Progressive theological road has potholes

Books-Walking-roadWe Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation and Activation
Brian D. McLaren
Jericho Books

“The road of faith is not finished. There is beautiful land ahead…waiting to be explored. It will take a lot of us, journeying together to make the road.” Thus begins the latest work of literature and liturgy from sometimes controversial author and public theologian Brian D. McLaren. The vision that informs the structure and content of this book is that of a weekly community which gathers for discussion, worship, prayer and service. McLaren leads the reader through 52 themed chapters – organized around the traditional church year – that also follow the flow of the Bible from start to finish.

Commendable emphasis on spiritual formation

On the positive side of the equation, there are many things to affirm. The Christocentric approach to the whole of Scripture and a strong emphasis on justice, love and nonresistance will resonate with many Mennonite Brethren.

McLaren also addresses contemporary topics that many in our society are asking as he mines themes of economic injustice, how loving your neighbour is connected to caring for creation and how leadership can be used positively but can also be coercive. McLaren’s writing is ever poignant and at times beautifully poetic and moving.

The skillfully phrased questions for group discussion at the end of each chapter are extremely thoughtful and designed to move toward action and not just contemplation. There are also family-inclusive elements in each chapter, including questions focused uniquely for children. Small groups or neighbourhood house churches would find sufficient material to sustain robust conversational engagement for at least a full year.

Concerning reorientation toward the Bible

What will likely create some tension, however, is the elasticity with which McLaren treats the Bible itself. For him, Scripture seems to be an allegory of possibilities where factual truth and actual truth become interchangeable and sometimes intermingled.

McLaren has a tendency to denigrate biblical authority to make a contemporary point. For example, when discussing violence in the Old Testament, he indicates that “in the minds of the originators of these stories, God as they understood God did indeed command these things.” He goes on to suggest that what is truly important is how we understand God, not necessarily how the original writers or hearers heard or understood him.

The trend that emerges on the whole is that McLaren uses the Bible as a set of stylized morality tales to teach us important truths about God, ourselves and the world in which we live.

As Mennonite Brethren, we have a very different outlook, as expressed in Article 2 of our CCMBC Confession of Faith: “We accept the Bible as the infallible Word of God and the authoritative guide for faith and practice.”

Community emphasis on activation

For those with an already firm view of biblical authority, the book holds wonderful benefit for personal contemplative reading. In many ways, however, We Make the Road by Walking is really designed for use in a communal setting.

McLaren is open in his extension of hospitality, and as such, the book can be read with people of various backgrounds including those who don’t share a presumed cultural Christian history. I could see the material being used as a post-Alpha learning circle that meets weekly to journey deeper into the themes of Scripture.

The emphasis is on lived faith and how a person is growing and walking it out is commendable. McLaren notes that “faith communities at their best are Spirit-schools of love, engaging everyone, from little children to great-grandparents, in life-long learning. In the school of the Spirit, everyone majors in love.”

The author shines when he is calling us to a spirit of unity that includes diversity. This can sometimes feel like taking a non-position, but on the whole, the book is pithy and full of vitality and worthwhile topics for conversation along the road.

After all, discipleship is not just about the destination we seek, but about the joy we take and the growth we make in the journey along the way.

Brad Sumner is a fellow traveller who helps to lead the community at Jericho Ridge Church, Langley, B.C.  

4 Comments on “Progressive theological road has potholes

  1. In reading the review written about it, and the somewhat favourable comments in this article, albeit with some reservation, I get the impression that the author thinks this would be beneficial and good for believers.
    Brad wrote, “What will likely create some tension, however, is the elasticity with which McLaren treats the Bible itself. For him, Scripture seems to be an allegory of possibilities where factual truth and actual truth become interchangeable and sometimes intermingled.”
    Should we even give the slightest hint of endorsement to a book written by someone who does not hold to the infallibility of Scripture?
    The article above states what we as MB’s believe concerning the Word of God “infallible…authoritative.” When we begin to doubt the truthfulness of the entirety of the Word of God we are on slippery ground (as McLaren does). Throughout the New Testament we are encouraged to be aware of false teaching, we are to guard the faith handed down to us and to watch our doctrine closely.
    The article makes this statement, “I could see the material being used as a post-Alpha learning circle that meets weekly to journey deeper into the themes of Scripture.” I don’t get it, why as Christians would we use a guy’s book to journey deeper into the themes of Scripture who does not believe in the truthfulness and Spirit-inspired Scriptures.
    Discipleship is a core truth and foundational practice for believers and it should be grounded on the God-inspired authority of Scripture.

    • Greg,

      Thanks so much for your comments. I appreciate your intentionality around discipleship and keeping the Bible at the centre of that process. I think I hear you asking if it is wise for us as leaders to use resources and authors that don’t share some of our “a priori” theological or methodological approaches to the Bible in our discipleship process. (feel free to engage and re-frame if that isn’t what you are driving at).

      To me, this depends a lot on who we are working with and what their own susceptibility to false teaching doctrine might be. It might be inappropriate, for example, to wonder out loud with a young teenager whose faith is still developing about the historicity of various elements of the Bible (differing numbers of people in complementary lists of armies, etc.) while this might be very appropriate for a person to wrestle with who has a solid faith and is looking for resources for apologetics or engagement with their friends who are not Christians.

