Saturday, January 15, 2005

Semper Reformanda--The Church Must Always Be Reformed

Sorry this is late. I know I forecasted this book review would appear sometime in December of last year, but none of us needs a reminder of how hectic and out of control the holidays can be, right…

Has there been, in the past decade, a more inspirational and concurrently infuriating book than Brian McLaren’s, A New Kind of Christian?

“This stirring fable captures a new spirit of Christianity--where personal, daily interaction with God is more important than institutional church structures, where faith is more about a way of life than a system of belief, where being authentically good is more important than being doctrinally "right," and where one's direction is more important than one's present location. Brian McLaren's delightful account offers a wise and wondrous approach for revitalizing Christian spiritual life and Christian congregations.”

I have never read a Christian book that left me more energized, befuddled, angry and encouraged than this book. McLaren’s take on the future of Christianity, through the often maligned eyes of postmodernity, is nothing short of staggering and awe-inspiring. It will deeply and irrevocably challenge all who crack its spine and delve into its pages.

Taking a page from the great C.S. Lewis, McLaren frames his story in a fictional narrative dialogue between an earnest, traditionalist pastor, Dan, who is burned out with the church and planning to quit, and his daughter’s science teacher, Neo, who leads him on an enthusiastic journey of postmodern thought as it applies to the Christian faith.

Something new is struggling to be born. Through Neo, McLaren outlines how the world is on the verge of social, economic, and technological change heading into the 21st century and describes why the practice of Christianity will and must change as a result. As an example of the paradigm shift that is to come, he compares our current social, political, economic and religious landscape to that of the Protestant Reformation and hypothesizes on how radical the church of tomorrow will be as Luther’s is from medievalism.

The Church to a large degree, Neo and McLaren lament, doesn’t even seem to be aware of the change:

“Doesn’t the religious community see that the world is changing? Doesn’t it have anything fresh and incisive to say? Isn’t it even asking any new questions? Has it nothing to offer other than the stock formulas that it has been offering?”

This thesis, that Christianity under modernity is as much wed to cultural accouterments and swelling as was the Medieval Church to Aristotle, is hardly new or unique to this book. It could be argued, however, that McLaren’s voice is the clearest and sharpest of all those who currently prophesize the arrival of a brave new world.

While change on a sociological scale is never easy or painless, McLaren insists that it will occur. The question we must ask ourselves is, will we allow the tide of the future to propel us into the undiscovered country or will we plant ourselves in fierce opposition and watch our influence and persuasiveness ebb away with the surge.

“All ages are ages of change, but not all ages involve transition. The dangers of transition are real. But are the dangers of the status quo less real?”

Finding ourselves perched between two great epochs is a scintillating and precarious position. All that we understand about being a Christian has been conditioned by modernity. Our theology is fundamentally modern, having been fashioned in the modern crucible of thought. One of McLaren’s strongest urgings is that it is not that modernism is bad and postmodernism is good. It’s a matter of appropriate and inappropriate. The church cannot continue on its present course or else it will inevitably run aground on the shoals of irrelevancy and powerlessness.

McLaren does not see postmodernity as a utopia in which Christianity will flourish without restraint. He readily acknowledges that postmodernity, like all other eras before it, will have its own set of unique and challenging hurdles to disseminating the Gospel. Furthermore, there will come a time when postmodernity will be replaced just as modernity is in the process of disappearing. When that day comes, the postmodernists must recognize that their model has become irrelevant and must pass away to make way for a more appropriate, more influential, more suitable model tailored to the burgeoning future.

Does this then mean that it is impossible to own a faith that transcends whatever historical situation one finds oneself in? McLaren doesn’t think so. If that were the case, the church would be irrelevant. But if the essence of Christianity is translatable for all times, than the difficulty we now find ourselves in is merely the growing pains of contextualizing our faith to fit a different time and place.

“[T]he spiritual resurgence that I see brewing is unconventional and even irreverent at times, largely developing outside the boundaries of institutional religion. But that to me says more about the rigidity of our institutions than the darkness of the current spiritual resurgence; it says more about our old wineskins than about the quality of the new wine fermenting around us.”

To transform, we must be brave enough to admit that the church and our participation in it is shaped by our culture and its views. Furthermore, we must not only admit that our time does not hold all the answers, but also admit that in many areas it has failed or been rendered impotent. Christians cannot rail against the failures of our modern world without admitting that that very modernity has shaped, molded and seeped into the very cause they champion.

“Either Christianity itself is flawed, failing, untrue, or our modern, Western, commercialized, industrial-strength version of it is in need of a fresh look, a serious revision.”

