Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, Question 2

How should the Bible be understood?

Martin Luther warned us not to destroy something good simply because it is abused.  He said that some people worship the sun and moon, but we don’t “pull the sun and stars from the skies;” some people visit prostitutes, but we don’t “kill all the women;” and some people get drunk, but we don’t “pour out all the wine” (actually some of us Baptists do that one, but you get the point).

Destroying the good thing that is abused is precisely the mistake Brian makes on question two.  He recklessly alleges that this list of atrocities—“slavery, anti-Semitism, colonialism, genocide, chauvinism, homophobia, environmental plunder, the Inquisition, witch burning, apartheid” was committed because Christians thought their authoritative Bible was telling them to do so.  To the extent that this is true (e.g., slavery in America), the obvious solution is a more careful reading of Scripture.  But Brian doesn’t consider this option.  Instead, he asserts that the only way to stop such crimes against humanity is to stop reading the Bible as our constitution.

Brian smuggles two disparate terms into his definition of constitution, effectively confusing the issue for many readers.

1. He says that we misuse the Bible as a constitution when we read the Bible as a legal document without appropriate attention to genre.  Paying attention to genre is simply good hermeneutics, and no one would disagree with him here.  But that doesn’t prevent Brian from caricaturing the other side, asserting that reading the Bible as a constitution demands that we naively consider the speeches of Job’s misguided friends to be as much the Word of God as what God himself says in the book.  If the Bible is a legal document, then every word in it—even the speeches of Satan—is equally what God wants us to believe.  Brian says that “there isn’t an easy way out of this problem.”  Actually there is.  It’s called hermeneutics, and every seminary teaches it.

2. Perhaps Brian spends so much time on his hermeneutical red herring so his readers will not notice when he smuggles in what he’s really against.  Brian says that we also treat the Bible as our constitution when we stand under it as our authority.  Brian knows that this point will offend many of his readers, but if he can persuade us that reading the Bible as our authority also commits us to naively reading the Bible without attention to genre, then he may be able to convince many that the Bible is not our constitution.

The key to not being swept away by this sleight of hand is to realize that (1) and (2) are mutually exclusive.  It’s easy to stand under the Bible as our authority (2) and still read biblical poetry differently than Paul’s epistles (1).  All of us do it all of the time.  Brian surely knows this, so I can only conclude that either he is being extraordinarily sloppy here or he is trying to trick us into rejecting the Bible as our authority.

After caricaturing the Bible as constitution, Brian goes on to give his solution:  we must treat the Bible as a cultural library for Christians.  Just as a library presents competing perspectives on perennial questions, so the books of the Bible present different answers to the big questions of life.  We should not expect our Bible to be internally consistent, but should take its messy conversation as our cue to join its great debates.  Even God, when he appears in the biblical text, does not give the final answer on anything, for doing so would oppressively “shut down any conversation.”  Instead, the “God character” in the book of Job is “not the real God” but merely “a representation,” an “imagined God, the author’s best sense of God, the fictional character playing God for the sake of this dramatic work of art.”

Brian realizes that his view may open the door to moral relativism.  He reassures us that it doesn’t, but he doesn’t even attempt to explain how.  Indeed, I suspect that Brian’s reading of the Bible opens the door more widely to moral atrocities than the constitution view he blames.  Which person is more likely to abuse the Bible to commit violence on others—someone who believes that the Bible is God’s Word which he must obey or someone who thinks that the Bible is a library where one can pick and choose which answers he likes and which ones he doesn’t?  How exactly would Brian convince Hitler that God says genocide is wrong?  Couldn’t Hitler respond that he was more into another book in the cultural library, thank you very much?  Yes, I just played the Hitler card (this is a blog after all), but note that the card was dealt by Brian when he said that my view led people to commit genocide.

Brian’s naiveté or duplicity (it’s hard to tell which) is on display when he accuses people like me of being the “religious thought police” who defend our views because our jobs and reputations are at stake.  I confess that I am a sinner whose motives are never entirely pure, but does Brian really think that he does not stand in danger of the very same thing?  He has made a very nice living from his “new kind of Christianity,” and he stands to lose much if evangelical Christians conclude that his “third way” forward is actually a fast track back to liberalism.

It would be nice if Brian felt confident enough in his views to discuss their merits without resorting to ad hominem attacks.  Writing that we may “politely notify the thought police that we don’t fear them anymore” may score points with some readers, but its “us vs. them” mentality simply poisons the conversation.  Even his fictional God thinks he can do better.