      I think our challenge is also to remember that the recent Canadian Bible Engagement Survey shows that only 18% of Canadians strongly agree that the Bible is the Word of God. This number comes from those surveyed both outside AND inside of the church. So if we simply say things like I heard growing up “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it” we are perhaps going to miss the opportunity for walking with people who may not share our convictions around the authority of Scripture but who are willing to explore it with us to see if what the Bible says about itself is true. To me, this means we are going to have to use resources and authors who don’t share our starting points but who can nonetheless be helpful in some aspects of the journey.

      I would also say that In his books, McLaren’s use of the Bible is not consistently anemic or allegorical. If I am reading him correctly, I think that he believes deeply and passionately in God’s Word as truth but that he simply raises some of the same questions that others have had over time. C.S. Lewis, for example, in a letter to Clyde Kilby dated May 7, 1959 wonders if “The very kind of truth we are often demanding was, in my opinion, not even envisaged by the ancients.” (see Michael J. Christensen’s excellent book, C. S. Lewis on Scripture, Abingdon, 1979). C.S. Lewis would also take a similar position as McLaren on some items regarding the biblical record (he notes that in that same letter that he holds to “universally admitted unhistoricity (I do not say, of course, falsity) of at least some of the narratives in Scripture (the parables), which may well also extend to Jonah and Job”). This would make some people VERY nervous but they still read and recommend “Mere Christianity”.

      I suppose (for better and worse) I am more utilitarian in my approach. For me, the question is not does an author share my convictions about biblical authority but can I use this tool (podcast, book, article, movie) to help develop and sharpen a conviction around the truths of Scripture in the person that I am mentoring. Like movies with some objectionable material in them but that are on the whole worth watching, my personal view is that McLaren’s book can help this process if it is used with discernment.

      Hopefully that helps provide some clarity and know that I am always open to continued discussion around these important issues.

      • Hi Brad,
        I appreciate your response to what I wrote and even the way in which you responded.
        I have read and re-read what you wrote and will offer a response. I do believe you got the jist of what I was trying to get at – questioning whether it is wise to endorse a book for Bible study by a guy who does not hold to the infallibility of Scripture. My concern is primarily with what McLaren says and thinks about Scripture, but it also includes how far that reaches and what other areas are then called into question by him.
        Of course, I have never met the man, but that does not mean that I cannot comment on his comments, writings or teachings. I am concerned with (and strongly warn against) a teacher/author like McLaren not only for his views on Scripture but also on the atonement of Christ and his view of God. A quote of his from “A New Kind of Christianity” is this,
        “a god who mandates an intentional supernatural disaster lending to unparalleled genocide is hardly worthy of belief, much less worship.” Here McLaren is calling into question God’s wisdom and character in bringing the flood during the days of Noah.
        In speaking about Jesus Christ being the atoning sacrifice for our sins, as the Scripture teaches, McLaren says this,
        “how can justice and mercy be achieved through an act of injustice? If God is just, how can an innocent person be punished?”
        There is no need to refute his ungodly and unbiblical views here concerning the atonement and God’s justice and mercy. I think it is evident that McLaren has a very poor view of biblical Christianity.
        So, having said all of that, I do get what you are saying about engaging others who do not hold to the truth of Scripture (as you mentioned only 18% of Canadians do), as I have done and continue to do with those inside and outside of the Church, but now it becomes a question about how that is done and what material we use to do so. As pastors, teachers, leaders, authors, and believers in general, we carry a great privilege and responsibility of spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ, wherever God places us. We are also to guard the flock of which we have been entrusted, feeding them God’s Word, teaching them the whole counsel of God, and steering them away from false teachings, false teachers and deception. I know this is not popular in a postmodern culture that embraces all forms of tolerance – but we are not called to please others, but to please God. I am also aware that saying that what someone else has written or spoken is wrong or unbiblical is often seen as being intolerant and unloving. However, I see warning believers of false teaching and calling them to hold onto sound doctrine as being the loving thing to do.
        If what you say about C.S. Lewis is accurate (and I have no reason to doubt you, for I too have read some similar things about him before) would I continue to encourage others to read his books, even the most popular Mere Christianity – no. B/c it’s not about the person, their reputation, how well known or revered they are in the eyes of the world or the Church, but rather on what they hold to concerning the core beliefs of the faith. And so, if I knew Lewis had called into question the historicity of Jonah or Job, I would not point other believers, especially those under my care, to his works. Why is that? Well, for one, when Jesus spoke in parables it is evident that he is speaking in parables. When we read Jonah or Job, we are not given any indication from God that this is simply a parable or an illustration – rather, it is presented as fact. If someone does not accept these simple, straightforward things (Jonah and Job as historical fact), then why would I think that they have an accurate view of the rest of Scripture?
        Anyways, this is a very lengthy reply, and I thank you for taking the time to read it. Feel free to respond as you wish.
        Blessings

  2. ” For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.”
    2 John 1:7-11

    The Bible makes it very clear that we are to have nothing to do with those who preach false teachings and doctrines. We should be staying far away from anyone who teaches that the Bible is not infallable.

    “I appeal to you brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.”
    Romans 16:17

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