Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey (Jossey-Bass, 2001), 210 pp.
In this work, Brian McLaren uses the medium of story to lay out his basic views regarding the postmodern culture, and how the church should respond. However, as another review has pointed out, these stories aren’t pure fiction, they also retell McLaren’s own journey from modernity and into the postmodern mindset. However, as McLaren points out, the line between reality and fantasy is blurry, and because of this he implores the reader not to be overly concerned with his ability to craft a good story (while a lot of the dialogue is engaging, the flow is rather choppy and pieced todgether), or to try to figure out which character represents him.
There are two main characters in this book. Dan Poole, the main character, is a pastor who is struggling and is considering leaving the pastorate. Dan is thoroughly entrenched in the modern worldview and its understanding of Christianity. The other major character is Neil Edward Oliver, Neo for short, who is a high school science teacher and someone who has began to fully embrace a postmodern model of the faith. Neo seems to act as a foil to Dan’s views yet is also a catalyst for new thinking and hope for a better way of understanding his life. In the midst of this tension, which rises and falls according to the issue under discussion (some cows are more sacred to Dan than others), a friendship is born as the similarities between the two become apparent (ex: Neo used to think and feel just like Dan, but unlike Dan he left the pastorate) and as Neo’s way of understanding the faith is progressively embraced by Dan. Most chapters center on one main issue, and rather than discuss each one in details, instead a more general understanding of McLaren’s views and goals for the book will be sketched out.
One point that undergirds McLaren’s whole work is that Christianity as many know it today has been thoroughly permeated with the modern mindset. So much so in fact, that many cannot even see it. To this end Neo, McLaren’s postmodern foil to Dan, never tires of pointing out the problems modernity has brought to Christianity. According to Neo, the modern world has placed theory over practice, reduced salvation to an individualistic, consumeristic enterprise, and produced an overly abstract and simplistic view of sin. In McLaren’s work, modernity is by and large viewed as having left a dark legacy to the church, one that is characterized by abstraction, over-simplification, and a proclivity towards polarization.
To a large extent, it seems that McLaren’s goal is to help us find a way past the polarizing debates American evangelicalism has been engrossed in for the past few decades. Frequently, Neo points out to Dan that liberals and conservatives aren’t really that different. They both approach issues from a modern perspective, and disagree merely because of each group has a different starting point in their investigation of issues. That said, for McLaren it seems that at times there are ideas or practices that are so thoroughly modernized that they must simply be discarded. Neo is constantly pushing Dan to see that once he lets go of his modernist assumptions he can see these debates from a higher vantage point, one that sees a fuller (yet still only partial) picture, where both group’s concerns can be valued.
This higher vantage point seems to be found in Jesus’ teaching of the Kingdom of God. In this regard, McLaren admits being influenced by Dallas Willard’s understanding of the Kingdom of God. For McLaren, the Kingdom of God is God’s reign, in all its power, restoring all the cosmos to its original goal of harmony with God. It is this vision of cosmic restoration that creates the higher vantage point over which to see all the issues the church struggles with, and provides a way to start thinking holistically about them. For example, regarding soteriology, Neo is a big fan of Isaiah, which points out that God’s redemptive will extends to all the earth, not just for individualized American evangelical souls. Thus, for McLaren, often both liberals and conservatives have a piece of the truth, and the goal is to view them not as competing for control within the church, but as partial expressions of God’s restorative will to bring everything under God’s reign which need to be integrated or held in tension with each other. In this book McLaren is asking the church to find bigger glasses. The irony in this is that McLaren does this while still maintaining that no grid we can conceive of can do this in its entirety. No set of glasses can be “big” enough. Nonetheless, we do the best we can.
While McLaren offers some suggestions for how the church might move forward in this book, he readily admits at the outset that this isn’t a finalized treaty on what God is doing in the Emerging Church movement, but that this book is merely “a beginning.” McLaren’s goal here isn’t to answer every question we might have, but to merely take the discussion further. In this work we see glimpses of McLaren’s vision of what the future of Christianity should look like and what it should believe, to become much more pronounced in his later writings. For example, his work on the Kingdom of God, The Secret Message of Jesus, is, i’m told, “Willard for Dummies,” and fleshes out some of his thoughts more fully.
This is a great book for someone to read who desires to become conversant with the Emerging Church movement, and is a 210 page parable designed to show where we’ve been and where we might be headed. It is at its best when it is critiquing the failures of modernity, but is somewhat reluctant to try to answer really tough questions from its own lens. While i believe that McLaren asks many of the right questions, i’m unsure whether he can provide answers with theological substance. Only as i read more of his work can i honestly decide for myself whether he does.