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.

Words: Mystical (vs McLaren)

Re-post from elsewhere in 2007

St Hildegard receives a mystical vision

Words are very important. They are how we communicate ideas, from the simple, “Whip the cream on medium speed,” to the profound, “Now the Catholic Faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity; Neither confusing the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.”

Charles Kingsley says:

These glorious things — words — are man’s right alone. . . . Without words we should know no more of each other’s hearts and thoughts than the dog knows of his fellow dog . . . for, if you will consider, you always think to yourself in words, though you do not speak them aloud; and without them all our thoughts would be mere blind longings, feelings which we could not understand ourselves. (Quoted by John Stott in You Can Trust the Bible, p. 52)

[Unsurprisingly], I think words ought to be used with precision. I admit now that I am probably more guilty of using words imprecisely than I think, including on this blog. But an admission of non-innocence doesn’t mean that an ideal ought not to be striven for.

One of my chiefest complaints regarding A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian D. McLaren is his imprecise use of words. He uses mystical by its connotation, not its denotation. (Connotation is the cloud of emotion surrounding a word, whereas denotation is what the word technically means.) What he really means is vague, mysterious, bigger than we are, things that cannot be fully comprehended by the rational mind, and expressing the mystery of the universe – fine. Christians are called to do that.

But that’s not what it means to be mystical. Not in reality. Maybe in a world where post no longer means “after” (its denotation as old as the Latin language) but “coming from, emerging from, growing from, and emphasizes both continuity and discontinuity.” (120) But in the real world, the world where words have meaning, mystical refers to someone or something associated with mystics and mysticism.

The whole goal of Christian mysticism is reaching upward to God and achieving union with the Divine. It enters into mystery, into a world beyond reason, but neither does it abandon reason nor does it seek illuminative experiences for themselves. Some mystics are very down-to-earth, others appear not to be. But this has nothing to do with some sort of airy-fairy word with little meaning and use if it just means “bigger than I can comprehend, mysterious, somewhat vague, written with poetic language, etc, etc.”

I remember a professor who came as a guest speaker to my Writer’s Craft class in High School. He delineated for us the difference between flower and rigour. I shan’t do him justice, really, and probably remember incorrectly and am reinterpreting his words through the lens of my own thinking, but he says that good writing has more rigour than flower. It means taking time and choosing the right words, using them appropriately, and writing sentences that make sense. A lot of old poetry was very good at flower, but not rigour, abandoning sounding like a human being for fitting into meter. He seemed to be anti-meter, but if you read Shakespeare, you see a skillful use of meter, whereas if you read some other poets, you see it done badly. Shakespeare had rigour. Certain others did not.

If we use words with rigour, using them to mean what their denotations mean, then their connotations actually have real power and force, if you ask me. Suddenly, they add depth and meaning to the well-wrought sentences that we bring to the page, rather than feeling light and skimpy – for when used to refer to mysticism or a mystic, the word mystical can bring much more depth than if it is left to mean merely its connotation. It will bring both its connotation and its denotation to the table, and the world will be richer for it.

If we like, we could start criticising my blog and the medium as a whole for being the sort of place where little rigour is found, for blog entries are rarely given enough time for the words to be carefully chosen. In a blog, words are just chosen. A blog is more like a birthplace for ideas, a place where they can start flowing. Nonetheless, perhaps we bloggers should be more responsible as we blog. We should think on our words and make sure we are using them for their technical meaning. When we use words like church, do we mean “those called out” [its meaning by the etymological fallacy] or do we mean “the assembly” [its actual denotation]? These are the questions every writer should ask, regardless of how long his writing takes. At least, this is what I think.

But I’m neither a mystic nor a poet. Maybe Brian D McLaren would give a different answer. The postmoderns out there are all railing against this entry, I’m sure, decrying it as modern, saying that I’m trapping words and limiting them and binding our thoughts and so forth. But how can our thoughts move forward into the new future and the world if they are imprecise, if they are sloppy? If we want to have a proper understanding of the world, regardless of how incomplete we admit it to be, regardless of the fact that we realise the failings of our own perceptions, to at least communicate our broken, fallen, failing understandings of the universe clearly is a laudable goal. And if precision in writing is “modern”, it is also medieval and ancient. And perhaps being “postmodern”, if it means being imprecise is simply being post-everything.

But that should be okay, since post doesn’t actually mean after, whatever my Latin dictionary tells me.*

*This last dig is directed at McLaren’s declaration in (the otherwise good) A Generous Orthodoxy that post doesn’t mean after, but, rather, taking the good of the old and looking forward to what comes next. I maintain that that is not what post hitherto meant, and if we are going to start making up new meanings for old words, we shouldn’t be surprised when people misunderstand us.