Further ‘Adventures in Missing the Point’: What’s at the center?

First, watch this discussion between Scot McKnight and Brian McLaren wherein McKnight questions McLaren about some of his more confusing contentions in his books. Namely: (1) Why not just come out and tell people what you believe? (2) How do you square what you are rejecting in A New Kind of Christianity with your earlier affirmations in A Generous Orthodoxy? and (3) You seem to be coming out as a universalist…Is this so? And if it is, what led you to becoming a universalist?

I won’t address all of McLaren’s answers to these questions (although I think you would do well to consider them yourself), but one part specifically bothered me. During the talk, McLaren said this:

“To me, there is a peculiar problem in a lot of religious readers, where their approach is ‘I don’t care what the person might have to say to me, I want to know if he’s right.’ And so they go into the reading experience, or the discussion experience, with an assumption that they’re already right, they already see things the way they should be, and they’re kind of going with a checklist: ‘Is he right on this? Is he right on this? Is he right on this?’

The experience of that for a writer like me — and I was a pastor and preacher for many years and it was the same in preaching — is when you’re in the presence of those people, it feels like an inquisition. And they’re doing a kind of constant heresy hunt. My personal feeling is that there’s a place for that, but maybe we could say, ‘Those who live by the sword, die by the sword; those who live by boundary-maintenance die by boundary-maintenance; those who live by heresy-hunting die by heresy-hunting,’ and so there are consequences to that.

So that’s the first thing I would say, it’s interesting that some people, that’s the way they read a book, ‘What does he believe about this and this.’

For example, when I wrote a book Everything Must Change, I was stunned that people would read that book (where I talked about poverty, I talked about war, I talked about the environment) and all they wanted to talk to me about was atonement theory. And I thought, ‘25,000 children are dying from preventable diseases today, and that just gets passed by.’ So to me, that’s a significant problem.”

I want to be extremely careful with this. I’m aware that questioning his answer simply fits me into the “heresy-hunting” category. I don’t want to be criticized for passing by something he happens to think is important to what I happen to think is important. And I certainly don’t want to ignore the 25,000 children dying from preventable diseases, nor do I want to ignore pointless wars or catastrophic oil spills. If that’s what heresy-hunters do, he’s absolutely right: That’s a significant problem.

But the primary problem here is not what they’re passing by, but what he is. Notice the telling look of disgust on McLaren’s face when he says “atonement theory.” I get what McLaren’s trying to do here — all he wants to talk about is pressing social issues, but these annoying fundamentalists keep getting hung up on what he says about the cross. How frustrating.

McLaren has just taken two issues and hierarchically switched them. To Brian, the critical issue he is concerned about also happens to be the critical issue Jesus is concerned about: that the gospel be “good news to the poor” (as he expressed at the beginning of the video). And “the poor” means the monetarily poor, the oppressed, the rejected, the outcasts, etc. The center of the gospel for McLaren is Jesus reaching down to earth and rescuing the poor from what the rich have done to them, saving them from the worst kind of sin — social injustice. The atonement, then, exists to serve Jesus’ ultimate mission of making things on earth like they are in heaven.

That all sounds great. And I’m all for the gospel being good news for the poor, and I think Jesus did come to rescue the oppressed. I’m not about to do away with any of that.

But  it seems that getting in the way of McLaren’s message in Everything Must Change is dotting his i’s and crossing his t’s on his atonement theory. And this is where we start to get at the heart of McLaren’s big mistake. To McLaren, atonement theory is just that; a theory. It doesn’t necessarily come from divine revelation. Even the New Testament is a human understanding of a spiritual reality. The Bible is a “cultural library” (as he puts it in chapter 2 of A New Kind of Christianity) that helps us understand what people throughout history have thought about God; it isn’t divinely inspired (except that it “inspires”) and it doesn’t have any real authority (that would make it too much like a constitution, after all, and the Bible is a narrative). That’s all theology really is — humans speculating about God.

