A DIALOGUE. REALLY?
To begin, I'm not sure that postmodern thought (by this I mean deconstructionist theories, primarily articulated by Jacques Derrida, but others as well) has all that much to offer, even if we leave Christianity out of it for a moment. I could be dead wrong, but it seems as if its age is already waning in the academic arena, mainly because it's a system that internally contradicts itself, and therefore completely shuts down dialogue. Plenty of monologues going on, but what a conversation killer! And doesn’t scholarship consist of give-and-take? It would seem that postmodern thought is something of the proverbial party bore that won't let you get a word in edgewise. And people (scholars included) are getting tired of it.
But much is at stake here, particularly when we turn to Christianity thought, which also must include an element of discussion to thrive. Any attempt to destroy dialogue (whether by wielded sword or otherwise) has proven to be catastrophic and resulted in something that is no longer biblical Christianity. There are too many issues where the truth hangs in the balance betwixt two extremes for this not to be so. Sovereignty of God vs. free will of man, for one. (Of course, there is one Voice allowed total and complete monologue, which would be God, as you probably cleverly deduced from my Capitalization. He chooses to dialogue - through prayer, through His Word, and by sending His Son to preach the Kingdom. The difference between our "vertical" conversation with Him and the horizontal variety with our fellow human beings is that He can (and will, when necessary) tell us to shut up and listen. Witness His response to Job (38:2-4):
"Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.”
He holds complete and utter control of the conversation. He is God, after all.
Back to the book at hand. "A New Kind of Christian" appears to be in the form of a dialogue (subtitle: "A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey"), and purports to exalt "conversations”. Sounds good on paper.
The genre that the author has chosen to write about deep theological issues in (a non-fiction/fiction blend, with a dialogue between friends guiding the unfolding of ideas) ironically shuts down any kind of dialogue between HIS ideas and the READER'S. This is brought about for several reasons that I believe are completely intentional:
1) THE ROLE OF THE AUTHOR IS MADE UNCLEAR, as there are two figures who might be representing the point of view of the author, or they might not. This in turn makes the author's own ideas about deep theological issues that are discussed unclear, so the reader is disarmed and does not know how to respond. Imagine being on your cell phone to get directions to your friend's house, but (unbeknownst to you) it's actually two friends passing the phone back and forth, alternately giving you different directions to their respective homes. Sounds funny, perhaps. Now pretend you're trying to get to the hospital instead of a friend's house and the same thing is happening.
Not quite as amusing.
It's anything but responsible conversation, at least when it comes to hardcore issues, such as the veracity of the Bible, how people are brought into the Kingdom of God, etc. Certainly, there is a amount of play in conversation, as ideas are bounced hither and thither. In this book, however, I find myself stripped of my freedom to disagree with the author, because I'm not sure who he is and what he believes.
2) THE CHOICE OF GENRE - what is it, exactly? I'm not hammering on McLaren's use of fiction, which has certainly been used to accurately and beautifully represent deep theological truths. (C.S. Lewis would be the elephant in the room on this one, though I'm thinking also of Charles Williams, G.K. Chesterton, maybe Tolkien, though he himself would object). Two of these writers use the tool of allegory. A coincidence? Probably not, because they were both medieval literature specialists. Williams and Chesterton were not, however, and yet they do have fantastical, allegorical imagery, albeit "mixed up" with "real life" kind of people and scenes. They were consciously playing around with genre and (perhaps not-so-consciously) pioneering magical realism.
So, what is McLaren doing?
He would seem to explain himself in the introduction, in which he says that he has consciously chosen the dialogue format for the same reasons that Galileo did, whom he cites: "I have thought it most appropriate to explain these concepts in the form of dialogues, which, not being restricted to the rigorous observance of mathematical laws, make room also for digressions, which are sometimes no less interesting than the principal argument."
Cool. Digressions. I can handle that. But Galileo's were built around a "principal argument" at least. What's McLaren's argument?
3) THERE IS NO CLEAR ARGUMENT. This is a direct result of the first two observations (UNCLEAR AUTHOR, UNCLEAR GENRE). Everything is digressions. There is no central, unifying idea - because that would fly in the face of the postmodern project, whose rules McLaren is trying to abide by. We must have a thousand little stories, because we cannot give preference to one strong, central storyline. And I'd like to repeat here that this means his readers are not free to embrace or reject or even dialogue with his ideas.
