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Volume 17, Issue 5: Ex Libris

A New Kind of Christian, by Brian McLaren

Reviewed by Brendan O'Donnell

Concerning the literary quality of A New Kind of Christian, author, pastor-at-large, and English M.A. Brian McLaren even writes himself off in his prologue: "Knowing I was not trying to commit a work of artistic fiction from the start will help lower your expectations about character development, plot, and other artistic concerns . . . consider this more in the category of a philosophical dialogue than a novel."1 The precious and smarmy 164 pages that follow don't disappoint. Listen to this stuff: "Neo took a last look at the spider. I overheard him saying, probably to himself, `First frost and she'll be gone. Absolutely beautiful.'" Or this: "At that moment, sitting there in a McDonald's, with the glossy bright yellow and red and white paint around us, with the grease of french fries on our fingertips—at that moment I had one of those revelations that come a few times in your life, if you're fortunate . . . `the Kingdom of God transcends the normal level of discourse. I get it!'"2 Suffice it to say: sheesh.

However, owing to the "philosophical dialogue" aspect of NKOC, McLaren has appeared on Larry King and was named one of Time's "25 Most Influential Evangelicals."3 The dialogue takes place between McLaren's alter-ego Dan Poole, an evangelical pastor facing burnout and frustration with what turns out to be modernism, and Neil Edward Oliver (Neo)—a Jamaican Episcopalian who presents postmodernism to Poole over the course of the book's subtitle, "A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey." The terminus of the journey, of course, finds Dan at peace with postmodernism, something which most of the other 25 prominent evangelicals say ought not to be. Yet, McLaren still finds himself in their vaunted company—Time called him "The Paradigm Shifter"—because, despite an official disdain for labels like "leader" and "movement," McLaren is a leader in the Emergent church movement, which has posited itself as Christendom's first honest look at—and embrace of—postmodernism.
In general, Christian fisticuffs with postmodernism resemble a boxing match with a cloud of pot smoke. Faced with a diffuse and drifting target, we have invented a point of contact that, try as we might, we can't actually hit: we conceive of it as nothing more than a crass rejection of absolutes. Anyone who has retorted during an apologetic tete-a-tete with the line about "no absolutes? Is that absolutely true?" has invariably watched his opponent put that in his pipe, smoke it, and blow the haze right back in his face. The "no-absolutes?" approach, besides having little aesthetic appeal, also has too many dirty modernist gym socks in its mouth to be the place where mercy and truth will kiss. We assume that postmodernism is a problem of philosophy, and we argue as philosophers, who, in seeking a solution to smoke, will do anything except snuff out the fire.
McLaren, rather than keep swinging, inhaled. It seems fair to say that most of the chattering voices in the so-called Emergent "conversation" got where they are not so much via exegesis as through a theological vaccum-hole. NKOC has Neo tell Poole, "I think you're suffering from an immigration problem . . . you have a modern faith, a faith you've developed in your homeland of modernity. But you're immigrating to a new land, a postmodern world."4 Assuming postmodernism has arrived, they prescribe that we get with the program; our modernist, Enlightenment, colonialist, theological inheritance is simply inadequate to deal with this new world.
And, yes, theology, if constrained by those things, finds itself hamstrung when contending not only with a changing world, but the expanses of biblical revelation. Along the way, McLaren brings up many very worthy targets: individualism, rigid systematics, trite worship, the dearth of community, JesUSAves-ism, and so on. The church Neo hopes will emerge from modernity will be eschatalogically optimistic, missional, dynamic, and engaged in society and culture—living as if the Kingdom of God means more than an altar call.
But a theology constrained by something as fundamentally violent as postmodernism will never creep beyond the level of critique, and it will find itself hamstrung when confronted with a hurting world that can't tell its right hand from its left. NKOC gives the impression that McLaren has nothing more concrete in mind for the future of the church than a different set of adjectives to describe it. For all the substantive problems he brings up, McLaren himself lacks the theological confidence and substance to propel this Emergent thing beyond being the latest evangelical identity crisis.
For all his flaws, though, let's face it—we have guys like McLaren leading a sizeable heap of Christians because we Reformed types consider the Great Commission something of a spectator sport. We consider intramural arguments among postmillenialists more important than feeding the poor in Africa. We haven't the slightest idea how to get our finely-tuned engine into a car, let alone out on the road. We take our talents, bury them, and call our riskless life "good stewardship." The Kingdom of God is much more than the baptistic evangelical altar call. It is much more than the simpering religious bricolage of Emergent. It is also much more than our own myopic infighting. We know for a fact that the Kingdom, the church, is a conquering, holy nation of kings and priests living in the world that God has promised to liberate and has liberated in Jesus. We know and assent to this—and without needing postmodernism to tell us so—but we won't feel it in our bones until we go out to the highways to bring in the poor and the lame and the maimed and the blind.

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