But atonement theory should not be the secondary issue McLaren makes it out to be. To McLaren’s critics, the atonement is the core of the Christian faith. It is a message of “first importance — that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the Scriptures” (I. Cor. 15). Paul has a message for Timothy that is “trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (I Tim. 1:15). “We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2). These words are important lessons, McLaren’s caricature of the Bible as a constitution notwithstanding.

If Jesus is a “propitiation” for our sins, he must be propitiating something. And even if you don’t like that word and would prefer “atoning sacrifice” or whatever, something is still being atoned for. It’s sin. Our sin. And that’s the worst kind. We’ve transgressed against God (which has social effects to be sure), and Jesus offers himself in our place. But McLaren doesn’t like talking about Jesus like that; it’s too much like the Greco-Roman narrative rather than the Jewish one. And so he pushes the atonement to the side and calls it the “atonement theory” that Christians get hung up on, and doesn’t really help us aid 25,000 dying children.

McLaren’s universalist tendencies come into play here, too. What’s the best thing we can do for 25,000 children dying of preventable diseases? Yes, feed them, help them, cure them — even better, adopt them. We have the means, praise the Lord. But if we give them bread without offering them the Bread of Life, we accomplish nothing. They will still perish because they’ve sinned, and we never offered them Jesus, the righteous. We don’t make hell go away by ignoring it, any more than ignoring the fire will keep our house from burning down. But then we come alongside the person who’s lost their house and say “I know you’re house is gone, but I know of something better.” Or, “I know you have no drinkable water, but I know of a water that will truly quench your thirst.”

That’s good news to the poor.

Monday Morning Press (8/16)

Hipster Christianity. Brett McCracken (who writes excellent movie reviews for Christianity Today, by the way) just released an important book titled Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Last week, he wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal which you can view here.

Anne Rice. Old news by now, but former vampire fiction writer Anne Rice announced recently on her Facebook page that she has “quit being a Christian.” This comes after she recommitted to Catholicism in 2001 (in fact, NYC’s Redeemer Presbyterian did a series of celebrity testimony videos called “New Birth Portraits,” and Anne Rice used be on there, but is no longer). She uses the common “I love Jesus but hate the church/religion” justification. Let’s pray for her.

Awesome. This is awesome:

A Barehanded Grasp. Excellent piece from blogger and Mets fan Matthew Callan, and how baseball (specifically, David Wright’s ridiculous catch in 2005 is related to one of his life’s hardest times. (HT: Ted Berg)

I don’t even know what to call this. One of the most bizarre stories I’ve ever heard. Here’s a taste from the NY Daily News story lede:

A JetBlue flight attendant blew his top, grabbed some beer and bolted out an emergency slide at Kennedy Airport Monday – then headed home to have sex with his boyfriend.

Wait, what?

Ever wanted to quit your job in the worst/most awesome way possible? Then this (former) JetBlue flight attendant is your hero. Also, the Daily News put three reporters on a pretty short story (!).

Because optimism is what fall camp is for. This tweet about Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson’s improvement is from a guy who works for BTN. It probably means nothing, but it’s cool that Denard is now Pat White 2.0 in my imagination, at least.

Shutter Island explanation. I finally watched Shutter Island this weekend with some buddies, and loved it. If you haven’t seen it, do so, then click on the explanation (SPOILERZ!) link. The guy knows what he’s talking about, and he will crush all your hidden meaning inside the hidden meaning fantasies.

Reading Lists. If, like me, you want a more organized reading life, check out this post at 9Marks by Juan Sanchez. And I would add: If you’re the theology-reading type (and I’m one of you), please be sure to read some fiction. Seriously. Most Bible students eat their vegetables, but never their fruit. Don’t be that guy.

Another Inerrancy War. Al Mohler sounds off on recent developments in the inerrancy debate.

