Reformed or Deformed?
This is the second in a series of three responses to Brian McLaren's influential book, A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey (Jossey-Bass). The previous issue [January/February] featured a response by Andy Crouch; the series will conclude in our May/June issue with a response by Tony Jones, author of Postmodern Youth Ministry, and reflections by McLaren, who is already at work on a sequel.
Let me come clean at the outset. I picked up this book with some wariness, assuming that I would be a critical friend of its perspective. After finishing the book and reflecting on it, I would call myself a friendly critic, finding it less helpful than I would have hoped and more dangerous than I would have thought.
This book is an account of a journey out of that kind of reactionary conservatism that acts as if it is already in possession of all answers to all questions—as if omniscience were one of God's communicable attributes. McLaren has chosen to write his suggestive critique in the form of a fictional dialogue between two characters: Dan Poole, a middle-aged pastor, weary of external trials and internal questions, and Neil Edward Oliver, a high school teacher (himself a former pastor) who serves as Pastor Dan's sherpa guide into the inviting wilds of postmodernity.This second character is called—acronymically—"Neo" throughout (perhaps with a nod to the protagonist of The Matrix). Yes, he really is. This well prepares the reader for the subtlety that marks the book.
Questions of literary merit are best left to others. Just know that I had the temptation to review the book with a Peter Kreeft-like dialogue between J. Gresham Machen and Father Stephanie, rector of the nearby Church of the Holy Inarticulate Conception. But I resisted.
Certainly truth can come in the garb of fiction. This is no new insight of our narrative-loving age. From the brief parables of Jesus to Erasmus' In Praise of Folly and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, works of fiction have long been understood to be appropriate vehicles for bringing uncomfortable facts to light. Behind the masks of characters, we may entertain and empathize, criticize and consider ideas which, had they appeared straightforwardly, we would quickly dismiss or wrongly defend. But art not only reveals; it also conceals.
Throughout the book, there are many flashes of wisdom that reveal the author's pastoral experience. The pastorate is difficult. Lack of success does lead to a willingness to change. Those who have a "believe the worst" suspicion are distracting and debilitating. It is hugely important to work with young people. But this book was not written about any of these topics. Nor was it written simply to bring the reader to engage empathetically with the characters. It was written to change the mind of the reader.
In his autobiographical introduction, McLaren says that this book is about exactly what its title would suggest: learning "to be a Christian in a new way." For him, he says, this was the only way forward, if he did not want to fall into hypocrisy on the one hand, or apostasy on the other. But are these in fact the only alternatives?
Certainly all Christians must recognize the importance—even necessity—of change. Apart from embracing change, we Christians have no salvation. The churches of the Reformation have at their core an understanding of the need for always being reformed according to the Word of God.
This isn't to say that all changes are good. Until fairly recently (let's say, until the Enlightenment) in the West, change was taken as almost equivalent to decay. Though this is hard for us to believe, "novelty" was for a long time a pejorative term. The great historical changes that were in the foreground of our Protestant parents' thinking were the fall of Adam from the garden, and the apostasy of the church from the gospel. With such changes in mind, the Protestant Reformation was a conservative revolution. Its attempt was not a realization of a new vision but the recovery of a lost one. In that sense, there is something in the genes of Protestantism that is conservative—wanting to keep—even recover—the good. Even the New Testament itself was a set of revolutionary writings only in the most conservative way. The New Testament documents, from the earliest epistle to the latest gospel, were written not to augment, but to confirm and assure the faithful continuance of the message of the gospel to the rising generations.
The questions of what exactly needs to be changed and what needs to be conserved are crucial. Does A New Kind of Christian offer an accurate diagnosis? That much in the church today is in need of reform should not be in doubt, and McLaren has rightly described some of the problems we face:
- The evident lack of transformation in the lives of many evangelicals.
- The meanness of many fundamentalists.
- The shallowness of much that passes for evangelism, whether through coercion or intimidation; the mass-marketing of conversions and the ubiquity of the unbiblical phrase "accepting Christ as your personal savior"; the distorted counting of conversions.
