Monday, June 3, 2013

A Sloppy Kind of Christianity, Part 1

From the March 2010 E-Block.
As a preparation to a series on leading emergent spokesmen, we’ve decided to offer a “pre-series” on what would serve well as a manifesto for the emergent movement: Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity (NKC). As I have noted as well in a review for Creation Ministries International, McLaren is a demanding read, though like John Yoder also in this issue, it is not because (as he believes) his ideas are challenging or difficult. Rather, it is because McLaren tends to be so unqualified at such matters as Biblical exegesis and logic that it becomes difficult to read him – especially since he seems indifferent to his lack in these areas. 

I will not repeat criticisms found here, though many apply just as readily to NKC. Instead, we will primarily focus on that which is unique to NKC. In this first part of the series here, we will look at Chapters 1-6. 

Chapter 1: Between Something Real and Something Wrong
  • A thematic fault of the emergent movement could be summed up as follows: “Right problems, wrong solutions.” McLaren rightly identifies a number of serious problems in modern Christianity, such as the inability of many pastors to effectively communicate with their flock [4] and shrinking church/youth attendance [10]. (Perhaps I should not say “identifies” however, as he got this all from other books.) But the “solutions” McLaren offers amount to epistemic distractions: an emphasis on “dialogue,” on “honesty” and “authenticity” (meaning, not where truth is concerned, mind you, but with one’s own reservations!) and “a faith that made sense to me and to others” [6] (with no apparent perception that it could be one’s sense that was lacking in such cases, not the faith). This is not to say that dialogue is not a virtue, for obviously, we are pursuing one such with Jason Berggren even now. However, the ultimate purpose of dialogue is to arrive at solutions -- and McLaren gives no indication that he has such a goal in mind, as he resists offering conclusions once he presents the dialogues.
  • There is rather an irony in McLaren not seeing an open contradiction between his proper lament for poor communication by pastors, noted above, and his own professions regarding clear communication (eg, as he said in the linked article, “clarity is sometimes overrated,” and as he says here in NKC, when told by his parishioners that some of his answers “made no sense to them,” he replied, “Good for you, because some of them don’t really make that much sense to me either.”). [6]
  • McLaren accuses evangelicals of “stridency and selectivity in choosing issues and priorities” [7] but does little or nothing to defend the premise that such choices are in error (eg, he merely assumes that there is nothing sufficiently problematic about issue X, and so evangelicals should spend less time on it). He also seems to be under the impression that evangelicals at large are neglecting such issues as poverty and racism. But in not one case does he demonstrate that time is being poorly spent, or that some issue is being given too much/not enough attention. One example will be sufficient to demonstrate McLaren’s approach: Some leaders, McLaren says, “loved to paint gay people as a threat to marriage, seeming to miss the irony that heterosexual people were damaging marriage at a furious pace without any help from gay couples.”
    McLaren carries with this single statement a host of unanswered questions which are left dangling: Is or is not gay marriage a threat to traditional marriage? What evidence does he have that these leaders have neglected the problems plaguing traditional marriages (such as, say, divorce)? Has he considered that whereas gay marriage advocates are exceptionally active in the political arena (thus requiring more public, more active responses) no one is performing such public advocacy with respect to issues surrounding traditional marriages? Is indeed the problem as serious as McLaren makes out where traditional marriage is concerned (Eg, what about that divorce stats might be padded by “repeat offenders” who marry and divorce multiple times)?
    As we progress further, I will be observing that one of McLaren’s recurring flaws is that he is far too willing to take at face value the accuracy of source material that says what he wants to hear. This is undoubtedly because, in good part, he has decided that criteria like “honesty” and “authenticity” are worthwhile epistemic guidelines, while accuracy is either not at all important or is assumed to go with “honesty” and “authenticity”. I will have more to say of this later, but in order to assure the reader that this is not merely a wayward concern, I will reveal right now one of McLaren’s most glaring offenses in this regard: In a section later in the book on historic crimes of the church, he recommends several sources in a footnote – and one of them is the notoriously unreliable work of Helen Ellerbe. Simply put, this in an unconscionable error, akin to recommending Dan Brown as a source on Christianity or medieval art – only worse. (I should note that Tekton Research Assistant Punkish, who wrote the linked article, queried McLaren about his use of Ellerbe in late February. To date he has received neither acknowledgement nor reply.)
Chapter 2: The Quest and the Questions
  • No one can accuse the emergent movement of having low self-esteem! In this chapter, McLaren compares himself and his compatriots to such revolutionary figures as Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin (!), Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, and Galileo. [14-15] Unfortunately, with McLaren offering a highly inaccurate rendition of the latter’s experiences and of the history of geocentrism (see rebuttals here), the bad news is that the emergent movement's members may indeed succeed as revolutionaries, albeit in an era where Wikipedia is treated as a reliable source. To that extent, the comparison to Paine, et al becomes tragic rather than inspiring.
  • On the bright side, McLaren does well to rebel against any who, as he says, “tell us to be quiet and accept the conventional answers we’ve been given in the past..." [22] The problem, as we will see, is that it is hard to see where McLaren derives the alleged “conventional answers” he claims to be denying. To put it in a nutshell, we will be left with the distinct impression that the “conventional answers” are mere caricatures that McLaren has invented whole cloth.
Chapter 3: A Prayer on the Beach
This chapter is primarily a sort of manifesto of expectations and perceptions, and as such is not subject to criticism with respect to accuracy; it reflects McLaren’s own beliefs. We may note however the emergence (pun intended) of a frequently-repeated dichotomy McLaren creates between what he calls “an ongoing advent, a constant beginning,” etc. and what is “arthritic, hardened, stiff, and crochety.” [28] For someone who frequently admonishes against generalizing thought, McLaren is quite free with generalizing adjectives, particularly those that present a sharp dichotomy. But as in other cases, we are seldom if ever given an example of who is offering “arthritic, hardened,” etc. positions, or what these positions are, much less are we offered an informed critique of those positions.

