The Call to Controversy

Need something stimulating to think about?

You could hardly go wrong with Brian McLaren’s new book, “A New Kind of Christianity.”

This book is certainly continuing to stir up not only healthy dialogue about important topics of faith, but also controversy in the Christian arena. It seems that there is very little middle-ground of opinion in regards to this book. People tend to either love it or hate it. And like it or not, in Christian circles this book looks to be THE “most talked-about” read of the year.

So, why endorse something that is the source of such controversy? Well, for several reasons:

1) WE NEED TO BE AWARE OF THE DISCUSSION.

Lots of people will be talking about this book and the questions that it raises. And make no mistake, they are important questions, no matter what you think are the correct answers. These are the questions of 21st century Christianity; questions of both those inside and outside the mainstream church today. Whether you realize it or not, you will be a part of this discussion. In fact, your voice will help shape this discussion.

And let me suggest that you actually read what is being stated by this intriguing side of the discussion. I have and will continue to read many disparaging comments and blogs about Brian McLaren’s view from people who disagree with his answers, which by the way is just part of the healthy dialogue. But, what is not healthy is that many of the people on the opposite side of the debate have not actually read McLaren’s books.

“That Brian McLaren has really gone off the deep end. I think he’s dangerous.”
“Have you read his book?”
“No, but I’ve heard he said such and such.”

Brian McLaren

Maybe we ought to be a bit more informed as we enter this discussion. Whether it is McLaren or MacArthur, maybe we should actually LISTEN to what they have to say and the context in which they say it before we criticize them. In fact, while you may disagree with either person in many areas, you may find some common ground as well. Or perhaps even more importantly, you may disagree with the conclusions, but may find a respectful appreciation for the spirit of the person and their questions.

In a recent interview, McLaren makes a case for this in responding to the way people easily dismiss his questions as “liberal” without considering his possibly more complex stance:

“I wouldn’t want to overlook the many ways in which my proposals differ from traditional liberal theology. My attitudes and commitments regarding Jesus, the Holy Spirit, scripture, spiritual experience, institutionalism, personal commitment and conversion, evangelism and discipleship, and many other subjects make many of my liberal friends think of me as conservative. Sometimes I wonder if evangelicals simply use the word “liberal” as a way to say, “Let’s stop listening to this person. He’s too different from us, and so is not worth our time and attention.” I hope that’s not the case, but sometimes, this is what I feel like when evangelicals use “the L word.”

For me, liberal is not automatically a bad word. If liberal means free from tyranny, I’m for it. If liberal means generous, I’m for it. If liberal means believing that our best days are ahead of us, I’m for it. If liberal means welcoming honest questions and giving honest scholarship a fair hearing, I’m for it. If, on the other hand, liberal means without restraint, or careless about tradition, or dismissive of scripture, or institutional and lukewarm regarding commitment to Christ, and so on, then I wouldn’t want to be associated with that. And we could say parallel things about the word conservative.”

Huh, maybe he’s not as crazy as people say. But, that’s not important. You don’t have to agree with McLaren, but maybe we should give him a fair-hearing (or rather reading). It may be that he is not as “off-the-deep-end” as we think. Or even if he is, that he is at least still committed to the best of his mental and reasoning ability to Jesus, if only incorrect.

2) WE NEED TO BE THINKERS

What I like best about this book is that it forces us to wrestle with concepts we take for granted and THINK. Controversy can only exist where people are seriously grasping and thinking and reasoning. And in that way, a healthy dose of controversy is probably very good for the modern church.

I work with high school students on a regular basis, and by far my greatest goal in my time with them is not to give them all the answers. Do I want them to have good answers? Of course. But more importantly, I want them to learn HOW to question, HOW to find good answers. I want to help them learn HOW to THINK. Many more questions will come up in their lives long after I am gone, and I’d rather they learned how to critically think about those questions sure-to-come in the future rather than just have some spoon-fed responses from me about the ones they are asking right now.

Ironically, many high schoolers I know are better at wrestling with questions and learning to think than a lot of adults. And maybe that is a bigger problem in our churches today than we’d care to admit. We just don’t think for ourselves. We’ve accepted long-held answers (many of which might be correct, by the way) to many old questions (some of which people aren’t asking anymore) without ever thinking it through ourselves. We are lazy. Lazy theologically. Lazy mentally.

