Brian McLaren has always assured his evangelical critics that he is one of us. As a sending church trusts its missionary to communicate the gospel in fresh ways to his target culture, so McLaren said that we can trust him when he reframes the gospel for our postmodern generation.
McLaren finally comes clean in his latest book, A New Kind of Christianity. He concedes that he has been harboring nontraditional beliefs for a while, and it’s time to let “the cat . . . out of the bag” (142), to “come out of our closets and admit we have been asking these and other important questions in secret” (257).
Most book reviews attempt to balance the good with the bad, but since there is little redeeming value in this book, I will list the important ways that McLaren differs from Christian orthodoxy.
1. He denies the authority of Scripture. McLaren says that when we stand under the Bible as our authority, we mistakenly treat it as our constitution, which historically has led Christians to own slaves, burn witches, and kill Jews and heretics because they thought their Bible told them to (85). The only solution, according to McLaren, is to use the Bible as a “cultural library.” As a library contains various perspectives on similar topics, so Scripture is a diverse library that gives conflicting answers to life’s big questions (82).
This move frees McLaren to reject the parts of the Biblical library that he finds distasteful. For example, he is offended by the God of the Noah narrative. He complains that “a god who mandates an intentional supernatural disaster leading to unparalleled genocide is hardly worthy of belief, much less worship.” McLaren explains that this is not the true God but merely the undeveloped deity of the immature Israelites (109, 110).
2. He denies the Fall. McLaren gives no argument for this, but merely states that it occurred to him in conversation that the Fall is a Platonic rather than Christian idea (37). He declares that Genesis 3 is not the story of Adam’s sin, but rather is a “coming-of-age story” that describes “the first stage of ascent as human beings progress from the life of hunter-gatherers to the life of agriculturalists and beyond” (49, 50).
3. He marginalizes Jesus. McLaren writes two chapters on “Who is Jesus and why is he important?” and never explicitly declares that Jesus is God. Since this is the first thing that Christians say about Jesus and since McLaren claims that his new Christianity is inspired by those who deny Jesus’ deity (e.g., Marcus Borg and John Crossan), this seems to be a telling omission.
Equally significant is that Jesus isn’t necessary for McLaren’s theology to work. If there hasn’t been a Fall and if everyone will ultimately be saved in the end (McLaren denies the existence of Hell), then why do we even need Jesus? If Jesus is merely our moral teacher and example, then any moral teacher will do. Why not replace Jesus with Gandhi?
This seems acceptable to McLaren, who argues that we should not “insult other religions” by telling them they are wrong but should rather “learn to discover God in the other” and so “discover a bigger ‘us,’ in which people of all faiths can be included” (215).
There are many other problems with this book, such as its implicit panentheism and endorsement of homosexual practice (175), but it should be clear that it is misnamed. Readers who compare it with what J. Gresham Machen wrote in 1923 (Christianity and Liberalism) will discover that A New Kind of Christianity is neither new nor Christian.
Michael Wittmer (PhD, Calvin Theological Seminary) is associate professor of systematic and historical theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and a member of West Cannon Baptist Church, Belmont, Mich. For a systematic review through each chapter of this book, see the author’s blog: mikewittmer.wordpress.com/2010/02/page/2.