Chapter 4: What Is the Overarching Story Line of the Bible?
Here McLaren begins the meat of his blueprint for change, and it starts with a presentation of the old blueprint. We should begin with a general description before engaging specifics.

Essentially, McLaren avers – in tones hauntingly like those of a Mormon of Jehovah’s Witness – that the pure message of Christianity has been corrupted by “Greco-Roman” thought, and that modern Christianity has continued in this vain.

There are two immediate problems with this thesis. The first is that it is far from clear that McLaren has any idea what he is talking about when he speaks of “Greco-Roman” thought. Though he bandies about the names of Plato and Aristotle, it appears he has very little understanding of what they actually said or mean.

I am not an expert on Greco-Roman thought myself, so I have asked one of my guest writers who is to evaluate McLaren more deeply on this at a future date. For the present, I would note that another person better versed in the subject has heavily criticized McLaren on these points, and McLaren’s reply from his blog is quite instructive:

I didn't include a detailed bibliography of the sources that formed my understanding (or misunderstanding) of Greek thought. I won't try to do that here, but will mention a few resources that come to mind. Of course, I read the basics of Plato and Aristotle that were required in my undergraduate and graduate liberal arts/literature curriculum, especially as they informed English and American literature - from Plato, the Republic and the Dialogues, and from Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Poetics, and On Rhetoric. I haven't kept up with contemporary scholarship on them, so if what I was taught in the 1970's has been discredited, then I'm correspondingly out of date and would be happy to be re-educated. I also read Boethius (The Consolation of Philosophy) and was repeatedly made aware of the literary influence he and others like him had in embedding what my professors called "Platonism" or "Neoplatonism" in popular spirituality along with more formal theology.
In terms of research, the level of irresponsibility displayed here is appalling. McLaren has admitted that his interpretations and criticisms are based almost entirely on personal readings of the primary sources as a literature student. There is nothing of knowledge in the social, historical, and philosophical aspects of these authors. The further admission that McLaren learned all of this almost 40 years ago makes this all the more appalling and irresponsible.