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35 thoughts on “Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, Question 2

  1. Based on McLaren’s view of Scripture in all its contradictory messiness, how can we even be sure that God wants us to be loving, and what God’s idea of “love” is? I think if we went by sheer number of verses/passages, the Bible speaks more about God’s judgment, jealousy, and impending wrath than anything else. Jesus himself said that he did not come to bring peace but to bring a sword. And, once again, if Jesus is our moral example, then tearing apart families over preaching the Gospel is the loving thing to do.

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  3. It’s interesting that he focuses on the book of Job. Does he indicate or give any examples from any other genres or books? Job does provide an interesting poetic narrative. However, some books are not as ‘ambiguous’ (for lack of a better term).

    It seems as if the psalmists quite clearly invoke God to ‘be on their side.’ Which raises a very interesting issue: God seems to play a very passive role in the texts for Brian…for what control does God have, if any, over his portrayal in these ‘dramatic works of art.’

    It would seem that presentation of God in the texts would be a key indicator for how they are to be read.

  4. So, with the Bible out of our way as our authority, we are free to be our own authority and decide on the Christianity we want. Sounds like relativism to me. I can see how this would appeal to the masses. Unfortunately, it does not provide any real answers to life’s greatest questions.

  5. How is any of this new? Other than perhaps the fact that he still wants to call himself and his views “christian”, which seems to be a tactic that works today.

  6. Is there any place in any of McLaren’s writings where he gives any indication that he has ever seriously studied any of the standard works on hermanutics, (evangelical or otherwise)? If not, then how can what he says about it be considered serious scholorship by any academic standards, evangelical or secular? Where are the footnotes Brian?

    If such is the case, then what he says is not critical rational writing but propoganda. If such is the case, then it is Brian who is not being fair or respectful towards those he takes issue with. “Just the facts ‘mam.”

    Kyrie eleison…

  7. Along with Bill, I am curious as to what McLaren would make of something like Leland Ryken’s “How to Read the Bible as Literature…”

    Thank you for this analysis Dr. Wittmer. I am reading each with great enthusiasm.

  8. “Is there anything of which one can say, ‘Look! This is something new?” It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.” Ecc. 1.10

    This books sounds like something published by N.I.C.E from Lewis’ This Hideous Strength: Nothing put propaganda with a scientific flare written by someone who is demonically motivated.

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  10. This attempt by McLaren reminds me of the early feminist theologians who tried to reconstruct a new scripture that held to their philosophic\ideologic perspective. It failed then, and will fail now. Yet, i think that this is a step that will help others re-kindle a love for the scriptures and read the text more closely.

  11. Hi Mike, I appreciate your taking the time to do an in-depth view of this book. While I disagree with much of your analysis, I like how you’re actually discussing the issues and not engaging in slandering the author.

    For another take, go here.

  12. Brian, as with most people on the left, think they are immune from the problems of the rest of us “thought police” because, of course, their motives are pure. Frankly, I am tired of his attacks on those who disagree with him.

  13. Dr. Wittmer,
    I am hoping in this discussion to learn of points of agreement you have in McLaren’s book. I have read your book “Heaven is a Place on Earth”, as well as Cornelius Plantinga’s and Albert M. Wolters’. While I didn’t agree with all theology contained in them, I found a lot to agree with, especially regarding creation care. Thus far I have not heard any positive comments and am hoping that will change.

    I also would be interested in hearing some insight on how COULD previous generations have read/interpreted the Bible differently and avoided using Bible passages to support “slavery, anti-Semitism, colonialism, genocide, chauvinism, homophobia, environmental plunder, the Inquisition, witch burning, apartheid”? If Brian’s suggested alternative is not the right way, what IS?

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  17. “He recklessly alleges that this list of atrocities—’slavery, anti-Semitism, colonialism, genocide, chauvinism, homophobia, environmental plunder, the Inquisition, witch burning, apartheid’ was committed because Christians thought their authoritative Bible was telling them to do so.”

    There were no cultural, political, and economic factors the influenced these events? Everyone (even the illiterate masses who didn’t know a Bible from a Koran) thought the Bible told them to do this? No social forces beyond the Bible involved in any of this?

    Can someone who makes such statements be considered to have even thought seriously about these issues?

  18. “Can someone who makes such statements be considered to have even thought seriously about these issues?”

