A Question or Two About Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity

kinnon —  February 16, 2010 — 29 Comments

UPDATE: Brian McLaren graciously responds to this post and a previous couple of posts of mine. No one does gracious quite as well as Brian. (Not a snark, simply an observation and a trait of Brian's I can definitely learn from.)

This is my 2nd attempt at reviewing Brian's new book. The first was 3,000 words and I was barely half done. A good friend said, "It looks like you've begun a response to the book, Bill. I thought you were writing a review?" She was right.

Another good friend thought it might be helpful for me to turn my verbosity into questions. A good and helpful point.

So.

I'm going to ask some questions that have come up while reading Brian McLaren's new book A New Kind of Christianity, including all the footnotes. I will do my best to explain why I have those questions.

Let me begin.

Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do you say I am?" Peter's immediate response (the immediacy assumed based on his character) was "You are the Christ (the Messiah), Son of the Living God."

Question-Mark-01.jpg

Again, based on my finished reading of Brian's book, I am left with this rather uncomfortable question:

Who do you say Jesus is, Brian?

Is Jesus the second person of the Trinity, as Paul says in his letter to the Phillipians, "Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!"

Or as the Nicene Creed says "the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made."

Should this not be a relatively simple question to answer? Yet it is one I am left asking after finishing Brian's book.

Here's are a few of the reasons I ask the question?

On page 118, you say;

…the character of the living God is like the character of Jesus.

And later,

When you see him, you are getting the best view afforded to humans of the character of God.

And then at the top of page 132;

And the term “Christ” or “Messiah” literally means “anointed one,” suggesting a king or leader chosen by God to – like Moses – liberate the people from oppression.

In your 28th footnote for Chapter 18, you interpret Peter in Acts 10:42-42 as "Jesus is appointed by God to be both…"

These are just a few of the places where your description of Jesus confuses me. Now, you have a Master's Degree in English, so I'm pretty sure you know what you mean. My problem is that I don't.

Is "the character of the living God" like Jesus – or is Jesus the very character of the Living God?

Is Jesus the "best view afforded to humans of the character of God" or is Jesus simply God Incarnate?

Was Jesus "chosen by God" or did Jesus choose His way as God. And if Jesus is God, how is He "appointed by God"?

In John 14:9, Jesus tells his disciples: "If you have seen me, you have seen the Father."

Is He not claiming to be God there? Or am I missing something? Or do you believe He is God and I just don't understand you? Help a brother out here.

Now it would seem that you have a problem with John 14 and the way it's interpreted as you outline in Chapter 19. Particularly John 14:6 where Jesus tells the disciples; "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me."

My reading suggests that you simply dismiss what appears an obvious understanding; that Jesus is actually saying He is the Only Way to the Father.

You write that those of us who would think this do not understand that this is a preprogrammed response based on our Greco-Roman understanding. (Page 212)

Question-Mark-04.jpg

And about wrestling with that whole Greco-Roman thing. I realize that your entire thesis hangs in the balance on this, but wasn't the Apostle Paul rather Greco-Roman? I know, it's probably a weird place in my questions to ask this question, but I was thinking; Paul was a Roman citizen, who spoke Greek, was trained in the Scriptures, and in Greek thought, and Jesus chose him as the disciple to replace Judas. Right?

So, did God make a mistake? Should he have rather picked a non-Greco Roman type who could have kept the Greco-Roman wrestling out of Christianity? Perhaps Mike Wittmer deals with this better than I do, so I should probably leave that to him.

Anyway, back to John 14:6.

Your interpretation of the passage suggests that if we could only break out of our "dominant position" we would see that Jesus is simply responding to Thomas' fearful question, "Jesus where are you going?" You say he is not commenting, in one way or another, about the many different ways one might find God.

You write that for anyone to suggest that Jesus words have him claiming he is the ONLY way to the Father is "misappropriating them, twisting them, abusing them." (Page 217). Isn't that a little harsh or do you need to be harsh to get through my rather thick skull?

You seem to say that Jesus would never ever suggest that he was the only way.

Would the logical reason for that be because you don't believe he is God Incarnate? Since only God could claim to be the ONLY way. Or am I missing it again?

But what about Jesus telling the scared disciples that if they've seen him, they've seen the Father. Is that just a metaphor?

Which leads me to wonder if you agree with your friend, Marcus Borg, who you footnote a number of times in the book and talk about in your Introduction as one of the people whose "emerging mission" points toward the title of your book.

Borg sees John's Gospel as "the most metaphorical and furthest removed from the deeds and words of Jesus."

