Brian McLaren doesn’t know anything. That’s not an indictment regarding his lack of knowledge – it is a summarization of his philosophy. And this is why he is seeking, as the title of his book declares: A New Kind of Christian. He is looking to help other Christians join the ranks of those who do not know anything. At least anything absolutely. For Postmodern thinkers like McLaren you see, one doesn’t really posses objective truth. All truth is so helplessly bound up in our modern grids, cultural frameworks, personal biases and institutionalized thinking, that the only thing we really CAN know (though one wonders even about this) is that we really don’t know anything – except perhaps – our own “stories”.
McLaren is “the founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church” just outside of Washington DC. He is a sought after conference speaker and author of several books on the impact of post-modernity on the Church. A topic crying for serious reflection by the Church. This book, A New Kind of Christian, is ostensibly “For all those who want to be spiritual without being – religious” (as the inside front flap reads). It is the fictional account of a series of conversations and emails between a High School science teacher ( Dr. Neil Edward Oliver – Neo throughout) and pastor Dan Poole, with some additional side lights with Poole’s wife Carol and youth minister Casey B. Curtis. And since story telling is (apparently) both McLaren’s and Post-modernism’s preferred method of communication – it is, a story. We are led to assume (at least by the Introduction), that ANKOC is at least the semi-biographical account of McLaren’s own journey through sorting out some of the ramifications of post-modern thinking and his own Christianity and ministry. It is in some ways, his story.
If you are not familiar with Postmodern parlance, stories are what postmodernists prefer to either history or truth. Since truth really can’t be known, and since history is typically merely the version the winners tell, stories (it is argued) are meant to be retold and passed on and used to serve as markers – but they really shouldn’t be taken too seriously. After all, stories are blends of interpretations and slants and revisions. No one gets bent out of shape if you retell a story a little differently – like they do when you try to re-write history. Ultimately, you can know something of other’s stories, but mainly you have the best grasp on your own story. So if you want to tell it a little differently each time – have at it. Who’s to say? Stories as a framework then lend a great deal of flexibility. One doesn’t really have to be worried so much about accuracy or truth. One merely needs to be able to tell their story.
What makes this line of thinking so very attractive, is that in your story, God is who and what you want Him to be. Hell may or may not really be at all. You can be what you want to be. Men may or may not really need to be justified before a holy God, but it really doesn’t matter because – its your story. You get to tell it the way you want to – and somehow, by some freakish particularity of our created or evolved universe (depending on your story) everybody’s story get to be true no matter how much it contradicts anybody else’s. What’s true, is what’s true for YOU. Not really what’s “true”. Except for some.
Who are the ones who have the pipeline to real reality? The Brian McLaren’s of the world. As the book explains, it is a very narrow group who understand these concepts and their import. In one email, Neo relates to pastor Dan that he had a dream about him. He repines that “in the dream, you were exhausted and worn to the bone, struggling to shape a church that was meaningfully expressing the gospel in this new world we’ve been talking about. I asked God why you were so tired, and this answer came to me: there are so few working on this exploration of faith in postmodern territory, and all of those are exhausted because it is so difficult. It seemed like God’s heart was pained at how few are exploring beyond the edges of our modern maps and at how exhausted those few are.” Here then are the new elite of postmodern churchdom. These are the few who have God’s heart’s pains. The rest of Christianity is summarily marginalized. Here are the new Prophets.
One of the most fascinating and untenable self-contradictions that arise in the book, is the critique of the Modern mindset. Neo wistfully states that “in the postmodern world we disabuse ourselves of the myth that theory precedes practice”. This however appears near the end of a discussion theorizing about what seminaries should look like once postmodernism has its way. The self-contradiction emerges as we listen to the postmodernists theorizing about how to get us to where we no longer theorize. In no other discipline (other than certain branches of Art perhaps) would such a notion be looked upon as credible. Pilots for instance learn all about flight techniques and the theories of aerodynamics before they ever dare to take the controls of a jet liner. Rightly so. Even when they have mastered their craft, they file flight plans before they set out, follow detailed and proscribed pre-flight procedures, and keep up on-going training and education. You and I think about where we’re going and how we’re going to get there even before we set off to the grocery store. How much more when we begin to delve into the eternal verities that impact the destiny of our very souls?
