more identified and isolated as a member of a religious sub-culture” had not served him well in the long run (116-117). Yet swimming with dolphins and going to soccer games with non-Christian friends, as good as those activities may be at showing God’s reconciling work, fall far short of the picture the local, gathered congregation is to be. Could the privatization that McLaren rightly cautions us about really find its answer not so much in community service and understanding systemic evil, but primarily and most deeply and transformingly by covenanting before God with a certain set of believers to love and serve? Isn’t God ultimately behind this in-grouping and out-grouping that McLaren seems categorically to caution us about (e.g., p. 127)? Scripture teaches that God actually intends to bless the body of Christ in a way that He doesn’t those who remain outside of it, and that we have an obligation biblically to our fellow Christians that we don’t to others.
In the last chapter of the book, Neo gives a new idea for what we need perhaps even more than seminaries—“a lifelong learning community, perhaps like the Catholic orders, that one joins—for life,” (162-163). Again, I was stunned here at the mixture of insight and confusion, of beginning to see an important problem which is invisible to so many, and yet at the same time completely ignoring the remedy God has given us. Of course Neo is right that seminaries don’t make pastors; under God, churches do. This is the lifelong community of learning that pastors—and all Christians—are to belong to. Why the persistent absence throughout this book of any substantial positive understanding of the local church? Will this offering help the average evangelical pastor who has known the church far too much as audience, and too little as congregation?
In conclusion, in the name of postmodernism, McLaren has ironically undertaken the most Enlightenment of tasks—the Kantian separating of the noumenal (the essence) from the phenomenal (the apparaent). One could hardly imagine a more Empirical, dare we say modern, undertaking. In his introduction, McLaren charitably assumes of his readers “basic sincerity, goodwill, intelligence, and desire to become a better person and help create a better world,” (xvii). This reviewer at least intends to share all of those laudable characteristics with the author. One appreciates McLaren’s good intentions, his own decades of pastoring and his care for countless people. In this book, McLaren has again attempted to serve the church by raising important questions. Criticizing such honest, intentionally believing critical work is a delicate task at best. One wants to encourage true faith, and honest adherence to the Bible, even—and especially—when that adherence turns and challenges our most precious presumptions, and reveals them to be false.
McLaren also says that he hopes for every reader that “you will feel you have made real progress when you turn the last page,” (xviii). Sadly, I have to say that reading this book has not helped me make real progress. I had already encountered the useful ideas in this book elsewhere. Many others are simplistic, or just plain false. I trust that both the author and the reviewer can sleep well at night knowing that the church of Christ can survive both bad books and bad reviews. Perhaps in this case, it will have to survive both.