A New Kind of Liberalism
by Rick Shrader
In 2001 Brian McLaren wrote A New Kind of Christian1in which he made bold statements against orthodox Christian beliefs. He proposed that heaven and hell are really the same place which some will enjoy and some will not;2 salvation belongs to everyone because God loves everyone and, therefore all will eventually be reconciled to God;3 evolution is “one of God’s coolest creations;”4 and that most of Christianity is steeped in modernistic thinking and it is time we all adapted to the new postmodern world.5
In 2011 Rob Bell updated McLaren’s beliefs with his more shocking book, Love Wins.6 This has received a lot of attention because Bell’s message has also been played on YouTube and has been reviewed quickly by many good men. Bell also denies that God will send anyone to hell forever, and redefines most of Christianity as we have known it.
However in 2010 McLaren had struck a harder blow at orthodox Christian beliefs with his book, A New Kind of Christianity7 (by the same publisher as Love Wins). This builds on his previous book (ten years earlier) and gives an even fuller explanation of why he and others are attempting to totally redefine the faith that Christians have known for two thousand years. The sub-title to the book is, “Ten questions that are transforming the faith.” Before jumping into these, McLaren takes the reader through 30 pages explaining how he came to his current belief system. It’s not an uncommon story of how a man gradually became disappointed and disillusioned with his evangelical faith and those who practice it. McLaren grew tired of the “us and them” attitude which categorized the world into saved and lost and, worse, made God into a Bully Who loved one but would punish the other.
It is also typical of writers like McLaren and Bell to make broad generalizations and caricatures especially of fundamentalists and even evangelicals, while at the same time bemoaning (what he sees as) the name-calling and ridicule toward liberal Christians. The conservative reader will just have to put up with this in order to get to the heart of the matter.
After having read McLaren and Bell for a while, I would say that the most striking protest they want to make is against the orthodox Christian view of an eternal hell, and of a God Who would put human beings there. As Bell wrote,
And that is the secret deep in the heart of many people, especially Christians: they don’t love God. They can’t, because the God they’ve been presented with and taught about can’t be loved. That God is terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable.8
McLaren puts it this way,
Yes, I find a character named God who does a good bit of smiting, but those who are smitten are simply smitten and buried, and that’s it. They are not shamed and tortured for a while by the ‘godly’ before death and then shamed and tortured by God after death—forever and ever, without end.9
It seems to this reviewer, that these men (and others) begin with what to them is an unacceptable teaching—a loving God who sends people to a horrible place like Hell forever!—and proceed from there to dismantle this doctrine in whatever way they can. Whereas Bell’s book is short and shocking, McLaren’s newest book is more methodical and detailed. I intend to let him speak for himself about his 10 questions. To anyone who is even moderately familiar with Biblical doctrine and content, McLaren’s own words are revealing enough.
1. The Narrative Question
McLaren starts with questioning the basic understanding of the story line of the Bible. Rather than seeing innocence in the garden, followed by a fall into sin, followed by a history of condemnation, followed by either salvation and heaven or no salvation and hell, he believes that all of that is read into the Bible through western, Greco-Roman eyes.
“What we call the biblical story line isn’t the shape of the story of Adam, Abraham, and their Jewish descendents. It’s the shape of the Greek philosophical narrative that Plato taught!” . . . . “Now the god of this Greco-Roman version of the biblical story bears a strange similarity in many ways to Zeus (Jupiter for the Romans), but we will name him Theos.”10
From there he constantly criticizes “Theos” for being a mean and vicious God who only wants to hurt and punish people. His point is that we got this idea of God, from reading our Bible backwards through the lens’ of the Greeks and Romans. He doesn’t consider whether he may be reading his Bible from the wrong direction!
