Archive for December, 2010

Some Temptations Facing the Christian Professor

December 27, 2010

 I am semi-retired, having completed a satisfying 36-year career as a teacher of philosophy at a secular college, and as a researcher and writer, primarily in the field of the philosophy of education. I am therefore going to dare to write a more experiential narrative in which I examine some of the key temptations that we face as Christian professors. My boldness in doing so is prompted in part by the fact that I wish someone would have given me a paper with this title at the beginning of my teaching career.[i]

1. The tyranny of teaching

            The first temptation I would like to deal with involves the danger of abusing our power as teachers. In an editorial that I have often referred to in the course of my teaching career, Hans Burki (1979) provides a masterful analysis of the danger of teaching becoming a form of tyranny. It is all too easy for teaching to degenerate into indoctrination. Indoctrination, understood pejoratively, involves the abuse of the teacher’s power, and as such is a synonym for teaching becoming tyrannical.

            There are various factors that make it easy for teaching to become tyrannical. It feels good to have a classroom of students see us as authority figures. Teaching involves the exercise of power. We shape the minds of our pupils. Students do become disciples. A theological school shapes the theological outlook of its graduates. Human beings simply aren’t as free as liberals pretend. We are subject to a host of forces, all of which shape our thinking. If there is anything that my study of indoctrination has taught me, it is this – we tend to exaggerate human freedom (see Thiessen 1993). Students are very much subject to the influence of teachers.

            Burki offers another reason why teaching can so easily become a form of tyranny – there is a universal lust for learning. Children are curious. Even as adults, we are always itching to hear more about anything, and therefore we gather around us a great number of teachers, as Paul reminds us in II Tim. 4:3. That is why education is big business. And we as teachers are thankful for the employment this brings. But, always there lurks the danger of teaching becoming a form of tyranny because of the lust for learning. 

            Jesus clearly condemned all forms of tyranny. “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors” (Luke 22:25). Isn’t that a generous label for teachers – “Benefactors.” But Jesus condemns lording it over others. The writer to the Hebrews, quoting from the prophet Jeremiah (31:31-4), predicts a new covenant in which obedience will come from the heart. And then there follows an interesting statement that seems to suggest that there will come a time when teachers are no longer needed (Hebrews 8:10-11). It would be a mistake to interpret this passage as a rejection of teaching per se, as Scripture frequently endorses teaching. The ideal that is here being portrayed is a time when teachers are not needed, because each student will have internalised what they have been taught to such an extent that they no longer need to be taught. They are on their own, free, hopefully, following the tradition into which they were nurtured, and hopefully also creatively going beyond the insights they have inherited, as they also listen to the call of truth and to the voice of God within them.

            I have already begun to address the question of how we can avoid the tyranny of teaching. The teacher-pupil relationship has been described as one in which “the teacher has to learn to be in authority and to be an authority without being authoritarian” (Peters 1973, 47-8). The aim of every teacher should be to make himself or herself redundant, to have students become their own teachers. This will affect the teacher-student relationship in the classroom. As students progress, the relationship between teacher and students should evolve to greater equality. They should be seen as fellow searchers for truth. Teachers and students are better seen respectively as senior and junior members of a college or a university.

             I am intrigued with another warning of Jesus, against those who loved to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’ “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers…. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. (Matt. 23:8-10). Might this entail that we not allow our students to give us a titles such as “Doctor” or “Professor”? This would certainly help to achieve greater equality in the classroom.

            In the same Matthew text, there is another key to avoiding the tyranny of teaching. There is a call to servanthood. This same call appears in the passage I referred to earlier, where Jesus warns us not to lord it over others. But you are not to be like that, Jesus says. Instead, “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Matt.20:26-7). Teaching as servanthood. That is the picture we need to keep before ourselves constantly if we are to avoid the tyranny of teaching. We don’t call attention to ourselves, but to the God who has called us, and to the truth that has captured our imagination.

2. The temptation of neutrality

            There is the terrible danger that we as teachers try to avoid the danger of tyrannical teaching by trying to be neutral when we teach. This leads me to the second major temptation facing Christian professors. We are tempted to adopt a neutral standpoint as teachers. Because we are afraid of indoctrinating our students, we try to be neutral in the way in which we teach. I prefer to describe this as the temptation not to teach from and for commitment.

            The notion of neutrality is at the heart of our modern secular ideal of liberal education. This ideal of education is based on such enlightenment values as objectivity, rationality, critical thinking, tolerance, and a suspicion about tradition and authority. As Christian educators we have absorbed these values in varying degrees as we ourselves have been exposed to them via years of secular education, and as we live in a society dominated by a modern scientific world-view. I suspect we have been affected by these values more than we realise. Although I don’t want to discount these enlightenment values completely, I want to suggest that somehow these values have the effect of slowly and quietly undermining Christian commitment. And they have also led to a model of teaching that avoids teaching from and for commitment.

            I have experimented with various approaches to being honest about my own commitments in teaching. Sometimes I have made it a point to announce my Christian commitment on the first day when I meet a new class – it should be noted that most of my teaching has been done in a secular context. Sometimes I wait until well into the semester before I indicate the committed perspective from which I teach. The danger of an early announcement is that it may create unnecessary barriers for those students who are strongly opposed to Christianity. But, regardless of which approach I use, I have tried to be a whole person in the classroom, complete with my own commitments, not only about my Christian faith but about whatever subject I am teaching. There is no such a thing as neutrality in teaching. Thankfully, this truth is being increasingly acknowledged in today’s post-modern academic climate. If we as Christian educators are faithful in our teaching we will be honest about our Christian commitments.

