New Kind of Christian'
the book at religion
important shift in the cultural paradigm has been accompanied by
a vigorous and sometimes violent defense of the old one.
The picture that Brian McLaren gives of today's religious
institutions in "A New Kind of Christian" is that of,
say, a constitution staggering under way too many amendments to
the point where it might be time to scrap the whole thing and start
The political activism of fundamentalism, suggests McLaren, is
a reactionary self-defense, much like the way Catholicism came down
hard on the Galileos and the Martin Luthers of the world in the
1500s a similar transition point that ushered in the modern
era. It ignores postmodern changes that are blurring boundaries
between countries and cultures. Because we are now face to face
with an unknown era about to give birth, most folks, no matter what
side they are on, are terrified.
Intense polarization is the natural by-product. McLaren is a holistic
voice calling for a higher position to take in the culture wars,
ultimately saying "It's none of your business who does and
does not go to hell."
When it comes to fundamentalist attempts to legislate things like
the dispersal of contraceptives, pornography, advances in genetic
research and abortion choices, among other things, it might be helpful
to view them as completely in sync with the ideals of a fading modernist
worldview that has been in development since the Age of Reason
that things must be conquered and controlled, put into neat, easily
identified little boxes and brought under submission.
We've tried to do it to nature, to other countries, to religion
itself, and now true to its modernist roots fundamentalism
is encroaching on the individual in a way that is bound to ensure
its own collapse
Religion in the Middle Ages had a poetic but finite view of "concentric
spheres of hierarchy" with absolute ups and downs and standards
of comparison, leading to an overall "dance" that produced
"harmonics in the heavens." When forced to bend to the
dictates of hard scientific data, we traded things in for a vastly
more bewildering and vastly less personal worldview
that encompassed Pascal's terrifying "eternal silence of infinite
spaces," leaving us spiritually overwhelmed and rejecting the
"natural" authority of kings and popes.
Protestant Reformation was the revolutionary response to the new
questions left unanswered by the religious structures of the day.
In order to compete with secular scientific discoveries, premodern
religion adapted and fell into step, eventually institutionalizing
itself and arranging itself into neat new categories, and became
more rigidly controlled in the face of a vast, trackless horizon.
Today, the prevailing modernist mission seems to be to categorize
and label individuals so that the meaning of their passions and
political causes can be easily grasped and consequently easily dismissed
or embraced (Catholics, evangelicals, fundamentalists, backsliders,
pro-lifers, pro-choicers, homophobes, values-oriented, charismatics,
But the Protestant protest is more reactionary than revolutionary
now. Modernism has evolved to provide a kind of shorthand for actual
meditative thought, a shortsighted device so essential in a world
that assaults us with unceasing demands on our attention, resources
Conservative modernist religious institutions are as much a product
of the tumultuous changes that the world has undergone as anything
else that came after 1500 hey, after all, it was a big century!
Modern religion, which believers and non-believers alike can often
tend to view as stable and unchanging, certainly didnt develop
in a vacuum, untouched by the Renaissance, mechanization, industrialization
and market capitalism.
This "modern" paradigm, in the making for 500 years,
is now shifting, according to McLaren. Cataclysmic changes have
transformed this latest century changes in travel, technology,
communications, access to knowledge and its storage. The discoveries
of quantum mechanics (beautifully set forth in the movie "What
the Bleep Do We Know?") have profoundly challenged even our
very perception of reality, of the "supernatural" and
our meaning within it.
And, just like when Galileo challenged the medieval worldview,
the old order reacted in self-defense with charges of heresy, but
eventually capitulated and reformed. That adolescent challenge has
now grown up and become the ruling parent.
Religious thought, says McLaren, adapted to a modernist worldview
to the point where a medieval Christian would never even recognize
a modern Protestant Christian as being a Christian at all
one who believes a round earth circles the sun, doesn't recognize
that kings have a natural right to rule, doesn't believe in the
pope, etc. Behind the curve with the rest of the postmodern world,
the "old" modernist version of religion is having a natural
self-defensive reaction to new postmodernist paradigms hence,
all the attempts to legislate religion (the ultimate modernist expression
of a movement, perfectly at home with concepts of colonialism, conquest,
corporatism and control).
