UPDATE 2: Scot McKnight's two star review of A New Kind of Christianity is up at Christianity Today. Scot says this about Brian's "Greco-Roman soul-sort narrative,"
McLaren's soul-sort narrative is a caricature of a narrative that no responsible thinker really believes or teaches in the bald, insensitive, and barbaric ways described in this book. It's a caricature of Romans 5. [emphasis added]
McKnight is less than impressed with McLaren's book and almost seems to be responding to my question of Brian on the creeds,
Unfortunately, this book lacks the "generosity" of genuine orthodoxy and, frankly, I find little space in it for orthodoxy itself. Orthodoxy for too many today means little more than the absence of denying what's in the creeds. But a robust orthodoxy means that orthodoxy itself is the lens through which we see theology. One thing about this book is clear: Orthodoxy is not central. [emphasis added]
Scot does have a few positive things to say about the book – after all he does give it two stars. Please make a point of reading the full review at CT.
UPDATE: Dave Fitch weighs in with McLaren’s New Kind of Christianity – There’s a parting of the ways here – and that’s alright – Towards a New Missional Nicaea (Someday)
I have a number of very good friends here in Toronto and spread across either side of the 49th Parallel who read my first draft of this post. They suggested I take a second run at it. Here's that run.
Last week, brother Brian McLaren wrote a long response to me in which he referred to me as a "Master Blogger." A less naive person than moi would probably wonder whether Brian's title for me, Shakespearean in it's subtlety, might be evoking images of a pajama-clad blogger engaged in certain solitary pursuits. I'll just say, "Gee, thanks for the compliment, Bri."
My first attempt at response elicited this Batman cartoon from one friend, who suggested it might be a more succinct response than my original.
I really don't want to engage in a protracted back and forth with Brian, but I do want to mention a few things.
Brian responds to my concern with the hyperbole on the jacket copy of his book where it is asserted that "not since the Reformation have so many Christians come together to ask whether the church is in sync with their deepest beliefs and commitments" and that "the person who best represents them is author and pastor Brian McLaren."
Brian tells me that "authors don't write cover copy, and a lot of us complain about and are embarrassed by what's written, which is why we write books and not advertising copy." Fair enough. I guess I'd be embarrassed too – not that anyone would ever suggest I best represent anyone but myself, eh!
In my concerns with Brian wanting to frame how people review his magnum opus, he does a bit of mea culpa around the Curious / Fundamentalist quiz – saying he meant to be playful and apparently it backfired. Indeed. He finds himself in complete agreement with Scot McKnight in how that quiz could be misread. So was I (in agreement with Scot, that is.)
In his response to me, Brian also responds to Darryl Dash whom I quoted (in part),
I’ve found that there are ways to end a discussion before it even begins. It’s easy: you set the terms of the discussion so that if you disagree with me, then it’s clearly because you have a problem, so it’s no use even continuing.
I've apparently failed to make my intentions clear enough to preclude this implication, and I'm sorry about that. Let me try to put it positively: where you see me trying to shut down debate, I feel I'm trying to create space for some important questions to be raised. In other words, many of us feel things are pretty well shut down before we start, so we have to try to clear a little space for dialogue. As you know, in many of our religious settings, that's not easy. I'm trying to do this because, like you, I encounter so many people who are being crushed and smothered in environments where they have questions but aren't given breathing room to ask them. [emphasis added]
Brian, this seems all well and good. It reminds me of Brian McLaren – speaking version; the one I've heard on a number of platforms. But as one friend wrote after reading your response to me, "I don't know how to reconcile McLaren's response to you with his book!"
I have to agree with him.
In your book, you take a very different tack with those of us who would disagree with you in how you choose to interpret scripture – particularly John 14.
[Note: A pdf of Brian's understanding of John 14, particularly verse 6 is available here if you don't have the book and aren't planning on purchasing it.]
There's an expression I have sometimes heard used in terms of rhetoric where someone "uses a nuclear device where a hand grenade would do." Brian uses the nuclear option on pages 212-214 (as well as elsewhere in the book, might I suggest) to respond to those of us with, shall we say, a more "traditional" approach to the Scriptures.
We who would reject Brian's interpretation of John 14 as a result of our "Greco-Roman mind" are (Pg 213) in "perpetual anxiety," "always driven for more, more, more," our only "logical hope for the future: a world (here or after death) where "they" are gone forever and where the only ones left are "pure us," as "(they) don't really have the same right to exist that (we) do. So that when it comes to "them," (we) only have five options:"
A: Convert & assimilate – their otherness eliminated
B: Colonize & dominate "them" – making "them" subservient/useful to "us".
C: Ignore, exclude "them" – keeping them away from "us"
D: Fight, persecute, shame & keep "them" off balance and intimidated
E: " Cleanse" the world of them through mass murder – leaving only "us"
[From the bottom of Page 213 – abridged]
One might almost think you were calling 'us disagreeable folk,' ethnic-cleansing fascists. I hear members of the audience suggesting, "Godwin's Law" or at least "reductio ad Hitlerum". If this doesn't "shut down debate" then what does. Now, I would agree that a nuclear device is rather effective at "creating space" but there is little left to talk about after using it.