            Not only will we be open about teaching from a committed perspective, we will also teach for commitment. Here again, over time, I have become bolder in what I do in the classroom. One of the courses I enjoy teaching is an introductory course in ethics. It is a course on the foundations of ethics, and I take it upon myself to prove to the students that there are indeed some ethical absolutes. This is quite an undertaking given that most students today are ethical relativists. On one occasion (it happens quite often actually), I was nasty enough to apply the idea of ethical absolutes to the area of sexual behaviour. After a few minutes of this, one of the girls spoke up in exasperation, and loudly, so that all in the class could hear: “You’ve just spoiled my weekend.” She was a beautiful girl, and I am sure I had created some discomfort. Sadly, she never returned to class again. But, that happens only seldom. This ethics course has, over the years, been the most popular philosophy course that I have taught. And I am sure the students are well aware of what they are getting into when they register for this course, as word gets around at a small college. But, they keep coming, though sometimes they are furious with me.

            Permit me here to be so bold as to confess to a worry. Occasionally some of my students who go on to Christian educational institutions, or who have come from such institutions report that there is a lot of hesitation to teach from and for commitment in some of these schools. One student described most of her professors at a Christian college as very neutral in their presentations. Only if she visited them in their offices, did they begin to open up about their commitments. This is wrong. It is a betrayal of faithful teaching. If there is one thing that today’s students need, it is teachers who are committed, and who dare to teach for commitment. Of course, we must be careful that we don’t let such teaching degenerate into the tyranny of teaching. What is needed is a delicate balance between teaching from and for commitment and teaching with openness.

3. The temptation of academic worldliness

            I want to suggest that there is a unique kind of worldliness that is particularly relevant to us as academics. I call it academic worldliness and I believe it is a temptation that we as Christian academics must be on guard against. At times I have been successful in resisting the temptation of academic worldliness. In my teaching and in my writing, I have tried to be very up-front about the Christian presuppositions that underlie my thinking, my arguments, and my critiques of various positions. But there are times when I am not so bold, when I succumb to academic worldliness – when I seek approval and validation via the secular route; when my agenda is driven by the secular world’s academic agenda.

            I have found an essay by Alvin Plantinga, entitled “Advice to Christian Philosophers,” particularly helpful in understanding and dealing with this temptation (1984). He makes three related suggestions. (a) Christian philosophers and Christian intellectuals generally must display more autonomy – more independence from the rest of the philosophical world. (b) Christian philosophers must display more integrity – integrity in the sense of integral wholeness, or oneness, or unity, being all of one piece. Attempts to graft our own ideas onto non-Christian thought will lead to compromise, distortion, or trivialization of the claims of Christian theism. (c) We also need to display Christian courage, or boldness, or strength, or perhaps Christian self-confidence. Plantinga is warning against academic worldliness. I think we as Christian academics need to pay heed to his advice.

            Plantinga goes on to argue that part of the task of Christian philosophers is to serve the Christian community. But the Christian community has its own questions, its own concerns, its own topics for investigation, its own agenda, and its own research program. Christian philosophers ought not merely to take their inspiration from what’s going on at Princeton, or Berkeley, or Harvard. The Christian philosopher has a perfect right to the point of view and pre-philosophical assumptions she brings to philosophic work; the fact that these are not widely shared outside the Christian community is interesting, but fundamentally irrelevant.

            We also need to heed Plantinga’s plea for the development of a uniquely Christian mind. To fail to do so is again to succumb to academic worldliness. Here Plantinga is merely giving contemporary expression to Paul’s admonition: the Christian is not himself subject to any man’s judgment; we have the mind of Christ; and let’s not be ashamed of it; indeed, let’s boast about it. Why? – because all truth is God’s truth. Because every thought needs to be made captive to Christ (II Cor. 10:5). Because “Your word, O Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens … your laws endure to this day, for all things serve you” (Ps.119: 89, 91). That is the kind of Christian self-confidence that we need to display in our teaching and scholarship. Our teaching and scholarship must be transformed by a Christian world-view which in turn is shaped by presuppositions articulated by God’s general and special revelation. And we don’t have to be embarrassed about the truth that is in God. Do we believe this as Christian educators? Do we express this confidence in our teaching? Oh, yes, there is a need for humility. After all, we only know God’s truth in part. But, let’s never forget that God’s truth is utterly reliable, and will endure forever.

            With God’s help, I believe that I have been able to resist this aspect of the temptation of academic worldliness. Very early in my academic career in philosophy I developed a passion concerning the cultivation of a truly Christian mind. Here I am indebted to a book I read while I was still an undergraduate student, The Christian Mind, by Harry Blamires (1963). Over the years various other books have continued to inspire this passion (Walsh & Middleton, 1984; Wolters, 1985; Blamires, 1988). More recently, there have been the important contributions by George Marsden (1997) and David Naugle (2002). Thankfully, more attention is being paid to worldview thinking and the cultivation of a Christian worldview in our Christian institutions of higher learning. But all too often I meet Christian academics in our secular universities, and even in Christian colleges and universities, who, sadly, have not begun to think of their discipline from a uniquely Christian perspective. I also worry about the contemporary pre-occupation and uncritical acceptance of post-modernism on the part of some evangelical scholars (see Thiessen 2007). Such scholars have, I believe, succumbed to the temptation of academic worldliness. The writings of Marsden (1994) and Burtchaell (1998), among others, have documented another expression of academic worldliness – the sad history of the secularization of Christian colleges and universities.

4. The temptation of Christian isolationism

            As with temptations generally, trying to avoid one brings with it the danger of falling into another. So avoiding the temptation of academic worldliness can lead to an opposite danger, namely that of Christian isolationism. While we must avoid academic worldliness, we are still called to do our scholarship in the world, addressing the problems of the world, and doing all this in such a way as to speak to our non-Christian colleagues. Christian scholarship (and teaching) is at the same time in the world, but not of the world (John 17). It is hard to walk this tightrope.

