Book Review: The Church on the Other Side, by Brian McLaren


One of my best friends asked me several weeks ago to try to make time to read Brian McLaren’s book The Church on the Other Side.  My friend hadn’t read the book, but had heard some good things about it.  So months later, I have finally had the opportunity to pick it up and spend some time in Post-modern World.  I suppose it’s fine to give some thought to the prevailing intellectual winds of any day.  So long as we live in the world, we ought to know how it thinks, and consider how to engage it.  I recognize, too, that there are some unique aspects of our society and its patterns of thought as we stand poised here at the edge of the twenty-first century.  Postmodernism is something that we should give some thought to.  All that said, I can’t help but notice that we the Christians seem to be much more hot and bothered by the onset of postmodernism than are they the world.  I mean, just take a look at all the apocalyptic Christian literature that has been put out about it; you’d think the antichrist had just been crowned.  Frankly, I’m bored with it.  This apocalypse has gotten old.  I’m tired of the bombastic language; I’m tired of being told that we’ve never seen anything like this; I’m tired of all these excitable authors trying to one-up each other with their cataclysmic descriptions of how much the world has changed.  (“We live in a time unlike any other time that any living person has known.  It’s not merely that things are changing.  Change itself has changed!” (21)  Right.)  On top of it all, I’m tired of being told that the church is on the edge of extinction if it doesn’t have a complete overhaul to deal with these “tectonic” challenges.  I just don’t believe it.  And that’s not because I’m an old codger who can’t bring himself to embrace this brave new world.  I’m 24 years old; I live this brave new world.  Change is not a problem for me; I love it!  I look forward to moving to a new city, meeting new people, seeing new cultures, learning new things.  I relish the thought of casting off into the world and ministering to people who are not firmly grounded in, or even convinced of, truth.  In that, Brian McLaren and I are on the same page.  I like his chutzpah.  But unlike McLaren, I’m also convinced that ministering to postmoderns does not mean diving head-first into their ocean of uncertainty.   I don’t want to commiserate with them; I want to offer them something different—something like Truth!

McLaren’s thesis is that postmodernism has caused such a fantastic shift in the thought patterns of people that the church must either be relegated to irrelevance or change its ways to better respond to postmodernism.  He offers twelve strategies to that end.  Strategy One is to “maximize discontinuity.”  You must make large changes, not just small ones.  Strategy Two, “Redefine Your Mission,” live in missional communities.  Strategy Three, “Practice Systems Thinking”—the church is more organic than linear.  Strategy Four, “Trade Up Your Traditions for Tradition,”—don’t worry so much about denominational distinctives; embrace the entire Christian Tradition as your own, Roman Catholic or otherwise.  Strategy Five, “Resurrect Theology as Art and Science,” meaning that theology should be thought of not so much as training and learning answers, but as “a quest for beauty and truth.”  Strategy Six, “Design a New Apologetic,” which is to find new ways to communicate the gospel.  Strategy Seven, “Learn a New Rhetoric,” that is, find new modes of conversation with people.  Eight, “Abandon Structures as They are Outgrown.”  Strategy Nine, “Save the Leaders,” contains perhaps the most encouraging words in the book—“Remember that there’s no shame in being injured on the front lines,” (120).  Strategy Ten is to “Subsume Missions in Mission.”  Eleven is to “Look Ahead, Farther Ahead.” And Twelve is to “Enter the Postmodern World.”

First of all, I very much enjoyed reading McLaren’s “Strategy Twelve A” about understanding postmodernism.  He uses a scene from the end of a Jurassic Park movie to describe some of the more important aspects of postmodernism, so far as that can really be done.  It’s a good summary; in fact, it helped me map out my understanding of postmodernism and lock it into my mind better than probably anything else I have read.  He’s fair.  McLaren even skewers postmodernism’s self-refuting omni-tolerance, saying at one point that “Postmodernism is the latest in a long series of absurdities,”(165).  The chapter is straightforward, matter-of-fact, and it even manages to avoid the rhetorical fireworks that seem endemic to Christian discussions of postmodernism.  Conversations about the way people around us are thinking are good ones to have; McLaren has done that part well.

