A New Kind of Christianity, Part 3

I just finished reading the first section of Book 2, The Church Question: What Do We Do About The Church. At this point I am entirely fed up with much of the criticism that Brian has received over this book.

For one, this idea that Brian is trying to minimize the writings of Paul in favor of the Gospels is just ridiculous. Earlier in the book Brian wrote a summary and commentary on the entire book of Romans, and now in the church section he has done a full summary and commentary on 1 Corinthians. It seems thus far like he has written more about Paul than about Jesus. And this is no criticism. He has done so with the highest respect and regard for Paul, strongly and repeatedly championing the causes for which Paul wrote.

Secondly, critics seem to have this idea that Brian is attempting to create a Christianity with no need for a savior. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the Church section, Brian asks:

"What one great danger do people need to be saved from, and more positively, what one great purpose do they need to be saved for? ...the church exists to form Christlike people, people of Christlike love. It exists to save them from the great danger of wasting their lives, becoming something less than and other than they were intended to be, gaining the world but losing their souls."

Taken out of context as I have it here, it might seem to the uninformed that Brian is suggesting some sort of health and wealth "your best life now" kind of church. But the entire Church section revolves around love, the sacrificial suffering kind of love that Jesus demonstrated, that Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 13. As I already mentioned, Brian goes on to summarize and commentate the entire letter, giving us a vision for the purpose of the church through Paul's eyes, one where we stop bickering over petty things, over who knows what and who doesn't, where we stop acting like infants and put childish things behind us, where we live out lives of mature Christlike love that teach and inspire those around us to live and love the same. THAT is the purpose of the church.

And I could not agree more. In fact, our church adopted a new vision statement about a year or so ago: "Love God, Love People". That's it. It's that simple. And Brian has nailed it.

Next up, the highly anticipated "Sex Question". More of my thought to come.

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Criticizes Brian McLaren

I just finished watching an hour long panel discussion on Brian McLaren's new book, A New Kind of Christianity. The moderator was R. Albert Mohler, Jr., and the panel was composed of Jim Hamilton, Bruce Ware, Stephen Wellum, and Gregory Wills. I found much of their criticism of the book to be pretty high level, and I would recommend you watch it for yourself. I must say that I found myself disagreeing with the panel on their characterizations of certain sections of the book. Many times it seemed like they either did not understand what Brian was trying to say, or intentionally took some ideas to their logical extreme in order to rebut them. At the same time, I did find myself agreeing with certain of their points, but not many.

What perhaps spoke to me the most from the discussion was Bruce Ware's admission near the end that Brian is actually right about something. Here's what he said:

"I think we, conservative fundamentalist Christianity, bear some responsibility in promoting a kind of legalism and a tight rigid fundamentalism that is repulsive. He's (McLaren) right about that. And I mean, we have sinned in this regard I mean (for) so much of our history. I grew up in a baptist church that was legalistic, and my goodness, 95% of the youth group that I grew up with is not walking with the Lord. They just rebelled against that legalism, the hypocrisy that was there. Well there's a fair bit of that that is true, that a person like Brian McLaren, William Paul Young and The Shack, Donald Miller... I mean in a sense they are appealing to that same audience of a younger generation that is fed up with fundamentalism in its legalistic form. Honestly we bear some responsibility in the fact that we have not done well at promoting true Biblical Christianity. And boy, God help us."

Amen to that.

You can watch the video of the discussion in its entirety at this link:


How Do I Love God?

...By loving people. I began this with a post and discussion about this idea. I gave a message to our church on it. Here it is:

Those People...

You know the ones. They're usually poorly dressed, with a backpack at their feet. The sign says "Will work for food", or "Homeless. Please Help". Maybe you see them on your way to work? Or while running errands? You pretend not to notice them. You avoid their glance. Yeah, those people.

Have you found yourself annoyed by them? How dare they stand there everyday and beg you for money. They're probably liars, scam artists, just out to make a quick buck. Or they're addicts and will just waste your money on drugs and alcohol. Whatever it is, you know there is no good reason why they don't have a job. They're obviously lazy. Let's see, what other assumptions can we use to make ourselves feel better about ignoring them.

My goodness, if you were to give some of your spare change to everyone that asked you, why that would add up to... uh, let's see here... 50 cents per day times the guy at 5th and main plus the kid downtown... carry the one... Well, TOO much, THAT'S for sure. And besides, you tithe to your church and give money every year to the homeless shelter. You're doing you're part, right?

So why can't you look them in the eyes? Why do you have to pretend to be on the phone? Why can't you roll down your window and say hello?

"Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land." Deuteronomy 15:10-11

This was originally posted in 2005.

A New Kind of Christianity: Part 2

Now at 35% read, I have just finished the question "Is God violent?" In it, Brian continues his idea that the Bible should not be read as a constitution, but as a library. He goes on to propose that we view the books of the Bible chronologically, and in so doing discover a progressing evolution of and improvement in our understanding of God.

In the Old Testament, we see a violent genocidal God, who destroys all life on the planet with a flood and who sends the Israelites to destroy neighboring people groups. Brian advances the argument that the OT books were written by a people whose understanding of God was primitive, and so their writings reflect this primitive understanding (again, not a new idea). And as we move further along in the library time line, we see humanity's understanding of God improving. By the time we get to Jesus in the Gospels, much of the old understanding of God is turned on its head (love your enemies instead of hating them, etc.). Brian suggests that this is not God changing, but our knowledge of him changing, his revelation of himself to us expanding.