            As already mentioned, one of my passions has been the development of the Christian mind and this has led to an ongoing dialogue concerning the distinctiveness of a Christian curriculum and Christian scholarship (see Thiessen 1992; 1999; 2001, ch. 10). I like to stress that the Christian mind must start with distinctively Christian presuppositions that are derived from God’s special revelation. The central problem here is that if we stress the distinctiveness of Christian learning and scholarship too much, it leads to isolationism. Christian scholarship is now viewed as totally different from non-christian scholarship, and it becomes impossible to understand other scholarship or even to talk to other scholars.

            I quite agree that an overemphasis on the uniqueness of the Christian mind can lead to this kind of isolation, and to what is sometimes referred to as the problem of incommensurability of belief systems. But, as I have argued elsewhere, it is possible to avoid such an overemphasis (Thiessen 1997). It is possible at one and the same time to say that Christian scholarship is unique and that it has something in common with non-Christian scholarship. Christian scholars can and must speak to non-Christian scholars, identifying common truth, while at the same time exposing distortions that arise from separating truth from its ultimate origin in Christ.

            For example, in my book Teaching for Commitment (1993) I spend a good deal of time trying to accommodate the secular liberal ideal of autonomy. At the same time I am careful to add a qualifier to this notion of autonomy, talking instead of “normal autonomy,” to set this notion apart from the secular liberal ideal. I also make it a point to show that this qualified ideal of normal autonomy is compatible with Christian presuppositions, and in fact grows out of them. Of course, there is a risk involved in attempting to transform the secular ideal of autonomy. There is a danger here of succumbing to academic worldliness. But I like to believe that I have avoided this, while at the same time avoiding the danger of Christian isolationism.          

5. The temptation of arrogance

            There are repeated warnings against arrogance in the Scriptures. “I hate pride and arrogance” (Proverbs 8:13). “Knowledge puffs up” (I Cor. 8:1). I have already mentioned Jesus’ warning against the desire to lord it over others. Instead, we are to be servants as he was. I think we as teachers and academics have problems with this. We have difficulty submitting to authority, to administration, or to our supporting constituency. Arrogance is a besetting sin of academics. There is a constant temptation to adopt an attitude that goes counter to the biblical ideal of submission.

            I know I have struggled with this in my attitudes towards administration. I know better than they. I have found myself joining in on the favourite preoccupation of mid-morning coffee breaks at educational institutions – criticizing the administration. I forget that my job is to be a teacher, not an administrator. And, have you ever noticed, how many academics fail to abide by the guidelines and time limits set for presenting papers at conferences? We just ignore them. We think that what we have to say is so important that we should be given all the time in the world. Such behaviour is rooted in arrogance, in a refusal to be submissive.

            The problem of arrogance is, of course, rooted in the sinful nature of all human beings. But, I believe there is something about being teachers and academics that makes us more prone to this temptation. We are authority figures in the classroom. We like the title of Professor or Doctor. Our attitudes are also shaped by the education we ourselves have received. We have been taught to think for ourselves. We have been educated to be autonomous. Most of us have received a liberal education, at the heart of which is the liberal ideal of autonomy that stresses independence and freedom. And hence, we have difficulty submitting to anyone.

            But there is something fundamentally wrong about the traditional liberal ideal of autonomy. It fails to do justice to the human need for community. It fails to recognize our dependence on others. It fails to acknowledge the need for submission to tradition and authority. Above all we are to submit to God, and to the authority of his Word. This doesn’t mean that there is nothing right about the liberal ideal of autonomy. But it needs to be seriously qualified, to be in keeping with biblical presuppositions, and hence, as I have already explained, my qualified ideal of “normal autonomy.”

            A brief additional word in the need to submit to the authority of God’s word. I think we as Christian academics have problems with this. We have been trained to think, to think critically, and to judge what we read. And there is the danger that we bring these attitudes and practices to our reading of God’s word. We sit in judgement over God’s word, rather than letting God’s word sit in judgement over us. Here again, we have succumbed to the temptation of arrogance.     

6. The temptation of misplaced priorities

            Mark Schwehn tells the story of a group of academics from the University of Chicago sharing what each of them had written down as their “occupation” while filling their last income tax forms (1993:vii-viii). A clear pattern soon emerged as each scholar revealed his/her “occupation” – sociologist, anthropologist, historian, and psychologist. Meanwhile, Schwehn began to wonder whether or not he had the courage to be honest in the company of his senior colleagues. Though trained as an intellectual historian, he had never once thought to put such a designation down under “occupation” on his tax form. When his turn finally came, Schwehn admitted, that he had written “college teacher” under the relevant heading. When he made this disclosure, Schwehn writes, he felt that it was greeted with what might be best described as mild alarm and studied astonishment.

            Schwehn uses this story to illustrate a very prevalent way of understanding academic vocation in America. The most common complaint among academics is this: “I don’t have enough time to do my own work.” And this understanding of academic vocation Schwehn traces to what he considers to be one of the most influential accounts of the academic calling ever written, Max Weber’s “Wissenschaft als Beruf.” The modern university sees the academic vocation primarily in terms of “Wissenschaft,” the making of knowledge, or research. Teaching, the transmission of knowledge and skills is of secondary importance. And “Bildung,” or the formation of character, is not even in the picture.

            Schwehn feels that it is high time that we restore teaching, and particularly, the formation of character, as essential components of the academic vocation. I quite agree. Schwehn has surely captured, what for Christian academics should be obvious. Yes, research is important. But, let us never underestimate the importance of teaching, of passing on the traditions of learning to the next generation. Teaching is a holy calling. And, let us also never forget that our objectives in teaching must include “Bildung,” the formation of character. There should always be a pastoral dimension to teaching, particularly for those of us who feel called to be academics out of obedience to our Heavenly Father. Hence I have always benefited from a reading of books on the pastoral ministry, even though I am a college teacher. The Christian academic, will be committed to teaching, and will never complain, “I don’t have enough time to do my own work.” Of course, there may be some of us whom God calls to focus primarily on research. But for the vast majority of Christian academics, teaching can and should be viewed as the most important part of our calling. We need to resist the temptation of misplaced priorities.

