Summary of the Book:
When four religious leaders walk across the road, it's not the beginning of a joke. It's the start of one of the most important conversations in today's world.
Can you be a committed Christian without having to condemn or convert people of other faiths? Is it possible to affirm other religious traditions without watering down your own?
In his most important book yet, widely acclaimed author and speaker Brian McLaren proposes a new faith alternative, one built on "benevolence and solidarity rather than rivalry and hostility." This way of being Christian is strong but doesn't strong-arm anyone, going beyond mere tolerance to vigorous hospitality toward, interest in, and collaboration with the other.
Blending history, narrative, and brilliant insight, McLaren shows readers step-by-step how to reclaim this strong-benvolent faith, challenging us to stop creating barriers in the name of God and learn how affirming other religions can strengthen our commitment to our own. And in doing so, he invites Christians to become more Christ-like than ever before.
My Thoughts on the Book:
Brian McLaren is at it again. This new book is likely to stir up controversy from Christians on the conservative end of the spectrum and may even step on the toes of a few liberals. The Gospel Coalition will post negative reviews and Christianity Today will do a cover story on it. Brian confronts the issue of Christian identity in a multi faith world head-on in this book. Even though I predict a lot of not-nice things to be said about this, I think this is by far one of Brians most palatable books, at least from an Evangelical perspective. Unlike what most conservatives may think about this book (before reading it) Brian does not suggest that we accept all religions as true and get rid of our exclusive (and radically inclusive) Gospel. To the contrary, Brian argues against that thinking. Brian calls for Christians to seek a fourth way- not condemning those who are different, not accepting everything and loosing our identity, and not even some mix between the two. He calls for us to have a strong Christian identity and to be benevolent towards other faith groups. And he lays out a moderate plan to do just that. The whole first section of the book is a lesson in Church/Religious history that includes a number of riveting stories about Brians personal interfaith dialouges. It's a good primer to begin to study the topic of Christian identity in a multifaith world.
Now, there are parts of the book that I as an evangelical have to disagree with Brian. For instance, in the 18th Chapter, entitled "How Faithful Doctrinal Reformulation Can Make Orthodoxy More Generous", he calls for a "reformulation" of the creedal doctrines of the historic Christian faith- the trinity, the deity of Christ, and the atonement. I am all for asking questions. I am all for rethinking and reforming. But I am also all for renewing our historic Christian creedal convictions. Now, to be clear, Brian doesn't make any radical departure from orthodoxy in this chapter. In fact, his conclusions about each of those listed doctrines are inspiring and orthodox. But what bothers me is the fact Brian seems to have made his conclusions about what he wants these doctrines to say before he even began reformulating. Basically, he is eisegeteing these doctrines- reading in his intended outcome. Now, once again, let me say, the conclusions Brian actually comes to are beautiful and orthodox. But the means of getting their are sloppy. Brian also quickly defends against those who are ready to cry out heretic! He says "Must we not, in all humility, acknowledge that all orthodoxy is semi-orthodoxy- meaning that none of us can claim to have captured the infinite and inexpressible in our feeble human definitions and expressions? And would that not also mean that all orthodoxy is also semi-unorthodoxy, and that every claim to absolute orthodoxy is the least orthodox claim anyone could ever make?" (Chapter 18, Page 160) All I can say is- good point Brian!
Brian continues to unravel a beautiful path to this fourth option of Christian identity by exploring how our liturgical Christian practices can become, in his opinion, more Christian. He speaks of Baptism as the loss of oppositional identity and the taking on of a super identity, drawing heavily from Peter Rollins philosophy of Insurrection. The identity we take on at Baptism is Christ, and Christ is the image of the Kind, peaceful, benevolent God. Therefore at Baptism, we loose our desire to be divided from the human family and put on the identity of Christ which causes us to seek profound solidarity with the human race. Brian continues on with the idea of reformulation and takes it to our hymns, prayers, and Sunday school classes. In this chapter, I found myself saying "Amen!" out loud. Brian points out how so many of our old Christian hymns are antithetical to the Gospel and Jesus. He quotes from the hymn, "All things Bright and Beautiful" which says:
The Rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.
What? Did that hymn really just say that? That God made the poor beggar poor and entitled the rich to their wealth? But strangely enough, while Brian does suggest we not sing that verse and replace it was something better, he calls for us to preserve our ugly past as a reminder and a spur to make us cling to our identities in Christ.
Now the section that is sure to get us Evangelicals up in knots is Chapter 22, "How Reading the Bible Responsibly Can Look Irresponsible (and Vice Versa)". Simply put- Brian suggests that we should simply disregard some of the Biblical texts that reveal a God who seemingly contradicts the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Now as blatantly irresponsible as that sounds, Brian makes a strong case for this, quoting Paul editing violent parts of scripture out. What does he mean? One example he uses is Pauls edited Old Testament quotation of Psalm 18:41-49 in Romans 15:8-10:
For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God's truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs so that the gentiles may glotify God for his mercy, as it is written:
1 They cried for help, but there was no one to save them —
to the Lord, but he did not answer.
42 I beat them as fine as windblown dust;
I trampled them like mud in the streets...
49 Therefore I will praise you, Lord, among the nations;
I will sing the praises of your name.