For the present we refer readers here for a critique from someone more studied. We also note this definition of Platonism for reference, provided by our expert:

Plato believed in a world of perfect forms that the things down here represent. There's a perfect bed, perfect chair, perfect car, perfect man even, and such ideas as "larger than" "redder than"...Of course, this included realities like goodness, truth, beauty, etc. He had a lot right, but I would say the forms are nothing external to God but in the case of goodness and beauty and such, God is that based on his simplicity. 

But we can say more about the second problem, which is well within our expertise: McLaren’s critique of modern Christianity.

According to McLaren, modern Christianity teaches a certain “story line” [33] that is claimed to be found in the Bible, but is not. McLaren notes six elements of this story line in particular: Eden, Fall, Condemnation, Salvation, Heaven, Hell.

Now of course, we have said much on Tekton with respect to fine-tuning five of these six concepts, but McLaren rejects any such efforts; he believes that this “story line” is way off base, or as he puts it, “How in the world, how in God’s name, could anyone ever think this is the narrative of the Bible?” [35]
The problem is much bigger, however, than McLaren not seeing the storyline in the Bible: The problem is that he pretty much has the wrong story each and every time – even without the tweaks we have offered. To put it bluntly, McLaren’s assessment and description of modern Christianity and what it teaches resembles overall nothing I have heard or read taught anywhere – not in the Popular Pastors, not in the commentaries, not in the church services. Some elements of what McLaren thinks are taught best resemble what might come from, say, Westboro Baptist church – but even that doesn’t match enough for an identification.

So the question that needs an answer is, just whose position is McLaren describing and denying? He names no names and quotes no sources, so it is impossible to tell.

It should be noted as well that in the same blog entry quoted above, McLaren, despite all this work and effort on the alleged “Greco-Roman” problem, ends up saying that it does not matter if he is wrong about all this anyway; his key point is the sense of “superiority or supremacy” that he sees in modern Christianity along with an “us vs. them” mentality. [39] That much we may agree is or can be a problem, but we don’t think McLaren is out of it himself, and if anything, is one example of it, if not also the most unaware that he is such an example. If he is free of such issues, then what do we make of dichotomies like “arthritic, hardened” vs. “ongoing advent”?

The simple truth is that truth creates dichotomies – there is always an “us vs. them” when some truth claim is at stake and is disputed.

At the same time, even a surface reading of the Bible shows a heavy “us vs. them” mentality, and when that reading is deepened by social-science and other contexts, the dichotomy becomes even more pronounced. So how does McLaren evade this problem?

First, in this chapter, McLaren must admit that yes, the Jews did have a “binary social outlook” in which the world was divided between Jews and non-Jews. So doesn’t this defeat his point? It does, but he says, “their outlook was rarely imperial...they seldom if ever aspired to rule all nations in a Roman way.” [40]
One must wonder exactly what the point is supposed to be here. McLaren has distracted from the issue of whether “us vs. them” is found in the Bible – rather than whether it is an infection of the Greco-Roman mind – to a matter of to what purposes the mentality was applied. And not even this is done quite right, as McLaren says that the Jews “acknowledged the right of other nations to have their own languages and customs and even religions.” [40-41] Again, what is the point here, exactly? “Languages” are neither “right” nor “wrong”; to refer to them in this context is a category fallacy. “Customs” may be based on some right or wrong claim of fact, but they are also, beyond that, in another category.
That leaves “religions,” and I suppose McLaren could be right that the Jews ”acknowledged” the rights of other nations to have their own gods, if we qualify that to say that they did so in the same sense that a farmer “acknowledges” the right of a pig to wallow in his own mud hole. The OT is replete with hearty condemnations of pagan deities and those that worship them; it clearly regards beliefs in them as false and dangerous, and as a matter of course, when the Jews were victorious in a foreign land on those rare occasions they went to war on the offense, they did not hesitate to smash the idols and destroy the temples of the pagans. We can only wonder what McLaren makes of, for example, the story of Dagon being dumped over in his temple when the Ark was present (1 Samuel 5). Dagon here is portrayed as thoroughly humiliated and shamed by God’s power – or perhaps McLaren would say that this was a new and revolutionary way of acknowledging the rights of the Philistines to worship him.

