A New Kind of Christian by Brian D. McLaren

The short version: This book is written in the genre of a novel which I think is a really good way to explore those ideas bundled together as ‘postmodern’. It is geared towards disillusioned American evangelicals who still love Jesus but find a lot of problems in the way church is done and stuff is talked about in the year 2000 (a lot of these problems persist to this day). It is good at asking hard questions, but the few answers are sometimes too vague as to actually be helpful or only highlight more problems. The concepts of modernism/modernity and postmodernism/postmodernity as assessed. Sometimes I think there are factual errors in these discussions. Nonetheless, this book is good at problematizing — and I think a lot of people found it refreshing to start thinking about different ways of being Christian that did not mean abandoning historic orthodoxy.

18 years later, I am not sure I would recommend the book. This is because McLaren imagined the imminent arrival of postmodernity, yet we have found ourselves living in the hypermodern instead. For example, instead of a pluralist culture where Christianity is one respected voice amongst many, we have a situation that I was recently told is called ‘postsecular’ — secularism is so deeply ingrained in our society’s ways of operating that we are living in the truly secular age forecast by Charles Taylor years ago. That is to say: The book is good, but limited in part because of the new directions our culture is taking and has taken, unanticipated by 2001’s new kind of Christian.

Cultural assessments and critiques like this are probably meant to only have a certain shelf life.

I’ll set aside where I suspect the factual errors are in the description of modernity, and focus on the conversations about Christianity. The conversation partners clearly want to rise above the division of conservative/liberal, which is nice but likely impossible. Throughout, the main pomo fellow, Neo, says, ‘People think in this binary fashion. The conversation is actually up here.’ It’s a nice way of dodging answers. Nevertheless, a question raised cannot be un-asked.

For example, when the question of salvation comes up, this book gets really twitchy. I think McLaren was reacting against some unhealthy approaches to the question used by American evangelicals and fundamentalists. One of the questions about salvation was the question of universalism vs inclusivism vs exclusivism; the first means everyone is saved by Jesus’ saving power; the second means everyone who puts their faith in Jesus is saved along with certain people of other religions like the Calormene in C S Lewis’ The Last Battle; the third means only those who put their faith in Jesus are saved. Neo says that this question isn’t the Bible’s main concern, and the Bible is more concerned with living out your salvation with fear and trembling.

Except the Bible does have things to say that have bearing on the question. I would rather the new kind of Christian be humble in his or her answer, whichever of the three, than come up with some pomo pseudo-logic to avoid answering.

This is only one example of many. It leaves the book intellectually unsatisfying. I am, perhaps, more ‘modernist’ than I’d like to admit, but since the first moderns were mediaeval, and I like the rigour of Boethius and Anselm, I’ll take the label.

I do agree that late twentieth-century American (and Canadian) evangelicalism (which, not modern Christianity at large, is the real target of the book) needed a readjustment regarding the word salvation. Neo insists that the way evangelicals approach the question, of ‘getting saved’ and going to heaven, is selfish. I’m not sure that it’s selfish; it’s too small, however, and I appreciate the bigness of Neo’s vision when he incorporates the cosmos into the question.

But human salvation means the salvation of persons, and this is part of the biblical doctrine of salvation. When I think of salvation on the human level, I am certainly not thinking of a ‘Get out of Hell Free’ card in a heavenly Monopoly game. My reading of the Fathers, medievals, and Orthodox thinkers has been leading me down new paths about participation in Christ and the ongoing work of salvation and such. This sort of richness of human salvation would have benefited the book simply because it tempers evangelicalism without gutting it.

This or something like it could be my tune for almost all of my disagreements with this book. For example, looking for a third way of ethics that is neither fundamentalist moralising nor liberal social works with no regard for inner character (that’s not quite how it’s phrased) — you mean Roman Catholicism? There’s a different kind of Christianity with a powerful social teaching and regard for the despised and rejected as well as moral standards as high as those of any evangelical — except at least Catholics can drink beer!

