Brief Reviews, VOLUME 3

Review: Brian McLaren’s A NEW KIND OF CHRISTIANITY [Vol. 3, #12]

A Review of

853982: A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith A New Kind of Christianity:
Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith

By Brian McLaren
Hardback: HarperOne, 2010.

Buy now: [ ]

Review by Adam Ellis.

[ This review originally appeared on Adam’s blog,
and is reprinted here with permission ]

Though I’m quite sure he would deny that anyone owed him anything, I owe Brian McLaren a debt of gratitude. Over the years, Brian’s writing has breathed fresh life and vitality into my faith. To say that I was excited when Viral Bloggers offered an opportunity to review his newest book would be an understatement along the lines of claiming that Bono is kind of interested in social justice, or that Glenn Beck exaggerates a little.

Reviewing the Reviews

As I was finishing the book, I watched as reviews began to pop-up on the internet. The less-than-surprising news is that hard-core Calvinists (including the “New-Calvinists”) hate it with a white-hot hatred they normally reserve for child abusers and made-for-TV movies on the Lifetime Network. Reading their reviews, you would think that Brian had done something to them personally, or had betrayed them in some sense (which is weird, sense they haven’t liked most of his books). I was disappointed to pick up on this vibe even in a review by Michael Wittmer, whom I had generally considered to be one of the more level-headed thinkers from that perspective. Scot McKnight, whom I have a great deal of respect for, and who is not really thought of as a Calvinist, wrote a review for Christianity Today that, while much kinder and more respectful in tone, claimed that Brian wasn’t really saying anything new, but was simply re-packaging the Classical Liberalism that was typical of German Theology before the 2nd World War as typified in Adolf Von Harnack. This struck me as odd, because Brian clearly intends to transcend such polarized categories (not merely repackage one category in a fresh way as “the right one”), and the point at which Brian’s thought draws this criticism from McKnight, is actually closer to the much more contemporary (and 3rd-way) thinking found in the work of Peter Enns.

Most of the critics’ objections essentially stem from concerns about orthodoxy. Maybe it’s because I’m from a non-creedal tradition, but I’ve never quite resonated with the orthodoxy/heresy argument. (I realize I may have just painted a target on myself…but that kind of illustrates my point, doesn’t it?). For starters, an enormous amount of what has historically been defined as “heresy” was so classified by people who were publicly executing people they disagreed with, in the name of the crucified Christ! I’m fairly sure that misses the point of the Gospel to a much greater degree than having different ideas about whether God and Jesus are made out of the same substance. Secondly, when certain subjects are off-limits for questions, it looks like we’re not actually interested in “truth”, but rather merely maintaining the status quo. Additionally, for large portions of church history, the “orthodox positions” were precisely wrong (slavery, women’s rights, etc.) I could go on and on…but I won’t.

The Actual Book

A New Kind of Christianity, is the book that many of us have been wanting McLaren to write for years. Ever since he sparked our imaginations with the fictional conversations between Dan Poole and Neil Edward Oliver in A New Kind of Christian, we’ve been dying to see those ideas teased out in non-fiction. He structures the book around 10 crucial questions, identifying the first 5 as theological in nature, and the remaining 5 as practical.

  1. The Narrative Question: What Is the Overarching Storyline of the Bible?
  2. The Authority Question: How Should the Bible Be Understood?
  3. The God Question: Is God Violent?
  4. The Jesus Question: Who is Jesus and Why is He Important?
  5. The Gospel Question: What Is the Gospel?
  6. The Church Question: What Do We Do About the Church?
  7. The Sex Question: Can We Find a Way to Address Sexuality Without Fighting About It?
  8. The Future Question: Can We Find a Better Way of View the Future?
  9. The Pluralism Question: How Should Followers of Jesus Relate to People of Other Religions?
  10. The What Do We Do Now Question: How Can We Translate Our Quest into Action?

McLaren’s approach isn’t coercive. He explains that he isn’t attempting to answer these questions definitively but rather is responding to them and inviting us, as readers and willing participants into the conversation. He is seeking to get conversation out of the polarized deadlock that it is so often bogged down in, because of the bounded categories (liberal, conservative, etc.) imposed in modernity that serve to insure no real conversation can ever take place (which reminds me of the state of a certain country’s political system…but I digress).