This has direct consequences for our witness to the world. Because while we are busy being content with answers to questions we’ve never genuinely asked ourselves, the rest of the world is actively and honestly seeking answers. The church is irrelevant because by and large we can’t speak authentically to these questions. We appear to be a second-hand, consignment store of truth because we are primarily selling the “hand-me-down responses” of generations before us rather than doing the hard work of wrestling with the deeper questions and making sense of them in this time and context for ourselves.

Consider just these few questions: How is the Bible unique and why should it apply to my life? What makes the Bible authoritative in my life? How do I know it is the “Word of God?” What does it mean that it was “inspired?” What in the Bible is culturally-conditioned for people at the time of it’s writing and what is a universal-truth that applies to me? How do I know the difference? Can I know the difference? Is there a difference?

While just the tip of the proverbial ice-berg, these questions alone go a long way in helping answer modern dilemmas such as human sexuality, the character of God, the purpose of Jesus, social justice, and other ethical considerations.

Some will agree with the conclusions of the author and others will not. But no matter what you think of McLaren’s answers, what is undisputable is that these questions need to be asked. Or rather, these questions are already being asked by many people (friends, family, co-workers) around us. McLaren is not by far the first person to ask these questions, but he is suggesting that rather than dismissing the people who ask them maybe we ought to spend some time struggling with them as well and as a community “led by the Spirit” recalibrating the answers to this time and in our current context.

As McLaren says:

“That’s why, in the end, I hope people will actually read the book with an open heart and mind. I’m not expecting that anyone will agree with everything — that’s not my point. But I am hoping that people will be stimulated to think, and maybe even to dream of better possibilities … so the Christianity of the future can continue to learn and grow and not simply repeat the past or be stuck in the present.”

Is it dangerous to read a book that challenges things that you believe and causes you to ask some rather unsettling questions about your core beliefs? Possibly. But far more dangerous for the church today is not reading these books and not asking these inquiries.

So go ahead and risk it. It’s okay to hang up the “under-construction: please come back later” sign on your theology for the weekend. Pick up the book and let it mess you up a little bit. Be okay to let the questions move you to a place of uncertainty for a while. Inhale the ambiguity and breathe deep the tension of inquisition.

It may be that once the smoke and fog has cleared you find yourself with some “real” answers. Or at the very least, a greater understanding & compassion for and a stronger, more respected voice into the life of seekers around you.

It could be the church will be healthier for the controversy.

Would Jesus Make You Buy Health Insurance?

“What is the Christian response to healthcare reform?”

Facebook & Twitter are great for those kind of trap questions, aren’t they?

An incredibly complex topic (does anyone really know all the ramifications of reforming or not reforming?) about a controversial American bill (does anyone really know everything that is in this thing?) and you’ve got 140-characters to concisely explain the Bible’s definitive view (does anyone really know what 1st century Jesus & his disciples would actually think about 21st century American healthcare?) on something you’re really not sure about.  Hahaha… classic.

And yet, I’ve found myself answering this and a bunch of similar questions online a lot this week.  Really, they are the questions I’ve been asking in my head too, struggling to formulate an opinion.  Questions like:

“What is the Christian view of healthcare reform?”

I’ve read literally dozens of articles and blogs in recent days seeking to answer this very question.  Some people say that when Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself” that he had this type of idea in mind: a society that progresses and values those who have more giving to those who have less.  Jesus, they say, would be all for this type of bill.

Other people use the same quote from Jesus to explain that he meant uncoerced, self-sacrificial love, not compelled assistance of those around us.  Jesus, they say, was not discussing government intervention, but individual generosity.  Clearly, Jesus would be against this type of bill.

“What would Jesus say about healthcare reform?”

He’d love it!  He’d hate it!  He compels us to support it!  He demands we reject it!  The views out there are strong, compelling and fairly exhaustive.

I can literally scroll through the newsfeed on Facebook and place people into their camp.  I read status updates like:

“healthcare reform is a sign of the end times.”

“win for Jesus, as healthcare reform passes.”

“I’m moving to Canada…wait… ughhhh”

“should we rename Reagan International Airport after Obama or Pelosi?”

I mean, who needs a USAToday poll about what people think when I can just read it on Twitter?

