Saturday, July 22, 2006

Brian McLaren - A new kind of Christian

My wife recommended I read Brian McLaren’s A new kind of Christian at Easter. She'd raced through the three books in the series. I got about half way through the first chapter, and then got distracted by another title on the bedside table.

(Do any of you read about 10-20 books in parallel? For me it's normal, though I get the feeling it's just as inefficient as trying to multi-task half a dozen activities in work.)

When I got back to it recently, it was well worth the read.

Books by Christian authors - the non-fiction tomes anyway - tend towards being dry. Reading them feels like making a pilgrimage, doing penitence, rather than an enjoyable act that might inform, challenge and stretch.

McLaren sets out from the start to engage with his readers. He makes his points - serious and sometimes controversial - points by telling a story. The two main characters - Dan (based loosely on the author) and Neo (a teacher at Dan's daughter's school - meet up at a local gig (by the Amish Jellies), get talking, and continue to meet up to talk over a period of months.

Their lives and past experiences are slowly unravelled as the chapters describe their journey, exploring the issues that they face.
(While I write, the guy sitting in the next seat on this late night squeasyJet flight to Gatwick has opened up his laptop, but not to do some work, or watch a DVD, but to play Lara Croft Tomb Raider with the sound off. How his hands darted across the tiny keyboard.)

Dan is a pastor, struggling to keep running around the hamster wheel he finds himself on. He's started to question the stock answers he has been using to convince others over the years.

Can the doctrines and theological positions he has grown up with - and been coached in while training at the seminary - be so simply explained? Black and white issues turning grey. Yet Dan recognises that his doubts, and his possible conclusions, may be less than agreeable to his congregation who will hear a heretic preaching and not a prophet.

The book’s title comes from Neo’s suggestion that we need a new kind of Christian. Not one worshipping a different God, not one with a different Jesus. But one with a different way of relating to the world, able to engage with a changed world. (You could call it post-modern.)

There's so much in the book that challenges and jars with traditional thinking (ie, thought out a long time ago and passed on with little new thinking). Some quotes as examples. I’ll probably come back and explore some in future posts.
“I wonder,” [Neo] continued, “what would happen if we approached the text [Bible] less aggressively but even more energetically and passionately. I wonder what would happen if we honestly listened to the story and put ourselves under its spell, so to speak, not using it to get all of our questions about God answered but instead trusting God to use it to post questions to us about us … What would happen if we just trusted ourselves to it—the way a boy opens his heart to a girl, the way a patient trusts herself to an oncologist.”

"[Other religions aren’t the enemy of the gospel, in my mind, and more than Christianity is the enemy—though of course sometimes it is."

More to follow on another day.


Cybez said...

A thing that seems to amaze me is. The amount of teaching, the amount of books that "Christians" in Northern Ireland read, rarely to me, seem to have any influence on the way they live.
Also the price of so called "Christian" books is normally higher than that of "secular" books.I've called into a local Christian bookshop and from what I've read in the Bible if Jesus came into that shop He'd behave in the same way he did in the temple overturning tables etc. The shop was over-commercialised to extent that I even, as what some might term as a "backslider" found disturbing.
I'd love to meet sometime "A new kind of Christian" instead of people that have been hurt and put off Chritianity by other "Christians".
I'm not trying to get a dig at you Alan, as I can't make a judgement on a person by solely what I read in a blog, but thought I'd mention this.

Alan in Belfast said...

I agree with you.

I suspect that half of this book's readers will dismiss it as liberal, non-Biblical, heretical nonsense, diluting the faith passed down by their forefathers - probably by the end of the second chapter.

I'd like to think that the other half or readers will be encouraged to put the ideas into action, and live out their faith in an honest and open way. I'm hoping I'm in that camp - though it's for others to judge.

There's a concept of "friendship evangelism" that turns out less than ideal in practice. At its worst it boils down to inviting acquaintances into your home or university halls, feeding them, and then ganging up on them to present testimonies and the gospel to them while they recover from indigestion. (That's at its worst.)

McLaren suggests that Christians shouldn't view the world as Christians and non-Christians. After all, God loves everyone equally; and both categories are sinful. Better that Christians get on with living in their communities, forming true friendships with those around. Their faith, if real and practised, will be obvious - without having to be specifically emphasised or worn as a huge badge or logo.

You need to lend you neighbour your garden shears because they need them for the garden, not because you think it'll get you a point for being a helpful giving Christian. You'd want to support you local community initiatives, not just the church-based ones.

McLaren also has useful challenges on dealing with issues that churches so often trip over. A cohabiting couple who start to attend church? Force them to live in separate houses and set a wedding date before youl allow them to get involved? Don't think so. You can't dictate morals of people investigating faith. But you do owe it to them to get to know each other and answer each others questions.

I think Jesus was ... is ... a lot more radical than we're comfortable to consider. He might shop at Nutts Corner market more often than Sainsburies or M&S. And might prefer a night out in the pub to always settling for the church picnic.

John Self said...

A non-believer writes:

As I mentioned to you by email, Alan, this book sounds similar (in aim if not in style) to Richard Holloway's Doubts and Loves. Holloway was Bishop of Edinburgh but would now describe himself, more or less, as an agnostic.

Despite my own lack of faith I am fascinated by the subject of religion, and it's this sort of book which makes me understand at last how faith can have a place in the modern world. The difficulty of course, as you mention above, is that progressive, thoughtful preachers cannot necessarily pass their real beliefs onto their congregation: perhaps because many of the latter view their faith simply as a solid comfort, not a movable feast. Or as a friend of mine who is married to a CofE vicar and is the daughter of another, put it:

"I recall my father telling me more than once that if he preached what he and many other clergy believed (and had studied), that there would be many in the pews who would struggle with it. He does his best to move on the paradigm without wrecking what people have long cherished."

The other difficulty is that the most vocal Christians, particularly in Northern Ireland and the USA, are the most (to me) repellent in their preaching of the Church as something that excludes certain sections of society as much as it includes. This makes it difficult for the Churches to be treated with respect by the average liberal in the street.

Alan in Belfast said...

> many of the latter view their faith simply as a solid comfort, not a movable feast.

If a Physics teachers didn't update their subject's syllabus to reflect both new understanding and new techniques of explaining the content, we'd label them as antiquated and tend to ignore them.

If the church doesn't keep real then it shouldn't be surprised if it is ignored.

> that excludes certain sections of society as much as it includes

Wouldn’t it be good if this changed to the church (whether measured by local communities and congregations or at a denominational level) seeking to err on the side of inclusion rather than risk comfortable exclusion.

Maybe that way, this year’s vote at the Presbyterian General Assembly wouldn’t have felt cornered into banning the blessing of gay civil partnerships (something which their Scottish cousins in the Church of Scotland avoided.)

Anonymous said...

Someone mentioned the other day that Brian McLaren is coming to Summer Madness 2007.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your frank and honest look at this topic. I myself have been digesting McLaren's books for a few months now,opening myself to the possibility that God may be totally Other than how I have always pictured Him to be. Does that make Him less God, less perfect, less all-knowing, less just? He is Unchangeable, but perhaps what I know of Him needs to change. It is always a scary thing to leave behind what we felt was sure, to venture into the unknown. A poet once said "Faith is stepping into the void, and finding the Rock beneath"- It is not my intention in grappling with the issues that McLaren raises, to doubt, but to know better - God promised "If you seek me, you will find me, when you seek me with your whole heart". That is my goal. It's refreshing to know there are other Christians, all over the world, seeking to rediscover what really living the way Christ would looks like!