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A New Kind of Authority

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In A New Kind of Christianity, author Brian McLaren claims that there are ten questions that are transforming the modern Christian faith. We discussed the first question last week, so we will move on to the second one this week, which is the question of authority or how the Bible is to be understood. In reality, this second question is nothing more than a continuation of the first (the question of narrative), and the three chapters that McLaren devotes to the topic essentially amount to a rant against one particular way of reading the Bible; what McLaren refers to as using the Bible as a "legal constitution."

Although I found myself agreeing with and appreciating much of what McLaren had to say in his response to the first question, I was reminded again in the second question of how a person's hermeneutical approach (way of interpreting the Bible) can ultimately put that person in charge of the Bible rather than the other way around. The paragraph with which McLaren ends his section on "authority" is a prime example of the "interpretive fuzziness" that results from abandoning what he refers to as the "conservative" way of interpreting the Bible. He writes this:

This approach, if you haven't realized it yet, defies both conservative and liberal categories...But here's what I hope: that this approach will not try to put us under the text, as conservatives tend to do, or to lift us over it, as liberals often seem to do. Instead, I hope it will try to put us in the text—in the conversation, in the story, in the current and flow, in the predicament, in the Spirit, in the community of people who keep bumping into the living God in the midst of their experiences of loving God, betraying God, losing God, and being found again by God. In this way, by placing us in the text, I hope this approach can help us enter and abide in the presence, love, and reverence of the living God all the days of our lives and in God's mission as humble, wholehearted servants day by day and moment by moment. Even now. (pp. 96-97)

While this may have all the trappings and appearances of being a humble and contrite way of interpreting the Bible, the reality is that McLaren's "new way" is nothing more than the "old way" of theological liberalism. He may claim that his way is neither conservative nor liberal, but he is only half-right; it is liberal to the core. McLaren seems to be under the impression that all liberal interpreters that came before him were looking for ways to "explain away" the text, but in actuality most theological liberalism is the result of trying to do exactly what McLaren is recommending: getting "into" the text, where God can speak to our modern sensibilities through His "ancient" words. This has always been a driving force behind theological liberalism: adapting the Scriptures to the contemporary culture, rather than the culture to the Scriptures. Without explicitly saying it, McLaren portrays conservatives as being crusty, old "Bible-thumpers" who don't spend more than a second or two thinking about what the Bible actually says, and liberals as ones who want to take every opportunity to discredit the Bible as being untrue. With this (false) antithesis squarely in place, McLaren rides through the battle—with unstained uniform—as the keeper of the proverbial middleground; a sort of hermeneutical Rodney King, naively wondering why we can't all just get along.

In the paragraph preceding the one quoted above, McLaren makes the correct observation that both the conservative and the liberal ways of interpreting the Bible—at least as far as he has defined conservative and liberal ways to be—gives a great deal of authority to the interpreters themselves. This is undoubtedly true. In fact, this very thing was pointed out to Martin Luther when he was undertaking the task of translating the Bible into German. Putting the words of Scripture into the hands and imaginations of everyone makes everyone an interpreter and, in a sense, gives them power to "be as God," deciding good and evil for themselves. Luther understood this, but also understood that Truth was worth the risk. Simply by reading McLaren's book and his way of interpreting and understanding the Bible, I make myself a potential convert to his way of reading and understanding. In actuality, this is exactly what he wants. He wrote his book to influence his readers with his way. He says he is fed up with "careless preachers [who] use the Bible as a club or sword to dominate or wound, [who] discredit the Bible in a way that no skeptic can" (p. 69). I, too, am fed up with this, but I am not quite ready to follow McLaren in a wholesale abandonment of the historicity of the book of Job (for example) as being an "archetypal theological opera" (p. 95). An honest reading of Job seems to indicate that the events that it speaks of are real and actual, not literary devices that are inviting us into "conversation." My dusty "conservative" hermeneutic may not sell as many books as McLaren's new and updated liberal one, but, in truth, this is where the real heart of the "authority" question lies.