N.T. on C.S. (or, Tom on Clive)

I love Reformed people. And I well should — they’re Christians just like me, and I’m a Calvinist just like them. I love this Young, Restless, Reformed movement too; college students committed to the doctrines of grace and the sovereignty of God in salvation. I read Calvin, Luther, Augustine, Edwards, Spurgeon, MacArthur, Keller, Driscoll, Carson, Schreiner and Piper (especially Piper) like the rest and best of them.

But some things become fashionable for some wrong reasons. And in the Young Reformed camp, it’s become fashionable to rail on N.T. (Tom) Wright — the most popular (but far from the only) evangelical voice in favor the New Perspective on Paul.

If you’re not familiar with the debate over this term, here’s an entirely simplistic and unfair summary: A few scholars challenge Lutheran and Reformed interpretations of Paul’s teaching on the doctrine of justification, other scholars take umbrage, the scholars have their scholarly cat fight for a decade or three, then enter Tom Wright who tweaks the NPP scholars a bit and offers a new reading of Paul, which finds it’s way into pop Christian (sub)culture, an alarmed Calvinist pastor named John Piper writes a book about how Wright is wrong, Wright writes a book in response about how Piper is wrong about Wright, the two talk past each other for awhile, culminating in what was supposed to be an epic Piper-Wright cage match in Atlanta this fall.* It’s an extremely complicated debate and you would do well to read extensively if not exhaustively before offering your opinion on it.

As critical as this debate is, I think it’s easy for we Reformed folk to turn Tom Wright into the crazy liberal theologian of our time. This is unfair. Wright is one of the most gifted and accessible Christian thinkers alive, and it’s a shame that we (myself included) have so vilified him. He’s a prolific author (and unlike many theologians, he’s actually a really good writer), a gifted musician (he wrote an oratorio!), what I’ve read in his ” *blank* For Everyone” series has been incredibly helpful, his insights into Jesus have been formative for my thinking, and he wrote one of the most thorough reasonable treatments of the Resurrection available.

So, while I still have my reservations about justification, Tom Wright is on our side. It’s silly to suggest otherwise. I was reminded of this today as I read an article he wrote about C.S. Lewis for Touchstone after re-reading Mere Christianity, “Simply Lewis.”

I think Lewis and Augustine have something remarkable in common: pretty much every Christian demographic claims them as influences. There are surely a number of reasons for this, but for Lewis this is even more curious. As Wright points out, he was leery about penal substitution, wishy-washy on election, didn’t care about or believe in inerrancy, and allows for salvation through Christ-figures in other religions (most famously at the end of his final Narnia book, The Last Battle). If he sets aside so many Evangelical linchpins, why do so many Evanglicals like him?

Wright, who writes that he thinks differently than Lewis on a number of issues, offers this: Sometimes we give Lewis a fair listen (even if we end up disagreeing) because we don’t just want to know where he’s going, but how he’s going to take us there:

Part of the reason for the appeal of Mere Christianity is of course that—like virtually everything Lewis wrote—it remains a splendid read. Lewis is feisty and lyrical, funny and moving, full of brilliant images, similes, and extended metaphors.

Even when they don’t work as well as they might … they take our minds darting to and fro, leaping over hedges and ditches, constantly glimpsing the countryside from new angles and with the fresh air of intelligent argument in our lungs.

Reading someone like this, you want to believe him—a dangerous position, perhaps. He takes us, as it were, into his confidence, drawing us aside gently by the arm and whispering, “You and I aren’t concerned with things like that. . . .” We are flattered to be his companions on the way, to know (because he tells us) that this isn’t simply a “religious jaw” (remarkable how dated that language sounds, and yet how easily today’s reader skips over it) and that we who think like this are actually in the know while some—including some clergy, because Lewis isn’t above a quick jibe in that direction—are missing out.

And, even more convincingly, this: Often, he pretends to be “one of us.” Or is he pretending?

