(This is Part Ten of a series. Click here to go to Part One.)
In the very first paragraph of his chapter dealing with religious pluralism in his book A New Kind of Christianity, Brian McLaren writes the following sentence: “We all woke up again today in a world where Christians, Muslims, and Jews (along with adherents of many other religions) are either killing one another or planning new ways to kill one another, and many believe that in doing so they are obeying and even pleasing and honoring God” (p. 207). While what McLaren states is technically correct, it is also a foreshadowing of the exaggeration and overstatement that awaits the reader throughout the remainder of the chapter. Although McLaren’s primary goal in this chapter seems to be a reinterpretation of John 14:6, he spends a good deal of time rehashing the church’s historic dirty laundry as if it is descriptive of how the church has always operated. In other words, in his answer to what he believes is the ninth question that is “transforming the Christian faith,” McLaren uses the exceptions throughout church history as if they were the rule.
Anticipating that his critics might make this very claim (using the exceptions to prove the rule), McLaren writes this as an admonishment: [Christianity’s history] is not a pretty picture, and claiming these assaults on the other were isolated incidents perpetuated by a few bad apples rings of cluelessness and denial, not honesty and repentance” (p. 209). Well color me clueless and in denial then, because I am not about to allow the church’s history to be hijacked by axe-grinding anti-Christian liberal historians. Am I saying that the church’s history is all wine and roses? Certainly not. The church most definitely has had its share of low points, but it has also had a number of high points—a far greater number of them. In reality, McLaren is falling for the same type of historical revisionism that he condemned in the previous 15 pages of his book. In his chapter on the future, McLaren rightly points to dispensational thinking (the dominant view among evangelicals) as producing a pessimistic view of tomorrow; but it should not be forgotten that dispensationalism is ultimately pessimistic about the future because it is pessimistic about the past. McLaren seems to be convinced that he can persuade his readers to be hopeful about tomorrow by showing them how bleak it was yesterday, not recognizing that this was the very tactic that helped to entrench dispensationalism in the minds of 20th and 21st century evangelicals. Describing the first two thousand years of church history as a general failure to live in this world as ambassadors for Christ (even though it is seldom communicated this plainly1 ), does not exactly inspire and encourage the present generation to success in the same mission.
However, McLaren does make a valid point when he describes modern Christianity’s ineffectiveness at being able to draw a distinction between people and the religious beliefs they hold. This is most often a hindrance in getting individual Christians to take a cup of cold water or a hot meal to a needy person. Our modern definition of “believe in Jesus” evangelism has placed far more value on a person’s spiritual state than on their physical needs. Using verses like Matthew 16:26 (“What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”) to tip the scales in favor of “getting people saved,” modern evangelicalism has forgotten the apostle James’ admonishment to show our faith by the means of our works. Evangelism has come to a be a formula rather than a relationship. I am in complete agreement with McLaren on this point, but his solution of tipping the scales the other direction is also missing the point. McLaren feels uncomfortable with the “us versus them” mentality, and rightfully so, but his answer tends to place far more emphasis on the physical and minimalizes the spiritual.
To this end, McLaren makes it his mission to blunt the biggest club used most often by well-meaning evangelists: John 14:6. He writes:
As often as not, someone, like a gunslinger going for his revolver, will reach for John 14:6 and draw it in a flash. “But didn’t Jesus say he was the way, truth, and life and the only way to the Father?” they ask, implying that if Jesus is the “only way,” then we cannot show Christlike love and respect to our neighbors of other traditions. (p. 212)
While I understand what McLaren is saying here, his implication is off-base. I have never encountered a Christian (although I don’t doubt that they are out there) who uses John 14:6 as a justification for not showing Christlike love and respect to someone of a different religion. When McLaren spends the next ten pages offering a new interpretation of John 14 (which brings up several very good points), he does so based on a faulty interpretation of the prevailing understanding of it. When moderns use John 14:6 as a motivation for their spiritual-minded evangelism strategy, they are not showing a lack of concern for showing Christlike love to that person, they are using it to show what they believe is the ultimate showing of Christlike love—convincing that person to become a Christian. The primary problem with the church’s current method of interfaith dialogue is not a lack of love, it is a lack of understanding about they are called to do. Most modern Christians are not taught that the Holy Spirit is the only One who convinces people to become Christians. Because of this, most believe that the right method, tract, or persuasive apologetic argument is able to win a person to Christ. Meanwhile, the very things that Christians are commanded and are able to do—provide drinks, meals, warm beds, and clothing, etc.—are overlooked as being too mundane compared to changing a man’s spiritual state. McLaren is right to lament this sorry state of affairs, but he misdiagnoses the symptoms. His prescription for the illness becomes one of a new emphasis on the physical state of man, almost to the exclusion of his spiritual state. It is not that his recommended action is wrong in itself, but that it is motivated by the wrong reasons.
Ironically, McLaren admits that he is mystified when Christians resort to using John 14:6 as a “gunslinger” verse. “Why,” he wonders, “do so many sincere, well-meaning, and well-trained Christians put aside a hundred other relevant verses and pull out this one?” (p. 212). Good question. It was at this point that I was expecting McLaren to produce several (or at least one) of the “hundred other verses,” rather than launching into a full-scale reinterpretation of the “gunslinger” verse and its context. From a strategic standpoint, McLaren would have been much better off in taking the former tactic of producing a slew of other verses that promote the type of social and physical-minded benevolence that he thinks the church should be known for. Instead, his exposition of John 14 comes off rather flat and predetermined, because even McLaren has a difficult time avoiding the real force of this verse. And this is why so many Christians appeal to this verse when they want to show the exclusive claims of Christ and Christianity. As much as McLaren tries to prove otherwise, John 14:6 is a clear and explicit example of Jesus claiming the exclusive right as heaven’s Gatekeeper. In trying to soften the power and simplicity of Christ’s claim, McLaren puts himself in the same boat as those with which he expresses frustration. In order to reinterpret the exclusivity of John 14:6, McLaren puts himself at odds with a “hundred other relevant verses” that also teach that Christ is the only way to God (e.g., Mt. 11:27; Jn. 10:9; Acts 4:12; Rom. 5:2; Eph. 2:18; Col. 3:4; Heb. 10:19-20; 1 Pet. 3:18; 2 John 9; etc.). As I said, his exposition does bring up some interesting points (like the term “My Father’s house” in 14:2), but it never succeeds in accomplishing what he wanted it to. He proves once again that his primary ability lies in raising questions, not answering them.
This is by far the most frustrating and recurring theme in McLaren’s book(s). Like a three-year-old, McLaren never tires of asking “Why?”. This is not necessarily a bad thing, we need men like McLaren to raise good and pertinent questions about the way the church carries out its divinely-given mission, but McLaren’s problem is that his questioning streak knows no boundaries. McLaren openly admits that he doesn’t have the answers, only that he is willing to “have a conversation” and is convinced that truth will eventually fall out of many words. The issue is not one of asking questions, but of not liking the answers. Although McLaren claims to believe the Bible as the Word of God, he goes to great lengths to make it say what he wants. Although McLaren and his friends (as he often refers to his like-minded postmodernists) claim to have no real idea what this “new kind of Christianity” will ultimately look like, they most certainly have an idea of what they don’t want it to look like. They dislike hard-lined doctrine and will do everything they can to keep it out of their “new Christianity.” What they fail to understand is that a definitive rejection of doctrine is just as much a dogmatic statement as is a definitive acceptance of it. Doctrine is unavoidable; either your doctrine will positively declare what you do believe, or it will negatively state what you don’t. In both cases you are left with a definitive set of beliefs.
This is why after spending 10 pages redefining John 14:6 to suit his own fancy, McLaren is left to end his chapter on interfaith dialogue with this admission: “We haven’t even begun to resolve all the issues of living in a multifaith world as deeply committed Christians seeking a new kind of Christianity. But I hope this much is clear: there is a way to be a committed follower of Christ that doesn’t require you to be flatly and implacably against other religions and their adherents” (p. 223). Bravo. I suppose while we’re adding things to the list that Christians aren’t required to do, we could add: be a polygamist, open a restaurant, invest in Arctic expeditions, and swim the English Channel. If McLaren is really under the impression that most Christians believe they are “required” to hate people of other religions, he might want to evaluate whether or not he really knows any other Christians. Straw men are certainly easier to knock down than the flesh and blood kind, but it becomes awful embarrassing when you can’t even knock down the straw man. When McLaren makes the concession at the end of the chapter, that he never really got around to answering the question that he posed at the beginning, one begins to wonder why the chapter was even included in the first place. With the majority of the chapter being devoted to a reevaluation of John 14:6, one shouldn’t wonder long.
McLaren had no intention of actually discussing interfaith dialogue, his real motivation was undermining Christ’s claims of exclusivity. He is ashamed of the claims of Christ and just can’t fathom how a loving God would send nice Muslims and Hindus to hell. Rather than trying to comprehend the Truth, McLaren feels empowered to redefine it. In order to make the Bible say what he wants he distorts church history, misrepresents modern evangelicalism, elevates pagan religions, and overlooks large portions of Scripture. If this is what is required for a “new kind of Christianity,” you can officially count me out. And when you strip away everything that makes Christianity unique in order to make it look like all of the other world religions, can you really even call it “Christianity” anymore? I think not.
To be concluded…
- Of course, there is an exception to every rule and McLaren provides the exception by baldly summing up the historical situation in this way: “Christianity has a nauseating, infuriating, depressing record when it comes to encountering people of other religions (and a not much better record when encountering people of other brands of Christianity either)” (p. 208). Feeling motivated yet?(↩)