(This is Part Eleven of a series. Click here to go to Part One.)
We have mercifully reached the final question of Brian McLaren’s “ten questions that are transforming the Christian faith” from his book, A New Kind of Christianity. As is often the case with writers of the “Emerging church” persuasion, the end is seldom the end. In fact, McLaren so much as admits that his book was never meant to be the final word on any of these questions. He writes: “You will notice that I have not tried to answer these questions definitively, but only responded to them provisionally, seeking to open up conversation, not close it down” (p. 257). This may sound humble and sage-like, but it doesn’t ring very sincere when it was McLaren himself who proposed the questions in the first place. He seems to indicate that these questions are ones that the church needs to answer, but it becomes obvious throughout the book (and especially in this last section) that McLaren isn’t really interested in answers per se, he is searching for answers that reinforce his own predisposed way of thinking about what a new kind of Christianity will look like. Although he encourages others to join him on his quest with the assurance that “if you come in that spirit of collegial contribution and creative collaboration, many of us will be eager to hear what you have to offer as we journey forward together” (p. 257), the thoughtful contributor and collaborator should think to question how we know which way is “forward.”
The very idea of progress, or moving forward, in any particular area is predicated upon an understanding of what progress should produce. Professor Robert Nisbet makes the point that “progress” is a fairly elastic term:
Quite obviously, so sweeping a proposition as the idea of progress…cannot be empirically or logically verified. One may say, precisely and verifiably enough, that the art of medicine or the art of war has advanced, given our perfectly objective ways of noting the means toward the long-held end or purpose in each art: saving or healing life; destroying one’s enemies as effectively and lastingly as possible. Plainly, penicillin is, and can be proved to be, superior to old-fashioned remedies—blood-letting or leeching, for example. And modern artillery is superior to cross-bows and boiling pitch.1
Nisbet further makes the point that the very idea of “progress” as we have come to define it is peculiar to the Western mind and Western civilization, i.e. based in Greek philosophy. For example, if a businessman decides that he wants to move his company from being a small-time producer of goods or services to being a major player in his given field, he has a goal in mind. When a five-year-old begins his school training by learning letters and numbers, his parents and teachers have a good idea of where they want him to be in his learning by the time he graduates high school. When a swimmer makes the decision to compete in the next Olympics, he has a very specific idea of where he needs to improve his abilities in order to make this a reality. The idea of progress—or moving forward—in each of these scenarios is well-defined and mostly agreed-upon by all involved. And when McLaren makes the statement that Christianity must move forward, he not only is presuming a Greek notion of “progress,” but also that most Christians will share his beliefs about what this progress looks like. In order to “sell” his new kind of Christianity, McLaren finds himself in the awkward position of needing the very Greek philosophy that he spent a better part of his book ridiculing. This is not to say that most Christians won’t agree that a new kind of Christianity should be one that is less divisive, less condemning, and more proactive and hospitable to the culture around it, but this isn’t because of progress. Understanding Christianity in this way is not moving forward, but moving backward—2000 years backward in fact—to when the early Christian church was being singled out as “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).
One need only to read the context of this verse to determine that the early Christians were not upsetting the world because they were hospitable and proactive to the hurt they found around them, but because they had the nerve to preach of “another king, Jesus” (17:7). The Bible does indeed command Christians to care for the sick, to help the poor, and to be a father to the orphan and a husband to the widow, but it commands this because there is “another King.” This other King demands our full allegiance and worship because He will not share His glory with another (Isaiah 42:8; 48:11). Yet, McLaren neatly sidesteps the exclusivity of what is presumably (to him at least) the “old kind” of Christianity, in order to pave the way for a “new kind” that welcomes everyone, regardless of their views of the divine King. McLaren fancies himself a “violet” Christian, one that has learned to transcend the petty grievances and distractions that come with the other colors of the spectrum.2
[W]e are all at different places in this quest. Most of us—especially most of us in the Christian faith—are in quests for security…and power. Or we’re in quests for independence…and individuality…That means that most of us really aren’t interested in a quest for “inconvenient truths” that might obstruct or interfere with our more immediate quests for security, power, independence, and individuality. Just as a young boy longing for a baseball glove or bicycle isn’t interested in a girlfriend or college major yet, we aren’t ready for the higher zones of our quest yet—which is why I call those truths “inconvenient.” (p. 233-34)
There is no doubt that Christians can easily lose sight of what they have been called to do by the cares and distractions of this world. Sinners are like that and Jesus even warned of this very thing. I commend McLaren (although I doubt very much that he is never sidetracked by quests for security or individuality) for his self-proclaimed readiness for inconvenient truths, but I am dismayed by his ease at setting aside the commands of Christ to do the works of Christ. Rather than understanding Christ as the Savior of the world, McLaren likes to view Him as the “example” of the world. In other words, McLaren wants to create a Jesus paradise here on earth, without making Jesus the central focus. As we saw in a previous article, McLaren is uneasy with certain individuals being denied access to God the Father, simply because they are not “in Christ.” His unease compels him to ignore this inconvenient biblical truth and make the following claim:
We desperately need violet Christians—along with violet Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, and others—who can create a zone of ubuntu [interconnectedness] that welcomes all people to mature and advance in the human quest. If more of us don’t grow violet, our world will grow more violent. (p. 235)
This is the ultimate motivation for everything McLaren has written up to this point in his book. His quest for a “new kind” of Christianity is really nothing more than the old quest of global ecumenism. It was the motivation of Babel, where the people said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven” (Genesis 11:4a). When man reaches the point that God’s truth is no longer good enough for him, he decides to build his own path into heaven. The builders of Babel made it a community project, much like McLaren’s desire to include Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists into the building of his future ubuntu paradise. It must be quickly stated that I am in complete agreement with McLaren that we do not exclude anyone—regardless of skin color, eye shape, height, weight, or even religion—from our true quest of changing the kingdoms of this world into the Kingdom of our Lord and His Christ (Revelation 11:15). But it doesn’t mean that we sacrifice spiritual truth for physical comfort. There can be no peace without the King of Peace. The early Christians understood this well as they turned the world upside down by both preaching Christ and doing the works of Christ.
