Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Sloppy Kind of Christianity, Part 4

This will be our final installment on A New Kind of Christianity

Chapter 19: How Should Followers of Jesus Relate to People of Other Religions?
The issue for which McLaren inspires the most irritation among critics is his refusal to speak plainly when it comes to the truth or falsity of religions other than Christianity. In this chapter, McLaren is no more forthcoming on the subject. While in an endnotes for the chapter [292] he denies that he is advocating an “anything goes” view in which sincerity of belief is all that matters, he still refuses to say outright that any given belief is true or false, and instead diverts to emphasis on charity and good deeds commanded by Jesus.
To be sure, the commands of Jesus are important, but they are not meant to be abused by being used as something to hide behind. As it is, McLaren dodges the question seemingly as many ways as he can, preferring instead to lay some sort of guilt trip on Christians by pointing to misdeed of the past: “Take inquisitions and witch burnings and Crusades.” [209] McLaren is evidently unaware of how badly those sorts of charges are overplayed, which is no surprise since he uses disreputable sources like James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword [287] (see review here -- rather ironic, given that he regards it as a sign of “cluelessness and denial. Not honesty and repentance” to speak of such things as isolated incidents done by a handful of evil persons.

As the chapter continues, McLaren continues to paint any and all opposition to other faiths as though it were a matter of wanting to subject such persons to more inquisitions and crusades. The idea that there might be, eg, informed, intelligent arguments showing that eg, Islam or Buddhism is false, is not once considered. McLaren also confuses categories as he points out that Jesus ministered to all sorts of people: Romans, Syrophoenicians, and Greeks. [211] But McLaren is trying to confuse the category of ethnicity with that of religious allegiance.

A good chunk of the chapter is devoted to trying to defuse John 14:6. Here again, McLaren overstates the point, caricaturing opponents as using it to say we “cannot show Christlike love and respect to our neighbors of other traditions.” [212] No one argues any such thing; rather, it is argued that John 14:6 shows that the covenant offered by Christ grants exclusive access to God. McLaren never honestly presents this view.

Some years ago I had addressed an article by McLaren in which he tried to analyze John 14:6, and naturally I made comparisons between what McLaren said then and what he says now. The difference is at first fairly significant. Here, unlike before, McLaren spends a great deal of time going on about how the “Greco-Roman imperial mind” creates anxiety which in turn causes people to defend their point of view. Aside from that his “Greco-Roman imperial mind” is a mere contrivance, this is a mere distraction which has absolutely no bearing on whether or not an argument is true.

McLaren continues on in this vein for several pages, making much over “us/them” and “insider/outsider” mentalities while judiciously avoiding the “true/false” dichotomy. He says he looks forward to a time when “members of all religions, including our own, learned to be reconciled with God” but conspicuously avoids saying what it is that any particular person, particularly a person in another religion, will need to do to achieve that reconciliation. The closest McLaren comes to any such statement is when he suggests that part of our duty is “recruiting people to defect from destructive ways” [216]. But even that is far too vague to be sure McLaren is saying that other religions are not true.

Then, as before, McLaren maintains that John 14:6 “has nothing—absolutely nothing” to do with the question of Christian exclusivity, and after this, his arguments are exactly the same as before, even of the verbiage is at times tweaked. I will therefore repeat my response to this made in an earlier article, with a few tweaks of my own:

The "original literary and social context" supports fully the use of this verse to indicate that Jesus is the "only way to heaven." In that context, Jesus' role is that of the broker of God's grace and largesse. John 14:6 contextually means that Jesus is the Father's SOLE broker. No one else can broker the client-patron relationship we are to establish with God.
With our time-tested propensity to twist Scripture in mind, I have noticed that John 14:6 is often quoted out of context so that it seems to say, "I am in the way of your getting to truth and life. I will keep everyone from getting to the Father unless they get by me first."
The loaded language is little but spin-doctoring, once again. Jesus as broker of the covenant is the only access to truth and life; no one is "kept" from an open doorway -- they refuse to go through it when told it is the right way to go! McLaren further spins with this parochial recasting of the verse:
"Not one person will go to heaven unless they personally understand and believe a clearly-defined message about me and personally and consciously ask me to come into their heart."
There's a great deal of evasion here. The message of Jesus' brokerage is not that hard to define or understand. There's also an entirely separate issue of "those who have never heard." McLaren certainly knows (but wishes to hide) that most of the usage of John 14:6 in favor of Christian exclusivity is made in response to those who know perfectly well what that "message" about Jesus is. Elsewhere I have explained my position on "those who have never heard" and John 14:6 does not exclude it. In such cases, I envision God revealing to people all they need to know to be saved; Jesus still brokers the agreement, even if the person has never heard the name "Jesus". Thus also McLaren's emotional appeal to poor, lost heathen being thrown into a fiery hell is defused.