To be sure, McLaren is razor sharp at times when he slices and dices the caricature of Christianity that so often prevails in the marketplace of American pop-Christianity. But at the same time, he seems to want little to do with our historical moorings. His approach is about blazing new trails, not relying on the tried and true ones handed down to us. All that came before us is uncertain. Twenty centuries of “Christian universes.” Jude (1:3) feels compelled by “necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.” But McLaren’s concepts are more about forging new paths. So it is that the students in his non-theorized theoretical seminary would be helped to “construct their own model of reality.” This of course forces one to reject the very notion that God has a reality and that that reality governs all that there is. It subtly yet certainly indicts God as being either unable, or unwilling to communicate objective truth or reality to us in any meaningful way. Or at least that He is unable to help us understand it with any more accuracy than that of a re-told story.
McLaren too is dead on when he criticizes the oft-too-tolerated notion that mere theological knowledge or doctrinal precision can be traded off against a genuinely Spirit-led and godly lifestyle. At the same time, he completely disregards the fact that the Bible owns no such aberrant Christianity as genuine either. Sadly (and alarmingly) his answer is to jettison theological precision altogether. But the cost is too great. It is at least as intolerable, if not more so, to try and correct such an ill at the expense of Biblical authority, the Gospel message – and quite possibly men’s eternal souls. Sure, there are licentious abuses of the grace of God. Scripture condemns them by itself. The corrective is truth – not the eradication of it. McLaren, I fear, doesn’t want to speak post-modernese so that he can communicate the Gospel to postmodernists, he wants to BE postmodern. He wants a postmodern gospel. A storied Gospel.
Well, what does this new Kind of Christian look like? First, he has a Bible, but it is not God’s infallible, inerrant Word. In place of it, the NKOC takes the view that God has only managed to leave us with “a pre-modern text, emerging from a people who believed that truth is best embodied in story and art and human flesh rather than abstraction or outline or moralism.” As such, it is NOT authoritative as much as it is “useful.” It is not a God-breathed production, but a human emergence. Nor does the NKOC study the Scriptures in something the like the Historical-Grammatical method. Interpretive science is exchanged for “a grid of decency.” He himself, the reader is the ultimate arbiter of truth. He sits in judgment upon Scripture rather than Scripture sitting in judgment upon him.
The New Kind of Christian has grown past such passe exercises like daily Bible reading and prayer in order to cultivate his personal relationship with Christ. For him, these are far too constrictive activities. They engender quota type thinking. How much should I read, how often? How long should I pray? etc.. Journaling is one of the suggested replacements. Listening to one’s own heart and mind supplants listening to God in His Word and then relating to Him and casting yourself upon Him in prayer. These older methods carry too much of the Modern. In fact, in some ways (he would argue) they can be downright selfish and individualistic. There is no question of course that men can and do abuse such things and make ends out of them rather than the means they were designed for. But once again, we are met with a tendency rather to abandon than to correct.
I want to say this carefully, but yet frankly as it is portrayed in the book: The impression one gets (and I am willing to be corrected here – but at least what I came away with) is that the NKOC wouldn’t dream of having his heart broken over the thought of loved ones perishing in a Christless eternity. Even if he COULD know that such a thing as Hell really exists, he takes the stance that “It’s none of your business who goes to Hell”, as the title of chapter 14 boldly declares. There appears to be no room in his paradigm for the gut-wrenching agony we see in the Apostle Paul in Romans 9 (“I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh”). The NKOC falls back on each just having a different story. I could not help but seriously wonder what the NKOC would say at the death bed of a loved one? And what does this do for evangelistic zeal? The Biblical concepts and language of dire concern for the souls of the lost is entirely defanged.