Modernity’s malfunctions are being deconstructed and catalogued every time you turn around: its over-emphasis on objectivity; its uneasiness with mystery and grey areas; its obsession with superficiality; its lust for consumerism; its implicit (explicit?) violence that comes from reducing human phenomena to abstractions; its insistence on conquest and control; its reliance on analytical rationality and its predilection for reducing all ideas to solvable, simple, categorized equations at the expense of creativity and imagination; its need to always argue unyieldingly for absolute rightness which converts the end of debate from understanding and perception to winning and losing; the alienation of individualism; etc.

At times it seems that A New Kind of Christian’s author focuses more on the negatives of modernity than the positives of the future. However, transition must always bring forth criticism before it can give birth to intrinsically positive transformation. Furthermore, McLaren is not interested in writing just one more “how to” manual, but in inspiring his readers to discover the process for themselves. The book does not lay out how we are to then live, but instead points out that a change is on the wind and tries to point to the direction humanity is being blown.

The bulk of A New Kind of Christian is the fleshing out of exactly what the title’s subject looks like. What does evangelism look like in a postmodern context ("Stop counting conversions and start counting conversations")? How does postmodernity talk about salvation? How is the Bible to be read? What does it truly mean to love one’s neighbor and what does that look like? What are the unique challenges and opportunities for the Church in the coming age?

Postmodern Christianity, according to McLaren, does not draw the distinctions of modernity. It is far less interested in labels. Liberal v. Conservative, Protestant v. Catholic—these are distinctions that create walls to ostracize and corral people, not set them free. Postmodernity strives to find the truth and the good in both arguments.

A New Kind of Christian is not meant to be a primer for postmodern Christian living nor even an apologetic or treatise on an emerging creed. It is, simply, the story of seekers who, like myself, have become disillusioned with the limitations of institutionalized American Christianity and are questing for an authenticity and openness in their faith journey—an openness that inculcates an environment in which it is safe to ask the sort of frank and sincere questions which tend to frighten or upset traditionalism; the courage to pioneer fresh ways of seeing the Gospel; a place where right belief takes a back seat to right relationship with God and with our fellow human beings; a place where the questions may be more important than the answers; a place where the destination matters little compared to an honest dialogue and humble pursuit of God.

“The church doesn’t exist for the benefit of its members. It exists to equip its members for the benefit of the world.”

As exhilarating as this book is, it isn't for everyone. The degree to which one considers oneself conservative or evangelical is perhaps the degree to which one will find McLaren possibly heretical and somewhat divergent. There is plenty here to wrestle with. I found myself alternating between resounding yelps of praise and admiration and audible gasps of ignominy and shock. McLaren’s opinions and suppositions of issues such as biblical inerrancy, the validation of experience, the literalness of Scripture, and the questioning of Absolute Truth are points at which I still grapple.

But I for one consider spiritual earthquakes a good thing. We need, in my opinion, to be shaken from our religious lethargy with opinions and insights that challenge our pre-supposed and established principles. Only in honest observation and dialogue do we gain understanding and knowledge. Only in debate are our views sharpened and crystallized. Only in resistance are muscles strengthened. Besides, I'm not entirely convinced he's not right.

One doesn't have to accept all the ideas this book offers to see that many of them ring true and may represent a siren’s call from God to embark on a great and wondrous journey. The Christian may not be new, so much as he/she may be more in sync with the timelessness of Christ’s message and living example instead of the trappings of a modern-day Christianity that substitutes its pet peccadilloes at the expense of God’s heart.

“[The Bible] is a book that we can misinterpret with amazing creativity. Our interpretations reveal less about God or the Bible than they do about ourselves. They reveal what we want to defend, what we want to attack, what we want to ignore, what we’re willing to question. Maybe we need to read [the Bible] less like scholars and more like humble seekers trying to learn whatever we can from it.”

If you are convinced that you already know the whole truth and it's entirely black and white to you; if you're satisfied with the simplicity of "we're going to heaven, they're going to hell"; if planting yourself at a theological location and defending it is your view of apologetics; if you feel you have “arrived” at your faith; if you're convinced that if Jesus were here today he'd be a right- wing fundamentalist than this book is one you should run from as quickly as possible.

“When it comes to other religions, the challenge in modernity was to prove that we’re right and they’re wrong. But I think we have a different challenge in postmodernity. The question isn’t so much whether we’re right but whether we’re good. And it strikes me that goodness, not rightness, is what Jesus said the real issue was—you know, good trees producing good fruit, that sort of thing. If we Christians would take all the energy we put into proving we’re right and others wrong and invested that energy in pursuing and doing good, somehow I think that more people would believe we are right.”

