Thursday, October 24, 2013

A New Kind of Liberal

Over a cup of tea with a retired colleague, the question was raised ‘Where is liberal theology being done today?’  The former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, was often asked a similar question – ‘where will the next generation of liberal Christians come from?’  His reply was ‘Where they’ve always come from – the evangelicals!’  Over tea, I found myself reflecting that that was still the case, but that these days they didn’t have to stop being evangelicals when they embraced liberalism.  The evangelical tent, at least in the UK, has grown pretty large.  Much of the good liberal theology is being written by evangelicals and published by evangelical publishing houses.

Brian McLaren is a case in point. An American pastor working with ‘emergent Christianity’, McLaren is an evangelical but his theology is decidedly liberal.  I read his A New Kind of Christianity (HarperOne, 2010) and found myself thinking of a book by that doyen of Anglican liberals, John A.T. Robinson, called The NewReformation? (1965).  McLaren, like Robinson, is keen to address questions to Christianity that come from the contemporary world. Both Robinson and McLaren have written evangelistic theology, seeking to show that Christianity has something to say to today’s world.  By allowing these questions, and by allowing also that Christian faith itself has to learn and change, both have also written liberal theology.

I read The Story We Find Ourselves In as I prepared for a session on reading the Bible.  This is the middle book of a trilogy about ‘A New Kind of Christian’.  It’s also a new kind of book – theology told as a novel.  I’m not convinced that works, the characters are really slaves to the theological material, but it makes for easier reading than many works of theology.  And the cliff-hanger ending did make me think that I might read the next and final book in the trilogy.

What the novelistic approach to writing theology does offer is a clearer sense of how contextual that theology is.  Writing this theology as a novel makes this clearer, and is thus arguably a more honest way of writing theology.  This novel/theology is most definitely written for North America and the United States. Its questions and concerns are firmly rooted there.  During the course of the novel the attacks of September 11th, 2001 happen.  The fictional pastor, Dan, preaches on the Sunday afterwards in a way that is bold for the United States, but far less so when read with British eyes.  The concerns of the book with creationism, which is handled critically but with loving attention, are probably more alien.

Nevertheless, there is enough in common between the UK and the US to allow me to take a good deal from this book.  Running through it is an account of the Bible, and the wider story that the Bible offers and into which own stories fit.  McLaren offers, with a preacher’s instinct for alliteration, a seven-stage story of Creation, Crisis, Calling, Conversation, Christ, Church and Consummation.  It is told against the backdrop of the Galapagos Islands, cancer and death.  This is a story that has to deal with the challenge of life.  It owes much to TomWright’s Five-Act Play model for reading Scripture, amended (much as I do myself) to include the ending of the story as an act in itself.  There is value to this, and McLaren rightly identifies this story as a story in which we find ourselves, rather than one in which we lose ourselves.

But most interesting of all is a sub-plot of McLaren’s novel, barely acknowledged by the author, that treats of the ‘l’ word – ‘liberal’.  McLaren speaks of “another whole story”; “a story about liberals and conservatives and modernity and epistemology and foundationalism and … but we don’t need to get into all that.  It’s just that for people like Maricel – and she’s not alone, believe me – it’s not an easy thing to hold on to faith in the modern world.  There are all sorts of attacks and insults and challenges.  So they hold onto their faith in a sort of embattled way sometimes.  And if someone like me comes along and seems to be …loosening up … it seems like I’m capitulating.  And that makes me look like a traitor, I think” (p. 98).  Here we come close to hearing McLaren’s own voice through his characters.  This is the set of stories in which McLaren and this novel are also set and through which he is trying to tell the story of the Bible to both non-Christians and Christians alike.  Both, McLaren seems to say, need to hear the liberating power of the Bible.  “I didn’t really pass her test” (p. 102), the same character says a little later on. For me at least, Christianity that applies these kinds of tests is indeed one that invites reformation, or a new kind of Christianity.

This is an engaging work.  I won’t rush out to buy the other instalments of the trilogy, not least because I am happy to describe myself as a liberal Christian without fear that I am a traitor to the Gospel.  But I’m glad I read this book.  Liberal theology does indeed seem to be alive and well within evangelicalism!


Extremecheese said...

From a conservative Christian point of view Simon, I'd say that you have nothing to worry about!
May I ask in regards to your comment "...that Christian faith itself has to learn and change" how do you reconcile this view with passages such as Proverbs 24:21 and Hebrews 13:8?

Simon said...

Thanks Extremecheese.

Happy to say, with Hebrews, that Jesus Christ is the same and with Proverbs that we should fear and obey The Lord.

But less happy to say (with Proverbs) that we need to obey the king of Israel (not least because there isn't one).

That in itself is a change in our faith.

Christian understanding of Jesus has also changed - it took 400 years before the church came up with the doctrine of the Trinity.

Our faith and our understanding changes, God remains the same.

Simon said...
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