2. The Authority Question
This section reveals McLaren’s unorthodox view of revelation and inspiration. Our problem has been, he says, that we take the Bible literally or as a “constitution” from which we get categorical statements rather than as a “library” which is more like an ongoing conversation. The reader must remember that McLaren was a literature major in school whose favorite writers are men like Gustavo Gutiérrez and Hans Küng.11 McLaren believes that the Bible writers matured over the years. The early writers wrote what they knew about God but they didn’t know very much so they described a God according to their backward, violent culture. As time went on the Bible writers matured and God was able to use them to show His true character. He writes,
I am saying that human beings can’t do better than their very best at any given moment to communicate about God as they understand God, and that Scripture faithfully reveals the evolution of our ancestors’ best attempts to communicate their successive best understandings of God. As human capacity grows to conceive of a higher and wiser view of God, each new vision is faithfully preserved in Scripture like fossils in layers of sediment. If we read the Bible as a cultural library rather than as a constitution, and if we don’t impose a Greco-Roman plotline on the biblical narrative, we are free to learn from that evolutionary process—and, we might even add, to participate in it.12
This is why he also can say, “To say that the Word (the message, meaning, or revelation) of God is in the biblical text, then, does not mean that you can extract verses or statements from the text at will and call them ‘God’s words.’”13
3. The God Question
The traditional understanding of God is a real problem for McLaren. To take the Bible as it is leaves us with a God Who does things that seem (to him anyway) wrong and distasteful. In speaking of the Genesis flood, for example, McLaren says,
In this light, a god who mandates an intentional supernatural disaster leading to unparalleled genocide is hardly worthy of belief, much less worship. How can you ask your children—or nonchurch colleagues and neighbors—to honor a deity so uncreative, overreactive, and utterly capricious regarding life? . . . . Now remember, in making this contrast, I’m not trying to defend the view of God in the Noah story as morally acceptable, ethically satisfying, and theologically mature. . . . I’m recommending we notice the theological progress the story demonstrates instead of simply condemning it for not having progressed more.14
He means that the Genesis story is an improvement on the older Gilgamesh story which really portrayed God as unkind. It’s just that the Genesis story hadn’t come nearly far enough to show us a better picture of God. Also keep in mind that none of this means that McLaren takes the flood story literally. He does not believe God actually did that. This is just how the Bible tells the story so we can progress in our understanding of God.
4. The Jesus Question
To McLaren, Jesus is the only reality in Scripture. Whether creation, history, or prophecy, only Jesus can be taken at face value. But, it seems, even Jesus must fit McLaren’s preconceived “three-dimensional biblical paradigm” of creation, liberation, and peace-making. He sees the Jewish point of view (rather than what he calls the old “six-line narrative”) as these three themes taken from Genesis, Exodus, and Isaiah (for no apparent reason other than his agenda). Yet while criticizing everyone else for fitting their point of view into a preconceived perspective, McLaren forces everything in the life of Jesus (and beyond) into his three-fold mold.
In these two chapters McLaren renders all prophecy, whether in Isaiah 4 (discussed in length) or Revelation 19 (also discussed in length) as allegory and merely pictorial language of peace that Jesus brought to us in the gospels. Dealing with no theology or theologians and using only online fanatics as examples, he ridicules those who believe Jesus came “to save us from hell.” He says,
But even these few examples, selected from so many more, make it clear that Jesus, contrary to my dear loyal critic’s assertion, did not come merely to “save souls from hell.” No, he came to launch a new Genesis, to lead a new Exodus, and to announce, embody, and inaugurate a new kingdom as the Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6). Seen in this light, Jesus and his message have everything to do with poverty, slavery, and a “social agenda.”15
McLaren calls his new perspective a “renaissance” of new understanding currently taking place. But it seems much closer to the old “liberalism” of the nineteenth century and beyond.
5. The Gospel Question
The reader may hope that in this fifth question he would see a clear gospel definition, but that hope will not be realized. McLaren tries to blend his previous thoughts with the gospels and the book of Romans but his attempt is less than satisfying. Noticeably, his previous reference to N.T. Wright and James Cone (p. 46) as two of his favorite authors, might give a hint to finding a gospel somewhere between the New Perspective on Paul and Liberation Theology.