Like "old" modern science that insisted on a strictly
Newtonian universe wherein two subatomic particles could never exist
in two different spaces at the same time, the fundamentalist political
movement is a defensive Big Bang reaction to change in the modernist
paradigm. They are stuck in a view that everything is doctrinally
quantifiable, that the difference between what's good and evil is
inarguable, and colors of black and white don't come in subtle designer
shades of paint chips. In its day, it did a lot of good as a reformation
movement, but now that same fruit is beginning to rot into judgement
and legalism, rather than fermenting into a new wine that needs
Looking on the bright side, this kind of draconian reaction in
the Bush era will pass and those behind it must eventually come
to recognize that sin in the world is a natural product of God-given
free will. Sin, therefore, is not something that can be completely
legislated and controlled without coming into league with Gods
arch enemy, the devil himself who, unlike God, always seeks
to coerce and control humans against their will. Just as the medieval
worldview had to adjust when evidence that the world was round became
insurmountable, so must fundamentalism come to see that the modernist
urges to control and colonize do not speak to the spiritual needs
that come with the chaos of radical change.
The acquisition of a new paradigm isn't always pretty peaches,
of course. The ugly flipside of this struggle can be seen in other
areas of postmodernist relativism for instance, government
is actually claiming that torture is sometimes justified under certain
circumstances (!), that it's okay to invade another country regardless
of their culpability if we've suffered a traumatic event, and there
are "sound economic reasons" for stealing from the poor
to give to the rich.
However, whether we like it or not, this sort of softening of "real"
moral values also goes hand in hand with a decades-old trend that
says personal self-fulfillment is more important than making sacrifices
to nurture a pregnancy, or making a determined marital commitment
to another, for instance. It's important to see how these issues
are all part of a larger pattern of self-interest taking precedence
over the good of "the other guy" whether it's a
fetus or an Iraqi prisoner going beyond partisanism into
ethical questions of national and personal character.
We cannot, for our own survival, dispense with a "moral"
universe altogether. But we might find that the concepts that Christ
actually represents loving one's enemies, self-sacrifice
for the greater good, maintaining good relationships, taking care
of others less fortunate, keeping peace, doing good works, sharing
all you have, and the admission of helplessness and need for supernatural
authority in the face of a confusing chaotic world of change
are more revolutionary than ever. In an increasingly corporate-controlled
world of greed and exploitation, humanity is crying out for it.
We are in a unique era of transition and, as everyone knows, transitions
I am halfway into McLaren's book and finding it absolutely fascinating
and brave as he writes from the perspective of one entrenched and
depressed by his own immersion in the old modernist paradigm
a burned-out pastor on the brink of considering a job change. That
is, until he meets an extraordinary individual who takes him into
a way of approaching the new paradigm shift that is not repressive
and reactionary. It's a seminal work that is sure to attract cries
of "Heresy!" And it's helping me view all this Republican
religious nonsense with a lot more equanimity.
He quotes a strangely prophetic C.S. Lewis from "The Discarded
"It is not impossible that our own Model will die a violent
death, ruthlessly smashed by an unprovoked assault of new facts
unprovoked as the nova of 1572. But I think it is more likely
to change when, and because, far-reaching changes in the mental
temper of our descendants demand that it should. The New Model will
not be set up without evidence, but the evidence will turn up when
the inner need for it becomes sufficiently great. It will be true
evidence. But nature gives most of her evidence in answer to the
questions we ask her. Here, as in the courts, the character of the
evidence depends on the shape of the examination, and a good cross-examiner
can do wonders. He will not indeed elicit falsehoods from an honest
witness. But, in relation to the total truth in the witness's mind,
the structure of the examination is like a stencil. It determines
how much of that total truth will appear and what pattern it will
Writes McLaren: "What Lewis imagined to be 'not impossible'
some generations away the death of the modern model or worldview
turns out to be happening just a single generation after
Anyway, it's a self-effacing, almost chatty read that takes some
very heady historical/philosophical concepts and makes them utterly,
refreshingly simple. I consider it essential for anybody who is
trying to understand the current reactionary religious-political