Friday, April 9, 2010

Brian McLaren's God Question

I am blogging through A New Kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren. McLaren is noted for his dissatisfaction with evangelicalism, and his new book raises “ten questions that are transforming the faith.” He writes, “It’s time for a new quest, launched by new questions, a quest across denominations and around the world, a quest for new ways to believe and new ways to serve faithfully in the way of Jesus, a quest for a new kind of Christian faith.” He insists that he is not offering answers to these questions, but responses that invite counter-responses. Let the conversation begin! I will offer summaries of each question and response, along with my counter-responses.

McLaren’s third question is The God Question: Is God violent? Having insisted that we treat the Bible as a library rather than a constitution, he moves on to one of the stickier issues in treating the Bible as a library—What do we do with all of the violence in the Bible (especially in the Old Testament)? In Genesis 6, God sees that the earth is corrupt, and He decides to wipe everyone out in a deluge, save for Noah, his family, and some animals. Not only is this genocide, it’s geocide. What do we do with this story? If this is the way that God behaves, is it how we are to behave?

To show that the flood story is not an example to follow, McLaren lays out a hermeneutic that illustrates how our understanding of God has evolved from a “violent tribal God” to a “Christlike God.” For instance, Genesis 6 tells a story of oppression, flood, and deliverance by an ark. Exodus tells a similar story—only this time it is Israel that is oppressed, and baby Moses who is delivered by an ark (in Hebrew, the raft his mother made for him is called an ark). McLaren suggests that the Moses story may be a commentary on the Noah story—only our perceptions of God have evolved. No longer is God the God who liberates through genocide; He’s a God who liberates through salvation.

Brian is not suggesting that God has changed, only that people grow in their understanding of God. He writes:
I’m not saying that the Bible is free of passages that depict God as competitive, superficially exacting, exclusive, deterministic, and violent. But neither am I saying that those passages are the last word on the character of God. I am not saying that the Bible reveals a process of evolution within God’s actual character, as if God used to be rather adolescent, but has taken a turn for the better and is growing up nicely over the last few centuries. I am saying that human beings can’t do better than their very best at any given moment to communicate about God as they understand God, and that Scripture faithfully reveals the evolution of our ancestors’ best attempts to communicate their successive best understandings of God. As human capacity grows to conceive of a higher and wiser view of God, each new vision is faithfully preserved in Scripture like fossils in layers of sediment. If we read the Bible as a cultural library rather than as a constitution, and if we don’t impose a Greco-Roman plotline on the biblical narrative, we are free to learn from that evolutionary process—and, we might even add, participate in it. (103)
McLaren argues that this is often the way we teach children. For instance, in second grade, you might learn that “you can’t subtract a larger number from a smaller number.” However, in sixth grade, you might start working with negative numbers and learn that “a negative number is the result of subtracting a larger number from a smaller number.” Does this new knowledge mean that what you learned in second grade was wrong? No; it just means that what you learned in second grade was appropriate for second-graders. Sixth-graders can handle more complex truth.

So, how do we, 2000 years after Jesus, develop our theology in conversation with the Bible? McLaren insists that Jesus is the ultimate authority for our theology, not the Bible. The Bible is an invaluable conversation partner, but not the ultimate authority. Instead, he suggests we plot the Bible’s teaching over time on any given subject, and look for a trajectory that represents the teaching of Jesus. For instance, take our treatment of “the other.” In the early parts of the Old Testament, other tribes were feared, conquered, and exterminated. When Joshua conquered the Promised Land, they slaughtered the Canaanites, showing them no mercy. Later in the Old Testament, we see this idea of Israel being a light to the Gentiles—that some day the nations would come and worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. In the New Testament, we see Jesus associate with Gentiles on their terms, and in Paul we see the Gentiles fully accepted into the fold. What does this trajectory suggest to us about how Jesus would like us to treat those outside of our “tribe”?

I find very little of Brian’s hermeneutic to be helpful. In fact, I was more discouraged than helped. McLaren misrepresents the way he develops his theology, and he falsely caricatures those who disagree as Neanderthals, abusers, and fear-mongers. To paraphrase Scot McKnight’s response to the book, there is very little generous and orthodox about this section.

At the very end of this section, McLaren illustrates his approach to the Bible and theology with a physical Bible. He opens the Bible to the beginning of the New Testament, and lays it on a table, spine up. The Old Testament side represents the Old Testament, the New Testament side represents the New Testament, and the spine represents Jesus. Most people read the Bible flat, taking bits and pieces from everything and giving them equal weight. Some might give precedence to the Old Testament (and he lifts the Old Testament side of the Bible as he says this), and others might give precedence to the New Testament (he lifts the Bible from the other end at this point). McLaren would prefer to read the Bible through the lens of Jesus (at this point he lifts the Bible by the spine so that both Old and New Testaments are sloping toward the middle).

I think that this is a great illustration—but it is not what McLaren is doing. The trajectory illustration is a better picture of what he is doing--imagine the cover of the New Testament extending a couple of inches to represent the 2000 years since it was written, and McLaren picking the Bible up by this extended side. Thus the Old Testament, Jesus, the New Testament, the church Fathers, the medieval church, the Reformers, and modern philosophers all lead up to him—the ultimate authority on what “Jesus” thinks we should think about God.

