A New Kind of Christianity and Grief

Brian McLaren just posted this comment about his book A New Kind of Christianity by a reader whose sentiments I share. What many people don’t understand is that when a person speaks negatively of organised religion, it isn’t necessarily because they have turned their back on it or plan to in the near future. It is quite possible that they are going through a grieving process.

Here’s part of Brian’s post:

Your book has also brought out many other emotions as well… fear, doubt, and at times, a profound grief. I’m not sure why or where this grief is coming from. Is it the loss of my childhood faith I am feeling? Is it a fear that God is unknowable? Is it the loss of one faith before another is formed to replace it? Have you, or any other individuals you have encountered, found this deep grief to be part of the faith-growing journey as well? Any advice for a fellow searcher would be valuable.

You can read the rest of the comment and Brian’s response here.

Conversations on Being a Heretic

Scot McKnight recently interviewed Brian McLaren about several topics Brian raises in his book A New Kind of Christianity. Here’s the link to the interview video. Here’s the link to the notes by Brian McLaren.

About the claim that Brian never seems to state clearly what exactly he himself believes regarding a particular point, Brian says:

When I read a book, or listen to music, I’m not always asking “What do they believe?” I’m asking, “What do they have to say to me?” I’m not requiring them to agree with me (and me to agree with them) for me to be stimulated by what they have to say. To me, there is a peculiar problem in a lot of religious readers where their approach is, “I don’t care what the person might have to say to me. I want to know if he’s right.” And, so they go into the reading and discussion experience with an assumption that they are already right, that they already see things the way they should be. And they’re going through with a checklist. The experience of that for a writer (and for pastoring and preaching), is when you’re in the presence of those people is that it feels like an inquisition. They’re doing a kind of constant heresy hunt. My personal feeling is that there is a place for that. But maybe we could say, “those who live by the sword die by the sword,” i.e., “those who live by boundary maintenance die by boundary maintenance,…those who live by heresy hunting die by heresy hunting.” It is interesting that people read a book that way. To me, that’s a significant problem.

Regarding “provocative ambiguity,” there is some dimension of that. Soren Kierkegaard said,“It is very hard to use indirect communication when you’re talking to someone who is held in the grip of an illusion.” Because if you tell a person who is so absolutely certain, they have absolute certainty that they’re right, when they’re not right, if you tell them they’re wrong, they just assume you’re wrong. Sometimes when talking to people in an illusion, you have to use indirection. Flannery O’Connor said, “With people who can’t see very well, you have to use very large and strange characters.” I also think that in other places, I’m not trying to pass someone’s test, I’m actually trying to challenge them to think. And sometimes the ambiguity does help with that.

And about the perception that Brian has abandoned the “A Generous Orthodoxy:”

I would never ever say that the faith of the historic church should be put behind us. To me, the faith of the historic church is exactly what we should keep; dependence on God, openness to the Holy Spirit, connection and confidence in God. But I do think there are dimensions of our faith after 2000 years that we may need to go back and look at and say, there seems to be a problem there. And this issue, what I call the “Greco-Roman narrative,” I think really deserves a second look. And some people are going to say, “No it doesn’t. That’s inherent to the faith.”

Just to give you an example. To me, the essence of that narrative, that way of looking at the world — e.g., “we’re the insiders, we’re the chosen, we’re the elite, we’re the elect, we’re the saved…they’re the lost, they’re the non-Christians, they’re the damned, they’re the other, they’re the outsider.” — that dualism, and that way of looking at an “us” vs. “them” approach to the world, that I think is inherent in that, it might be avoidable. But historically, it has repeatedly resulted in oppression and violence, and horrible things that are opposed to the way and things of Jesus Christ. I think that narrative is complicit in a whole series of atrocities that Muslim people know about, that Jewish people know about, that the Native Americans know about, that African-Americans know about, that women know about, that the LBGT communities know about; it’s like everybody sees it, but us. I really do think that’s a problem. I guess the way to say it is, I think that narrative has been the ungenerous thing that has been wrapped up with orthodoxy, and I think we would be both more orthodox and more generous to articulate the faith apart from that narrative.

The interview lats for about 18 minutes. Have a look (or read the notes) and be encouraged to think, again, outside of the square of modern Christianity and religion.

Church Experiences

The current subtitle of the Fields of Grace blog is “There’s a place where religion finally dies.” I change this from time to time to convey the message of the song from which the title is taken. On one hand I want to proclaim, promote, and preach grace in all its fullness (which always results in gracious living and forgiving), and on the other hand there is so much dead religion and religiosity that too often gets in the way of seeing grace evidenced in the professing Church of Jesus.