7. The temptation to divorce teaching from discipleship

            I love teaching, and I love research and writing. But it is all too easy to divorce these from the call to be a disciple of Jesus. Yet, as Soren Kierkegaard reminded us, “Christ did not appoint professors, but followers.” We are also called to love God with our whole being – with heart, soul, strength and mind. Then there is the call to love our neighbour as ourselves (Matt. 22:37-40). I have struggled with these calls to love and discipleship, and I don’t think I am alone. I think we as academics are not very good lovers – lovers of God, or lovers of our neighbours. Somehow, the education we have received, and the entire educational enterprise seems to militate against love.

            Education shaped by enlightenment ideals have made us value being objective, instead of committed; detached, instead of loving; rational, instead of passionate. We have come to enjoy questions, instead of answers. Answers would spoil everything. They might just carry with them a call to be committed. Or, to use Max Weber’s prophetic description of the modern era, we have become specialists without spirit.[ii] We as academics seem to have difficulty blending academic excellence with piety and commitment and love.

            Here we as academics need to be reminded that although we may be good orators, and give the most brilliant lectures, if we have not love, we are only resounding gongs or clanging cymbals. And even though in our research, we uncover new mysteries and discover all knowledge, if we don’t love, we are nothing (I Cor. 13). We also need to remember that teaching and scholarship is not all there is to faithful discipleship. God also wants us to be disciples in all areas of our lives. There is a danger that we as academics become too preoccupied with correct belief. We need to be equally concerned about correct behaviour and character.

8. The temptation to avoid suffering

            Let me conclude by sharing a struggle that has perhaps been the most difficult part of my career as a Christian academic. This struggle arises out of an important part of academic life – applying for various kinds of research grants and fellowships. An essential part of this process is to have one’s proposals for such awards vetted by referees. It is a good process, and generally it leads to helpful comments on one’s work. But at times biases come to the fore as I have experienced on a number of occasions.

            In one case a referee described me as “dogmatic, inflexible, and narrow in training and perspective.” He went on: “It is true that in certain ways Thiessen marches to the beat of a different drummer than most of his colleagues in Canadian philosophy of religion and religious studies.” This same referee went on to encourage me “to adhere to a philosophical approach to [my] subject, and to avoid casual excursions into theology and other disciplines.” Another referee expressed concern about my “consuming research interests and studies,” which all seemed to focus on the defence of religion. And then this: “Could he overcome his own personal religious convictions and concentrate on developing philosophical arguments that could compel and stand against any critical inquiry simply because they represent philosophical thinking at its best.” This very same comment appeared again in a later evaluation of an application for a SSHRC grant. I suspect it was the same person.

            Well, I didn’t get that grant, nor the earlier fellowship. While I would be the first to admit that there may be some legitimate academic reasons as to why I didn’t get them, and while I am also prepared to admit that some of the criticisms made in these reports may have some justification, I do have a problem with their cutting edge. There are anti-Christian biases out there, and they hurt. After reading these reports, I had to swallow hard a few times, pray a little, do some introspection, and ask myself the hard question as to whether there was some legitimacy to some of the criticisms. But, in the end I needed to move on, still marching to the beat of a different drummer, and still writing about topics that I felt called to write about.

            I also had to remind myself that insofar as these comments represented an anti-Christian bias, I needed to accept them as inevitable consequences of my Christian commitment. After all, Christ has called us to share in His sufferings (I Peter 2:21). I find this hard. I am tempted to try to avoid such suffering. But, I am convinced that faithful teaching and faithful scholarship will lead to suffering, to insults, to misrepresentations, to lost fellowships and research grants. We should not be surprised at this. We should not succumb to the temptation of trying to avoid the suffering that is an inevitable part of being a Christian academic.

            This concludes my review of some temptations that I have faced in a very satisfying career of teaching philosophy, mainly at a secular college. This essay could just as well have been described in terms of reflections on some lessons that I have learned and am still learning in my teaching career. But, the emphasis on temptations is perhaps better in helping us to focus on issues that need to be faced. I offer this article as a template for self-examination. The reader might even want to ask a colleague to evaluate him/her on the basis of the above template. And if some guilt ensues from this exercise, never forget that repentance and confession before our loving and forgiving God will lead to forgiveness, and the freedom to try once again to engage in the high and holy calling of teaching.  

(Note: This blog is an expanded version of an essay that first appeared in Direction: A Mennonite Brethren Forum in 2008, Vol. 37, No. 1, pp.60-70.) 

Works Cited:

Blamires, Harry. The Christian Mind. London: S.P.C.K. 1963.

____________. Recovering the Christian Mind: Meeting the Challenge of Secularism. Downers             Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988.

Burki, Hans F. “The Tyranny of Teaching,” Signposts: A News Bulletin of Waymeet, #5, Sept. 1979.

Burtchaell, James Tunstead. The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998.

Marsden, George M. The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

________________. The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. New York and Oxford:             Oxford University Press, 1997.

Naugle, David K. Worldview: The History of a Concept. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002.

Peters, R.S. Authority, Responsibility and Education. 3rd. ed. London: Allen and Unwin, 1973.

Plantinga, Alvin. “Advice to Christian Philosophers.” Faith and Philosophy 1/3 (July, 1984).

Schwehn, Mark R. Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Thiessen, Elmer John. “In Defence of Developing a Theoretical Christian Mind: A Response to Oliver R. Barclay,” The Evangelical Quarterly: An International Review of Bible and Theology 64/1 (January, 1992):37-54.

_________________. Teaching for Commitment: Liberal Education, Indoctrination, and Christian Nurture. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press. (Co-published by Gracewing, Leominster, U.K.) 1993.

__________________. “Curriculum After Babel,” in Agenda for Educational Change, edited by John Shortt & Trevor Cooling. Leicester: Apollos, 1997, 165-80.