Jesus was the climax of God’s revelation to mankind (Hebrews 1:1–3). William Blake wrote that “the final revelation of Christianity is, therefore, not that Jesus is God, but that ‘God is Jesus.’” If we want to know what God is like, we look at Jesus. What, then, do we do with the Bible?

First, we have to recognize that the Bible is God’s revelation to mankind, even if it is inferior revelation to that of Jesus (inferior in the sense that not as much can be deduced about God through the Bible as through Jesus).

Second, I think we have to recognize progress in revelation. I don’t know that I agree with McLaren’s illustration about Noah and Moses, but something like that is happening in the Bible. The clearest examples of this are the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the role of messiah. If the Old Testament teaches that God exists eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that God would become human and die for the sins of humanity, and that messiah would be a suffering messiah, why didn’t anyone get this when Jesus walked the earth? Even Jesus’ own family and his closest followers missed the point. It wasn’t until after the resurrection that the church started sorting out this new revelation. I would argue, like McLaren, that God has eternally existed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but only revealed Himself as such in the first century CE.

Third, we have to understand Jesus in his own context, not ours. This means we read the Old Testament because it was the Bible that Jesus read. He was immersed in the stories of the Old Testament, and his theology grew out of its pages. This also means that we read the New Testament as the immediate response of the church to what happened with Jesus. Under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles wrote the New Testament as a record of what Jesus did and thought, and His significance for the life of the church. The church Fathers continued this tradition, as did many who came afterward.

So, when we try to understand “the Christlike God,” we have to look at Jesus in his context. How did Jesus arise out of first century Judaism? What did Jesus believe about the God of the Old Testament? Helping us to understand that is the New Testament—What teachings did Jesus pass on to his followers? As I mentioned in the previous post, the historical Jesus has to come out of first century Judaism, and He has to explain the rise of the church.

Is this what McLaren is trying to do? I don’t think so. He seems more interested in creating a theology that is more palatable to the new atheists. This may be a noble effort, but as his theology grows more and more acceptable to our contemporary situation, it looks less and less like the theology of Jesus. Jesus said and did some things that weren’t popular. He wasn’t crucified for being a nice guy.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with McLaren teaching “liberal” theology. I am confident enough with what I believe and familiar enough with what I don’t believe that I don’t need to agree with him on every point. Why doesn’t he just identify himself as a “liberal Christian” and get on with his life? Why does he have to demonize those who disagree? He writes:

People who are part of what is often called fundamentalism today, whether Christian, Muslims, or Jews, often find it difficult to acknowledge this kind of progression in understanding across the centuries. If anything, they feel obliged to defend and give priority to the early, raw, more primal, less-tested and –developed view of God, minimizing or marginalizing what I am calling the more mature and nuanced understandings. So the God of the fundamentalists is a competitive warrior—always jealous of rivals and determined to drive them into defeat and disgrace. And the God of the fundamentalists is superficially exacting—demanding technical perfection in regard to ceremonial and legal matters while minimizing deeper concerns about social justice—especially where outsiders and outcasts are concerned. Similarly, the fundamentalist god is exclusive, faithfully loving one in-group and rejecting—perhaps even hating—all others. The fundamentalist God is also deterministic—controlling rather than interacting, a mover of events but never moved by them. And finally, though the fundamentalist God may be patient for a while, he (fundamentalist versions of God tend to be very male) is ultimately violent, eventually destined to explode with unquenchable rage, condemnation, punishment, torture, and vengeance if you push him too far. (102)
I don’t know anyone who would describe God in those terms. Yet, this is the way McLaren caricatures those who dissent from his opinions.

One of the first books I read by Brian McLaren was A New Kind of Christian (not to be confused with A New Kind of Christianity). In it, McLaren tells the story of a pastor’s journey from a “modernist” concept of God to a more “postmodern” concept. I liked a lot in the book—many of McLaren’s questions resonated with me. But when I read the sequel, The Story We Find Ourselves In, I was turned off by the rhetoric. In the first book, McLaren presented his opinions as ideas to be discussed. The tone of the book was, “These are just some thoughts I am having. Don’t hate me if you disagree.” But in the second book, the tone changed. He introduced some more conservative Christian characters to the novel that were little more than stereotypes. The shoe was clearly on the other foot, and McLaren dished out just as must hate as he claimed to be a victim of in the first book.

I didn’t read the third novel in the trilogy, but I tried to give McLaren the benefit of the doubt. I reasoned that perhaps he had significant negative experiences with conservatives, and I attributed his stereotyping to ignorance.

But, I am starting to think that this is not the case—it’s just the way he writes. He presents himself as the victim, and when he has gained his readers’ sympathy, he goes on the attack. If Brian wants to understand why people keep sending him hate mail, maybe he should stop asking why people are afraid of his ideas and look instead at the rhetoric he uses to describe the “conversation partner.”