The Barnabas Ministry
Book Review

A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey
Brian D. McLaren (Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA, 2001). 192 pages.

Brian McLaren has written a stimulating book that is simply a must-read for anybody interested in current trends in churches, and doubly so for someone recovering from a rough church experience.

This is a tale of modernism and post-modernism, and if those terms are unknown to you, this book gives a thoughtful discussion of what they mean.

Today, most expressions of the Christian faith have been defined in a modernist context, but with the passage of time that definition is becoming less and less useful. McLaren utilizes a fictional discussion between a pastor and a high school science teacher to discuss the difference between modernism and post-modernism, and how a new approach might solve the problems that modernism cannot solve. To illustrate, let me take excerpts from the science teacher's list defining modernism:

  • An age of conquest and control
  • The age of the machine
  • The age of analysis
  • The age of secular science
  • The age aspired to absolute objectivity
  • A critical age
  • The age of the modern nation-state and organization
  • The age of individualism
  • The age of Protestantism and institutional religion
  • The age of consumerism

These traits are found not just in society, but also in religion. For example, modernist churches seek to define themselves with a precise, analytical approach to doctrine and practice. Evangelism/conversion is seen as a matter of conquest. The quasi-machine idea is advanced that if you just do a, b and c, then x, y and z will result. Organization is critical to modernist churches because it enables control and perpetuating the conquest aspect of conversion. Individualism is a concession, but faith is made an individual thing (what did you do, etc.) instead of a community thing (what did we do?) and is constrained by the judgments of the "sacred science" (to borrow James Lifton's term) embodied in the group's doctrines and practices. In keeping with the near-scientific certainty that modernist solutions bring, it provides wide-ranging controls not only with all of the answers, but also in defining the questions. Anything off the map isn't deemed worthy of discussion, because the precise definition "has it all covered."

The problem with modernism in the church is that it doesn't fit all of the biblical data, nor does it really work in every area of spiritual life. Further, faith wasn't intended to be broken down into the atomistic set of beliefs and practices that often define churches today. If God wanted us to have a list of things to believe and do, he certainly could have provided that.  But biblical revelation is given in a human and historical context, and modernistic approaches fall short of capturing it.

Modernism was a wonderful instrument that brought us out of the medieval age. But it could only take us so far. To quote the science teacher character of McLaren's tale:

... like a contract or constitution that is updated with more and more footnotes, fine print and other amendments, people try to keep the old contract alive, but eventually the amendments outweigh the original document, and someone says, ""Why don't we just start over from scratch on a new one?" (p. 32-33).

McLaren's tale winds us through a pastor's experiences, how modernist definitions and solutions just don't fit, but how there has to be something out there that is a better fit with Scripture and life. He tells the tale in an entertaining, captivating way as his pastor character wrestles with what to do with his problematic modernistic paradigm both as a pastor and as a believer.

This book will speak to victims of spiritual abuse in a special way. I can see my own bad church experience has its roots in the whole modernist way of doing things. If church leaders buy into a modernist mindset with just a pinch of zeal and naiveté, people will go through a predictable cycle of learning, excitement, disenchantment and disengagement. If you throw in other factors that make the success of the system more important (like the needs of leadership to prove itself), a modernist approach can become a mighty tool for abuse. But even if those factors aren't there, people in a modernist situation might be accused of failure, apostasy or heresy if they suggest the approach isn't adequate.

If this pattern sounds familiar to you-- read the book! You'll find a great tale of healing that speaks both to the Scriptures and to your experience. And for everybody else, A New Kind of Christian provides plenty of food for thought about putting faith into our post-modern context.

Copyright © 2006 John Engler. All rights reserved.

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