Reflections on MacLaren’s "A New Kind of Christian"
NOTE: It may be helpful to read the posts “The Myth of Postmodernity” and “What is Liberalism” before proceeding. Listen to more on Liberalism, Emergent and the Gospel in “What is the Gospel? A Response to Liberalism and the Emergent Church“)
The key spokesman and leader of the Emergent Village, Brian MacLaren is one of the primary leaders in what Mark Driscoll calls (in his highly illuminating chapter on the Emergent Movement – see summary/review here) the “Liberal-Emergent” branch of the Emergent Movement. Maclaren is a very prolific author: however, it is in “A New Kind of Christian” that the main core of his theology is laid out: therefore, a close examination of this book provides a clear look into the center of this influential man’s theology, and the intellectual DNA of this branch of the movement.
In this book, MacLaren uses a fictional relationship between Dan – a pastor going through a rough patch – and Neo. Neo is a Jamaican-born school teacher who is kind of a “Ghandi-meets Nelson Mandella-meets Oprah.” He is currently a high-school teacher, who begins having lengthy discussions with Dan to help him out of his depression and confusion. As the story progresses, we find that Neo was formerly a pastor as well, but had been expelled from his congregation on suspicion of heresy.
flSOME WORDS OF INTRODUCTION
My typical pattern for writing a book-review is a) overview of content, b) critique of content, c) personal reflections. However, the nature of MacLaren’s work forces me to say a few words before beginning such an enterprise. As strange as it may sound to those who have not read the book, the structure and content of MacLaren’s work actually forces me to prove that I have a right to question or evaluate this work. Specifically, there are two questions which I need to answer before I can proceed.
1) Isn’t “Debate” outdated? How ’bout a little dialogue, please!
MacLaren complains at one point that debate is an old, out-dated, overly percussive form of communication: being Emergent is all about dialogue, about give and take, about not proving your opponent wrong, but seeing new insights together.
The first thing I need to point out is that MacLaren is not consistent with his own rules. He often scoffs and mocks “the fundamentalists” in a way which is not at all open to discussion. Further, when he finally gets around to presenting his own perspective, it is far from open and malleable: How flexible, for example, is the chapter title, “It’s none of your business who goes to hell”? Further, when Neo close to beliefs which he finds very important, he gets emotional, forceful, and direct (sometimes sheepishly saying, “Oh, now you’ve got me wound up, Dan,” or “Don’t get me started, man!”…) – as any normal person would. Although “Dan” changes his beliefs significantly throughout this book, it does not seem that Neo “compromises” to meet him: this is the story of a conversion, not of a “dialogue.”
My final critique to the idea of “dialogue vs. debate” is to ask “what sort of a conversation is appropriate for someone with whom you truly disagree?” Please allow an example. Let’s picture a room with several small groups of people, all discussing models of marriage. In one corner two people are discussing headship vs. equality. In another, they are discussing stay-at-home dads vs. tradtitional models. In another corner, they are discussing the right of a husband to beat his wife into submission, and the rightness of the traditional Hindu practice of burning the wife alive on her husband’s funeral pyre. Woa…wait just a minute! We can have discussion between those first two groups, because no doubt they all have something to contribute…but what can do with this last group? They have nothing good to add to the debate, and much to repent of before they can contribute! What sort of “dialogue” can we have with them? It seems like this would be a far better time for “debate” – and a very strong one at that!
…and so it is in all corners of the marketplace of ideas. We dialogue with those we are similar to, we debate those we seriously disagree with. This is not uniquely “modern” or “postmodern” – it’s just part of human conversation.
2) Aren’t I just defending the crumbling, toppling edifice of Modernity against the crushing onset of postmodernity?
I have taken a separate post entitled “The Myth of PostModernity” to critique the concept of evolution and of “post” modernity which is the super-structure and guiding assumption of MacLaren’s book. At the moment, I will offer only a few observations:
a. MacLaren has this great line where he says (through the mouth of Neo) “Fundamentalists are fond of making ‘nothing but’ arguments. You know, like, ‘that is nothing but a post-Marxist class-struggle critique and the like…” As I read that I thought, “Now, here is a thought to really keep in mind. Let’s not be too quick to jump to the conclusion that MacLaren is “just a Liberal” or something like that. I need to be careful and fair, and not dismiss him too quickly…” As I continued reading, however, I simply could not believe it! Almost the entire book is a “nothing but” argument. Whenever MacLaren gets to something he doesn’t like he declares “this is nothing but a vestige of Modernity” what he means, of course, is that it is outdated and is to be rejected.
