The Christian faith must be born again, says one prominent pastor.
And to be born again, Christians must be unlocked from "a prison" of long-held assumptions and have the freedom to ask honest questions, Brian McLaren indicates in his newest book, A New Kind of Christianity.
He's not advocating for a new set of beliefs, he says, but rather a "new way of believing."
The proposal doesn't seem like anything new for those familiar with McLaren, who presented A New Kind of Christian nine years ago. But some say his latest book paints a more vivid picture of the emergent church pastor and his beliefs.
"This new book is easily the clearest presentation of McLaren's theology to date," Reformed pastor Kevin DeYoung recently wrote in his blog.
McLaren grew up in a conservative evangelical home and became a committed disciple in his teen years. He considered going into the Episcopal ministry but became an English teacher instead, determined that he could "do more good for the spiritual cause outside the institutional church than inside of it." Without having planned it, he later became a full-time pastor, leading a group of people that had been meeting at his home every week.
Today, after serving as a pastor for more than 30 years, he often sees picketers and leaflets labeling him as "dangerous," "controversial" and "unbiblical" when he visits churches around the world to speak. He wonders, "How did a mild-mannered guy like me get into so much trouble?"
He feels it may partly be because he's asking questions – theological ones that are "by and large answered" for most evangelical Christian leaders.
"They're very satisfied with their theology as it is," McLaren told The Christian Post. But he's not. Hence, the quest for a new kind of Christianity.
"Some people seem to believe that all of those [theological] interpretations are easy and clear, that their church or denomination has nailed them down or figured them out. And I just don't think it's that simple," McLaren said. "I think we're in a constant struggle to understand the truths more deeply and we have to be involved in ongoing, unending repentance where we are willing to say the things that we felt were true maybe were only partially so, so we have more to learn. That to me is part of what being a disciple is."
McLaren once read the Bible through a traditional pair of lens but when he began struggling with questions, he started to view the Scriptures with "fresh eyes."
But he insists he hasn't moved away from certain Christian truths such as the deity of Christ and the authority of Scripture. But he does have some qualms over the "inerrancy" of Scripture.
"The word 'inerrancy' never occurs in Scripture and my concern with inerrancy is that it brings into our discussion about the Bible a set of philosophical assumptions that aren't really necessary and actually can be unhelpful and counterproductive," he commented to The Christian Post.
He believes a lot of Christians read the Bible as a legal constitution.
"[I]n many religious settings, there are no checks and balances, and challenging an authority figure's interpretation can lead to excommunication," he writes in his book. "At least good constitutions can be amended."
The Bible, he argues, is more like an inspired library, one that "preserves, presents, and inspires an ongoing vigorous conversation with and about God, a living and vital civil argument into which we are all invited and through which God is revealed."
Perhaps his main argument against traditional Christianity is what he calls the "Greco-Roman narrative" – or the "unspoken" story line that many Christians hold to. It consists of six lines: Eden, fall, condemnation, salvation, heaven or hell/damnation. It's the six-line narrative that he feels serves as the glasses by which many Christians see everything with.
McLaren questions the entire narrative, including the fall or "original sin" and hell.
He explained to The Christian Post that he struggles with "the idea that humanity has become detestable to God and that it's only the people who become Christians that God can truly love, that their being loved by God through just being God's creatures is somehow destroyed by original sin.
"Along with the idea of original sin is the idea that the problem of sin is primarily a legal problem. In other words, the primary category of sin is a category of guilt and condemnation."
Even more disturbing to McLaren is where the narrative leads to for some – hell.
"That six-line narrative I talk about in the book, as interpreted by many people, suggests that every person who does not say the sinner's prayer, personally accept Christ as their savior will spend eternity – which means absolutely forever without ever any abatement or termination – in conscious torment," he explained. "So every second will be like they're burning in fire, every second they'll be in absolute agony, every second. And so a lot of us find that is not something you can just lightly swallow."
"For example, we're so sad that 230,000 people were killed in a terrible earthquake in Haiti but that involved them suffering for a few minutes and dying. But this is every single person who's ever lived and ever will live who isn't part of one group," he continued. "You think about someone who went through the Holocaust. They were so horribly treated by the Nazis and then the Nazis kill them and then they go to something even worse just because they weren't Christians?
"So many of us Christians are asking the question and we're not asking because we don't want to believe. We're asking because we get a vision of God in Jesus Christ that just doesn't seem to match with that."
Not surprisingly, McLaren's New Kind of Christianity has drawn many critics, some of whom say the proposed new Christianity isn't new at all.
"McLaren's Christianity is not new and certainly not improved," DeYoung, pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Mich., wrote in a review. "I don't believe you can even call it Christianity. It is liberalism dressed up for the 21st century."
Citing 20th Century Theology, DeYoung said McLaren fits the description of a liberal like a glove. Liberals, he cites, believe doctrine needs to develop to meet the needs of contemporary thought; emphasize the need to reconstruct traditional beliefs and reject the authority of tradition and church hierarchy; focus on the practical and ethical dimensions of Christianity; seek to base theology on something other than the absolute authority of the Bible; and drift toward divine immanence at the expense of transcendence.
"The message of McLarenism is pretty simple: God is love and wants everyone to be kind and inclusive and care for the poor and the environment," the Reformed pastor said. While that message itself isn't wrong, "McLarenism" leaves out a lot, DeYoung noted, including creation-fall-redemption, a definite future, the doctrine of justification, and the unchanging apostolic deposit of truth.
Aware that not everyone would like his proposals, McLaren said that ultimately he just wants Christians to understand the questions that are being raised by people all over the world and to discuss them.
"I hope that what this will lead to goes beyond labeling and name calling but that it will lead to substantial and constructive conversation," he said.
But Michael E. Wittmer, associate professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, doesn't see a need for conversation.
"[T]he book ended a conversation that had never really begun," he wrote in a review. "There seems to be little point in discussing this further, but perhaps both sides can agree on this: we have irreconcilably different views on Scripture, God, Jesus, sin, and salvation, and as such it is impossible to unite in a common understanding of the gospel. We are better off going our separate ways, convinced that the other is irremediably wrong and praying that God would bring the other to repentance and to his great salvation. We may not agree on much of anything, but at least we know where we are."
Nevertheless, McLaren says he's trying to be true to the Bible, and he understands the Christian life to be a continual journey with continual learning. He says he'll never finish his quest "to be the person that God wants me to be" in his life.
"And the quest for the Christian faith to become all that God intends it to be, I don't think we'll ever be able to say we've arrived," he said. "In fact the day we say we've arrived is probably one of our most dangerous days of all."