Brian McLaren’s new book, A New Kind of Christianity, addresses 10 “profound and critical” questions that are being asked, or should be asked, by Christians today. In his engagement with the first two questions–the Narrative Question and the Authority Question–McLaren unfolds a critique of Christian tradition that has become wed with Platonic philosophy. He calls this paradigm “the Greco-Roman narrative” and notes that such a narrative results from reading the biblical text backwards through the lens of subsequent interpreters–namely Augustine, Aquinas, German reformers, and 20th century evangelical and Catholic religious leaders.
This view of the text relies on Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy that separates being and becoming from the ideal and the real. The result is an understanding of the Gospel that is divorced from the story line out of which it emerged–the story line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob–giving us a Greco-Roman God who is not in line with the narrative of the Bible. McLaren says this paradigm has “unwittingly traded its true heritage through Jesus from Judaism for an alien heritage drawn from Greek philosophy and Roman politics” (41).
Interestinly, McLaren is joined in this viewpoint not only by Christian writers, but also by Jewish theorists. Susan Handelman in The Slayers of Moses describes the Christian tradition as having adopted Aristotle’s distinction between matter and spirit and incorporated this philosophical move in its entirety into the dominant theology. Judaism, on the other hand, resisted this move and has thus maintained a strong appeal to metaphor, plasticity, and maintaining tension within the biblical narrative.
What is striking to me is that McLaren (rightly, I believe) suggests that Christians return to what Handelman and others might call a rabbinic understanding of scripture. This understanding does not, as McLaren writes, see the Bible as a constitution, but as a community library–a collection of narratives that relate the story of a faithful God. We need not seek a straightforward legal document, free of inconsistencies, but rather keep the tension inherent in the text. Since the beginning of the rabbinic tradition, Judaism has sought to maintain inconsistencies, embrace the tension, and leave disagreements about biblical passages unresolved. Aiming for a final, set solution claims perhaps more authority than we humans really have. But leaving the ambiguities intact leaves room for continued searching, continued thought about the best way to interpret the text and the best way to embody it in the present.
Way to go Brian! Embrace your inner Rabbi!