Well, I’m so glad I purchased this book! Once more, McLaren puts voice to my inner struggles. A few years ago, I was going through a dark place in my walk. I wrote about this in a story in my first few reflections. It was dark and I knew that there was something missing. Something real. And that’s how McLaren starts his book, too - ‘Between Something Real and Something Wrong’. I knew, like McLaren, that Jesus was real. I experience him daily. But something was very wrong. I didn’t seem to fit anymore. The stories I had grown up with and the ones I embraced as I got older just weren’t making sense any more. And I didn’t really know how to handle it or to whom to turn. I remember sitting at the administrative assistance desk where I used to work working on her computer when a co-worker suggested I read one of McLaren’s books, A New Kind of Christian (It’s a semi-autobiographical work of fiction about his struggles). ‘It will really address some of your questions,’ he said to me. I began to cry. ‘I sure hope so,’ I choked. ‘I can’t do this any more.’
In A New Kind of Christianity McLaren poses ten questions, divided into two ‘books’, facing the followers of Jesus today. He gathered these from his various travels and Q&R sessions (these are question and response session since, he states, answers end the conversation while responses encourage it to continue). These are:
Book One, Unlocking and Opening:
01. The Narrative Question
02. The Authority Question
03. The God Question
04. The Jesus Question
05. The Gospel Question
Book Two, Emerging and Exploring
06. The Church Question
07. The Sex Question
08. The Future Question
09. The Pluralism Question
10. The What-Do-We-Do-Now Question
Obviously I won’t be reflecting on each chapter, but I hope to hit some of the high points that really struck a cord within me. The first one I want to write about is the first question – the narrative question. It is ‘What is the Overarching Story Line of the Bible?’
McLaren uses the following diagram to explain the story line that we – in the West at least – have been taught, whether explicitly or implicitly:
‘We do not for a second say, “These six lines present the true shape of the biblical narrative, but we reject it.” Rather, we stare at this narrative, scratch our heads, and with a bewildered look ask, “How in the world, how in God’s name, could anyone ever think that this is the narrative of the Bible?’ (pg. 35) When responding to a question about the shape of the biblical narrative, McLaren realized that there are two ways of reading the Bible – frontwards and backwards. He holds that what we have been told is a backwards reading. ‘When looking backwards to Jesus . . . , we aren’t directly seeing Jesus. We’re seeing Paul’s view of Jesus, then Augustine’s view of Paul’s view of Jesus, and then Aquinas’s view of Augustine’s view of Paul’s view of Jesus, and so on’ (pg 36). He then suggested that another way of seeing Jesus is by looking at him in the unfolding story of the Bible – staring with Adam, then Abraham, then Moses, then David, then the prophets, then John the Baptist, then finally Jesus.
‘Once I acknowledged . . . these two very different ways of understanding Jesus, and once I acknowledged that nobody in the Hebrew Scriptures ever talked about original sin, total depravity, “the Fall”, or eternal conscious torment in hell, a suspicion began to grow in me about where the six-lined narrative might possible have come from. I was able to articulate it a few months later in a conversation with a friend, as I recounted my little exercise in setting up the backward and forward lines of sight to see Jesus: “What we call the biblical story line isn’t the shape of the story of Adam, Abraham, and their Jewish descendants. It’s the shape of the Greek philosophical narrative that Plato taught! That’s the descent into Plato’s cave of illusion and the ascent into philosophical enlightenment.” Some time after that, in a conversation with another friend, I realized it was also the social and political narrative of the Roman Empire, and so I began calling it the Greco-Roman narrative’ (pg 37).
He goes on to state that the Greco-Roman view is ‘habitually dualistic’. I can completely attest to this. It seems more often than not in Western Christian circles, people are so gripped by this view. It is a very hard view to break from. Things just are never ‘simply’ black or white. Life is much more complex than that. We are so ingrained with this from a very young age – winners or losers, right answer or wrong answer, conservative or liberal, left or right, etc. But as we mature, thankfully, some of us see that this dualism is just flat out wrong (I write with a smirk).
Or is it? As McLaren explains towards the end of the book, dualism can be seen as just an early stage in human development as the only way things could be seen. That is, people are all at different places on this odyssey. To claim that we are somehow better than they it to replicate the problems of the past. But we need to understand that ‘people in a certain zone of a religion or denomination are seeing God in the only way they can see God, and as only they can see God’ (pg 235). The point then is to recognize that some ways of seeing are actually helpful in human theological development. People have to first grasp the simple things before they can grasp the loftier things.
