Home > Books & Reading, Christianity, Emergent Movement > Food for thought #5: A New Kind of Christianity

Food for thought #5: A New Kind of Christianity

The Bible Authority Question

Not too long ago, I wrote this:

I’m excited about reading through A New Kind of Christianity. I have an open mind about this and am totally willing to transform my Christian faith and live it in a new way with only one caveat: it must remain true to the Bible. If McLaren argues something that goes against what the Bible says, I’ll point it out. We know very little about Jesus apart from the Bible. And we would know nothing about Jesus’ teachings without the Bible. So holding McLaren and his questions and responses to a Biblical standard is neither unreasonable nor unfair since he is talking about the the Christian faith.

In Part II of McLaren’s book, he attempts to address the kind of authority the Bible should have in people’s lives. Considering the Bible is the standard I’m holding him to, I wanted to see how he’d address this issue. First, he addresses how the Bible has been misused. He lists three problem areas:

1. Scientific Mess

Fundamentalism… again and again paints itself into a corner by requiring the Bible be treated as a divinely dictated science textbook providing us true information in all areas of life, including when and how the earth was created, what the shape of the earth is, what revolves around what in space, and so on. (p. 68)

He goes on to say Christians constantly end up “on the wrong side of truth” because of this and talks about how Christians who use the Bible as their scientific standard were wrong in Galileo’s time (heliocentric theory), were wrong in Darwin’s time (evolution), and are even wrong now (climate change/”ecological crisis”). [Note: In a sense, I agree with McLaren—the Bible was never designed as a science textbook and to treat it as such, I think is wrong. I believe what the Bible says on how everything was created but beyond that, the Bible doesn’t get into scientific specifics and to try to deduce things that aren’t there isn’t wise.]

    2. Ethical quandaries

    The Bible, when taken as an ethical rule book, offers no clear categories for many of our most significant and vexing socioethical quandaries. We find no explicit mention, for example, of abortion, capitalism, communism, socialism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, autism, systemic racism, affirmative action, human rights, nationalism, sexual orientation, pornography, global climate change, imprisonment, extinction of species, energy efficiency, environmental sustainability, genetic engineering, space travel, and so on—not to mention nuclear weapons, biological warfare, and just-war theory. (p. 68-69)

    He goes on to say that Christians have misused the Bible to support unethical positions such as segregation and preventing interracial relationships. [Note: The Bible is not a socioethical rulebook nor I do believe it is intended for that purpose. However, the Bible is very much a moral book—it gives people basic rules to live, clearly saying what should and should not be done. Moral standards influence ethical decisions, hence, why some people refuse to tell even a “white” lie (because God says “do not bear false witness”).]

    3. Trouble relating to peace

    Basically, McLaren paints a broad brush of Christians generally being more hawkish and too eager for war. [Note: I’d actually agree with him here.]

    We must find new approaches to our sacred texts, approaches that sanely, critically, and fairly engage with honest scientific inquiry, approaches that help us derive constructive and relevant guidance in dealing with pressing personal and social problems, and approaches that lead us in the sweet pathway of peacemaking rather than the broad, deep rut of mutually assured destruction. (p. 70)

    In an attempt to show how Christians have radically misused the Bible to support unethical positions, McLaren takes his readers through a historical account of slavery quoting sections of pro-slavery books defending the practice of slavery. While my heritage is not directly tied to American slavery, I found the quotes McLaren used to be painful to read. One or two passages might have sufficed to prove his point, but he devotes more than FIVE pages to pro-slavery writing—something I found needlessly excessive. Why does McLaren have to search so hard to justify his points by quoting idiots? I’m sure there were abolitionist books that quoted the Bible too but that would weaken McLaren’s argument so there’s none of that here.

    Then in Chapter 8, readers discover how McLaren really views the Bible:

    At every turn, we approach the biblical text as if it were an annotated code instead of what it actually is: a portable library of poems, prophecies, histories, fables, parables, letters, sage sayings, quarrels, and so on. (p. 79)

    There can be no argument with McLaren here—he’s made up his mind about how he views the Bible. To him, the Bible is nothing more than a beautiful piece of literary text. He thinks that the Bible should not be seen as an inflexible constitution or rule of law but rather as “a library of culture and community.” (p. 81) Toward the end of the chapter, McLaren pleads with the reader who sees the Bible as what he deems a “constitution”:

    I hope you’ll understand that, just as you cannot in good conscience cease to see the Bible as a constitution, many of us can no longer continue to do so in good conscience; that’s why we are on a quest to find other ways to cherish, understand, and follow the Bible.

    This leaves me with a few questions of my own then: Why follow the Bible at all at that point? Why not simply walk away from the teachings of the Bible altogether? And part of me wants to say that’s what McLaren does here but then I read a passage like this and wonder where he’s headed:

    I freely acknowledge that Plato and Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius and Einstein, Muhammad and the Buddha all say interesting and brilliant and inspiring things, and I can learn a lot from reading their words, as I can from Clement, Gregory, Benedict, Francis, Teresa, Simons, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Bediako, Borg, Wright, Brueggemann, Crossan, and thousands of other gifted writers and speakers—even though they disagree with one another on many points. But to say that God inspired the Bible is to say that… the Bible has a unique and unparalleled role that none of these other voices can claim.

