Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: the fourth question about Jesus

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).

First, and partly in response to Peter Wilkinson’s pertinent comments, it is worth noting that this section is heavily reliant on a contemporary cultural frame of reference: Talladega Nights, Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, The Matrix and Wall-E – apparently no one reads books or goes to the theatre in America. McLaren rarely writes simply as a theologian or for theologians: he prefers to travel the mental pathways of a culture that he knows is struggling to understand and appreciate the account of Christianity that has been handed down to it – a Christianity associated with sometimes unattractive authority figures, often portrayed unsympathetically in the media, and sustained by habits of mind that are in many respects alien to the emerging worldview. The argument about Jesus that he develops can be understood, in part at least, as an attempt to translate the work of people like NT Wright into a culturally meaningful idiom.

To illustrate the problem of speaking about Jesus McLaren quotes (without mentioning names) Mark Driscoll’s characterization of the emerging church movement as an attempt to ‘recast Jesus as a limp-wrist hippie in a dress with a lot of product in His hair, who drank decaf and made pithy Zen statements about life while shopping for the perfect pair of shoes’. Driscoll goes on to say that in Revelation ‘Jesus is a prize fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed’ (119-120).

McLaren asks, ‘What would cause this articulate and highly committed Christian to portray Jesus as a prize-fighter, armed with a sword, intent on harming, killing, inflicting violence, drawing blood?’ The answer is the Greco-Roman narrative, the constitutional approach to the Bible, and an understanding of God that effectively excludes Jesus.

Given the nature of the polemic it is difficult to know whether we are meant to take Driscoll’s comments quite so seriously. Still, I think McLaren is right to draw attention to the dangers inherent in Driscoll’s rhetoric – not least because it promotes a very poor understanding of Revelation 19:11-16. I don’t think Jewish apocalyptic is simply a literature of the oppressed – it deals primarily with the oppression of the people of God, though there may be broader conclusions to be drawn from that central narrative. Nor do I think McLaren is right in dismissing the predictive element of apocalyptic. I don’t think Revelation 19:11-16 is simply talking about the present experience of the first century church: John has in view an eventual concrete, historical victory of Jesus as the Word of God over Roman pagan imperialism, for which the persecuted churches must wait patiently.

But McLaren is right to argue that this passage captures a ‘moment of creative possibility’ for the early followers of Jesus: ‘They must deal with the fact that they believe Jesus was right and his kingdom was true, yet they are being vilified and persecuted brutally’ (124). And he is right that the Jesus who will overcome Rome is still the Jesus who renounces violence and urges love for enemies. The sword emerges from his mouth; it is not in his hand as Driscoll carelessly assumes; and it is Jesus’ own blood, or perhaps the blood of the martyrs, that stains his clothing.

Driscoll says that he ‘cannot worship a guy I can beat up’. But that was precisely the problem that the Jews had: they couldn’t accept a weak, failed, executed, beaten up messiah (cf. 1 Cor. 1:18-31). Driscoll, of course, knows this, but it is difficult to resist pointing out the irony. McLaren concludes: ‘If you don’t want to worship a guy you can beat up, then I might humbly suggest you reconsider Caesar and the Greco-Roman narrative. It sounds like “Christ and him crucified” is not for you’ (126).

McLaren then proceeds to outline an alternative way of understanding Jesus. He cites another critic, who argues that ‘The only reason Jesus came was to save people from hell…. Jesus had no social agenda…. [He didn’t come to eliminate poverty or slavery or]… fix something in somebody’s life for the little moment they live on this earth’ (127). Against this McLaren points out, first, that Jesus had a lot to say about poverty and physical suffering, and then argues that Jesus must be understood in relation to the three-dimensional narrative introduced in the first question, consisting of creation and reconciliation, liberation and formation, new creation and the peace-making kingdom.

He then takes some space to show from John’s Gospel how Jesus is presented, first, as the one who through his resurrection initiates a renewal of life as new creation: ‘from the first sentence John is telling us that a new creative moment, a new Genesis, is happening in Jesus’ (129); secondly, as a Moses-like figure who leads his people on a new journey of liberation and formation; and thirdly, as the one through whom Isaiah’s vision of a peaceable is in some way realized. This cannot be reduced to the simplistic formula that Jesus came to save souls from hell. ‘Seen in this light, Jesus and his message have everything to do with poverty, slavery, and a “social agenda” ’ (135).

This is one of the best parts of the book. McLaren may not have helped his cause by again identifying such a crude proponent of what he calls the Greco-Roman paradigm. More needs to be done to show how this story of the emergence of a new creation community, a peaceable kingdom, relates to other New Testament themes, such as judgment, salvation and heaven. Not everything can be directly subsumed under the new creation motif – the story is more complex than that. I don’t agree, for example, that the phrase ‘Son of Man’ suggests ‘a new generation or genesis of humanity’ (132) – it refers rather to a narrative of suffering for the sake of the covenant and eventual vindication. But such criticisms should not be allowed to obscure what seems to me a powerful and credible attempt to bring into focus the full scope of the story that is told about Jesus.