Brian McLaren's 'A New Kind of Christianity'
Brian McLaren has grown tired of evangelicalism. In turn, many evangelicals are wearied with Brian. His most recent book, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith (HarperOne), must be understood as his latest iteration of a project of deconstructing the old and reconstructing a new kind of Christian faith. In it, he poses a question that this review will seek to answer. It is a question he asks of himself: "How did a mild-mannered guy like me get into so much trouble?" Or, as he asks one page later, "How did I get into this swirl of controversy?"
As a friend and a chronicler for two decades, I have watched Brian's work. Generous Orthodoxy gave us a critique of both sides and some glimpses of a third way, even if the book frustrated to no end by leaving too many loose ends dangling. I thought both The Secret Message of Jesus and Everything Must Change provided us with what could become an evangelical social gospel. Along the way, Brian has poked evangelicals in the eyes and chest by fixating on sensitive spots that bedevil them—not the least of which is the uneasy connection between the "spiritual" gospel and the "social" gospel. If evangelicalism is characterized by David Bebbington's famous quadrilateral—that is, biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism—then Brian has poked and, to one degree or another, criticized, deconstructed, and rejected each.
Some of the pokes, if we are honest, have been deserved. He keeps on poking in A New Kind of Christianity—harder than before, in fact. For example, the chapter on how evangelicals defended slavery skewers a problem in their biblicism. In his (unsatisfying) chapter on homosexuality, McLaren writes about a movement he calls "fundasexuality."
But I want to turn the following comment from McLaren back on him: "Sociologists sometimes say that groups can exist without a god, but no group can exist without a devil." Brian's devil is Western evangelicalism, which he caricatures often, and his poking is relentless enough to make me say that he needs to write a book that simply states in positive terms what he thinks without using evangelicalism as his foil.
Bigger fish to fry
Brian is not only poking evangelicals, he is also calling everything about Christian orthodoxy—from the ecumenical creeds through the Reformation and up to present-day evangelicalism—into question. He thinks there are four crises facing the world and therefore the church today:
- prosperity that is ecologically unsus-tainable;
- equity shifts that are widening the gap between rich and poor at record levels;
- security in a world with escalating violence; and
- a spirituality crisis, since the world's religions are not adequately addressing the first three crises.
Brian blames what he calls the "Greco-Roman narrative," summing up his complaint like this: "I realized that my conversation partners [his evangelical critics] simply couldn't address life-and-death issues like poverty, the planet, and peace within the conventional paradigms they inherited. … The Greco-Roman narrative, founded on a constitutional reading of the Bible … rendered those life-and-death issues invisible, insubstantial, and unaddressable." Thus, the Greco-Roman narrative "needed to be confronted, questioned, and opened up, which then shaped the direction this book has taken."