After this, McLaren finally begins his parodic attempt at exegesis, but he begins all the way back at John 13! This serves no actual purpose, other than that McLaren once again wants to tweak the emotional chords. The washing of the disciples' feet proves, we are told, that for Jesus, "leadership means servanthood, not domination." This has no relevance to John 14:6 at all, but if it did related to this, the point would be that as broker, Jesus does serve -- as a mediator between God and man. The "domination" description is yet more spin-doctoring by McLaren, this time as he caricatures the exclusivist reading of the verse as he did above.

McLaren rambles on through Chapter 13, and none of it is of any relevance to how 14:6 is interpreted, though McLaren almost (not quite) gets it when he says that Jesus is "mirroring Moses in inaugurating a new era as lawgiver with one overarching commandment in place of ten, or hundreds." (That's true, by the way, but that "one overarching commandment" if obeyed would result in us behaving in ways that essentially cause us to follow many of those "hundreds" which are of a moral nature.) McLaren does rightly see (and could hardly miss) that Jesus enters Ch. 14 reassuring his disciples in their troubled state. We finally get to John 14:1-3:
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.
Contextually, this would be an assurance that Jesus will be enacting his role as broker -- preparing a place for us. This affirmation is necessary in light of what would seem to be the very contrary experience of Jesus being crucified which is to come. Any person undergoing the shameful death of crucifixion would never be recognized as God's honored broker.

In that light, McLaren's "exegesis" is irrelevant:
Do you feel the flow of the conversation? It's as if Jesus is saying, "Listen, you can't accompany me down the bitter path to suffering and death I must take alone. One of you has just left me to betray me, and another of you will deny you even know me. But it's OK. Don't be overwhelmed with discouragement. Love one another. Keep faith in God. Keep faith in me. I will go alone into suffering and death. But beyond the suffering and death, I will arrive home – home in my Father's house. And you'll be with me there."
No, sorry. This was not a touchy-feely "conversation" but a firm affirmation of Jesus' role and identity, despite apparently contrary circumstances. But more than this, McLaren jumps off the edge to create an interpretation he is comfortable with:
Now before we assume that "my Father's house" means "heaven" – which it may, but I doubt it – we should at least be open to the possibility that this phrase actually refers to the overall message of Jesus. What Matthew, Mark, and Luke call "the Kingdom of God," John generally translates into the terms "life," "eternal life," or "life to the full." So let's consider the possibility that "kingdom of God" is here rendered in yet another kind of parallel language – "house of God" or perhaps "family of God." (This, by the way, is the line of interpretation followed by Leslie Newbigin in his commentary on John, called The Light Has Come [Eerdman's, 1982]). All of these phrases would suggest the same reality: in God's presence, in God's territory, in a place where God's will is joyfully done.
McLaren is forcing a dichotomy between the present manifestation (kingdom of God) and one of its resultant aspects (eternal destinies of the righteous versus the wicked). But let us note the full absurdity of McLaren's reading. Jesus says he is "going" to this place to prepare it. What did he do after this? He was crucified. He rose again. He ascended to heaven and sat down at the Father's right hand (the position of the honored broker). How can this have been "going to" the "kingdom of God" -- which was an ideological rule? McLaren's idea that "Father's house" is synonymous with "kingdom of God" is simply nonsensical and contrived for his own purposes.

Even so, McLaren cannot help but end up with something that bespeaks fellowship with God, which completely defeats his attempt to "de-heavenify" the "Father's house" phrase! He admits that this is also some place or condition where the disciples will eventually go. So all of that rattle and bang was to no purpose, especially to no purpose with respect to John 14:6. When does McLaren think the disciples will join Jesus, if not upon their deaths? Where does he suppose they will go to be in God's presence at that time? How does he think this relates to those who deny Christianity (since Jesus was speaking to people who had accepted his brokerage of God's covenant)? He does not say, and is wise to avoid saying.

Next, McLaren distracts the reader with this comment on 14:4-5:
Now Jesus returns to his earlier point, preparing them for the shock of his suffering and death: "You know that for me to reach my glory, and for me to go to prepare a new place for you, I have to suffer and die first." But Thomas, like Peter, has a chronically low "get-it factor," and so he asks a question, and it is a thousand miles away from "What about people who never heard about you? Will they go to heaven?"
No, sorry, it isn't "a thousand miles away." It's actually only five feet away. What McLaren wishes to avoid is that the question asked by Thomas -- "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" -- will produce an answer from which can also be derived conclusions about how others can follow the same way. If I ask, "How do I get to the Scripture twisting party at Brian's house?" then the answer will give directions that others will be able to follow. Not only that, if that answer is, "Go by the Emergent Street route -- all the other roads are closed" then it is an absurdity to suggest that no comment is being made about whether someone else can get to Brian's house using Eisegesis Drive instead.

