Apr 132010
 

Scot McKnight has been blogging (here, here, and here) about Brian McLaren’s description of the “conventional” reading of the Bible, which characterizes it as a story about soul-sorting. My own review of McLaren’s chapter on this subject, which gives a little more detail about the subject of soul-sorting, is here.

McKnight is convinced that few people are actually teaching a soul-sorting narrative, and he begs to differ with those (I am presuming many of them, his students) who claim that they have encountered soul-sorting narratives in the past. He says that, in fact, soul-sorting is not what they were taught, and that evangelicals’ presentation of their “plan of salvation” isn’t related to soul-sorting.

While I don’t doubt McKnight’s sincerity, I’m somewhat befuddled by the way he approaches the subject. From where I have stood during the last 20 years or so, the gospel presentation of fundamentalist and evangelical culture has been saturated with a consistent message: “what you do in this life, and what you believe, will determine where you spend eternity.” To me, you just can’t get away from it.

That, as best I can tell, is what McLaren is characterizing as “soul-sorting.” It is a  view of salvation (sometimes characterized as a “thanatocentric” view) which holds that the ultimate and all-important issue relating to our life in this world is whether we do, say, or believe the things that get us “into heaven” because, if we don’t, we will end up in hell.

As I said, its just baffling to me that McKnight doesn’t see that. I’m sure I’m missing something here, maybe something that another careful review of his posts would reveal, but I just don’t get where he’s coming from on this one.

I do think that McKnight is correct, at the end of his third post, to point out that – while some of us think of the conventional message as “soul sorting,” not everyone does, and that it is important to be sensitive to those who don’t share McLaren’s perspective.

——

Update: I didn't realize this when I posted, but McLaren has joined in on the conversation on Scot's final post. Some really good discussion there. Follow the link above to check it out.

Apr 102010
 

[This is the tenth – and final - 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.]

McLaren’s book concludes with this question: How can we translate our quest into action?

He makes it clear that he believes the Spirit of God is behind the movement that is bringing about these questions – that Christianity is reaching a stage where it is preparing to move into a new era. To do this, we need not only great thinkers and theologians, but great saints – women and men who are full of God and who have a passion for his ways.

The key is not in loud and bitter contentiousness with people who think differently, but in “quietly building communities of peace and practice rooted in the teaching and example of Jesus.” In other words, the ultimate expression of the quest for A New Kind of Christianity is not a set of ideas, but a way of living in community that embodies these questions.

McLaren then turns to the question of how the world would look when A New Kind of Christianity is put into action. Recall that, in discussing Question 3, he emphasized the concept of progressive revelation – the idea that the history of humanity can be seen as a journey toward an increasingly sophisticated understanding of God. Extending from this idea, he compares the state of Christianity to a spectrum of light, which looks like this:

800px-Spectrum-sRGB.svg[1]

Throughout history, we have lived in different places along that spectrum:

  • Early in history, the human quest was for survival. The essential challenge was how can we get through today, and live tomorrow? (The Red Zone)
  • Later, humans developed tribes and nations in a quest for security. (The Orange Zone)
  • With tribes and city-states, however, came competition for resources. Thus, humans undertook a quest for power. (The Yellow Zone).
  • But with these powers became potential for corruption and oppression, causing humanity to begin to emphasize the need for independence. (The Green Zone).
  • At the same time, people began to lose their identity as the world came to look more like a machine, and as homes, jobs, etc. became genericized. As such, people also went on a quest for individuality.  (The Blue Zone).
  • Then came the quest for honesty. By the mid-twentieth century, it became apparent that something has gone wrong in the other quests – we have created military-industrial complexes to feed our need for power, we’ve stripped the environment to satisfy our needs for material goods, we’ve enslaved and subordinated women and minority races, making independence meaningful for some, but not all humans. We face a crisis of conscience for the way the Westernized, “civilized” world has malfunctioned and created havoc, and people in this zone call on society to be honest about what has happened. (The Indigo Zone).
  • Thus, now comes the seventh quest: the quest to heal. How can we now unify and liberate what we’ve tragically “divided and conquered”? Here he uses the African word ubuntu. (The Violet Zone).

