If these volumes didn’t exist someone would have to invent them. Why? Because Christians desperately need two things, which are rarely kept together these days. The first is biblical standards. By that I don’t mean some sort of cold list of propositional truths that might be culled from the more doctrinally dense portions of Scripture. Rather, we look for historic Christian faith, tried-and-not-found-wanting covenant truth. The heart of the Scripture’s message is that God has so loved his people that he has reconciled them to himself, purchased them at a great price. Redeemed people who are God’s friends gladly walk in his ways. They love his commands, which are not a burden to them. In terms of a statement, this standard looks something like the Apostles’ Creed. In terms of a relationship with the living God, it looks something like, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Malachi 6:8).
The second is to be up to date. Some Christians are on the cutting edge of the 17 th century! Biblical Christians live in the present. Like the children of Issachar, they understand the times and can tell God’s people how to handle them (1 Chronicles 12:32). This means keeping a careful balance between knowing today’s trends and wariness about any claims to be new. Most, if not all the great debates have already occurred. It is disheartening to watch folks struggle with the Trinity, with God’s feelings about evil, with the rational vs the irrational (sometimes called the modern vs the postmodern), and have no awareness that great minds have been there before. This is why I hardly ever take seriously claims to be new. Yet, somehow, this “new kind of Christian” manages to qualify for the two standards, biblically faithful, and realistic about the times and how to negotiate them.
The two volumes represent a spiritual journey into the jungles of postmodernity. They contain the fictional but very believable account of two friends who challenge each other to be Christians in a world where many of the rules are being changed. Brian McLaren is becoming well-known to many readers for his role in Leadership Network, and for these and other books which have gained notoriety. Finding Faith (Zondervan, 1999) is an attempt at doing apologetics at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Adventures in Missing the Point, (Emergent/YS, 2003) written with Tony Campolo, is a bold foray into tackling theological and ethical issues for our times, often with Campolo being more traditional!
So, while ordinarily, I am deeply suspicious of anything spiritually important claiming to be new, there is something important going on here. OK, so the Book of Hebrews unabashedly instructs us to grow in grace by being “old Christians,” that is, building on the foundation laid once for all (Heb. 2:1-2; 6:1-2; 9:25-8). Furthermore, we should be wary of pilgrims who owe their new approach to a personal crisis. Much of Brian McLaren’s prolific writing was born of his reckoning with doubts about his ministry and his faith. Let’s face it, there are lots and lots of books out there by sincere saints who have rediscovered the wonder of honest answers to honest questions, thinking the whole thing to be quite new, when it turns out such awakenings are as ancient as Abraham and Moses and David, let alone Luther, Kuyper and Schaeffer.
Yet McLaren won me over. At least in many ways. I hope he’ll do the same for you, gentle reader. He doesn’t really want to be new, in a silly sort of way. As one of his characters puts it, we are not aiming for a better kind of Christian, but simply a new kind, one that can respond to the quandaries of our times. Noone is exempt from the more general crises of our era, which challenge us to look for more appropriate answers than American Evangelicalism has often provided. Some of this reminds me of Kathleen Norris’ fresh look at old truth. McLaren writes lucidly, winsomely, creating characters that are real, even though they are nearly allegorical foils for explorations into theology in our times. “Dan” is a pastor who is torn between his honestly felt need for a deeper walk, and “Neo” is a Jamaican African-American who is the major voice for reimagining Christian faith. During hikes in the woods, journeys abroad, diningroom conversations, they explore a plethora of topics, from biblical inerrancy to world religions, antisemitism, missions, and death through cancer. These characters are not just mouthpieces. The reader will get involved with them as persons, and empathize with their struggles and emotional battles.
If there is a golden thread running through these 360 pages of intense dialogue it is this: Christianity traps the spiritual person into rigid formulations and attitudes, from which Christ can be a liberator, if we’ll let him. The way to overcome our inertia is to move away from the traditional ways of defining the sides, and look upward to God’s higher ground. For example, Dan tends to defend the Bible on the modern ground, that it contains propositions, that only the original texts are inerrant, and that liberalism sells off its birthright for a faddish, social-justice oriented mess of potage. His friend Neo suggests that the real issue is not conservative vs liberal, but whether to begin with a lifeless text or with God’s own authority and wisdom. Another example is the debate about world religions and whether one can be saved outside of Christ. Dan is worried about synchretism, whereas Neo worries about being offensive to Hindus and Muslims, advocating not telling them why they are wrong, but why Christian faith is attractive. Before we ask, “What’s wrong with Buddhist cult,” we ought to ask, “How would Jesus invade Buddhist culture”?
It would be too simple to label Dan a recovering Evangelical and Neo as all things to all men in order to appeal to the postmodern condition. Neo does believe we are shifting away from modernity and invites Dan and the reader to appreciate the shift. He suggests we try to wear the shoes of a Medieval Christian and look at the threat of modernity, emerging in the sixteenth century. This kind of appreciation should help us shed unnecessary civilizational prejudices as we move beyond modernity. And he reassures Dan several times that he is not giving in to relativism or perspectivalism. The two go after “organized religion.” But then they acknowledge that few people would want a “disorganized religion”! Just when we think our friends are slouching toward heterodoxy, they reassure us that pushing the envelope is not the same as tearing it up.
These pages are beguiling, the characters endearing, the issues thoughtfully engaged. Are we still looking for those two standards, biblical faithfulness and realism about our times? If so, these pages are compelling. Still, it’s hard to resist a couple of reservations. Occasionally the narrative becomes, well, trite. Several times I wrote in the margins, “oh, please,” or, “name two,” particularly when Evangelicals are caricatured, it would seem, beyond recognition (I admit, though, not being brought up in that subculture, there must be many frustrations for those who are). More significantly, McLaren rarely acknowledges those who have gone before. Struggles with institutional rigidity, exclusivism, sexuality, divine authority, have gone on from day one. The church, that dreaded institution, turns out to have made enormous strides in the right direction, even anticipating the rough waters of postmodernism. Great theologians, and even the creeds of the church, have taught us how to bridge the gap between one era and another, to see Christ at work even in imperfect subcultures. If he is building his church, we ought to see some results, even in Christianity. McLaren knows this, but he sometimes writes as though he doesn’t. I suppose we’re all in the same boat. But, still, he’s a better navigator than most.
Questions1. Do these volumes build up or tear down? Is the author more critical than constructive, or is the balance right?
2. Has Brian McLaren correctly described religious landscape with which you are familiar? Would you add anything, or leaven anything out?
3. How would you compare the kind of renewal the author experienced with examples of renewed persons in the Bible?
4. Is our culture really postmodern? If not, how would you describe it? If so, then what are the implications for an authentic walk and witness?
5. Did you find the character Neo to be realistic? Is there such a mentor in your life?
6. Most readers of Critique are familiar with the worldview approach to life. Is McLaren a worldview thinker? What is his view of the authority of Scripture, as far as you can tell.