Freeing Jesus from Western Christianity
Harper One, 2010
Brian D. McLaren’s 2004 book A Generous Orthodoxy was dubbed a “manifesto of the emerging church conversation.” His recent title A New Kind of Christianity is an all-encompassing work, mixing ancient, modern, and postmodern philosophy, theology, and Christian history with his commentary on affluent Western society. It will elicit a strong response from every reader – shocking some, refreshing others.
McLaren’s first theme is that Western Christianity is too prone to only understand Jesus through the lens of history. We understand Jesus because of Christian leaders and theologians who came after him, offering their interpretations of his life and ministry. For example, Mennonite Brethren could say our dominant influence is Menno Simons, who worked off Martin Luther, who expanded upon Augustine, the apostle Paul, and so forth, historically working back toward Jesus.
McLaren’s concern is that “the Christian religion in the West, as it habitually read the Bible backwards through the lenses of later Christians, largely lost track of the frontward story line of Adam, Abraham, Moses, and so on, within which Jesus had emerged.” McLaren’s suggestion is to read Jesus in light of his Jewish roots, so we may understand him in light of the Old Testament and see him as the next step in the unfolding story of God.
The second dominant theme of A New Kind of Christianity is that most of Christian history has been steered not so much by New Testament Christianity as it has been by the philosophical worldview of the Greco-Roman world in the first few centuries AD. Greco-Roman philosophy promoted the idea of a complete separation between earth and heaven, and that heaven is perfect and whole, while earth is marred and sinful, even though it was created by a perfect God. Since God is holy, he must remain removed from creation, which has doomed itself from being part of God’s perfection. A Greco-Roman worldview would describe a holy God as the Just Judge, condemning sinful people to Hades/hell.
McLaren encourages a different view of God in history, largely working from the Genesis-Exodus accounts in the Bible. What if we would begin to understand God not as the Just Judge, but as our Liberator, the one who continues to actively work in our world to restore and redeem all creation? The remainder of McLaren’s book unpacks these complex historical issues to see how they can be understood in our ever-changing postmodern context.
A New Kind of Christianity is one of the most significant spiritual works I have encountered. I feel more compelled than ever to understand God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit in a different way – a way that honours biblical history and God’s role throughout Scripture – not just the Gospels, Acts, and Paul. Through McLaren’s book, I feel freer to describe God through story, narrative, and experience as I see and understand God at work through the Bible, and also in the world as we know it. I will return to the latter chapters of the book, where he unpacks what this paradigm shift has for the church. I have already begun sharing my perspectives on a refreshed understanding of Christianity.
In the end, A New Kind of Christianity is a book on freedom. Are you ready for freedom?