But let us now turn as McLaren does to the first two of his six points, “Eden” and “Fall”. I have not written on Eden before, but we can deal with this one simply: McLaren has somehow gotten the idea that the authorized teaching about Eden is that it was a “perfect Platonic garden” in which “nothing ever changes” [41]. There’s not much need to say more, because no one I have ever read or heard teaches such a thing about Eden. Eden is regarded as “perfect” only in the sense that there is no sin and no lack of God’s presence – there’s no lack of change, and no stasis, in this view; though what McLaren might mean by this in the first place is not well specified. Does he believe that in the “Greco-Romanized” Eden, the bugs only walk in straight lines? That Adam never needed a haircut or could not have one, because his hair would break the scissors? That the birds do not defecate freely, and dig little holes for their excrement – or maybe don’t produce excrement?

I have associated with members of the creationist/young earth community for a while now, and they would consider such ideas outlandish. Whether McLaren’s own ideas about this version of Eden are the same I cannot say, since he does not explain beyond vague generalities. The closest I find to a specific is where he says that the Greco-Roman version of God, “Theos”, “hates matter, story and becoming” because they involve change, and once you are perfect, change can only mean decay. The only thing that comes to mind here in terms of who might teach something similar involve Mormons who argue much like McLaren does in order to suggest that the Fall was a good thing, not a bad one. It resembles no teaching on Eden that I have ever seen from any commentary, or heard from any pulpit.

So again, we have no idea where or how McLaren arrives at this teaching of Eden as a “perfect garden” or even in what sense he is defining “perfect”. His notes do not say who teaches such a thing, either. The storyline which McLaren calls “barbarous and hideous” seems to exist mainly in his imagination.

Chapter 5: Setting the Stage for the Biblical Narrative
McLaren begins by offering further commentary and critique of the “perfect Eden” view [47] which we have yet to see specifically defined or explained, or attributed to any person or teacher; later [65] we are told that we might hear it from “many a well-meaning but misguided scholar and fire-breathing preacher,” but who these people are we cannot say and are not told.

We do finally get a sample of a specific: “A perfect world would have come into being complete with names, but each creature remains nameless until Adam names it.” [47]

Really? That’s what a “perfect” world would be like? How so? This is a clear fallacy of category; neither namelessness nor being named is “perfect” or “imperfect”; McLaren is apparently confusing “perfection” with “completeness” – and also assuming, again, that someone is actually teaching that Eden was perfect in the Platonic sense. This is all the more peculiar since McLaren is insistent that we have all been “thoroughly trained” or even “brainwashed” into accepting such a view. [48] (I asked an expert consult about whether this is even in Plato or anywhere he knew, and his reply was, “Plato has a whole dialogue on names called Cratylus but it's not about why things have names but rather if things are named rightly.”)

But of more intrigue is how McLaren himself reads the story of the Fall. He poses it as a “compassionate coming-of-age story” which he likens to a daughter crashing her sports car, and her father, after giving her a “stern lecture” a few months later buys her a “modest economy car.” [49] McLaren accomplishes this reading in part via lack of knowledge of the governing honor-shame dialectic needed to interpret the text; there is no “coming of age” here, but a very humiliating demotion in status and privilege; if any analogy could be drawn it would be like the daughter being compelled to get about on roller skates after wrecking a Lamborghini Reventon (worth 1.6 million dollars). Second, McLaren misreads the promise of “death” as punishment the same way I have seen Skeptics do, as I have reported:

So, we often hear the standard objection from Genesis: Adam and Eve did not physically die from eating of the tree, as God's comment, taken with wooden literalism, would indicate ---

Gen. 2:16-17 And the LORD God commanded the man, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die."