What he has not done well at all is offer a proposal for how the church should respond to postmodernism.  His assumption seems to be that postmodernism is correct—nothing can be known for certain.  Because we all look at the world and especially at God from our own particular “view from a point,” all that is left is change, uncertainty, and mystery, and we as the church should embrace that.  “When we ‘do theology,’ we are clay pots pondering the potter, kids pondering their father, ants discussing the elephant.  At some level of profundity and accuracy, we are bound to be inadequate or incomplete all the time, in almost anything we say or think, considering our human limitations, including language, and God’s infinite greatness,” (65).  Of course there is some truth in this; God is greater than any human being will ever fully comprehend.  It is true that in a profound sense we are those ants trying to comprehend the elephant.  Now if that were the end of the story, our task of understanding would be one shrouded in mystery—all these little ants crawling around on the elephant, trying to understand from their own miniscule point of view what this enormous and majestic creature is, much less what he acts like, and what he feels.  What a hopeless situation, and one that would demand of the ants a humility that would make no dogmatic statements about the elephant.  But wait—what if that elephant were to speak to the ants?  What if the elephant told them, in their own language, what he was like—his nature, his loves and hates, how he acts and feels?  It’s not surprising really that the old story of the blind men trying to describe the elephant is a “Chinese proverb.”  That’s the difference between Eastern religion and Christianity.  In the one, the goal is to explore a great unknown, a task which is, as illustrated by the blind men, impossible.  But the glory of Christianity is that the Great Unknown speaks and explains.  The King eternal, immortal, invisible, becomes visible and knowable in Christ!

McLaren seems convinced that definite statements about God are simply outdated.  He dismisses them as “the old world.”  Consider this paragraph:

Our words will seek to be servants of mystery, not removers of it as they were in the old world.  They will convey a message that is clear yet mysterious, simple yet mysterious, substantial yet mysterious.  My faith developed in the old world of many words, in a naïve confidence in the power of many words, as if the mysteries of faith could be captured like fine-print conditions in a legal document and reduced to safe equations.  Mysteries, however, can not be captured so precisely.  Freeze-dried coffee, butterflies on pins, and frogs in formaldehyde all lose something in our attempts at capturing defining, preserving, and rendering them less jumpy, flighty, or fluid.  In the new world, we will understand this a little better. (89)

But why this assumption that to be alive is to be slippery and uncatchable?  Of course that’s true for a butterfly or a frog, but let’s be honest.  God is not a butterfly.  His goal in life is not to elude our grasp lest we pull His wings off.  No, our God wants to be known.  He wants us to grasp and comprehend who He is, and He has spoken to us in order to make that possible.  Theology is not “an unending exploration and eternal search,” (66).  The last thing a theologian should be, as such, is “creative.”  Theology is fundamentally about listening to this God who has spoken to us.  It is about accurately hearing from Him who He is and what this life really means.  That, so far as I can see, is the answer to postmodernism.  When truth is shaken in the postmodern mind, what they need are answers—good, solid, honest answers to their questions.  Sure, it may feel good for a while if we tell them they’re right, that everything is just confusion and mystery, but in the end, what good is it if we can’t give them any more than they already have?  What does a confused postmodern person have to gain from a confused postmodern church?

I’m afraid all this has led McLaren to lose sight of the gospel.  Only once in the book is the cross of Christ mentioned, and that is in passing in a quote from another author.  Sin is not mentioned at all.  The Christian life, apparently, is nothing other than an unending quest for an elusive truth.  But how is that any different from Buddhism or Taoism or any other religion?  For all I can tell from McLaren’s book, it isn’t much different at all.  He writes, “The church must present the Christian faith not as one religious army at war against all other religious armies but as one of many religious armies fighting against evil, falsehood, destruction, darkness, and injustice,” (83).  The goal in this is to get people to sign up for this mission against evil.  “Which mission will people join?  In a pluralistic world, there are many choices.”  McLaren is not saying that any religion is as good as any other.  “Contrary to relativism’s implications,” he writes, “it does matter which mission one joins.”  But why Christianity over any other?  “The religion that sees the pride in Pharisees “in here” and the devotion in prostitutes “out there,” the religion that hears Satan whispering in the top disciple and that sees love exemplified in a Samaritan wayfarer—that religion will inspire their allegiance,” (84).  But is that really the point?  Is Christianity more desirable than other religions simply because we have more cool paradoxes to capture people’s hearts?  What about the cross?  What about the Holy Spirit’s work of regeneration?  What about the fact that people will go to hell because of their sin if they do not repent and believe in Christ?

I can appreciate Brian McLaren’s determination to think about postmodernism, but I do think he has surrendered far too much.  In his desire to accommodate Christianity to postmodernism, McLaren seems to have forgotten that our God is one who speaks to us.  He seems to have forgotten that the whole purpose of the gospel, the whole end of Jesus’ coming to the earth was that the mystery might be revealed! (Rom. 16:25-26)

Greg Gilbert

Greg Gilbert is the Senior Pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. You can find him on Twitter at @greggilbert.

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