    McLaren seems to really believe that last sentence but he also believes the Bible shouldn’t be the authority on anything. Therefore, McLaren seeks to somehow reconcile his love for the Bible with the fact that he cannot view it any longer as an authoritative text. Yet, he still gives heavy weight and credence to the Bible as a sacred text over other sacred texts (such as the Tanakh or the Qur’an). I wonder if McLaren is too much of a wimp to walk away from Christianity so he’s got to find some kind of safety net to reconcile remaining a Christian in his head.

    I can appreciate the sincerity of his message but McLaren is sincerely wrong. There’s more I’d like to say here in regard to the way McLaren and his followers view this kind of Christianity but I can’t seem to formulate coherent thoughts or words. This kind of thinking lends itself to the metaphysical and becomes esoteric and nebulous to me; I can’t wrap my head around it.

    Finally, McLaren essentially starts out the last chapter of Part II by playing victim in a lame attempt to elicit sympathy: “Gee, all these Christians who don’t agree with me call me all sorts of hateful names. But you know, it could be worse: these Christians could resort to tactics like burning at the stake, decapitation, hanging, or disembowelment like they used to! Hey, by the way, if you want to know more about how Christians tortured anyone they didn’t agree with during the course of history, you’ve gotta read The Use of Torture by Christians by John A. Peacemaker.” (By the way, McLaren really does list various ways Christians would employ torture against those they disagreed with.)

    Then McLaren, with what sounds like certain authority, throws out a heretical idea (in traditional Christian faith) for his readers to consider: no such thing as “the Satan” exists.

    The Satan is a figure who has never appeared in the Bible up until this moment. (If you ask, “What about the serpent in Genesis?” I’d have to point out that the serpent is never called the Satan there. He’s just a talking serpent.”) The Satan was apparently a character from Zoroastrian religion who was borrowed from Babylonian culture and maintained by Judaism by some ‘liberal’ Jews we know as the Pharisees. (The more conservative Jews, the Sadducees, never accepted Satan as a legitimate Jewish belief.) (p.88)

    I’d argue this same conservative faction never believed in a resurrection either. From a Biblically literal or literary perspective of Christology, the Sadducees were wrong due to Christ’s resurrection. McLaren’s addendum doesn’t hold water and his attempt to dismiss the existence of Satan by calling Pharisees “liberal Jews” is also weak. The Pharisees, while oftentimes legalistic and misguided, were well learned, educated men who knew Hebrew sacred text inside and out. It’s also worth noting that Jesus may have been considered a Pharisee. (And who calls Satan “the Satan”? How weird.)

    McLaren continues to use the Book of Job to talk about divine revelation and posits whether the foolish words of Job’s “friends” (recorded in Scripture) that God eventually rebukes are still words divinely inspired by God. (He also offers the idea that the omission of the devil at the end of the book means that the devil had nothing to do with Job’s suffering and pain to begin with.) This is such a crazy argument that it hurts my brain. McLaren doesn’t accept the idea that these stories are divinely inspired and recorded in the sense of a guide, not as an alternate mouthpiece for God in which He goes “Oops! That shouldn’t have gone in there!” McLaren also doesn’t seem to get the idea that literalists can accept the big picture of Bible stories, or as we are wont to say in American culture, “the moral of the story.” Literalists believe that God wanted every single word of the Bible to be there, but that doesn’t mean literalists believe that every single word is spoken directly from God.

    Then McLaren goes on to speculate where revelation from God comes from and he offers the idea that it’s not just in statements but rather “it happens in conversations and arguments that take place within and among communities of people who share the same essential questions across generations. Revelation accumulates in the relationships, interactions, and interplay between statements.” (p. 91)

    I’m tired now. For me to indulge in thoughts about this chapter would be redundant. McLaren dismisses the events of Job as even historical:

    God is indeed a character in the text, a representation, not the real God. … The real Job (if there was one—my sense is that the Job story is a kind of archetypcal theological opera and has no intention of portraying what we would call a historical event) is represented in the text by a word, a name—that’s not the real Job. (p. 95)

    Now, I’m thoroughly baffled. McLaren doesn’t believe the Book of Job ever happened but he sifts through it for wisdom like a miner sifting through dirt for gold. My thought at this point is, “Why bother?” If a miner thinks gold is pretty to look at but holds no significant value apart from its beauty, why waste precious time sifting through dirt? Why not pursue some other valuable endeavor?

    McLaren sees the Bible as “the portable library of an ongoing conversation about and with the living God, and as an entree into that conversation so that we actually encounter and experience the living God—for that the Bible is more than enough.”(p. 96) So the Bible is THE portable library (which to me, implies that it’s better than others) in which we can interact with the living God. McLaren believes we can know a real, living God through the Bible but the Bible is nothing more than a bunch of fables, parables, allegories, poems, beautiful prose, etc.

    McLaren is losing me on this quest for a new kind of Christianity. It’s not easy to understand and it’s extremely convoluted. McLaren’s form of Christianity is designed for intellectuals and those of “higher thinking,” of which I must confess, I am not. As a piddly, little layperson, I do not understand how McLaren is able to still hold the Bible up as the best sacred text around but not believe that many of the stories are real. Is Jesus even real to McLaren? (A question to be addressed later.) A New Kind of Christianity doesn’t seem to be shaping up as anything Christ-centered at all.

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