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Brian D. McLaren

Faithfully Dangerous

Christians in postmodern times

Some days I can hardly contain my emotion when I check my emails. Today a reader wrote in the early hours of the morning: he couldn't put down A New Kind of Christian until he finished it at 2 a.m., weeping because he felt understood. Both "paid" and "amateur" Christians say the book helped them in profound ways. They often say the book disturbed them, yet in spite of the discomfort, they—almost always—say thanks, often using those little emoticons the Internet is famous for, as if to be winking or smiling through the pain of being stretched in their thinking. Very seldom is heard a discouraging word.

Not quite so here in Books & Culture. While Tony Jones expressed appreciation for the book, Andy Crouch offered some gentle critiques ("Let's Get Personal," January/February 2002), and Mark Dever's piece ("Reform-ed or Deformed," March/April 2002) judged the book downright bad.

I found Andy Crouch's reflections stimulating in too many ways to cover here. Just one example: Crouch wondered, as have several others, if post-September 11, "postmodernity" may be over or nearly so. For some, this is a deeply held wish, understandably so if they associate postmodern with all that is nihilistic, relativistic, dark, dank, and otherwise distasteful in contemporary culture. My understanding of the term is less jaded, so I am not disposed to wish for postmodernity's quick demise—especially because I think it offers more space for Christian life and mission than modernity did. (And if that statement seems incredible to you, that's a good reason to read the book.) Actually, I sense the world becoming more postmodern in the wake of September 11, not less, shown nowhere more succinctly than in a striking passage from President Bush's speech to Congress after September 11: "This is the world's fight. This is civilization's fight. This is the fight of all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom." That sounds like something beyond standard modernity to me. Bush doesn't identify the United States as either Christian or secular, but rather as allied with pluralism; it's not all about nationalism but rather globalism. On March 11, six months after the attacks, he ended his speech not with the traditional "God bless America" but with "God bless our coalition." Even for those who don't like the term postmodern, it seems pretty clear that the times are changing.

On to Mark Dever's critique. There are a number of ways in which I think Dever's response suffers from flaws not unlike those he finds in my book. For example, I was puzzled by a question like this: "Why not care about being saved from Hell and sin?" The "and" in his rhetorical question was clearly my point, contrary to his implication. And when he judges the book devoid of "substantial positive understanding of the local church," I (as a pastor who writes books late at night) can only conclude that we must define "substantial positive understanding" by different criteria. Of course, the pursuit of new and better criteria was pretty much the storyline of the book.

Speaking of new and better: Dever says that for me, "old comes to equal obsolete." Actually, the playful name "Neo," which Dever mocks for its lack of subtlety, carries meaning the subtlety of which he may have missed: "neo-" doesn't simply suggest new, but rather the rediscovery and re-presentation of something old (in a new way), as in "neoclassical." Couldn't Dever see that the new approaches I am exploring are intended to rediscover and cherish our ancient spiritual practices and resources more than modern Christianity has? Even if we disagree about the efficacy of those approaches, we are in agreement that this heritage must not be squandered.

There are other questions I could raise about Dever's judgments and assumptions. But far more interesting are the ways in which I found his critique somewhat helpful. In particular, it helped me define more clearly the audience for whom I wrote the book. I never expected the book to change the minds of happy campers. Rather, I wrote the book for those who find themselves increasingly dissatisfied with the status quo of modern American Christianity (including both sides of its liberal/conservative polarization/paralysis/preoccupation). At the same time, as I react to Dever's criticism, I'm forced to look inward: I regret any places in my book (or this response) where my tone is needlessly harsh.

Dever is dead right on this: the book admits on occasion to "gross simplification," and it is guilty thereof. I wish I could have simultaneously achieved conversational simplicity, brevity, and readability along with a scholarly level of complexity, nuance, and thoroughness. I did not do so to Dever's satisfaction—or now, thanks to him, to my own.

More substantively, Dever's Reformed perspective offers a helpful way to define the project that I and others in the same boat are pursuing. John Calvin's lifework, as I understand it, involved a creative attempt to construct a bold new framework for theological thinking and faithful living for those who (on biblical and experiential grounds) were dissatisfied with and moving beyond existing late-medieval Roman Catholic frameworks.