b. MacLaren (through the mouth of Neo) says at one point something to the effect of, “my sketch of history is very broad and general. If any true historian heard what I am about to say, they would probably pull my teaching license.” (Note: the character “Neo” is a high-school teacher). MacLaren is very correct in his self-effacing comment. Aside from the holes in the whole concept of postmodernity (mentioned, as I said, in “The Myth of PostModernity“), MacLaren is not even aware of recent history. For example, he seems to read recent American Evangelicalism (what he calls “modern” Christianity) all the way back to the Reformation. This is just absurd, since Modernity was and is a movement in direct conflict with the essential concepts of Reformation thought! He at one point calls systematic theology Modern – but systematic theology predates even the Reformation, and certainly predates Descartes (who was the true originator of Modern thought). Perhaps his most silly example of historical inaccuracy is when he says that the statement “God is in control” is a Modern invention. He speculates that before people had machines and inventions, they would not have thought of this statement in a Calvinistic/deterministic way at all, but would have adopted something much closer to his system (explored below). Whether MacLaren’s system is better or not is quite another story – but the system which he is attacking is obviously Calvinism which could not possibly have been influenced by the industrial revolution, since John Calvin predated this era by 150 years, and he said that his theology derived almost entirely from Augustine, who predated it by well over a millennium!!
3) Aren’t I being too hard on MacLaren?
A New Kind of Christian begins with MacLaren’s very open and honest discussions of his own struggles with doubt, during a particularly dark season of life. The main content of the book is carried by a discussion between the protagonist Dan and his venerable older friend Neo, who bears scars from his past, being viciously by the “fundies” (a.k.a. “Fundamentalists”) when he dared to speak in favor of evolution. Neo spends the latter portion of the book caring for his dying (mentally and physically) mother, and traveling the world contributing to various charitable organizations.
The nature of the book, then, resists critique. Who am I, after all, to critique the questioning of a burnt-out pastor? Who am I to intrude on the honest discussion of two friends? Who am I to cause trouble, and to insult the spiritual integrity of the wonderful character that MacLaren paints as his teacher/friend? Would I have the gall to pull him away from his dying mother, to answer my petty critiques?
My attempts to critique this work are further hampered by the consistent picture of the “heresy-hunters” and “fundamentalists” pictured throughout this book. MacLaren paints a picture of those who disagree with his views as “fundies” who go off with no provocation, or like the herecy-hunters who attack with no real content but much emotion throughout the book. In the best-case scenarios, these people eventually apologize and reconcile with those whom they have hurt: in the worst case scenarios, the martyred Neo bravely soldiers on despite their cruel and unreasonable assaults. Am I, then, such a cruel person even to think of critiquing MacLaren’s work?
…but of course this books is not a private discussion. Like Pilgrim’s Progress, MacLaren’s story – filled with long teaching segments – is a work meant to convey content. As the name suggests, MacLaren is presenting a new form of Christianity – and the huge influence of MacLaren testifies to the ability of this little book to convey this message.
Because MacLaren has published this book, he has presented it to the world, he has contributed it into the marketplace of ideas for consideration. There is no real reason that I can think of that an honest critique of MacLaren’s content would be rude, out of place, or in any way unnatural.
1) MacLaren’s basic theological model
The most important moments in A New Kind of Christian are when Neo picks an issue (for example, fundamentalism vs. Liberalism) and represents the two perspectives as two ends of a line (a.k.a. “The fundamentalists are over here, the Liberals are over here…others find themselves somewhere on this line between them…). He then lifts his hand a few feet off of the table (or ground or wherever he has drawn the line) and says, “I think the real answer lies somewhere up here, above the controversey, not down there…”
MacLaren’s theological method may seem novel to the average evangelical – but for someone studying historical theology, it is as old as the early 1800’s, when Wilhelm Hegel came up with his “Triadic Logic.” Since the time of Rene Descartes (early 1600’s), it had become popular to think of philosophy and knowledge exclusively in human terms, without bringing God into the equation. This presented a problem, however. The world and the human mind is immensely complex and rational. Without an all-wise Creator, where did all this information come from? Rather than a top-down (that is, God-to-creation) idea of creation, Hegel created a bottom-up model. He theorized that the way that knowledge is gathered is that one person/group presents a thesis (silly example: group A likes bananas) while another group presents an antithesis (group B likes icecream). After much conflict between the two, a compromise or synthesis is formed which takes the best from both (e.g. the banana-split – yum!).
