A New What?

There have been a flurry of reviews of Brian McLaren’s recent release, A New Kind of Christianity. The book itself has provoked strong reactions both pro and contra in the blogosphere (though it seems a great deal more contra thus far, though blogging seems to be a medium better suited to disagreement anyway). This piece I’ve put together here does not really strike me as a standard review, so maybe read those more conventional reviews first (if you haven’t already) and then consider this as my sort of supplement to all that. Darryl Dash has been so kind as to lend me his own copy of ANKoC so that I could see what all the hype was about. Given that I had already had a whole set of (often negative) reviews to go on, my questions heading into this book started with “is this as bad as it seems?”

The answer probably depends in part on your existing theological commitments. If, for example, you are fairly seriously a Reformed type, you will not like this book. People who thought that N.T. Wright was a heretic should not even bother. It would be akin to trying to convince an indie kid that the new Nickelback album might appeal to them. Save your money and your outrage. Some strands of evangelical thought might be more sympathetic, but on the whole McLaren is going very much against the tide of evangelicalism and it should not shock him that many in that milieu are going to be upset with him. In and of itself that does not make him correct or incorrect. Perhaps the most cogent comment I read concerning this book came from David Fitch who wondered  whether McLaren would receive nearly as much attention if he had written this book as mainline protestant and not an evangelical. Since McLaren is not a mainline protestant, and since he is writing for an evangelical audience, he does get these strong reactions. Why would he provoke this? I’ll come back to that later.

Where McLaren’s most egregious errors are made are in his attempts to reduce to all of Western thought into dualism and then claim that only those in the tradition of classical Greek thought tend to see things dualistically. Really? That must shock a lot of Zoroastrians. Actually, it’s weirder than that, McLaren locates dualism first in the Greek tradition (Greeks vs. barbarians, flesh vs. spirit, eternal vs. temporal) and then admits that the Jews had their own sort, but then goes back again and makes it appear as though these are unique cultural traits of the Greek intellectual tradition that leads to a sort of cultural chauvinism. This is a chauvinism of its own sort since these sorts of divides exist in all manner of other cultures. The Chinese referred their empire as the “middle kingdom” and all other nations as “barbarians.” The Japanese ruling class during the Tokugawa shogunate had similar epithets for foreigners (whom they did not allow into the country for some 200 years). I use these last two examples since they clearly developed beyond the scope of Plato’s influence. McLaren boasts that he has degrees in English, well I have one in history, and once I read the mangling of the intellectual history of the West present in this book, it was hard for me to recover and consider the rest of it being that it was built on such a suspect foundation.

If one can get beyond this extremely sloppy treatment of Western thought, some of McLaren’s critiques and rebukes of Western evangelicals are things that I found myself agreeing with often. Certainly when he compared Mark Driscoll’s extremely stupid comments about not wanting to worship a god he could “beat up” to the characters in the film Talladega Nights picturing Jesus with wings fronting Lynyrd Skynyrd, I found myself nodding in agreement.

I guess the next question one comes to is, why bother? Why is McLaren writing a book aimed at evangelicals that many of them will dislike? Why doesn’t McLaren just live life quietly as a moderate-to-liberal Anglican or something? Here’s the thing that I think is happening: in spite of all his criticisms and in spite of how his theology might differ with evangelical protestantism, McLaren is still an evangelical in significant ways. Consider the evidence even in ANKoC:

  • McLaren’s narrative of Western church history looks a lot like the fairly standard evangelical narrative. The church as founded by the apostles was good at some point it went bad and now we have to get back to modeling ourselves on what we think the early church was doing. McLaren just happens to have a different view of the early church than that of most evangelicals.
  • McLaren’s boast about his advantage in not having any formal theological training – it sounds a lot like that anti-intellectual streak in some strains of popular American evangelicalism where even scholarship as conservative as NT Wright’s is regarded as suspicious because it requires knowing foreign languages and reading other academics who write above a ninth-grade reading level.
  • Redirected culture-war paranoia: the way McLaren talks about church thought police and whatnot sounds like those Christians who think the public schools will brainwash their children into being Islamic communist homosexual abortion doctors or something. Thinking a dominant culture is “out to get you” seems to be a theme in late Western evangelicalism, in McLaren’s case the dominant culture he perceives is late Western evangelicalism – and so it goes.

So if McLaren has standard, sort of middle-of-the-road mainline theology but he still thinks of Christianity like an evangelical, where is he going? I imagine that McLaren wants to keep the best parts of his cultural evangelicalism – the pragmatism, populism, the energized community – and fuse it with a different theology. The two predominant models for contemporary protestant churches are the evangelical model which tries to be pragmatic about form but rigid in theology and the mainline model that is rigid in form and more flexible in theology. There are also some (particularly Reformed) churches that like to be very rigid in both theology and form, and McLaren seems to be going for a fourth model that is pragmatic on all fronts. Will this work? I’m going to get to that detail in a second post, stay tuned…