Now, of course, everyone’s got an opinion.  I myself have an opinion.  But, it turns out that Jesus has the same opinion we do too.  Whether we are pro-reform bill or anti-reform bill, it appears that Jesus is too.  We quote Jesus and explain our correct theology and justify why Jesus is on our side and not on the other.  But the reality is, either Jesus has gone schizophrenic or we have.  And one way or the other, God has some serious mental illness in his family.

“What do YOU think about healthcare reform?”

Maybe that’s a better question.  I’m not trying to ride the fence here and take the easy way out.  I’m not gonna say I think both sides are right and try and appease everyone.  I definitely have an opinion on this topic (however ill-informed it may be).  But, let me just OWN it.  It’s my opinion.  I don’t know what Jesus thinks.  My politics aren’t necessarily Jesus’ politics.

I formulate opinions based off what I believe to be true about Jesus, but as with many things in life, I operate out of faith and in environments where I don’t see clearly.  I stumble through decisions and opinions, praying they reflect Jesus heart, but sometimes unsure; many times evolving and changing as I learn and grow.

“What does Nick think, right now, about healthcare reform?”

I’m in favor of this healthcare reform.  I think its good for a whole lot of reasons that many other people have at great length explained.  But, I’m not writing this to convince you to agree with me or to argue that Jesus does.  In fact, I’m hesitant to say what I really think for fear it will come across that way.  I’m only saying what I think to show I’m not neutral.  I have an opinion.

But, it’s MY opinion.  I don’t speak for Jesus when it comes to politics.  No one does.

Does Jesus have a strong opinion about healthcare reform? Maybe.  But, he hasn’t ever told it to me.  I have absolutely zero words from Jesus (in the Bible or audible discussion) addressing the specific topic of the American healthcare system in 2010.  Everything I think and endorse in this arena is at best my limited view of what I “think” Jesus would approve of, and I’m completely open to thinking that possibly Jesus doesn’t really care one way or the other.

“So, Jesus isn’t on either side?”

Actually, I think it is a bit more profound than that.  Jesus is on BOTH sides.

As I scroll through my Facebook newsfeed I see many good people that I call “friends” outside a computer screen who deeply love and try to follow Jesus.  And as I divide them into their pro and anti reform bill categories, it occurs to me that I don’t have the market on Jesus any more than they do.

My anti-reform bill friends are trying their best in their experiential framework of life to reflect Jesus in the same way that I am with my framework.  We both agree that Jesus says, “Love your neighbors as yourself,” we just have different conclusions about what that looks like in Seattle, Washington in 2010.

When I claim Jesus is on my side, I’m right.  But so are they.

Will we ever agree on American politics?  Probably not.  But maybe we don’t need too.  Maybe we just don’t need to make Jesus agree with us either.

McLaren Q2: The Authority of the Bible

How many Owner’s Manuals have you actually read all the way through?

Yea, me either.  In fact, I’ve got a whole drawer full of owner’s manuals that we keep in case we need them.  If it was up to me, I would have thrown most of them away long ago.  But, my wife is much smarter and more thorough than I am and keeps them filed in case the dishwasher ever breaks down and we need the document that tells us how to fix it. (Not that I could do it anyway).

So, they sit in a file.  They don’t help me with my day-to-day life.  Most days I forget they are even there.  They are just kind of an emergency reference I can pull fix-it info from if things don’t go as planned with appliances I take for granted.

In a similar way, I often treat my Bible that way too.  As a teenager, many well-meaning people told me that my Bible was like the Owner’s Manual of my life.  It told me what to do, what not to do and how to fix what was wrong.  And while there is certainly some direction in these areas, I have discovered in reading the book that its description as a Manual is quite poor.  The collection of material in Scripture is much more complex than this.

What’s more, this view of the Bible has lead to me treating it like a Manual. Most often, I’ve left it filed in the drawer, inapplicable to my daily life, ready to pull out and scan for a nugget of “fix-it” advice when necessary.  Too easily the manual is left unread or if finally read, read poorly, too simplistically and ripped out its natural context and applied incorrectly.

In this second interview with www.theooze.tv, Brian McLaren speaks briefly about how we might re-frame our view of Scripture.  Instead of the metaphor of a Manual, he employs the picture of a legal-document (or constitution), which is another common well-meaning but misguided view of the Bible.

