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.
A LOVE SUPREME
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Sunday, May 06, 2007
A review of A New Kind of Christian (2001)