Sunday, November 6, 2016

Book Review: The Great Spiritual Migration,204,203,200_.jpg
The Great Spiritual Migration
(by Brian D. McLaren)

Most people who know me know that I try to keep an open, yet critical mind about new ideas. I will consider the ridiculous, try to get into the shoes of those who believe it; but when I'm done, I'll apply the same ax that I apply to my own beliefs. It is in this vein that I opened up The Great Spiritual Migration and it is under this standard that McLaren's book failed to hold up.

The gist of the book is essentially McLaren's vision for how Christianity needs to change (and in some areas is changing) toward a more progressive/liberal worldview. McLaren tries to paint his story as something balancing / beyond party lines, but the issues he touches on are clearly liberal priorities (minorities, environmentalism, etc.). The book is divided into three parts or "migrations":
  • From a system of beliefs to a way of life
  • From a violent God of domination to a nonviolent God of liberation
  • From organized religion to organizing religion

In part 1, McLaren attempts to sweep away the position of belief in Christianity and replace it with "love." To be sure, McLaren gives lip service to the importance of belief in how it shapes the way we act (at least for one paragraph). But, throughout the rest of the book, he seems to minimize doctrine and focus almost exclusively on "the only thing that matters"--i.e. love. He rightly declares that love is the central command, a core characteristic of God, the royal law for all believers. But, he fails to place that command within the context of the Judeo-Christian framework. If we don't have a proper understanding of how the world works, then the ways in which we try to love may backfire. You may think bringing your wife chocolate is loving, but if she's told you that she is allergic to chocolate your gift may not be accepted so graciously. All the science in the world that says statistically most women love chocolate won't matter.

McLaren's flawed hermeneutic becomes more obvious in part 2. Here, as someone who has some liberal leanings, who sees the problems in the church and the need for reform, I was hoping for some solid theological backing for McLaren's claims. Instead, what I got was a lecture on how our conception of God is constantly evolving and how we need a more "literary" view of Scripture.

I was able to follow McLaren's analogy of our changing conception of God to a child's changing conception of his parents up through "God 4.0". His progression from provider to role model to rule maker to partner loosely mirrors progressive revelation. Loosely. However, when McLaren introduces God 5.0, he makes a leap beyond the text. Models 1-4 built upon each other; model 5 leaves behind previous understandings in its policy of universal acceptance. For example, McLaren talks about "queer theologians who discovered that even though God 4.0 had no room for them, God 5.0 welcomed them to the table--" Do we have a problem in Christianity with setting up an us vs. them paradigm? Yes. But, McLaren's solution of throwing out traditional understandings of God is not the answer.

I was also intrigued by McLaren's "literary" view of Scripture in which the Bible is seen as being multi-vocal (an idea I was first introduced to through Derek Flood's writings). I agree that Scripture contains multiple voices and that the human aspects of the Word have often been minimized. However, I do not agree when McLaren uses this as an authorization to cherry-pick the Scripture. In his own words,
In the presence of these scholars and teachers who read the Bible with literary sensibilities...I felt a new freedom. I felt that I was given permission to migrate from the limited universe of the conventional, exclusive, and often violent Supreme Being to the ever-expanding universe of a more awesome and wonderful God, all while keeping my Bible firmly in hand....In short, I could leave the genocidal God of some biblical passages behind and honor the generous God revealed in Jesus.
In part 3, McLaren outlines his plan for his migratory movement (with much optimism). Throughout this whole section as he outlined the challenges of starting and sustaining a movement and the need for people all over the world across every denomination to join in this "migration" of Christianity, I couldn't help but think back to an article I read just a week ago on Christianity Today about the power of small churches. The majority of Christians meet in small churches. These churches permeate every corner of the globe, impacting their local communities under the radar. But, the most amazing thing about these small churches is the fact that they are un-organized. There is no movement leader, no single denominational chain, no committee directing these churches. They are the work of God alone. Throughout all of McLaren's call toward this commission of the social gospel, I found little to no reference to the role of God in in bringing this change about. Indeed, later in the 3rd appendix, when McLaren talks about a vision for the future (as a core tenet of Christianity), he entirely leaves out the return of Jesus and His reign. Which brings me to my second to final point.

In the 3rd appendix to this book, McLaren expands a bit more on belief. Here he appeals to a quote from Clayton and Knapp as a sort of new definition for Christian identity in how one answers the following question:
Was this an ordinary human life that, thanks to the vivid imagination of early witnesses and later interpreters, took on a false aura of religious significance? Or is there a reason to think that, in the case of Jesus, "something happened"--something, that is of enduring religious importance? More precisely, is there reason to think that the events of Jesus' life and death made the nature and the core dispositions, the ultimate values, of God present to human being in a way that, perhaps, they had never been before, in a way that would have decisive consequences for the relationship between that divine reality and human beings?
This is not Christianity. This is moralism.

I wanted to like this book. I wanted to see a theological grounded argument for why Christianity needs to change and how that can happen. I wanted to be challenged in my thinking. Unfortunately, The Great Spiritual Migration of Christianity seems to be more of a migration from Christianity.

I received a free copy of this book as part of the Blogging for Books program in exchange for my honest review here.

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