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Sunday, February 11, 2007

A New Kind of Christian

I recently read McLaren's book "A New Kind of Christian." It was an unexpectedly challenging read. I don't mean it was too intellectual or hard to follow. It actually was a rather delightful narrative. It just challenged so many of my long-held assumptions and beliefs about Christianity and what it means to follow Jesus and be a Christian. I found myself taking up offense on behalf of my religion. But no sooner than I set the book aside in disgust, I picked it back up again with renewed interest. I guess being challenged is fun.

A friend offered another challenge - to be more specific about what I agree and disagree with in the book. I found it surprisingly difficult to come up with specifics. I just know I was taken aback and grew defensive frequently. But almost as frequently, I found myself nodding my head in acquiescence to some of his other assertions. My challenge to myself tonight is to simply come up with compliment and one criticism of "A New Kind of Christian."

Let's start on the positive side. The author, contrary to what I would have anticipated, holds the belief that the modern church's view of sin is too narrow. I would have guessed his conversational approach to spirituality would naturally allow more room for interpretation when it comes to what is sin and what isn't. Not so, and I appreciated that. He claims that modern Christianity, particularly Western modern Christianity, has limited the definition of sin to mean specific wrong acts/thoughts/words that are committed, thought, or spoken by individuals. But when you look at the Bible, you see God punishing Israel for national sins of idolatry and oppression. Probably not every individual in Israel personally oppressed the poor, or used dishonest scales, or charged unfair interest to the needy. However, the nation as a whole allowed it to happen on a wide scale, and the entire nation was held responsible and shared equally in the exile. McLaren suggests that we are guilty of sins we have possibly never considered - sins of negligence, ignorance of the plight of the poor, and apathy when it comes to injustice. Personally, after living in India, I have considered these questions and have viewed my own lack of interest in the world's needs in a new light. "A new kind of Christian," McLaren points out, would have a larger understanding of what sin is.

Now for a criticism. I'll be honest - my first thought is "how will I pick just one?" But when I really pause, I realize I haven't organized my thoughts enough to express more than one negative opinion anyway. So here it is: the author appears to question the traditional interpretations of what the Bible says about heaven and hell. One of his characters, the one from whom all the "emerging" ideas are spouted, actually suggests that there is only one final destination for all people after death. This one destination will only vary in that people will experience it differently. Those who love God will rejoice in His presence and bask in His light. Those who have lived in darkness will cower and shrink back from the light and that will be their suffering. He doesn't pose this idea as truth, but suggests it as a valid option.

This was one point at which I put the book firmly down on my little Starbucks table. (I read on my breaks.) I actually got mad. And yes, later I went back to Scripture to read what it says about the afterlife. And I honestly just don't see where this guy is coming from. For one thing, I simply cannot brush aside a huge portion of Scripture as mere evocative language used to paint a metaphorical picture, as he seems to be doing. Also, I personally need to know that heaven and hell are real. If hell were struck from my working theology, I would be left wondering what it's all for. Life isn't long enough to work that hard to improve it for some. Why help the poor, if by dying they could simply escape their misery and reach that "one destination?" No, if everyone's eternity will be spent in the same place, I have to admit my motivation for missions and evangelism will drop significantly.

I guess one reason the book troubled me so much was that if he could take Scripture and come up with something as apparently heretical as that, why can I believe the rest of what he says? I do believe some of it, and I agree with him on several points. But to be honest, the book scared me. I found myself wondering if my own long-held faith could be shaken and altered in a way that would damage, not improve it. I felt... well, "challenged" is the right word, I guess.

Before you all jump on me with your comments, I do know that questioning is a good thing. I do know that the very fact that I went back to the Bible to see what it said was a good thing. Questioning, even doubting, should never be the downfall of well-placed faith. And I know it will only strengthen, not weaken, my own.

But still... I feel rather on my guard.

What about you? Anybody else read this book? I'd be interested in your thoughts.