Some first thoughts on “A New Kind of Christianity”

Books / Religion

I’ve asked some of my “students” to read Brian McLaren’s new book “A New Kind of Christianity” with me as part of our regular weekly seminar. I’m just a few chapters in and I thought it might be useful to post some of my impressions as I’m reading along. This series of posts won’t be so much a book report as a journal of ideas that McLaren’s writing sparks.

I’m going to try this at the suggestion of Diana Butler-Bass. Diana preached at Trinity Cathedral over the weekend (we’ll be posting the audio of her sermon here tomorrow) and in between the services, as she was signing books and greeting visitors, our conversation turned to Brian McLaren’s new book. I was sharing some of my reservations with her, and she’s the one who suggested posting them so that you all might shoot at them, and that Brian might have a chance to see them.

I’m not particularly interested in condemning a book that I haven’t fully read, so if you’re waiting for that, you’re going to be disappointed. Also, while I have some quibbles with the ideas that are presented, I actually think there’s a great deal of value in what I’ve read so far. I get the sense that McLaren is involved in the primary theological task of the 21st century – the “re-traditioning” of the Church (to borrow a term from Butler-Bass).

The book opens with a brief manifesto of sorts, laying out the reasons why the traditional Christianity of the 18th, 19th and early 20th century is no longer working for the majority of people in the West. That’s a key point I think; that it’s no longer working for people in the cultural west. Because clearly the enlightenment version of Christianity that grew out of the Reformation is very effective in the developing world of Africa and in the Far East. And that goes for both the Protestant and the post-Council of Trent Catholic versions.

But I think McLaren’s got the right of it in the West. The Reformation was immediately preceded by what a friend of mine names a “plausibility collapse”. The web and scaffolding of ideas that upheld the Medieval worldview suddenly collapsed, almost overnight. Luther’s rejection of the cult of relics and papal selling of indulgences found willing ears in a culture that suddenly couldn’t find a way to make sense of what had made sense. It’s seemed to me for a while now that the West underwent a similar moment of plausibility collapse back in the 1960’s. (1968 I guess if you want me to pick a year.) And the reverberations and internal cognitive dissonance from that event have shaped the arc of politics, culture and theology since.

At any rate, coming out of the Sixties, the classical reformation ideas of Christianity were no longer self-evident to people. Folks began to reject them out of hand, and to date, nothing really robust has been found to replace them. (Note that I’m trying to be precise and point to the idea of classical reformation ideas.)

I think part of this has to do with the fact that going forward from the 1950’s, we stopped teaching the classical canon of literature. Latin was dropped from many curricula. Classical greek is no longer common. And with the loss of the classical canon, the regular exposure to the great ideas of Greece and Rome has faded. Much of western pedagogy until the 1950’s tended to follow the old Roman teaching methods of classical education. Read the Canon. Learn the Canon. Emulate the Canon. But the need to share new science and ideas pushed the classical canon aside, into a backwater of sorts, and today very few people are intimately familiar with the ideas of Plato or Aristotle.

And because so much of the Reformation grew out of the West’s recovery of these classical ideas during the Renaissance, when the classical scaffolding was removed from the common experience, the Reformation’s logical exposition of God ceased making sense to people.

My first quibble with McLaren’s writing, so far at least, is that he’s created a sort of stalking horse that he calls the “Graeco-Roman” worldview. He describes a six line narrative arc for salvation history that grows out of this Graeco-Roman worldview. And he ridicules and rejects it. He does so in much the same way that people today reject and ridicule the Anselmian doctrine of the Atonement. The problem is though that when they ridicule the ideas of Anselm, they’re not actually engaging his ideas. They’re engaging a parody and dismissing that. And while they’re right to dismiss the parody, it might be more useful for folks to try to understand the full idea first, and then dismiss that if they so desire.

I sort of get the feeling that McLaren’s rhetoric gets away from him in the first section as he poo-poos the Platonic world view. At least I hope that’s what’s happened. Preachers do tend to have problems with rhetorical flourishes. (Don’t ask me how I know this…)

Here’s what I suggest to strengthen his argument – at least as far as I’ve read. Rather then saying that the whole enterprise of the Church is flawed because it’s concept of salvation and cosmology has been understood through the lenses of a Graeco-Roman; simply say that the classical form that made sense to the Church’s that grew out of the Reformation no longer works today. It no longer works because we’re no longer exposed to it in school. We have been given new sets of lenses.

