A new Kind of Christianity: cont’d

Yesterday I responded to some of the early responses to my new book. After the jump, I’ll reply to some additional concerns raised by master blogger Bill Kinnon

Hi, Bill – I’ve enjoyed your blog over the years, and have enjoyed meeting you on a few occasions. It sounds like your initial responses to my new book are far less than favorable. I’m sorry to hear that, but as you say below, that goes with the territory … You begin:

Brian McLaren’s new book is now appearing in the hands of those who pre-ordered it. My copy of A New Kind of Christianity arrived last Thursday. I grabbed fleeting moments over the weekend to quickly read it. From the dust cover of the book,

We are in the midst of a paradigm shift in the church. Not since the Reformation five centuries ago have so many Christians come together to ask whether the church is in sync with their deepest beliefs and commitments. These believers range from evangelicals to mainline Protestants to Catholics, and the person who best represents them is author and pastor Brian McLaren. [emphasis added]

Brian’s book tells us immediately that Brian best represents those of us who question the institutional church. A little “all your leadership are belong to me” perhaps – at least for those of us who dare question the present state of the church. Now, perhaps it’s just marketing hyperbole. Maybe Brian really doesn’t think he’s God’s answer to the present state of the church.
Or God’s ten answers that is.

Bill, as you probably know, authors don’t write cover copy, and a lot of us complain about and are embarrassed by what’s written, which is why we write books and not advertising copy. Please be assured, I know that people question “the present state of the church” from a variety of perspectives and on many levels, and many people engaged in this questioning would hate for me to represent them, and I would never want to force myself on them.

But he certainly wants to frame how his book is reviewed.

Actually, Bill, I don’t think it’s quite that extreme. I keep hoping that we who claim to follow Christ could try to avoid some of the most unhelpful ways of disagreeing and dialoguing. You then suggest that I’ve indulged in some less than helpful behavior myself, referring to the little quiz I put on my website. On this, you’re probably right, as I admitted on another post. I sometimes think I can get away with being playful when others don’t see it that way, and certainly fail to live up to my own standards too much of the time. I wish this weren’t true, but when it is, I try to admit it, and then I try to show the same grace to others that I myself need. You then quote Darryl Dash:

My friend, Darryl Dash in his post, Ending the Discussion Before it Starts, says this,

I’ve found that there are ways to end a discussion before it even begins. It’s easy: you set the terms of the discussion so that if you disagree with me, then it’s clearly because you have a problem, so it’s no use even continuing. It’s not really fair, but it allows me to pretend that I have the moral high ground while it effectively silences you, if you let it that is. [emphasis added]
And then later responding to Brian’s writing at the end of A New Kind of Christianity where it would seem that Brian insists that he and his friends should get to set the terms of the discussion of his book, Darryl writes,
…if we say that we have concerns, it’s implied that we have a problem and we’re trying to shut things down. This makes it hard to review a book, never mind deal with the kinds of issues raised in a book like this.

I’ve apparently failed to make my intentions clear enough to preclude this implication, and I’m sorry about that. Let me try to put it positively: where you see me trying to shut down debate, I feel I’m trying to create space for some important questions to be raised. In other words, many of us feel things are pretty well shut down before we start, so we have to try to clear a little space for dialogue. As you know, in many of our religious settings, that’s not easy. I’m trying to do this because, like you, I encounter so many people who are being crushed and smothered in environments where they have questions but aren’t given breathing room to ask them. (I especially feel this because one of my basic spiritual gifts is evangelism, and I can’t help but be sensitive to spiritual seekers for whom our faith and way of life is a whole new world.)
I can see how trying to create and defend some space for questioning can seem like shutting down critique. I wonder if there’s some way we can achieve both … first, some space where questions can be raised and tentative answers proposed, and then, space to critique the framing of the questions and the answers.
So let me say it very plainly: I hope we can do both – create some safe space or questions, without in any way stopping anybody from being able to critique the whole process in any ways they wish. Your and Darryl’s comments make me more sensitive to the latter problem, and I hope this reply keeps the former problem on the table. You continue …

There is a level of cognitive dissonance in a writer who offers his book as the answer to all that ails Christianity and then also wants to frame how we engage with that book. And the dissonance is deeper in that said writer chooses to label those who disagree with him as close-minded Fundamentalists.