Commentators as far back as pre-Christian Judaism have read this as indicating spiritual, not physical, death. But a literalist critic will say: "That's not what the book says. It says they will die. Nothing is said about a spiritual death."
It has been noted that the literal Hebrew says, "Dying you shall die," which does indicate a "progressive" death. However, even if it did not -- as is the case with many cites where "death" and "die" is used in isolation -- nothing needs to be said because the context says all that is needed. Critics would have us believe that the writer of this story, which forms a literary unity, wrote something so blatantly contradictory in such a short space. Common sense alone therefore supports the "spiritual death" interpretation, but there is more, and this is where we come back to the overall pervasiveness of figurative language in Hebrew, combined with an understanding of the Semitic theological mindset.
The account in Genesis goes on to depict Adam and Eve as losing fellowship with God. To the Hebrew mind, loss of fellowship with God is a fate worse than death, for it was the loss of fellowship with the prime source of peace. Thus the word "death" --- representing the most fearsome and irreversible fate in this life --- was chosen to figuratively describe this loss of fellowship with God.

Like Skeptics, McLaren reads Gen. 2:16 as promising literal and immediate capital punishment – and then proceeds to make “capital” out of that not happening, supposing that this means that God settled for a more lenient punishment. But this reading is in error, and so likewise are all of McLaren’s conclusions that follow from it. Rather disturbingly, this leads McLaren to describe the Fall in what amounts to Mormon terms: It is a “developmental threshold” in which leaving the Garden is something “truly ambivalent,” and there is “a childhood lost, an adulthood gained.”

Thankfully, McLaren at least calls this a “downside” aspect of “progress” and does acknowledge that the act involved “rebellion”. But his exegesis is thoroughly erroneous and devoid of defining contexts.

Chapter 6: The Biblical Narrative in Three Dimensions
The depth of McLaren’s misplaced self-confidence highlights the start of this chapter, as he notes that he “wasn’t formally trained in theology” but he considers this an “accidental advantage”. Sadly the only people I have ever heard speak similarly have been “fundamentalist atheists.” As we have said here repeatedly, there is a certain basic understanding that can be easily achieved from the Bible, but for the sort of depth claims McLaren is making, far more is required than that. We can see why at once.
  • McLaren continues with an inventive and highly imaginative interpretation of events in Exodus. He first tells us that “God gets involved, siding with the oppressed, the vulnerable, the downtrodden, working as their ally for their liberation.” [57] This evident attempt to convert Yahweh into an emergent hero seems to miss the point that Yahweh “sided” with Israel because of the covenant with Abraham – someone who was none of the above things, and was in fact very wealthy by the standards of his time. That Israel was “oppressed” and so on was true, and was a reason why God acted, but it did not serve the base purpose of God getting involved in the way McLaren wishes to assume.
  • In what can only be said to sanitization, McLaren describes the plague of blood on the Nile as a “firm but gentle consequence” [57] of Pharaoh’s disobedience. Apparently McLaren, though he knows that the Nile was the “lifeblood” of Egyptian civilization, fails to appreciate what this means. The metamorphosis of the Nile into blood put a stop to nearly all trade (it would be like wrecking our interstate highway system and railroads, all at once), which would have resulted in dire consequences like starvation for many in the population. The water itself would have become a breeding ground for parasites and disease which would also affect the human population, and the loss of a major water source would lead to suffering and perhaps even death among the population because of thirst. I could go on, but it is enough to say that McLaren is far off base describing the plagues as “unpleasantries”. [57] He is imagining things like frogs and gnats to be mere inconveniences, which they would be in our modern world – not in 1440 BC.
  • The sanitization continues as McLaren highlights OT passages that speak of peace, liberation of the oppressed, and so on. [59f] All of this is fine, but incomplete without the harshness of passages of judgment. In this, McLaren does more harm by far than good: As we know well, atheists make much of “dirty” and violent passages in the Bible, and McLaren’s efforts to hide these will be rightly perceived as a type of spin-doctoring. (We will see in the next series article how McLaren copes with passages in the OT where God is violent and judgmental.) That said, McLaren is certainly on target to suggest that the positive passages can serve as a vision for the kind of future God wants us to strive for. [62-3] His specific applications, however, deserve serious questioning (eg, “Christians and Jews and Muslims throwing a picnic together”).
  • It is uncertain where McLaren stands in terms of doctrines like God’s omniscience. He says that history is “unscripted, unrehearsed” and not “fatalistically predetermined.” [62-3] By now we might suggest that he probably has not thought the matter through at all.

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