Following is a reader comment that Brian McLaren posted on his blog recently which says a lot about an uncomfortableness I feel and a tension I live with every day in my journey into grace.

I have recently been reading your books and website. I am constantly amazed at how God puts people in our paths who we can walk parts of our journey with…Your story and mine are very similar. In my 30 year journey with Christ (made “official” at age 10 – though I don’t ever remember not knowing Jesus) I have been to various churches from Presbyterian, UCC, to Methodist, to Assemblies of God and other Pentacostal influence (still detoxing), to a year in Catholic school, to my current Vineyard. I have always seen beautiful things in each (I love the idea of the Rosary, I love “walking in the gifts of the Spirit”, find value in the less ‘spirit-filled’ denominations) and have grown with each new exposure. The problem I have encountered the most is the problem of feeling like I’m some sort of rebel when I start to ask questions and poke around at the theologies/hermeneutics, eschatologies that don’t sit with my spirit. I find that there are usually only a few I can share my thoughts with and not get the ‘I still love you but I’m worried about you’ look or warnings about being careful of who /what I read because there are false teachers lurking in the darkness. I have longed for a harmonizing of the positive things I see in all the faiths that call themselves by Jesus’ name, and an honoring of those who do not. I like to venture into other camps and find Jesus there. It’s awesome. But not popular, not deemed ‘safe’ unless you are a person with a proper degree in conservative Biblical studies. Finding your writings as well as those of some others (Rob Bell – gasp! He says we should contemplate!), Gulley and Mullholland (oh, no! God might save everyone?!) have been so refreshing.

This weekend I was watching a baby dedication/baptism at a Methodist church and found myself chafing under some of the language (though stated in pretty words) that seemed to indicate that this child was sinful and dirty prior to the baptism and “part of the family of faith” only AFTER water was placed on her head…I get the whole symbolism behind it, and I know the Biblical grounds for it, I just wonder if people would be better served if we baptized them into a knowledge of who they already are because of the work Christ already accomplished – especially when dedicating or Baptizing a child. Maybe that’s heretical and erroneous. I just can’t look at a child and see sinfulness.

I don’t want to leave the universal Church as Anne Rice recently declared. My xxx family has exposed me to a kind of community love that I can’t imagine leaving. I want to stay – and feel called to stay – and maybe weave into our family a broader view of our impossibly huge God.I need to know I am not alone in this…So, thanks, man, for your courage and example!! That’s all I really wanted to say. Thanks if you made it this far!!

(I guess we both suffer from long paragraph/parenthetical statement syndrome as well)….

(Brian’s comment: Thanks for your note. This sin-focused language relates a lot to the Greco-Roman narrative I talk about in New Kind of Christianity. If you’ve never read Jerome Berryman’s writings on children and God, I highly recommend them. I finished Godly Play recently and am enjoying Children and the Theologians now.)

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There seems to be a ever-increasing consumerist approach to the Church today which demonstrates itself in a revolving-door Christianity. The average church isn’t growing but people are coming and going, “tasting” the church and deciding whether or not it is a place where they can settle (at least until the next distraction comes along).

I believe that it is important to be part of a community over the long haul. While my family has left churches on occasion, this is not the preferred option, and we did so only after intensive prayer and self-examination. It’s good for the family to have a sense of belonging to a group of people. It’s good for the children to see dad and mum working through problems and disagreements in a healthy, mature way and not simply leaving because it’s gotten too tough or there are too many points of contention. It’s also good the extended family to see that, despite imperfections, we have thrown in our lot with these people for better or worse; this is our church. Pastors will change. Worship styles won’t last. The way things are done now may not be the way they are done in the future (unless you’re a Baptist, prayuhz Jaaay-zusss!).

What remains constant is the people.

But we hear the moaning every day:

“My kids aren’t / I’m not getting anything from this church. I’m leaving.”

“The pastor is a control freak / not in control. I’m out of here.”

“The worship is too much like a concert / too informal. Goodbye.”

“The theology isn’t in keeping with my interpretation. See you later.”

“There hasn’t been a new convert in church in _____ years.”

“There isn’t enough _________________ (fill in the blank)”

“The members are too ______________ (Fill in the blank).”