And just as the Reformation grew out of a cultural shift (“Emergence” to borrow Phyllis Tickle’s term), what we are becoming will do that as well.

So, I agree that we must recast much of the traditional reformation language. I agree that the Reformation world view no longer works. I don’t think though that it’s worthy of total rejection though because there’s an awful lot of useful ideas buried deep within it and rejecting the whole means we’ll necessarily reject the useful parts too.

(Aside: This reminds me of something I tried to point out when teaching the History of Science. When a new paradigm comes along, the new paradigm has to be explain as much as the old paradigm did and then extend that for it to be taken seriously. Just coming up with a new paradigm and explaining something new is fun, but not terribly helpful if you can’t explain the things the old paradigm did. Relativity is so impressive because in the case of slow velocity, it collapses to Newtonian physics.)

As I’m reading now (in book 1 of “A New Kind of Christianity”) McLaren has called for a return to the Jewish narrative structure of the Old Testament. It seems to me that he’s recapitulating the work of Hans Frei (who helped created the Yale Method of biblical criticism) – calling for us to read the biblical narrative as a narrative and not as an atomistic string of aphorisms. Yay for Brian in this.

Returning to the text, reading it anew through “Jewish” eyes is most likely going to be a profitable path. Not though because that’s the secret key to unlocking everything. We already know the key: Jesus. But it’s useful because rereading the texts with a new set of lenses will probably be the way we find a scaffolding and web of ideas that will allow to construct a world-view that speaks to the next 500 years or so of human experience (again a la Tickle).

… so that’s what I’ve got so far. If you’ve read the book, I’d be curious to hear your reactions to the first section as well. Let me know what you think in the comments!

Anthony Dale Hunt seems to be reacting to the same thing that I am in his essay here.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Jennifer S says

    Question for you re: your Aside comment:
    While your paradigm argument fits for hard science, I’m not convinced it holds true for the social sciences and history. I agree that a shift has to be explained in light of the old paradigm; however, it doesn’t necessarily have to extend it or add to it or answer the same questions moving forward. It doesn’t even have to blow it fully out of the water. Take anthropology for example…over time, our questions about human behavior and ideology change. Explaining this is a messy business and theory often ends up being more about having a varied tool kit at your disposal vs. a solid paradigm like you mentioned in physics. Therefore, a new paradigm may arise that is relevant yet fails to address everything covered by the prior – because the questions answered by the prior no longer seem to be culturally important. What are your thoughts on this? I haven’t read the book yet but was curious to talk to you about the aside comment because I heard you mention it on Sunday.

  2. You’re right, this is much of what I was reacting against. Insightful as always.

  3. Paul Martin says

    Though I havan’t read the book, my thoughts have been running along the same line, including the reference to special relativity. It may be sufficient to observe that, in proposing a new understanding or a new articulation of an old understanding, we don’t need refer to those who came before as idiots. If we find ourselves doing that, we are bound to get some well deserved push back. Physics found a way around this problem. The church needs to do so as well.

  4. Hi Jennifer – my quick response to your question about paradigm shifts in the “soft” sciences is that I’m not convinced that the “soft” sciences individually have universal paradigms yet that can shift.
    Most of them are in what I call the “zoology” phase – they’re gathering data and making small conjectures. But there’s as yet, no overarching model that explains multitudes of apparently unrelated phenomenon.

  5. Peter S says

    trivial point–there’s no “u” in Brian McLaren’s name

  6. Kirk says

    I am enjoying the book too. I am sure it will provoke lots of good discussion.
    But while I am nit-picking, “greek” should be capitalized.

  7. Reading the NT through “Jewish Eyes” seems like a fundamentally flawed approach since it was written hundreds of years after Christianity had ceased to be an offshoot of Judaism in any meaningful way and was written by people who were essentially part of a Helenistic culture. Judaism is marginally more relevant to the NT than other religious traditions, but in no real sense is it the cultural context of the gospels.
    The philosophy attributed to Jesus in the NT derives very little from the Mosaic tradition and a great deal from the popular philosophy of the dominant cultures of the Mediterranean, the Greeks and the Romans. This is why it was such a marketable religion, because it was compatible with the already established worldview of the dominant cultures, which Judaism was not.
    That being the case, if you want to adapt Christianity to be more marketable to a contemporary audience you would need to do what was attempted in the early 19th century with the “social gospel” movement and redefine it in terms of what contemporary audiences understand as naturally good and culturally desirable.
    The problem with this idea is that if you follow it to its natural conclusion what you end up with is no longer going to be recognizable as Christianity, just as early Christianity was eventually no longer identifiable as an offshoot of Judaism. That seems self-defeating.