Hegel’s most infamous disciple was Karl Marx who applied this logic to politics and came up with Communism/Socialism. Charles Darwin applied this logic to biology, resulting in the theory of evolution. His most influential disciple, however, was Adalf von Harnack, who applied this logic to human history. In Harnack’s mind, human history is continually evolving and moving towards perfection: although few have heard his name, most have been taught that humanity was once a stone-age creature, then went through a long “pre-modern” phase of development, climaxing in ancient Greece. Then it evolved and formed in the Middle Ages before bursting forth in Modernity. Harnack’s model forces us to ask the question, “What is next?” Surely, the next stage of evolution must be better than what has come before!
(side-note: Harnack’s model has a lot of holes which he cannot account for. One glaring example is the pyramids and other amazing structures created by supposed “stone-age” people. Further, the disciplines of science, philosophy, law and medicine all trace their roots back to the greats of ancient Greece – a high point in human development to which the intellectual abilities of the present day – even propped up as they are in the body-cast of the internet-age – still pale in comparison. Finally, the Medieval period was certainly not an improvement over the classical age, and you could argue that in many ways we have been going downhill for the last century, not up. All of these are real solid criticisms of the Hegel/Harnack notion of “evolution.”)
At any rate, MacLaren clearly adopts the Hegel/Harnack model of evolution. That is why he spends so much time on the Coppernucian Revolution (aka the discovery that the Earth is not the center of the universe), and why he can flip back and forth between theology, science, then back to theology, and back to science. For him, they are both the same thing – expressions of the human evolutionary movement. It also explains why he is able to compare the Emergent Movement to the Reformation, even though MacLaren has nothing in common with Luther theologically. (Luther would have called MacLaren dirty names, swore at him, and maybe burned him at the stake as a heretic!) MacLaren feels that he is in the same category as Luther, because he sees himself at another major turning-point in history. That is, he sees himself standing on the very leading edge of transition between Modernity and Post-Modernity.
2) Where does that leave God?
Hegel’s system was invented to remove the need for the Christian God. For Hegel, God was not the source of absolute truth, who had revealed definite moral and theological absolutes in the Bible. Rather, Hegel was a pantheist who saw God as the sum-total of the highest ideals of humanity. Picture all of humanity as a large number of stick-men. Now think of a thought-cloud above them as representing their religious strivings, or thoughts about God. As society progresses, so do their thoughts about God. But we could also say that humanity is led onwards by “god,” (that is, by their highest thoughts and ideals), couldn’t we? In this way, humanity is both led by god, and also is god, and creates god.
This is process theology: the belief that God is finding Himself, discovering, growing, moving, in all the actions and discoveries of the human race.
Now, listen to MacLaren for a moment:
Change is inevitable, and change is good, in fact…“I believe that God is the wind in our sails, leading us into change, because that’s the way He always moves ahead. He’s not about taking us back to the past – some beautiful illusion of the good old days – He has a purpose He is working towards, and I want to keep up with Him. I suppose that is my greatest fear – not that I will go too fast or too far, but that I will lag behind.”
In contrast to the historic-Christian view that God is the source of truth, that all truth was revealed once-for-all in Jesus and recorded in Scriptures, MacLaren adopts Hegel’s evolutionary view which 1) assumes that newer is better, and 2) puts humanity – especially the younger generation – in the driver’s seat, ultimately deciding the fate of the planet and even (if taken to its logical conclusion) the fate of God. Some interesting scriptures to look at would be: 1 Cor. 4:6, which speaks of “not becoming arrogant, so as to exceed what is written.” Much of what I wrote in my paper “Do we Need More than ‘Scripture Alone‘” would be helpful for explaining the fact-based foundation of Christianity, and the importance placed on right doctrine and teaching. Especially on the basics of the Gospel, the New Testament seems to offer not the slightest expectation or room for “evolution.”
3) What kind of a human am I?
The implication of MacLaren’s thought is that humanity is part of God – that is, humanity is a part of the process which creates God, or maybe the agents through which God self-actualizes Himself. At any rate, the line differentiating God and man is exceedingly faint and blurry. In order for MacLaren’s system to work, a different view of humanity must be presented. God simply cannot be so closely implicated with humanity if they are really as sinful and as far cut off from Him as historic-Christianity declares them to be.
MacLaren repeatedly states that he does not like thinking of “in-groups” and “out-groups.” Specifically, he doesn’t think there is any real difference between non-Christians and Christians. Christians don’t “own” the gospel, and Christ is not preventing people from getting to heaven. Rather, Christ seems to be at work in all people, bringing them to Himself. The very real implication of MacLaren’s thought is that the death of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world are not really necessary to make an atonement for sins. Apparently, we are not as bad of sinners as we thought we were.
