February 24, 2010

A New Kind of Christianity: Too far, not far enough...or is that even the point? a book review

Stones have been cast. “Too far!” “Not far enough!” Love him or hate him, Brian McLaren shows in his newest book that he is willing to be a prophetic pastor, a figure representative of a conversation and movement (which means people are way too harsh and unloving to him). Book reviews are floating all over the internet dealing explicitly and directly with A New Kind of Christianity’s (aNKoC) content. For years as most know, McLaren has been in the messiest and necessary business of asking hard questions of the church, Christianity, and cultural changes. But aNKoC deals with creating and coming to answers to ten of the most important questions being asked within and of Christianity worldwide according to McLaren:

• The Narrative Question: What Is the Overarching Storyline of the Bible?
• The Authority Question: How Should the Bible Be Understood?
• The God Question: Is God Violent?
• The Jesus Question: Who is Jesus and Why is He Important?
• The Gospel Question: What Is the Gospel?
• The Church Question: What Do We Do About the Church?
• The Sex Question: Can We Find a Way to Address Sexuality Without Fighting About It?
• The Future Question: Can We Find a Better Way of View the Future?
• The Pluralism Question: How Should Followers of Jesus Relate to People of Other Religions?
• The What Do We Do Now Question: How Can We Translate Our Quest into Action?

You can read the book or the reviews to find out the “what” that Brian is trying to say, but aNKoC’s true importance lies not in what Brian is saying but what he is doing with aNKoC. The real point of this book is to (1) recognize the real need to find language that is contextual yet faithful to Scripture & our deeper Christian tradition and (2) to guide actions into the kingdom/ethics/mission.

So what is Brian doing in aNKoC? He is giving Christians permission to reformulate doctrines in light of recent scholarship, conversations, cultural changes and most importantly mission. This book is both emergent and doctrinally focused (insert gasps here). And now more then ever with the growth of world Christianity and emerging, late capitalistic culture the church must learn to talk about doctrine in a healthy and humble way.

Bonhoeffer wrote, “it is only when one knows the unutterability of the name of God that one can utter the name of Jesus Christ” Thus what we DO know about God is that ultimately God is unknowable. So doctrine is not an end in itself, thus aNKoC is not an end in itself.

But the reaction and conversation on the blogosphere revolving around this emergent book of somewhat systematized theology of doctrines is symptomatic of the state of the church. First, these reactions reveal that doctrine is very important (it has fallen on hard times with all this pomo talk). In WWII, the Barmen declaration which deeply affirmed Trinitarian and Christological doctrines were used to attack the Nazi funded state church. Embedded in Walter Rauschenbusch’s theology are manifest destiny and nationalism. More recently, John Stackhouse has (wrongly) affirmed that God is in globalization. Doctrines are necessary for they reveal our convictions and ethics.

Second, doctrine is very important but we don’t know why. Liberals focus on the experiential kernel of doctrine, that we form beliefs off of hidden individual experiences. Conservatives focus on propositional, abstract truths that correlate to our doctrines, thus they believe what we say equals what is real. Both are wrong.

Doctrine is not an end in itself, but always exists to serve the mission of God. As Robert Louis Wilken writes, “Doctrines or theoretical concepts are never ends in themselves but always at service of a deeper immersion in the res, the thing itself, the mystery of Christ and of the practice of the Christian life.”

This week while at ChurchWorks (or does it? as Bass reflected), Diana Butler Bass spoke to a group of Cooperative Baptists and said “Historians know that people only argue about something when it’s going away,” in reference to the national debate around the identity of the USA as a Christian nation. We argue about being a “Christian nation” exactly because we are no longer a Christian nation (as if we ever were…thanks Rauschenbusch). In this same way, we argue about doctrine because as McLaren writes, “the bad news: the Christian faith in all its forms is in trouble. The good news: the Christian faith in all its forms is pregnant with new possibilities (aNKoC, xi). “

The “doctrine police” would do well to hear Martin Kähler, “Mission is the mother of theology.” Why did Peter find transformation and new doctrine at Cornelius’ house? Mission. Why did Nicaea, Gregory, and the early church struggle with Christology and the Trinity? Mission. Why is the church in the Western context finding new doctrine? Mission. Why is world Christianity growing and creating new doctrine? Mission. Why is Brian McLaren writing a book called A New Kind of Christianity? Mission.

