By Alan Bean
Brian McLaren knows how it feels to grow up “born again”. Raised within the legalistic and apocalyptic tenets of the Plymouth Brethren, McLaren grew up worshipping an omnipotent Christ who would soon return to wreak vengeance on the enemies of God. Gradually, over a period of decades, McLaren’s theology fell apart. Then, just as gradually, it was replaced by what he calls “a new kind of Christianity.” In fact, that’s the title of his latest book.
I first met Brian at an “Emergent” retreat in Glorietta, New Mexico. Since he was already one of the most influential Christian thinkers in America, I was amazed by his gentle spirit. We were both hammering away at our laptops very early one morning, when McLaren introduced himself. To my great surprise, he showed no inclination to impress me with his latest insight or to dazzle me with a list of celebrities he had encountered on his travels, he wanted to know my story. I told him about the Tulia drug sting, my work with Friends of Justice, and the sense of theological dislocation I had been experiencing. Two things were bothering me. First, church people (especially those who had grown up born again) generally had a hard time relating to my experience. Secondly, I had a strong suspicion that the mindset behind America’s war on drugs had strong affinities with the spirit of of American evangelicalism.
Like the other theologians and Christian intellectuals I have discussed in this space, Brian McLaren rarely addresses the criminal justice system per se; but it doesn’t take a lot of ingenuity to apply his thinking to the war on drugs and American mass incarceration.
Although McLaren has a first-rate theological mind, he isn’t an academic theologian. He writes for pastors and thoughtful laypeople, particularly those who share his hyper-evangelical religious heritage. Not surprisingly, McLaren has been widely demonized in conservative religious circles. His response to this rabid criticism is gently pastoral and utterly uncompromising. Read A New Kind of Christianity and you will understand why Brian McLaren is so frequently reviled as an arch heretic. For instance, Al Mohler (the man who handed me my doctoral diploma in 1994) is an outspoken critic of McLaren’s theology. “Embracing the worldview of the postmodern age,” Mohler writes, McLaren “embraces relativism at the cost of clarity in matters of truth and intends to redefine Christianity for this new age, largely in terms of an eccentric mixture of elements he would take from virtually every theological position and variant.”
McLaren believes that Christian theology has been shaped by “the Greco-Roman mind”. Instead of taking our cue from the teaching of Jesus and the biblical worldview that produced the Christian Messiah, we have fallen captive to a style of thought that is imperial, passionless and dualistic. Instead of reading the Bible as a dynamic conversation within the community of faith, we read it as a static religious constitution.
Consider this brief excerpt from “A New Kind of Christianity”: “The Greco-Roman mind epitomized an ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ in-group versus out-group society, in which ‘we’ are civilized and superior and the rest of the world is barbarian and inferior. To the Greco-Roman mind, the story of the Roman Empire represents the real plotline of history, and every other culture has value only in what it contributes to Greco-Romanism . . . It is hard to overestimate the power of this social dualism. (It is also hard for those of us who inherited it to even see it or imagine seeing without it.) The Greco-Roman dream was to create a high society of philosophical enlightenment and material prosperity, characterized by stasis and order . . . In contrast, the barbarian nations were bumbling along on the lower level, their lives tragically excluded from the noble plane of Greco-Roman civilization. Even within the empire, it was only Roman citizens who really counted: the dualism between free citizens and slaves mirrored the dualism between Roman and barbarian.”
It is often thought that Christianity conquered the Roman Empire, but the radical reformers (also known as Anabaptists) have argued since the 16th century that the Roman Empire conquered Christianity. Thirty years ago, this sounded like crazy talk; today it lies at the heart of the new theological consensus that McLaren calls A New Kind of Christianity.
The Christian doctrine of “the Fall”, McLaren argues, has been superimposed onto a biblical narrative that, interpreted on its own terms, tells a very different story. The Greco-Roman story begins with the unchanging, spiritual, disembodied world of God’s eternity, then plunges into the flesh and blood chaos of history when Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. According to this account, a sinful humanity staggers along in a world of change, flesh, flux and “becoming” until the atoning work of the cross returns us to God’s changeless, disembodied, spiritual bliss.
