I picked up this book with some ambivalence. When I’ve read Brian McLaren’s work in the past, I could tell that he was a progressive thinker with a deep understanding of why and where the Christian religion needs to change, but I could never shake the suspicion that he was holding something back. This was understandable–he writes, I think, for a largely Evangelical audience, so it is not surprising that he would sugarcoat his more progressive ideas to make them palatable to his not-particularly-progressive audience. But I’m not a part of that audience, and I didn’t think I had much to learn from him.
The reviews for this book persuaded me to give it a shot, and I’m glad I did, because it’s quite good. McLaren seems no longer to be restraining himself and has put forth an unabashedly progressive vision for a new kind of Christianity. For the progressive Christian reader he covers a lot of familiar ground, but he does so with arguments and examples that are lucid and, for me anyway, quite novel.
The larger part of the book deals with the “Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith.” (A less optimistic person would describe them as “Ten Contentious Issues That Are Dividing the Church.”)
The first concerns the “overarching story line of the Bible,” which McLaren argues is quite different from the Creation/Fall/Redemption narrative most Christians have been taught, explicitly or not. He describes the latter as a “six-line narrative,” beginning with perfection in the Garden of Eden, then “the Fall” into original sin, and then a period of condemnation. Following this is the coming of Christ, where the path splits in two directions: salvation and heaven for some, damnation and hell (understood as “eternal conscious torment”) for others.
McLaren notes that this story can lead to an understanding of the meaning of our earthly existence as simply a process of “soul-sorting,” where the purpose of our lives is to “deliver souls into their appropriate eternal bin.” He also notes that a lot of people have been questioning this storyline, and suggesting ways in which it needs to be tweaked, but too few have actually questioned if this story “is morally believable” or “whether it can be found in the Bible itself.” (He argues that it’s not and that it can’t.)
This is mostly good stuff, and I agree that understanding our existence this way is a gross distortion of the message of Jesus. Unfortunately, McLaren stumbles a bit when he blames it on the “Greco-Romanization” of the Church, which he understands as the appropriation by the Church of the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. This is the weakest part of the book, as McLaren misrepresents both of those philosophers and the ways they influenced Christian theology. He does this as part of the creation of a “Greco-Roman” bogeyman, complete with its own god, “Theos,” against which he can juxtapose the more authentic and more Jewish narrative he wants to promote. (He would do well to follow the advice of Albert Einstein: “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”) In fairness to McLaren, he does acknowledge later on that it is too simple to “blame all our problems on the the Greco-Roman captivity of the biblical narrative.” But that doesn’t solve the problem of what he wrote earlier, which will turn off most people who actually know something about Greek philosophy.
McLaren finds another source of the Church’s ills is the tendency to read the Bible as if it was a legal constitution that is univocal and internally consistent, instead of seeing it as a community library that contains a number of often dissonant voices and preserves the “vigorous internal debate around key questions that were precious to the theological culture in which it was produced.” McLaren describes a number of ways the constitutional approach to the Bible has been used to justify evils like slavery and to condemn advances in science. Many Christians like to imagine that such abuses belong exclusively to the past, but McLaren disagrees, pointing to the widespread hostility toward homosexuals by those who read the Bible constitutionally as an example.
For many progressive Christians, a lot of what McLaren writes will sound familiar: Jesus’ message about the “kingdom of God,” commonly (and erroneously) understood as pertaining exclusively or at least primarily to the afterlife, is much more about transformation in this life; he points out that Jesus’s message was not about converting from one religion to another, and this has implications for how Christians should relate to people of other faiths. Those familiar with the thought of Ken Wilber will see his influence in the last part of the book.
None of this is earth-shattering, but McLaren articulates it very clearly and has a knack for teasing out the perverse implications of some common Christian beliefs, often in ways I had never thought of. At the same time, he recognises that this new kind of Christianity isn’t for everyone, and I disagree with his critics who claim that he is disrespectful or condescending towards those who disagree with him. On the contrary, he is unfailingly nice, which is probably why so many of his critics have labeled him a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
But McLaren is not a wolf, and he’s not pretending to be a sheep. He’s trying to show people that they don’t need to be sheep, either. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in progressive Christianity, and I think this would be a great book to give to someone who is beginning to grow out of their conventional faith.