Let's Get Personal
If you've been to a conference on the state of the church in the last five years, chances are you've heard it said that while we live in a postmodern world, the church is still largely stuck with assumptions and practices shaped by modernity. That's the thesis of A New Kind of Christian (Jossey-Bass), by Brian McLaren, the founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in the Washington- Baltimore area. What follows here is the first in a series of three responses to McLaren's book, after which McLaren himself will respond. Next issue: Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church.
There is something quintessentially American—not to mention modern—about the title of Brian McLaren's book. St. Luke famously described the citizens of Athens as "spending their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new." Imagine what he would have said about the denizens of advanced consumer capitalism, for whom the pursuit of novelty has become a veritable patriotic obligation. We spend our time not so much telling or hearing, as buying and selling, a new kind of everything under the sun.
The first chapters of A New Kind of Christian don't entirely ward off such skepticism. Neo, the book's Caribbean American postmodern muse, leads off with a series of admitted "gross oversimplification[s]" that recite the now-familiar case for postmodernity. (Neo, by the way, joins a host of spirit guides of African descent in recent popular culture, from Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance to Whoopie Goldberg and Laurence Fishburne in The Matrix. The significance of these enigmatic characters, almost always helping a white Everyman come to terms with his past and his destiny, is worth pondering.) According to Neo, the modern era was characterized by, among other distinctives, conquest and control, secular science, objectivity, the monolithic organization and nation-state, individualism, and consumerism. (No real exploration here of how individualism and monolithic organizations managed to flourish side by side.) Postmodernity, then, will be "postconquest, postmechanistic, postanalytical, postsecular, postobjective, postcritical, postorganizational, postindividualistic, post-Protestant, and postconsumerist."
Well, it all depends on what you mean by post. In his less careful moments, Neo seems to take post to mean non or anti, and that is certainly too simple. As I write, a massive military force is converging on Central Asia to achieve conquest and control on the behalf of a secular, consumer-oriented nation-state, buttressed by a flood of public and private analysis and critical thought—and even if ultimate conquest and control may be elusive, that will make us no less modern than Europe in the unstable years between the World Wars.
It would not have been unusual, before September 11, to hear postmodernistas explaining that patriotism and civic duty were decaying features of the "modern" era, soon to be eclipsed on the one hand by Pico Iyer's "global souls" and by their anarchic wto-bashing opponents on the other. But anyone who sold short the shares of flag-makers has been sorely disappointed. Postmodernism, as Neo defines it, bears more than a passing resemblance to nineteenth-century Romanticism, and there's ample recent evidence that a modernist is a Romantic who's just been mugged by history.
Still, there are many reasons to agree that conquest, mechanism, analysis, secularity, and the rest have lost some of their totemic power, even if the average cubicle-dweller remains firmly in their grip. Witness the unintentional hilarity of 1950s-era instructional science films, with their stentorian narrators and godlike scientists in white coats. Westerners may be more dependent than ever upon the apparatus of modernity, but they are less happy about it. But even if conquest, analysis, and monolithic organizations have lost their compelling power, that by no means spells the end of consumerism. The consumer, after all, is constantly encouraged to be postanalytical and postcritical ("Just Do It," commands Nike), postobjective ("Make Your Own Road," urges one purveyor of mountain bikes), and even, through the device of brand identity, simultaneously postorganizational and postindividualistic—a member of a postmodern tribe who leverages the prosperity of modernity to join a few kindred souls on an island of commodified culture. The acid of consumerism, dissolving the few bonds that constrained choices in the modern era, produces a fluid environment in which brands achieve world-orienting status almost by default. Postmodernity is ultra-, not post-, consumeristic.