You bemoan Greco-Roman minded, traditionalist readers of Scriptures as creating an "us – them" environment – but might I humbly suggest that that is exactly what you are doing, Brian.
The Wizard of Ads, Roy Williams (casual friend and publisher of my little book from 2006, A Networked Conspiracy) seems to respond to this very thing in another very good Monday Morning Memo. It begins with excerpts from Moses life story, but this is what I'd like to highlight,
If history can be trusted as a guide, we’re now entering the time of a power struggle. Everywhere it will be “us” versus “them.” And both sides will believe they work purely for the common good. "God is clearly on OUR side."
“You don’t care enough about global warming,
or free enterprise,
or civil liberties,
or the rights of the unborn,
or the downtrodden in Tibet.
You’re not committed to family values
and you don’t recycle.
You don’t support our troops.
Frankly, we’re disappointed in you.
You’re not doing your part.
The coming zealot will want to make sure you’re doing your part for the team. You’ll be interrogated, evaluated and castigated. When you have capitulated, you’ll be authenticated, approximated and appropriated. In the end you’ll be assimilated. [emphasis added]
As your zealotry, Brian, revolves around your Greco-Roman thesis, let's deal with that again.
Your response to me would suggest you didn't recognize that I was using humour (it's a Canadian thing) when I did the whole Paul – Greco-Roman dance. In fact, I pointed you at Dr. Mike Wittmer, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at GRTS and his blog post that deals with this Greco-Roman mind "theory" in your book. You make no mention of Mike in your response so I have no idea whether you have had the time to read Mike. (As an aside, my buddy, the iMonk, did a great interview with Mike last July – which is how I learned about Dr. Wittmer.)
Your book strongly suggests that you do not trust the motives of people like Mike – with his seminary education, his Hebrew and Greek reading, his seminary associate professorship, in fact. You appear to see people like Mike as "guards" who keep us "content under the dome", using a Truman Show analogy,
The chains, locks, bars, and barbed wire that hold us are usually disguised so well that they have a homey feel to us. We see our guards not as guards at all, but as pleasant custodians in clerical robes or casual suits. They've been to graduate school where many of them mastered the techniques of friendly manipulation, always with a penetrating smile and a firm, heavy hand on the shoulder. We like them. They like us. [ANKoC, Page 31]
So in spite of your view of Mike as one of the guards, I'm wondering, if just for me, you could give him a hearing. Mike says this about your theory,
Since Brian’s entire book hinges on this Greco-Roman thesis, I need to say a few words about it.
1. Brian does not give an argument for this thesis. He simply says that it dawned on him in conversation that the traditional understanding of the biblical narrative came from the Roman Empire, which picked it up from Plato. Brian’s hubris here qualifies him for Stephen Colbert’s Alpha Dog of the Week. Brian’s entire book rests on his belief that Christians have confused the biblical narrative with Plato and Caesar, and yet he does not give an argument as to why this is so. We could just take his word for it, except that there is good reason to think that he is wrong.
2. The Christian understanding of creation, fall, and redemption differs dramatically from Plato’s pagan version.
a. Creation: the Bible says the entire world, including its physical aspect, is good. Plato taught that the material world is evil (matter is the matter).
b. Fall: the Bible teaches that our problem is moral rebellion, with ontological consequences (such as death). Plato taught that our problem is ontological (we are trapped in bodies) and epistemological (we are ignorant of our true home).
c. Redemption: the Bible teaches that salvation is moral, with ontological consequences (e.g., resurrection). Plato taught that salvation occurred through education.
At every point in the story Christian orthodoxy contradicts Plato’s narrative. So how exactly does Brian think that our story came from Plato? [emphasis in original]
Mike writes a lot more about your book at his blog. I think you might find some of it edifying even though I expect you will think him a zealot on the other side of the "us-them" barrier.
Since that first Greco-Roman Pauline comment of mine, I stumbled across this post from Nathan Gilmour. He is not a Theologian, but rather is finishing his Ph.D in English. Nathan does, however, read Hebrew and Koine Greek, which probably impacts his understanding. Nathan has a multi-paragraph response to your Greco-Roman thesis and in that he says this,
If all of that sounds familiar through the haze of misused Greek texts, it’s because the “Greco-Roman narrative” that McLaren would impose upon Plato and Aristotle (the tag team!) is far more akin to what Origen, Augustine, and other Christian writers would call the narrative of creation, fall, and redemption. Although certain iterations of that narrative sequence deserve criticism, McLaren does nobody any favors (especially those of us who love teaching Plato) by inventing a syncretic thought-system that simply does not exist in classical texts and then loading that cumbersome burden on some of Christianity’s best tutors.
You explicitly reject the creation, fall and redemption story that so many of the early Church fathers rather strongly support. You don't buy the concept of the atonement where Jesus became full payment for our sins or even full victory over the powers of darkness who enslaved us. Original sin would just seem so silly to you.
In a comment reminiscent of Penn Gillette on proselytizing, Christopher Hitchens could almost be seen responding to you in an interview for Portland Monthly with Unitarian Minister Marilyn Sewell earlier this year.