Mission serves the kingdom of God that Jesus was crucified for proclaiming and doctrine serves mission and the one who was crucified by pointing toward the significance of Jesus’ life, not the life itself. It is the Scripture and Holy Spirit’s work in community to reveal the life of Christ and doctrine’s work to witness to that significance.

Our cultural context is one of great upheaval and change for several reasons. Not least of these are the effects of globalized late consumer capitalism creating a homogenous experience of liberal individuals who simply do not experience the world the same way people did 100, 50, or even 10 years ago did. In this globalized world the church, especially in the West, must be faithful to God’s mission by allowing the gospel to sprout new life, language, and doctrine in its new setting. The church exists not for itself (just like doctrine), but must exist for the other, for mission encapsulated by hope, justice, and love.

Language is a tricky thing, but best understand by its performative intent. Does this statement mean you are grieving, want me to do something, rejoicing, sarcasm, asking for help, etc? In understanding what you mean by your words’ performative function, I can truly grasp what you are saying, what you mean.

Doctrine’s performative action is witness. It exists to point to God, the unknowable.

While I do not agree with many of Brian’s methods or assumptions behind the doctrine’s formulated in aNKoC like the recasting of church history as negative (Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, the Pope, etc) or his simplistic “bad guy:” the “Greco-Roman” reading of the Bible; I do find great hope in aNKoC. Let us remember that Brian IS NOT seminary trained. Brian is a Jesus follower with a heart for God’s mission and in wrestling with this mission he is forming doctrines in service of the church…not vice versa. The world will not be saved by the few elite, seminary trained professionals for God’s mission is too vast, wide, and deep to be limited to experts.

In the West, atheism is growing in interest, pluralism and “therapeutic, consumer deism” is on the rise. The church in the West is in decline. Doctrines serve mission and right now that mission is failing because we are not believing rightly.

As Catholic Baptist theologian Barry Harvey of Baylor says, “doctrines order our transactions.” People are turning away from the church because our actions and transaction are not rightly ordered. We need new doctrines birthed out of the deep and rich traditions of Christianity. We are wealthy with theological reflection, but we must mine the wells and give to those who are willing to give their life to God’s mission the freedom and space to create new doctrines, just as Peter did, just as Paul did, and as Brian is doing (hey, it’s a biblical idea).

In so doing the church will find the “crucial difference…between telling us a story differently and telling a different story.” (Nicholas Lash).

I highly praise Brian as a brother in Christ willing to be a scapegoat for many and a refreshing voice for others. A New Kind of Christianity only deepens my belief and hope for giving people the space to discover new language and ways of putting together our story of God’s great redemption of the world in Jesus Christ. Brian is a mentor and friend to those who are tired of the conversation and Christianity as only thoughts/ideals/belief, old doing things the way they’ve always been done (badly and often without civility), and ready to give their life to a Kingdom come, but not yet. aNKoC is not the last word or the word after that, but gives permission to live into Christ and rethink that which is trying to be born. So quit throwing stones and go do it, be it, live it, and order yourself and God’s people back into love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control so that God may be in all and known by all.


Darryl said...

I've been waiting for this review!

You have some good thoughts. I'm not sure we can let McLaren off the hook because he's not seminary trained. He's still writing theology.

I think you hit on a good note: our theology should drive practice. I think the right theology matters, but maybe some of us need to pay a lot more attention to how it works out in mission.

Seth Summers said...


Good post. I enjoy reading what you have to say about things. I will confess I am not the biggest Brian McLaren fan, but I did like your review andit prompted me to read the book. So that in itself is a BIG compliment to you!

