Why Evangelicals Should Read
Brian McLaren’s New Book
An Essay by John W. Morehead.
Brian McLaren is a prolific author. His most recent volume addresses one of the most important topics of our day as it relates to Christian identity in the midst of a pluralistic and post-9/11 environment. Although McLaren is frequently labeled as liberal, even heretical, by many conservative Evangelicals, it would be a mistake to dismiss his ideas in every instance, and particularly in this volume. In the following I provide a review, conversational interaction, and critique, which includes a recognition of the significant contribution McLaren makes to Evangelical theologies of faith identity and religious interaction, the beginning of a process of conversation with McLaren over some of the issues he raises and suggestions he sets forth, and also an offering of critical feedback for further exploration with McLaren and the broader Evangelical community.
Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? purposefully draws upon the fact that the title sounds like the introduction to familiar jokes. But McLaren uses this a rhetorical strategy in order to provide a thought provoking discussion related to his agenda for the church’s reformulation of various areas of theology and praxis. The subject matter should not be understood as a treatise on interreligious dialogue, but instead as addressing pre-dialogue considerations. The central thesis McLaren advances relates to what he labels “Conflicted Religious Identity Syndrome,” which he defines as a part of the Christian’s faith identity that involves the extension of hostility or opposition to the other as enemy in regards to those in other religions (19). He expands on this idea with these words:
Our root problem is neither religious difference nor religious identity nor even strong religious identity. Our root problem is the hostility that we often employ to make and keep our identities strong – whether those identities are political, economic, philosophical, scientific, or religious. (emphasis in original) (63)
McLaren hopes that Christians will consider a change of their identity, moving away from the extension of hostility to one that is ”strongly benevolent toward people of other faiths, accepting them not in spite of the religion they love, but with the religion they love” (emphasis in original) (32).
In order to facilitate a new Christian faith identity McLaren lays out an ambitious project that includes doctrinal, liturgical, and missional aspects. Writing with an eye toward Evangelicals, he suggests that Christians need to be willing “to critically revisit” even central doctrines (100), and “to rediscover, reenvision, and reformulate them in a postimperial, postcolonial, post-Christendom way” (101). Such language may cause Evangelicals to assume that McLaren has uncritically imbibed at the well of Postmodernity, but this would be a misreading. Here McLaren rightly recognizes that Christendom has developed through history, and therefore Christian ideas are not shaped in a vacuum, but instead by way of interactions with various intellectual and cultural streams. As such, some of this has been helpful, but along the way problematic elements have been incorporated as well. McLaren attempts to provide a helpful corrective that recognizes the mistakes of the church in the past and present, and which also takes into account the post-Christendom (not post-Christian) context of America and the West, where the church is one religious voice among many, and often viewed with suspicion by those in other religious as well as irreligious traditions.
With the author’s central premise and methodology in mind, we now move to consideration of some of his major ideas.
Evangelicalism and critical self-reflection. One idea that must be recognized at the outset is that Evangelicalism has difficulty in considering critique without reference to demonizing the messenger. As stated previously, McLaren is a controversial figure, and as such he has received his fair share of criticism on a variety of issues. He anticipates additional criticism in relation to this volume, and states that, “If you dare depart from traditional identity categories … you will be seen with suspicion by your former colleagues in that zone” (46). Further, he notes by way of experience that “[r]eligious gatekeepers on websites and in magazines will single us out as liberal, relativist, and weak” (71). McLaren’s thoughts here dovetail with Jason Bivins, who in his book Religion of Fear described Evangelicalism as “preoccupied with boundaries,” through which “the shapes of this tradition’s darkness and its combativeness have often been distinct.” This Evangelical focus on boundaries and combativeness finds a connection to McLaren’s ideas about Evangelical “oppositional religious identity that derives strength from hostility” (57).
Christological hermeneutics. Given Evangelicalism’s emphasis on the Bible, it is appropriate to begin a doctrinal interaction with McLaren as it relates to Scripture. Here the author addresses the pressing issue of hostility and violence in the biblical text (198-199), often ignored by Evangelicals in a process that Philip Jenkins has called “holy amnesia.” McLaren draws upon a Christological hermeneutic demonstrated by Paul’s writings where the Old Testament is quoted but edited in such a way as to reject the violent content. McLaren provides an example through Romans 15:8-18 where Paul quotes and edits Psalm 18:41-49 and Deuteronomy 32:43. McLaren then cites Derek Flood for a description of Pauline hermeneutical methods, where Flood states that, “This is not a case of careless out-of-context proof-texting, it is an artful and deliberate reshaping of these verses…from their original cry for divine violence into a confession of universal culpability that highlights our need for mercy” (201-202). McLaren notes that this is a pattern in Paul’s letters, and he concludes that due to Paul’s experience of Christ, the Old Testament texts are “artfully and deliberately reshaped according to ‘the way of peace,’ which is the way of Christ” (202). McLaren’s recognition of the phenomenon of Scripture, and the way in which Jesus and Paul used the sacred text, is significant. For too long Evangelicals have not delved deeply enough into the phenomenon of Scripture, and as a result have built a foundation for interreligious interactions based upon the wrong texts. This includes hostile texts such as Elijah and his confrontation with the prophets of Baal, Jesus’ rebuke of the Jewish religious leaders, and Paul’s stern warnings against false teachings in the church. In the first instance,
…we can’t tell the story about Elijah (1 Kings 18) calling down fire on the prophets of Baal without hearing Jesus’ rebuke of his disciples for recommending the same violent response to the ‘religiously other’ (Luke 9)….We can’t tell the story of the slaughter of the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 7) without telling Matthew’s masterful reversal of that story in Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15). (194)
McLaren reminds us that “[t]he Bible itself, it seems, has built-in reconciling stories to counteract and disarm the hostile ones, but people who want to justify hostility pick up the hostile ones and choose to minimize the reconciling ones” (195).
Moving to the New Testament texts frequently cited in hostile encounters, these intrareligious texts (rather than interreligious) do not provide a basis for religious engagement across religious traditions. Instead, the example of Jesus in his interactions with Gentiles and Samaritans provide the model, as Bob Robinson has demonstrated in his book Jesus and the Religions. For Evangelicals who raise concerns about the violent passages in the Qur’an, which actually constitute a smaller percentage of the Muslim scriptures than violent passages do in the Bible, this serves as a reminder to take care of the beam in our own eyes before helping our Muslim friends with the speck in theirs. In addition, it also provides a fresh hermeneutical perspective and foundation reformulating Evangelical faith identity, and engaging those in other religions.
Pneumatological considerations. McLaren suggests that Evangelicals draw more heavily upon a theology of the Holy Spirit in constructing a new faith identity. Echoing my sentiments in an essay on theologies of religions for the Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue journal, McLaren draws upon the scholarship of scholars such as Amos Yong and John Sober Sylvest (151) in their work on the Holy Spirit in application to the religions. This element of McLaren’s proposal is helpful, as I argued in the journal, because it is a “largely neglected facet in the development of a theology of religions, and one that can open up new research trajectories through a robust trinitarianism that not only involves Christological considerations, but also focuses on the work of the Spirit in creation and among human cultures and their religions.” In his application of the Holy Spirit, McLaren “does not deny the presence of unique divine revelation in any one religion,” nor does he “affirm that all religions are the same “(152). Instead, he encourages a reconsideration of religious differences that take cultural particularities into account so that possible complementarity might go alongside the recognition of contradictions between religions and their teachings.
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