February 24, 2010

A New Kind of...? (part 2 - Bible)

Having rejected his faulty Greco-Roman interpretation of the historic Christian reading of the biblical story of creation-fall-redemption, McLaren proceeds in chapters 5-8 to cast a new vision for how the Bible should be read and appropriated.  His vision is organized around three main biblical narratives.

The first is the narrative of Genesis.  This narrative, McLaren states, is not about a God who angrily consigns his creation to the cosmic trash bin, as if this were ever an orthodox Christian position.  Rather, it is about a God who creates a world full of change, becoming, evolution, and liberty.  The human creatures in this world disobey God and are, thus, pushed from the garden from life as hunter-gatherers to life as agriculturalists. 

So, McLaren recasts as progress what has historically been understood in terms of "Fall."  The curse of Genesis 3 has been reduced to mere consequences for bad behavior.  While human disobedience does have negative effects like murder and corruption, its not all bad because humanity is progressing from hunter-gatherers to nomadic herders to agriculturalists to city dwellers and finally empire builders.  Instead of being about human alienation from the God who is life due to rebellion, in McLaren's scheme Genesis 3 is about socio-economic progress.

As the Genesis story progresses, McLaren rightly highlights God's mercy for clothing and protecting Adam and Cain as well as rightly empasizing God's kindness in sparing Noah from the flood.  The problem is that he passes over those passages which indicate how seriously God takes transgression which must be dealt with if we are to have a biblical understanding of God's holy character.  Yes, God spared Noah in his kindness, but God also wiped out every other living being on the planet in judgment for their wickedness.  McLaren happily glosses over this grim feature of the text concluding that Genesis is "a story about the downside of 'progress'" (14).  His reading leaves out significant aspects of this text bending it out of shape from a story of humanity spiraling down into degradation to a story of "progress."  The suggestion is so absurd it is virtually impossible to take it as a serious reading of the text. 

The second major narrative is that of the Exodus in which, according to McLaren, God sides with the oppressed and vulnerable to set them on a journey towards freedom and peace.  While God certainly did side with the oppressed, it is worth pointing out that he sided with them in accordance with the promise he made to Abraham to give him a mutitude of descendants.  McLaren likes to emphasize how deeply God gets involved in the human plight.  And this is a feature of the text that will make it popular.  People like the idea of God getting involved.  And they should, because God has gotten involved.  McLaren brings in aspects of biblical truth but recasts them in a surprisingly modernist model of progress.  The presence of some truth gives it an appearance of biblical fidelity.  But a careful reading of McLaren in contrast to the Bible demonstrates that his reading of scripture fails to do justice to the text.

The third major narrative is the hope for a peaceful kingdom.  Here McLaren goes to the Davidic kingdom and the prophets as looking forward to a world of peace and harmony.  Again, this is indeed a biblical vision of the future, and it is one that God is, in some ways, implementing in the present.  However, McLaren takes Isaiah and turns him into an ideological platform for a liberal socio-political agenda.  Texts that refer to the youthfulness of the one hundred year old are recast as calling for the protection of vulnerable people particularly through the means of a good health care system.  While this is important, it is hardly what is going on in Isaiah.  Isaiah's vision of new creation is not primarily about socio-political fixes to various problems.  It is about God's ultimate dealing with the human problem, namely sin and death.  Creation wide discord and death are the result of sin, but McLaren has written sin and the just punishment of death out of the story.  This is why he can't read Isaiah rightly.  Isaiah is dealing with the problem in Genesis that McLaren has rewritten as progress.  Isaiah is casting a vision of a day when one hundred years old is youthful not because the elderly have good health care but because God has exiled death and the one hundred year old is going to live forever as a result.  McLaren's reading strips the text of its great hope for an ultimate restoration of the created order and replaces it with a hope for best-we-can-do sorts of fixes in the present.  That, of course, is not to say that we don't need to protect vulnerable people.  It is to say that Isaiah is speaking of something much bigger than McLaren can see.

Ultimately, while McLaren chastises a so-called fundamentalist reading of the Bible as ethical imperative, he essentially does the thing he rejects.  McLaren is arguing for a distinct moralism that sees the Bible as providing a plan or vision for implementing goodness and justice among the peoples of the earth.  He wants the biblical values of goodness and justice to be the interpretive key for understading the Bible.  The problem is that ethical imperatives for goodness and justice are not the center of the Bible.  The central story of the Bible claims that human beings lack the ability to do justice and goodness and stand in need of a rescuer to restore them to a state of goodness.  The problem is that McLaren has already rejected this reading of scripture, and in so doing, he has jackhammered the foundation for any hope of a world in which justice and goodness reign.  The gospel that Jesus dies for our sins and was raised bodily from the dead is the central story of the scriptures, and goodness and justice can only reign in a world where Christ, the good and just One, reigns supreme.

3 comments:

Andrew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew said...

Matt,
is it a mis-type that says "as well as rightly emphasizing God's kindness in sparing Moses from the flood. and later Yes, God spared Moses in his kindness ... ? (mistaking Moses for Noah?), or did McLaren make that mistake?

BTW I'm amazed you stuck with it past the 4th chapter ...!

Matt O'Reilly said...

Thanks Andrew, I need to be more careful with proofreading.

Also, I've been tempted to put the book down, but it is problematic in so many ways that it needs to be dealt with. Unfortunately, McLaren has a great deal of influence and people who disagree with him need to be familiar with his work.