Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: the second question

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 underlying cause of these problems is that we have been taught to read the Bible as though it were a ‘legal constitution’, a text written for the specific purpose of establishing rules and precedents for belief and behaviour. McLaren argues that this is simply a distortion of the nature of the text and proposes that the Bible is actually ‘something far more interesting and important: it’s the library of a culture and community – the culture and community of people who trace their history back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’ (81). If we view the Bible in this way, we will not expect it to have the internal consistency and function of a constitution. What a library preserves is not definitive answers but a body of historically formed arguments around the themes that determine that culture, and it is in this essentially conversational structure that its distinctive forms of inspiration and authority are to be found – McLaren is careful to affirm his belief that ‘the biblical library has a unique role in the life of the community of faith in ways that no other texts can’ (83).

In the third part of his response to the question of how we construe biblical authority McLaren explores the conversational model of divine revelation. He suggests that the book of Job ‘provides an excellent case study in approaching the Bible in a postconstitutional way’ (87) – in effect, a paradigm for biblical revelation as a whole. Since much of the content of the book – the arguments of the three friends – is judged by God to be erroneous, the constitutional model breaks down. We must conclude, McLaren says, that ‘revelation occurs not in the words and statements of individuals, but in the conversation among individuals and God’ (89-90). What we have, in effect, is a dialectical conversation between the God of Deuteronomy represented by the friends and the God who refutes the Deuteronomic position of the friends. so revelation ‘happens in conversations and arguments that take place within and among communities of people who share the same essential questions across generations’ (91). If that is the case, it may be better to suppose that the God of Job is as much a ‘character’ in the narrative as Job, satan, Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu: the real God is revealed not in the words and actions of the character God but in the conversation in which this character takes part (94-95).

Again, McLaren will undoubtedly be accused of caricaturing the conservative misappropriation of scripture and of neglecting a broad, unobtrusive, inoffensive middle-ground: there are plenty of good, sane, constructive ways of reading the Bible out there that avoid the more egregious errors of North American fundamentalism. Nevertheless, I think he is right to draw attention to the fact that the Bible is an extremely problematic text in the postmodern context and to argue that some new way of reading is necessary if Christianity is right to have a viable future. There is much to be said for the view that the Bible is a library that contains the conversations of a culture or people about its key themes. It will not settle the disputes – indeed, it is not intended to settle the disputes. But it may help us to reframe the question of authority sufficiently for new types of consensus to emerge. I think there is a lot to be said for locating authority not in the text itself but in the historical community as it repeatedly and compulsively struggles to identify with the text.

My chief disappointment with the argument is that virtually no account is taken of the narrative structure that holds together the biblical texts. Conversations are certainly extended in time, but the Job paradigm is unable to make sense of the interplay between the conversation about God and the critical events that punctuate the historical experience of the people. McLaren has his reasons for emphasizing diversity and tension over the totalizing unity of the constitutional model, but if this is done at the expense of any sense of historical coherence, I think we will still have trouble determining not only our own relation to the narrative but, as I suggested in the first part, also Jesus’.