By Brian McLaren

A Book Review by John Ed Robertson, Dec. 2001

Brian McLaren introduces his third book, which is written in the form of a philosophical dialogue, with The True Story Behind This Story, his account of a crisis he experienced in 1994 at the age of 38, when he got sick of being a pastor. In fact, he was almost sick of being a Christian, because he felt that there was something dreadfully wrong with his expression of his faith. He felt that he was faced with only two alternatives:

  1. Continue practicing and promoting a version of Christianity that I had deepening reservations about.
  2. Leave Christian ministry, and perhaps the Christian path, altogether.

Fortunately, he found a third alternative: Learn to be a Christian in a new way. His thesis is that much of evangelical Christianity is rooted in modernity as much as it is in the Bible, so the cataclysmic cultural shift from modernity to post-modernity that we are presently experiencing made him feel increasingly uncomfortable with defending a version of the faith that he felt was increasingly irrelevant. He writes:

"Either Christianity is flawed, failing untrue, or our modern, Western, commercialized, industrial-strength version of it is in need of a fresh look, a serious revision."

That is a shocking statement, of course, and may sound like heresy to evangelical Christians who are firmly entrenched in modernity. To quote him further:

"To Christians steeped in modernity, to move toward post-modernity can only look like worldliness, declension, decline, sliding away from the truth as they know it. The church has become so accustomed to modernity that it has no idea that Christianity could exist in other than an modern way."

In other words, one may be tempted to jump to the conclusion that McLaren is "going liberal", sacrificing Biblical orthodoxy for the sake of cultural relevance, or even guilty of syncretism. Nothing could be further from the truth. He writes:

"I guess that the first protection (from syncretism) that comes to mind is the Bible. This is why we must always keep coming back to the Bible and doing our best to let it form and unsettle us when necessary. The parts of the Bible that bother you the most are the ones that have the most to teach you."

In fact, he suggests that much of contemporary evangelical Christianity has been guilty of syncretism in anchoring our theology in modernity as much as in the Bible. He notes, for example, that our systematic theologies are themselves a modern phenomenon. He continues:

"Syncretism is usually what Christians who are thoroughly immersed in one culture talk about when Christianity is being influenced by other cultures. So, for example, modern western Christians are very sensitive to a potential syncretism with post-modernity, but they are for the most part pretty oblivious to how enmeshed their version of faith is with modernity. So when evangelicals say that they’re arguing about the Bible’s absolute authority, too often they are arguing about the superiority of the traditional grid through which they read and interpret the Bible."

Although the book is written in the form of a story, McLaren asks the reader to consider the book not as a novel but as a philosophical dialogue, between Dan, an evangelical pastor who is struggling with whether or not to continue in the pastorate, and Neo, an African-American high school science teacher, who turns out to be a former pastor himself. Neo becomes Dan’s mentor and tour guide on the journey from a modern to a postmodern view of Christian faith and ministry.

This story/dialogue format makes the book much more enjoyable to read than an academic volume on post-modernity. In addition, this form is consistent with one of the fundamental aspects of post-modernity, which favors story telling over propositional argument. The author insists that the story is not autobiographical, even though he has undergone a mid-life pastoral crisis in real life much like Dan does in the book. The difference is that McLaren probably did not have a personal mentor like Neo to lead him by the hand through the transition from being a modern Christian to being a post-modern one. This is not an easy transition to make, of course, and it may be easier for a post-modern non-Christian to become a Christian than it is for a modern Christian to become a post-modern one.

In addition to the shortcomings of modernity already mentioned above, Neo shares several others with Dan, including the following thoughts on individualism and materialism:

"An even greater problem, I think, is how modern individualism has truncated our view of sin. Modernity had a great insight. Every individual is valuable and deserves respect. But our individualism has become unbalanced and we have lost the realization of how disconnected we are."
"Have you ever wondered who or what our Caesar is? In my mind it’s our economy of consumption, greed, materialism. I think there are many people who are rendering to Caesar everything that is Caesar’s, and they are also rendering to Caesar much of what they think they are rendering to God."
"I think our definition of ‘saved’ is shrunken and freeze-dried by modernity. We need a postmodern consideration of what salvation means, something beyond an individualized and consumerist version."

McLaren is first and foremost an evangelist. He cares deeply about people who do not yet know Christ, and he believes that the church exists for the sake of those people. For example, he writes:

"God wants to bless the many through the few, not the few to the exclusion of the many. The church doesn’t exist for the benefit of its members, it exists to equip its members for the benefit of the world. The church doesn’t exist to satisfy the consumer demands of believers; the church exists to equip and mobilize men and women for God’s mission to the world."

By contrast, much of modern Christianity has been committed to proving that we are right and they are wrong:

"When it comes to other religions, the challenge was to prove that we’re right and they’re wrong. But I think we have a different challenge in post-modernity. The question isn’t so much whether we’re right, but whether we’re good. And it strikes me that goodness, not just rightness, is what Jesus said the real issue was."

There are some aspects of the book that will be difficult for some readers to accept. For example, at one point, Neo says: In the long run, I’d have to say that the world is better off for having these (other) religions than having no religions at all, or just one, even if it were ours.

I have to admit that I had to swallow a bit hard on that one! In the context of the book, however, it makes more sense. The author is not saying that these other religions are right, but rather that they serve a useful purpose in guiding people to Christ, much as the law was out tutor to bring us to Christ, as Paul points out in Galatians.

The last chapter has some interesting thoughts on theological education in the context of a dialogue between Neo and Casey, a young African-American woman who is the youth group leader in an Episcopal Church. He points out that most Protestant seminaries fight with vigor the battles of yesterday, largely oblivious to the issues of today, hardly thinking of the issues of tomorrow. They still preoccupy themselves with fighting the Protestant Reformation and the liberal-fundamentalist debates.

He believes that postmodern theological education will do a much better job of integrating theory and practice. In the postmodern world, we disabuse ourselves of the myth that theory precedes practice, and we will inter-weave theory and practice and make learning life-long. He continues: What are small groups and one-to-one mentoring relationships but echoes of ancient training methods, before we slipped into the modern misconception that the best education takes place via theoretical monologue in sterile classrooms.

In my opinion, Brian McLaren has done an outstanding job of highlighting many of the opportunities and pitfalls offered for the advance of the Gospel by post-modernity. His critique of modernity and the syncretism of evangelical Christianity with modernity is disturbing, but largely accurate. He correctly observes that post-modernity offers many advantages for the advance of the Gospel, and to have a knee-jerk reaction against it is both shortsighted and counterproductive. On the other hand, he does not advocate a naive view of post-modernity that overlooks its unbiblical aspects. He also notes that someday we will see the shortcomings of post-modernity as clearly as we see the shortcomings of modernity today. He concludes:

"What a relief to have a third alternative - to read the Bible as a pre-modern text, emerging from a people who believed that truth is best embodied in story and art and human flesh, rather than abstraction or outline or moralism. Humans shall not live by systems and abstractions and principles alone, but also by stories and poetry and proverbs of mystery."