The standard evangelical diagram of The Fall, McLaren says, looks like this:
The Christian dogma of The Fall is rooted in the Greco-Roman (or Neo-Platonic) understanding of reality:
Traditional Christian theology, McLaren argues, devolves into a “soul-sort narrative” in which the primary issue is separating the sinners (bound for paradise) and the sinners (bound for hell). He is aware that few contemporary evangelicals put the matter this baldly–and this may lie at the root of the hostility McLaren experiences at every turn–he says straight-out what others merely imply.
McLaren calls the Greco-Roman god “Theos” (the Greek word for ‘God’), a supreme being who differs radically from the YAHWEH revealed in the Bible. “Every time we use terms like ‘the Fall’ and ‘original sin,'” McLaren writes, “many of us are unknowingly importing more or less of this package of Greco-Roman, non-Jewish, and therefore nonbiblical concepts like smugglers bringing foreign currency into the biblical economy or tourists introducing invasive species into the biblical ecosystem.”
The doctrine of “hell,” which plays almost no role in the Hebrew Scriptures and is rarely mentioned in the Christian New Testament, takes on a central and controlling significance in the Greco-Roman theological system. “What happens to those who are not saved, justified, atoned for, or otherwise redeemed?” McLaren asks. “Theos can’t permit or command their essence to be extinguished , because that essence is spirit rather than flesh and therefore incurably immortal. Nor can Theos permit the universe to continue for much longer because the whole thing, after all, is fallen and now reeks of . . . decay, and that rotting smell is inherently detestable to Theos . . . So, Theos has no choice, really; this tainted universe and all it contains must be destroyed, which will leave the eternal essences of the unredeemed all undressed with no place to go. So, they are banished to hell–the Greek Hades, intensified and decorated with plenty of borrowings from its Zoroastrian counterpart and seasoned liberally with imagery misappropriated from Jesus’s parables and sermons. And what is hell? It must be a state, since no story can ever exist in a universe purged of change and becoming. That’s why nobody can ever repent and leave it. There is a sign over its infernal, eternally locked gates: ‘DESPAIR ALL WHO ENTER HERE: NO BECOMING ALLOWED'”
McLaren admits that few Christians put things quite this starkly, “But even those who quarrel have to admit that this version, or something very close to it, keeps popping up in church history.” In fact, “Much of the energy of Christian theology, I propose, seeks to save this story from being as barbarous and hideous as it wants to be because of the Greco-Roman lines of thinking that determine its shape . . . But more and more of us are defecting from the project of cosmetically enhancing this story and trying to rehabilitate the image of Theos. We want to try reading the Bible frontward for a while, to let it be a Jewish story that, through Jesus, opens to include all humanity.”
The biblical portrait of God, McLaren suggests, evolves over time from a tribal (and vindictive) deity who plays favorites to the loving father of Jesus who unites all humanity in the Kingdom of God. McLaren is not suggesting that the true character of God evolves (as his critics often allege); rather, our grasp of God’s character has changed over time. He isn’t suggesting that the New Testament view of God is more evolved than the portrait we find in the Hebrew scriptures; but the biblical narratives, Old and New Testament, don’t always present us with a consistent description of God’s character. Evangelicals, even the progressive variety, are forced to fudge on this issue; but McLaren is tired of fudging. Too much is at stake.
If McLaren is right (and I think he is), we should hardly be surprised that Western Christians have gladly embraced a whole string of Antichrist institutions: the Holy Roman Empire, nationalism, colonialism, the slave trade, German National Socialism, American Jim Crow and South African Apartheid. Nor, I would argue, should we be surprised by the close association between Southern evangelicalism, mass incarceration and the death penalty. If a merciless God is poised to pitch sinners into a state of eternal, conscious torment, why shouldn’t we get the ball rolling by sentencing petty drug dealers to virtual life sentences? The promiscuous use of the death penalty makes perfect sense if we our true worship has been deflected from the mericiful Yahweh to the heartless Theos.
Mass incarceration is rooted in a thoroughgoing dualism in which upstanding citizens cast dastardly sinners into the outer darkness “where men shall weep and gnash their teeth”. Unlike the Apostle Paul, Jesus occasionally resorted to hell-talk. But in his teaching, hell was always the destination of the proud, the unforgiving, the domineering, and the unmerciful. The hell of Jesus was simply the natural consequence of hard-hearted living.
What we really need, brothers and sisters, is a creative dialogue between the theological analysis of Brian McLaren and Michelle Alexander’s critique of mass incarceration. That’s a book I may have to write myself.