I could go on because it is easier to complain than to praise. There is much good in this book in terms of shaking things up — What do you believe about the Bible? What about salvation? Your own? Others’? Those outside the church? What is the relationship between church and kingdom? What do we do regarding other religions? Science and religion? etc., etc. Some of the answers are satisfying, some are correction course (‘Hey, the Bible is mostly stories!’), some are unsatisfying in the extreme.

In the end, this chief weakness still comes back to me, though. The characters foresee a future where Christians re-engage ancient and medieval spiritual practices (yay!). They imagine training for ministry that includes reading broadly through the whole tradition in terms of time and space (yay!). They engage in endless periodization (ancient – medieval – modern – postmodern) (blah). But the ideas of ancient and medieval, let alone Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, Christianity are never presented as options for those disillusioned with the options currently on offer in modern Christianity.

From what I see, this problem would plague the emergent movement until it fizzled out. They want the pretty, evocative stuff of ancient/medieval Christianity (incense, icons, candles, compline, pilgrimage, mysticism, even fasting and almsgiving), but not the intellectual rigour of an Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Anselm, or John of Damascus. The existence of Roman Catholics is noted, but the richness of the Roman Catholic tradition rarely engaged.

This is true of all three of McLaren’s books that I’ve read — and the reviews of A New Kind of Christianity show him ramping it up with his ‘Greco-Roman thesis’ that the biblical plot of creation – fall – redemption – glory was an importation from Platonic philosophy (it’s not; it bears little to no resemblance to Platonism; I do not know where he got this), or that if you reject penal substitutionary atonement theory you reject Christ’s death atoning for us (all Christians before Anselm must be confused, along with all of Eastern Christianity) — if he had read the Fathers and the medieval and Byzantine theologians deeply, he would not have made these errors. He may still have been a heretic, but at least an informed one.

In the end, if you are disillusioned with contemporary evangelicalism and want to find a different way of being Christian, this book may be helpful. On the other hand, why not just read Ephrem the Syrian, or Sebastian Brock’s excellent book about him, The Luminous Eye? Or Isaac of Nineveh? Both are online for free, after all. There you will find a different kind of Christian who yet affirms the reliability of Scripture and the Nicene faith without all the hazards of either evangelicalism or liberalism.

An Old Kind of Christian

I have recently begun paternity leave, and I’ve decided that, besides not formally doing work for ten weeks, I’ll also take a moment away from reading ancient, mediaeval, and Orthodox books for a little bit, to sort of, um, freshen the brain. Read books ‘normal’ people read. So I’ve put my ‘fun’ reading of Statius’ Thebaid on hold and have started Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, and my Christian-y reading of St Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations has been switched for Brian D. McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian.

I realise I’m 18 years late to this party (and was 18 when the book came out), so any meditations I have on a book that thought it was cutting-edge in 2001 may be a little inappropriate. I will not be able to recapture what it must have been like to have been 36 reading this book back then.

Also, I have read two of McLaren’s books already, one in 2004 (More Ready Than You Realize) the other in 2006 (A Generous Orthodoxy), and I have to admit that I liked them, but neither was revolutionary or game-changing. Finally, for my own 2001-02 context, I did read, in 2002, Walsh and Middleton’s Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be, my introduction to postmodernism.

Anyway, having laid out a bit of my own modern context (I use that word on purpose), I also assume any regular reader knows that I am a Classicist and ecclesiastical historian who specialises in Patristics with research interests that stretch into the High Middle Ages and an eclectic, East-leaning Anglican devotional life, having been raised in a charismatic Anglican parish.