Vicki and I were talking last night about a variety of church experiences we have shared as a family, and a particular church experience came to mind where a number of people threatened to leave the church if Pastor Z_____ didn’t leave. We heard a lot of these same statements in a congregational meeting that was called to vote him out.

This brought to mind tensions that exist in our minds because of the differences between what our church (pastor, board, congregation as a whole) promote and what we believe is our own role as followers of Jesus. Vicki turned to me and said (regarding the questions above): “What if the shoe was on the other foot and we agreed with everything that was said and done, but a lot of other people didn’t?”

Would we be gracious? Would we encourage dialogue? Would we be open to questions?

Or would those who disagreed with us “pack it in” and leave the Church?

And how would that make us feel as their family?

How much of what we all do would be dictated by a consumerist Christianity mindset–I’m happy with the way things are going (my way) so I’ll stay. When I become unhappy, I’ll leave. (This mentality is very “I” centered and truly has nothing to do with the Biblical “one another” teachings.

I think there does come a time when the tension and stress becomes too great and people must move on (see my post on spiritual abuse).

But there also comes a time when we need to say, “These are my people. This is my family. We’re not perfect. We disagree. We’re human. But we are still brothers and sisters.”

Let the conversation continue . . .

Straight from the Source

I am always amused when I read reviews of books and I can see so clearly the reviewer hasn’t really read the book. I find it funny to read, see or hear news reports that in the end are found to be based on internet rumours, not on sources on the scene.

But I am not amused to read damning articles, critical reviews, or hearsay about Brian McLaren from people who have not had the courtesy (or courage?) to read or listen to him before making a harsh judgement. Any secondhand information is susceptible to the same distortion as a game of Chinese Whispers–even if you hear it from me!

This does not mean that reading will change your mind. In fact there are several genuinely insightful reviews by people who have read all of McLaren’s material, who don’t necessarily agree with his outcomes or theology.

I don’t agree with all he has written, but I tend to agree with his understanding the majority of the time. I would say his writings have influenced my understanding of the Bible and what it means to be a Christian more than any other author I have read. But Brian is still human and fallible. He does get it wrong at times as do we all. He also expects disagreement and encourages it, as long as the conversations keep happening and everyone remains open to the fact that we don’t have all the answers and our understanding may change from what it is today.

On Brian’s blog today, he provides suggested reading if you’re interested in what he has to say (or knowing what has been put ‘out there’ firsthand).

Here’s that list:

If you want a gentle and short introduction to [his] work, try
More Ready Than You Realize or
Secret Message of Jesus

If you want a more challenging introduction, try
Everything Must Change or
A Generous Orthodoxy

If you prefer fiction for summer reading, then try this:
New Kind of Christian or one of its sequels

I don’t recommend you try this one unless you like to jump in the deep end of the pool.
A New Kind of Christianity

And if you have a long drive, or like to jog or walk, or just hate to read – how about this podcast series – an overview of the Bible?

All the books are now available at a good local Christian bookshop (such as Koorong) or online at Amazon or Dymocks. The podcast series is available online (click the link).

There are also several interviews and lectures online as part of other podcast series. You can do a search at the iTunes Store on ‘Brian McLaren.’ Most of these podcasts or iTunes U episodes are free to download.

And once you’ve gone to the source, why not write your own review? You can even let us know what you think in the comments box below. I don’t edit these and, apart from spam or defamatory statements, I allow all comments.

Grace and Peace.

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Her’s a link to a very recent podcast interview with Brian McLaren on the Jesus Manifesto podcast.

Marketing the Gospel

Excuses for Not going to Church No.368 - Slept in

I am amused by some people’s attempts to ‘spin’ the Church to the unchurched. From Big-screen TV Giveaways to slick mass-mailed postcards, the thought that goes into these campaigns astounds me–not to mention the money spent. . . .

I am also saddened. In a post on the Pastoralia blog, Jason Coker looks at this issue and ends with this quote from Bill Kinnon:

“What we win them with, is what we win them to. Win them with entertainment, and you’ve created customers – who expect to be continually entertained. Picking up our crosses and following Jesus is not particularly attractive. Buying into a worldview where the last are first, and the first are last doesn’t win us any earthly popularity awards. . . .”

Worth thinking about.

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Another good blog worth checking out, if you’re interested at all (or intrigued by) Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity, is Letters to Brian McLaren. Here seminary students have posted letters addressing questions that have been raised from their reading of the book. From what I understand, this was part of an assignment in the Emerging Churches class at Fuller Seminary.

