Here’s my latest review for the Oooze. You can find this review and others here.
The critiques I’ve read of Brian McLaren’s new book A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith condemn it as heretical. Key to this judgment is that they all evaluate the book based on a canon of orthodoxy that I would characterizes as a loosely post-Reformation Protestant-Evangelical-Fundamentalist theological standard. The irony of these critiques is that it is just this standard of orthodoxy that McLaren is rejecting. Flipping it around, though he doesn’t use the word, McLaren is calling his post-Reformation Protestant-Evangelical-Fundamentalist critics heretics and presenting himself (explicitly) as a new Martin Luther, a as man called by God to reform the Reformation and the daughters of that tradition.
Viewed in this light, the debate about McLaren, the emergent church movement and a “new kind of Christianity” is the theological equivalent of intramural flag football. You got a lot of guys on the field but none of them are particularly fit or skilled. And certainly none of them play at a professional level.
To push the analogy just one more step, the professional level that McLaren and his critics merely imitate, is the catholic tradition of theological orthodoxy of the Church Fathers and the sacramental, liturgical and ascetical practice of the historic Christian Church. Whatever our differences, this tradition is to be found in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
Unfortunately McLaren and his critics are estranged from these Churches and this matters because the further one travels from the canon of faith and practice embodied in these two Churches, the further one travels as well from the Gospel.
For all their theological differences, qwhat McLaren and his critics do share is the lived conviction that the catholic tradition of theological orthodoxy is not incarnated in any single Church. They do not so much read the Fathers as skim them and so protect themselves from the ecclesiological conclusions that would, necessarily, undermine the notion their faith in the Church as an invisible collect of all believers everywhere rather than an historical, visible society, with shared faith, lead by a common episcopate and which meets together in the one celebration of the Eucharist.
Whatever else McLaren and his critics may disagree about, they agree in rejecting the understanding of the Church that informed the faith and practice not only of the patristic era but the contemporary Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
The judgment is not mine to make, but they are, I hope, men who love Christ and are sincere in their desire to live the Gospel. But in the end in having separated themselves from the Church (and for the context of this argument, we can put on hold an adjudication of the truth claims of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches relative to each other), they lack the one thing needed to bring their faith to fruition.
When I was ordained to the priesthood, Metropolitan MAXIMOS told me that I must have a special care for those who love Christ and lack the priesthood. His Eminence went on to explain that without the priesthood, there could be no sacrifice of the altar–that is there could be no celebration of the Eucharist. And without the Eucharist, without this rational and unbloody sacrifice, love, while real, would be stillborn.
It is this the cry of this stillborn love that I hear in both McLaren and his critics.
This no doubt sounds harsh. And it sounds so because it is. McLaren and his critics are not arguing over the Catholic and Orthodox faith but market share. They stand within traditions that are built on the more or less intentional rejection of the normative character of the first 1,000 years of Christian Tradition, from Church Tradition. Apart from this Tradition, however, they have no standard to adjudicate their claims relative to each other.
The tragedy of their debate, the reason I find it stillborn, is that to accept this standard, means to undermine the very thing they are debating: the post-Reformation Protestant-Evangelical-Fundamentalist vision of the Christian life.
But this is after all a review of McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity. So let me end with a word about the book.
McLaren is not presenting us with a new kind of Christianity but simply a re-working of Evangelical Christianity. While he claims his work is post-modern, it isn’t. For that we should look to the works of John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock and David Bentley Hart. Read these theologians and the intellectual and spiritual poverty of McLaren’s work and the emegent church movement is clear.
Whatever good points there might be in his re-working, in the end McLaren’s “new kind of Christianity” demonstrates the inherent and internal theological and spiritual weakness of the Reformation in general and of Evangelical Christianity in particular. That weakness is the weakness of a merely partial faith, a faith that is not orthodox (or Orthodox) because it is not catholic (or Catholic) and not catholic (or Catholic) because it is nor orthodox (or Orthodox).