For example, McLaren uses math text books to show what he means. On a desk there are a series of school math books, from first-grade to sixth-grade. Picking up the second-grade text book, one reads, ‘You can not subtract a larger number from a smaller number’. Then, you pick up the sixth-grade math book and read, ‘Today we will learn about negative numbers. You will learn how to subtract a larger number from a smaller number’. Now, if we looked at the world in a straight dualistic way, we would say that these things are contradictions. The two statements can’t both be accurate (or ‘true’ if we were really living in that dualistic world). But if we saw that one helps to understand the concept of subtraction – as a stepping stone for what is coming later – one can see that the two texts are indeed completely compatible. This is how McLaren answers the God and Jesus questions, i.e., the supposedly contradictory views of the Old Testament God and the New Testament God as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.
Now, it must be stated, if one keeps the Greco-Roman view of God, then the two views of God are indeed contradictory. You can’t get around it. The Bible is full of holes when reading it with those glasses on. The Greco-Roman view depicts God as the violent ‘Theos’ (McLaren’s term) who is all about perfection and people screwed it up. Therefore, the true nature of ‘Theos’ comes out and ‘He’ (in this view ‘Theos’ is most definitely a male god) is all about slaughtering and destroying everything that is not perfect. There might be some people that make it to the new place ‘Theos’ is creating because of their ‘right’ beliefs about Jesus, but the majority of people and the whole cosmos will be completely wiped out. At least the created world will be annihilated. Humans will have to suffer forever in conscious eternal torment in hell. I submit that this is where a lot of people today have problems with the ‘traditional’ view of God and the Bible. But, what if we start off by using a different over-arching story? What if we humbly admit that we have gotten it wrong and that we need to start over? What if we acknowledge that we have should have taken ‘that left toin at Albecoiky’ (in my best Bugs Bunny voice)? But what story would that be? What would it look like? What do those glasses reveal?
Ah, those are the questions. And McLaren does a great job at showing the love and mercy of God, the God whom Jesus knew as Father. McLaren starts with the Genesis story and gets to the part about warning Adam and Eve that they would ‘die’ – not spiritual death, not covenantal death, not death some day – the day they eat of the tree. That day comes and God starts searching for them. Like children who know they have done something they were not supposed to, Adam and Eve ran and hid! They hid from God. But what happens when God finds them? Does God wipe them out? Does God rip them to pieces? No. We read about God’s mercy. God, knowing that they have made a mess of things, covers their shame and sends them away. In other words, they don’t die that very day. God curtailed wrath with Love. That’s because God is Love. Just like a parent who tells her son not to ride his bike down that large hill and then discovers that he did and wrecked his bike and is in the emergency room, she isn’t really concerned with how badly the bike is damaged or what the hospital bill will be. Her only concern is the safety of her son. That is the image that McLaren paints of the God Genesis 1-3. He then continues the book by using images of creation and reconciliation (Genesis), liberation and formation (Exodus), and new creation and the peace-making reign (Isaiah) to shape our understanding of God in the Jewish Scriptures. When this is done, McLaren claims, we see Jesus in a whole new light. We see in him the goal to where that whole story was going.
What we find, when seeking Jesus in this light, though these glasses, is a Jesus for people of any faith tradition or no faith tradition. We see a Jesus embodies the very image of the invisible God. One how loves even to death. One who becomes a servant to all people. One who no longer calls people slaves, but calls them friends. One who shows us not only the face of God but what true humanity looks like. What true humanity can become. Now that, that is really ‘good news’. Not just for Christians. But for Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, and so on.
But what about John 14.6? What about, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me’? What about that verse? Well, he addresses that (and very well, I might add). To get the full force of his exegesis, you have to read the book. But the summary is this: When Jesus made that statement, he was not talking about people of other religions or of no religion! He was answering a question that had nothing to do with Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, or so on. Therefore, to use that type of ‘in or out’ thinking is to force that Greco-Roman understanding upon the text. And that is not the story of the God of the Bible. Over and over again, the story of the God of the Bible is one of reconciling all of creation; of blessing all peoples; of bringing together a new humanity in Christ. Not starting a new religion. But bringing Jesus, a true humanity, to all people. That is what a new kind of Christianity is all about.
In the Love of the Three in One,