- The privatization and wrong individualism which have come to characterize vast tracts of American evangelicalism. McLaren's concerns about systemic injustices are appropriate concerns for Christians to have, providing a needed corrective—so, too, his call for Christian generosity in an age of affluence.
In all of these areas, among others, McLaren raises important concerns. But has he rightly traced the causes of the problems he identifies? Here I am less certain. Much of McLaren's analysis is composed of stereotype. Let me give some specific examples.
1. History is distorted. Postmodernists often write of "tyrannizing metanarratives," that is, sweeping explanations of history and reality that twist facts in order to justify their own coherence. But surely the way the adjectives "premodern" and "medieval" are thrown around throughout this book are themselves distorting (an ironic problem for a teaching that suggests that "the need to put everything into nice neat categories is part of the problem"). Must categorization always be simply the creatures of small minds in need of mental neatness?
At its worst, this book posits a new, simplistic dualism which will result in the exact opposite of what its author desires—a reducing of everything to either modern (and therefore to be dismissed) or otherwise (pre- or post-) and therefore to be carefully considered. The book abounds with dichotomies between the bad old and the good new. Because of the way McLaren understands the changing of the ages, old comes to equal obsolete. But apart from such invidious comparisons there is the matter of basic historical accuracy.
Are all of our theologies really "basically modern"—including our Chalcedonian Christology, our Nicene Trinitarianism, and our Anselmic understanding of the Atonement? Do we really want to be guided by what McLaren admits is the "gross simplification" of saying that control, machines, and analysis mark the modern age, and then vilifying them? Neo's paean to the postmodern world, inviting us to "become postconquest, postmechanistic, postanalytical, postsecular, postobjective, postcritical, postorganizational, postindividualist, post-Protestant, and postconsumerist," has far more rhetorical heat than light, and is more akin to the sweeping denunciations issued by the Christian fundamentalists so detested in this book, than it is to anything that is likely to engender more careful, searching self-criticism. Or consider this statement: "Remember, modernity only wants abstract principles, universal concepts, and disembodied absolutes … all truth is contextual." Oh, the irony of self-refutation!
2. McLaren divides what should be joined and joins what should be divided. Dichotomies that pit goods against each other don't solve the problem; rather they're part of it. Why not care about being saved from hell and sin, about getting into heaven and being good, about having our sins forgiven and being good neighbors?
On the other hand, McLaren sometimes seems to delight in reconciling opposites, showing that their opposition is only apparent, only due to our modern perspective. On page 41, for example, Neo suggests that the distinction between liberal and evangelical is about to become "inconsequential." I can hardly think of a more consequential distinction, if we're to have any ground to be authentically self-critical, than to have a reliable word from our Creator. To suggest (as Neo does on pp. 48-49, 83) that liberalism and conservatism are really two parts of a whole-would dismiss all the proponents on either side of the issues in dispute. The "they both have a point" conclusion is, at best, misleading, at worst, condescending and dangerously naïve. In this, he seems to appear charitable, even while unintentionally abandoning crucial points.
Such apparent even-handedness (whether in "four views" books from Zondervan and InterVarsity Press or Christianity Today editorials on questions of God's foreknowledge) serves too often to deemphasize what is at stake in the question. This approach can too easily encourage doctrinal apathy in a church already theologically anemic.
To be fair, we should recall that Neo is a character in a dialogue, not simply a mouthpiece for the author, and indeed, in response to Neo's comments about theological liberals and conservatives, Dan raises some of the same concerns I have just expressed. When Neo says that "both sides are against something worth being against. They both have a point," Dan interrupts him:
"OK, Neo, but still, the issue is pretty important. I don't think you can just kind of wish-wash around in the middle and say nice things about both sides. There's a lot at stake. Evangelicals would say the Bible is the foundation for everything, so if you tamper with the foundation, the whole structure is in danger of crashing down."