Just another addition to his new book, “A New Kind of Christianity.” A good source of enough thought-provoking material to open a dialogue.  Watch the video and leave a comment to join the conversation.

McLaren Q1: The Narrative Question

Looking for a good, open conversation about faith?

Well, our friends at the conversation-starting website: www.theooze.tv are currently doing a video series with Brian McLaren about his new book: “A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith”.

Each video features McLaren discussing one of the specific questions raised in his book.  And, due to the subject matter, I’m sure there will be much conversation generated! And really that is the goal.  There may be more than one thing that you find yourself at odds with him about, but according to McLaren himself, these questions:

“are not intended as a smash in tennis, delivered forcefully with a lot of topspin, in an effort to win the game and create a loser. Rather, they are offered as a gentle serve or lob; their primary goal is to start the interplay, to get things rolling, to invite your reply. Remember, our goal is not debate and division yielding hate or a new state, but rather questioning that leads to conversation and friendship on the new quest.”
(Brian McLaren)

So, here is the first of these videos.  It discusses briefly, McLaren’s first few chapters on the “storyline” of the Bible and how to properly frame our picture of Jesus.  Give it a quick view (less than 5 minutes) and feel free to comment here on your thoughts or go to www.theooze.tv and watch them all as they become available.

A New Kind of Christianity

Books have been boring lately. Well, maybe it’s not the books. But, it just seems like nothing has piqued my interest too much in things I’ve been reading. Until recently…

Author, Brian McLaren

I picked up Brian McLaren’s new book, “A New Kind of Christianity” last week.

And while I usually enjoy reading his books, I found that this new book has put excellent words to thoughts I have been thinking and even blogging about here for quite a while.

I’m still processing some of his thoughts, but i was especially drawn to McLaren’s focus on the supremacy and centrality of Christ in our understanding of God. This is something that I have argued for many times, especially in our discussion of non-violence.

(to read my related post–“God’s Character in Reverse”– click here)

Here is how McLaren explains it:

“The Quaker scholar Elton Trueblood approached the Bible this way. One of Trueblood’s students told me that he often heard his mentor say something like this: “The historic Christian doctrine of the divinity of Christ does not simply mean that Jesus is like God. It is far more radical than that. It means that God is like Jesus.”

"A New Kind of Christian" by Brian McLaren

In other words, the doctrines of the incarnation and deity of Christ are meant to tell us that we cannot start with a pre-determined, set-in-stone idea of God derived from the rest of the Bible, and then extend that to Jesus. Jesus is not intended merely to fit into those pre-determined categories; he is intended instead to explode them, transform them, alter them forever and bring us to a new evolutionary level in our understanding of God. An old definition of God does not define Jesus: the experience of God in Jesus requires a new brand definition or understanding of God.

Trueblood’s insight, in my opinion, is the best single reason to be identified as a believer in Jesus, and it is an unspeakably precious gift that can be offered to people of all faiths. The character of Jesus, we proclaim, provides humanity with a unique and indispensable guide for tracing the development of maturing images and concepts of God across human history and culture. It is the North Star, if you will, to aid all people, whatever their religious background, in their theological pilgrimage. The images of God that most resemble Jesus – whether they originate in the Bible or elsewhere – are the more mature and complete images, and the ones less similar to the character of Jesus would be the more embryonic and incomplete – even though they may be celebrated for being better than the less complete images they replaced.

This is why we cannot simply say that the highest revelation of God is given through the Bible (especially the Bible read as a constitution, or cut and pasted to fit in the Greco-Roman six-line narrative). Rather, we can say that, for Christians, the Bible’s highest value is in revealing Jesus, who gives us the highest, deepest, and most mature view of the character of the living God.”

A New Kind of Christianity, pages 114-115

Very well said. And I don’t think I can over-estimate the importance of this placing of Jesus as the central focus of the question: “what God is actually like.” It is maybe the most singularly critical aspect of our faith that I think we need restored today.

This is a very, very crucial discussion that has implications for all aspects of the Christian life. And, I’m glad to see other people chiming in on this most important component of how we see and understand God. I would highly encourage you to pick up this book today and give it a read. You may not agree with everything, but it will certainly challenge you to stretch your conception of God.

Happy thinking.