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.