_______________. “Transformative Christian Education: a Response to Andrew Wright.” Journal of Education & Christian Belief 3/1 (Spring 1999):23-29.

__________________. In Defence of Religious Schools and Colleges. Montreal & Kingston:      McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001.

__________________. “Refining the Conversation: Some Concerns about Contemporary Trends in Thinking about Worldviews, Christian Scholarship and Higher Education,” The Evangelical Quarterly: An International Review of Bible and Theology 79/2 (April 2007):133-52.

Walsh, Brian J. & J. Richard Middleton. The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian Worldview. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984.

Wolters, Albert M. Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1985 (2nd. ed., 2005).




[i] Versions of this paper were given at a faculty retreat at Canadian Bible College (1995), a “With Heart and Mind” conference at Trinity Western University (1999), and a meeting of the Graduate Christian Fellowship at the University of Toronto (2000). I am grateful to all participants of these events who gave me valuable feedback.

[ii] Max Weber, quoted in Schwehn, 1993, 18.




A review essay of Brian McLaren’s “A New Kind of Christian” (Jossey-Bass, 2001)

December 17, 2010

We need a new kind of Christian and a new kind of church for the new postmodern world that we are living in.  So says Brian McLaren in his widely-reviewed book A New Kind of Christian.  See Books and Culture (Jan/Feb 2002; May/June 2002) for three reviews and a response by McLaren entitled, “Faithfully Dangerous.”  Such a bold claim deserves attention, and it would seem that McLaren is getting a lot of attention among evangelicals.  An appearance in Toronto in 2002, co-sponsored by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, drew a crowd of about 200, an estimated half of whom were pastors.  What do we make of the claims of this latest evangelical guru? And what do we make of the current preoccupation with postmodernism among many evangelical scholars and leaders?

The central thrust of McLaren’s book is taken from the apostle Paul’s declaration – “to the Jews I became like a Jew to win the Jews” (I Cor. 9:20).  In contemporary lingo this reads, “to postmoderns we as Christians, and the Christian church, need to become postmodern.”  But what does postmodernism mean?  Here we are instructed by one of the central characters of the book, Neo, an ex-pastor, now a high-school teacher, who has acquired a Ph.D. in the philosophy of science and so should know what he is talking about.  Fundamentally, postmodernism is a reaction to modernity which grew out of the Enlightenment with its emphasis on rationality, science, objectivity, and truth, and which gave birth to modern technology and the emphasis on technique.  While Neo gets the essence of the modernity right, in a careful analysis early on in the book, he fails to follow through on a careful analysis about the nature of postmodernity.  This, together with the fact that he loads the notion of postmodernity with a whole lot of extra baggage which has little or nothing at all to do with postmodernity, contributes further to what one reviewer has described as an ongoing kind of promiscuity surrounding the term.  More on this extra baggage later.

There are several problems with the central thrust of the book.  Mclaren seems to be very sure about what it means to be living in a postmodern world.  While he admits that we have yet to realize the full implications of postmodernism, he, like most postmodernists, pontificates about postmodernism, which in fact is a very unpostmodern thing to do.  You see, postmodernists reject the ideals of rationality and objectivity that characterized the modern world.  There is no real world out there, nor is there truth about this real world.  Instead, reality is artificially constructed, dependent on whatever interpretation we want to impose on it.  So perhaps McLaren’s postmodern world is merely a construction of his own mind, another relativistic portrayal of the world.  As such, it can be easily dismissed as just one man’s subjective interpretation. 

Given that postmodernism is only in its infancy, as McLaren admits, there is of course a good deal of speculation involved in portraying this new world for which we need a new kind of Christian.  Thus it behooves us to view his recommendations with some caution. This speculative dimension of McLaren’s analysis has the further unfortunate effect of giving those who have been “enlightened” about the emerging new world a lot of power over the unenlightened.  Thus we as average church goers need a guru to help us navigate this new world that we are living in.  And so we need to devour McLaren’s books, attend his seminars, and bow down to this new authority.  But, what if he has got it all wrong?   And, more importantly, what if postmodernism is fundamentally wrongheaded?

Of course, by suggesting that McLaren’s characterization of postmodernism and/or postmodernism itself might be wrong, I am using a very pre-postmodern term – I am one of these unenlightened people who still thinks in a binary fashion – right-wrong, true-false.  Unfortunately, once you give up these binary categories, anything goes.  Well, not really – it is the position held by those with the most power which will win – hence the sad spectacle on our university campuses where the search for truth has been replaced with a struggle for power.  Sadly, it would seem that we are moving in this direction in evangelical churches, with enlightened postmodern pastors forcing their visions for the church onto their benighted parishioners.  Whatever happened to Peter’s reminder to pastors not to lord it over the flock (I Peter 5:3)?  Whatever happened to Paul’s reminder that we should honour the old and that the old should perhaps mentor the young (Eph.6:2; Titus 2:4)?  And, whatever happened to Paul’s reminder that we only know in part (I Cor. 13:9)?  Perhaps there is still a need for the modern notion of truth to which we should humbly bow.  Indeed, McLaren himself cannot avoid appealing to this old-fashioned notion of truth –  he has got it right, and traditional evangelicalism has got it wrong.  Postmodernists and relativists like McLaren, invariably contradict themselves.

McLaren advocates change.  We need a “new” kind of Christian.  Interestingly, McLaren has raised some concerns about the title of his early book and its emphasis on newness (Leadership, Winter 2005).  But one wonders how sincere this confession is given the title of his more recent work, Everything Must Change (Thomas Nelson, 2007).  And now, hot off the press, a new book, entitled, A New Kind of Christianity:  Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith (Harperone, 2010).   Clearly McLaren is still preoccupied with change, and newness, and transforming the faith, and adapting to the postmodern world that we are living in. 

