The Story We Find Ourselves In: Further Adventures of a New Kind of Christian
By Brian McLaren
198 pp.; $21.95
Brian McLaren continues to toss up ideas that surprise, inspire, convict, and alarm. My copy of his latest book is full of underlining, question marks, explanation points, and hastily scribbled notes. That's true of my reaction to postmodern evangelicals in general. They're energetic, iconoclastic, and brimming with creativity about how we can talk about the gospel in fresh ways today. Whenever leaders of this movement speak—Doug Pagitt and Chris Seay are two others—believe me, I listen, though I sometimes also wince.
In his last book, A New Kind of Christian, McLaren's hero Neo declared, "When we let go of [the Bible] as a modern answer book, we get to rediscover it for what it really is: an ancient book of incredible spiritual value for us, a kind of universal and cosmic history, a book that tells us who we are and what story we find ourselves in so that we know what to do and how to live."
That becomes the subject matter for the sequel, The Story We Find Ourselves In: "I hope that this book will help 'non-religious-but-spiritual' people discover how their lives and world might look in the context of this new-old story," McLaren writes, "while helping modern Christians reimagine our story beyond the grid of its modern telling."
Once again, McLaren embeds his theology in story. This time agnostic biologist Kerry Ellison has a series of conversations with Neo that lead to her conversion. Along the way, her cancer reemerges, and in the end she dies, a subplot that entails a few others as well.
Through Neo, McLaren lays out what I would summarize as an evolutionist/environmentalist version of the gospel, one that highlights the role of humankind in the biblical story. Thus in nearly every case in which he takes up a biblical episode, Neo glosses over the dominant theocentric interpretation of the passage at hand and searches out its anthropocentric meaning. Early on Kerry summarizes what Neo has taught her about the opening episodes of Genesis:
"We've broken the robust dynamic harmony of goodness, so men and women struggle in conflicted relationships, like Adam and Eve. New economies arise and compete, often with lethal results, like Cain and Abel. Languages and cultures strive for dominance, as at the Tower of Babel, and civilizations develop in the flood plain of complete chaos and self-destruction [as in the story of Noah]. We've mucked up the story. That's the crisis, the crisis we find ourselves in."
Neo indeed tips his cap to the traditional notion that the fundamental crisis is a disrupted relationship with our Creator, but it is the above theme that he pounds home.
It is no accident that much of the story takes place on the Galapagos Islands, in the context of Kerry's research on tortoises. One theme of the book is to reject literal creationism and embrace a biblical understanding of evolution. Another is to interpret the Bible so that scientists and environmentalists will give it a hearing.
When she first meets Neo, Kerry announces, "I'm a scientist" and noting that he is scientifically trained as well, she asks him to explain the moving worship service she had just attended. Later she wonders, "How could he, an obviously intelligent man, and a man of science no less, believe all that stuff?" And how can he "reconcile God and evolution"?
In response, Neo tries to help Kerry reimagine the biblical story in a way that makes evolution central to the unfolding drama of creation. The opening verses of Genesis, he says, reveal a story of "emergence, evolution, development, order arising from chaos, life being coaxed from the waters."
At the same time, he wants Kerry to see that the contrast between an ideal spiritual realm and a corrupt physical world, so influential in Western thought from Plato onward, is not biblical. The natural world, in fact, is treated almost religiously in the book. When Neo and Kerry spot a tortoise one day, they "slowly sat down, cross-legged on the grass, almost in reverence. 'Amazing,' Neo said, and they sat in silence for several minutes."
This evolutionary, humanistic emphasis continues in Neo's interpretation of the New Testament, so it is no surprise that when he starts explaining Christ's atoning work, it is Abelard's notion of moral influence, and two similar theories, that are given the most prominence. In these theories, the atonement is not ultimately about how Christ alters a metaphysical rupture in the universe but how his death affects us existentially and morally: "The cross," says Neo, "calls humanity to stop trying to make God's kingdom happen through coercion and force, which are always self-defeating in the end, and instead to welcome it through self-sacrifice and vulnerability."
Such themes can indeed be drawn from the enormously rich and complex legacy of the Christian tradition, and it may be helpful to have them highlighted at this time. Yet even when creatively packaged together, they do not constitute the story we find ourselves in, but only certain aspects of a larger story.
Repeatedly in the book Neo warns Kerry, "Try to stick with the story as it is preserved for us in Genesis, without all the overlays and interpretations." But it's pretty clear early on that in Neo's reimagining of the biblical story, we are getting plenty of "overlays and interpretations," and a few just plain misinterpretations along the way.
