Within the last week I have read two Brian McLaren books: Adventures in Missing the Point: How the Culture-Controlled Church Neutered the Gospel (with Tony Campolo) and The Last Word and the Word After That (a work of ‘creative nonfiction’, a theological conversation in the — occasionally ill-fitting — garments of a novel). I was generally disappointed with both of them, for various reasons. I may give further thoughts on them in the coming weeks. However, before I do that, I thought that I would raise an issue for discussion.
As I have read McLaren I have begun to wonder whether much of what he is saying is a reaction against a form of conservative Christianity that has allowed itself to become more conservative than Christian. He is addressing a form of Christianity that has become neutered by the American political right. He would not be the first to argue that the liberal/evangelical divide as it plays out in the American Church is all too often a mere shadow of a political divide. In other words, the Church has allowed the story of American politics to become more determinative than the gospel. McLaren is arguing that there are reasons why thinking Christians might have good biblical reasons for siding with the Democrats on many issues.
McLaren is concerned about such issues as social justice and environmentalism and believes that the religious right has tended to downplay these issues. The religious right has fallen prey to escapist eschatologies and views of the Kingdom of God. They have failed to address themselves to issues of injustice within society out of fear of a mere social gospel and have neglected the environment because they believe in the imminent return of our Lord.
McLaren believes that the biblical language of justice has been domesticated by conservative Christianity. God’s righteousness is not seen as cosmic restorative justice, but as something that is primarily concerned with detached individuals. God is relatively unconcerned with placing people back in right relationship with each other, with creation and delivering the poor from oppression. He is more concerned with ensuring that certain detached individuals are rescued from this evil world and put in heaven.
McLaren believes that the portrait of hell presented by many conservative Christians is bound up with this larger problem. The conservative doctrine of hell has the tendency to marginalize the present plight of the poor, ‘by shifting the focus from their poverty on earth to their destination in heaven’ (as Markus argues in TLWATWAT). The need to seek justice on earth is downplayed, as the Church becomes preoccupied with hereafter — ‘going to heaven when you die’.
McLaren suggests (through the voices of his characters) that the language of hell can also be used as power language by conservative Christians. Human injustice is minimized and the all-important thing becomes whether you believe in Jesus in a particular way. The most important question is the fate of particular detached individuals, rather than the question of how God is going to be glorified in setting the world to rights. The threat of hell is held over the sort of (individual and personal) sins that those outside of the middle-class are more prone to commit openly, such as sexual sins and drunkenness. The doctrine of hell serves to justify smug suburbanites in a feeling of moral superiority. Their doctrine of hell, however, has little if anything to say about systemic and social sins that do not directly concern the individual and his soul.
The Gospel that rings true to McLaren is one that has much to say about issues of justice on earth. It speaks to the systemic sins that American conservativism has all too often been guilty of. It is a gospel which puts man back in right relationship with the created order. It is a gospel that forms new communities of forgiveness and reconciliation. It is a gospel that is governed by a more determinative story than that of American politics.
I have deep differences with McLaren on a number of issues (many political issues among them, I would expect), but I think that he is raising important issues that need to be discussed. He is not alone in so doing. From my perspective it seems that scholars such as N.T. Wright are, among other things, removing the muzzle that many in the religious right have placed upon the gospel. The result is uncomfortable for many and may in part explain the reaction that his work has received in different quarters. When everything that you stand for has been justified in terms of a particular domesticated understanding of the gospel, it is very hard to countenance a rethink.
My chief concern is that, in rejecting the gospel of the religious right, Christians will adopt the gospel of the religious left, which is just as false-headed. I believe that the Church needs to reject the left-right political dichotomy altogether and start thinking in terms of distinctively Christian categories. Only then will the gospel begin to have freer expression.