He says this about Jesus' "I am the Way statement"

…the way of Jesus is the way of death and resurrection–the path of transition and transformation from an old way of being to a new way of being. To use the language of incarnation that is so central to John, Jesus incarnates the way. Incarnation means embodiment. Jesus is what the way embodied in a human life looks like.

That last line sounds to me a lot like your statement that Jesus is "the best view afforded to humans of the character of God." But I probably don't understand, right? And I really don't want to suggest guilt by association. You should meet some of my friends. Oh right, you have.

And in his book, Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship (1994) Borg says about Jesus in light of that scholarship,

We are quite certain that Jesus did not think of himself as divine or as the "Son of God" in any unique sense, if at all. If one of his disciples had responded when reportedly asked by Jesus in Mark's gospel, "Who do you say that I am?," with words like those used in the Nicene Creed, we can well imagine that Jesus would have said, "What???"

Oh and Borg goes on to say that "most Jesus scholars" don't buy the Virgin Birth, the Ascension – "..there is a further reason the story cannot be taken literally, namely, one cannot imagine it happening" - or that there will be a literal second coming. They do all agree that Jesus was crucified, died and was buried. (But Borg's scholarship folk don't buy the Resurrection, either.)

Are you with Borg here, or do you think he might be a tad confused?

Now, Borg's friend N.T. Wright would be one of those Jesus scholars who definitely would not agree with him. In fact, the good Bishop of Durham says this, (and I confess that I cried when I read it – at the part which I've highlighted),

Let me put it like this. In Paul (and this is really a Pauline conversation, after all), what happens is that the word of the gospel is announced. That is to say, Jesus Christ is proclaimed – one-on-one or in a large meeting or out on the street or whatever, and even though that message is crazy (and Paul knows it’s crazy; he says it’s folly to Gentiles and a scandal to Jews), some people find that it grabs them and they believe it. This is bizarre. I shouldn’t be believing this. A dead man got raised from the dead and he’s the Lord of the world. I really shouldn’t believe this, but it does make sense. And it finds me and I can feel it changing me. Paul’s analysis of that is that this is the power of the word (he has a strong theology of the word), and another equal way of saying it for Paul is that this is the Holy Spirit working through the gospel. He says, no one can say that Jesus Christ is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.

Question-Mark-03.jpg

Your book suggests that N.T. Wright has greatly helped your understanding of theology, correct?

So my final question would be – Do you think Borg or Wright is correct? Wright believes in the physical resurrection and that the physically resurrected Jesus is now "the Lord of the World".

Borg, well, not so much.

One of them may be Wright – but they both can't be right!

Right?!

I just can't find the answer to these questions in your book that is all about A New Kind of Christianity.

kinnon

Posts

A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

29 responses to A Question or Two About Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity

  1. Borg is a fantastic writer but his Jesus is dead, which is no hope to me. My sin and my suffering — and the death they lead to — aren’t symbolic, so why should my Savior be?

  2. Oh, and as a big fan of Wright (with disagreements here and there, of course), I wish many of the anti-Wright restless Reformed folks will realize he is our best voice in this conversation. Engaging McLaren, Borg, et.al. without employing the scholarship of Wright is like going to the Death Star without Obi Wan. :-)

  3. Bill,

    Thanks for asking questions that get to the core of the issue. I hope you get answers.

  4. Jared,
    I agree with you on Wright. And it wasn’t hyperbole when I said I cried (actually wept) when I got to the highlighted portion of Wright above.

    And I do love our “Engaging McLaren, Borg, et al without employing the scholarship of Wright is like going to the Death Star without Obi Wan.” Hilarious.

    Obi Wan Wright. Hmmm.

  5. “Your interpretation of the passage suggests that if we could only break out of our “dominant position” we would see that Jesus is simply responding to Thomas’ fearful question, “Jesus where are you going?” Jesus is not commenting, in one way or another, about the many different ways one might find God.”

    If you’re faithfully representing McLaren here, and I have no reason to believe you are not, then he’s not offering an interpretation of this passage at all. To point out the context of Jesus’ response does nothing to alter the details of that response, which included “no one can come…”. McLaren is just closing his eyes when he gets to that part.

  6. Jared, I think your Death Star comment is the quote of the year.

  7. A great read, Bill! Two questions:

    * Seems like McLaren is continuing the project of reframing the whole Christian faith – as announced in the very interesting title Everything must change. Does the book give a understanding of where he find the confindence to take on a project like that?

    * Is the book worth buying and reading?

