I've reached the mid point in Brian McLaren's latest musings, " A New Kind of Christianity." So this is likely a good place to pull over to the side of the road and digest, and put some thoughts to paper. My first thought is this book will get a lot of people navigating towards it just because of its title " A New Kind of." If anything, it was marvelous marketing strategy. To attract the fundamentalist, so they know what there up against; and the emerging conversation so they get a glimpse of what may be on the horizon. But the reality...it may be more old school, than new school.
I think his musings will be shocking for much of Christendom that still lives in the corridor of modernity, and will be seen as heretical by much of the North American Evangelical church. But, I think Brian McLaren draws a lot of his so called newness from an ancient well of wisdom of historic Christianity that the Evangelical church oblivious to. He draws from the apophatic theological influences in Christianity such as Miester Eckart, that drew – not only from Gospel and Pauline narratives, Peter Rollins draws a lot of wisdom from this well in his writings. Also from Neoplatonism, influential thinkers such as Plotinus, Pseudo-Dionysius and John Scotus Eriugena. And also from a writer Percy Walker, his influence and interest in philosophy and semiotics.
So the fact all may not be " new " is ok, because I think Brian McLaren, in his musings takes us on an important journey to renewed paradox, tension, mystery, non-dualistic thinking...and profound redemptive imagination. In a moment where we find ourselves at the edge of religion, and science, if anything Brian McLaren helps us to re-imagine hope...a way out of the box of religion.
So., lets quickly look at the contents of Book One, " UNLOCKING AND OPENING." It is broken down into 5 questions, The Narrative Question; The Authority Question; The God Question; The Jesus Question; and the Gospel Question.
In the Narrative Question we discover the unspoken story line of the Bible that we explicitly taught- or implicitly taught that could be diagrammed by 6 lines. (1) Eden, (2) Fall, (3) Condemnation, (4) Hell, Damnation, (5) Salvation, (6) Heaven. He also talks about the Greco-Roman Narrative this mindset that gives us a skewed image of God that Brian McLaren says is similar in many ways to the Greek god Zeus. He calls him Theos who loves spirit, state and beings, and hates matter, story and becoming, since once again the latter involves change, and the only way to move from perfection is down ward towards decay. Anything that drops out of state of perfection must be destroyed, or made to suffer. Hence our six line reading of the biblical narrative. Brian, tells us it's time to exit the Greco-Roman narrative to quietly and courageously walk out the door and leave it's six lines behind. Then Brian takes us through setting the stage for Biblical narrative. The protagonist of Genesis bearing with a rebellious and foolish humanity time and time again. It's a stage where humanity seems to rise in steps of worldly influence and power, but with each gain, humanity descends into loss. I think what will upset many is Brian Mclarens musings around Adam, Eve and the apple...
Notice the text does not say they will be condemned to hell, be " spiritually separated from God," be pronounced " fallen " or " condemned ", or be tainted with something called the " original sin " that will be passed on to their children. There is only one consequence indicated in the text: they will die - not spiritually die, not relationally die, not ontologically die, but simply die.
For Brian McLaren, the Biblical narrative, God's unfolding drama is nota narrative shaped by the 6 lines of the Greco-Roman scheme of perfection, fall, condemnation, salvation and heavenly perfection or eternal perdition. It is a narrative about the downside of " progress "- a story of human foolishness and God's faithfulness, the human turn toward rebellion, and God's turn towards reconciliation, the human intention towards evil and God;s intention to overcome evil with good. We might say it's a story of goodness being created and re-created.Is this Pelagianism, shadows of Charles Finney, Asa Mahan, or Winkie Pratney. I applaud this bold, imaginative reading of the narrative. For some it will be a huge leap,a non-duality interpretation might be too much paradox, to much mystery. But, in it there is a redemptive imagination that will attract the mind of all humanity, not just the religious.
Brian McLaren then asks the Jesus Question. I think a lot of people are going to find his image of Jesus is too toned down. Not being as powerfully portrayed in the creeds, and as in some of the Pauline narrative, people may be confused by where Brian is going. It is all narrative, Brian attempts to sew the eternal mystery, that incarnational thread that is Jesus from beginning to end. Jesus is the center, or backbone of the story. Jesus holds the story, and all creation together. Brian McLaren's Jesus is seen in the Genesis story of creation and reconciliation; the Exodus story of liberation and formation; and the Isaiah story of new creation and a peace-making Kingdom...and as NT Wright says, the inauguration as seen in the gospels. Is Brian McLaren's Jesus too small...
In this light, Jesus' offers of " life of the ages " and " life abundant " sparkle with new significance. When Jesus promises " life of the ages " ( a better translation of the Greek zoein aionian, I believe, than, " eternal life ", the meaning of which is poorly framed in many minds be the 6 line narrative ), he's not promising " life after death ", or " life in eternal heaven instead of eternal hell." Instead Jesus is promising a life that transcends " life in the present age " an age that is soon going to end in tumult. Being " born of God " and " born again " or " born from above " would in this light mean being born into this new creation. So again, Jesus is offering life in the new Genesis, the new creation that is " of the ages "...meaning it is part of God's original creation...( page 130 )
But even these few examples, selected from so many more, make it clear that Jesus, contrary to my dear loyal critic's assertion, did not come to save souls from hell. No, he came to launch a new Genesis, to lead a new Exodus, and to announce, embody, and inaugurate a new Kingdom as the Prince of Peace. ( page 135 )
For Brian McLaren, it is absolutely clear, the gospels, the good news is about " the Kingdom." But readers will be challenged by the openness of the " New Kind of Christianity " Kingdom message, for many it may be to pluralistic, almost bordering " universalism."
Beyond that, I always assumed that " kingdom of God " meant " kingdom of heaven ", which meant " going to heaven after you die ", which required believing the message of Paul's letter to the Romans, which I understood to teach the theory of atonement called " penal substitution ", which was the basis for a formula of forgiveness of original sin called, " justification by grace through faith." ( page 138 )
An increasing number of us, when freed from the constraints of the 6 line Greco-Roman narrative and associated constitutional reading of the Bible, gain courage to speak what has become joyfully clear to us in this fresh reading of the gospels: Jesus did not come to start a new religion to replace first Judaism and then all other religions, whether by pen, the pulpit, the sword, or the apocalypse. ...
Instead, he came to announce a new kingdom, a new way of life, a new way of peace that carried the good news to all people of every religion. A new kingdom is much bigger than a new religion, and in fact it has room for many religious traditions with in it. ( page 139 )
Even with in the context of the 6 line Greco-Roman narrative, I've always been mystified that the redemptive story seems to go back as far the Exodus story, where God liberates his people. But in the context of the Genesis story, to the original sin which initiates the first line, this is the embryonic origin of humanity void of any religious label. So even in a narrative reading as Brian lays out, and even in the 6 lines...Jesus should be seen as liberator, reconciler for all humanity...outside the context, and inside the context of all religions. So Brian McLaren's offers a hope for all humanity, a redemptive imagination that should rekindle hope, and a way forward beyond religious exclusiveness.
Christian universalism musings are not new, there have been many passionate followers of Jesus that have explored this theological understanding. Brian McLaren just awakens us again to it's redemptive imagination.
So I know pull back out onto the road and read Part Two, and I look in the rear view mirror and exhale. Many in the church will be repulsed by " A New Kind of Christianity ", but I wonder how many who have left the church in the last 10-15 years will be attracted by this message. I think Brian has given us nothing new, it comes from depth of ancient wisdom... he gives us a breath taking image of an ongoing relationship between God and humanity.
My friend Al and I have been getting together every week at Spiral Cafe in Vic West, I managed to get a couple of copies of the book to review together. It was decided we would read the book in 2 chunks, Book One and Book 2, in 2 weeks. We would post our thoughts reviewing the book and then get together for coffee, that way we wouldn't be influencing each others thoughts. You can check out Al's review of Book One...here.
I also encourage you to follow the video conversations with Spencer Burke and Brian McLaren over at Ooze TV. Over ten weeks they will be engaging in the 10 Questions found in " A New Kind of Christianity."