And here’s another: Why Christianity Must Adapt – or Perish by Alex Wilhelm

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One last one: A brief statistical analysis titled Leading Scientists Still Reject God may be telling on the seeming inability for some to reconcile the findings of Science with the community library we call the Bible.

A New Kind of Exclusivism

I have to admit I’m a fan of Brian McLaren.

I’ve read most of his books and something about their overarching themes resonates with the way I’m wired. I appreciated the dialogue created in the New Kind of Christian trilogy because it addressed inherited beliefs I had always questioned. I understood The Secret Message of Jesus as being the coming of the kingdom of God and became enthused about its presence here and now in our world. I agreed that Everything Must Change and was excited about the possibilities such a treatise opened up to me. I related to the ten questions (and numerous answers) found in A New Kind of Christianity and thought how Christianity would be a much better alternate reality if it would just wake up and see the simplicity of Brian’s prophetic message.

Along with a raft of other books, articles, and podcasts, I found my understanding of Scripture enlarged and my life as a follower of God in the way of Jesus greatly revitalised.

The problem I have is not everyone gets it! This frustrates me . . . and sometimes infuriates me.

When I hear the fundamentalist language of 50’s Christianity, I cringe. When I read those who espouse an escapist ‘rapture’ theology’ and a violent and fiery end of the world as we know it, I get all tied up in knots. When I see the rampant discrimination in churches against women, gays, and those whose theology is not quite ‘up to scratch,’ my blood pressure rises. When I experience the formula-driven worship of the Hillsong generation, I long for the church to rise above that and seek reality, honesty and vulnerability in its words and worship.

But in the end, I think I’ve fallen into ‘A new kind of Exclusivism’ in my thinking and in my relationships.

I found myself sitting in church the other day with these kinds of thoughts rushing through my head and I realised I’m heading back to where I started and was becoming what I was running from. In drawing up new borders and building new walls, I was simply re-framing my exclusivism in another context. In thinking myself to be somewhat better, more aware, having greater understanding than others, I was in fact creating another ‘us’ and another ‘them.’

Jesus prayed for his followers that they would be one. Looking at their backgrounds, I can easily see how they could fall into the same categories as the wide spectrum of people who inhabit our church structures today: pharisees, zealots, fishermen, tax gatherers, rich and poor, higher and lower status, God-focused and self-focused. Yet, in the power and through the working of the Holy Spirit, they showed what unity can bring about–simply because it wasn’t unity built around one man’s interpretation of the truth, but oneness that was centered in the Truth personified: Jesus. Their oneness turned the world system of their day upside-down and showed what is possible when we humbly submit to one another and to Christ.

So I repent of my new exclusivism amongst all my other sins of pride, jealousy, malice, and falseness (to name but a few), and ask God to help me to live in the way of Jesus every day. It’s not easy, but it is possible. God has already proven that.

Tribes

In Brian McLaren’s new book, several times he offers the image of ‘the tribe’ or a tribal society in referring to questions about God or the Bible. Rob Bell in his timely and enlightening ‘The God’s Aren’t Angry‘ speaks of humanity’s understanding of God from a tribal perspective. In his review of ‘A New Kind of Christianity,’ Andrew Perriman speaks about a panel discussion about the book held at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and, once again, the idea of tribal identity surfaces:

The tribal part has to do with the limits we perceive that we are not willing to cross. I might be highly creative, intellectual, etc. but I might remain so entrenched within a certain religious or ideological tribe that I simply focus my personality on defending that tribe.

I found the So. Baptist Theological Seminary panel discussion particularly fascinating in that sense. It seemed liked the leaders of a tribe were reacting to a perceived threat. How else can one explain the oddness of these academics taking up their intellectual arms in a public forum for no other apparent purpose than to preach to the choir before them?

It was fascinating but also very sad. I wondered what percentage of the audience had read your book, or ever would after such an indoctrination. Yet they gladly cheered on those academic gladiators in that one-sided arena.

Tribal ‘elders,’ leaders, speaking to the tribe about what is happening in another tribe and the threats this poses. This is a strange but interesting take on Evangelical Christianity, and one with which I tend to agree. Whether I intend or not, I am part of a tribe that shares a common story (or common interpretation of that story), a common cause, a common deity, a common ground (home). And while I wish all tribes could agree, that won’t necessarily happen.  But we still share the same space and live under the same sky, worshipping the same God.

That’s a good start.

P.S. I’d like to take this tribal idea further and explore it. Keep watching this space…