  8. Bill, I’m still processing my review. But I had the same problem you did with your first question. But, I have to understand Brian is not a theologian, and I don’t think we are going to get a deep theological treatise in 260 pages.I think Brian writes from his literary/creative writing background. I think the whole context of this book is a narrative story line from beginning to end. Brian tries to frame it as a story from beginning to end. And in that story line he sees Jesus as creator, liberator and reconciler through the whole story. I don’t think he discredits creeds, at least I have never heard him say that. More than anything, I left he was trying to get us to engage the Biblical narrative as whole rather than fragmenting the story. Anyways, I’m still processing.

  9. Bill, thanks for taking the time to write this. I wonder the same thing—who is Jesus to you? How honestly and directly will their answer be? I think both the content of the answer and the nature of the answer will be telling.

  10. I find there’s much fruit to be found in Wright’s debates with Borg, as well as his critiques of Piper. IMO, he’s the closest thing we have to a C.S. Lewis of our generation, an academic who can pen books like “Simply Christian” that can be ready by many as well as more scholarly works.

  11. Ron,
    Yet Brian wants to establish "A New Kind of Christianity." This calls for a theological response, n'est-ce pas?

    And Brian actual says in the book that he does not buy the meta-narrative approach you are suggesting – though I believe he once did. I heard him speak in '06, '07 and '08 and remember him talking about the biblical meta-narrative then. But rather than a biblical meta-narrative, Brian sees Scripture evolving.

    I would further say that Brian thinks he has an "accidental advantage" over Theologians in terms of understanding the Scriptures as he says at the beginning of Chapter 6. Unfortunately, the hubris is rather telling.

  12. In a sense, I think there is some truth in what you’re saying. I’m trying find where you think Brian says he doesn’t buy into the meta-narrative approach. I’ll take you word, but I find it hard for him to say something different when it’s been pretty much narrative for him since 98′. His title still mystifies me, its not new…I said this in my opening yet to be posted review;

    If anything, it was marvelous marketing strategy. To attract the fundamentalist, so they know what there up against; and the emerging conversation so they get a glimpse of what may be on the horizon. But the reality…it may be more old school, than new school.

    I think his musings will be shocking for much of Christendom that still lives in the corridor of modernity, and will be seen as heretical by much of the North American Evangelical church. But, I think Brian McLaren draws a lot of his so called newness from an ancient well of wisdom of historic Christianity that the Evangelical church oblivious to. He draws from the apophatic theological influences in Christianity that drew – not only from Gospel and Pauline narratives, Peter Rollins draws a lot of wisdom from this well in his writings. Also from Neoplatonism, influential thinkers such as Plotinus, Pseudo-Dionysius and John Scotus Eriugena. And also from a writer Percy Walker, his influence and interest in philosophy and semiotics.

    So really, he is an old school sort of guy.

  13. Ron,
    Thanks for the quick reply. I'm fighting a bug and have a ton of work to do but don't have the energy to do it so forgive my lack of real response. Did you have a chance to go and read the NTW article I linked to where Bishop Tom was speaking at SPU. The desire to find "secret meanings" is built into our nature – through the fall I might suggest. Alistair McGrath says this on page one of this new book, Heresy (where he is definitely not a heresy-hunter, seeing most Christian heresies as having come from within the camp with people thinking and hoping they are seeing something new – a horrible paraphrase on my part)

    For many religiously alienated individuals, heresies are now to be seen as bold and brave statements of spiritual freedom, to be valued rather than avoided. Heresies are the plucky losers in past battles for orthodoxy, defeated by the brute power of the religious establishment. And, since history is written by the winners, heresies have unfairly lost out, their spiritual and intellectual virtues stifled by their enemies. The rehabilitation of heretical ideas is now seen as a necessary correction of past injustices, allowing the rebirth of suppressed versions of Christianity more attuned to contemporary culture than traditional orthodoxy. Heresy has become fashionable. [Page 1]

  14. Ron – Where then do you place the influence of Continental philosophers most notably Zizek?
    See: link to distinctlywelcoming.com

  15. Bill,

    I’m curious. Does McLaren ever cite James Barr approvingly about scripture or the narrative of scripture or anything related to those subjects? Or else, if not Barr, Walter Brueggemann or David Tracy?

  16. Hi Becky, good question I think Slavoj Žižek foremost is a philosopher not a theologian. I think Peter Rollins is certainly influenced by him. In fact I think Pete Rollins dwells more in philosophy than theology. But if your asking me whether A New Kind of Christianity is influenced by Zizek…I would say, no. But, I think the emerging conversation is crossing borders into areas of cosmology ( Brian Swimme ), natural emergence ( Philip Clayton )…and I’m surprised by some of the Cathliemergent conversation.