Bill, I wonder if you might agree this is a bit unfair. Do you really believe that I offer my book as “an answer to all that ails Christianity?” I repeatedly say that I’m trying to create space for conversation on important questions, not offering the final answers. I say again and again we’re on a quest. I also repeatedly affirm that the ten questions I deal with are just a beginning. Nor do I label everyone who disagrees with me as a close-minded fundamentalist. My little quiz – offered good-naturedly, but apparently taken in a more sinister way – was simply intended to say, “You don’t need to bother with my book if you don’t want to consider new ways of thinking.” That’s not intended to foreclose upon disagreement, and as I explained in another post, I now think it was a mistake to make that posting. (I’ll leave it up for people to see and evaluate for themselves.) Again, even if you’re a bit unfair here, I’m already admitting I need a lot of grace, so I’m glad to extend that to you.
If by saying that I want “to frame how we engage with the book,” you’re suggesting that it’s futile for me to ask for civil or charitable disagreement, you’re probably right. I imagine this is an area where my idealism has died hard and I’ve been somewhat naive. But please be assured, even when I have asked for civil and charitable disagreement, I haven’t done so intending to foreclose on disagreement. So I want to assure you – and Darryl – that I expect disagreement, including strong disagreement, and I am not trying to shut disagreement down – I’m just trying to shut down the kind of withering and blistering response that shuts questioning down as well. But again, I have to admit that I have no power to shut down even that.
In a way, I think we want the same thing: space. We both want space to raise needed questions and explore possible answers, and we both want space for there to be vigorous disagreement – preferably within the bounds of Christian civility and accuracy and so on, but acknowledging that it’s very hard to disagree agreeably, and we all stumble in this at times, requiring to both give and receive grace generously. Is that accurate to say?

Perhaps it’s time to read the 99 Theses of the Cluetrain Manifesto, Mr. McLaren. You sound like the companies they attempt to educate.
I’m sure it’s rather unfortunate for you, but you don’t get to decide how the rest of us engage with your book. Let me be blunt, your approach is reminiscent of the divisive politics perfected in the nation you call home. Where people who disagree with your president are labeled as racists – or those who agree are socialists. Of course, you showed some of that tendency yourself here, so perhaps I should not really be surprised.

I certainly agree with you, Bill, that I don’t get to decide how anyone else engages with my book. And I also share your distaste for the state of political rhetoric in my country, and to whatever degree I’ve slipped into it, I’m sorry.
You continued …

Jeremy Bouma said this in his Goodbye Emergent post yesterday – a post that has generated a lot of response,

Recently, Doug Pagitt wrote on his blog and Brian McLaren said in a video that those of us who take them and others to task are held in bondage to fear and thoroughly un-loving; my motivation for analyzing the theology and beliefs of leaders within the emerging church is fear-based and inherently un-love. One word: ridiculous. I am not fearful; this has nothing to do with fear. In fact, the loving thing to do is in fact confront, prod, and question. [emphasis added – links to Pagitt and McLaren at Bouma’s post.]