One example will have to suffice: Neo at one point moves from explaining the first-century social meaning of rabbi to defining the word Lord. "It doesn't so much mean 'master' in reference to a slave, but master in the sense of … in the sense of master of martial arts, for example, or a master craftsman or a violin master."
This may apply to rabbi, but it is an odd reading for Lord, as any dictionary of New Testament Greek will show. Those who are subject to a kyrios are very much in the mode of obedience, from the personal—"Why do you call me 'Lord,'" Jesus asks his disciples, "and do not do what I tell you?" (Lk. 6:46)—to the cosmic: every knee will bow and tongue confess that "Jesus Christ is Lord" (Phil. 2: 9-11). Obeisance is certainly the context in such passages as these, as is all of Paul's talk about his being a "slave" of Jesus Christ.
I wonder what tempted McLaren to suggest that Neo's own readings were not full of overlays, especially when he has Neo say in his previous book, "Our interpretations [of the Bible] reveal less about God or the Bible than they do about us. They reveal what we want to defend, what we want to attack, what we want to ignore, what we're unwilling to question."
Without conceding everything to such hyper-relativism, I would agree. This book, then, tells us a little bit about the gospel, and a whole bunch about Brian McLaren's passions. One of those is expressed eloquently in the middle of the book, when Neo talks about "the story":
"It's the story of becoming, of unfolding, of novelties emerging and possibilities being explored and diversity flowering. And best of all, it's not finished yet. We're still in process, still young, still moving toward what we're going to be when we're all 'grown up.' And each of us, through our lives, through our choices … plays a part in the continuing evolution of God's creation."
To be sure, some of McLaren's passions merit argument. But if he can win a few 'non-religious but spiritual' people to Jesus with his evolutionary reading, more power to him.
Mark Galli is the managing editor of Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture presents Books & Culture Corner and Book of the Week Mondays at ChristianityToday.com.
Christianity Today reviews of McLaren's books include:
A Newer Kind of Christian | Brian McLaren's sequel to A New Kind of Christian touches other tenets of faith. (March 26, 2003)
The Postmodern Moment | Are Christians prepared for ministry after modernism's failure? (June 18, 2002)
The Virtue of Unoriginality | The old kind of Christian is the best hope for church renewal. (April 4, 2002)
Christianity Today columnist Andy Crouch reviewedA New Kind of Christian for Christianity Today's sister publication Books & Culture.
Earlier editions of Books & Culture Corners and Book of the Week include:
Why We Are in Iraq | Michael Kelly, R.I.P. (April 7, 2003)
Letter from Spain | A former resident returns to find that it is still stony ground for the Gospel. (March 31, 2003)
Lessons in Nation-Building From a Fledgling Democracy | Shays's Rebellion describes a time when revolution was no longer cool. (March 24, 2003)
Whose Reality TV? | Tune in this week to Frederick Wiseman's PBS documentary, Domestic Violence, to see some real survivors. (March 17, 2003)
Oh, Brother | Most everyone agrees that the James ossuary is a significant find. Ask what it means, however … (March 17, 2003)
Vanity Fair | A chronicler of religion plays the straight man. (March 10, 2003)
Diagnosing "The Doctor" | A new assessment of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, preacher. (March 3, 2003)
Taken Prisoner | Stories from the far-flung frontiers of the British Empire, 1600-1850, challenge our preconceptions. (Feb. 24, 2003)
Another Third Way? | The mixed record of Catholic social thought. (Feb. 17, 2003)
Divine Numbers | Can you say "Christian" and "mathematics" in the same sentence? (Feb. 10, 2003)
Getting Beyond Victimology | A provocative collection of essays for "the black silent majority." (Feb. 3, 2003)
Strange Bedfellows | Christopher Hitchens and Christopher Caldwell collaborate on a collection of political writing. Has the millennium arrived unnoticed? (Jan. 27, 2003)
Encounters of the Gods | Christianity and Native American religion in early America. (Jan. 20, 2003)
Books Present, Books Past, and Books to Come | Plus: A new format for this column. (Jan. 13, 2003)
Double Indemnity Meets Dead Souls | A conversation with novelist Richard Dooling. (Jan. 6, 2003)
Books of the Year | The top ten. (OK—make that twelve.) (Dec. 30, 2002)
Entertain Us | Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and the rapture of distress. (Dec. 16, 2002)
Boys Will Be Boys | A new book by a leading Christian feminist scholar inadvertently reveals the flawed assumptions underlying much talk about "flexibility" in gender roles. (Dec. 9, 2002)
Street Cred | Dave Eggers: The portrait of an artist as a … what? (Dec.2, 2002)
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