  8. Dave – I think your point is well taken, except that the chronology you list is slightly off. Most people today are in fact arguing the earliest books of the New Testament – Paul’s letters – are probably from the mid-50’s AD if not a little earlier. That’s only 20 years after Christ’s death and resurrection. Most folks date the “divorce” of Christianity and Judaism to about the end of the 1st century. So it’s reasonable to read the NT writings through Jewish eyes…
    But, as you point out the “Jewish eyes” of the 1 century have a different set of lenses than did the eyes of the time of the writing of the final works of the OT. So claiming we need to read the NT through Jewish eyes doesn’t really help very much. Which set of Jewish eyes do we use?
    As to your last point – “Christianity – as according to the Church” per se is a wonderfully malleable concept. Jenkins book on the lost churches of the East (the Nestorian churches that died out about the time of the rise of the Khans) points out that the stories that Jesus told have been used to a multitude of ways in different cultural settings. The key question that people have been asking for a very long time is “what is the fundamental core” that must be present for a church to the part of the Church?

  9. Shows how out of date my knowledge of these subjects is. I was taught the earliest books of the NT dated to the mid 2nd century.
    Anyway, it seems to me that the answer is to educate the audience rather than to change the church. There is a long history of efforts to adapt the church to the marketplace and the results hve been mixed at best and we’re still dealing with the consequences of bad decisions made 1000 years ago.
    But this is where I come up short because I’m not comfortable with the political implications of changing society to make it more receptive to a positive Christian
    message. Though I do like the idea of finding a way to convert fundamentalists and other Christian extremists to a more reasonable form of Christianity. That’s a potential market which is quite large and might benefit from being converted to a gospel of love rather than one of hate. This is the kind of thing I worry about too much with my involvement with texas politics.

  10. John Sweeney says

    Or, one could become familiar with the canon and, in the process, understand the network of ideas behind “Greco/Roman” Christianity. Why re-invent the wheel unless you have a stunningly new take on the Jesus?

  11. Jim Armstrong says

    Just a couple of questions.
    Is “ridicule” quite the right term?
    But perhaps more to the point, you seem to suggest that the acceptance of the Reformation model of Christianity is not being accepted for lack of teaching it. Yet, the Pew polls indicate that there is a great deal of lateral movement among Christian expressions, where presumably the Reformation model IS being taught. So something else would seem to be going on; folks are finding its teaching in its traditional and (I would posit)limited and rigid forms unsatisfying in some way(s).
    By and large, outside of academia (= in the churches), there seems to be little taught about the broader picture of Christianity. There is little taught about that “malleability” and diversity of thought over time, or even much about the evolution of Biblical canon. Hence, we lose the opportunity for creating knowledgeable and animated discussion, and thereby fostering greater internalization of our faith(s), which in its purest form IS deeply personal, not worn as a garment (uniform?).
    Even a response or two above suggest that some of the deeper questions of historical Christianity cannot even be broached because they depart from orthodoxy. And churches understandably are inclined to steer away from the controversy that might arise from such questions. So such things are addressed dismissively or pejoratively to keep such dangerous or doubt-inducing ideas at bay.
    But Christianity was arguably born of unorthodoxy, and its specifics have continued to be in controversy decade by decade, and century by century [e.g., in small ways, in denominational differences; in larger form, the schism between Eastern and Western arms of Christianity].
    So it makes no sense at all to me that the possibility doesn’t exist for orthodoxy to stray again in our own time. Whether the challenges are right or wrong, how would we know without engaging some of the questions being asked by writers like McLaren [that many (formerly mainstream?) Christians are asking]? The sheer number of books by authors/thinkers like Brian should give at least some pause for thought.
    In short, I think the central-tendency bell-curve of Christianity has widened greatly in recent years, unnoticed by a great many within the orthodox church. That is interesting in part because it does perhaps reflect something that has eluded the church in its earlier ages, and that is a growing tolerance for diversity within the Christian community.

  12. Hi Jim – actually my point is not that the Reformation model isn’t taught. It’s that the classical worldview that McLaren label’s the Graeco-Roman world view isn’t taught in secular education any more.
    And because the Graeco-Roman world view underlies the Reformation model of salvation in the presence of God, the reformation model, which is still taught, is no longer as effective as it was.
    And with that quibble, I think McLaren’s mainline of the rest of his argument so far as I’ve read, goes on.

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