How then are these not-so-bad sins to be dealt with?
There are three basic ways of dealing with sin apart from Christ: rationalization, comparison and works. Although not stated explicitly, I would see all three at work in MacLaren.
Maclaren deconstructs systematic theology and Christian hermeneutics early in the book. If there is no way to read the Bible or theology, then who is to say that anything is a sin? Although he doesn’t get into specifics, MacLaren lays out the tools for rationalizing away any sins which one does not like to deal with.
The real core of MacLaren’s theology is found in Neo’s sermon, about the middle of the book. In it, he describes going to heaven and finding it a place wonderful light, a place of others-centeredness, a place of great love and acceptance, joy and peace. He then urges us to imagine that somebody next to us also comes, and they have lived a very wicked life. Would they be able to enjoy heaven as much as us? Would that same love and light in fact be painful, and even “darkness” to them? Perhaps, after all, we all go to the same place, and the only difference in our experience is the nature of the life we have lived, and the condition of our hearts when we get there.
We will move on to discuss MacLaren’s version of a holy life in a moment – but let us not skip over the fact that MacLaren instructs us to compare our holiness not to the perfect life of Christ (which would obviously discourage us, and force us to realize that we are all in that second category of person, who cannot experience God’s pure presence without pain, due to our sinfulness) but to some “wretched” sinner who is worse than us. Compared to “that tax-collector over there,” (Luke 18:9-17) perhaps I am not really all that bad…? MacLaren also seems to weight sins. He very rightly points out that the Evangelical church at times focuses too much on the obvious sins of immorality and drunkenness, but ignores the hidden issues of pride and self-righteousness. He also rightly says that the Evangelical church emphasizes personal sins to the exclusion of corporate sins. These are both true points – but somehow, rather than feeling more like sinners, MacLaren at least has the possibility of making a sinful person feel more justified.Compared to the “really bad sins” of hypocrisy, judgmentalism, and Pharisaism, a small matter like fornication or drunkenness may not be all that bad. Granted I am reading between the lines here: but I do think this conclusion is at least possible from the way MacLaren writes.
c. Good Works
Neo explains that, “what we have become on this side of the door, that we will be on the other side.” It is through good works that our lives are prefected to the place where we can experience God’s grace in the afterlife, and in this one. It’s not about getting saved but about being good – about living a moral life which will earn one a place in God’s good favor. MacLaren ends the book with some excellent words on generosity, and on being globally aware – but his theology unfortunately makes good works in these areas almost (or completely?) necessary for salvation.
4) So what do we need Jesus for?
Good question. Jesus is definitely a good example for humanity to follow, and He seems to serve some mystical, hidden mission of reconciling all of humanity to himself in some invisible way through the Holy Spirit. However, the idea of God becoming man to die the death we should have died, so that all who believe in Him, according to Scriptures will be saved (cf. 1 Cor. 15:1-8) is completely dropped. After all, this salvation is: 1) too individualistic and selfish, and 2) bordering on unethical, 3) promoting a selfish desire for salvation without a holy life. Further, it creates in-groups and out-groups – something a post-modern simply cannot accept.
MacLaren does, however, patronizingly allow people for whom “this story works” to keep believing it: just so long as they understand that this understanding of grace is only one small part of something much bigger, and it should not be central.
5) So then what is salvation?
Good question. I copied down one quote where MacLaren attempts to answer this question – but his answer only raises more questions:
“The Kingdom of God is like the air we breathe. It transcends time and space and to refuse it is like a two-year-old holding his breath. To receive it is as simple as…as…receiving it. I mean, it’s just beautiful, man!”
Apparently, then, all of the “Modern” words (did I mention that anything MacLaren doesn’t like, he calls “modern” and thus tries to sweep aside?) about a “narrow gate” (Mat. 7:13-14), about the impossible difficulty of entering the kingdom without God’s help (Luke 18:24), and about the many hardships necessary to enter the kingdom (Acts 14:22) are erased. In the postmodern world, salvation is as easy as breathing, and we can assume that only a few really wicked people don’t make it.
6) How do we be holy, in order to maximize our heaven-experience?
MacLaren says that he has found all things which promote the “us & them” distinction between Christains and non to be less than helpful in his devotional life. I am assuming here that he means study of the Holy Scriptures, attending prayer and Bible-studies, singing to God, and going to church, since these are the main things which Christians do which others do not.
