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Book Review

Do We Need 'A New Kind of Christian'?

By Dan Thompson
Striving to be gospel-driven and God-centered offers hope for the Church's influence in the future.

PCANews - A Book Review: A New Kind of Christian by Brian McLaren (Jossey-Bass)

Followers of Christ Jesus have always been prone to interpret their faith through the assumptions and idolatries of the culture in which they live. Truth is too easily taken captive to the latest intellectual fads. We are made in the image of God and therefore have the capacity to reason, analyze, systematize, interpret and understand what is right and true. But we are also sinners, and sin distorts everything! Therefore we must be suspicious of our own hearts: Where are we tempted to compromise the truth and for what reasons are we drawn toward compromise? The biblical challenge is to evaluate continually ways in which we have been conformed to the world and to have our minds and hearts shaped by the truth of God’s Word. There is always a need for renewal, reformation and revival.

All this assumes, of course, that there is such a thing as Truth, not just miscellaneous truths. It assumes Truth is objective, timeless, and universal: true for everyone, at all times, in all places. But it is that very concept of truth that is doubted so strongly in today’s cultural climate. Thinking of truth in these terms, we are told, is a construct of the modern era. Modernity – the mindset that characterized Western thinking from the time of the Enlightenment to the mid 1900’s – views truth as something that can be analyzed, systematized, defined, and managed.

William Willimon put it like this: “Modernity, and the liberalism it spawned, enforced a closed epistemology in which all knowledge was self-derived, readily available to anyone, anywhere, who used modernity’s methodology. It arrogantly claimed that everything in the world is capable of being known – or “grasped” - by anyone who is 'reasonable.' Nothing is miraculous, gifted, or unavailable to the knower, nothing essential must be added to the natural world from outside the natural world. Some have called this modern way of knowing 'demystification.' I prefer to call it modern closed-mindedness” (Modern Reformation Magazine, June/July 2003).

Set in the format of a dialogue between a worn-out pastor and a very likeable high school science teacher, Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian offers an evaluation of contemporary evangelicalism in light the cultural changes birthed through postmodernism. Neo, the science teacher, is a compassionate, sensitive listener who steps in to offer some help to Dan, the pastor, when he realizes Dan is considering leaving the pastorate. The ideas and methods Dan is expected to embrace and promote as a pastor are no longer reconcilable with his thinking. Neo begins to explain his understanding of postmodern Christianity – reinterpreting Christianity through the lens of a postmodern worldview.

He challenges Dan to rethink what it means to be a Christian. A couple of times he makes it clear that this is only a beginning – he doesn’t know where it will lead or what this new kind of Christian will look like, but he’s committed to the process of rethinking Christianity through the lenses of postmodernism. As the story unfolds, Dan finds a new freedom from the stifling oppression under which he had been living his Christian life. Embracing Neo’s new way of being a Christian, he finds and renews a love for learning and restores excitement to his walk with Christ!

McLaren echoes a fairly widespread claim: Modernity has lost its place as the compelling worldview of western culture. Postmodernism is emerging as the dominant worldview. But the road of transition is rocky, especially as it is experienced in the Church. Postmodernism doubts the certainty and confidence “moderns” claimed. It does not believe human methods can achieve absolute certainty in every field of inquiry, including theology. There are simply too many problems with human methods of interpretation.

Through Neo, McLaren encourages an openness to values and “truths” from disparate cultures and times. As a tolerant, likeable, thinking postmodern, Neo is unwilling to argue or defend his ideas with those who disagree with him. He is more interested in relationships than in certainty. Through Neo, McLaren says that we will have to get over thinking there’s any real difference between liberal Christians, Roman Catholic Christians, Pentecostal Christians, and evangelical Christians (cf., his talk to the college students). Relationships are more important than our differences!

I have no doubt that the author’s critique of evangelicalism will resonate with people who read the book. Sometimes it’s truly embarrassing to be identified as an evangelical (when you watch Christian television, for example – any speaker who can pay for air time is free in this country to spread his ideas across the airwaves, whether or not his or her ideas represent biblical Christianity accurately).

