Monday, June 10, 2013

A Sloppy Kind of Christianity, Part 3

Chapter 12: Who Is Jesus and Why Is He Important?

Two ironies abound at the start here. First, McLaren notes that “Jesus can be a victim of identity theft” and he uses the example of one of his alleged “loyal and dedicated critics” (again, unnamed, though I have found some indications that it was Mark Driscoll) who envisioned Jesus as a sort of Rambo character [120]; this of course, as we have noted, as McLaren does little better, remaking Jesus and Christianity into his own image. Second, even as McLaren professes a sort of personal humility, he makes it clear that “those who become more self-aware” and “[t]houghtful readers” [121] will end up thinking more like he does.

But apart from these issues, what of the depiction of Jesus in Rev. 19:11-16, in which, astride a white horse, he is seen indeed as a warrior (and we might well suspect Driscoll was being somewhat tongue in cheek, while McLaren fell for it, hearing what Driscoll said too literally)? McLaren resorts again to the profession that one gets a warrior Jesus out of this passage only by reading the Bible is a “constitutional” fashion; he rightly notes that Revelation is an “apocalyptic” [123] document, and that such documents were intended to speak of the future. This much is true. However, McLaren then steps out of all semblance of genre wisdom by suggesting that this passage means nothing more than, “don’t worry, Jesus will win in the end” as an encouraging message to persecuted Christians.

My own preterist reading of Revelation actually does not read Rev. 19 in either of these terms. Nevertheless, McLaren cannot escape the quite graphic predictions earlier in Revelation – which correspond also with the Olivet Discourse – of God’s judgments, which happen to correspond in some detail to what historically happened during the Jewish War of 67-73 AD. It is therefore quote impossible to read Revelation as McLaren wishes to, as an extension of the “message of forgiveness and reconciliation” in which no one will suffer for disobedience. McLaren is mistaking God’s mercy in being slow to judge for a total refusal to judge.

McLaren rightly supposes that it is necessary to reconcile the picture of God as merciful with that of God as judgmental. But his solution of arbitrarily force-interpreting the texts, and ignoring others completely, will not do the job.

Chapter 13: Jesus Outside the Lines

Here McLaren addresses a critic (unnamed, but I have found that it is John MacArthur) who says that “[t]he only reason Jesus came was to save people from hell” and that he had “no social agenda”. McLaren takes this to somehow mean that Jesus gave no message to eg, aid the poor, though given MacArthur’s emphasis on obedience to Jesus’ commands it is doubtful that this is what he meant. I find it rather suspicious that McLaren “brackets” much of what MacArthur says in his own summary: “[He didn’t come to eliminate poverty or slavery or]”. [128] I would suspect what MacArthur meant (as I would too) is that Jesus was not so much a social activist, as one who served to teach and inspire in a way that would cause others to aid the poor and (outside Judaea, where there was no slavery) abandon slavery. McLaren’s supposition that MacArthur is following the “Greco-Roman narrative” is not only baseless, but likely comes of a patent misunderstanding of what MacArthur is saying.
Beyond this, there is not much to address in the chapter. McLaren is addressing a vision of Jesus that his opponents do not hold: A Jesus with no care whatsoever for social matters.

Chapter 14: What is the Gospel?

McLaren’s key argument here is that the words of Jesus, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” should define the Gospel. I know of no one who argues otherwise, but McLaren seems to have the impression that we do a disservice by (say) quoting some part of Romans to define the Gospel. I don’t think so, although it would be fair to say that Romans is more specific in saying what we should do as a result of the kingdom of heaven coming to bear: Jesus’ words are thematic, while Paul’s are applicational (as McLaren himself unwittingly recognizes later [144]). McLaren is simply too worried about words here.
However, far more serious is his claim that “Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion to replace first Judaism and then all other religions...” [139] Given that Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple – something which as much as anything could declared an “end” to Judaism as it was then known – that is rather a hard claim to countenance. At the same time, McLaren hoists a caricature when he supposes it is as though Jesus literally announced that he was going to start a new religion named after him. A far more nuanced expression would be that Jesus offered a covenant of exclusive service to YHWH, with him as broker – which directly indicates that all other covenant options to YHWH are off limits.

Following some generally non-disagreeable explanation about what it means to be a member of the Kingdom of God, McLaren supposes that once we recognize the applicational power of Romans, it does not allow “God [to] be shrunken back into the categories of anyone’s exclusive religion.” [144] How this is so is not really explained. It is vaguely noted that Paul does not use Western, linear-type arguments, and to an extent this is true (and it is also true that he uses Greco-Roman rhetorical forms!), but this says nothing pro or con about whether Paul speaks of a message providing exclusive access to God. In the end of the chapter, McLaren provides an incomplete picture of Paul working with his scribe, Tertius, not being able to provide a “premeditated work of scholarly theology” [146] due to the limits of the scribal craft. Of course, this is simply wrong: We know Paul used carefully-crafted rhetorical forms; we also know that it was normal for a scribe’s work to be carefully prepared and later checked by the one who dictated. In any event, that Paul may have followed any “natural flow of his thoughts and feelings” has no bearing on whether Romans offers literal truths about Christian theology. In the end it is hard to see what point McLaren is reaching for with this portrait of Paul.

Chapter 15: Jesus and the Kingdom of God

This inaptly-titled chapter offers an extremely brief exegesis of Romans in which McLaren highlights, mostly unobjectionably, the themes from Romans that he finds most useful for his purposes. We do wonder who it is he supposes is using Romans 1-3 to create what he calls a “blacklisted out- group” created “in contrast to a righteous in-group,” [148] unless this is an oblique reference to those who point to Romans 1 as an argument that e.g., homosexuality is wrong. More on this particular issue is found in one of McLaren’s later chapters.

Chapter 16: What Do We Do About the Church?

Another mostly unobjectionable chapter in which McLaren vaguely lays out a few of the problems with the modern church (ones that pretty much everyone agrees exist) and recommends that diversity and unity be encouraged (which is good, save that he does not bother to say where diversity stops and such things as heresy begin). The problem is not so much that McLaren is wrong in this chapter as that he doesn’t say enough of substance to decide whether he is wrong in the particulars.

Chapter 17: Can We Find a Way to Address Human Sexuality Without Fighting Over it?

This is McLaren’s attempt to argue that homosexuality isn’t a sin after all, and he spends far more time attempting to sound winsome about the issue than he does actually making a case that homosexuality is not a sin. He deftly avoids making any specific case for an extended period, instead arguing for several pages using associative logical fallacies (e.g., the church was once wrong about geocentrism [177], therefore it may be wrong about homosexuality; homosexuality is no different than race [186]); repeatedly offers refrains about a “constitutional reading” of the Bible, and objects that there are other things we should pay more attention to, but in the end, there is not a single actual argument made.

Arguably, it can be said that some spokesmen for the Christian worldview have spent an inordinate amount of time discussing homosexuality, when it is no more or less a sin than (say) gluttony. But gluttons do not have activist groups promoting their agenda and making public protests where they stuff themselves with food to show that gluttony is “normal”. There is no “Glutton’s Day” at Disney. It needs to be fairly asked if what is “inordinate” is merely “proportionate”.

Chapter 18: Can We Find a Better Way of Viewing the Future?

McLaren tackles dispensational eschatology, which, as a preterist, I do not myself defend. This is not to say that any or all of McLaren’s critiques are valid, just that I do not have a recourse to answer them honestly.

Part 4 and last will be in the next issue.

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