Last week I was watching a video of Scot McKnight at the Q Conference interviewing Brian McLaren about some of the more controversial things he says in his latest book, A New Kind of Christianity. This came on the heels of questions raised by a friend in our church who was blessed by A New Kind of Christian, but (like me) wasn’t sure what to do with this newest volume.
I think for many of us, A New Kind of Christian (among other books from Brian) gave a glimpse of the faith many of us wanted to live. Not that I agreed with every word, but it opened up the possibility of being a follower of Jesus in a way that was winsome, evenhanded, irenic, generous, non-fundamentalist, more spiritual than religious, unafraid of tough questions, not slavishly tied to either political party. It was the promise of Christianity – full, robust Christianity – without being so annoying. Christianity without so many jerks. It gave a lot of young Christians hope that following Jesus didn’t necessarily mean becoming the kind of Christian that we were embarrassed of, the kind of whom we tell our friends, “We aren’t really like that.”
I was in. This was a vision I could get behind, and that opened up a world of wonderful questions. It encouraged me to pursue deeper spiritual formation, a more well-rounded understanding of God’s mission, and theological dialogue punctuated with grace and respect. Even better, over time I have found this vision to be a reality, not just an abstraction. I lead a community of people who long to be this kind of Christian, and messy and imperfect as we are, there is no doubt these are the kind of Christians God is making us into as we pursue his transforming work in our lives. Becoming like Jesus, living presently in his kingdom, joining him in his work in the world – these became the bedrock of my understanding of what it means to follow Jesus, and became the foundation for the church we planted. Brian’s books were influential in this process.
But watching the interview helped me put my finger on the discomfort I’ve had in reading Brian’s last few books, culminating in this one. It was the realization that Brian to some degree delivers what he promises: a new kind of Christianity. And more importantly, I found that’s not what I’m looking for. To be a new kind of Christian – to live more fully and authentically as a follower of Jesus, and to do what I can to lead others in that – yes. I want that with all my heart, and can think of no higher goal to which I might devote my life. But to pursue this vision in a faith that feels increasingly different from the one I find in Scripture and the Tradition presented (in all its messiness) throughout the church’s history – no. That’s not what I want.
And this is perhaps where I find my most fundamental difference with Brian coming into focus. It isn’t so much in his individual proposals, many of which I share his passion for (to see Christians better engage issues of global poverty, creation care, war and peace, etc.). It’s in the framework – the overarching narrative from which these proposals derive their meaning, passion, and authority, and his impassioned claim that the historical Christian framework is insufficient for working out these issues among Christ’s followers. (To shift for a moment from pastoral reflection to book review mode: I didn’t find Brian’s attribution of historic Christian thought to undue Greco-Roman influence at all convincing, but Scot McKnight’s review in Christianity Today or Marianne Meye Thompson’s in The Burner articulate these points far better than I could.)
Yes, in the last century evangelicalism seemed almost solely concerned with the gospel’s implications for the next life, and not nearly concerned enough with the gospel’s implications for this life. The pendulum swung too far. But we don’t correct this by swinging the pendulum too far to the other side. What good is it to replace one truncated version of the gospel with another?
The more I attempt to abide in Jesus and live out the gospel in everyday life, the more I become convinced that I don’t need a new kind of Christianity. I need God in his grace to shape me into a better me, and to help me live out the Christianity he’s given me already.
Tim Morey (D.Min., Fuller Theological Seminary) is a Burner Blog contributor and founding and lead pastor at Life Covenant Church in Torrance, California, and the author of Embodying Our Faith (InterVarsity Press). He blogs at http://embodyingourfaith.com.