October 31, 2005

A New Kind of Christian

Category: Theology :: Permalink

Before my vacation, I read Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian. I had heard about it several times on other peoples’ blogs or in conversations, so I borrowed it from the library. It turned out to be a fairly engaging read, not only because the book is written as a novel and the narrative itself is interesting, but also because I appreciated many of the questions McLaren is wrestling with.

At times, when you study the history of theology, you get the impression that for some theologians theology is a sort of science, working with the data which you mine from Scripture. Charles Hodge, for instance, defines the work of the theologian as taking the facts of Scripture and arranging them in their proper order. I don’t think he meant that the order things are found in Scripture is the improper order. But I do think he viewed theology as mining the Bible for propositions to be arranged in relation to other propositions. Against that, McLaren’s character Neo rightly says:

According to the Bible, humans shall not live by systems and abstractions and principles alone, but also by stories and poetry and proverbs and mystery” (p. 159). 

Or take this, for instance, from McLaren himself:

I preach sermons that earn the approving nods of the lifelong churchgoers, because they repeat the expected vocabulary and formulations, words that generally convey little actual meaning after hearing them fifty-two times a year, year after year, but work like fingers, massaging the weary souls of earnest people. Meanwhile, as the initiated relax under this massage of familiar words, as they emit an almost audible “ahhh” to hear their cherished vocabulary again, these very massaging messages leave the uninitiated furrowing their brows, shaking their heads, and shifting in their seats. They do this sometimes because they don’t understand but even more so when they do understand — because the very formulations that sound so good and familiar to the “saved” sound downright weird or even wicked to the “seekers” and the skeptics. These people come to me and ask questions, and I give my best answers, my best defenses, and by the time they leave my office, I have convinced myself that their questions are better than my answers. [Sorry: I don’t have the page number. It’s in the Introduction somewhere. — JB] 

Now while (unlike McLaren) I don’t believe that preaching in the Lord’s Day covenant renewal service is or should be aimed at “seekers,” let alone skeptics, I do think what he describes is fairly accurate, even if you substitute “new Christians” or “Christians from other traditions” for “seekers” here. In fact, this is a danger that we face in Reformed churches, and all the more so in churches which follow the continental Reformed practice of “catechism preaching,” where the emphasis is placed, not so much on explaining passages of Scripture as on explaining the church’s catechism.

The danger is that we say the familiar words and phrases and much of the congregation leans back and says, “Ah, yes. These are the kinds of things we’ve heard all our lives. This is good Reformed preaching. We have a good Reformed pastor. Our children are probably getting good Reformed catechism instruction. Everything is going well.” That kind of preaching lulls people into complacency.

Now the cure for that danger isn’t so easy to find, and I’m not persuaded that McLaren has found it. In fact, I’m not completely sure what his answer really is, except that he keeps talking about adapting to our postmodern climate (whatever that really means). Why we shouldn’t challenge and confront this climate as much as any other isn’t clear to me.

At times, McLaren (or his character Neo, at least) reminds me of the vicar in Susan Howatch’s Ultimate Prizes who was bored with his sleepy little congregation and so stirred things up by preaching heresy to see if anyone was paying attention. McLaren, too, wants to be provocative and stir things up in the evangelical world by having his characters make provocative statements with which he may or may not agree.

At other times, I can’t tell the difference between his “new kind of Christian” and the same old thing we’ve seen in modern evangelicalism for years. Witness, for instance, the concern that the Sunday service be focused on reaching “seekers.” I can see that his approach would entail some changes for modern evangelical churches, but the changes generally appear to me to be a matter of travelling further down the same road. In other words, I don’t think McLaren is challenging modern evangelicalism enough.

More than that, several things that are presented as if they represent brand new thinking turn out to be pretty standard for anyone who has read much theology (e.g., his discussion of the church and the kingdom). And some of these things, too, including the church and kingdom stuff, could stand more critical examination than McLaren gives them.

But I do agree with him that what is absolutely crucial is for preachers to be able to speak the language of Scripture, to say what the Bible says, even if it doesn’t sound like the familiar words we’re used to hearing, even if it challenges our thinking, even if it doesn’t appear to fit into our theological boxes — and indeed, to say what the Bible says even if it does sound familiar and even if it is what the church’s confessional documents say.

In a couple of places in the book, McLaren hints at that approach, but I don’t think he follows through. Even the one sermon he presents (in chapter 10) has little to do with Scripture. In the end McLaren leaves us with little more than an engaging and provocative encouragement to think about how to adapt to a somewhat fuzzy “postmodernism.”

Posted by John Barach @ 12:54 am | Discuss (0)

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