However, if you are looking for a holistic Christian philosophy that rises above the simplistic heaven v. hell, saved v. non-saved, right v. wrong construct that characterizes most implementations of the Christian message; if you are embarrassed by the Christian image created by zealous and unyielding fundamentalists; if you are concerned that the Christian message seems to have been co-opted by those who seem rigid and judgmental rather than loving and compassionate; if you are confident that you don’t have all the answers and, in fact, were never meant to; if you are committed to Jesus but are open to new ways of getting his message out to the world; if the prospect of adventure, mystery and discovery entices you, A New Kind of Christian will be like a breath of fresh air in a stagnant debate.

“Whatever postmodernism philosophy is, it is still in its infancy. Defining it is premature. Just as modernism took nearly two centuries to find its full expression in Enlightenment rationalism, were at least a few decades from anything close to a mature expression of postmodern philosophy.”

Someday postmodernism will be given a name (after all, we don’t refer to modernism as postmedievalism) and hopefully lose the stigma so many in Christian circles have given it. For many of us though, there is no going back. Many, like myself, feel we are balanced on the cusp of a new great awakening. Moving forward, on the other hand, leads to Terra Incognita, treacherous and strewn with the carcasses of sincere but messy mistakes. Has it ever been any different? While doubtless there be dragons here, bold guides like McLaren are all the more essential, marking the path with a bracing vitality and a deep sense of wonder at the motioning hand of God. For all the danger, McLaren intimates, this is the right path.

“I firmly believe that the top question of the new century and new millennium is not just whether Christianity is rational, credible, and essentially true (all of which I believe it is) but whether it can be powerful, redemptive, authentic, and good, whether it can change lives, demonstrate reconciliation and community, serve as a catalyst for the kingdom, and lead to a desirable future.”

FEBRUARY BOOK REVIEW: Donald Miller’s “Blue Like Jazz”


Blogger c_neil said...

I bought this book because I liked your recommendation.

12:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The book review tugs, perhaps tears, at my heart. Some churches have lost touch with the heart of Christ which is always in touch with us and always relevant.


1:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't started the book, but I am looking forward to it now because of your review. And as Your old English teacher, I love to see your writing. You continue to amaze me with your ability as a wordsmith.

8:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice work, Brandon. You do a fine job of capturing the spirit of reform by revealing the struggles in your own life. I just pray to God that McLaren's work does not evolve into "Seven Kinds of Highly Effective New Christians," or "The Postmodern-Driven Church." Maybe "Lose 40 Pounds of Modernity in 40 Days..."

9:34 AM  
Blogger c_neil said...

I finished reading this book tonight and I want to thank you for recommending it. I have recently engrossed myself in a systematic theology book and I sometimes get so distracted that I lose sight of the beauty of relationship and the necessity of community.
I am thoroughly modernist in my theological thinking, but I do like to be challenged.

I believe that McLaren shortchanges the modern age and the effectiveness of churches in it. Until Moore's Law (the one that asserts that microprocessor speeds will keep getting faster and faster) hits a brick wall I believe that we will still be able to safely say that we are in the modern age. The economy will still be pushed by the need to make things better and faster, knowledge will still have to be compartmentalized in order to make processes work, and the consumer society will still have to allow for the notion that some things are better than others (even if all the pluralists allow people to compare are commodities). Assuming this, I think that modern churches, contrary to what McLaren seems to assert, are hardly on the brink of suffering the fate of the dinosaur.

I also don't believe that in order to be an effective "new kind of christian" churches have to change from the inside out. All that needs to happen are some shifts in attitude and preaching. There is no need to discard the importance of individual salvation in order to convince people that social justice is important and that taking care of the environment is part of good stewardship.

There is also no need to throw out guidelines for pastors and elders that are nearly two millenium old, as McLaren's fictional examples seem to imply. I've heard some preaching by reformation movement theologians, such as Mark E. Moore, that comes pretty close to post-modern, but yet they still actively work for a group that has strict gender guidelines for church leadership, takes a hard line on divorce, and draws a sharp distinction between those who are "in" and those who are "out" of the church.

I truly believe that McLaren could have been just as thought provoking if he would have dwelt less on modernism vs. post-modernism and focused more on the idea that Christians are saved "to serve" and not merely to "keep our butts out of Hell." The book would have taught a lesson that does not get preached enough and it would have been something that both moderns and post-moderns should agree with.

1:23 AM  

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