Here of course McLaren is very much reflecting modern liberalism with its faith in the inevitability of progress.  Note that he is here reflecting “modern” liberalism, again a very unpostmodern thing to do.  Modern liberalism says that change is good.  The new is necessarily better than the old.  But these assumptions are simply false.  Change can be for the worse.  The new can be inferior to the old.  In a society that is degenerating change represents decay.  The old was better than the new.  Of course there is a danger in hanging on to the old.  Jesus warned us of the dangers of traditionalism.  But there are equal dangers in “changism,” to coin a new term that is desperately needed in our day to highlight the silliness of worshipping all that is new and avant-garde.

A comparison that McLaren himself makes might be instructive here.  He suggests that his project is the same as that of the Reformers who adapted the gospel to the post-medieval world.  This is revisionist history-making at its worst.  What the Reformers were about was the correction of departures from authentic Christianity.   Christianity had changed for the worse.  The Reformation involved a return to the old rather than an accommodation to the new world.

But there is a more fundamental problem with Mclaren’s analysis.  He is assuming that Christians and the church need to adapt to the new postmodern world that we are living in, indeed, we need to become postmodern.  Of course, there is something right about this – to the Jew we need to identify with the Jew to some extent, as Paul stated.  But we must be careful not to misinterpret what this passage in I Corinthians is saying.  Paul, in fact, is careful to qualify what it means to become like a Jew or a Gentile in seeking to win them for Christ (see brackets in I Cor. 9, vss 20 & 21). One thing this passage is not saying is that we need to become worldly in order to win the worldly, and yet that is how McLaren seems to be interpreting and applying this passage.  There are necessarily limits in this matter of Christians adapting themselves to the world they live in when communicating the gospel.  Indeed, there comes a point when the Christian must lovingly and yet boldly tell the Jew that he or she has got it wrong.  So, another perhaps more appropriate way to describe our witness to the world is terms of loving confrontation rather than adaptation.  There are in fact significant problems with postmodern thought and the postmodern way of life, and so the challenge of today’s Christian is not to become a postmodern Christian, as McLaren maintains, but to understand postmodernism and then to confront postmodern non-Christians with the truth of the gospel.

This is not to suggest that I disagree entirely with what McLaren says.  I believe that he has some important things to say to evangelical Christians today (and here I will be reviewing some of the other themes dealt with in this book). Unfortunately, because of McLaren’s preoccupation with, and selling out to postmodernism and that which is new and different, even these positive contributions become distorted.  For example, I agree that very often evangelicals’ approach to Scripture has been too literalistic and legalistic.  I agree with McLaren that the authority of Scripture finally rests in the God behind Scripture.  But the latter emphasis, and McLaren’s own postmodernist emphasis on the subjectivity of interpretation, finally undermines the authority of Scripture.  God did reveal himself.  God does speak.  There are authoritative and universally applicable commandments found in the Scripture.  And so we need to listen to His Word, and not just to our own subjective interpretation of this Word.  Yes, the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth as McLaren reminds us, but the Holy Spirit will not speak on his own but will remind us of what Jesus said and did (John 16:12-13).  Holy Spirit talk, all too often, unfortunately, masks subjectivist and egoistic and postmodernist leanings.

I agree with McLaren that there is a danger of taking a mechanistic (hence modern) approach to having personal quiet times of meditation on God’s word and prayer.  But surely there is a place for spiritual disciplines, as Richard Foster has so effectively reminded us.  Of course the term “disciplines” has a modernist ring to it, but perhaps some modernist emphases were good!   Interestingly, McLaren suggests that postmodern spirituality will reintroduce some of the medieval forms of spirituality.  Why this return to something pre-modern?   I further agree with McLaren that we are all on a spiritual journey and we must be more careful not to think that we have arrived, at least on this side of eternity.  But our spiritual journeys must finally be guided by God’s Word, or else we will soon be swimming in a sea of subjectivity.

I agree that evangelicals have been too preoccupied with personal sin and have generally failed to address the problems inherent in the many forms of structural evil in the world today.  But we must be careful not to discount the importance of personal sin. Surely, we can emphasize both personal and structural evil.  And, let’s not forget that God’s written word is really quite specific and clear on quite a few matters of personal sin, unless of course we give in to a postmodernist, narrativist, subjectivist approach to interpretating Scripture.  We can’t just reject ethical absolutes because they seem so law-like, ah yes, so modernist.       

I agree with McLaren that we need a more sympathetic approach to dealing with other religions.  Surely the doctrine of common grace allows us to affirm partial truth in other religions.  But, we must be careful not to give in to postmodern relativism which would demand of Christians that they give up entirely in making exclusive claims to truth.  Although he tries to avoid these dangers, I’m not sure McLaren successfully navigates these difficult waters. I also agree that we as evangelicals are at times too preoccupied with technique in evangelism – another modernist emphasis.  But even relational (postmodern) evangelism can be abused, as McLaren himself recognizes.

I agree with McLaren that the church today needs to become more relational, more of a community.  But even here we must be careful not to overemphasize the human dimension of the church – Christ is still the head of the church.  We must also be careful not to assume that the community is a determiner of truth, as so many postmodernists claim.

I return to the title of McLaren’s book and to my underlying concern.  Do we really need a new kind of Christian for this postmodern world that we are living in?  Indeed I am uncomfortable with the very language being used.  Ought there even to be different kinds of Christians, let alone new kinds of Christians?  Might it be better to talk instead about a need to return to being a more authentic kind of Christian.  Of course we need Christians who are able to understand and witness to the faith in our postmodern world.  But this doesn’t require a different kind of Christian? What it does require is what authentic Christians have always been –  faithful reflections of Jesus Christ, and adept at relating to the contemporary world just as Jesus was adept at relating to his world.

Yes, we as Christians need to be relevant to our time. But we must be very careful to ensure that the demands of relevancy do not lead to a reconstruction of the Christian gospel itself.  Jesus said that “every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Matt. 13:52).  Mclaren’s overall project, I would suggest, is fundamentally wrongheaded because of his overemphasis on the new and his failure to hold on to the old.

