The chapter in which Brian McLaren tackles the ‘sex question’ reaches the conclusion that a new kind of Christianity must get beyond the impasse of the modern church’s preoccupation with homosexuality and ‘begin to construct not just a more humane sexual ethic in particular, but a more honest and robust Christian anthropology in general’ (190). That is an excellent end-point to arrive at, but we are going to have to ride a couple of galloping, untamed analogies in order to get there and we may have trouble hanging on.
The second part of A New Kind of Christianity is called ‘Emerging and Exploring’: a number of mental doors have been opened in the first part of the book; now it is time to pass through and see what is on the other side. The sixth question is ‘What Do We Do About the Church?’
Brian McLaren thinks that traditional Protestantism has got the answer to the question ‘What is the Gospel?’ seriously wrong, and I agree with him. Clearly the gospel has something to do with things like atonement and justification and perhaps ‘penal substitution’, but they have been misleadingly framed in a claustrophobic narrative of personal salvation. I’m not sure that McLaren constructs the alternative narrative with sufficient precision – he has taken too many short-cuts for my liking (McLaren is a pastor and communicator, not a theologian) and still exhibits an annoying tendency to obscure the place and calling of the covenantal people of God in the discussion of Jesus’ significance. But I think he is broadly on the right lines when the says that the gospel is the announcement that ‘God’s benevolent society is already among us’ (138, italics removed), a ‘summons to rethink everything and enter a life of retraining as disciples or learners of a new way of life, citizens of a new kingdom’ (139), or the fulfilment of the three-dimensional biblical narrative of creation, liberation, and the hope of a peaceable kingdom (140).
Question number four is ‘The Jesus Question’. The previous section had concluded with the slightly illogical assertion that our evolving understanding of God must terminate in Jesus as the Word of God. But McLaren recognizes that we still have to make it clear which Jesus we are talking about: ‘We must face the fact that many different saviors can be smuggled in under the name “Jesus,” just as many different deities can be disguised under the term “God” and vastly different ways of living can be promoted under the name “Christianity” ’ (119).
Brian McLaren asks, thirdly, ‘Is God Violent?’ We can eliminate the effects of the Greco-Roman distortion of the biblical narrative, we can read the Bible as a library rather than as a constitution, we can bring into the focus the stories of God as good creator, passionate liberator, and reconciling king, but we are still left with the fact that there are some much less palatable images of God to be found in scripture – ‘violent images, cruel images, un-Christlike images’ (98). We do not see anything as frightening as the Greco-Roman Theos-Zeus-Jupiter ‘god’, who sponsors religious totalitarianism and consigns the greater part of humanity to ‘eternal conscious torment’. But the problem is real enough.
McLaren’s second question is ‘How Should the Bible Be Understood?’ He lists three broad reasons why we need a ‘new approach to the Bible’. First, fundamentalism in its various varieties has, to our repeated embarrassment, made the Bible an enemy of science; secondly, we do not have constructive ways to allow the Bible to speak into modern ethical issues; and thirdly, the Bible has too often been used to support policies of violence (68-70). He then illustrates at some length how in the US the Bible was used to defend the practice of slavery (70-76). He concludes that ‘very few Christians today, in my experience anyway, have given a second thought to – much less repented of – this habitual, conventional way of reading and interpreting the Bible that allowed slavery, anti-Semitism, apartheid, chauvinism, environmental plundering, prejudice against gay people, and other injustices to be legitimized and defended for so long’ (76).
The first question has to do with the overarching storyline of the Bible by which, consciously or otherwise, we make sense of Christian existence (33-45). The traditional plot, McLaren argues, has six elements: 1) humanity begins in the perfect condition of Eden; 2) we have fallen from that perfection into 3) a state of condemnation; 4) salvation provides an escape from condemnation to 5) eternal life; 6) but many, if not most, will experience ‘eternal conscious torment’ in hell. McLaren maintains that this theological schema is not itself biblical: it is the product of an accommodation of the Jewish narrative to an essentially Platonic system of thought, according to which humanity 1) begins in an ideal state of Platonic changelessness, 2) falls into the cave of illusion, which is 3) a condition of ‘Aristotelian becoming’, from which 4) we may either be saved and restored to 5) the Platonic ideal or 6) be consigned to Hades.
Brian McLaren’s new book A New Kind of Christianity addresses ten critical questions that he believes are transforming the faith. Christianity is in crisis – perhaps on the scale of the Reformation or the Great Schism between East and West (cf. Phyllis Tickle), perhaps at the end of a much longer historical period that began with the conversion of the Roman empire (cf. Harvey Cox).
Following the lengthy debate with Gustavo about Mark 13, I want to try to summarize what seem to me to be the main reasons for doubting that there is a fundamental shift in timeframe between Jesus’ prediction of events leading up to the desolation of the temple and the flight of the disciples left in Judea (13:5-23) and the ‘apocalyptic’ events of 13:24-27. I still find it very difficult to see any reason – other than the need to maintain our own direct interest in Jesus’ view of the future – to separate the climactic announcement about the Son of man from the preceding account of the tribulations that Jesus’ disciples would have to face in the course of their mission around the time of the Jewish War.
I wonder if we’re right to be quite so leery of the punishment aspect of the cross. I guess a lot of it has to do with not wanting to attribute vindictiveness, cruelty to God. Jesus’ death was an anticipation of the punishment of Israel – I suggest in my book on Romans that in Romans 8:3, when Paul speaks of the Jesus coming in the ‘likeness of sinful flesh’, he means that Jesus appeared to be a rebel, he appeared to be part of the problem, in the eyes of people, and received the punishment for rebellion. He appeared to have defied Rome just as Israel would later actually defy Rome and so was ‘punished’ by Rome as an instrument of the wrath of God when in fact he was innocent. That all seems to me to work rather well narratively. Within the narrative about Israel his death could be seen both as an atonement and as a punishment – these are distinct ideas.