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.

What is ‘orthodox’?

Fra Angelico’s fresco of St Dominic adoring Christ on the Cross, San Antonino cloister, Museo di San Marco, Firenze

Yesterday morning, with only City of God and a largely-unreadable-due-to-uncut-pages copy of Dante’s De Vulgaris Eloquentia to keep me company, I did a little websurfing over/after breakfast before hitting the mean streets of Firenze and visiting San Marco Priory (aka Museo di San Marco) where I saw Fra Angelico‘s work in situ and was stirred to worship of that Person of the Holy Trinity Who was crucified and died for us.

Fra Angelico’s art takes us to the heart of orthodoxy with his numerous crucifixion scenes depicted in the cells of the Dominican friars housed in the Renaissance priory.

And the question of what orthodoxy is came up before my departure. I wandered through the Internet Monk, but find the site a bit lacklustre since the falling asleep of the iMonk himself, so then I popped over to Bill Kinnon, and reread this post about Brian McLaren’s departure from orthodoxy. I was then ultimately led to this good post by Jeremy Bouma about his journey into, through, and ultimately beyond Emergent Christianity.

Which, after almost 200 words, brings me to the starting point of this post. One of the commenters on Bouma’s blog said this:

Something is only orthodox after a larger body holds it for long periods of time. But that doesn’t make it true.

This statement is a common thought amongst tradition-averse evangelicals and progressive liberals alike: Orthodoxy is a construct made by the majority opinion or the victors of the Church councils. It is not, therefore, true.

Well, it is not necessarily true.

First, then, what is orthodoxy? This sort of question is the sort of thing that Emergent stuff was good at when evangelicals were still willing to listen and be unsettled by the conversations McLaren et al. started/fuelled.

Here is a moment when etymology is not a fallacy (unlike some PoMo/Emergent attempts to make church = called out because of the etymology of ekklesia). Orthodoxia is right belief or right worship. Both are important — one is the worldview, the other how we live in light of the worldview. Do we worship rightly? Do we worship the right God? Do we believe the right, or true, things?

In his book A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren affirmed that at the heart of orthodoxy lies the Apostles’ Creed. I spoke on this in Cyprus; the Apostles’ Creed encapsulates the Gospel and the Canon of the Faith which were also elaborated in the so-called Nicene Creed in 381. This Canon of the Faith existed as the oral tradition of the Church at a time when the New Testament canon was still loose and somewhat in flux; it helped the Church set the boundaries of what was and was not Scripture, in the end.

We have evidence of it in use in the early 100s and in various forms throughout that century.

The Canon of the Faith is, then, the central core of orthodoxy, the heart of the tradition.

If this is what we mean by orthodoxy, then, yes, a lot of people have believed it for a long time. While that does not make it necessarily true that makes any of the other contenders not necessarily, properly speaking, Christianity. If the people who chose our Scriptures and evangelised the world believe something to be central to their religious identity, and we deviate from that, we are no longer actually part of the same religious group as they were.

We have become something other.

Now, there are lots of other bits of orthodoxy that Emergent people have questioned. Some of them are in Scripture, others are logical outworkings of Scripture but not the only possible results, some of them are the majority opinion for most of history, some of them are the widespread beliefs of modern evangelicalism. These, like theological hymnody and the cult of the saints, should be evaluated individually. Of these parts of what is called ‘orthodoxy’ all truly orthodox?

And if we do this in humility and with prayer, perhaps we’ll have a different vision of faith. So long as it ever drives us upward to the Crucified God, questioning things beyond the core of orthodoxy is a helpful habit.

But remember, weary travellers must find at least an inn, if not a home. Let us not endless deconstruct with never resting in God’s Truth.