Builders, Boomers and Busters

December 6, 2010

(A shorter version of this blog first appeared as an article in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, Sept. 22, 2000, pp.10-11.) 

“Relevancy:  Listening to the builders, boomers and busters.”  This heading was found on the front cover of a recent issue of the Mennonite Brethren Herald  – part of an excellent series on the church (April 14, 2000).  The heading referred to an article based on a sermon by Bill McRae, “Serving our Generation,” which begins with a plea for the Christian church to adapt to the rapidly changing times of the 21st. century.  David is held up as a model of someone who “served God’s purpose in his own generation” (Acts 13:36).  The men of Issachar too “understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (I Chron. 12:32).  The core of this essay involves an analysis of the varying characteristics of builders, boomers and busters, with the aim of helping the church serve the present generation.

Analyses of the various generations of our time abound, as do the calls for relevancy.  But I am becoming increasingly concerned about these analyses and calls. 

For one thing, such calls represent a preoccupation with the findings of the social sciences.  Much time is spent describing the characteristics of Generation X and Y, and who knows what the next generation will be called!    Such a preoccupation with the social sciences entails that we are the mercy of the expert.  And social scientists are very much the experts of our time.  But they can get things wrong!  There are biases that might skew their findings.  Most importantly though, we need to be careful not to become too preoccupied with description which is the central task of the social sciences.  Yes, they can perhaps help us with understanding our times.  But, surely understanding what we are like is less important than understanding what we ought to be like.  Prescription is more important than description.

I also worry about our tendency to categorize, to put labels on groups of people.  Such typologies divide.  They also overlook the important fact that people are not all that different, that human nature really does remain the same over time.  The basic human needs of builders and boomers and busters are similar.  We all need love.  We all need a solution to our common problem of sin.  We all need Jesus.  We all need some discipline.  We must be very careful not to exaggerate the differences between generations.

I have been teaching at universities and colleges now for over 30 years.  I have become familiar with each new generation entering higher education.  And I can testify that roughly students have remained the same over all these years.  Yes, I am aware of some broad differences.  If anything, students are becoming more self-centered and promiscuous in the last while.  This past year I even wrote a memo to one of our program directors suggesting that this was the first time in my teaching career that I felt that I was teaching a class of semi-barbarians!  But even here, we know that human nature has always been sinful, and that self-centeredness and promiscuity are as old as mankind.

This brings me to another problem with the current emphasis on understanding our generation in order to be relevant and able to serve them.  Trying to be relevant also can be carried to an extreme.  Frequent reference is made, in current writings on the generations, to Paul’s model of becoming all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.  To the weak I became weak, to win the weak” (Acts 9:9-22).  But what exactly does this mean?  Surely it does not mean that in a class of self-centered and promiscuous students I should become self-centered and promiscuous in order to win these students for Christ!   Surely it does not mean that I should change my “message”  – water it down, perhaps – to make it more palatable.  Surely it does not even mean that I should change my approach (“my methodology,” as McRae maintains) in order to somehow identify with these students more closely.  Yet these are the things that seem to be suggested when I hear calls to be relevant to the next generation.  We are told  to adjust what we do and say to the generation we are serving.  But how far can we take this?

Let me illustrate.  I teach courses in ethics at a secular college.  What does it mean for me to be relevant to a generation of students who are very self-centered and promiscuous, and maybe even semi-barbarian?  Do I water down my defense of absolute moral values, which is one of my objectives in an ethics course?  Not at all.  For me, understanding today’s student means that I must be even clearer in defending the values of generosity and sexual fidelity in marriage than in times when these values were largely accepted. My students often don’t like this emphasis of mine.  But that in no way makes me change my approach in order to be supposedly relevant.

I recall a lecture where I was defending the possibility of absolutes in the area of sexual ethics.  One girl responded, loudly, so all could hear, “You have just spoiled my weekend.”  Sadly, this girl never returned to class.  You lose some.  On the other hand, I get students who come to me after the course and inform me that while at first they thought I was crazy, by the end they came to realize that there must be some ethical absolutes after all.  That is what it means to understand and serve the next generation.  Instead, all too often in the church we are adjusting what we do and say (method and content) in accordance with the supposedly unique characteristics of the next generation based on the “expertise” of the sociologist.  And what are the results of such adjustment –  “the lovely young women and strong young men will faint because of thirst,” Amos warned in times that were no doubt similar to our own (8:13).

Thus far I have dealt generally with the problem inherent in letting description govern prescription.  Let me now apply this specifically to some of the features often thought to characterize the various generations in relation to the church.  The McRae article suggests that builders like a formal program style, boomers prefer relationships, and busters prefer spontaneity.  Regarding ministry motivation, builders act out of a sense of duty, boomers are motivated to ministry by the sense of personal fulfillment and achievement.  Busters like challenges.  In worship, builders like reverence, boomers, interaction, and busters, energy.  We are to take these as givens.  McRae suggests that each characteristic of the three segments of our generation is just a “preference.”  “None of these characteristics is wrong.” 

This is just plain nonsense!   And this nonsense derives from a preoccupation with sociological description and the resulting failure of nerve to engage in ethical and spiritual evaluation of the supposedly dominant characteristics of each generation.  Take for example the so-called “preferences” in worship.  Builders like reverence.  Perhaps they are too concerned about reverence!  We need to evaluate their preference in the light of biblical teaching.  Perhaps the builder preference for reverence is based on an overemphasis on the transcendence of God.  Similarly, the buster preference for energy in worship needs to be evaluated.  It might be based on self-absorption and a preoccupation with experience and feeling.  Perhaps busters need more of an emphasis on the transcendence of God.  We are not just dealing with personal tastes here.  Generational tendencies need to be critically evaluated in the light of God’s holy Word.