There are two ways to honor the work of Calvin and the Reformers more generally, I suppose: 1) to faithfully defend and promote their post-medieval formulations through all time, or 2) to follow their example in seeking to construct formulations of faith that are as fitting to our postmodern times as theirs were to their post-medieval times. Dever and I apparently agree on honoring the Reformers, but perhaps not on which is the best way of doing so. Here is my hope: that Christians wiser and better than I am will successfully undertake a creative project as suitable to our day as the Reformers' was to theirs.

Perhaps the most evocative phrase in Dever's review came near the beginning, when he said forthrightly that he found the book "less helpful than I would have hoped, and more dangerous than I would have thought." That was well put, and actually quite helpful and perhaps even dangerous in its own right.

I agree: the kind of deconstruction/rearticulation attempted in my book is dangerous. Like marriage, it is not to be entered into lightly. That's why I value Mark's critique. Meanwhile, I would hope that he and all who are temperamentally and conceptually of his tribe will consider another danger, one which Tony Jones's piece makes very clear. There are thousands of sincere and gifted Christian men and women, many of them under 35, bright and creative and passionately dedicated to Christian mission, who seem to resonate with a longing my book seeks to convey, in spite of its imperfections. Pointing out my book's dangers, as Dever sought to do, is a valid enterprise. But doing so without also listening, without also seeking to understand (with compassion) the dissatisfaction, longing, and hope that resonate in the hearts of thousands of younger readers (and even some older ones, like me)—that could be dangerous too, don't you think?

If the doorkeepers of evangelicalism want people afflicted with these dissatisfactions and longings to either leave the premises or stay and argue, it won't be hard to be rid of us, because we find no pleasure in the harsh, grinding polemics that too often characterize religious dialogue. Practicing stridency, we are certain, will turn us into exactly the kind of Christian we don't want to be. We'd prefer to reinvest that time and energy doing the kinds of things A New Kind of Christian sought to highlight: presenting the gospel in deed and word, making disciples (of a new kind), building community, serving the poor, creating art, playing with our kids, loving neighbors whatever their religion, all in Christ's name. Of course, we hope for a third option: with a humble, respectful, and irenic spirit, to continue to enjoy the good company of our more traditional evangelical brothers and sisters while we quietly continue our work.

The cost of exclusion, if it occurs, will be high: how many churches already lament the absence of younger voices between 18 and 35, and the graying of their shrinking constituency? Such emerging voices, hopeful for a new Christian ethos, may well be the target of critical blasts less charitable than Dever's restrained critique—blasts intended to frighten them into silence (hardly a victory, but a more common persuasive strategy in the religious world than we like to admit). If those intimidations appear to succeed, the silence won't be acquiescence: it will be the quiet sound of an empty room, a "safe" room devoid of young people asking tough questions.

I look at my four young-adult children: any standard modern picture of what it means to be a Christian just doesn't work in the emerging world they have been born into. That's why the accepted portrait of what a Christian is "needs to be redrawn, with new colors and new media," as Jones (himself a minister to youth and young adults) puts it so well. Ironically, then, a book like A New Kind of Christian, in spite of its many imperfections, may prove helpful to the children and grandchildren of those who are most critical of it.

So, I thank Mark for bringing up the word danger. I hope readers will ponder both the many dangers he fears from my book and this danger I am bringing up. I suppose dangers tend to come in (at least) two's. Attempts (in Jones's words) to go beyond retrenchment or "changing the frame around the picture" deserve critique no less careful than this dialogue made possible by Books & Culture. I hope that readers have benefited, as I have. I also hope that someday soon, others will paint (and please, God, exemplify!) far more compelling and beautiful portraits than mine in A New Kind of Christian, perhaps motivated in part by this conversation among Crouch, Dever, Jones, and myself. Then, the four of us will have become partners in helping inspire those better portraits, a pleasant thought to me, and a great reason to thank God, who works all things together for good—even including, as Dever said (sort of), mixed reviews and imperfect books.

Brian D. McLaren is the founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in the Washington-Baltimore area. He is at work on a sequel to A New Kind of Christian.

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