McLaren and the mainline

A while ago I posted about the controversy over Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity. I noted that it seemed McLaren and his critics were recapitulating a battle waged over a century ago between Christian modernists and fundamentalists.

This review of McLaren’s book in the Christian Century seems to confirm that hunch:

The central thesis, to which McLaren returns frequently to indicate its wide implications, is that Christian faith was terminally skewed when it was distilled through the Greco-Roman (imperial) worldview. This worldview resulted in a version of Christianity that was at once triumphalistic and reductive—a Christianity that was mainly about what happens after death. McLaren argues that the central message of Jesus, the kingdom of God and the life it entails, was lost or overlooked. There is important truth in this argument, perhaps especially for the world of American evangelicals, among whom it does sometimes seem that a version of Paul has eclipsed Jesus. I am less sure that it is helpful for the Protestant mainline and liberal Christianity.

I can imagine that some of the young evangelical students I have taught as an adjunct professor at Seattle Pacific University (a Free Methodist school) would experience McLaren as enormously helpful and freeing. He would enable many to disentangle their faith from a limited Republican political agenda and rethink theology and scripture in ways that might feel like water for a parched soul. McLaren offers some fine biblical interpretation in relation to his ten questions.

But when the audience is, as I suspect it often will be, mainline or self-described progressive Christians, I’m less sure that McLaren’s message is the thing that’s needed. The tendency in mainline or progressive circles has long been to say that the problem is outdated, outmoded Christianity. The project has been to redo theology, revise language and creed, update imagery and practice, all with the idea that if we can just make Christianity fit into our present world, all will be well. In a fair number of churches this revisionist project has gone on for so long that there simply isn’t much left to revise—or to sustain the dwindling numbers of the faithful. Where this updating project has so long prevailed, a slightly altered version of Shakespeare’s line from Julius Caesar may be apt: the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our paradigms, it is in ourselves, that we are sinners.

To be sure, there is always a need to engage and question received faith and tradition, to sort out the precious from the expendable, but as McLaren develops his quest for a new kind of Christianity, I worry that it is too much about our quest and not enough about God’s.

This seems right to me, and the author of the review, Anthony Robinson, adds some further words of wisdom:

The result may be yet another movement that promises that if only we jettison old ways of thinking and believing, which are the source of all our problems, we shall enter into a new time of liberation and meaning. I tend to think that the challenge is not so much to distance ourselves from the past as it is to discover what in our past and inheritance remains of enduring value and has the capacity to transform and renew the church for the world in our time. Yes, we do desperately need to find new ways of being and doing church, ways that are less about church as an institution existing for its own sake and more about church as community, relationship, spiritual practice and service. This may entail less emphasis on our quest and more on God’s quest for us.

I’ve noticed more churches making a point of welcoming people “wherever they are in their faith journey.” While this spirit of hosptiality is a good one, I worry that what such churches may be inviting people to is nothing more than an open-ended process of exploration. Surely Christian communities ought to have a more concrete and specific identity than that.

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2 thoughts on “McLaren and the mainline

  1. I’ve read several of McLaren’s books (though not yet this one), and I’ve consistently found them helpful. I don’t think the intended audience is “mainline or self-described progressive Christians” as Robinson suggests, though I suppose I fall into that camp.

    My impression is that McLaren intends to be writing for people who have a background in evangelical Christianity but are dissatisfied with it for various reasons or perhaps curious non-Christians who perceive (through the lens of popular media) that evangelical Christianity is the primary Christian option available to them. All of his writings seem to be about making Christianity more comprehensible to someone with a post-modern world view. Mainline and progressive Christians tend not to need this, as mainline and progressive Christianity are already oriented this way.

    The thing that I’ve gotten from reading McLaren’s work is precisely the opposite of what Robinson fears I will get. McLaren has helped me see ways in which I can connect my faith (which has always included traditional Christian doctrines) with the non-post-modern thought of evangelical Christians. McLaren’s writings suggest ways that I can open discussions with evangelical Christians while assuaging their fears that I am plainly apostate.

    Of course, to the extent that McLaren himself is labeled as a heretic and rejected by evangelicals I fear that we might have to wait another generation for these ideas to bridge the gap.

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