A Rather Less Than New Kind of Christianity

Here’s my latest review for the Oooze. You can find this review and others here.

A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith (HarperOne, $24.99)

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).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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.

Comments

  1. McLaren is not presenting us with a new kind of Christianity but simply a re-working of Evangelical Christianity.

    There’s nothing new under the sun.

    Nicely reviewed, Fr. G!

  2. John,

    You are correct–and also most kind!

    +FrG

  3. I don’t know how this ranks as a book review (that’s not a backhanded way of saying “lousy book review” – I really don’t know the canons of book reviewing), but it is so incisive a critique of of Protestant ecclesiology that I linked it on FaceBook to challenge any Protestant friend who might be troubled by the proliferations of denominations and competing versions of the faith.

    • Roger,

      Thanks for the Facebook link. I have on my own blog (palamas.info) I have looked at a similar theme the last several days. If you are interested do take a look–I’ve argued, in effect, that those who see the dangers facing are typically the ones less able to correct the problem.

      Again, thanks for the link and the kind words.

      In Christ,

      +FrG

  4. Michael Bauman :

    Fr. Gregory, do you really think your words harsh? They are quite mild in comparison to historical Orthodox documents. While I think it is vital to separate the actual faith in Jesus Christ that many Protestants have from the detritus of their theology, I don’t believe it serves anyone to avoid telling the truth about the theology. It is deficient at best. I have heard modern-day Calvinists prolaim ‘from the Scripture’ ideas about God that are clearly blashphemous. I am deeply troubled about the state of people’s souls who follow such teaching.

    I feel the need to be politie and unoffensive especially concerning other’s faith often trumps our duty to proclaim the truth revealed in the Church: The Holy Mysteries, the lives of the saints and the patristic understanding of the Scripture. I know it has done a lot of good for me over the years.

    We need folks who really know to step up and start speaking out. Right now it seems to be left to folks like me who know a very little, but perceive the depth even experience the depth but lack the tools to really speak. That is frustrating.

    • Michael,

      Are my words harsh? Yes bu they are also true. While my preference is to be irenic, mild even, there are times when a strong word is needed.

      I read recently in St John Chrysostom, there can be an evil agreement and a virtous discord. The older I get the more I come to see the Reformation as simply a bad idea. O. Clement argues that the Reformation resulted not only in a fracturing of Catholic Church but a hardening of the Great Schism and contributed (in part to be sure) to the creation of the unia.

      McLaren, for all that I sympathize with his concerns about Reformation and Evangelical Christianity, seems to me to be willing to throw out what little of the Chrstian tradition exists within the Protestant communities.

      Forgive me for speaking so plainly.

      In Christ,

      +FrG

  5. George Michalopulos :

    If there was any doubt about the Reformation being a bad idea, one only needs to look at the 23,000 Protestant sects that currently populate the world.

  6. cynthia curran :

    Well, McLaren is basically a liberal protestant not much different from some of the neo-liberal theologicans of protestant thinking in the 1940’s and 1950’s. In fact, Billy Grahram. the fame Protestant preacher became very confuse about his faith after studying these theologicans which shows how bad McLaren thinking is even for protestants. I read a review of the book and a lot of it is nonsense. He complains about modern christianity being form too much by the Greco-Roman world rather than Judisim. Christianity formed in the Roman Empire, so how could it be isolated from some influenece of the outside culture, McLaren is an anabapists and most anabapists blame Constantine for the woes of the church since the 4th century.

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  1. […] said by Fr. Gregory Jenson on the AOI blog.  It’s self-admittedly strongly worded, but I think he’s getting at something. McLaren […]

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