In the book, Brian plots a line through a scatter diagram that shows a trajectory of our understanding of God, beginning in the early OT books and moving forward through the NT. The line travels upward, into higher and higher understanding. Then Brian adds points to the diagram to represent OT prophecy about the future, placing them higher still on the trajectory line. Finally, he places Jesus at the top of the chart, as the point through which the line finally travels at its highest position. In doing this, he attempts to give Jesus the highest place, to make Jesus, and understanding Jesus, the bearing marker which should guide our quest for a new kind of Christianity.

But I have a problem with this.

First, what Jesus are we talking about here? For this to work, the Jesus at the top of the trajectory has to be the actual Jesus. It can't be the Jesus that was revealed to us in the Gospels. That Jesus was made known to us through primitive peoples nearly two thousand years ago. Just as the God revealed in the OT was an incomplete and somewhat inaccurate picture, to be improved upon in later writings (according to the theory here), so too must the Jesus of the Gospels be somewhat incomplete and inaccurate. I don't understand the basis for Brian's assumption that the Gospels of 2000 years ago are somehow the complete revelation of Jesus. Such an assumption, while I tend to agree with it, does seem to fly in the face of the rest of his proposition.

So where do we turn to find newer and more accurate revelations of the true Jesus? People have proposed a lot of options for this. Islam claims to be a cleansing or repairing of the corrupted understanding of God we find in the scriptures. It came roughly 600 years after the Gospels were written. Could Islam be an evolved and improved understanding of God? Mormonism also makes the claim of a Latter Day revelation of Jesus. Are we to accept these as possibilities? If not, to what or whom do we then turn to find the Jesus that Brian places at the top of his trajectory? According to Brian, we cannot turn to the NT letters for this, as he makes clear that the letters should be seen as pointing back to the Jesus of the Gospels. To what then? To Jesus himself?? How???

The only way this makes sense to me is if the Jesus at the top of the trajectory line is the real Jesus, not the picture of Jesus painted in the Gospels. If God is revealing this Jesus to us even now, as Brian says, "even as we read these words", how do we determine the validity of these personal experiences? Brian seems to claim that we do this by looking backward along the trajectory line and see if it follows the correct course. Sounds good. But I think Islam and Mormonism then have a legitimate claim to being accurate revelations of God. Perhaps they are? Is this what Brian is saying? So far he has not made that explicit yet.

But there are a couple upcoming sections that may further address these issues, specifically, "Who is Jesus and why is he important?" and "How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?" More good reading ahead!

Ken Bussell
Minister of Music & Adult Ministry
Our Place Christian Church
Sent via BlackBerry

A New Kind of Christianity

According to the new Kindle App for Blackberry, I have now read the first 20% of this book. I considered waiting until I finished before posting my thoughts, but then decided I couldn't wait.

I love this book so far. I'm going to try not to gush, but it will be difficult. Although I am only about a fifth of the way through, I find the book is meeting me exactly where I am. The ideas have been written about before. Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt have broken this ground with The New Christians and A Christianity Worth Believing, as have many others. A New Kind of Christianity comes across to me as sort of a "Part III", a conclusion to the trilogy. But I don't mean a conclusion in the same sense as a closing. This book is more like a distillation.

In the book, Brian asks us to consider ten questions. And this is the essence of what I mean when I say distillation. For many years, people have struggled to explain and understand what it means to be an emergent christian, what it means to be in the emergent dialogue, and it has caused a lot of confusion. People want definitions, they want doctrine, they want black and white answers to essential propositions... What Brian has succeeded in doing, at least for me, is to summarize what it is that I'm so uncomfortable with. These are the questions. This is what I am asking, what I am wondering. These are the conversations I am seeking. These are the ten things:

1. What is the overarching story line of the Bible?
2. How should the Bible be understood?
3. Is God violent?
4. Who is Jesus and why is he important?
5. What is the Gospel?
6. What do we do about the church?
7. Can we find a way to address human sexuality without fighting about it?
8. Can we find a better way of viewing the future?
9. How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?
10. How can we translate our quest into action?

Brian points out early on that he is not proposing "answers" to these questions, but rather "responses" that are designed to encourage further discussion. In describing his approach, he uses the metaphor of a tennis match. His responses are not meant to be smash serves, with lots of topspin, intended to win a point and create a loser... but rather more like soft lobs, easy to return, intended to keep the game going.

And as I am only just getting started with the book, I have yet to really delve into his responses and understand them. I have finished the first two questions, and I found myself saying "yes!" over and over again. This is what I have been thinking, what I have been blogging, what I have been questioning and studying in my own personal journey of faith and belief.

I especially related to his responses in question two... "How should the Bible be understood?" He proposes that much of history has seen the Bible understood and used like a constitution, with theologians and church leaders playing the role of attorneys, quoting the Bible to create legal precedents. But Brian suggests that maybe the Bible ought to be seen more like a community library, a collection of books by a variety of authors, all with unique experiences and points of view. Perhaps the books of the Bible were not meant to be read together as a whole, like a constitution, but read individually, browsed through and gleaned from, like a library?

An interesting thing about this book is Brian's repeated use of the word "we". As someone who self identifies as emergent, I found myself reading the book as if Brian were talking to me, or talking to "us". And I found that satisfying. I was happy to hear him speaking to me and at times for me. But yesterday I was reading a few sections of the book aloud to someone else, and I found myself feeling like the person I was reading to was not part of the "we". I felt like when the book said "we", when I read the word "we", that I was talking about "us" to someone who is "them". That was a strange experience. "We" is an interesting word choice here. Brian is talking to two groups at the same time. He's talking to us, and he's talking for us to them. And depending on which group you are in, you will undoubtedly hear his words differently.

I will likely post more of my thoughts as I get deeper into the book. I have not been this excited about a book since Surprised By Hope. It surely has created a lot of controversy recently (canary fliers!). I would encourage everyone to read it for themselves.