Christians, he argues, can be scattered all throughout these zones. Some, feeling the threat of extinction of their preferred theologies, may be in survival mode (Red Zone). Others, desperately needing a sense of individuality, prefer a Christianity where they have a “personal Lord” and experience “personal spirituality” or “personal success.” They need to know how God relates to me. They are in the Blue Zone. When you are in a particular zone, the entire world is colored with your band of the spectrum. It is difficult to see the world any other way. People in the red zone will have difficulty understanding what Indigo is, or why it is important. And so on.

This applies, too, he says for those who seek honesty. In the Indigo-colored world, everything becomes about critiquing the stages before you. Indigos are therefore often incapable of doing anything other than deconstruction – they think of themselves as cool and “above” everyone else, but from the outside they look like malcontents who have no alternatives to bring to the table.

Where is Jesus in all of this? Jesus, McLaren argues, is the light – he is the full spectrum, the sum of everything good about all of these zones. As such, Indigo Christians need to come to see that there are things of value in all of the previous bands of the spectrum.

And that is essentially what the shift from Indigo Christianity (obsessed with deconstruction) to Violet Christianity (which seeks ubuntu) is all about. How can we find ways to include and transcend the bands of the spectrum that are inhabited by other Christians?

The other stages, he argues, are not without value. To get to one stage, you often have to go through others first. You may have a good view from the top of a ladder, but you had to step on several rungs (which gave you progressively better views) before you arrived at the top.

One other thought, which is explored in the closing chapters is worth mentioning. It has to do with the tensions that will naturally be created whenever people start asking questions like these.

Institutions, he says, exist to preserve ideas. They are the product of prior movements. Thus, ironically, because they exist to preserve ideas, they are also resistant to movements, the very things that created them. Whenever new ideas arise, institutions are generally going to be opposed to them.

When the reformers challenged the Catholic church, they initially existed as a movement within an institution. Eventually, however, the reformers ended up creating institutions of their own, primarily, the protestant churches. These institutions can now be expected to be resistant to the ten questions, and to any other questions that are posed by those who are no longer satisfied with the answers that come from the protestant churches.

This does not mean that churches/institutions of the reformation are evil, nor that there is something wrong with institutionalism itself. The give-and-take, the tension that is created by the questioning is a natural part of the process by which the new movement, the New Kind of Christianity, will be tested. Although I’m not sure he puts it in this many words – I think this is a good thing. Institutional resistance is itself a healthy check to ensure that the movement does not go too far astray.

Also, its worthwhile to remind ourselves that, eventually, today’s movement will become tomorrow’s institution.

 

So there you have McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity. Its a thought-provoking experience from start to finish. And even though I’m not always satisfied with his answers, I think he has put his finger on the pulse of the critical questions that are reverberating throughout our Churches. If you are someone who is no longer satisfied with the standard answers to these questions, this book is a great place to begin looking for new ones.

Apr 062010
 

5_religions[1]

[This is the ninth 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.]

How should followers of Jesus treat people of other religions?

On a practical level, this may be the most important question that McLaren addresses in A New Kind of Christianity. As our culture becomes increasingly diverse, Christians are forming relationships with neighbors and co-workers who practice other faiths, and we are beginning to feel tension between our beliefs and the experiences that arise out of those relationships. At the heart of this tension is a conflict between identity and inclusion. Many of us have inherited an “us versus them” mentality from our faith traditions – one which requires us to condemn people of other faiths and emphasize the superiority and exclusivity of Christianity. When we discover that likable, kind, hard-working people can adhere to non-Christian faiths, the “us versus them” mentality no longer seems to work. But what should we then do? Just give up and say “whatever you believe is okay”? That would seem to risk losing our own identity and distinctiveness.

