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A New Kind of ChristianityBrian McLaren

So what’s so wrong with the old kind? McLaren was a pastor in Maryland, USA happy with his conservative evangelical faith until he met sceptical non believers who caused him to re-visit what he believed. Nearly a decade ago, he shocked many with the fruit of this speculation, ‘A New Kind of Christian’ (2001), which enraged conservatives and delighted many who believed he was onto something. Many books later and now a full time writer/speaker, his latest thinking will likely create the same reaction.

McLaren looks at 10 questions he believes we must face if we are to have a faith that will cut it today: the narrative of scripture, the authority of Scripture, the nature of God, Jesus, The Gospel, Church, sexuality, how we see the future, other faiths, and where we go next.

Remember maths classes where you were given marks for working even though the answer was wrong? Well McLaren’s ‘working’ is so much part of the 300 pages plus book but cannot be outlined or critiqued here. To focus then on the foundational early chapters: he outlines how Christianity has been shaped by a particular way of reading the Bible. Central to his argument is that a classic belief in the overarching narrative of the Bible: creation – fall – sinful humanity and rescue or damnation (which he perceives is the working outline that Evangelicals have) is taken from Greco Roman ideas from the 4th century AD rather than the Bible. He’s concerned that Christians typically treat the Bible as if it is a legal document (like the constitution of the USA) rather than as an inspired library of books. He sees a progression from a God of wrath who wipes out people indiscriminately in the OT to one of love and grace in the NT and argues that the newer kind of God, revealed in Christ is the one we should imitate. Old style Christianity tends towards a mean and nasty intolerant faith that poorly reflects God which he illustrates with the remaining questions notably US evangelicals attitudes towards gay people and other religions.

It is beautifully written and he clearly wants to find wriggle room to re-invent the faith but still take scripture seriously. But there are a number of areas of significant weakness.  Having reframed the way scripture is read and interpreted he can downplay parts he doesn’t like (such as hell and the wrath of God) but he uses similar texts to support the new kind of Christianity that he does like. Many would ask, so what about the texts that contradict his view?

The Greco Roman argument seems clever (and is revisited many times) but is contradicted by Pauline theology and 2,000 years of theological reflection. A belief that the nature of God changes as we travel through the Bible (not a new idea) simply doesn’t fit the facts – we have wrath in Revelation and love in Genesis! Jesus talks more about hell (however defined) than does the rest of the Bible combined.

It is sad that McLaren doesn’t cover the many helpful evangelical (old style) treatments of issues he is concerned with, and that this new kind of Christianity reflects so little on God’s supernatural work worldwide that is such a great alternative to what he rightly decries.

This is a book for those with a clear grasp of theology who can spot the good stuff and reject the unorthodox. He is right to believe the way the ‘Christianity house’ could use a makeover, especially in the west, but seems unaware that his own work on the foundations actually means that logically there is far less ‘Christianity’ standing than he thinks there is. In trying to smooth over some of the tensions in scripture or to deny its hard sayings, he is open to the charge that the new kind is merely a ‘McLaren kind’ of Christianity, or perhaps an older liberal kind that we have seen, and critiqued before.