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

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.

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