I have a wry smile right now, because of course I'm dialoguing with them, even as I write this sentence. I suspect that there are many people that read this book who, like me, do not fit neatly into one of two categories that he seems to want to impose on his readership:
1) Disapproving members of evangelical Christianity embittered by his ideas
2) Sympathetic, closet-lovers of similar ideas to the author – the “I thought I was the only one” variety
Because I cannot see myself in either extreme, it makes for one slippery grasp I’ve got on his ideas. Still, let’s have a go at interacting with a few thoughts.
VIEWS ON THE BIBLE
Aptly named “Hot Words about Biblical Interpretation”, the sixth chapter recounts how “Dan” displays a considerable amount of ire regarding how his friend “Neo” approaches the Scriptures. We know, of course, that it’s all an act – he’s trying to relate to his readership, and so appears sympathetic to their situation, thus winning them over. It’s a textbook rhetorical tool that has been celebrated from classical (and thus, also Renaissance) literature. You can’t fault the guy for being so cunning – but it seems a little hypocritical to insist that you’re not here for a debate, and then go ahead and use the snakiest tool in the bucket.
Anyway. I digress. (You see, it’s rubbing off on me. ) The first bone I have to pick with this chapter is that McLaren advocates (thorough his character Neo) that cutting the "analytical" part out of Bible reading is okay, even essential for Christianity to grow. My point of view would be: there are many ways of reading, and all are good spiritual exercises for the Christian - whether it's approaching it from the "scholarly" point of view that Neo wants to do away with, or whether it's exercising our imaginations, letting God's word "play upon us" as Neo says - what Christians for thousands of years call "meditation on God's word". Both (and others) are essential to a rich Christian walk. I also don't know what he means about "our modern approaches aren't working very well" (58). I rejoice in the imaginative and rigorous work of a good many recent authors and lecturers.
Secondly, it seems reductionist to call the Bible our "family story". Neo harps on the fact that. "we moderns" want it to be God's encyclopedia. This is only marginally accurate, if I’m remembering my history aright – the use of the Bible to teach astronomy, poetry, physics, etc., is much more a framework from the Middle Ages than the modern age, which was distancing itself from religion (Cf. Beryl Smalley's Story of the Bible in the Middle Ages).
Thirdly, I disagree with McLaren’s devaluing of Biblical authority by decentralizing it from the actual historical object itself:
“The real authority does not lie in the text itself, in the ink on paper, which is always open to misinterpretation- sometimes, history tells us, horrific and dangerous misinterpretation. Instead, the real authority lies in God, who is there behind the text or beyond it, or above it...”
Er...somethin’. Wait, how is it that the ink on paper is more open to interpretation than the idea behind it? This is, after all, what written records are for – to preserve more accurately for a longer period of time than oral record could. Why else so much hubbub when the physical representation of God’s commands are unearthed in Kings, resulting in delightful, humble praise?
I’m sure if I pressed, McLaren would agree that it is important that God chose His Word to be physically preserved by the languages Greek and Hebrew originally, with the intent of having humans translate them over time for every tribe, tongue and nation. He willed that it should be preserved on ink and paper, through the imperfect yet faithful tool of the Church (such as monasteries in the Middle Ages as documented in the excellent “How the Irish Saved Civilization” by Thomas Cahill). But if He could do all that, couldn’t he SOMEHOW intrepidly get us through the interpretatively dangerous waters of modernity? Heavens, does our faith in God’s sovereignty drop off when we enter the modern era?
VIEWS ON CULTURE
First of all, "Neo" uses C.S. Lewis' The Discarded Image in a way that Lewis himself probably never intended. Mclaren recounts one of Neo’s lectures, in which he uses many wonderful passages from this book, which is Lewis' "Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature". That's the subtitle. It's not: "guide for a new generation of Christians wrestling with worldviews". Its purpose is as a guide for students of medieval and renaissance literature learning how to step back into another era's framework of understanding IN ORDER TO UNDERSTAND THE LITERATURE. I'm sure if this difference in intent makes it a wrongful use of his book, but I'm inclined at first to think so.
Regardless, McLaren is basically bumping up against the eternal question of Christianity and culture; that is, how much should culture invade faith and vice versa. A classic example of this is how much should missionaries cater to the culture that they are bringing the gospel to – must they insist that they change their music, their clothing, their seasonal rituals....? Like the early church in Acts puzzling over the place of Jewish dietary laws, we must weigh what measures up to Christ’s definitions of the Church. Though generational and not geographical, I would treat the postmodern culture in the same way – whose quirks are no more or less bewildering than the whether to eat meat sacrificed to idols question! How do these beliefs and practices look next to the truth of God? Inconsequential? “Permissible but not edifying”? In line? Out of line?