When McLaren—who is admittedly not a trained theologian—makes judgments about a particular book of the Bible's overall meaning, he is exercising the very power over the text that he accuses conservatives and liberals of having. It is significant that McLaren has never been to seminary; he does indeed find details and connections in the Scripture that most seminary-trained men will blow right past in their surface-level search for doctrinal application. It is also significant that McLaren was trained in literature because he seems to be incapable of reading the Bible as anything other than a God-inspired (whatever that means to him) work of fiction. This is why I find it so fascinating that McLaren accuses the early church fathers of bringing Greek philosophy into their reading of the Bible, when in reality the fathers were reading the Bible the very way he claims to be recommending. (See the previous article in this series for more information on this.) If he was really serious about understanding the Bible the way he claims, he should be pointing his readers back to the fathers as an example of the way the church used to read the Bible, rather than indicting the church fathers for being (partially at least) responsible for the way we read and teach the biblical narrative in our modern evangelical churches.

For the most part the fathers read the Bible as describing historical accounts of real events, yet found all sorts of interesting (and sometimes kooky) importance in the seemingly inconsequential details (e.g., 153 fish in John 21:11). In other words, the fathers attempted to fit the narrative and the details together into one comprehensive whole. McLaren on the other hand, seems to have no problem ignoring certain details of the text that may throw his narrative into question. Both claim to be looking for the biblical story, the difference being that the fathers were submissive to the text (for the most part), while McLaren wants to subjugate the text to his own interpretation. Authority is being exerted in both situations; in the first the Scriptures are the authority, in the second the interpreter is the authority.

McLaren is at least honest enough to admit that he is seeking a new way to read the Bible. He makes the claim that a "quest for a new kind of Christianity requires a new, more mature and responsible approach to the Bible" (p. 76). Indeed it does; paradigm shifts always require a new paradigm. But this doesn't prove McLaren's case that his approach is the "more mature and responsible" one that is required (if it is even required at all). There is a logical fallacy known as "begging the question" and if you want to find examples of it, they can be found in plentiful supply in McLaren's book. When McLaren invites readers along on a quest for a new kind of Christianity, he is assuming that readers will agree with him that something is desperately wrong with Christianity as it currently exists. While this may or may not be true, it doesn't necessarily mean that we need to embark on a "quest" to find a new and unique version of Christianity. McLaren assumes that the way we have presented Christianity to our current postmodern culture is not working because the culture is unconvinced by our presentation. This "begs the question" because it  doesn't automatically mean that we are doing it wrong. It may mean that, but couldn't it be just as true that the culture is broken and simply doesn't see a need for Christianity, despite our best attempts to communicate and model it for them? McLaren assumes the very thing he needs to prove. But then again, he's under no obligation to "prove" anything because—in true postmodernist fashion—he's just making "conversation" and giving "responses."

It is just a tad bit ironic that the literature professor, who taught literary deconstruction to his students for so many years, cannot accept the fact that many different people can read the same Bible and get many different interpretations and ideas out of it, when this is exactly what literary deconstruction teaches. The founder of deconstruction, Jacques Derrida, claimed that complete meaning was essentially impossible to communicate from one speaker or writer to a listener or reader, because language is a human construct (invention) and is therefore inadequate to communicate fully what the communicator intends. Although this is a gross simplification of what Derrida—and by implication, McLaren—taught to his students, it is nonetheless a fair summary. McLaren, if he truly taught his students deconstruction as he claims, would have taught them to revel and rejoice in the inconsistencies and contradictions and multi-layered interpretations inherent in the written words of Shakespeare, Milton, and Thoreau, yet when it comes to the Bible, he is fit to be tied that so many different Christians can't understand and interpret the book his way. Failing to see the incongruity in his questions, he asks: "If the Bible is God's revelation, why can't Christians finally agree on what it says? Why does it seem to be in conflict with science so often? Why has it been so easy for so many people to use the Bible to justify such terrible atrocities?" (p. 19). In what can only be described as a glaring paradox, Brian McLaren seems oblivious to the "terrible atrocity" that his own quest for a "new kind of Christianity" is doing to the one and only book that infallibly tells us what real Christianity looks like. If he ever actually stops for a minute and looks upriver at what he has created, will McLaren, like Colonel Nicholson at the end of The Bridge on the River Kwai, ask in desperation, "What have I done," as he watches the culture march easily over the river of Christianity on the very bridge that he has helped them build. Let's pray—for his sake and ours—that it doesn't come to that.

To be continued...

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