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

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.

Undoubtedly this is a highly tendentious account of the traditional ‘gospel’ story (not helped by my skimpy synopsis), but I am less troubled by it than Scott McKnight, who complains that it 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’. First, the fact that it is a caricature does not mean that it does not have a legitimate place in the debate – much public debate is conducted by way of such cartoonish misrepresentations. I broadly agree with McLaren that we need to come to terms with the fact that Christian orthodoxy as we know it is the product (here is another cartoonish exaggeration) of the injection of a Jewish narrative theology into the blood stream of the Greek-Roman world – and that the resulting hybrid creature is now in its death-throes. But this is an enormous thesis, and we should not be too surprised if our attempts to sketch it are sometimes rather crude and inexact. Secondly, I don’t think McLaren’s point is that anyone consciously ‘believes or teaches’ in this way; rather he is attempting to highlight some underlying structures of thought that subtly distort even our best attempts to construct a biblical theology.

There are, however, many questions that could be asked about the detailed mapping of the traditional gospel against the Greco-Roman narrative. I find it significant, for example, that McLaren does not mention Gnosticism. One of the problems with his argument is that something like this corrupted narrative did emerge in the early church in the form of Gnostic Christianity and was firmly rejected, largely on the grounds that it was incompatible with the doctrine of the incarnation. It seems to me that modern formulations of salvation have a lot in common with Gnosticism: a divine saviour enters the fallen world to rescue the chosen from corruption and take them to heaven. But I’m not sure that they can be so directly attributed to an early assimilation of the biblical narrative into Greek-Roman philosophy. The modern reductivist gospel has a much more complex history (including not least the battle against liberalism) than McLaren’s argument suggests.

McLaren is more convincing in his endeavour to construct an alternative biblical narrative – and, I think, more convincing here than in previous attempts. He argues for a forward-looking retelling of the biblical narrative in ‘three dimensions’. The story begins not with the perfect world of Plato but with the ‘good world of Genesis’ (47) and develops as a ‘kind of compassionate coming-of-age story’. There is no absolute ontological shift from perfection to imperfection, he argues; there is only an unfolding narrative, in which God ‘patiently bears with a rebellious and foolish humanity again and again’ (49). It is a story both of ascent and of descent. Humanity is seen to evolve from hunter-gatherers to nomadic herders to agriculturalists to city-dwellers to empire-builders; but each stage of progress is ambiguous, and the ‘human journey can be equally seen as a tragic descent into evil, in increasing complexity and severity’ – from shame and fear to murder to corruption and social violence to oppression and genocide (51). Eventually, after eleven chapters of recurrent ‘human stupidity and divine fidelity’, we arrive at something new: God calls Abraham and Sarah to be progenitors of a ‘nation who will be blessed in order to bring blessing to all nations’. The important point to note, McLaren insists, that God does not here reject and condemn all nations in favour of his own privileged people; rather he chooses Israel for the sake of the nations (53).

There are certainly problems with this. There is surely something primordial and archetypal about the disobedience of Adam and Eve; the cursing of the ground and the decisive expulsion of the couple from the garden suggest a sharper disjunction in the narrative than McLaren’s developmental thesis permits; and there is very little in the texts that encourages a positive assessment of human social development. But McLaren is right to emphasize the fact that the calling of Abraham comes as the culmination to an extended narrative in which the persistently re-creational activity of God is set against the progressive corruption of human society. In the end, the descendants of Abraham are presented as God’s response not simply to the personal sin of Adam and Eve but to the social sin of the builders of Babel: Israel is God’s response to the hubris of empire and the concomitant fact of nations divided by language and scattered across the face of the earth (Gen. 11:9) – in fact, this is a key part of my argument in Re: Mission.

This extended story of ‘sacred creation and reconciliation’ constitutes a preliminary episode or first dimension of the biblical narrative. It is followed in Exodus by a story of ‘sacred liberation and formation’ (56). The Jews have become a people oppressed by a more powerful nation and threatened with extinction: just as Noah and his family were saved from the waters of destruction by an ark, ‘the future of the story of God and Abraham’s descendants floats in a fragile ark of reeds, hangs in the breath of a fragile little baby, drifts on the perilous waters of the Nile’ (57). Eventually through Moses the people are set free from their bondage and formed by their experience in the wilderness: so ‘the second narrative situates us in humanity’s oppressive, resistant world in which God is active as liberator – freeing us from external and internal oppression and forming us as the people of God’ (58).

The third dimension to the biblical narrative emerges under conditions of exile. The dream of a ‘peaceable kingdom’ that inspired the Exodus journey has been almost erased by the realities of political life in the land, but remarkably it is revived by the experience of exile, becoming ‘even more radical and all-encompassing’. McLaren argues that the focus of the vision shifts from a ‘promised land’ to a ‘promised time’ – a day of the Lord, ‘when oppressors will be overthrown, when corruption and infidelity will be replaced by virtue and integrity, and when blessing, justice, and shalom of God flow like a river and fill the earth as waters fill the oceans’ (59). The traditional interpretation, shaped by the Greco-Roman narrative, pushes these prophetic hopes into a remote future, beyond history. McLaren asks, however, whether as a people who live in the Genesis narrative of creation and reconciliation and in the Exodus narrative of liberation and formation we should receive this as a ‘vision of the kind of future toward which God is inviting us in history’ (62). This approach frees us from arguments about determinism: ‘the narrative of the peaceable kingdom becomes the desired future toward which the people of God orient themselves, the constellation they set course and sail by, the dream or goal or vision or imagination they pursue’ (63).

At this point we have to read McLaren’s argument rather carefully, because in his eagerness to repudiate traditional Christian assumptions and in his passion for social transformation he can give the impression that he is advocating a naïve cosmic utopianism. This, in my view, was the problem with the eschatological vision implicit in Everything Must Change: too much is expected of global humanity, too little is expected of the church. The argument about a promised time rather than a promised land does not help matters in this respect. The passages from the prophets that are quoted at length (Is. 2:4; 11:6-9; 65:17-25; Mic. 4:2-4; Joel 2:27-29; Hos. 2:18-19) are all centred on the place Zion as the locus of transformation. What they envisage is not the overthrow of oppressors but the overthrow of Israel’s oppressors and the liberation of the people of God to embody righteousness and peace and justice for the world. It is a general criticism of McLaren’s approach – particularly when we get to the New Testament – that at important moments the historical narrative gets obscured by clouds of theological abstractions. Nevertheless, he makes it clear enough here that the vision of social transformation, of a peaceable kingdom, is 1) given to the people of God, and 2) construed not as a concrete historical outcome but as a guiding principle – ‘an unquenchable dream that inspires us to unceasing constructive action’ (62).

There is also, finally, the glaring problem of the omission of Jesus – indeed, of the whole New Testament – from this retelling of the overarching biblical narrative. We do not get to Jesus until question four (‘The Jesus Question’), so McLaren has countered the wicked Greco-Roman gospel with a narrative that stops short of the core saving event of Jesus’ death and resurrection. There may be a good reason for this, but it seems misleading methodologically; and I suspect that we will get into difficulties with the account of Jesus precisely because by that point we have forgotten the overarching biblical narrative.

Are you familiar with “Mercy and Manna” by Daniel Erlander? It is an outstanding overview of the biblical narrative, with much in common with elements of both McLaren and yourself.