But once again, McLaren dishonestly evades this point, and distracts the reader to a red herring:
What is Thomas asking here? If we don't properly understand his question, it's highly likely that we'll miss the meaning of Jesus' answer. But here's the problem. It's clear he is not asking anything like "Will people who have never heard of you go to heaven?" It's clear he's not thinking about Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Zoroastrians, followers of tribalism in Africa or South America, much less modern secular atheists or skeptics of modern or postmodern bent.
McLaren is dishonestly mixing two separate questions: "What about those who never hear?" and "Is Jesus the only way the heaven?" These are two related, but still entirely separate, issues. Of course, the former question is much easier to use as an emotional prop, which is no doubt why McLaren uses it instead of the correct question.

In typical emergent fashion, McLaren then proceeds to the "what if" game:
[W]hat if we read Jesus' answer, then, not as an explanation or answer – certainly not an answer to a question about the eternal destiny of people who never heard of or believe in Jesus – but as a repetition and reinforcement of what Jesus has just given them: reassurance? He has just said, "Don't be troubled. Trust God. Trust me."
How about this: What if we DON'T read it that way? Actually, though, we agree that it is a reassurance, but it is still a reassurance that happens to answer the question of exclusive salvation.

From here, McLaren gratuitously reinterprets the critical verse itself:
In this light, Jesus is saying, "Listen, you don't need to understand all this. You simply need to trust me. Don't look for a way apart from me. Don't look for a route or destination – some concept or technique or system of thought that is separate from me. I'm not trying to give you information or instructions so you no longer need me and can instead depend on the information or instructions. No – just trust me. Everything you need is in me. I will bring you to my Father's house [whether that means heaven after death or the kingdom of God on earth]. 'The way' or 'the truth' or 'the life' aren't things separate from me. I am these things, so you'll find them in me! Whether or not you know what I've been talking about, if you know me, you know the Father, you know the way, you know the truth, you know the life."
The reader will notice that despite the reworking and the smarmy tone McLaren injects, it still reads as a message that Jesus is the one and only broker of God's covenant, pointing to himself time and time again in McLaren's reworking. But McLaren judiciously leaves out the most critical words: "NO ONE comes to the father EXCEPT by me." These he instead breaks off and separately treats in an even more absurd way:
But what of "No one comes to the Father except through me?" Clearly, taken in context, these words are not intended as an insult to followers of Mohammed, the Buddha, Lao Tsu, Enlightenment rationalism, or anybody or anything else. Rather, the "no one" here refers to Jesus' own disciples, who seem to want to trust some information – a plan, a diagram, a map, instructions, technique – so they can get to God or the kingdom of God without or apart from Jesus, since he has just told them he is leaving them for a while at least.
First, note how McLaren manipulatively describes the exclusivist exegesis in terms of an "insult" when it is no such thing -- any more than it is an "insult" to tell people that only one route is open to the party at Brian's house. The reading of "no one" as "Jesus' own disciples," however, is the key point, and it is simply exegetical fantasy. Of course, "no one" is inclusive of Jesus' disciples, since they are part of the whole of which "no one" would be comprised. But to claim that it refers exclusively to the small party of his disciples that existed at that time is a ludicrous contrivance with no interpretive support at all, least of all in the informing context of Jesus as broker of God's covenant.

Further, McLaren reads Jesus' words in modern, anachronistic terms:
This reading takes seriously the play on the word "know." Thomas is saying, "How can we have intellectual clarity on where you're going or the route or technique to get there?" Jesus replies, "You don't need intellectual clarity: you need personal knowledge. It's not a matter of 'knowing about,' but rather, 'knowing.'" Remember, this theme of personal knowing as interactive relationship is strong through all of John's gospel – and in just two chapters, Jesus will say, "And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." "I am the life" in John 14, then, has a powerful resonance in John 17 with "Eternal life is to know God and to know me."
Sorry to break this to the emergents out there, but in the NT world, people did not "know" each other the way this indicates. "Knowing" can't mean "personal knowledge" in the modern sense; the real matter is much closer to "intellectual clarity" to the extent that it means accepting Jesus' role as broker, as indicated by the validation of his ministry and soon, his resurrection.

McLaren now goes beyond 14:6-7, into 8-11, but without the informing context of patronage, he offers little but emergent babble. Philip's request to be shown the Father is the request of a client asking for direct access to the patron -- which was NOT typical of patronage relationships of the time; rather, the broker was the one who maintained direct access with the clients. In this light, Jesus' reply -- "Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works." -- are a statement that Jesus' own presence as broker is more than adequate -- and Jesus points to his works as evidence (sounds a lot like "intellectual clarity" -- use of evidence as proof).

