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Sunday, May 06, 2007

A New Kind of Christian

A review of A New Kind of Christian (2001)
by Brian McLaren
My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

The cover jacket of McLaren’s 2001 publication states that this book is “a tale of spiritual renewal for those who thought they had given up on church.” It is an engaging work written in the form of a dialogue between burned-out Pastor Dan and his philosophical and culturally-engaged friend, Neo, a school teacher and former Pastor. The source of Pastor Dan’s burnout goes back to a feeling of a lack of authenticity and feeling amongst his institutionalized church. Dan has questions about doctrine and faith, some of which he cannot vocalize or is even aware of, but as he engages in an ongoing dialogue with Neo many of these troubling issues are identified and discussed.

As we look back over the course of the story, however, the fundamental source of Dan’s discouragement is in the fact that for Dan’s church/congregation doctrine, practice, and church life has been drained of meaning. The church has become institutionalized such that it is now simply a conduit for recycling and repeating what has been passed down from the previous generations. The doctrinal watchdogs are keeping score on Pastor Dan’s sermons, there is no effort to engage the questions and concerns of the culture, and those who are seeking a fresh expression of faith and evangelism are stifled by the church’s rigid atmosphere. In short, the church lacks vitality and energy. It has been drained of any authentic and genuine expression of deep spiritual meaning. Pastor Dan is ready to resign. He feels disingenuous and stale. This is the setting for a lively dialogue and exchange between Pastor Dan and Neo.

Smattered throughout the book are various philosophical/theological/hermeneutical issues, but more important than all of this is to understand that the fundamental point of A New Kind of Christian is that a significant shift has taken place from the “Modern” to “Postmodern” period and that the church must respond in order for the Christian faith to be a meaningful and vital source of spiritual change and renewal. The dialogue between Dan and Neo is presented, not so much to give answers or solutions to this new paradigm of the Postmodern, rather, it is simply to highlight the new paradigm and issue a call for change and creativity. Throughout the book it is evident that the proposed changes are only proposals and not an extensive treatise. This book, then, is truly a call for those “who thought they had given up on church”, and the suggestion is that the change of paradigm has left many searching for a new, more relevant expression of faith. This search is a search for a new kind of Christian.


As we reflect on this book now six years after publication it has proven to strike a resonating chord amongst Christians across the United States, and even around the world. There are clearly many who can relate with the discouragements of Pastor Dan and Neo. What is less clear are the reasons why. Has the church become a place where difficult questions are not explored? Did the church get comfortable and is now failing to engage the new Postmodern culture? Has the church burned many people with overly-zealous regulations or with excessive judgmentalism? Was there a turn to show-and-tell Christianity? Has whatever is happening been entirely the fault of traditional Christianity, as this book would suggest? Or are there many who are simply looking for the next exciting church fad? We might suggest that there are a myriad of factors, working in conjunction with each other. Yet regardless of the reasons A New Kind of Christian has captured the hearts of many, and to miss this heart-to-heart connection is to miss the impact of the book.

McLaren uses the character of Neo to suggest that there has been a dramatic paradigm change. The following is from a lecture that Neo is giving to college students:

Change is ever-present, and nearly all generations see themselves as generations of change. And they’re right. But let me make a distinction between change and transition…all ages are ages of change, but not all ages involve transition. You young mean and women happen to have been born at a time of transition. If you keep on doing the same old things with the same old tools – the tools you have inherited from my generation and my friend Mr. Poole’s generation – you’ll make a mess of things. (40)

So, McLaren makes a distinction between change, which happens in all generations and transition, which seems to represent a more distinct break with the past. This renders the “old tools” ineffective. This paradigm shift represents the heart of McLaren’s book, and A New Kind of Christian was written because we live in a new kind of world. The extent of the paradigm shift is, of course, a matter of debate. Some would suggest that the changes occurring are reminiscent of the shift from the Medieval period into the so-called Modern period. Others would suggest that this overstates the case, and that we are still in the Modern period, which has only hit something of a bump in the road.

A thorough evaluation of the paradigm shift is beyond the scope of this book review. Suffice it to say that it is simply too early to tell. But the question of whether or not we live in a new kind of world is essential to whether or not we need a new kind of Christian, is it not? The actions of the church have ramifications for our world both now and in the future. On the one hand, to fail to recognize a paradigm shift would be devastating. The other potential error is to believe that a paradigm shift has taken place when, in fact, no significant turn has occurred. It would seem that the latter mistake would be much less cause for concern than the former. To overreact would seem to represent less of a threat than to live in denial as history passes the church by.