Here, as at a number of points throughout the book, Dan expresses the concerns of a thoughtful evangelical, anticipating questions that many readers will raise. But here, too, as on most occasions—the conversation about Christianity in relation to other religions is a telling example—I think most readers will agree that Neo has the last word.
Has McLaren rightly pointed the way forward? Here I am less certain still. On the good side, he calls us to self-examination, and though he is mistaken in seeming to assume that criticizing "your own modern viewpoint" is something new, the call to self-criticism is both biblical and difficult.
The call for nuance in understanding the Bible is welcome, but should have been better practiced by McLaren himself. The objections that Neo makes on page 49 to evangelicals' selectively literal reading of the Bible find no answer in the book. Yet even an elementary reading of Christian theology shows that since the New Testament period Christians have always understood that God has worked variously in different times, and that salvation history has a time for the nation Israel, a time for the Babylonian Exile, a time for the Messiah's coming and crucifixion, the Spirit's outpouring, and Christ's return. All of these are unique events, and all of them are significant for how we understand "difficult" passages. By "flattening" the Bible, decontextualizing it, we certainly would run into the kind of difficulties that the character Neo enunciates. But ultimately the Bible itself must be understood to be the judge of any of our traditions, our reasoning, or our interpretations of all spiritual experiences.
Strangely, McLaren's book seems to ignore—or at least underestimate— the constructive role of the local congregation. So Neo tells Dan that those things that had made him "more identified and isolated as a member of a religious subculture" had not served him well in the long run. Yet swimming with dolphins and going to soccer games with non-Christian friends, as good as those activities may be at showing God's reconciling work, fall far short of the picture the local, gathered congregation is to be. Could the privatization that McLaren rightly cautions us about really find its answer not so much in community service and understanding systemic evil, but primarily and most deeply and transformingly by covenanting before God with a certain set of believers to love and serve? Isn't God ultimately behind this in-grouping and out-grouping that McLaren seems categorically to caution us about? Scripture teaches that God actually intends to bless the body of Christ in a way that he doesn't those who remain outside of it, and that we have an obligation biblically to our fellow Christians that we don't to others.
In the last chapter of the book, Neo gives a new idea for what we need perhaps even more than seminaries—"a lifelong learning community, perhaps like the Catholic orders, that one joins—for life." Again, I was stunned here at the mixture of insight and confusion, of beginning to see an important problem which is invisible to so many, and yet at the same time completely ignoring the remedy God has given us. Of course Neo is right that seminaries don't make pastors; under God, churches do. This is the lifelong community of learning that pastors—and all Christians—are to belong to. Why the persistent absence throughout the book of any substantial positive understanding of the local church? Will this offering help the average evangelical pastor who has known the church far too much as audience, and too little as congregation?
In conclusion, in the name of postmodernism, McLaren has ironically undertaken the most Enlightenment of tasks—the Kantian separating of the noumenal (the essence) from the phenomenal (the apparent). One could hardly imagine a more modern undertaking. In his introduction, McLaren charitably assumes of his readers "basic sincerity, goodwill, intelligence, and desire to become a better person and help create a better world." This reviewer at least intends to share all of those laudable characteristics with the author. One appreciates McLaren's good intentions, his own decades of pastoring and his care for countless people. In this book, McLaren has again attempted to serve the church by raising important questions. Criticizing such honest, intentionally believing critical work is a delicate task at best. One wants to encourage true faith, and honest adherence to the Bible, even—and especially—when that adherence turns and challenges our most precious presumptions, and reveals them to be false.
Sadly, I have to say that reading this book has not helped me make real progress. I had already encountered the useful ideas in this book elsewhere. Many others are simplistic, or just plain false. I trust that both the author and the re-viewer can sleep well at night knowing that the church of Christ can survive both bad books and bad reviews. Perhaps in this case, it will have to survive both.
Mark Dever is pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. He is the author most recently of Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Crossway)and Richard Sibbes: Puritanism and Calvinism in Late Elizabethan and Early Stuart England (Mercer Univ. Press).
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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