[This is the fifth 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.]
Having considered the nature of God in question 3 and the nature of Jesus in question 4, one might expect McLaren to complete a trinitarian theme in question 5, focusing on the Spirit of God. But McLaren's list of questions instead takes another somewhat natural turn by considering the nature of the gospel.
So what is the good news that we call the "gospel"? Before getting into McLaren's approach, it would probably be helpful to take a quick detour that frames the gospel question in the context of the book as a whole.
The best way to think about this issue is to consider not only the "answer" of the gospel, but the "question" that the gospel is answering.
Lets begin with the question and answer that forms the center of the traditional, evangelical approach to the gospel (we will call it Gospel A):
Q. How can I avoid being punished for my sins by spending an eternity in hell?
A. By having faith in Jesus Christ, whose death on the cross served as a substitute punishment for my sins.
Notice how this falls within the confines of, and serves the purposes of, the Greco-Roman narrative that was the subject of Question 1. If the main problem is that individual humans are in danger of being thrown into the trash heap as a result of the cosmic sorting bin that is the physical world, then the "good news" will naturally show how to escape this predicament.
However, there is a completely different way of thinking about the gospel (we will call it Gospel B), which looks something like this:
Q. What will God do about evil and oppression in our world?
A. God is establishing a new, benevolent society – a kingdom – among us that liberates us.
McLaren favors this second approach to the gospel, believing that it is the most natural way to read scripture outside the constraints of the Greco-Roman narrative. Under this approach, Jesus' proclamation "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!" is itself the gospel.
So how did Christians come to embrace Gospel A, while ignoring/losing track of Gospel B? McLaren believes (and I agree) that the problem originates from a particular interpretation of Paul's letter to the Romans that developed during the early period of the Reformation. More particularly, I would add, the problem arises out of an interpretation of Romans 1-4. That interpretation has become the framework by which we try to understand the rest of the New Testament, including the rest of Romans, as well as the stories about the life and teachings of Jesus.
If you read the stories of Jesus first, and then interpret Paul's letters, and particularly Romans, in light of those teachings, you end up with a completely different perspective. And, essentially, McLaren's discussion of the meaning of the gospel briefly outlines the way that the Jesus-first-then-Paul approach has changed his own viewpoint.
So, beginning with the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we must first see that Jesus came so that – as he taught us to pray – God's will is done "on earth as it is in heaven." He challenged us in his teachings to rethink everything, and to enter into a life of discipleship, seeking to love our enemies and care for the least among us. This is a fulfillment of the longings of the Old Testament for: (1) a new Creation, (2) a new Exodus, and (3) a new Kingdom.
Along next comes Paul, who, after some time accepts the teachings of Jesus and seeks to enter into this new kingdom. But there is a problem. This kingdom isn't an exclusive Jews-only club. It must be available to Gentiles as well. How can that happen? Paul takes it upon himself, McLaren argues, to bring the Gentiles into the fold.
Romans is, he argues, not an attempt to explain what the gospel is, but an effort to show how Gentiles and Jews can live, in diversity, within this same kingdom. Thus, in Romans, Paul makes seven brilliant moves:
- Reduce Jew and Gentile to the same level of need
- Announce a new way forward for all, Jew and Gentile, a way of faith
- Unite all in a common story from the Hebrew scriptures
- Unite all in a common struggle and a common victory
- Address Jewish and Gentile problems, showing God as God of all
- Engage all in a common life and mission
- Call everyone to unity in the kingdom of God
That Paul is ultimately committed to the same "kingdom" gospel that Jesus taught is further made clear by the fact that, when Paul goes to Rome some years after he wrote his letter to the Romans, we are told that he was "testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince [those who came to hear him] about Jesus."
Is the kingdom Gospel "fine print" to be added to Gospel A, or is it a radically different perspective in which Gospel A becomes, at best, only a small part of the picture? If all you can manage for now is Gospel A, with Gospel B as a footnote, McLaren thinks it is a good start. But either way, we should "repent [and] believe the good news, for it is good indeed."
After reflecting on McLaren's exposition on the gospel and Paul, I am in agreement with him as far as he goes. However, I also think that his picture of the gospel is still a little underdeveloped. The primary focus of McLaren's exposition is on the way the gospel rearranges social relations, and while I think this is true, I believe that you ultimately have to address the problems of cosmic decay and death for the gospel's full impact to be felt. In particular, I believe you need a better understanding of the way the death and resurrection of Jesus reinforce the gospel of the kingdom.
God isn't merely rearranging society, as wonderful and necessary as that might be – but he is liberating us from the forces that draw us physically, socially, spiritually into states of decay and death. In Romans, it takes Paul almost no time to let his readers know that God has established Jesus as Lord of this new world, and has shown this by raising Jesus from the dead. This resurrection brings with it the promise of a new creation that bursts free from the entropic constraints of the "old" universe.
In a sense, the "cosmic" view the gospel brings Gospel A back into the picture, albeit with less concern on hell and more concern with the way sin has brought with it the consequences of physical death.
To put it another way:
- Good: God is saving people from the consequences of their own actions (Gospel A, sort-of)
- Better: God is liberating people from social oppression and evil (McLaren's emphasis)
- Best: God is renewing (a) individuals, (b) society, and (c) creation itself.
Without all three elements, I think the "kingdom" gospel – and Paul's expression of it, in particular – is incomplete. I don't think McLaren would necessarily disagree with this. I just think that, for whatever reason, he likes to place more emphasis on the aspects of social transformation that are present within the gospel.