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Flexible friends of Jesus

20 September 2013

Naomi Starkey reads three books from a post-Evangelical

A New Kind of Christian: A tale of two friends on a spiritual journey
Brian D. McLaren
SPCK £12.99
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The Story We Find Ourselves In: Further adventures of a new kind of Christian
Brian D. McLaren
SPCK £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70  (Use code CT449 )

The Last Word and the Word After That
Brian D. McLaren
SPCK £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70  (Use code CT449 )

TO SUMMARISE these three titles in a sentence: "Post-Protestant uses story to explore contextualising Christian life and witness in present-day America."

Brian McLaren is a prominent figure in the "emerging-church" scene in the United States, and also popular in what could loosely be termed "Greenbelt circles" in the UK. While these books have been available from the US since (respectively) 2001, 2003, and 2005, the new editions include prefaces commenting on reader response over the years, and a discussion guide (not written by McLaren himself). The third book also contains an author commentary.

The same main characters appear each time: WASP Pastor Dan, on a journey to being a "recovering fundamentalist", and his friend and mentor Neil Oliver (originally from Jamaica and nicknamed Neo, which feels rather too symbolic. Thankfully, he's plain Neil by Book 3). Neil/Neo is not only Dan's daughter's high-school science teacher, but a divorced ex-pastor and radical theological thinker.

We also follow something of the lives of Dan's family members and meet Neo's wide and eclectic circle of acquaintances. Another element of the plot, finally resolved in the third volume, is whether Dan's church will dismiss him because of his changing views.

In the first book, Dan is going through a combination of faith and midlife crisis plus ministerial burnout, from which he is rescued by his conversations with Neo. These often take place on a stroll through a lovely bit of American countryside, and range around faith, doubt, reason, mission, leadership, and spiritual practice. By contrast, much of Book 2 is set in the Galapagos Islands, with issues of creation and evolution developing into a kind of post-modern systematic theology (one of his most important books, McLaren says in the preface). The plot hinges on the return to faith of Kerry, a sceptical scientist who is also dying of cancer. In a moving scene, she is baptised in the river after a picnic-style eucharist celebrated with her new Christian friends.

The third book deals with questions relating to hell, judgement, and the Second Coming. McLaren dedicates it to - among others - "those repulsed by ugly, unworthy images of a cruel, capricious, merciless, tyrannical deity". He comments in the preface that this is, in fact, the book he would most change, were he to write it today, as apparently even some hard-line conservatives are now moderating their "end-times" thinking and views on eternal conscious torment.

My lasting impression from these books was the stultifying atmosphere of some American church circles, where membership seems to mean accepting certain dress and behaviour codes as if they were part of the historic creeds. In the eyes of Pastor Dan, Episcopalians are dangerously edgy because they drink alcohol and occasionally indulge in cigars - let alone what they may believe about creationism, the status of scripture, and homosexuality. Dan's dialogues with Neil and his friends not only expand his theological horizons, but connect him socially with those who have hitherto been very much "other" for him.

Using story to explore theological and philosophical issues runs the risk of getting bogged down in narrative detail (as happens occasionally here), but it expands the potential readership for a book. It also manifests a key McLaren concept: theology needs to be less about accepting a neat set of propositions, and more about discussing faith in the real world with real people, who tend to be full of awkward attitudes and messy experiences. Right thinking - true orthodoxy - should be characterised by flexibility rather than rigidity, especially when considering what is core and what is actually peripheral to faith.

The aim is not to undermine - far from it - but to help those who are about to give up on Christianity altogether, or who have never been remotely tempted to try.

Naomi Starkey is a commissioning editor for BRF, and edits and writes for New Daylight Bible-reading notes.

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