There’s a good reason why we allow Lewis to lead us on. There is a real, not a pretend, humility about his “only-a-simple-layman” stance. For some of the time, as I shall suggest, he is a professional pretending to be an amateur; for much of the time, he’s a gifted amateur putting some of the professionals to shame; sometimes he’s an amateur straightforwardly getting things wrong (and note what he says about paying attention to Freud when he’s on his professional topic but not when he’s writing as an amateur!).

But he constantly says, “If this doesn’t help, go on to the next bit, which may,” and he seems really to mean it. In particular, when he’s talking about the struggles and strains of trying to live as a Christian, we know we are listening to someone who has been struggling and straining.

Finally, one of the great problems I have with Lewis is regarding the logic of his apologetics. It doesn’t always really make sense. Wright provides a possible reason:

So to the first section, where Lewis, as often elsewhere, uses a kind of the moral argument for the existence of God. We all know the moral law; and we all know we break it; and isn’t this odd? I think this is powerful and important, and indeed I paid homage to Lewis when I wrote Simply Christian by beginning with a similar, though not identical, argument about justice, and then extending it to the puzzles we find today about spirituality, relationships, and beauty.

But I’m not sure that Lewis’s point ultimately works as an argument. I think drawing attention to this kind of phenomenon alerts us to questions that should be asked, but not necessarily to a line ofreasoning that will then automatically lead the thinker inexorably upwards, as Lewis tries to do, first to the affirmation of God and then to the affirmation of the Christian God.

The virtue of this first section, I think, lies not in the fact that it makes a convincing argument as such, but that it highlights features of human existence that are puzzling and interesting and point beyond themselves. Thus this first section performs its function, it seems to me, despite its actual intention.

Lewis was trying to argue step by step, but I think he succeeds in engaging and interesting people sufficiently to move them forwards despite the fact that the logic doesn’t quite work. I would be interested to hear what other apologists say about this.

Again, read the excellent piece here. And Reformed friends: take it easy. Hold your convictions, but remember: Like we do with Lewis, in 50 years Christians may well be reading a lot more of N.T. Wright than of John MacArthur. And you know what? That really is okay.

*This is the annual Evangelical Theological Society meeting on justification, and Wright and Piper were supposed to be the plenary speakers. Sadly, Piper took a leave of absence and so will not debate Wright after all. Tom Schreiner is going in his stead (a good *trade*, IMO, but that’s for another post).

Joel Osteen cleans things up

Now I finally understand OT food laws. It was all a health issue after all. Thanks, Joel Osteen! I don’t want to take a chance and put junk in my body, either.

I watched this during lunch and started laughing, but my mother admonished me, telling me that she has friends who would believe something like this. They would eat it up (oops!).

So jokes aside, yeah. I guess this is a serious issue too.

HT: Challies

The Lord of the Rings and Christianity

My 11-year-old brother and I watched “The Return of the King” last week, and the brief reminder from Middle-Earth inspired me to read the books again. So I’m working through “Fellowship” right now and loving it all over again.

Coincidentally, Justin Taylor over at Between Two Worlds linked last week to a series of lectures by Peter Kreeft — a philosophy teacher, Roman Catholic and “Lord of the Rings” admirer. I listened to all three this weekend, and commend them to you. I particularly suggest 10 Uncommon Insights Into Evil from The Lord of the Rings and Christianity in The Lord of the Rings, and the latter strongly. I think he makes a good argument for the Lord of the Rings as Christian sub-creation (though decidedly not allegory). I would add that short of a Christian story, it’s at the very least some extremely helpful (and entertaining!) common grace.

Literature professor Dr. Joseph Pearce spoke on this subject at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary a few years ago as well, and I would recommend this lecture and this forum (part 1 and part 2). Russell Moore runs the forum, so you know it’s good.

Kreeft borrows quite a lot from Tom Shippey’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (which I have read; and am also re-reading), and especially Secret Fire: The Spiritual Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien by Stratford Caldecott. You can find an informative and brief review of the latter here.

Yeah, it was a Lord of the Rings weekend. But a good one. I might post about these things later. I might not.