Brian points out that Paul conveniently skips over the violent parts to get to the divine mercy. Now, I am just a third year Bible College student. I am not an expert by any means. But in the defense of my Evangelical position, this "omission" seems more to me like Paul was just quoting one prophetic verse that made sense to him in the context to which he was writing. There are dozens of other Pauline passages that talk about the wrath of God. I sat down with Brian and we talked about this. His point sounds nice, but I simply don't think it has historic Christian integrity. As much as I want to believe that these violent passages could simply be omitted- I can't with Biblical integrity. Brian says that "The more I read the New Testament, the more I realize that...the gospel calls us to repent of [using verses that support oppositional identity]...The old era of ...opisitional identity is coming to an end, the gospel declares." (Chapter 22, Page 203) While I certainly agree with the premise that the Gospel calls us to live as agents of grace, light, peace, love, and truth in the world, I find it absurd to say that the Gospel calls us to pick and choose which part of certain verses we think fits with our image of God. It's funny to me that both Brian and I embrace postmodernism and the necessity of Paradox in the Christian faith- except on this issue, Brian reverts to a black/white, in/out mindset. God is either loving and benevolent or wrathful and bloodthirsty. Why can't their be a paradox? Can't God be loving and peaceful, but also exhibit wrath and judgement? I believe he can. But Brian doesn't. Admittedly, when I was talking to Brian he said that in this book he takes a leap down the path to liberalism that is the farthest he has ever gone. While I don't see that fleshing itself out through most of the book, in this chapter Brian reverts to old liberal methods of reading the Bible that aren't historically Christian or faithful to the text.
The final section of the book is devoted to addressing the missional challenge. I loved this entire section. Brian calls us to be a people who are not afraid to learn about, experience, and dialogue with those of different faiths. Once again, he calls us as Christians to embrace our identities firmly, but also to be willing to learn and benefit from other faiths traditions, doctrines, and practices and be willing to lovingly, not forcefully, share our faiths traditions, doctrines, and practices with others. This is likely to make some very conservative Christians wary and some liberals upset that he hasn't gone far enough. But I think Brian hits the balance of living on mission, sharing our faith, and learning from others. This chapter addresses how Christian identity demands that we are to be about building the Commonwealth of God and working against the injustices in our world.
Brian also points out how relationally inclusive Christianity is and how the truths we believe and affirm often compliment truths in other faiths too. By focusing on these, we can build loving relationships and work together with other faith communities for the common good of humanity and the kingdom of God- as well as form relationships in which we can invite them into relationship with God through Jesus! Now, though I am comfortable with the level of interfaith work Brian calls for, I know from experience that most Evangelicals are not. Brian calls for a radical unity of religions and religious leaders to work for the Kingdom of God. This scares a lot of Evangelicals because they wonder if someone who is not part of God's Kingdom could actually work for God's Kingdom. I believe they can. So does Brian. Now the reasons we believe they can differ greatly- Brian would revert to the Universalist route, whereas I would choose to side with the idea that God can and does use anything and everything to carry out his will and build his kingdom.
The final chapter of the book begins with the words, "My friend Rob Bell stirred things up a while back with a book called Love Wins." There is no better way to glue Evangelical readers to a page than to begin with Rob Bell or Love Wins. Now Brian asserts quickly in this chapter that if love wins, hell can't. Why would that appear here? I am not sure. That's not the theme of the chapter. Nor does that conclusion play into anything other than a sneaking suspicion the McLaren is a universalist and that he believes Gandhi isn't in hell. (for more on McLarens view on hell, check out the new documentary "Hellbound?" produced by my new friend Kevin Miller) Brian goes on to talk about a conversation Gandhi had with Christian Missionary E. Stanley Jones. When asked "What could be done to make Christianity naturalized in India?" Gandhi replied with four suggestions:
- Live more like Jesus.
- Practice Christianity without adulterating or toning it down.
- Put your emphasis on love.
- Study non-Christian religions and culture more sympathetically to find the good in them.
McLaren concludes that these are the four cornerstones of Christian identity in a multi faith world. This summarizes his message in this book. This is what the church needs to embrace. His overarching theme is one that I think all Christians must embrace in order to live well in our world: embrace, love, work with, and live our faith out to the others. To that, I can say Amen!
Brian McLarens new book is riveting, beautiful, and thought provoking. While I disagree with a good number of his points and I believe many Christians will as well, I believe it will be hard for anyone to disagree with the overarching conclusions that Brian comes to. He has nailed embracing Christian identity in a multifaith world. No, I do not think Brian is a heretic. He is however, without a doubt, liberal. (Big surprise there!) And this book reflects that. But I think Evangelicals can learn a lot from reading this book and I highly recommend to any and all Christians who are serious about living missionally in our post-secular, post-modern, post-Christian world. Why do I think this book is important? Because it makes us think about our faith. And that's the most important thing any book could do.
"Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?" by Brian McLaren will be released by Jericho Books on September 11th, 2012.
Check out my exlusive interview with Brian McLaren at The (Re)vangelical Podcast in August!
Brian McLaren Responds to My Review!
Check out Brian McLarens responce to my review on his blog at: http://brianmclaren.net/archives/blog/first-review-of-why-did-jesus-mo.html