Anyway, you said something that I am not sure I agree with you on, or perhaps I am misreading it. So I will just ask for an explanation of what you said, and perhaps that will clear things up.

You said: "...what we DO know about God is that ultimately HE is unknowable."

What do you mean by this?

Joe Bumbulis said...

Thanks Seth, I appreciate it. Instead of trying to answer, why don't you tell me what you don't agree with first as the statement stands.

Seth Summers said...

Joe, fair enough. But like I said I could agree with you, just misreading what you wrote.

I agree with the statement directly after that says doctrine is not an end in itself. Just as I believe Scriptures are not an end in themselves. I think Jesus is very clear about that in John 5 when he gets on the Pharisees for "searching the Scriptures in vain."

But I don't get from that quote (and again I don't know the whole context behind the quote from Bonhoeffer) is that God is unknowable. Jesus seems to say the exact opposite. He identifies himself with the Father, and says several times that if you know me, you know the Father; if you see me, you have seen the Father, etc. It seems that God is knowable, but ultimately he is known through the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

Again, perhaps I am not understanding your definition of "knowing." But it seems clear that God is knowable through knowing Jesus Christ. So that is where I am confused.

Joe Bumbulis said...

Well, I want to be careful because there's this strange dialectic I'm trying to walk here (creating a both/and or neither/nor category). In some ways I want to say what you are saying about Jesus, but in a more or differently nuanced way.

First, in regards to JC's words about knowing the Father. Thomas asks Jesus to show them the Father and the way to get where JC is going. I think we can agree that this passage isn't about doctrine (as if Thomas is saying, so is God eternal or everlasting?), knowing God categorically, conceptually, or perceptually. Instead, what Jesus is talking about is "the Way," the life and person that best reflects God on earth (himself). These verses in Jn 14 seem to point more toward relationships, allegiances, and ways of life (or mission) more than doctrinal statements about God.

There are many different ways of "knowing" in the Bible, but I think of the most metaphorical, physical way..."knowing" as sex. This knowing is about something deeper and more personal then concepts. It seems that "knowing" in the Scripture is almost always a deeply human, physical, and relational term as opposed to abstract, categorical.

Second, and ultimately I believe the greater truth is that God is unknowable. What I mean (not sure about Bonhof) is that we cannot use scientific reasoning and the 5 senses to create concepts that tell us "what" God is, God is neither provable or disprovable. We cannot point to God and say, see God suffers or no God is immutable.

Language about God is tricky, but I don't think our words or categories ever fully satisfy the reality of what God is in his being. It's very important to say, or maybe admit (since there have been many abuses) that what we can know about God is that God is unknowable, un"what"able. But while our language, concepts, and perception of God always fall short of his Being that doesn't mean they aren't important. While we may not say "what" God is, we can say "that" God is...that God is loving, good, infinite, simple, unified, etc. Now do these words describe God metaphysically, ontologically? No, but they do give us categories to understand how God can be the way he is, and relate the way he does (and possibly just as important it helps us understand how we should relate to God and each other).

Since we cannot claim what God is, but only what God is not (Bonhof's Christology) we can speak doctrines without fear of logical incoherence...like the idea that Christ is fully God and fully human (real logical right?). And that bring us back to Bonhof, where he is saying that this way of talking about God (the "that" not "what") allows us to speak logically and coherently about the existence of God while being able to make statements about the incarnation.

I agree that we do know God through Christ, but I cannot say that doctrinally speaking I better understand God's being b/c of Jesus. Actually, because of Jesus I am a little more confused about God's existence. Did God die on the cross? Does he suffer? 3 and 1, or, 3 in 1, 3 = 1?

God is knowable, as in we can relate to and be in relationship to God. God is unknowable as in, I can't point to and make conceptual statements that exactly describe the reality of God's being. Jesus leads us to what is really important, a life giving relationship with God; but after that we are stuck in our limited human categories to think about ways of describing conceptually and perceptually this reality.