McLaren starts with the gospels and their frequent “gospel of the kingdom” being “at hand.” He defines this as a kingdom that Jesus began that is not the old Jewish idea nor the traditional Christian idea nor an eschatological idea, but “God’s new benevolent society [which is] already among us.”16
A new kingdom is much bigger than a new religion, and in fact it has room for many religious traditions within it. This good news wasn’t simply about a new way to solve the religious problems of ontological fall and original sin (problems, remember once more, that arise centuries later and within a different narrative altogether). It wasn’t simply information about how individual souls could leave earth, avoid hell, and ascend to heaven after death. No, it was about God’s will being done on earth as in heaven for all people. It was about God’s faithful solidarity with all humanity in our suffering, oppression, and evil. It was about God’s compassion and call to be reconciled with God and with one another—before death, on earth. It was a summons to rethink everything and enter a life of retraining as disciples or learners of a new way of life, citizens of a new kingdom.17
In the second chapter of this section, McLaren presses this definition of the kingdom of God into the book of Romans. He describes inspiration as a “wonderful dance of the Spirit of God and the mind of a man in the context of a community in crisis.”18 He then gives seven “moves” that Paul makes as he writes this book by the Spirit. In the end, McLaren tries to force Romans to mean that the gospel is the message that God has reconciled the world (though he often contradicts himself by referring to “everyone who believes” and similar statements) or has already finished the “justification of all humanity.”19 The invitation, evidently, is “to share a common life and mission—living out the restorative justice, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit that constitute the kingdom of God.”20
Book Two: Emerging & Exploring. That is what McLaren titles the second half of his ten questions. These are shorter, outgrowths of the first five. Therefore, and for space, I will give brief summations.
6. The Church Question
Since the kingdom of God includes all people, churches exist to train people how to become profitable members of this kingdom. To save someone is to rescue them from uselessness.
7. The Sex Question
In this longest chapter of the section McLaren OKs nearly all sexual life-styles, or at least says they should be open and not condemned. The real culprit here is what he calls “fundasexuality,” the “brand of religious fundamentalism that preoccupies itself with sexuality.”21 That is, any who still condemn homosexuality, even premarital sex,22 are the real anti-Christians who are keeping the church from being all it should be.
8. The Future Question
McLaren unequivocally rejects a second coming of Christ (in any literal sense), especially a dispensational approach which he calls a conventional, “flatline,” deterministic view. His view is a “3-D participatory eschatology” which defines the “parousia” (presence, specifically not an “apousia” or absence) as Jesus being present in the world since His resurrection.
If McLaren does not subscribe to an Open Theism approach to the future he subscribes to its twin.
In this 3-D view, God is not in control in the sense of being a machine operator pulling levers or a chess master moving bishops and pawns. Nor is the universe out of control in the sense of being chaotic, random, and purposeless. Instead, God and the universe are in relationship.23
Final judgment (he calls “reconciling”) is redefined as the time when God finally reconciles all of creation back to Himself.
9. The Pluralism Question
By cleverly explaining away John 14:6, McLaren does away with evangelizing non-Christians. His new evangelism “would celebrate the good in the Christian religion . . . Just as it would in every other religion, calling people to a way of life in a kingdom (or beautiful whole) that transcends and includes all religions.”24
10. The What-Do-We-Do-Now Question
According to McLaren we quit the old and start the new. He calls this “ubuntu, from Africa, a rich word meaning one-another-ness, interconnectedness, jointed-in-the-common-good-ness, and profound commitment to the well-being of all. . . The transformation of ‘the other’ into ‘one another.’”25
And So . . .
So much more could and needs to be said. This is liberalism whether short-lived or long-lived. God will see to its end either way.