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A New Kind of Narrative

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(This is Part Two of a series.)

In his new book, A New Kind of Christianity, author Brian McLaren seeks to address “ten questions that are transforming the [Christian] faith.” As promised in the introductory article, we will be taking our own look at McLaren’s ten questions and his responses to them. Although I am going to assume that readers to these articles have not read McLaren’s book for themselves, I would recommend that you do so at some point. Since I cannot possibly deal with every single point and nuance that McLaren brings up, I will be generalizing quite often. Some readers will probably think I have been unfair or biased in this approach (and rightfully so) and the only way to really determine this is to read both for yourself. I wouldn’t expect readers to blindly trust what I am saying anymore than I would want them to blindly trust what McLaren is saying. So consider this your warning, and your task: caveat lector.

The first question that McLaren believes has the potential to transform Christianity (and I believe he’s absolutely correct) is the question of narrative, i.e., how we read and understand the “big picture” of the Bible. The word narrative is something of a buzzword within the emerging and emergent churches. And although the word can mean many different things to many different people, it is most definitely true that how we understand the narrative—or overall story of the Bible—has a direct effect on how we will read and understand the individual parts of the Bible. If we simply think of the Bible as being God’s “rulebook,” we will find the Bible filled with nothing more than God’s rules for His people. If we believe that the Bible’s overall teaching is about a loving God of niceness patiently waiting for His children to come home, then we will tend to ignore the parts of the Bible that contradict this view. Like beams of lumber and specks of dirt (Matthew 7:1-6), our biblical narrative goes largely unnoticed until someone else points it out to us.

By dealing with the narrative question first, McLaren hopes to draw attention to a number of assumptions that the modern evangelical church has inherited over the last two thousand years of church history. He distills what he believes to be the typical Christian narrative down to this: creation, fall and condemnation—with a future state for individuals in either heaven or hell (salvation or damnation). However, he writes, “Few of us acknowledge that this master narrative starts with one category of things—good and blessed—and then ends up with two categories of things: good and blessed on the top line and evil and tormented on the bottom” (p. 34). McLaren points out that terms like “the Fall,” “total depravity,” and “original sin” are not native to the Bible, but they are integral parts of Greek philosophy. He contends that the narrative believed by most of the modern church has more to do with Greece and Rome, than it does with Jerusalem. [1] He writes:

I believe the Christian religion in the West, as it habitually read the Bible backwards through the [Greek-influenced] lenses of later Christians, largely lost track of the frontward story line of Adam, Abraham, Moses, and so on, within which Jesus had emerged. It unwittingly traded its true heritage through Jesus from Judaism for an alien heritage drawn from Greek philosophy and Roman politics. Through this profound and unconscious syncretism (or mixing of sources), biblical data was reframed by the Greco-Roman narrative (p. 41).

In order to make his point work, McLaren paints with such a large brush that he scarce can lift it. He seems to indict the early church fathers as a whole of being guilty of this wholesale smuggling in of Greek thinking. To make his point even more sharp, McLaren issues an apology on behalf of the church to the Jewish people for “the ways we Christians have colonized their story…and turned it against them through anti-Semitism and other forms of religious supremacy” (p. 267, fn #1). As touching as this may be, McLaren fails to alert the reader to the fact that the Jews themselves have had their own problems with their story. While I agree with him and have written myself about the pervasive and pernicious influence of Greek thought on our understanding of the Bible, I would be far from exonerating the Jewish people to the status of “victim” in this religious thought crime. The Jews were constantly reprimanded, judged, and sent into captivity throughout the Old Testament (the parts which McLaren conveniently leaves out of his quest for a “new” narrative) due to their unbelief and hard-hearted rebellion against Jehovah. Philo of Alexandria was synthesizing Judaism and Greek philosophy nearly 20 years before Jesus was born (and he was by no means the first). And it was the Jews who ultimately rejected their own Messiah: “[Jesus] came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11). The Jews have just as many skeletons in their narrative closets as the church.