What Brian offers here is a beautiful and thoughtful way forward. Is it perfect? No. And he never claims that it is. Will his responses satisfy everyone? Uh, I’ve never read any book that did that. However, to Brian’s credit, he doesn’t pander to any particular category’s concept of “orthodoxy.” A New Kind of Christianity transcends unhelpful categories and sparks hopeful conversation that I believe could point the way forward. That is, if we have ears to hear, and eyes to see.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at:

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

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  1. Rev Chris Byars

    I enjoy much of Brian McClaren’s work though I don’t often agree. I just was concerned by your original argument against those that defended Orthodoxy and the substance question when it came to the question of heresy. Early on when the ecumenical councils began heresy was not an offense which brought death, just a rejection. The time of heretics being killed was during the Holy Roman Empire and briefly afterward. Heresy is mainly a charge which is a call to discredit the work and theological thought of a theologian. What is agreed upon in orthodoxy in this day are in the ecumenical creeds – Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasian – as well as agreement in what is the Word of God, i.e. the Bible, and our adherence to the Trinity. What the emergent movement mainly struggles against is the belief that the thoughts are truly new, but Brian is working through the same questions that have been struggled with early on and over time and discussion were either accepted, i.e. Orthodoxy, or rejected, i.e. Heresy.

  2. Hey Adam:

    Nice review. Two questions: First, on what basis do you make the claim that the dominant response of Christians throughout history toward those deemed heretics is to kill them? In my understanding, the early church did not murder one another over doctrinal disputes, only excommunicated those pronounced false teachers, and this was due in large part to the early Church’s lack of power and commitment to nonviolence. I thought the majority of violent acts committed against heretics by the established church took place following the Reformation, but I may be wrong.

    Second, how can you say that the church has been wrong for centuries on women’s rights, when the concept of “rights” is a relatively modern concept? Also, isn’t there a difference between slavery as depicted in the Bible and the chattel slavery of the American experience with which we are more familiar? If you’ve read Yoder’s Politics of Jesus, you’ll know that Yoder’s account of the ethic in the New Testament was empowering to women, slaves, children, and more, simply because of the way following Christ led to a posture of service dignifying for those in subservient roles as defined by the surrounding Roman and Jewish cultures.

    Anyway, just some thoughts. I thought the brush strokes you painted with there were a bit too broad, and did not necessarily help in your justification of McLaren’s work.

  3. Adam,

    Sounds like an interesting book! But I have to criticize your statement that “executing people they disagreed with … misses the point of the Gospel to a much greater degree than having different ideas about whether God and Jesus are made out of the same substance.”

    Actually, the only reason I’m a pacifist is because I believe Jesus is fully human and fully divine, the same substance as God and “God from God, true God from true God,” as the Nicene Creed says. I agree with John Howard Yoder that Christians who don’t (un)consciously accept the Creed have no good reason to be pacifists, and millions of reasons to execute people they disagree with. If Jesus was peaceful, but not God, why should you care? Thus, ironically, those who disparage Christological orthodoxy are usually sawing off the branch that all their nice ideals of toleration, peace, acceptance, and inclusion rest on.

    (Yes, I realize that this argument implies that a good amount of Christian leaders throughout history – those who did the burning and drowning – were heretics. I’m okay with that.)

  4. Chris, Ben, and Michael,
    I am admittedly oversimplifying and being slightly flippant about orthodoxy and heresy. But the fact remains that I am not from a creedal tradition, and the thinking doesn’t make much sense to me. It seems like it often functions as a kind of trump card that places certain questions out of bounds and protects the status quo (which seems like an odd move considering the example of Jesus). However, I do realize that it can be a bit more complicated and nuanced than that.

    And Michael, I really do like Yoder’s take on that, and I’d basically agree with it. The problem is that many in the church have often (mis)used the Bible to justify an unjust status quo (like on the issues I mentioned).

    Thanks for the kind words and the civil and engaging dialogue regarding your questions and disagreements.

    Grace & Peace,