[This is the eighth 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 ideas are not as compartmentalized as one might expect. From an examination of the subtitle ("Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith"), one might assume he is going to address ten different questions, treating each one in relative isolation from the others. But that isn't his pattern. Instead, the early questions – about narrative and scripture – are used to inform the discussion of the latter questions. His theory is that if we can come up with a healthier view of the scriptural narrative and the ways that the Bible should be "used," then this view will help us to deal with the tough, controversial questions at the end about sexuality, our relationships with people of other faiths, and our current subject of the "End Times."
If you haven't read my review of Question 1, you may want to do so before you read this post. There, I outline McLaren's argument that our ideas about the "story" of the Bible have been distorted by a greco-roman framework that presses the cosmos toward a final, unchanging, non-material state of "perfection." Though a lot of people have quibbled over the details of his critique – which is illustrated by a six-line diagram – I think that he does a great job of hitting on the basic problem – many Christians have become so deeply enculturated in this particular view of scripture that they just assume the Bible is telling the six-line story, even where it clearly is not.
Lurking behind the culture of the six-lines are a series of very elaborate, competing views of the "end times." The granddaddy of all end times views is dispensationalism – the concept that there will be a rapture of all Christians, followed by a period of deep tribulation in the earth, followed by the return of Jesus. However, virtually all of these end times theories – including dispensationalism – have one thing in common: when we reach the end of the story, the physical universe, including the Earth, is destroyed. Humanity, such as it is, then continues to exist in either a perfect state of bliss or a perfect state of anguish.
These narratives all satisfy the demands of the six-line greco-roman narrative for final, unchanging "perfection." But, McLaren argues, they don't really fit the vision of our future that is laid out in the Bible. We are assuming that the few Biblical passages that appear to be consistent with this are telling the true story, and we ignore a host of others.
The problem with the "end times" view on the six-line model, according to McLaren, is that is deterministic. It is as if God has already decided the story of our future, our end, in every last detail, and now it is only a matter of it being played out, like a Blu-Ray disc popped into God's cosmic media player. Likewise, it depends on a very "low" view of our world – in the end, its not going to be around for long, and isn't going to be "saved."
But what if things didn't work like that? What if our future was one in which our own participation played a vital role? What if the Earth always has been and always will be something that God treasures, eternally evolving and growing into new, and more spectacular things? What if God has plans and purposes for our future, but is inviting us to help in making it a reality? In the Blu-Ray world, we may as well just sit back and wait for the end – there is nothing we can do to change it. But in the participatory world, everything matters – the kinds of societies that we create, the way we treat each other, the way we care for creation and the life that is within it. Everything.
McLaren suggests that Jesus' "second coming" – what scholars call his parousia – is not something to anticipate in the future, but something that happened in the late First Century, when Jerusalem – along with the temple system of sacrifices – was destroyed. There, with the end of the old system, the new era of Jesus began. I have problems with his line of thought. While I think there was a sense in which it could be said (and which the New Testament writers believed) that Jesus "came" when Jerusalem was destroyed, I also believe there was a sense in which they still anticipated yet another "coming" in the future, at a time when Earth and Heaven are made new, and in which the dead are raised.
But while I differ with McLaren on this particular issue, I recommend this Chapter because of its overarching vision of an open, participatory future. This way of thinking about the future is, I think, despirately needed to help revive churches that have become little more than tiny gatherings of souls waiting for their chance to escape the world that they are supposed to be engaging.