Bill, if I said that every single person who disagrees with me is held in bondage to fear, that would indeed be ridiculous, and I would be as irate about it as you are. What I was talking about was quite different – more related to the problems of people needing to treat one another as enemies when they disagree, or to disassociate with people to avoid guilt by association. Here’s my concern: in many of our religious communities – Christian, Muslim, Jewish, atheist, whatever – it becomes increasingly hard to raise questions, to differ, to do exactly what you suggest: to confront, to prod, and to question. The threat of being hammered easily engenders a fear of confronting, prodding, or questioning. I’m simply trying to name that this kind of fear is out there, and it affects people in a lot of ways. People start writing people off based on “guilt by association” with someone deemed “unclean,” and then there’s secondary disassociation (don’t associate with anyone who associates with so-and-so), and tertiary, and so on. So rest assured – my goal isn’t to shame anyone for questioning my answers or answering my questions differently than I do. I want to show them the same respect I would like to be shown.

Let me offer this piece of advice to you, Brian, if you don’t want to receive reviews that question your ideas then simply stop writing. It really is that simple.
Otherwise you will need to deal with the reality that the days of the idea gatekeepers are over. Welcome to the networked conspiracy.

Again, I look forward to receiving and learning from people who question and disagree with my ideas. As I listen and learn, that actually gives me more to write about, because for me, writing and receiving feedback is all part of a larger learning process. My writing is, I hope, part of the networked conspiracy that you refer to, showing a willingness – with appropriate humility, I hope, along with appropriate courage – to challenge some of the assumptions of the “idea gatekeepers.”
I just went to your website and realized you’ve added some more posts on my book, so let me briefly respond to the main questions you raised.
First, who do I say Jesus is? In answering that question, I would go exactly to the passages you did: Peter’s confession of Jesus at Caesarea Philippi (I wrote about this at some length in EMC), Paul’s beautiful hymns in Colossians and Philippians, and John 14:9. So yes, I enthusiastically affirm the Apostles and Nicene Creeds. Yes, I’m a wholehearted Trinitarian.
Second, on Paul being Greco-Roman. You’re right: Paul is multi-cultural – Jewish, Greek, and Roman. But that’s not what I’m talking about in the book when I refer to a Greco-Roman narrative. I’m referring to a view of reality formed by a certain kind of Greek neo-Platonism on the one hand (one that was more fully articulated after Paul’s death), and a kind of totalitarian Roman politics on the other. I believe when Paul began following Jesus, he began a transformation process (the kind he wrote about in Romans 12) so that his identity in Christ made him no longer conformed to any of these three worlds. So, just as a converted alcoholic changes his view on alcohol, I believe Paul changed his previous understandings of violence, truth, love, and power after being converted. So, when I read Colossians 1 and Philippians 2, for example, I see a radical repudiation of the negative Greco-Roman values I’m critiquing in the book … as I describe in both EMC and A New Kind of Christian.
Third, do I side more with Wright or Borg on the resurrection? First, I want to say that I have learned a lot from both Borg and Wright, but I agree with Wright on this. I appreciate your care about guilt by association (and – as I mentioned above – the closely related “guilt by failure to disassociate”). If people want to reject me because of friends I keep, they’ll find plenty of good reasons to do so. As you know, in many circles, Wright himself is a persona non grata whom people are careful to disassociate from.
There are several places where I would not say what Marcus says – including the 1994 quote you included. But something I appreciate about both Borg and Wright is that they are able to remain respectful friends with people with whom they have significant disagreements. I try to follow their example in this. I love the quote from Wright that you included, by the way. And I also fully agree with Wright when he says that to speak of the divinity of Christ is not simply to take a pre-existing definition of God and apply it to Jesus, but rather it means that in Jesus, we are given a new and deeper and more wonderful definition of God than has ever been had before. Of course, the insight into God as Trinity itself flows from the breakthrough revelation of God in Christ.
One last thing, Bill. Again – it’s perfectly appropriate for you to ask questions like these and point out where you disagree. But I hope at some point you’ll also be able to find places where you agree that the ten questions the book raises need to be raised, and that you’ll continue, through your blog and elsewhere, to help create space for good and respectful dialogue to happen. I appreciate your important work in this regard.
This has become a very long response too, so I’ll stop there. I hope that’s helpful to you and others who read our blogs.