A Conversation about Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity
Responding to Brian McLaren’s Question # 10: The What Now Question
Welcome: You’re reading Part 12 of my blog series responding to Brian McLaren’s book A New Kind of Christianity (read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, and Part 11). Many have engaged Brian’s thinking by focusing on a systematic theology response (read 6 Views on Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity for a boatload of links). My focus is on pastoral theology or practical theology. As a pastor, counselor, and professor who equips the church for biblical counseling and spiritual formation, I’m asking: “What difference does our response to each question make for how we care like Christ (biblical counseling) and for how we live like Christ (spiritual formation)?”
Ever since I read Larry Richard’s book Creative Bible Teaching, I have used his Hook, Book, Look, Took process in my teaching and preaching. Hook addresses the “Why?” question. “Why do we need this lesson?” Book addresses the “What?” question. “What does the Bible teach in this passage?” Look addresses the “So What?” question. “So what difference should this make in our lives and ministries?” Took addresses the “What Now?” question. “What will I specifically do differently now that I understand the interpretation and implications of this passage?”
In a similar way, Brian wraps up A New Kind of Christianity by asking the “What now?” question. Brian asks, “How can we translate our quest into action?” His answer dovetails with spiritual formation. “So our quest calls us first and foremost to nurture a robust spiritual life—not only a deep commitment to serve God, but also a deep desire to know and love God” (p. 226). He says “the end of our quest is a better world in which God’s will is done” (p. 226). At a general level, I have no quarrel with those statements. Brian becomes a tad more specific when he says, “Our goal must be to see those young people put a vital, radical faith into vital, radical action for and with the poor, action on behalf of the planet, action that makes for peace” (p. 226). Some might quibble with whether those are the most profound and foundational applications, but few would disagree that they could be valid “What now?” responses.
Next, Brian outlines his stages in humanity’s quest. He graciously places most of the people he’s spoken about and against at levels 2 through 5. Even more graciously, he places himself and those who join him at levels 6 and 7. His level 7 is sure to raise eyebrows. It’s the healing level with the quest to unify and liberate, to rediscover the beauty of the whole. It is peace and shalom. It is ubuntu or one-another-ness, interconnectedness, the well-being of all. The quest that Brian calls us to is to follow his lead and evolve to a higher community which consists of “Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, and others” and “welcomes all people to mature and advance in the human quest” (p. 235). If we think this is not a new kind of Christianity but a wrong kind of Christianity, then we are “the theological thought police” (p. 240).
Brian’s Definition of Sin and Description of Sinners
As he’s done throughout the book, Brian then not-so-subtly takes another dig at those who disagree with his ubuntu quest. “This way of love, this quest for ubuntu, this violet way of seeing and relating, is virtually impossible to imagine for people who haven’t reached the violet zone; they are likely to mock it or condemn it as something naïve, silly, or even evil (which is exactly what we would expect from people in other zones)” (p. 239). Nothing like shutting down conversation and putting down those who disagree with you—portraying them as immature children contrasted with wise adults, or as mindless ants compared to brilliant humans.
But it gets worse. On page 239, Brian finally defines sin. And it is…us! Those who disagree with him and refuse to join him on his higher plane, on his spiritual quest—we are sinners. “Sin is ultimately a refusal to grow” (p. 239). Those of us not in his violet quest zone are sinners. At least we finally know there are still some sinners left on Brian’s planet!
Brian continues. “Where sin increases—where the resistance to growth, transcendence, and inclusion increase—what abounds more? God’s grace” (p. 240). So, the very existence of us non-growth-oriented sinners is a hope-giving existence to Brian because he’s convinced God will out-grace our sin of refusing to grow with Brian and grow like Brian!
Brian says that he wishes for the courage to differ and the grace to differ graciously (p. 243). He wants generative conversations. He urges his followers to avoid a defensive, divisive spirit because it “simply serves to replicate some of the worst features of the conventional kinds of Christianity” (p. 246). Given the title of his book, he means…us. So…his generative conversation ends by labeling those who disagree with him as immature children and defensive and divisive theological thought police who sinfully refuse to grow by joining his quest for ubuntu. Does it strike anyone else as ironic that two chapters focused on the quest for healing, connectedness, and inclusiveness would be so saturated with such demeaning portrayals?
What Now? Biblical Counseling Implication
Honestly, it’s difficult to know what to do with this. What now should we do with Brian’s approach in his two what now chapters? Even apart from the theological differences, a consistent “issue” I have with A New Kind of Christianity is Brian’s chosen style of communication. He repeatedly paints himself as humble, gracious, inviting, loving, and simply asking honest questions. Yet he consistently paints those with whom he disagrees in the worst light possible, not only with extreme caricatures, but with dismissive, condescending, and pejorative labels.
In any counseling/relationship context, for two people or two groups of people to communicate well, there must be mutual understanding, concerted effort to see life from the other person’s perspective, a sincere desire to represent accurately the other person or group, and a heart-felt, sacrificial love that puts the other person first. In the absence of these, no meaningful dialogue will ever occur.
In secular counseling, when these are absent, the primary “solution” is to teach “communication skills.” Brian’s an English major and a veteran pastor. His final two chapters are all about the quest to heal relationships. So I’m sure he understands and could teach communication skills and conflict resolution. So what’s up?
In biblical counseling, when communication skills are absent, instead of starting with “solutions,” we begin with “SOUL-u-tions.” That is, we seek to help people to assess what heart issues may be generating the symptoms of poor communication skills.
It’s likely that folks on both sides—those who agree with Brian and those who disagree—myself included, need some “SOUL-u-tion-focused-biblical counseling. What heart issues are preventing us from speaking the truth in love? That’s my “What now?” question. I’ll leave it at that and allow each of us in this “generative conversation” to make our own personal application.
The Rest of the Story
In my final post, I’ll reflect on “big picture” issues of what I’ve learned and what we all could learn from our engagement with Brian’s ten questions.
Join the Conversation
What heart issues are preventing us from speaking the truth in love?