This is the first 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 question is this: What is the overarching story line of the Bible?
McLaren begins by observing that, for most of us, the story can be outlined on a six-line diagram that looks like this:
In this story, creation begins in a pristine, “perfect” state that we call Eden. Then, there is a single, fateful event which places humanity in a state of condemnation. At this point, the diagram branches. Some of condemned humanity moves back up, along the “salvation” line, ending up in heaven. In the meantime, the rest of humanity ends up in hell. Once in these new states, everything becomes perfect and unchanging again.
This six-line story is not something that we think about a lot, he says. Rather, we assume it to be the case. Like an pair of glasses, it is not – for the most part – present in our conscious minds, yet it is shaping the way we see scripture.
Right out of the gate, McLaren is moving into an issue that will elicit very different reactions from Christians. Some of us will look at the six-line story and say “This isn’t just a way of thinking about the Bible – this is the Bible. What is the problem with it?” Others, however, are starting to look at it and say (in McLaren’s words) “[H]ow in God’s name could anyone ever think this is the narrative of the Bible?”
Why the sudden reluctance by many of us to embrace the six-line framework? McLaren answers this in several ways.
To begin with, the six-line story is a cold, almost mechanistic way of characterizing human existence. It is as if our world is little more than a sorting bin on a cosmic assembly line. Our value to God is determined, and then we are either selected for eternity in heaven or cast off. How does this push us toward the values that are central to the Judeo/Christian tradition? How does it encourage us to love our neighbors and our enemies, or to be good stewards of our planet?
Second, he says that we have come to think of Jesus in terms of the people that came after him, rather than the people that preceded him – John the Baptist, the prophets, David, Moses, etc. In other words, we tend to ask how did Paul see Jesus? Then, how did Augustine see Paul as he saw Jesus? etc. Thus, by the time we start listening to the most influential voices of our day, we may be looking at Jesus through as many as five layers of other interpretation. Do the opposite of this, interpreting Jesus’ life in light of those who preceded him (John the Baptist, the Prophets, Moses, etc.), and you get dramatically different results – results that don’t necessarily fit within the six-line framework.
Finally, McLaren believes the six-line frame is a way of superimposing a traditional, Greco-Roman narrative on scripture. He develops this idea in considerable detail.
The Greeks, he argues, were used to thinking in dualistic terms. The tension in Greek philosophy was between: (1) the material world of Aristotle, which was imperfect, changing and evolving, and (2) the ideal world of Plato, which was perfect and unchanging. The Platonic way of thinking, which looked at the material world as “unreal,” was later adapted by the Romans to justify their systematic efforts to dominate all cultures and nations.
If you peel away the Biblical layer from our six-line story, McLaren says, you can see the Greco-Roman themes that are at play behind it:
McLaren encourages us to think of Theos – a Roman god that he has invented for purposes of his illustration. Theos makes a perfect, pristine world – unchanging in the tradition of Platonic philosophy. Then, something bad happens – and creation falls into a state where it is suddenly dynamic, shifting, changing. This angers Theos, whose sense of eternal, singular oneness has been disturbed. Thus, he sets out to restore some of humanity to the perfect, pristine state (heaven), while the rest is consigned to the Greek realm of the dead, known as Hades. Satisfied that everything is no longer is a state of flux and change, Theos is once again content. In Hades, a sign is placed over the locked gates: “DESPAIR ALL WHO ENTER HERE: NO BECOMING ALLOWED!”
Of course, accusations that dualism is overly influential in Western Christianity aren’t new. The issue has been discussed among theologians and Bible scholars for years. McLaren, however, is a great at popularizing ideas from the academy, and – in this case – he is using the six-line diagram to illustrate issues that people have been tossing around for a long time. Specifically, he wants us to see how Platonic dualism is so powerful that it is actually distorting the foundation and frame on which our entire Biblical narrative is built.
He is also highlighting what I’ve found to be an essential problem with narratives like this one for years: “What, exactly, will people be doing in heaven?” I’ve wondered, “Doesn’t sound that exciting to me.” From a dualistic standpoint, “nothing” is exactly the rather unexciting point. Likewise, once further change becomes impossible, the horrors of hell begin to look terribly unfair. What if someone changes their attitude toward God while in hell? The Platonic view says “they can’t.”
While I like the way McLaren has visualized the problem using the six-line framework, and while I generally agree with him, my suspicion is that we aren’t simply dealing with a problem of subsequent Platonic philosophy influencing the way people read the New Testament. Rather, I think that Greco-Roman culture is influencing the Bible writers themselves, and that some of these issues are already surfacing in the narratives in the New Testament. The example that comes to mind immediately is the way the gospel writers are already using Hades as imagery to describe the abode of the dead. That means that the task of understanding Jesus can’t be solved by simply disentangling the New Testament from Platonic influences – we also have to re-think the way we read Bible narratives that are shaped by dualistic philosophies.
McLaren’s alternative approach to the shape of scripture – looking at Jesus primarily through the lens of Moses, David, the Prophets, etc. – rather than Plato and the theologians and Church fathers who were influenced by Plato – yields a different perspective. In this view, creation is and should be an evolving, changing, dynamic reality full of life, mystery, and potential. It is a rich, colorful, three dimensional picture. Furthermore, as humanity and creation get into deeper and deeper trouble, God becomes more and more deeply committed to rescue and redeem it. The trajectory of the story points to the restoration of creation rather than a transition of humanity into an unchanging, Platonic state. At the end of the restoration project, God’s world continues, full of life, potential, vibrancy, and change.
The alternative to the six-line story is spelled out over two Chapters, but I’m not going to say anything more about it here because: (1) his main point is to introduce the question and the forces that are driving the question, not to offer a comprehensive answer to the question and (2) for the unconvinced, I don’t think he has the time or space to generate many converts. He’s got too many other issues to address in the coming pages. McLaren’s The Secret Message of Jesus and/or NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope are much better resources for that purpose.
Up next – The Authority Question: How should the Bible be understood?