We return to Neo’s lecture, which addresses just this point:

Most of your peers live in a different world from you. They have already crossed the line into the postmodern world. But few of you have. Why? Because you want to be faithful to the Christian upbringing you have received, which is so thoroughly enmeshed with modernity. One of the most important choices you will make in your whole lives will be in these few years at this university. Will you continue to live loyally in the fading world, in the waning light of the setting sun of modernity? Or will you venture ahead in faith, to practice your faith and devotion to Christ in the new emerging culture of postmodernity? (38)

At the conclusion of the lecture a student named Ruth responds:

I don’t really have a question, but I just wanted to say that everywhere in my life except here and at church, I think I am postmodern. But I think when I go anyplace religious or Christian, I just sort of switch. It’s like I click into my parents’ way of thinking for an hour, and then I switch back. It’s really cool to think that I might not have to keep switching back and forth and could just be one person all the time. (44)

McLaren through the mouthpiece of his characters is making the point that a cultural revolution has occurred and that many of those who are younger must make a decision as to whether or not they will “venture ahead in faith” or “live loyally in the fading years” and maintain a commitment to the Modern church. For McLaren there is clearly an either-or at work here. On his view the church is “enmeshed with modernity.” This suggests a lack of ability to respond to a culture that is “emerging.” This point is significant and goes to both the strength and weakness of the book. By painting with such broad strokes and presenting massive historical/cultural generalizations McLaren can issue a clear call to arms for the church to respond to the emerging culture. This is surely a strength to the book. McLaren is, in this sense, a prophet.

However, his strength is simultaneously his weakness in that such generalizations can be overly-simplistic if the nuances of the emerging culture are not appreciated. For example, would we say that culture is emerging in the same way in the so-called “fly over States” in the United States as it is in New York City, Seattle, Houston, or other metro areas? Certainly not. One cannot possibly apply these general categories to each, specific context and culture. This, of course, is a point that McLaren would acknowledge. He surely appreciates these distinctions and nuances. However, the point of A New Kind of Christian is to awaken the church to action and to issue a call to “those who thought they had given up on church.” As such, there really is no room to discuss in depth the fact that the Modern v. Postmodern distinction may not be very helpful to many contexts. In fact, as fast as culture is emerging these categories are already being dismissed by some as irrelevant.

As I conclude I want to highlight the last citation made above. The respondent at Neo’s lecture, Ruth, mentions that she made a switch to transition back into her parent’s way of thinking when she went to church. From the context it is evident that for Ruth this did not seem to be a conscious transition of thinking, but a subconscious switch that occurred apart from her own realization. This, I think, is profound, and goes to the heart of this book and the current discussion of the role of the church in contemporary culture. If Ruth’s response is indicative of a large scale of Christian believers then I think the situation is grave and extremely dangerous. Without realizing it Ruth’s faith was the faith of the previous generation, but was not the faith of her generation. This goes to the question of meaningfulness. Can a believer’s faith be considered meaningful if it is not something relevant to the contemporary generation?

My experiences are admittedly limited. However, from my observations many in the previous generation of believers have passed down the faith that was meaningful for them, and seem to be at something of a loss as to why so many of those raised in the church are struggling to find the faith meaningful for them. For some believers there is the assumption that the meaningfulness of faith should be more or less the same for all believers across all of time. But if McLaren is correct that a significant shift in culture and thinking has taken place, then the current challenge of the faithful is for the current generation to find a God who is breaking through onto the contemporary scene and into the hearts and lives of the faithful in the now.

In short, if it is true that culture has transitioned, then the church faces a crisis of meaning. I give this book five stars and highly recommend it because I believe that Christians in my generation and in the next generation are face to face with a profound crisis of meaning, and I think that McLaren's A New Kind of Christians can help the church begin a dialogue on the meaning of faith in the contemporary culture.

11 comments:

Melody said...

So I'm interested...

Obviously Christianity has survived more than one time based cultural shift and been accepted in many ethnic cultures around the world, some dramatically different from ours.

Do you think that when Christianity has ventured into these other cultures that it has faced similar situations?

Where new Christians produced at that time? Were Christians facing the same choice of hanging on to the old or discovering something new...or was the shift more subtle than this?

I think that it definately has happened before, but most of the shifts I can think of where earth shatteringly huge...do you think the shift/transition that McLaren is talking about is that huge or on a smaller scale? In either case, what kind of things changed and what stayed the same?

I'm also curious, because this has alot, alot to do with culture, how this would affect people in other countries where postmodernism may not be a way of life? I have no idea how postmodern countries outside North America and progressive Europe are, but I imagine it isn't the same as here.

ktismatics said...

This is an interesting post and I'd like to comment further, but it might not be until tomorrow.

The biggest growth area for Christianity these days is Africa. Christians and Muslims are running neck and neck in converting the practitioners of the old tribal religions -- who I'd say definitely aren't postmodern. Europe is a much less churched place than the US. There are Christian missionary organizations from America than send missionaries to "post-Christian" Europe. I met an American guy who runs a mission church in Scotland (they meet in a pub).

France might be the home of most of the famous postmodern philosophers, but I'm not sure postmodernity as a big cultural change is on people's minds very much. I also doubt that it's the reason why Christianity isn't happening here. This is a historically Catholic country, so it's already suspect from an evangelical perspective. I get the sense (from reading mostly) that the two world wars really injected a lot of skepticism into the Europeans (and also the Jews). People are still nominally Christian for the most part, but are pretty much Christmas and Easter churchgoers. America was settled by strongly religious people, and that has left its mark on the culture ever since.

ktismatics said...

Being part neither of the Church nor of Generation Y, I probably ought to just keep my mouth shut...

...the fundamental source of Dan’s discouragement is in the fact that for Dan’s church/congregation doctrine, practice, and church life has been drained of meaning. Who is the church supposed to be meaningful to? What's it supposed to be meaningful about? If the church is supposed to be meaningful in and of itself, it becomes (as they say in PoMo lingo) a signifier cut loose from what it signifies and from those to whom it signifies. It becomes a set of structures and interrelationships and movements that never get out of themselves -- kind of like a schizophrenic who repeats the same ritualized behaviors over and over not because of some hope that eventually this task will reach completion but because the circuit-breaker doesn't work any more. Or is the church still committed to ritual and rigidity because of a compulsive fear of losing control?

But the question of whether or not we live in a new kind of world is essential to whether or not we need a new kind of Christian, is it not? So would you say that prior generations of Christians were content to be bored and tyrannized by guilty conscience and rendered comfortably numb, and not until your generation did people finally begin to see something beyond all that? Sorry, I started slipping into sarcasm there. Put it this way: I believe that in every generation most people want the same old things, whatever they happen to be; that only an exceptional few want something different, maybe even something better; that the world runs in ruts that are hard to climb out of, and most people are reasonably content to stay in those ruts because it's the ruts themselves that offer contentment; that boredom and irrelevance are both the blessing and the curse of such lives; that these phenomena affect the churched and the unchurched alike.

"Will you continue to live loyally in the fading world, in the waning light of the setting sun of modernity? Or will you venture ahead in faith, to practice your faith and devotion to Christ in the new emerging culture of postmodernity?" "Fading world, "waning light, "setting sun," "venture ahead," "new" -- these are words of modernity extolling the progressive movement from a dead past to a brighter tomorrow. "It’s really cool to think that I might not have to keep switching back and forth and could just be one person all the time." This sense of the unified self is another feature of modernity. In short, I'm wondering whether McLaren isn't just offering his ideal modernist vision of what the cutting edge looks like and packaging it for the "young people," who in modernity always see themselves as the torch-bearers into the brighter tomorrow.

Jonathan Erdman said...

So would you say that prior generations of Christians were content to be bored and tyrannized by guilty conscience and rendered comfortably numb, and not until your generation did people finally begin to see something beyond all that?...I believe that in every generation most people want the same old things, whatever they happen to be; that only an exceptional few want something different, maybe even something better; that the world runs in ruts that are hard to climb out of, and most people are reasonably content to stay in those ruts because it's the ruts themselves that offer contentment; that boredom and irrelevance are both the blessing and the curse of such lives; that these phenomena affect the churched and the unchurched alike.

Good thoughts. Firstly, the issue is not that the previous generation did not have a meaningful and passionate faith. Rather, it is just that the expression of this faith and the way in which the faith was articulated and "worked out" in thought and praxis (and existentially) was in a particular way. Yet the old expression of faith must be made meaningful to the next generation, otherwise it slips into meaninglessness and irrelevancy.

Reflect on it from your hermeneutical study of texts: Once written a text becomes its own entity. It stands alone. The author dies, but the text lives on. The text was meaningful to the author, but it remains to be seen whether it will be meaningful to anyone else. And if it will be meaningful, how will it be meaningful?

That's how I look at the passing along of the faith. Yet what complicates things now is that the fundamental way in which the "postmodern" generation processes the world has dramatically changed. This is, perhaps, where I would disagree with your above comments that seem to indicate a codgerly and staunch view of the world that sees everyone as more or less static. Whether or not you are right might be something of another debate, but my observations from inside the church indicate that the next generation(s) are having a hard time finding meaning in the previous generation's expressions of faith, particularly of the strong epistemological turn that Evangelicalism has taken and maintained and cultivated.

I think this is because of a significant shift in how we process the world. You may disagree and view humanity as essentially static. Whatever the case may be I believe that the reason A New Kind of Christian and other books are so popular is due in large part to a need to restate and re-articulate the faith in this generation. This is exciting a lot of Christians, but at the same time making many believers very, very uncomfortable.

Jonathan Erdman said...

"Fading world, "waning light, "setting sun," "venture ahead," "new" -- these are words of modernity extolling the progressive movement from a dead past to a brighter tomorrow....In short, I'm wondering whether McLaren isn't just offering his ideal modernist vision of what the cutting edge looks like and packaging it for the "young people," who in modernity always see themselves as the torch-bearers into the brighter tomorrow.

That's a good catch, and an insightful thought. I think I'm inclined to agree with you on this one.

I think this also goes to the debate on what "postmodernism" is. How much of it is radical and new - a decisive break from modernity - or how much of it is a continuation of modernity and an attempt to build a better modernity, but just call it post-modernity...

ktismatics said...

Yet the old expression of faith must be made meaningful to the next generation, otherwise it slips into meaninglessness and irrelevancy. I'm curious what kinds of expressions would have been attractive to the last couple generations that conveys less meaning to your generation. Organ music vs. guitars? Propositions vs. narratives? Potlucks vs. wine tastings? Expository preaching vs. whatever comes next? Inerrancy vs. errancy? To me some cultural changes just seem like passing fads, while others seem like improvements. Both fads and improvements have been part of every generation. Is there something else about contextual relevance that can't be described either as fad or improvement?

...my observations from inside the church indicate that the next generation(s) are having a hard time finding meaning in the previous generation's expressions of faith, particularly of the strong epistemological turn that Evangelicalism has taken and maintained and cultivated. What do you mean by the epistemological turn? You'd say that it has increased in the last couple generations? And you'd say that your generation doesn't find as much meaning in epistemology as did prior generations? Please elaborate.

ktismatics said...

No? Okay, I'll leave it alone.

Jonathan Erdman said...

"Expressions"

Yes. I think that you could reduce "expressions" of faith as something of a fad. My response, however, is that faith has to be something of a fad in the current context in order for it to be meaningful. So, organ music is a relevant expression of worship for one generation, and in another generation they need the guitar.

I, too wonder about the difference between contextual relevance and "fad". Isn't a "fad" the ultimate in contextualization? Of course, none of us want to reduce ourselves completely down to a "fad", right? We want something more "timeless" and "universal."

Ktismatics:
What do you mean by the epistemological turn? You'd say that it has increased in the last couple generations? And you'd say that your generation doesn't find as much meaning in epistemology as did prior generations? Please elaborate.

The epistemological turn of which I speak has to do with my review of Carson's book. I just get the sense that by-and-large the movers and shakers of the Evangelical world kind of take for granted that knowledge and epistemology should be privileged. But I think that for many in this Postmodern era there is an existential crisis of meaning. I truly believe that epistemological issues are important, but personally I see no reason to privilege knowledge.

ktismatics said...

I think that for many in this Postmodern era there is an existential crisis of meaning. What is the nature of this crisis, would you say? Is it that the people inside the church no longer find their religion to have much meaning, or that people outside the church no longer find much meaning in their secular lives? My sense is that you're talking about the people on the inside, that the church seems out of touch with the real concerns of life. Okay, I can see that. I just wonder what it was about prior generations that they didn't experience this sense of disconnect between church and life.

My prior suggestion was that in every generation there's a minority of dissatisfied but idealistic Christians who want more than just a Sunday ritual, while the rest are fairly content. But maybe the contentment of the rest is slipping, the old routines are getting replaced by new routines that have nothing to do with the church. Since I'm out of that scene I don't know. Would you say that's true, that the kind of people who in prior generations used to warm the pews and go to potlucks now just drift off into other things?

Jonathan Erdman said...

K,

With the diversity in the American church both in the present and in the past it is really hard to offer intelligent commentary, but I guess that's never stopped me before...

I think the living of life and our perspectives and outlook has changed so much that I think many people struggle with how to personalize faith in a relevant way. I think that in the past it might have been meaningful to simply have some theology or doctrine that you believed, but in this culture all beliefs are pretty much considered on equal ground. Doctrines are a dime a dozen. If those of us from the church try to converse with the average "man on the street" and tell him how our beliefs are the true ones the man on the street just kind of nods and smiles and says, "That's nice."

We live in the post-secular society where we are not altogether sure that we can live without spirituality, but not altogether sure how to go about a meaningful spirituality if, in fact, there is really no god out there.....This crisis of meaning affects the church as well. It's just that I think most of us aren't really having serious discussions about it. Some of our Pastors tell us we need take a hard line on truth, but this just doesn't seem to translate in the real world.

ktismatics said...

Thanks, good thoughts.