In addressing this tension, McLaren begins by undertaking a brief survey of scripture involving God’s acceptance of the “other.” Some examples:

  • John 1, 3, 12, and 21, in which Jesus responds to inquiries about other people’s spiritual status by saying “What is it to you?
  • Paul’s argument in Romans that God blesses people who seek to do God, even though they don’t have knowledge from scripture.
  • Paul’s repeated assertions in Romans that God is not holding the sins of humanity against it.
  • The traditions of the “righteous outsider” from the Old Testament, including people like Melchizadek and Rahab.
  • The writings of the prophets, which often emphasize that God also moves and acts among those outside the Jewish tradition (Isaiah 55).

Why, in the face of all of the evidence to the contrary, do Christians persist that they have exclusive access to God and his favor? McLaren’s answer, not surprisingly, is that the Greco-Roman reading of scripture, which pushes us toward a singular, perfect state, does not tolerate diversity.

But what about Jesus’ saying, in John 14, that “no one comes to the Father except by me” ? McLaren argues that the point of John 14 has nothing to do with whether God accepts, loves, and forgives people of other religions. Some, he argues, want to read the text like this:

You should be very troubled, because if you believe in God, but not me, you will be shut out of my Father’s house in heaven, where there are a few small rooms for the few who have the correct belief… Then Thomas said to him, “Lord, what about people of other religions or no religion at all? Will they go to heaven after they die?” Jesus said to him, “I am the only way to heaven, and confessing the truth about me is the only truth that will get you to life after death. None will go to heaven unless they (a) personally understand and believe a clearly defined message about me, (b) personally and consciously ask me to come into their heart, (c) disavow any other religious affiliation, and (d) affiliate with the new religion I’m starting and naming after myself. None can come to God unless they get by me first.”

However, if you read the text for what it is actually saying (rather than what you expect it to say), you will see that the central question is not how God treats people of other religions, but how the disciples, who have just learned that Jesus is “leaving” can follow him, and find the Father. The final answer to this question is simple: live and act as I have lived and acted, and you can find God.

In practical terms, what does this mean? Ironically, it means that we treat everyone – including those of other religions – in the same way Jesus treated them: loving them, ministering to them, eating with them, respecting them, listening to them, etc. Thus, to accept people of other faiths is not to reject Jesus’ teachings and example, but to honor them.

This is probably McLaren’s most radical departure from the conventional, evangelical mindset, but I think he has said something that needs to be considered by all Christians. Is it possible that we are most like Jesus when we are, ironically, willing to embrace and accept people who don’t believe in him? Could it be that the most important thing we can do to preserve the true “us” is to abandon our condescending mentality toward “them”? Not everyone will agree with McLaren on all points, but I think he has dramatically, and appropriately, redefined the heart of the debate.

Mar 202010
 

[This is the seventh 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.]

Question 7 is this: Can we find a way to address human sexuality without fighting about it?

This is the most frustrating chapter I've encountered so far. It is frustrating, not because I disagree with what McLaren has to say, but because he doesn't really address the most critical question that is involved in a dialog on this issue. What he does have to say, however, is sensible enough, and its worth reading.

In summarizing the chapter on this issue, I'm going to take McLaren's discussion slightly out of order because it makes more sense to me when it is restructured.

At the heart of the "sex" question is our sex-obsessed culture. We live in large cities, normally in great anonymity, and we have access to a wealth of birth control and medications that make the consequences of casual sex less imposing than they have ever been. Our economic system constantly brings us into contact with members of the opposite sex, and discourages marriage during the teen years and early adulthood, a time in our developmental cycles when we are highly sexually active. None of these situations are like anything that was faced by the cultures in scripture.

And that isn't all. With the mass media (particularly, the internet), pornography has become ubiquitous and advertisers have become alarmingly effective at exploiting our sexual instincts to sell their products: sexual idealism (in the way we look and in our lifestyle) is sold to us at every turn. On the other hand, extreme poverty leaves millions of people with literally nothing to do each day, other than have casual sexual contact with each other.

Set up against this doubtlessly over-sexualized culture is a very stringent code of sexual conduct that has been a part of most Christian traditions for a long time. The most rigid enforcers of this code are certain sects of Christians who promote a form of sexuality that McLaren calls fundasexuality. This is not quiet, respectful disagreement with different lifestyles, but a loud, militant, hate-filled, fear-full approach that seeks to humiliate and shame all sexual conduct that is undertaken outside of heterosexual marriage.