See, I’m all for looking for biblical ways to communicate with this generation in languages they understand. But, where I part ways with this book is in the seemingly wholesale adoption of postmodern constructs - it is troublesome to me that truth-undermining deconstructions are expected to hold up the “weight of glory” that has been celebrated through affirmations, certainties, and creeds of faith throughout the centuries. Not only does postmodern philosophical system make conversation difficult (my relatively minor complaint from earlier), it undermines absolutes that God has set in place. One thing that IS good from the modernist framework which we SHOULDN’T throw out is the idea of certainty. This was one road from that era that ran somewhat parallel with biblical thought that ought not to be tossed out just because it’s guilty by association. When founded on the truths of God and balanced out with a proper humility, it also happens to be biblical!
There is some inconsistency in the author’s complaints about being “modern”, however. In the sixth chapter, Neo warns “Dan” against using outmoded modern frameworks for understanding the world. Yet he uses the modern labels "conservative" and "liberal" right and left (no pun intended), and trans-historically applies them to other eras of history willy-nilly. For example, he talks about "conservative Christians" who advocated slavery. Yes, there was overlap between churchgoers and slave owners – a horrific chapter in the troubled relationship between Christianity and culture. Whether these evil men can be called "conservative" or "Christian" on our terms is hard to say. (On a side note, it seems singularly unfair to conflate political conservatism with Christianity, because they are NOT faithful bedfellows – not in this century, nor any other.)
No decent book review should ever...be this long. But it also shouldn’t leave out one essential category. (I am truly sorry that this section is disproportionately shorter than the first “half”.)
WHAT I LIKED
In the last chapter, "Notes on Church Leadership", the book switches to a dialogue between Neo and a young mentor, Casey B. I find a good deal to appreciate in Neo's portraits of an ideal "seminary".
1) He is wide open to creative expressions of Christianity (dance, crafts, Web pages, movies, whatever). This hits on a pet issue of mine, which is the expression of Christianity through the arts, which is way overdue for a rebirth in the church.
2) He wants to restore the community aspect to the seminary (living, cooking, eating, studying, working together). Stellar idea.
3) He wants seminary students (and presumably every Christian) to study worldviews from all eras, especially historical theology, and make sense of their own time and the models in place. I think of the phrase "knowing their times", like Daniel and his friends.
The church is certainly in need of a reawakening - I am not disputing that. But God's purpose in revival does not strike me as shaking off the bonds of our previous generation's worldview. (This has been a byproduct of revival at times, perhaps, but not the main point.) To achieve the goal of "disembedding" ourselves from the previous model, McLaren finds it necessary to single out modernity as the scapegoat. For example, he is anxious to restore beautiful relics of older models, such as liturgy, and yet he cannot handle any concepts that vaguely relate to or resemble something from the modern era, even if they are redeemable. This attitude seems counterproductive to the author's stated aims of understanding all models as valid backdrops to Christianity. Yes, much of the current-day church is infected by ideas from our times that are inimical to the Bible (such as consumerism to the point of selfishness and a general abandonment of generosity towards the poor). But there is much to be thankful for, too. (Um...can anyone say Reformation?)
McLaren's characters keep insisting that we go back to the Bible for answers. This is healthy and good. I hope they keep it up. It should guard us from faddish ideas.
Finally, McLaren’s honesty and his candidness about his struggles are admirable. In that same spirit, I would like to conclude by saying that a few things that bugged me about his thinking actually ended up serving as a mirror into my own life. For example, given the historic extremes of legalism and license in the Christian life, he seems over-eager to paint the picture of the “cool” Christian – the one that knows how to relax with a few friends, have a few beers, whatever. I’m all for enjoying the things of this life – but I don’t need MORE attention drawn towards them. They’re sparkly enough on their own. Frankly, I just need some good ol’ fashioned instruction on how to delight in God’s Word, and pray, and love people. “All these other things will be added”.
P.S. Many thanks to Sara Dick for pointing out the Desiring God Ministries conference website, which features a bunch of videos from Mark Driscoll, John Piper, and other helpful people about the emergent church movement. They're mainly just snippets to give an idea for what the conference is about, but incredibly solid, clarifying, and thought-provoking. Check them out: