November 16, 2005

The Story We Find Ourselves In

Category: Theology :: Permalink

I mentioned a few entries back that I was reading Brian McLaren‘s A New Kind of Christian. A little over a week ago, I finished the second in that trilogy, The Story We Find Ourselves In. As with the first volume, this one had some good mixed with a fair bit of bad.

In both of these books, but particularly this one, there’s a lot of talk about evolution. At least one of McLaren’s characters, Neo, wholeheartedly embraces evolution. It appears at times as if being a postmodern, emergent Christian is all about being both a Christian and an evolutionist.

I suspect that’s because McLaren (or at least his characters) sees six-day creationism and the approach to Scripture it entails as a barrier which keeps people from the gospel.

Now I grant that McLaren has a point. It’s possible to erect barriers which wrongly keep people away from Christ and His church. For instance, if someone presents all the claims of various “scientific creationists” as if they were Bible truth, their claims may turn people off. Furthermore, it’s a valid question whether someone must first embrace six-day creation before he may become a member of Christ’s church.

But not everything that turns people off is illegitimate. If someone rejects the gospel because he finds God’s commandment to Israel to exterminate the Canaanites repugnant, the church shouldn’t leap to remove that barrier. If someone rejects the gospel because he doesn’t like Paul’s teaching with regard to the roles of men and women, the church may not remove that barrier. And if someone rejects the gospel and won’t join the church because he finds six-day creation ridiculous, the church may not embrace evolution as a way of removing that barrier.

As an aside, I’m honestly not sure what’s so “postmodern” about belief in evolution. Evolution seems to me to be a modernist theory, and I would expect that postmodernists would deconstruct it. And surely, too, breaking away from modernism, while it might also entail a healthy scepticism toward some of the theories of “scientific creationism,” should also entail scepticism toward the allegedly objective findings of science.

Evolution also mars one of the better features of the book. In the course of the first half of the book, Neo tells Kerry “the story we find ourselves in,” which is, in broad lines, the narrative of the Bible. Unfortunately, instead of starting where the Bible does, with the story of creation and the fall, he begins with the big bang and skims over Adam and Eve and the serpent, apparently because he takes the Bible’s story as less than completely historical.

For me, the most significant — and, I suppose, most enjoyable — part of the book was in the middle, where one non-Christian character determines that she wants to be baptized and to be a follower of Jesus. She explains that she doesn’t understand the Trinity yet or how Jesus can be both God and man or how the atonement works, how Jesus’ death can deal with our sins. But she’s also close to death. She doesn’t have much time to learn everything (and how many of us can honestly say that we understand the Trinity?):

How much do you have to believe in Jesus in order to take communion? … Look, if I have to get the whole Trinity thing, and the whole divinity thing, and all those theories … that’s all just beyond me at this point. But I’m starting to believe the story I’ve been hearing from you … and I don’t have that much more time, you know? And I don’t know how long it’ll take to get really sure, or if I ever will, and … and sooner or later, I guess, I’ll just have to … to take a step … that is, if I’m allowed, if it’s permitted (p. 110; only the first and second-to-last ellipses are mine).

A couple paragraphs later:

Look, I have tried to … to understand this from the outside. I’ve tried so hard. In the hospital I would just lay there thinking and praying. But I don’t think it’s going to make sense ? unless I try to understand from the inside. So I … I want to be in (p. 110).


And then, a couple pages later:

I don’t know about all the doctrines, or theories or mysteries, as Dan called them. I don’t know all that stuff! That’s the problem. Can I do this … am I crazy to even want to do this … if I don’t have all that understanding? I want to believe. I want to believe all of it. Do I believe enough though? You have to know that, not me. That’s why I asked what I asked before. How much do I have to believe? (p. 112).

Those are important questions, questions that Reformed people ought to be asking, too. In many Reformed churches, heavy emphasis is placed on catechizing new converts, sometimes for a year or more, before they are baptized, admitted to membership, and welcomed to the Table. Would we want to tell this woman: “Well, believe in Jesus. But until you embrace all of these doctrines, we won’t baptize you or bring to into the church or admit you to the Table”?

On our last trip to Moscow, I listened (while Moriah slept) to a lecture Jim Jordan gave in Bend, Oregon, on “Rethinking Evangelism.” In part of that lecture, Jordan addresses the intellectualism that characterizes a lot of Reformed churches, especially in their evangelism, in the light of infant baptism. If we believe that the babies we baptize are full members of the church (and all the more so if, as in some Reformed churches, we admit all baptized members, including the children, to the Table), then what does that say about how much knowledge we need to be baptized, admitted to the church, and so forth?

While I have serious questions about a lot of what McLaren says in this book, I do appreciate some of the questions he raises and particularly this one. Having grown to know McLaren a little bit through his writing, I suspect that, even if he and I would answer a lot of questions in different ways, he’d be glad that his book helped me to think through some of these issues more.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:13 pm | Discuss (0)

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