[This is the third part of a multiple-post review of Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity, which I introduced here. In the book, McLaren sets out the ten questions that he believes are reshaping Christianity in the West.]
A few months ago, I had a conversation with a Christian who was genuinely distressed by his recent exposure to several Old Testament stories. Up until that point, his understanding of scripture had mostly come from teachings about the New Testament. Though he never read the Bible himself, those who had been teaching him about scripture had told him that he would understand God as a loving parent who sent his son as an example of how to live in peace. When he decided to start reading the Bible for himself, a natural starting point, I suppose, was the beginning. So, starting in Genesis and moving forward, he began to work his way through Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and…
In Joshua, he encountered the story of the purging of Canaan. Here, the story goes, God told his people to mercilessly slaughter the people who occupied the promised land. Men, women, children. No one was to be left alive.
This was not an intellectual puzzle to my friend. He was being torn apart on the inside, because he felt like these stories betrayed his idea of God – an idea that he loved. How could God, who sent Jesus to teach peace and love for enemies, command people to do something like that?
I don't think he is alone.
The third question that McLaren introduces in A New Kind of Christianity is the same one that my friend presented to me – is God violent?
To address this question, McLaren begins by introducing the idea of evolution – the possibility that our images and understandings of God have continually changed, evolved, and matured over the centuries. Furthermore, God, he suggests is the one that initiates this evolution.
Scripture itself seems to indicate that something of this nature is happening. Moses, for example, is the first person to receive a particular form of God's name. Hosea later prophecies that a time is coming where God's people will think of God as their husband, rather than their master. Even Jesus suggests a move from master/servant to friendship in his relationship with his disciples.
So, does this mean that the people of Israel were flat-out wrong when they discerned that God wanted them to commit genocide? Not necessarily. What is God to do, for example, to make himself known in a tribal world that is steeped in paganism and violence? Is it possible that the best/only starting point is to pick out one of those tribes and help them (and those around him) to see that he is present by giving them the sort of military victories that would make them credible? This answer is not entirely satisfying to me, but it is much better than the alternatives.
McLaren encourages us to think of a second grader who reads in her textbook that you can never subtract a larger number from a smaller number. Is this true? Well, yes, if you are speaking only of natural numbers. However, later, in sixth grade, the same person learns that you can, in fact, subtract larger numbers from smaller numbers. Is this also true? Yes, if we are willing to take into account a more complex system of mathematics. The "truth" that can be taught to the student depends on her level of sophistication. Furthermore, you often have to learn the more simple truth – one that is limited in scope – before you can move on to the more complex one.
God may be, he says, gradually revealing himself to humanity in much the same way. And, he cautions, we should be careful to think that we have now "arrived." Surely, our own present understandings of God are also limited. The journey continues.
Yet we do have a distinct advantage that the tribal societies of the Old Testament did not have: Jesus. Quoting Elton Trueblood, he points out that the doctrine of the divinity of Christ doesn't mean that Jesus is like God. Rather, much more radically, it means that God is like Jesus. Jesus is, in other words, the revelation of God that ought to take precedence over, and shatter, all other claims to revelation.
We can thus picture the history of the revelation of God like this:
Think of the letters as different points in the process of revelation. These points do not line up completely. There are points where great advances are made, but there are also points of setbacks. Still, there is a more general trajectory that moves in an upward direction. At the end of the diagram is the sun – meant to symbolize Jesus. He is the ideal toward which we must constantly orient ourselves in order to keep our bearings.
When we think of the way God is revealed to us – not just in the question of whether God is violent, but in other ways as well – McLaren suggests we should center our focus on Jesus, not on scripture. After all, it is Jesus, not the Bible that scripture itself characterizes as the "Word of God." The Word didn't "become scripture and get published among us." Rather, it became flesh and dwelt among us.
McLaren concludes with this thought:
The character of God, seen in Jesus, is not violent and tribal. The living God is not the kind of deity who decrees ethnic cleansing, genocide, racism, slavery, sexism, homophobia, war, religious supremacy, or eternal conscious torment. Instead, the character of the living God is like the character of Jesus. Don't simply look at the Bible, I am suggesting look through the Bible to look at Jesus, and you will see the character of God shining radiant and full….When you see him you are getting the best view afforded to humans of the character of God.
(emphasis mine). As I have mentioned in connection with at least one prior post, this is not a completely new idea. Various theories of progressive revelation have been around for some time. However, as usual, McLaren has found a way to distill and express those ideas in a form that can be digested and opened for discussion among a wider audience.