Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Brian McLaren's Jesus 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 fourth question is the Jesus question: Who is Jesus and Why Is He Important? Having explained his ideas about God, the biblical narrative, and the way the Bible should be read, McLaren sets out to describe Jesus. He does this by debunking views of Jesus held by two of his biggest critics. To protect his anonymity, we’ll call the first one “M. Driscoll.” No, that’s too obvious. We’ll call him “Mark D.” Mark D. accuses McLaren of wanting:

“To recast Jesus as a limp-wrist hippie in a dress with a lot of product in his hair, who drank decaf and made pithy Zen statements about life while shopping for the perfect pair of shoes.” (Quoted in McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, 120)
Instead, Mark D. prefers a different Jesus:

“In Revelation, Jesus is a prize fighter with a tattoo down his leg, a sword in his hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is the guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.” (Quoted in McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, 120)
McLaren insists that, while his Jesus may be “new” to some people, we need to be careful of rejecting a “new” Jesus in favor of the previous generation’s Jesus. Just because a Jesus is familiar, that doesn’t make it the real Jesus. He says that his critic’s Jesus looks more like the Greco-Roman Jesus than the Jesus of the Bible.

In contrast to the tattooed, sword-toting Jesus of his critics, McLaren describes a peaceful Jesus with a sword in his mouth, not in his hands (Mark misquotes Revelation 19:15), and with a robe drenched in his own blood, not the blood of his enemies. He writes:

“If you don’t want to worship a guy you can beat up, then I might humbly suggest you reconsider Caesar and the Greco-Roman narrative. It sounds like ‘Christ and him crucified’ is not for you. At least not yet.” (126)

Having debunked one critic’s Jesus, McLaren moves on to the Jesus of critic number two, whom we will call “Johnny Mac.” Johnny Mac wrote a book critical of McLaren that featured a rattlesnake on the cover. In an interview related to the book, he said:

“The only reason Jesus came was to save people from hell. . . . Jesus had no social agenda. . . . [He didn’t come to eliminate poverty or slavery or] . . . fix something in somebody’s life for the little moment they live on this earth.” (Quoted in McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, 127)
In contrast to the Jesus who only wants to save people from hell, McLaren describes a Jesus according to his reading of the biblical narrative, one who is primarily concerned with self-actualization and liberation from bondage. His key text (a good one) is Luke 4:17–19. He writes:

“Jesus, contrary to my dear loyal critic’s assertion, did not come merely to ‘save souls from hell.’ No, he came to launch a new Genesis, to lead a new Exodus, and to announce, embody, and inaugurate a new kingdom as the Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6). Seen in this light, Jesus and his message have everything to do with poverty, slavery, and a ‘social agenda.’” (135)
So, what do we do with these three portrayals of Jesus—Mark’s cage-fighter Jesus, John’s fire-insurance Jesus, and McLaren’s Che-Guevara Jesus?

I have to agree with McLaren’s critiques. In saying, “I can’t worship a Jesus that I can beat up,” we are putting ourselves in the shoes of the Roman soldiers mocking Jesus from the foot of the cross. Also, suggesting that Jesus did nothing to challenge the social institutions of his day (as John does in the interview to which McLaren refers) couldn’t be further from the truth. What about his association with prostitutes and sinners? What about his welcoming of Gentiles? What about his “You have heard it said . . . but I tell you” teachings? As John Meier points out, the historical Jesus is the halakic Jesus.

But, does this mean that McLaren’s Jesus is the real one? Not exactly. What do we do with those passages in Revelation that portray Jesus as killing his enemies? McLaren offers a reinterpretation of the blood on Jesus robe, but I can’t help but think that this is an allusion to Isaiah 63:3. And what do we do with Jesus’ teaching on hell? Sure, Jesus taught that the kingdom of God was at hand in his ministry, but he also expected something in the future.

I think McLaren’s error here is his failure to read the Scriptures in the way he suggests in part 3 (the authority question). Absent in these chapters is any attempt to describe Jesus on his own terms. Instead, McLaren starts with the biblical narrative that he outlined in part 2 and shoehorns Jesus into the narrative. As I argued earlier, I don’t think Jesus read the narrative of the Old Testament in the way that McLaren is suggesting. McLaren doesn’t offer any evidence in this section that he did.

McLaren’s Jesus leaves me with some unanswered questions. What is the kingdom of God? Is it fully present now, or are we awaiting its consummation? Is he writing off resurrection of the dead and eternal rewards and punishment? Did Jesus believe in those things? If there is future justice and retribution, is there room for the sword-toting, tattooed Jesus?

Ultimately, I think the “real” Jesus has elements of each of these Jesuses. Mark may be right that Jesus isn’t a limp-wrist hippie, but he did overcome the forces of evil through suffering, not through violence. John may be right that Jesus wanted to deliver humanity from hell, but that doesn’t mean he was unconcerned about present evil and suffering. McLaren may be right that Jesus is a liberator, but he’s a liberator from sin, not just from the powers of this age.