  17. Bill,

    As to your question re. McLaren’s reading of John 14:6, here’s the link to McLaren’s “A Reading of John 14:6 – link to brianmclaren.net

    Most revealing, and I kid you not, it’s 17 pages long.

  18. Thanks for the reminder, Ken. I read that quite a while ago and it is one of the things that convinced me that I had been misreading Brian – that he and I were on different trajectories.

  19. Bill,

    Not a problem, glad to help a little anyway.

  20. My editor with Killing the Buddha offered his assessment on the influence of Zizek here.

    link to killingthebuddha.com

  21. Hi Becky, thanks, but you’re not telling me anything I don’t know. And in the comments, I never brought his name up. But again, I don’t think Brian McLaren or a New Kind of Christianity is influenced my Zizek’s philosophy. I’m just wondering where do you think it is?

  22. Yup…… been wondering a bunch on matters and eek….. that’s a bit scary if you ask me……… Haven’t really had time to do a proper post on matters, and TBH, don’t know if i even want to…… just doin the “standing in gap” spaces and 1-2-1 stuff- what ever happened to Child Like Faith…. i’m just sticking to hanging out with Daddio, the Kid and the Spook!- oh, and got an A on that practical exam today.. thanks for pray’in.
    Thanks for taking the time to process and ask the questions… would be interesting if they actually get answered…… somethings are just a bit dodgy for me.
    blessings dude. Thou doth rock.

  23. I haven’t finished reading the book yet, but i’m fairly certain that brian defines a meta-narrative as a story that proposes its grandness by pushing out and marginalizing all other stories by way of violence and power. he then explains that the biblical story arch – while being a canopy – is not a metanarrative in this way. the biblical story is metanarrative-like in scope and breadth and depth, but not in execution.

  24. Ron – Rollins endorsed this book and McLaren recommended Rollins on his blog as the go-to guy for a discussion of religionless Christianity. Zizek and Lacan keep coming up in conversation the way one would reference Caputo say two years ago. Just wondering how this all fits into the mix especially since as I indicated on the Distinctly Welcoming blog, getting a critical analysis of Zizek doesn’t seem to be happening.

  25. Hi Again Becky…sometimes I think these guys endorse each others book with out much thought, other than a good endorsement might mean someone opening you’re wallet to buy a book. And I don’t know how you critically assess Zizek with a theological lens…he’s outside the ball park. I know of someone who could likely tackle it, you might know him John Sobert Sylvest.

  26. TheologyOfHope(lessness) April 2, 2010 at 6:30 pm

    Wright’s skill as an author and orator is unequalled in this generation. However, I am under the constant impression that he is batting for the wrong team.

    Wright may be the weapon of choice againt 19th Century German Liberalism, but he is the weapon of choice to defend 21st Century American Liberalism 2.0.

    NPP is THE critical foundation of all things emergent. Wright is the reason Phyllis Tickle can stand up and denounce the Protestant paper pope, Wright is the reason Katherine Jefferts Shori can decry Personal Salvation as the great heresy of the Western churches, and Wright is the reason McLaren can call scripture a layer cake of cultural persepectives.

    Wright may be useful in warding of the ghostly heretics of the last century, but this is precisely what makes him so dangerous in propping up the post-modern assault on the church of today.

    McLaren’s problem is not that he denies the resurrection, ITS THAT HE DENIES THE GOSPEL. Wright may not personally deny the gospel, but in single handedly marketing and deploying NPP to the entire evangelical world, He has given all those who follow McLaren and Bell into Jurgen Moltmann’s Liberalism 2.0 (AKA Emergent Church) a foundation from which to undermine and destroy the preaching of the gospel in the west.

    NPP rests on Bultmannian Liberalism as its starting point. If you don’t believe me, look up Krister Stendahl on Google books and count how many pages it takes for him to eradicate the forgiveness of sin. For Stendahl, believing in the forgiveness of sin is the same as baking jews in ovens. Implicit in the Stendahl/Sanders/Dunn package that Wright is marketing, is the scornful rejection of all things Luther, Augustine, and most importantly Paul.

    And as soon as you can get rid of Paul and John, you can get rid of the gospel. Having undermined these, the good news can be Moltmann’s (and McLaren’s) message of hope that kingdom of heaven is at hand in the form of a neo-marxist battle against empire.

  27. Is anyone going to point out that Jesus did not, in fact, choose Paul to replace Judas as a disciple? Matthias replaced Judas…

  28. I’m confused… was this a review on Borg, or Brian McLaren? Did McLaren use those quotes… or Borg. Stick to book being review please.

What do you think?