“Boomers are motivated to ministry by the sense of personal fulfillment and achievement that the ministry gives them.”  Again, while this might be factually true, this still needs to be evaluated.  Does not this kind of motivation sound terribly self-centered?  And is not the builders’ strong sense of duty preferable, and more biblical, than the boomer motivation?  Busters support causes, we are told.  Is there not a danger of falling prey to fanaticism with this kind of preoccupation with causes.  And is there not a danger of pragmatic relativism with the boomer’s preference for “how to” sermons?  The critical questions could go on and on.  The central point I am making is that we cannot simply accept generational characteristics as givens.  And we should not blindly adjust church programs in the light of these generational characteristics.  Some of these characteristics are wrong.  The Bible specifically warns about catering to the fancies and fads of a fickle people (II Tim. 4:3).

So does this entail that there is nothing to be said for trying to understand our times and to serve our generation.  Of course not!  Ignorance and irrelevance are not virtues.  We need to understand the somewhat unique characteristics of the next generation (though we must be careful not to exaggerate their uniqueness).  And we need to try to serve the next generation, not by blindly adjusting church programs in accordance with their preferences, but in terms of their real needs.  Biblical principles and precepts must remain the determinants of what we do in church, as the article I have referred to clearly affirms.  The “message” and the “motive” must never be changed. Christ must remain the head of the Church.   But, this same article suggests that what can change is the “methodology” which must adjust to the characteristics of each generation.  But even this will not do.  Methodologies are not neutral! The methods we use to reach each generation too are subject to the principles and precepts of God’s word.  Method, message and motive must all be evaluated from a moral perspective, as Paul clearly teaches (I Thess 2:1-6).  What this entails is that the church today needs a much more carefully nuanced analysis of understanding our times and serving our generation.

There is one final aspect of the current emphasis on generational analysis that needs to be brought to the fore.  There is a tendency, on the part of some (most) analyses, to treat each generation as equally important.  Not only are the characteristics of each generation thought to be equally valid, but each generation is assumed to have equal right to have its preferences met.  At times this egalitarian emphasis gives way to a more radical claim, namely that the latest generation is more important than previous generations.  “The greatest challenge we face is how to adapt in our rapidly changing days so that we will be relevant,” McRae maintains.  We need to have the courage to “run some risks and change course” so that we will “serve our generation,” especially the next generation. (There is an ambiguity in the phrase “our generation” which hides the emphasis on the next generation which is McRae’s real concern).

The fundamental problem with both the moderate and the more radical versions of this emphasis is that it involves a violation of the biblical mandate to honor our father and our mother (Deut 5:16).  This commandment does not only apply to young children.  There are no age limits attached to it.  The younger generation is asked to honor the older generation and this will surely also entail respecting the traditions that define the older generation.  And there is a promise attached to such honor and respect – “so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you.”  A church will only endure and enjoy long health if the old and its traditions are properly honored and respected.

Instead, we today seem to be paying special honor and respect to the young, to the emerging generations.  There is a profound level of disrespect for the older generation in our churches.  A dear old saint recently shared with me the struggles he has with the church that he has always been a member of.  He cannot understand the fast-talking pastor – another feature of our contemporary generation.  He cannot join in the singing (even though he loves to sing) because he is simply not familiar with the choruses that are the main musical diet of this church.  Thus he, together with a good percentage of his congregation, are forced to rely on the more traditional religious programming on the media after church for their spiritual nourishment.  When I suggested to this 90 year-old that he might changes churches and attend instead a neighboring church where there is a more balanced worship diet, he shook his head and said he couldn’t do that either.  Loyalty is a virtue for this older generation – and that is an admirable characteristic!  So they suffer in silence.

A pastor of one of our churches, a church which is very modern in its worship style, recently made a statement to the effect that if the elderly did not like the worship in his church, they could go to the foyer in the back of the church and worship God by themselves.  This was stated publicly at a supposed Anabaptist conference!

This is cruel.  Those who are responsible for the worship culture of these churches are acting unchristianly.  They are being unbiblical.  There is something fundamentally wrong with adjusting a worship program mainly or only to the younger generation.  It represents a lack of love, which is to be the defining characteristic of the church (John 13:34-5).

But that is not all that is wrong here.  The bible tells us that the older generation has a key role to play in teaching the young.  Yes, a  young Timothy is allowed to teach, but only under the supervision of the veteran missionary, Paul.  Indeed, Paul addresses several letters to Timothy, giving him very specific advice on how to serve as a pastor.  And when young Timothy finds it necessary to rebuke an older man, he is told not to do this harshly, “but exhort him as if he were your father” (I Tim. 3:16).   Older women are to train the younger women in the church (Titus 2:4).  We have come a long way from this in our churches today.  I talk to older pastors and they fear being put on the shelf before their time.  The advice of older leaders in our churches is simply disregarded.  An older woman I know recently highlighted the change we have undergone:  “When I was young I had to listen to the old in the church.  And now that I am old, I am told that I must listen to the young.  There never was a time when anyone listened to me.”  How sad!  And what a loss for the younger generation who have a lot to learn from the old.  No wonder they “stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east,” searching for authority based on the Word of the Lord (Amos 8:12).

I would suggest that we have here a key to overcoming the problems inherent in the current preoccupation with generational analysis and its aim of understanding our times and serving our generation.  The older generation in the church is in a unique position to teach and even admonish the younger generations, thereby correcting some of the weaknesses that seem to be inherent in them. 

The church is meant to be intergenerational.  But the builders have a unique contribution to make to the boomers – this is a biblical precept.  And both the builders and boomers have something to contribute to the busters.  This is not at all to say that the busters with their energy and enthusiasm don’t have something to contribute to the older generations.  They may even be able to point out some of the blind spots in the builder generation.  God’s ideal is that old and young work together in the church, each contributing their unique gifts, and most importantly, each submitting to the authority of God’s Word.  Where God’s spirit is present, “your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams” (Acts 2:17).  That is God’s ideal for the church.