He encourages people to keep journals, to spend lots of time in nature, to study art and poetry, to examine other religions and most of all to keep an open mind. We are not to allow traditional and established-church theology to influence us too much. He also suggests that we study history (Maclaren mentions especially the crusades, the slave trade and the witch trials, and, of course, anything which supports the theory of evolution, especially the Reformation). These are all ways to become the “New Kind of Christian” which he has been describing.
7) Is MacLaren’s Christianity really “Christian”?
In the title of the book, MacLaren promises to describe a “new kind of Christian.” Towards the end of the book, the protagonist “Dan” reflects that if his church really knew the kind of theology he was thinking of and wanting to foist onto them, they would angrily denounce him as the perpetrator of a new religion. “…and maybe it is a new sort of religion” he muses to himself.
My conclusion on the matter matches MacLaren’s own admission: this is not Christianity, but some new sect or (to use the word accurately, not emotionally) a “heresy.” If MacLaren was honest, he would come up with a new title for his religion: since he claims that he is Christian (while at the same time denying all of the essential tenets of Christian faith) he is, by definition, a heretic.
In point of fact, the center of the Christian religion is that we serve a holy creator God, who cannot tolerate sin. Because we have all fallen deeply into sin, we have become separated from God (Isaiah 59:2), our sins have covered us with uncleanness and withered away our goodness (Isaiah 64:6), and have made us all, by nature, objects of wrath (Ephesians 2:3) – enemies of God (Romans 5:10) who stand condemned already (John 3:18) and without God and without hope in this world (Eph. 2:12), with only a terrifying expectation of judgment to come in the next (Ephesians 5:6): “For it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God,” (Hebrews 10:31).
Into the terror and helplessness of our situation, at the right time, Christ died for us – the righteous for the unrighteous to bring us to God (1 Peter 3:8). His coming into history was a definite event which was felt and seen and touched by real people (1 John 1:1), which well-educated people made faithful inquiry into (Luke 1:1-2), and which was recorded faithfully for future generations (1 Corinthians 15:3). This message is not just one way to think of salvation. It is not just “helpful” because it lifts pious feelings from people, and helps them live ethical lives. Rather it is the one way of salvation for “There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12). But “how can they call on one in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in the one they have not heard about? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Romans 10:14)
Christianity knows nothing of evolution or progress on these fundamentals. Rather, the essential facts of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection “for us and for our salvation” is tied into the very deepest fabrics of our creeds, of our worship, of our DNA. We do not progress beyond this, but contend earnestly for it – always on the watch for false teachers (cf. Jude) and those who exceed what is written, thus becoming arrogant (1 cor. 4:6). If MacLaren really is departing from these essentials of the gospel, he will receive no compliment from Christianity, but a curse: “But even if I or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel other than what you have received, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!” (Galatians 1:8-9)
FINDING REDEEMING QUALITIES
As I mentioned before, MacLaren speaks very forcefully on generosity and global engagement – two topics very much needed in today’s American Evangelicalism. He also raises some very good questions – about why we treat pastors as special, why we expect so much from them and ultimately destroy so many of them.
In sum, MacLaren has a lot of good questions for the Evangelical church to answer. These are good questions, serious ones which (for the most part) really deserve consideration. I will likely devote some future posts to unpacking some of these: those who have tracked with me for a long time know that on many of MacLaren’s critiques, I am right there with him.
One particular point needs to be emphasized: for the last century, the conservative Evangelical church has concluded that it has no part to play in feeding, protecting or defending the weak and abandoned in our world. This is the “social-gospel” which is exclusively the work of Liberals, while conservatives are to focus on the truth of the Gospel. I want to spend more time on this in the future because it is a really important point. For the present however, let me only say this: it’s not “either-or.” Christians need to present and be true to the gospel. They also need to bless and serve their world. Especially us in the west, who are (through democracy and capitalism) in the “driver’s seat” of our nations and thus the world, need to be serious about the real needs of our world.
We need to do this, however, without sacrificing our gospel!
…and this is where I want to conclude. MacLaren has a lot of good questions, and he has some really good emphases. However, to be an “emergent” christian according to his definition is to be a non-Christian or (at best) a confused Christian who has beliefs which contradict their faith, and must eventually make a choice.
I see MacLaren as a deep invasion of Liberal thought into Evangelicalism: I see in the Emergent church (at least, the portion of the Emergent church which allies itself with MacLaren) a serious falling away and weakening of the Evangelical church.