McLaren claims that “the violet zone challenges us to learn to see in a completely new and unpracticed way, to forgo seeing previous stages in the old dualistic terms or good/evil or right/wrong” (p. 237). How lovely. Marilyn Ferguson would no doubt approve of the “violet zone.” Having created an earthly zone of violet bliss and tranquility, where everyone works together and doesn’t fall for the naive categories of right and wrong, one begins to wonder what exactly McLaren believes Jesus came to earth to do. He makes a distinction between Jesus and the Christian religion and writes “this distinction explains why as a Christian I do not believe in Christianity the way I believe in Jesus. I am a Christian who does not believe in Christianity as I used to, but who believes in Christ with all my heart, more than ever” (p. 294). This distinction also explains why McLaren has no problem chucking huge portions of Christian teaching in favor of his “belief” in Jesus. McLaren prefers the Jesus of his own making to the Jesus of Christianity. He likes the idea of Jesus as a crusader for social justice and equality, but is less than enthused by Jesus’ warnings of gaining the world and losing your soul. Since McLaren has essentially dispensed with hell in the first few chapters of his book, he no longer has a category for Jesus’ teaching on the subject. Rather than be bothered by this, McLaren simply ignores the tension; or perhaps he places it in the “old dualistic terms” box. In reality, McLaren becomes yet another proof that
Christian thought has consistently gone astray, throughout most of its history, by seeking to answer the world in terms of the world’s own categories… To deny God as ultimate means to affirm man as ultimate. To make nature the container of God is finally to make man God’s container. Whenever Christian philosophy has had any other starting point than the self-contained God, it has led, despite its protestations, to a man-contained God.3
Although McLaren would certainly offer “protestations” that this is not what he is doing, the words in his book argue otherwise. He may like to think of himself as a violet-zone enlightened seeker of a new way of doing Christianity, but he turns out to be nothing more than a naive humanist who believes that “man is the measure of all things.” Protagoras created quite a stir in the fifth century B.C. when he first uttered those words, but Protagoras clones are a dime a dozen these days, even within the walls of the church. While McLaren may believe that he is entering virgin territory with his “ten questions” and his distinction between Jesus and Christianity, he will soon discover that his “new frontier” is already littered with the trash of a thousand other “pioneers,” who wanted to have their Jesus and their humanism too.
It’s sad really, because I truly believe McLaren when he says that he loves Jesus with all his heart. The only problem is that McLaren loves a Jesus that he has created in his own image; a Jesus made to fit the “world’s own categories.” But Jesus doesn’t fit the world’s categories for the simple reason that He made the world. For all of his talk about looking for a new kind of Christianity, McLaren has missed the most obvious point of all: It’s not Christianity that needs to be redefined to fit world’s categries, but the world’s categories that need to be redefined to fit Christianity. McLaren is still looking for Jesus in the tomb, stubbornly seeking “the living One among the dead” (Luke 24:5). Tragically this has caused him to miss the most important words of Jesus, found at end of Matthew’s Gospel: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20). This is the real motivation for social action and for taking the Gospel of the Kingdom into all the world. McLaren thinks that we will create an interconnected age of peace by progressing into some mythical zone of violet, when the truth is that only Christ can create such a thing. “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10).
- Robert Nisbet, History of the Idea of Progress (New York: Basic Books, 1980), 6.(↩)
- McLaren charts the “human adventure” along the color spectrum (ROYGBIV), with red being the most basic and primitive—the hunter-gatherer stage—and violet being the most “evolved”—the stage where healing and liberating takes place. It should be pointed out that McLaren not only believes in biological evolution, he also seems to believe that each individual recapitulates the evolutionary process throughout their individual lives, with childhood being the red and adulthood being the violet (few there be that find it). Unfortunately (according to McLaren), most of us are stuck somewhere in the middle, which is why we won’t be able to join him on his “enlightened” quest. It’s all very elitist and self-serving, although McLaren tries hard to not portray it this way.(↩)
- R.J. Rushdoony, By What Standard? (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books,  1995), 3-4.(↩)