Sewell: The religion you cite in your book is a generally fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take the stories from the scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement (that Jesus died for our sins, for example). Do you make any distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?
Hitchens: I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.
Now I'm just a simple and sinful blogger who makes my living in television production. I only have an undergraduate degree and that's from way back in the late '70's. I hated Philosophy in University and have never read Plato or Aristotle – although apparently I did have a few Platonic relationships while in University.
My truly uneducated concern with your Greco-Roman Thesis, Brian, is where was the Holy Spirit all that time? You and your friends basically agree that the church has been off the rails since Constantine – until you all began working to put the Church back on the rails. [Warning: Sarcasm Phaser has been set to Stun.] Was the Holy Spirit on vacation? Did he have some kind of outside-of-space-and-time virus? Because according to your thesis, the Holy Spirit is strangely absent.
As I see it, when Jesus said that when He left us, He would send the Paraclete, the One who would walk beside us, the Holy Spirit, Jesus didn't mention any best-before expiration date,
"By the way friends, just so that you know, around May of 325, my Holy Spirit is going to be taking a break. I'm not sure when He'll be back. But, don't worry. He will come back."
I realize that this has become a sarcastic response and I'm sorry that I don't feel bad about that, but this is what I meant when I wrote in my previous post about you and your book, "Elvis has left the building. There's no there there." Your writing strongly suggests an ineffectual Holy Spirit. And I simply won't buy that. Rather than a low view of the Holy Spirit, it appears to be a no view of the Holy Spirit.
Now, I could continue in this vein with many of your other points but I think it all boils down to your approach to the Scriptures.
You tell us at the beginning of Chapter Six – The Biblical Narrative in Three Dimensions that you feel you have "an accidental advantage working for (you). You weren't formally trained in theology." You go on to say, "My training taught me to read for scenes and plots, not doctrines; for protagonists and antagonists; not absolute and objective truth…" I think we get the drift.
Because you've been trained to read Shakespeare you would suggest you have a better understanding of how to read the Bible. Are you really suggesting that every other Christian theologian or simple student of the Word, whether Evangelical Protestant, Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, reads the Scriptures with no sense of poetry, story, narrative arc or anything else you may have been taught whilst at Graduate School at the University of Maryland? As Dr. Wittmer points out, 'every seminary of any worth teaches something called hermeneutics'. Is this not the very thing you suggest they don't?
Your "accidental advantage" leads you to insist that we have "gotten ourselves into such a mess with the Bible" that there will be "no new kind of Christianity without a new approach to the Bible." (Pg 67-68) Your solution is the Bible as Library – or may I call it, the Biblary.
Let me bring this rather long response to a close with an appeal once again to the Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright from this paper, which was a part of the book Scripture’s Doctrine and Theology’s Bible (2008 Baker Academic – Grand Rapids, MI, pages 59-71)
To say that I want to begin to address this with some remarks about Scripture and narrative may provoke a sigh from at least some dogmaticians: "That is so last century, so postliberal. They are even giving it up at Yale now. Can any good thing come out of narrative?" Well, as a reader of Scripture, I perceive that the canon as it stands not only is irreducibly narrative in form, enclosing within that, of course, any number of other genres, but also displays an extraordinary, because unintentional to every single individual writer and redactor involved, overall storyline of astonishing power and consistency. You could say, of course, that this is all due to those who chose the books and shaped the canon, but if you look at the ones they left out, you would have to say either that even if you put them all in, you would still have the same narrative or that if you put some of them in (the gnostic Gospels, for instance), you would precisely deconstruct what would still be a huge, powerful narrative and offer instead a very different one from which, ultimately, you would have to exclude more or less everything else that is there. The gnostic Gospels, if made canonical, would eventually act like the baby cuckoo in the nest, kicking out all the native chicks, but if the chicks got together where they had landed on the ground, they would still have a massive family likeness.
You cannot, in the end, take the anticanonical rhetoric of much contemporary writing to its logical conclusion without ending up having the canon again, only now as the alternative narrative. No: what we have, from Genesis to Revelation, is a massive narrative structure in which, though Paul, the evangelists, and John of Patmos are, of course, extremely well aware of the earlier parts, no single author saw the whole or knew about all its other parts. It is as though engineers from different workshops were invited to produce bits and pieces of cantilevers which ended up, when put together without the different work-shops knowing of it, producing the Forth Bridge. [emphasis added]
The Forth Bridge is magnificent – a marvellous example of man's ability to design beautiful and functional structures. Allow me to point, however, at something else we humans seem even more able to create – convoluted, structurally unsound, monuments to our own special wisdom. The Sutyagin house – a rather telling example.
Using the graphic below, may I suggest that as N.T. Wright sees the beauty of the Scriptures' construction like that of the Forth Bridge, Brian's description of the Scriptures as a library, a much more haphazard collection of stories, myths and a little bit of truth – is like that of the construction of the Sutyagin house – a house which has now been demolished.
Let me bring this to a final end here by reminding folk that though I disagree with Brian's book vehemently – I still regard him as my brother-in-Christ, however badly mistaken his theology might be.