Given the limitations of the term, then, the good news is that neither Neo nor his friend Dan is "a postmodern kind of Christian." A postmodern kind of Christian would be cast adrift in an irrational, subjective, and profoundly consumeristic world where personal choice is paramount and personal fulfillment is the only game left in town. Far from it. McLaren has Neo and Dan engage in carefully crafted conversations that, while not philosophically rigorous in the strict sense, are anything but subjective feeling-sharing. (Indeed, one of the failings of A New Kind of Christian as literature is that it is hard to imagine two adults having such intelligent and honest conversations these days.) They may be "postorganizational," but they are profoundly responsible—which is to say, committed and sometimes frustrated—actors within human communities like school, family, and church. They are undoubtedly consumers—more than one brand name, from Dan's Honda Accord to Neo's beer of choice, Pete's Wicked Ale, gives McLaren a nifty way to sketch his characters—but they are defined by a deeper story that anchors their friendship in something beyond affinity. Except for a certain restlessness, these characters have little in common with the human tumbleweed that populate the works of writers like Douglas Coupland.
Something deeper and more durable than postmodernity is being explored in A New Kind of Christian. It is significant that McLaren has chosen to make his case in the form of narrative and dialogue—a kind of dialogue that is much closer to the Symposium than to Euthyphro. This is not a Socratic deconstruction of a novice's philosophical intuitions. It is a conversation between friends which, like the Symposium, takes place in the midst of human loves and longings. If Dan undergoes a kind of enlightenment under the tutelage of the more learned Neo, Neo also experiences his own transformation in relationship with Dan. McLaren's "two friends on a spiritual journey" are much more than talking heads. They are persons, enmeshed in particular histories, who are seeking truth in relation to one another.
Perhaps more than anything else, then, McLaren is reacting against a Christianity—or a kind of Christian—which feared and evaded this turn to the personal. Modernity, from the factory floor to the sociologist's data model, has little room for particular persons with their infinitely complex stories of disappointment and hope, love and loss, faith and doubt, even as it revels in the ability to exercise control on a massive scale by abstracting away from personal history. Twentieth-century evangelicalism was hardly immune from fascination with the possibilities of technique, from fill-in-the-blank teaching devices like Evangelism Explosion to the "transferable concepts" of Bill Bright to the "observation, interpretation, application" method of Bible study I was taught as a student in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.
Armed with techniques and methods, whether rationalistic apologetic arguments or emotivistic mass crusades, evangelicals were sent forth to make converts. A disproportionate number of evangelicals have always been engineers and technologists. And yet when one actually talks to the beneficiaries of evangelicalism, the stories they tell rarely involve techniques and almost always involve personal relationship. The great irony of evangelicalism is the way it has persisted in consecrating a succession of techniques, even though there is ample evidence that apart from a profound engagement with human persons, those techniques have always proved barren.
Dan, the burned-out pastor, is a prisoner of technique. His formulas are failing him and, he suspects, his congregation. His formation in the ways of evangelicalism has left him dependent on a tired set of certainties. Neo, on the other hand, as Dan says at the end of the book, is "a hard character to explain, impossible to forget, and defiant of nearly all categories." He even, in a bit of narrative invention that shouldn't be overlooked, leaves town just when his friendship with Dan is getting good. He is, in short, not a machine. He is a person.
Hard to explain, impossible to forget, and defiant of nearly all categories—this is a perfect description of Jesus of Nazareth. Why has Christianity, particularly its evangelical forms, tried so hard to sand off the hard, impossible, category-defying edges of its incomparably personal Messiah? Why do our literature, conferences, and media so much more readily celebrate scale and uniformity than they do persons, those fearsome God-bearers who upset our expectations, frustrate our desires for domination, and don't stay where we put them?
To ask these questions is to answer them. The "personal Savior" of evangelical piety is in fact an awesome and untamed incursion of the real into our abstracted, flattened cosmos—so threatening to the machinery of Jerusalem and Rome that he invited, and still invites, crucifixion. It is no wonder that we find knowing him, following him, and becoming like him less appealing than learning a new technique. After a century of depersonalized modernity inside and outside the church, Brian McLaren can plausibly propose "a new kind of Christian." But his two protagonists, Dan and Neo, so much like Cleopas and his companion engaging in an animated and perplexing conversation on the road to Emmaus, are in fact the oldest kind of Christian.
—Andy Crouch is editor-in-chief of re:generation quarterly.
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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