McLaren is right in saying many people haven’t rejected Christianity but rather a caricature of Christianity. He is right in saying the church has often failed to grasp the kingdom perspective of the New Testament. I appreciate and agree with his critique of the failed approaches to pastoral training in the past couple of hundred years. I share many of his concerns over the state of evangelical Christianity in our culture. At the same time, I am concerned that some questionable – even dangerous – Ideas may be swallowed by those who read this book.

In the last chapter, for example, the author presents a set of e-mails written by the main character, Neo, which tell the story of what happened when Neo spoke to his church youth group about how God used evolution to create life. Two families in the church reacted negatively. We are told nothing about the reasons for their objections. We aren’t given any reasoned argument as to how a Christian might possibly integrate naturalistic evolutionary theory into biblical teaching on creation. Instead, there’s a kind of arrogance that looks down on people who are just not ready to face the new way of thinking – a slightly veiled hostility to their backwardness, their inability to think openly. Instead of dealing honestly with objections, McLaren simply marginalizes those who are still, in his opinion, stuck in their modern interpretations of the Bible.

Earlier in the book, Neo, who had been a pastor prior to becoming a science teacher, preached a sermon on heaven and hell, offering his opinions regarding who might be in heaven in the end. The negative reaction to that sermon by people in his congregation was seen as evidence that evangelicals are simply stuck in modern thought categories and afraid of new ideas. The postmodern Christian, Neo, suffers rejection by his congregation just for daring to think new thoughts. Again, there is no discussion of biblical data regarding how Neo’s opinions on heaven and hell might fit with the overall teaching of the Bible. The idea that there might be a metanarrative to the Bible – a story line that shapes and governs all the individual stories of the experiences of biblical characters – doesn’t fit with McLaren’s postmodernism. A metanarrative would imply the need for analytical, systematic reflection on how the parts of the Bible fit the whole.

McLaren makes it clear that he is suspicious of all systematic theologies. As a postmodern Christian, he prefers to apply meaning to individual phrases and stories to fit his assumptions. McLaren never asks if one could possibly reject Neo’s conclusions because he’s committed to biblical truth, not because he’s a “modern” Christian! He never discusses the possibility that the Bible may offer a way of thinking that critiques both modern and postmodern assumptions. Instead he clearly suggests through his characters that being a postmodern – “a new kind of” – Christian means accepting the conclusion that the Bible has no objective meaning and that theological constructs from the modern era are flawed and out of date.

This mindset is presented in Dan’s journal entries as he reflects on the evangelical understanding of saying “God is in control.” He suggests, for example, that the critical reaction of evangelical theologians to the recent “Openness of God” views may have been simply the reaction of moderns to Christians who are just thinking in a postmodern context. Theological disagreements are thereby trivialized. They are an unnecessary, foolish waste of time by moderns who are overly concerned for analytical accuracy.

Consistently, those who reacted negatively to the heroes in this story were considered stuck in the past, out-of-it, behind the times! Instead of a well reasoned defense for why the new interpretation is better than accepted orthodox views, all we are given is a negative, marginalizing attitude toward those who disagree!

McLaren is challenging people to embrace this “new” way of thinking out of fear of being considered backward, stubborn, and afraid to think! He calls systematic theologies an “artifact of worship from the modern era, no less sincere or magnificent than medieval cathedrals – In fact, you could call them modern conceptual cathedral ... a modern phenomenon.” Who wants to be left behind as a cultural relic in a fast-changing world? There’s an intellectual intimidation factor in McLaren’s story. Readers won’t be convinced by clear arguments as much as cowered by an attitude.

The fact is, not all evangelicalism has been taken captive completely to the modern assumptions he describes. Evangelicalism is not a monolithic movement that can be captured in one simple caricature. Christians have always faced the challenge of resisting the current thinking of their cultures (and, to be fair, have always absorbed to some degree the assumptions of their cultures). Defenses of the faith, apologetics, systematic theologies and the like are not completely modern inventions, as McLaren insists. Certainly many were written during the Modern era. But believers have defined and defended the faith from the time of Moses to the present!