But are fundasexuals principally correct, though horrifically misguided in the way they approach those who think and act differently? Do those who disagree in a respectful, loving way have a valid point? It is here that I lose the ability make out what McLaren has to say on the subject. He suggests it is possible that, like the heliocentric view of the Universe that was overturned in the middle ages, our view of sexuality is now being re-examined. He also re-assesses the first six questions that he has addressed in light of the issue of sexuality, discussing – among other things – the need to avoid a constitutional reading of scripture, and goes into an extended, and intriguing, exegesis of the story of Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunich, emphasizing that the "sexually different" found a place in the early Church.

Fair enough. Our churches should be open to the sexually different. Jesus ate with, defended, and welcomed prostitutes among his disciples. But I don't think that his analysis gets us to a very important question that lies at the heart of our uncertainty and confusion on the issue: Is heterosexual marriage the only proper location for the expression of our sexuality? In other words, if someone is promiscuous or gay, should those conditions be lovingly viewed as characteristics that we would expect might fade away as such people make the journey deeper into discipleship, or should they be considered a part of their permanent, God-given identity? I think that these questions need to be tackled head-on.

In any event, I appreciate the way McLaren deals with the issue of sexuality as a whole, treating homosexuality as a part of the larger picture, because a whole array of other sexual issues are brewing under the surface. Homosexuals, who statistically are usually around 10% of a population, are easy targets for criticism – large enough to seem imposing, but small enough that they can't defend themselves very well. And when everyone is dealing with their own array of sexually confusing issues (adultery, pre-marital sex, divorce, pornography use, sexual abuse of children, etc.), it can be awfully nice to have a scapegoat to keep the rage (and sense of guilt) drawn away from yourself.

McLaren concludes by pointing out that gays and lesbians may have a lot to teach the rest of us about the way we deal with our own, sometimes bizarre sometimes exhilarating sexuality. By being open about who they are, they are encouraging all of us to become more open about our own sexuality, and – perhaps – this will lead to an opportunity for healing, transformation, and liberation from guilt among all of us.

At the end of this Chapter, I feel like I am left with better questions about sexuality, but – in spite of McLaren's efforts – without much of a handle on how to approach the answers.

Mar 172010
 

[This is the sixth 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.]

The first five questions in A New Kind of Christianity are sweeping and conceptual in nature. They deal with issues such as the essence of the Biblical narrative, its relationship to the Bible and the gospel message, and the nature of God. The last five, on the other hand, explore the implications of Questions 1 to 5 on a more localized, practical level.

In Question 6, McLaren asks: What is to be done about the Church?

I think it is appropriate that the discussion of the Church and the nature of its message – the Gospel – finds itself in the very center of the book's analysis. In a very real sense, they are the two things that are at stake in the explosive changes that are happening as we round the corner into a postmodern, post-colonial world. The "theory" that flows into an understanding of Gospel and Church will, I think, naturally continue to flow through the other issues that confront churches in Questions 7-10 – questions about sexuality, our vision of the future, and the way we treat people of other religions.

McLaren wastes no time reciting some sobering, but familiar realities: churches are shrinking. Rapidly. Disillusioned and bored with anything that the Church has to offer, people are leaving en masse, and many are not coming back.

Interestingly, he does not follow up on this observation with the now almost obligatory explanation of why he thinks churches are shrinking, and how he thinks Churches can start growing in numbers again. Instead, he opts to dig a little deeper into the question of the purposes that are served by the Church.

Our churches are remarkably diverse, holding to a wide range of different beliefs and having an even wider variety of practices. At first, he argues, one might think of this as a division to be remedied. However, what if we looked at it differently? What if, instead, we found this diversity to be something worth celebrating?

Catholics, he remarks, often find themselves being "saved" from ritualism in Pentecostal traditions Baptists are often "saved" from historical amnesia, by becoming Catholic. Political churches "save" people from personalized religiosity, and "personal" ones save people from overly politicized religiosity. Each church seems to do certain things well, and others not so well. Perhaps the Church as a whole is more agile – more responsive to the Holy Spirit – when it exists in many forms. If we can free ourselves from arguments about which traditions and practices are best, he argues, we can focus on how together we can act as servants of a single, grander mission.

What is the mission? Based on the ideas developed earlier in the book, the answer is simple: to make people Christlike embodiments of the good news of God's kingdom – people who communicate and share harmony and peace, and who are consciously seeking the implementation of a benevolent society. After an extensive exegesis of the book of First Corinthians, McLaren concludes that churches should be schools of love similar to what Paul envisioned for the Corinthian church.

But here is the catch: we really must sacrifice, or at least subordinate, everything else to this mission. If we are not obsessed with how to implement this idea – if its just another thing on a long list of other things we think we need to accomplish – we won't likely get the job done.

McLaren's answer as to what will draw people back is – interestingly – buried in the middle of a paragraph toward the end of the chapter: Why should people got to the trouble of being part of a church if it does a thousand other things well, but falters in this one primary calling? I think there is some intentionality in this. How to get people back is not the point. The point is to find ways to form those who are still present into the image of Jesus, no matter how many there are.

The issue is framed perfectly near the conclusion of the chapter:

The one grand calling, I suggest, tells us what the church most truly is: it is a space in which the Spirit works to form Christlike people, and it is the space in which human beings, formed in Christlike love, cooperate with the Spirit and with one another to express that love in word and deed, art and action.

The conversation that McLaren opens in this chapter is this – how can my local church, functioning within the particular traditions of its denomination, help to accomplish this mission? The beauty of the way this conversation has been framed is that you don't have to do everything well. Are you not particularly good at – say – using the treasure-trove of Church history to help in the process of spiritual formation? No problem. Others are doing that. Be in conversation with them, and borrow from them where you can – but in the end do the kinds of things that your church, your tradition does well.

It really is a remarkable vision.

Mar 092010
 

[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:

  1. Reduce Jew and Gentile to the same level of need
  2. Announce a new way forward for all, Jew and Gentile, a way of faith
  3. Unite all in a common story from the Hebrew scriptures
  4. Unite all in a common struggle and a common victory
  5. Address Jewish and Gentile problems, showing God as God of all
  6. Engage all in a common life and mission
  7. 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.

Mar 042010
 

This is the third and final post in a series involving the story of the woman (allegedly) caught in adultery. In the initial post I described how the case against the woman under the Mosaic law was problematic for at least two reasons. First, the Mosaic law appears to treat adultery primarily as a crime that a man commits against another man by violating his wife. The wife of the victim can be treated as a sort-of accessory to that crime, but it seems odd to encounter a case for adultery without producing the perpetrator himself, particularly when capital punishment will result from a conviction. The situation is all the more problematic because the crime of adultery requires the man/perpetrator to be "caught." It is difficult to imagine a situation where a man is "caught" committing adultery, and then only the woman/"accessory" is brought up for conviction. These problems present an immediate sign that something is not right here.

In the second post, I argued that Jesus seems to have "decided" the case based on an odd procedural problem. The Mosaic law is intensely interested in protecting the innocent from false accusations, particularly where the death penalty is at issue. For that reason, any case for a capital crime must be supported by two witnesses (in this case, witnesses who "caught" the perpetrator/man in the act). Furthermore, those two witnesses must be the first to "raise hands" in the act of stoning the convicted. Thus, when Jesus determines that the one without sin should "cast the first stone," he is declaring that in the absence of witnesses to initiate the execution, the only persons who would be qualified would be those without sin. Even the woman's accusers appear to recognize that they are disqualified, since – if nothing else – it is obvious that they are using this woman to advance an agenda to "trap" Jesus.

To close things out, I want to make a brief point about what I think this text is ultimately telling us.

The story of women being punished for sexual misconduct while there are no corresponding consequences for the male participants is not new. Last month, for example, CNN ran a story about three women in Malaysia, a country governed by Islamic law, who were caned for the crime of adultery. Not surprisingly, the story said nothing about the men who participated in the act with these women. The sad reality is that communities of all sorts, faith communities included, will tend to single out the wrongs of the most vulnerable among them for the harshest treatment. It is a form of scapegoating that assures the community that "evil" is being dealt with, while the most powerful maintain their positions (and vices) of privilege. Sexual sins, particularly the sexual sins of women, have always been the scapegoaters' crime of choice. As my friend Richard Beck points out, even our language of sexuality, which reserves certain harsh words for sexually active women that aren't equally applicable to their partners ("whores," "sluts," etc.), betrays the way we think of women's sexual conduct as more "evil" than men's.

However, if we stop there, I think we miss the main point.

"Is no one left to condemn you?" Jesus asks after the woman's accusers, disqualified from initiating the execution, have left.

"No one, sir." she replies.

"Then neither do I condemn you." he retorts. "Go. Sin no more."

Jesus' ultimate act is not one of deconstructive criticism for its own sake. It is an act of liberation.

Later in John 8, Jesus picks up on this theme when he says: "If the son sets you free, you will be free indeed." (And yes, I'm aware that the story of this woman was added some time after the original text was written – still, I find the decision to insert the story in this part of the text to be particularly appropriate in light of the theme of the chapter.)

What Jesus has done in this story is extraordinary to me. His accusers showed up expecting to pit his known tendency to show mercy and compassion to "sinners" against the Mosaic law. They expected that he would take an anti-law stance to save the woman's life, making him appear to be "soft" on the Mosaic law. But Jesus instead becomes a hyper-legalist, insisting on enforcing everything down to the last letter, an approach that sets the woman free.  Moses and mercy are satisfied in one, sweeping, brilliant phrase.

Interestingly, this makes Jesus himself a sort-of "user" of scripture for his own purposes. In reviewing McLaren's A New Kind of Christianity, I have written about the ways people tend to "use" the Bible for self-justifying purposes. But what I didn't talk about – and what McLaren doesn't really address either – is the positive side of the way the Bible can be "used." Just as it can be "used" for selfish purposes, it can also be used for liberation of the oppressed.

So that is my take on John 8. It calls us to stand against, and expose, hypocricy and scapegoating, for sure. But it reminds us that the ultimate purpose of such acts is to liberate the victims of those systems from the judgment and condemnation that is continually heaped on them. In doing this, we don't necessarily have to set ourselves up against the legal and procedural mechanisms that are used for oppression (though sometimes it might be necessary). Instead, we can appropriate them!

Mar 022010
 

[This is the fourth 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.]

Who is Jesus? Why is he important? Is Jesus the victim of identity theft?

These are the issues that are at stake in Question #4 – the Jesus question.

Consider this. If you look around long enough, you can find just about any kind of "Jesus" to suit your fancy:

  • A Jesus who will help you to accumulate wealth and live your "best life now"
  • A Jesus who is pro-Israel, and favors an aggressive military policy in the Middle East
  • A Jesus who hates Jews, because they crucified him
  • A Jesus about whom we can be sentimental in the midst of organ music and stained glass
  • A Jesus who is a master psychotherapist, ready to address every mental and emotional illness known to the self-help industry
  • A Jesus who hates homosexuals or feminists or whoever else you don't particularly like yourself
  • A Jesus who supports American culture, the American way of life, and American wars
  • Etc., etc.

To show just how ridiculous things have become, McLaren quotes from my favorite scene in Taladaga Nights (this probably goes without saying for ANYTHING involving Will Farrell, but…NSFW and NSFK):

How has the situation deteriorated such that Jesus has become little more than an expression of what we want him to be? And how can we see clearly through the Bible to a Jesus that is more authentic?

To explore this issue, McLaren utilizes a statement that Mark Driscoll recently made in Relevant Magazine (though he appears to intentionally avoid identifying Driscoll):

Some emergent types [want] to recast Jesus as a limp-wrist hippie in a dress with a lot of product in His hair, who drank decaf and made pithy Zen statements about life while shopping for the perfect pair of shoes. In Revelation, Jesus is a prize fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is a guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.

Here, Jesus is presented as one who is worthy of worship because he is a tough guy who is ready to kick butt. But this bada** Jesus hardly fits anything that we know about the Jesus of history, or even of Revelation. Rather, he is the model of what one might expect from a "Greco-Roman" worldview – one which favors Imperial dominance as a means of advancing power. 

This image of Jesus as conqueror, McLaren argues, is presented in a form of literature that is designed to encourage people to think about where the current course of events will carry history. It is not prognostication as much as it is imagination. In several important respects, such literature resembles our modern genre of science fiction (coincidentally, I recently explored an almost identical issue in  this post). Thus, the sword that comes from Jesus' mouth in this text tells us that Jesus' words are more powerful than the seeming might of Rome, the world Empire that was dominant when Revelation was written.

I agree. But I also think McLaren overlooks another obvious problem in this way of looking at Jesus. Why does Revelation say that Jesus is "worthy" of worship? Chapter 5 shows that it is because he submitted to violence, not because he was violent himself ("Worthy is the Lamb that was slain!" shouts heaven, when Jesus is revealed not as an expected lion, but as a sacrificial lamb). It is also notable that, in the Gospel narratives, Jesus was, in fact "beat up" by some First Century tough guys. I suppose that Driscoll would not have respected that Jesus either, because he could have joined right in with the Roman soldiers who tortured him.

McLaren then goes on, in Chapter 13 to outline his argument for the path to a more authentic Jesus. In short, this path relies on seeing Jesus through the three-dimensional eyes of the Old Testament, rather than trying to force him into a six-line Greco-Roman narrative. Viewed in this light, we can see that Jesus came to "launch a new Genesis, to lead a new Exodus," and, in light of prophets like Isaiah, "to announce, embody, and inaugurate a new kingdom as the Prince of Peace." Look at Jesus in this way, he argues, and we will discover an authentic Jesus that is far more attractive and "unbelievably believable" than a Jesus that is shrunk and trimmed to fit our preferred worldviews.

I couldn't agree more with McLaren's approach to the Jesus Question. You find the "real" Jesus by looking at him in light of – and as a culmination of – the history of the Old Testament.  The two chapters on this subject hit the nail on the head, even if they are a little polemic.

Feb 282010
 

[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…

Joshua.

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.

Feb 252010
 

[This is the second 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.]

The second question addressed by McLaren is the question of how the Bible should be understood.

To begin his analysis, McLaren outlines three problems that arise out of our approach to understanding the Bible: (1) it has repeatedly placed Christians on the wrong side of scientific discoveries, from Galileo to Darwin, (2) it hasn't yielded reliable solutions to important, emerging ethical issues, and (3) it has allowed us to use the Bible as a club to dominate and wound others.

The prime example that is offered for these problems is that of slavery. Over the course of several pages, McLaren demonstrates how the Bible was used not only to justify slavery in the South, but to advance it (Leviticus 25, some said, actually requires those who follow God to own slaves). Of course, such an interpretation is unthinkable to 99% of all Christians today (though I think I'd get a chuckle out of seeing a "Slave Owner's Bible" alongside all of the other specialty Bibles on a Lifeway shelf). But if we're still reading the Bible the same way, he argues, who is to say that it isn't being used today to justify something that will be discredited 100 years from now?

So there is the basic question – can we find a way of reading and understanding the Bible that won't result in abusive, self-justifying interpretations?

Chapter 8 continues the thought by assessing what has gone wrong with our way of looking at the Bible. Specifically, McLaren says that we've come to read and use the Bible as a legal constitution. In other words, we are approaching it like lawyers, looking for precedents in the way it is interpreted, distinguishing the spirit of the law from the letter of the law, and attempting to discover its original intent. This type of approach immediately presents some difficult problems. Do we love our enemies as Matthew suggests? Or dash their infants against the rocks, as a Psalm suggests? Or perhaps we should destroy them utterly in the best traditions of Deuteronomy?

Tensions and seeming contradictions abound in the Biblical text, so what ends up happening, he argues, is that we have to find some interpretive technique to resolve all of the problems. A lot of frameworks have been proposed, but none of them seem to work. Worse yet, the process of interpreting the text ends up empowering scholars and leaders, who hold a sort-of trump card over everyone else because they are supposedly more experienced and educated in the interpretive processes.

At the heart of the problem, of course, is the fact the Bible writers never thought they were writing a legal constitution that people would pour over for thousands of years. The situation reminds me of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, where – decades after the title characters become rock stars – a cult forms around them, transforming their chill, Southern California attitude into a religion. Many of the Bible writers, I think, would be surprised at how seriously we go about parsing every word that they wrote.

So – if not a legal constitution, then what? A better metaphor, McLaren argues, is a community library. Like a culture, which is defined by what issues it is willing to argue over, the Bible presents us with a set of issues about the nature of God and the manner in which we relate to God. It represents an ongoing conversation in which we are invited to participate. As such, it shouldn't be viewed as the final authority, but as a living dialog. It is the conversation itself into which God's breath of inspiration brings life.

The primary illustration of this point is the book of Job. In Job – almost an ancient-day opera – we have several different characters presenting different visions of God. Over the broken shell of a man that is Job, they bandy about their beliefs about why suffering exists, and what God has to do with it. In the end, even God himself appears as a character and speaks. There is no complete resolution to the issue at the end, only a breathtaking meditation on the power and mystery of God.

What is the book of Job doing? Its not really telling us a lot about God. But it is pointing us toward an important conversation – something that is worth further investigation and consideration.

McLaren concludes by indicating he doesn't want us to be under the authority of the text (as conservative Christians would advocate) nor over the text (as liberal deconstructors might think of themselves), but in the text. In the conversation.

A few comments:

First, I think McLaren does a good job, again, of putting his finger on the question: something has gone terribly wrong in the way we approach/think about scripture. What can be done about it?

However, I'm struggling with his attempt to characterize the approach as a legal constitution. A constitution is, essentially, a document that authorizes a state to act on behalf of the people, and that proscribes limitations and rules for how the state can operate. Perhaps this is what he has in mind – thinking of denominations or churches as being the equivalent of the "state" in such a metaphor. However, I think the phrase legal code, or even legal authority  is an even better way to express his idea (this would allow narrative elements of scripture to function as an analog to case law and precedent).

Or, possibly, I need to remove my occupational lenses and go with the flow.

At any rate, I also have reservations about the legal metaphor as a whole. I am not sure that a large number of Christians think of the Bible as God's "law." In fact, I think that, if you ask even the most conservative of Christians if the Bible is God's "law," they would say "no." To the contrary, they would say that it contains a message about how we are (or can) no longer be subject to God's "law" by finding forgiveness and justification. It is, to them, about escape from and avoidance of the consequences of law – but not law itself.

For that reason, though I am in agreement with his basic criticisms, "legal constitution" (or code or precedent) doesn't work for me as a metaphor for describing the current approach to scripture. It is a system that involves methodologies of interpretation that are similar to what lawyers do, no doubt. But it is also similar to things that are done in the study of ancient literature, rhetoric, anthropology, even history. All of those systems, including the legal system, are the product of modernity, and they  presume that objective truth can be found through strict, rational inquiry. What we need is a metaphor to describe that entire gestalt, and I will freely admit I don't have a better one right now.

In the end, however, McLaren makes a very good move when he talks about the need to think of scripture as a a library that contains an ongoing conversation. I don't think he resolves all of the conundrums that are involved in the issue, but he is certainly moving in a positive direction that resonates with me.

I wrote about this whole issue extensively on my former blog, about a year ago. In that series, I concluded that the key to encountering God in scripture is to plug into (and participate in) a larger conversation – a sort-of hive mind. At the heart of the conversation is Jesus himself, interpreted by the New Testament writers and in the context of the Old Testament. But others are also part of the conversation – church Fathers, friends, pastors, parents, spouses, commentators, translators. Keep the conversation open, even though it can get messy and confusing at times, and you are likely to experience something deeper and truer than you will by simply tuning into a narrow bandwidth of voices

McLaren develops that idea much better than I did, but I sense that he appreciates the challenge that follows his argument. Getting out of a strictly rational, reductionistic mentality when we read the Bible is very, very difficult, and I expect it will take decades for the current approach – whether you call it "constitutional" or something entirely different – to be overcome.