What does it mean to be a Christian in a postmodern world? For that matter, what is a postmodern world? Is postmodernism another “ism” for Christians to confront, like moral relativism or communism, or is it simply a description of an epoch, like romanticism or impressionism? Is postmodernism a frame of reference which can lead to a better understanding and practice of one’s faith, or is it a contaminating influence which obscures the reality of God and his truth?
Brian D. McLaren tackles this last question head-on in his book, A New Kind of Christian. In the year following its publication, it has generated a fair amount of controversy and dialogue (McLaren’s preferred term) within the Christian community. Recently, Books and Culture responded to this interest by publishing essays about the book by three reviewers followed by a response from McLaren. It was McLaren’s response to one of the more critical reviews that prompted me to read A New Kind of Christian.
“Practicing stridency, we are certain, will turn us exactly into the kind of Christian we don’t want to be. We’d prefer to reinvest that time and energy doing the things A New Kind of Christian sought to highlight: Presenting the gospel in deed and word, making disciples (of a new kind), building community, serving the poor, playing with our kids, loving neighbors whatever their religion, all in Christ’s name.” 
Winsome words, but the philosophy behind them has provoked a wide spectrum of reactions. McLaren’s thesis is just as the church changed in response to the western world’s transition from the medieval to the modern era, the church will change again as we transition from the modern to the postmodern era. However, and I think this is where much of the controversy arises, he also believes that not only will the church change, but that it will (and should) change for the better as a result of postmodern influences. For many evangelicals whose eschatology leads them to believe the moral fiber of our world is getting worse, not better, it is hard to see how postmodern influences can lead to anything in the church but an unholy compromise.
It is from this perspective that much of the criticism of McLaren’s thesis appears to come. Many Christians believe we are in the midst of a cultural war and postmodern philosophy is often seen as the logistical support that enables the enemy to launch its attacks against a Judeo-Christian heritage and its family values. Any Christian embracing postmodern thought is seen to be a compromiser at best and more likely as a traitor to the cause. This perception of compromise is further abetted by McLaren’s conclusions regarding the role of scripture in the Christian faith, the purpose of church tradition in Christian doctrine, and the manifestation of a new kind of Christian’s faith to those around him.
Yet for every critic of A New Kind of Christian, there seems to be at least one enthusiastic supporter with whom the book “resonates” (a term frequently encountered when talking with those who agree with the books conclusions). These supporters seem to be people who already question the Christianity they see around them. Frequently from evangelical or pentecostal backgrounds, these Christians struggle with a literal interpretation of scripture, the moral certainty of their fellow parishioners, and a Christianity which at times seems strident. Their doubts regarding Christianity arise not so much from an inability to believe its historical authenticity or basic tenets, but more from perceived failings of Christians they see in the world around them. They read Micah 6:8 (He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God, NIV.) and wonder if anyone else in their church has read it. It is with these Christians that McLaren strikes a responsive chord.
I think part of the reason McLaren’s book has been so heavily criticized by some, is because he has chosen to frame his argument within what appears to be a false dichotomy: postmodern Christianity- good, modern Christianity- bad. In McLaren’s defense, he admits that his book is guilty of “gross simplification”  and I think this structure is evidence of just such simplification. A New Kind of Christian works best when it questions some of the assumptions the modern church has made regarding its faith and practice and points to new (and perhaps more Christ-like) ways of implementing our faith in the culture around us. By placing his argument within a postmodern versus modern context, McLaren has allowed his critics to ask why postmodern Christianity should be more acceptable than modern Christianity. The postmodern versus modern framework makes the book easy to follow, especially when McLaren is criticizing modern Christianity, but as Neo, one of the characters in the book would say, “I think there is a higher level at work here.” Just as God transcends our world, Christianity should transcend the world’s cultures. While postmodern philosophy may help us better understand the misconceptions of modernity, it does not necessarily follow that postmodernism will lead us to a purer form of Christianity. Postmodernity can be tainted by a fallen world just as much as modernity. It is this proposition coupled with McLaren’s ready embrace of postmodernism that has made him an easy target for criticism and I think has detracted from the higher principle: our Christianity is more colored by our cultural assumptions than we realize and it is often only by stepping outside those cultures that we notice this. McLaren’s postmodern stance highlights difficulties he sees with the modern church just as modernity allows his critics to perceive difficulties with his postmodern assumptions. Until we are face to face with Christ we will always see through a glass darkly.
Although I find McLaren’s dichotomy to be simplistic, I do think it is especially helpful in allowing us to see why Christianity may be less appealing to our post-modern friends and neighbors. Recently a friend of mine, another physician, told me he had visited a church where the pastor had declared, emphatically, “anyone who believes in evolution is an idiot!” My friend, who at the time was a deist and struggling with the centrality of Christ’s claims was not only offended, but felt that any religion making such an arrogant claim in the face of much scientific evidence must be based more on wishful thinking than truth. It came as a surprise to my friend when I told him there were many Christians who did not adhere to a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis. In what would seem to be a paradox to many Christians, my friend now feels ready to acknowledge Christ as the incarnate God, because he doesn’t have the obstacle of a literal scriptural interpretation blocking his way.
This is the type of scenario in the postmodern world that McLaren is addressing. It is important to note, as McLaren himself points out, that he is writing about a new kind of Christian, not the new kind of Christian. One of the aspects of being this type of Christian is that they often feel misunderstood by their fellow Christians. Their criticism of modern Christian culture is often seen as ungodly, counter-productive, and evidence of a need for counseling. This kind of reception often leads to a sense of cynicism and frustration with the church and its members. Part of the success of A New Kind of Christian is that it encourages this new kind of Christian to serve God and suggests ways that his Christianity can be manifested amongst family, friends and community.
McLaren raises interesting questions and makes thought-provoking criticisms regarding the modern church and proposes solutions to some of the problems he has encountered. Whether one agrees with his premise or not, reading A New Kind of Christian can help one to better understand the dilemma Christians face in a postmodern world.
Keith Winkle lives in Alaska.
SourceA New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey by Brian D. McLaren (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2001)
Quoted from “Faithfully Dangerous: Christians in Postmodern Times,” Brian D. McLaren, Books and Culture, May/June 2002.
The three reviews mentioned are “Let’s Get Personal,” Andy Crouch, Books and Culture, January/February, 2002.
“Reformed or Deformed: Questions for Postmodern Christians,” Mark Dever, Books and Culture, March/April, 2002.
“Post-Evangelicalism,” Tony Jones, Books and Culture, May/June 2002. (back to article) Ibid (back)