Systematic theologies written in the “modern” era – at least theologies worthy of consideration – have always built on the theological formulations of Christians in earlier centuries. To jettison the work of centuries just because of when it was done, is extremely arrogant and foolish – arrogant because it assumes current ideas (like evolution and intellectual toleration of religious diversity) are right and therefore the Bible must be reinterpreted to fit with those ideas; and foolish because it assumes the Holy Spirit has not been guiding God’s people into an understanding of God’s Word until now!

McLaren is right in saying the Bible is not an encyclopedia of religious facts or an alphabetized answer book. It was not given by God in the form of a systematic theology textbook. God gave us stories. God gave us poetry and letters and prophetic messages. To conclude as McLaren does, however, that the Bible does not contain propositional truth, is misleading at best! There is propositional truth in narrative passages, in poetic passages, and in didactic passages like Paul’s letters (which are often simply rebuttals of error confronting the church and a reasoned defense for the gospel “once for all delivered” by God to his people). For example, the story of Elijah on Mt. Carmel in I Kings 18 leads to the conclusion: “The LORD, He is God!” That propositional statement is true not only for Elijah and the people of Israel to whom he spoke, but for all people at all times – so true that anyone who rejects this proposition is in serious trouble!

Theological studies are attempts, for better or worse, to bring together the truth of the Bible in a way that helps us understand the big picture: How truth presented in various stories, poems and letters, fits with the whole message of the Bible – the metanarrative. Certainly one can be redeemed by God’s grace and not understand much of the Bible. But God has made himself known in his Word. A deeper grasp of who God is and what it means to be saved by his grace has been made available to us in the Bible. To approach the Bible as a collection of individual, unrelated stories with nice moral lessons, is to misunderstand the very nature of the Bible. To miss the metanarrative impoverishes the Christian life. I fear McLaren’s “New Kind of Christian” will end up neglecting the Bible and interpreting what he does know of it to suit his own preferences rather than submitting to the authority of Christ. There is too much of under the umbrella of Christianity already!

McLaren is uncritically optimistic of the ability of people like himself to come to an accurate conclusion of what is right and good by their own reason and intuition and methods of knowing. Where does the distorting power of the fall figure in to all this? Isn’t it true that sin constantly makes us want to suppress the truth in unrighteousness? Satan’s lie still entices: “You can be like God, knowing good and evil.” Who, in the end, will we accept as the final authority for defining right and wrong, good and evil? God or ourselves?

I don’t see McLaren’s Neo going to the Scriptures for authority (“this is what God says is true…”). He appeals to his preferred philosophical views. To define what it means to be a Christian apart from clear biblical authority dangerously elevates the place of man. I don’t trust myself to know what is true as much as moderns do or as much as postmoderns do! Sin too easily distorts my thinking. I need God’s Word to shine the light of truth into the murkiness of all these voices and ideas that clamor for the allegiance of my heart and mind.

So, while I liked a lot of things the author offered in his assessment of the failings of the evangelical church, I think the direction he is calling us to take as a move forward has been tried before and found wanting. It hasn’t led to revitalization and renewal but to greater cultural captivity. “There is nothing new under the sun,” says the writer of Ecclesiastes. McLaren is not presenting a truly new kind of Christian but an old kind of compromise! The choices before us are not limited only to the two he offers in the book: Being outdated moderns or with-it postmoderns. There is another way:! The Church reformed is always in need of reformation. Striving to be gospel-driven and God-centered offers the greater hope for the Church’s influence and faithfulness in the future. Striving to bring all our thinking captive to the written Word of God and seeking to be continually reformed by the gospel in dependence on the Holy
Spirit is the path to continual renewal.
Reviewed by TE Dan Thompson, pastor of Christ Community Church (PCA) in Titusville, Fla.

For more articles like this go to PCANews.


    God Substituting Himself for Man

    The concept of substitution may be said to lie at the heart of both sin and salvation. For the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting Himself for man. Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where only God deserves to be; God sacrifices Himself for man and puts Himself where only man deserves to be. Man claims prerogatives which belong to God alone; God accepts penalties which belong to man alone.

    John Stott in The Cross of Christ

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