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Toward Wholeness Blog

Brian’s Song: confusing words on a slippery slope

I’ll start by saying that many of Brian McLaren’s books have been great reads.  I read “

the church on the other side” years ago, which gave voice to some important cultural shifts as “post-modernity” was becoming a common phrase in theological circles.  Two things stood out in that book as important and true:

1. Brian didn’t challenge the notion of absolute truth.  Instead he challenged the human capacity to apprehend truth perfectly, and communicate it accurately, so that it might be perceived with perfect clarity by other recipients.  The problem isn’t in the in the existence of truth, but in our fallen human capacities.  This posture gives a much needed humility to our declarations.

2. Brian challenged churches to love people unconditionally, suggesting that out of this would come a more natural invitation and sharing.  People shouldn’t be viewed a projects, or worse, sales calls.  We need to love everyone, whether or not they ever share our deepest beliefs.  This too was a breathe of fresh blowing in after the religious right’s sometimes combative arrogance of the 80’s and 90’s.

Both of these declarations were creating much needed shifts in some churches.  Brian kept writing.  His audience kept growing, and continues to grow.  His tune has remained the same: love people, make God’s reign visible by caring for the poor, and the earth, and celebrating justice and beauty.  It’s a good tune, deeply rooted in, to use Brian’s words, “the story God is writing in the world”.

In his most recent book though, it’s: same tune, different lyrics…disturbing lyrics.  I love his “quest for honesty…and a faith that (makes) more sense.” (p6).  The trouble is, his words make less sense, at least to me.  Here’s what I mean:

1. Brian’s entire case is built on the assumption that we tend to read the whole Bible through a Jewish lens, calling into question the “Greco-Roman narrative”.  The G/R narrative leads to dualsim: in/out, material/spiritual, saved/lost etc.  If we’d only read the whole Bible through a different lens, a Jewish lens, these categories would disappear. My response: Since the New Testament was written in the thick of a Greek/Roman culture, and since the gospel is good news for all, “the Jew first, and then the Greek” (Romans 1:17), shouldn’t we be reading parts written by or for Greeks through a Greek lens?  For example, Paul’s letter to the Romans was written to Jews and Gentiles, so Paul wouldn’t assume all readers to be thinking like Jews.  His dualisms:  life/death, enemies of God/reconciled, etc. are real, and should be read as real.

Much of Brian’s “New Kind of Christianity” makes sense if his assumption that we must discard Greco/Roman thinking is true.  But if the assumption isn’t true, then he made a wrong turn on the road, and the wrong turn will take him farther and farther away from the destination.  How far?

2.  Brian writes, towards the end of the book, that he envisions an evangelism is “calling people to a kingdom that transcends and includes all religions.” This statement seems nonsensical to me.  If you read here regularly, you know that I believe we’ve things to learn from Buddhists, Muslims, and Pagans.  You know that I’m quick to point out the shortcomings of institutional Christianity.  But I hope you know this too: Everything hinges on Christ because, as Paul said, there’s no other foundation. Paul even has the gaul to get all dualistic, many times, by saying that Christ will be foolishness to some, but salvation to others.  When people reject Christ, Paul has no problem shaking the dust off his shoes and letting them know that they’re missing the boat.

Don’t get me wrong.  God’s mighty generous when it comes to salvation.  Christ’s death on the cross absorbed all wrath for all sin.  But if I reject the gift, or refuse to even believe there is a gift, or that I have need of a gift, then what more can God do, without impinging on my own will and making me a robot?  The reality is that people do reject the gift. They deny that Christ’s death is worth anything, or that He lives now.  Some deny the notion of sin, declaring that evil and good are false categories.  People are free to do this, but in Brian’s song, it seems as if it doesn’t matter;  Reject Christ, deny his existence, or his deity, or his resurrection – it’s not important.  You can join God’s story without any of that.

Really?  I don’t buy it.

In Brian’s past writings he seemed to be calling the church to make certain that we moved beyond simply declaring right beliefs about Jesus (orthodoxy) into actually living like Jesus (orthoproxy).  Thanks for that Brian.  I couldn’t agree more, and the message was, and still is needed.

In this last book though, the obsession with orthopraxy has destroyed all notions that orthodoxy matters, because when you invite people in “the way of Jesus” and quickly add that’s it’s available “whatever the new disciple’s religious affiliation”, (p216) you’re saying that I can remain embedded in a community that denies the deity of Christ, or the value of his death, or the reality of his resurrection, or the reality of sin, and still adhere to the way of Christ.

What saddens me most, is that this book will lead some in the emergent church further away from historic orthodoxy.  I’ve applauded Brian’s role, along with his emergent friends, in the reformation and restoration of missional emphasis, of actually loving neighbors, of resisting the objectification of people that so often happens at the hands of the church, of confessing or materialism, greed, and pride.  But I’ve applauded all this to the extent that this reformation is built on the “simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ”.   All of Christ matters:  his deity, his humanity, his atoning death on the cross, his empowering resurrection, his love of his neighbors, and enemies, his care for the poor and marginalized.  Brian seems to applauding half of that and saying the other half doesn’t matter.  But half a Jesus is no Jesus at all – as the left and right have proven for centuries.

If you catch wind of this Brian… I welcome your thoughts.

As always, I welcome everyone else’s too.

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