What she said:

The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.

–Ayaan Hirsi Ali (from How (and Why) I Became an Infidel)

‘A New Kind of Christianity’ stirs up the same ol’ same ol’ Christianity

So, Brian McLaren has a new book out on the shelves: A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith — and boy, is it ever causing waves in the religious blogosphere.

Now normally I wouldn’t care so much about this kind of thing — because, well, I left the “emerging church” movement years ago, and now I don’t even think there is a god — but for some reason, I’m fascinated by watching the fury unfold over McLaren’s latest theological work.

Maybe it’s because I’m still holding onto good memories of McLaren. 5 years ago, when I was backing away from the church and my faith, it was his books (specifically his “A New Kind of Christian” series) that gave me some hope that maybe I could stay in the church, despite my nagging (and growing!) doubts. His series and theological approach really shook my evangelical upbringing, in good ways. Of course, we know what direction I took when it came to my religious beliefs — but I still deeply respect McLaren as a communicator.

So you can maybe imagine my surprise when I started reading some of the religious community’s FURIOUS responses to his latest book — throwing around accusations such as: “a true son of Lucifer”, “False teacher“, “arch-heretic”, “outright, rank, unapologetic apostasy. He hates God“, etc.

As sorry as I’m feeling for these slams against McLaren, I have to admit I’m enjoying what his book and proposed theology is forcing to the surface in his dissenters. I haven’t yet read McLaren’s book, but I’ve watched several clips where he describes some of its contents, and I’ve read many book reviews that quote huge chunks of his text. So far, I really don’t understand where all the sound and fury is coming from — if anything, McLaren’s theology seems downright reasonable (so says the godless atheist, which to some who are reading this post automatically disqualifies me from having a worthwhile opinion on such matters).

Here’s a video of McLaren, discussing his new approach to understanding the authority of the Bible — see if you can pick out what is causing so many religious folk such conniptions:

  • McLaren advocates seeing the bible as a “library, a collection of documents” as opposed to considering the bible as a go-to “constitution,” a text that people can refer to it as a lawbook, citing article/section/subsection (or book, chapter and verse)
  • I love how he says that the church’s struggle over biblical authority comes down to POWER — “it’s really about the authority of people interpreting the bible” (yes!!!)
  • Rather than being “over the bible interpreting it” or “under the bible submitting to it,” McLaren thinks we should instead be “in” the bible, with conversations being open and questions being unanswered.

I think I’m so attuned to what McLaren is saying here because I can see a confluence between his theology and the lectures I heard a couple weeks ago from the religious scholar, Timothy Beal. In his talks, Beal also pushed his audience to see the bible not as a book of unchanging moral guidelines but as an “inconclusive process we’re invited to join” — a book that “resists conclusion and univocality”, but instead “canonizes contradiction.”

What a liberating way to see a book that can be so oppressive! No wonder so many pastors and theologians are foaming at the mouth over what McLaren has to say in this new book. It’s revolutionary! Both McLaren and Beal are advocating a true Reformation — putting the bible back into the hands of the people, giving everyone the chance to struggle and work through it, eliminating the need to have prerequisite degrees in Greek or pedigrees of systematic theology that enable the “one meaning” of the text to be revealed. The answers aren’t restricted to biblical scholars anymore.

Now I don’t necessarily agree with the new biblical paradigm that McLaren is posing in his book — but I do appreciate how he’s challenging the static doctrines of the church and forcing his audience to see the bible in a different light.

And what do his critics accuse him of? Of being “liberal.” According to one critique of McLaren’s book, here’s a list of the damnable qualities of liberal belief:

1. Liberals believe doctrine needs to develop to meet the needs of contemporary thought.
2. Liberals emphasize the need to reconstruct traditional beliefs and reject the authority of tradition and church hierarchy.
3. Liberals focus on the practical and ethical dimensions of Christianity.
4. Liberals seek to base theology on something other than the absolute authority of the Bible.
5. Liberals drift toward divine immanence at the expense of transcendence.

Is this list supposed to inspire shudders down the spines of anyone who doesn’t identify themselves as liberal? Again, this list seems *perfectly reasonable* to this atheist — in fact, I would want the people who consider these qualities to be detrimental to admit holding onto their opposites.

So, instead of the liberal belief that doctrine “needs to develop to meet the needs of contemporary thought,” these conservatives/evangelicals/fundamentalists (pick a label) should admit to believing doctrine “needs to remain static and not meet the needs of contemporary thought.” Likewise, if liberals supposedly “focus on the practical and ethical dimensions of Christianity,” to be not-liberal means you “focus on the impractical and unethical dimensions of Christianity,” and so forth. Bring it, I say!

Anyway, part of me is really proud of McLaren stepping up and vocalizing his views, despite the piously-righteous backlash he’s receiving from his fellow believers. Who knows, he may even have an atheist pick up his book and give it a read — heck, if more Christians were willing to challenge dogmas like this, I wouldn’t have nearly so much to rail against.

p.s. I’m now a member of the Facebook group “Going to Hell with Brian McLaren.” Come join us!