Before beginning this book, my thoughts were largely as follows. My sister-in-law once observed that Brian McLaren was not that revolutionary in these early books; he was mostly just explaining postmodernism to middle-aged people. In the end, however, the emerging church as a movement has proven itself largely spent. McLaren’s book A New Kind of Christianity set him not merely outside the bounds of evangelicalism but of any orthodoxy, however generous (for some solid critique, I direct you to Bill Kinnon, since I know and trust Bill). He demonstrated himself simply another liberal; he was running so fast to find something new that he ended up in the 1990s in 2010.

The only other two names ever associated with the emerging church that I can think of are Rob Bell and Mark Driscoll, and I’m sure I’ll get in trouble for daring to mention Driscoll’s name with such illustrious company — for Driscoll has proven himself simply another Reformed megachurch pastor who happens to be edgy. Bell decided to catch up with the Episcopal Church in affirming universal salvation and gay marriage. Oh, yes, Peter Rollins; he seems not really to be a liberal simply because he is so very different. But he’s by no means anywhere within the boundaries of historic orthodoxy — he may be the only one to have succeeded in becoming a new kind of Christian.

When I first asked a couple of years ago the question, ‘What happened to the emerging/emergent church?’, I found a video on YouTube of one less-famous member chatting with a slightly more famous guy. The less famous emergent guy had emerged into Roman Catholicism, and the other had turned out a Pelagian who rejected the Nicene Creed not on any logical grounds but on the highly individualist notion that the men who wrote it had to place telling him what to believe. It was a strange conversation to watch.

So it seems that in trying to embrace postmodernism, many associated with emergent have ended up modern(ist) in one way or another — the individualistic Pelagian who also rejects Nicaea; the guy who bailed out and became Catholic; the Reformed pastor; the guys who are really not so different from the liberal mainline, itself a product of modernity.

This, of course, is no surprise. Contrary to all the exciting things being said in the first 46 pages of A New Kind of Christian (this is as far as I have got), postmodernism was simply a self-critique of modernism, which is what modernism has been doing for most of its existence. The idea that postmodernism may actually simply be an outgrowth of the modern mindset, that it may actually be modernism dressed up in fancy, new jargon, first came to my attention in a 2009 or 2010 issue of Adbusters. Since then, I’ve seen or heard of a growing critique of postmodernism.

So McLaren, et al., for all that I know their books helped a lot of Christians work through important issues and critique the modern church, failed at becoming a new kind of Christian.

I realise this post is already long-ish, but my other thought, a thought that also inspired the title, and one which I hope to explore further, is that perhaps an old kind of Christian is what we need, but neither a modern(ist) one nor, indeed, an irrecoverable pre-modern one. Brian Walsh and others have dug into those of us who think that we should hunt down pre-modern Christianity to find moorage in the sea of postmodernity. (Brian Walsh has also succeeded in slowly drifting in liberalism in his embrace of the postmodern; where are the orthodox postmoderns?) Rather, I think of a spirit-infused prophet of old who has drunk deeply of the Fathers and can body forth for us in our current context, be in post- or not, the ancient, medieval, Byzantine and even (gasp!) modern wisdom the Spirit has poured into the Church.

One may argue that that kind of Christian sounds like a postmodern Christian as imagined 18 years ago. The difference is that, unlike a Peter Rollins who provides a long-running critique of the whole Christian project, or McLaren who doesn’t really seem to understand the medieval world (or didn’t, back in 2001 when he wrote this book, based on how he uses Lewis’ The Discarded Image), this is someone from within the tradition who embraces it, is infused with it, and loves it to bursting, because the tradition is the manifestation of the Kingdom of God on earth, because the tradition is the Holy Spirit at work in the world of men, because the tradition is the life story of the Body of Christ.

Postmodernism, that is, late stage modernity in its current manifestation, has a liking for story and song. Is tradition not simply the story of the church? Is it not the song sung by the Spirit in His people over these long years? Let us go deep into the Christian tradition, East and West, and prayerfully seek the wisdom of the mystics and liturgists and saints and poets and theologians who have brought us here, and use them as guides to bring us to Christ.

It is Christ who will lead us onward.