In his vendetta against church hermeneutical tradition, McLaren gives the reader the impression that the early church fathers were monolithic in their attempts to marry the Bible to Greek ideas. He is far less condemning (and therefore more honest) in his long-winded footnotes that accompany these chapters. Knowing that most readers will not even bother reading them though, I found myself wishing he had incorporated the footnoted material into the main text of the book. Without the tempering power of the footnotes, these chapters come across rather dogmatically, leaving the reader with a crippled and strident attack on the early church’s reading of the Bible. It is just flat-out not true that the early church as a whole should be accused of introducing Greek thought into their biblical narrative. In fact, the very narrative that McLaren commends to his readers—one of growth and maturity—can be found in exhaustive detail in Augustine’s City of God. It is somewhat of an ironic turn of events that McLaren wants to pin Greek ideals onto the fathers, when most modern commentators accuse the fathers of being too allegorical. The fathers were primarily—although again, not as a whole—interested in pulling every bit of meaning they could out of the Scriptures. To this end, they often made details of the Bible say far more than perhaps they should have, but through it all they were (mostly) seeking to apply the Rule of Faith by letting the Bible interpret the Bible. If McLaren had not been so busy looking to find a church father to blame for his own narrative dilemma, he may well have found kindred spirits who were seeking the same thing nearly two thousand years ago.

I share McLaren’s frustration with the modern temptation to “systematize” the Bible. Although the fathers did their share of “systematizing” (e.g. the Apostles’ and the Nicene Creed), it wasn’t until the birth of modern science (born as it was because of the Christian worldview, see Pearcey and Thaxton: The Soul of Science) in the Middle Ages that theology began to come under the spell of categorizing, labeling, quantifying, and summarizing. The tendency to systematize, or to order, is a natural result of a scientific worldview. There is nothing particularly wrong with this, unless it becomes the driving force. The Reformation put the systematizing machine into full swing and we have much to be grateful for because of it. However, much of the biblical narrative did get obscured and the Bible became something slightly less than a story of God’s redeeming the world to Himself, and became more of a laboratory specimen where theologians would poke and prod, searching its pages for clarifying hints of doctrinal precision. It is this approach—cold, aloof, and calculating—that potentially awaits anyone who desires to take the Bible seriously. The Bible does not discourage serious thought and contemplation, but it also doesn’t elevate it over obedience and faith.

It is this conflict, this wrestling match between a systematic and a biblical theology, that often throws Christians into a tailspin. The Bible is not a systematic book, but doctrines can be systematically deduced from it. Similarly, the Bible is not a storybook, but it certainly tells a story, a very compelling one at that. The narrative that McLaren is so desperately looking for is somewhere between these two extremes. While he does a fairly nice job of giving his readers a biblical theology of selected portions of Genesis, Exodus, and the Prophets, there is a WHOLE lot of the Old Testament that he ignores to do so. As a proponent of literary deconstruction—which he assures his readers is “not destruction, as many erroneously assume, but rather careful and loving attention to the construction of ideas, beliefs, systems, values, and cultures” (p. 55)—one would expect McLaren to be more humble in his quest for a narrative. But for a guy who gives “responses” instead of answers, McLaren is merciless and dogmatic as he presents his “new” narrative.

But we’re left hanging at the end of this section. In the span of 35 pages, McLaren has seemingly thrown both heaven and hell into the Greek philosophy garbage bin, meanwhile forgetting to deal with the fact that both are biblical terms and ideas. He makes an off-handed comment referring to them as “imagery misappropriated from Jesus’ parables and sermons” (p. 44), yet never follows through with a hint of further explanation. Are we to believe that McLaren is a universalist, an annihilationist, or something in between? And although his “new” narrative does a good job of reminding us that we have duties here on earth, that we’re not “just passing through” as the hymn says, why, in the end, do these duties sound remarkably like the platform for liberal politics? Could it be that McLaren is doing just a little bit of systematizing himself? Perhaps even looking for a biblical narrative that will support his political views? I’m all for helping the poor and feeding the hungry (these are biblical commands after all), but when a politically-charged statement about “gaps in the health-care system,” closely follows a statement about relieving us of “literalistic interpretations” (p. 63) of the Bible, I become just a tad bit suspicious. Could it be that there is also a bit of philosophy in Brian McLaren’s “narrative?” Philosophy of the political sort, that is. Maybe we’ll get some answers (or at least responses) in the next sections of the book. One can only hope…

  1. Tertullian’s famous question in the early 3rd century: “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” was an early warning to Christians to not mix pagan and biblical philosophies.[]

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