    Hey Dennis:
    Hitler quotes from Mein Kampf:
    “Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”

    The German Army belt buckles said GOTT MIT UNS which means GOD WITH US.

    Can someone who makes such statements be considered to have even thought seriously about these issues?

  19. And yet Hitler persecuted the Church. In 1940(ish), there were more Christians in Nazi concentration camps than Jews. Any serious minded person who studies Hitler knows that at heart he hated Christianity, and only used religious language to serve his purposes when it fit him (sound like any politicians today?).

  20. “Can someone who makes such statements be considered to have even thought seriously about these issues?”

    Hey Dennis:
    “[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation…it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts.” Jefferson Davis, President, Confederate States of America

    “The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.” Rev. R. Furman, D.D., a Baptist pastor from South Carolina.

  21. Your point is what, Jeff??? That we can’t find any absolute truth in the Bible because some nitwits abused it for selfish purposes? Talk about not thinking seriously about these issues.

    So let’s dig a little into your worldview, shall we? Apparently, based on your quotes from those slave owners, you think slavery is bad. Why do you think this? Is it because your cultural context tells you it is bad? So what? Jefferson Davis’ culture told him that blacks were a lower life form who needed to be enslaved to be kept in line. What’s funny is that by abandoning the Bible, your argument against slavery is much weaker than those of us who let the Bible define our worldview.

  22. NO WHERE does it say in McLaren’s book does it say there is not truth in the Bible, and NO WHERE does he say to abandon it – only the way we read it! Davis was reading it as a constitution (or a book of laws) to uphold and authorize his (and the Confederacy’s) stance. THAT is the whole freaking point!

  23. Kind hard to justify “slavery, anti-Semitism, colonialism, genocide, chauvinism, homophobia, environmental plunder, the Inquisition, witch burning, apartheid” if you were taking Jesus’ New Torah seriously…if you saw the movement away from the Old Laws of Moses towards the Life of Jesus.

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  25. Obviously, Jeff is a True Believer in the Gospel of McLaren, but I would wonder this: In speaking to Moses on Mt. Sinai, God gives Moses instructions regarding slaves. God does not tell Moses to abolish slavery, but rather lays out aspects of how the Israelites are to deal with slaves.

    It seems that we have a problem, as God here is not matching the moral standards that McLaren and Jeff have established. Yes, they stand above God in morality, or at least that is what they have to claim, given their own statements.

    One remembers, however, in his debates with the Pharisees that Jesus tells them that God granted the Israelites the decree of divorce because of “the hardness of their hearts.” Likewise, in that day and time, slaves tended either to be captives from war (in which the choice was slavery or outright genocide), or they were people who went into slavery because they could not pay back debts.

    The slavery practiced in the USA was an especially pernicious kind of slavery and could not be supported morally, despite what its supporters might have pulled from the Bible. Furthermore, Paul’s letter to Philemon lays out how Christians were to regard other Christians, whether slave or free.

    Contra Jeff and McLaren, people do not commit atrocities because of their own interpretations of the Scriptures. Rather, they commit them because they are sinful creatures. (As an aside note, McLaren’s friend Jim Wallis never once condemned the genocide practiced by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in part, I believe, because Wallis truly believed that communism was the creation of Heaven on Earth. Look at back issues of Sojourners and you will see what I mean.)

    I would agree with the commentators that McLaren seems to have left the Faith. One cannot condemn God and dismiss Him as something not worthy of worship, and then claim to be a Christian. By the way, if the narrative about sin and the Fall are wrong, then why condemn genocide, slavery, or a host of other “wrongs”? Who is to say what is wrong or right? That is the heart of the relativism that McLaren wants us to accept, and like it or not, that is where he and his followers are headed.

  26. McLaren contends that his way of reading the Bible is more Jewish, but in this, I think he is departing for that.

    For example, in contending that Bible shouldn’t be read as a constitution (I suppose in any sense), he is departing from how the Jews in the times of both Testaments saw the Old Testament Scriptures as “The Law”, or I think it is sometimes called “The Law and the Prophets”. The Law God gave Moses, then, functioned in much the same way as the Constitution does for the US, as the law of the land and the way their society was to be ordered and maintained, and how the people were to act.

    I suppose it was a departure from how other nations may have done it, being rules through the fiat of a king. Even in Israel, the king was subject to the laws, just as the US President is subject to the Constitution.

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