McLaren's own reading is emergently comical:
Jesus says in verse 9 that the invisible God has been made visible in his life. "If you want to know what God is like," Jesus says, "look at me, my life, my way, my deeds, my character." And what has that character been? One of exclusion, rejection, constriction, elitism, favoritism, and condemnation? Of course not! Jesus' way has been compassion, healing, acceptance, forgiveness, inclusion, and love from beginning to end.
Oh really! Is McLaren's Bible missing Matthew 25? Or Jesus' condemnations of Chorazin and Bethsaida? Or his warnings to avoid hell (however we understand that experience)? That sounds a lot like "exclusion, rejection, constriction, elitism, favoritism (properly defined), and condemnation" to me! Yes, there was also a great deal of inclusion -- prostitutes, tax collectors, a Roman centurion and a Samaritan woman. But McLaren seems to forget that the latter two are shown conceding to Jesus' authority, while the former groups apparently (and the Samartian woman, clearly) are being offered the chance to concede that authority. It's not "free for all" acceptance but acceptance at the price of concession, and to require a concession means that there can be "exclusion" of those who refuse to make it.

Despite all this rap, McLaren makes a judicious admission:
By the way, it would also make me want to scream if you misread what I'm saying to mean, "It doesn't matter what you believe. Anything goes. God doesn't care." That would be equally ridiculous! By looking at what Jesus cares about, we see what God cares about, including what makes God angry: carelessness towards the poor and vulnerable, putting religious rules over relationships, complacency, a lack of compassion, and so muchmore.
Indeed! Then all of McLaren's objecting about how John 14:6 is not a message indicating exclusivity has just gone out the window. Like most emergents, McLaren talks out of both sides of his mouth; he uses distraction (especially to heart-rending issues of charity) to keep you busy so that you won't ask the hard questions, or even consider them at all; instead, we are to blindly "trust Jesus" and neither ask questions nor concern ourselves with evidence. McLaren does well to stress the service aspect of Christian faith; but he fails to acknowledge that facts and evidence were the basis upon which people were called into that service.

There is, again, not a lot of change in the NKC version of this; some of the same stuff appears verbatim. Perhaps the only significant variation is that McLaren now argues that “the Father’s House” is Jesus’ own body (!), which is based on an even more peculiar strain of logic worthy of Alvin Boyd Kuhn:
  • Jesus calls the Temple his Father’s house in John 2:15-17.
  • He also refers to the Temple in terms of his body in John 2:19.
  • Therefore, Jesus’ body is “the Father’s house.”
By that exegetical logic, I suppose when Jesus says that his Father’s house has “many mansions” he is referring to his liver, kidneys, and other organs, thus indicating that he is the ideal universal organ donor.

All that said, McLaren has only marginally brushed the correct logic, which would be as follows:
  • Jesus calls the Temple his Father’s house in John 2:15-17.
  • The “house” of God is where God dwells.
  • Through Jesus’ brokerage, God dwells in each believer, who is a member of the body of Christ.
By extension, only the body of Christ resides in heaven, and thus the standard interpretation holds true. McLaren still cannot defuse John 14:6 and its implications for exclusivity.

Chapter 20: How Can We Translate Our Quest Into Action?

Chapter 21: Living the Questions in Community

In the main these chapters are plans of action as opposed to argument, though they are also McLaren once again rather presumptuously portraying himself and his ideological cohorts as specially enlightened persons who will usher in a new era of peace and unity. McLaren continues to display an uncritical nature by absorbing the ideas of Ken Wilber, a New Age author whom McLaren credits as a “macrohistorian” – though he is decidedly unqualified to write on anything as complex as history. McLaren also once again depicts himself and his cohorts as pseudo-martyrs suffering for their faith, an almost laughable and contemptible self-identification, especially since McLaren encourages followers to offer to leave their churches if their pastors find their ideas difficult. [245] Apparently the strength of conviction doesn’t hold in McLaren’s world. One wonders how McLaren would handle true persecution as was experienced by first century Christians under Rome.

Chapter 22: Conclusion

The book closes with reiterations of what is found in prior chapters as McLaren once again declares the terms on which he will accept criticism, which includes assuming that he is right and that his criticisms of your views are valid.

Here is the matter in sum: McLaren’s ostentatious “invitation” to come and “dialogue” with him at the table is little more than a preventative to keep him from facing the harsh criticism he so well deserves. McLaren repeatedly dodges giving clear, honest answers, and then makes that out to be a virtue; he mischaracterizes his opponents in the same narrow way he accuses them of acting; he makes use of source material in a manner so uncritical in resembles the methodology of the least critical atheists; and he arrogantly portrays himself and his fellows as misunderstood persecution victims. If this is the best the emergent church has to offer, we expect further entries in this series to be even worse – it remains to be seen whether they are.


  1. Where can I read about arguments against Buddhism?

  2. Not my topic so I can't say. Maybe check Winfried Corduan's material.