Again, the NKOC would never ever say that he is “right” about anything. Even about that – I would assume. Instead, the NKOC is only concerned about being good. Good, according to his story that is. Jesus may have told His version of the story that says there is none good but God, and that we need His goodness – but that does not directly translate to us. McLaren’s Gospel seems to distill into “do your best, be nice, and God will accept you.” The absurdity of how this fleshes out is obvious. Forgive the sarcasm, I use it only to illustrate – but could you imagine a student at the end of a math exam saying “Teacher, I know my answer isn’t right, but it IS good”? How about imagining a postmodern surgeon who is more concerned about a good operation than a right one? “The operation? Oh, it went swimmingly! The patient died but the operation was SO good!” Beloved, if it were not so bankrupt, it would be laughable. Can one really imagine themselves before the throne of God arguing that they willfully ignored what God said and required, but that they lived up to their own story? We have a shocking warning about such skewed thinking in Acts 5 with Ananias and Sapphira. They concocted a story that worked for them. And it ended in God’s immediate judgment upon them. They couldn’t just decide to do it their way. Neither can we.
One assumes that the NKOC would consider Elijah’s behavior on Mt. Carmel reprehensible as he mocked and exposed Baal and his false prophets. There is no room for such actions in the NKOC’s story. No other religion should ever be treated that way. For him, the Bible “calls us to live as part of its own story, the story of a loving Creator who started something wonderful and beautiful that in spite of our many failures he will surely bring to a good completion. As we live by that story, we find followers of other stories interested in ours because our story, rightly understood, has plenty of room for them and for their stories too.” Yet we must consider those words in light of the Biblical narrative. Scripture never paints the picture of a God has room for Baal or any other God in His story. One is forced to conclude that “You shall have no other gods before Me” should be considered narrow and Modern by McLaren’s NKOC.
Note too that the NKOC would never “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.”In the first place, he would not contend against anyone except Christians who say they actually know something. Secondly, he knows it is far too arrogant to suppose anything like “the faith” exists. Our story maybe. THE faith? No. Third, “once for all handed down” contradicts the idea that we need to create a new reality. A new story. “Once for all” just doesn’t fit the paradigm. Ever new is the mantra. Being a “defender” is most certainly undesirable. Only being a seeker is kosher. Once you begin to think you’ve actually found something to defend, you’ve crossed the line. “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” just does not fit the pattern.
Lastly, the NKOC knows nothing at all about a need for actual regeneration. Being born again is not actually being transformed inwardly by a sovereign act of God, making one into a new kind of creation. He just heard the story, liked this one best (for now) and came along. Now he’s in transformation.
So let’s recap: The NKOC has a good story; has no real need to pursue reading the Bible or prayer; considers too much time spent on a personal relationship with Jesus selfish and individualistic; refuses to consider that men might perish in a Christless Hell; doesn’t know if he’s right about anything – especially about God, Christ, sin, salvation or Hell; excludes no other religions; has no faith to defend and is not concerned about being regenerate. This really IS a NKOC! Because it isn’t a Christian at all. At least not in the Biblical sense. It is a good old fashioned pagan. “Holding to a form of Godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these.” (2 Tim. 3:5)
The NKOC is simply the same old guy that still has need of the saving grace of Jesus Christ. He isn’t a “Christian” at all. He needs Christ.
At the end of the day, one wonders what the NKOC would really say while standing at the bedside of a dying loved one? It is here that absurdity and tragedy of such things comes painfully into view. Perhaps they might inquire as to whether or not the perishing one is comfortable with their story about what’s next. Have they believed their story? Have they lived up to their story as much as they thought was good, when it seemed reasonable? As Neo put it in the closing prayer to his sermon on death: “Although I can’t be certain or prove it scientifically, the second story we considered today makes more sense to me.” Can we truly comfort them in death by assuring them that while nothing can be proved, at least they have a story that makes more sense to them? “Maybe there IS a Hell, but don’t you like your story better?” How ghastly. What utter and total disregard for the souls of men.
The Apostle John said: “these thing I have written unto you…so that you may know.” Brian McLaren has written to tell us that he doesn’t know, and neither can anyone else. Who are you going to believe?