Brian McLaren is one of the leading voices in the emerging church, a movement of Christians (many of them evangelicals) who are disenchanted with many aspects of the contemporary church. Often, their conversation centers on the problems with taking a literal view of the Bible or with equating political and social conservatism with Christianity. They tend to be more interested in pursuing social justice or protecting the environment. Most of all, they want to promote open and honest conversation about how to live as Christians in the world today.
I’ve read several of McLaren’s books now, and I’ve found them provocative and exciting, but often frustrating. So much of what he has to say about the importance of listening and accepting others is vital, and the church has too often failed to follow Jesus’s example in being loving of everyone, without conditions. McLaren, with his “generous orthodoxy,” wants to open the church doors and let in not just new people who might be uncomfortable in more hide-bound churches, but also new ideas. In A New Kind of Christianity, he explores some of these ideas by asking “Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith.” These questions deal with such thorny and contested issues as biblical interpretation, the nature of God and of Jesus, the role of the church, sex and sexuality, the “end times,” and religious pluralism.
As exciting as I find McLaren’s vision for a church that embraces these questions and the people who ask them, almost all of his books lose me when he starts trying to build a theological argument for what he’s advocating. McLaren states with pride that because he hasn’t been formerly trained in theology, but in literature, he is particularly well-equipped to read and understand the Bible. It’s true that a background in literature can be invaluable in deconstructing the biblical text and getting at the truth within it. However, McLaren too often then treats his insights as totally original, or he fails to see the nuances in how theologians have understood certain doctrines. I have to wonder if a formal seminary education might have helped him aviond some of these missteps.
To put it simply, McLaren believes that the long-held Christian ideas of original sin and the Fall are too indebted to Greco-Roman thought to be helpful and that we’d be better off abandoning them in favor of a reading of the Old Testament that would be closer to Jesus’s own. I’m all for looking at the Old Testament through a more Hebraic lens, but I’m unconvinced by his case against what he calls the “Greco-Roman narrative.” Sure, the early church was influenced by Greco-Roman thought, and that influence is with us still, but that doesn’t of necessity make that influence bad. Rethink and reconsider, yes, always, but let’s not dismiss without careful consideration.
That’s not to say McLaren hasn’t carefully considered his views. I believe he has, even if I’m not on board with his conclusions. Mostly, I think what he really objects to is a literalist view of the Fall and an understanding of original sin that focuses on condemnation of others. I object to that too; for me, original sin is the state of imperfection we all share and the Fall is a not necessarily literal story of our choice to experience evil. And from what I’ve read, my understanding is not that unusual. The fact is that not all understandings of the Greco-Roman narrative are the same, but McLaren chooses the most troubling and unflattering reading of that narrative to create a Greco-Roman straw man that he can pull out whenever he needs to find a source for the church’s woes. In the final chapters of the book, he does acknowledge that the Greco-Roman version of Christianity offers many spiritual treasures, but it felt like too little, too late.
One of the reasons this bothered me so much is that I agree with so much of what he had to say. Often, I found his reading of scripture to be interesting and helpful (but sometimes unnecessarily strained). I think if the church could move in the directions that McLaren advocates, we would do a great deal more good in the world, and people might view us as a source of help and love, rather than violence and condemnation. The world might see Jesus in the lives of his people. The way we live and treat others is far more important than fine points of doctrine—McLaren and I in agreement there. I just would have preferred for him not to throw our one area of serious disagreement up in my face every few pages.