A No Kind of Christian

Leaving aside Brian McLaren’s and Rob Bell’s perspectives on issues such as eternal punishment, human sexuality and so forth, the most revealing aspect of both men’s theology is this:  Both McLaren and Bell take it as a given that God is desperately trying to bring the church up to speed with the culture on serious ethical and philosophical matters.

In an article on Bell’s latest stance on sexuality in Christian Post the following observation is made:

In his new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, Bell shares his take on how some theological ideas present in mainstream Christianity are outdated and irrelevant to the changing times – and that God is in many ways steps ahead of these old ideas and is pulling people forward.

I have liked much of Bell’s material in the past. His primary strength was using the culture to undermine the culture. It was brilliant stuff.  But, of course, we all know that those who dine with the devil need to sup with a long spoon.  And I use the word “devil” advisedly.  It is clear from 1Corinthians that the primary problem in Corinth was that the Corinthian Christians were embarrassed about the gospel insofar as it clashed with the cultural mores of their day.  What were those mores?  Have a read through chs1-2: wise, lofty arguments, social division, philosophical perspectives that impressed and were impressive.  What did Paul call all of this wisdom?  The wisdom of “this age”, meaning the age that was passing and was indeed already passed, because Jesus had risen from the dead and ushered in a new age, replete with a new wisdom, which, ironically, looked like complete foolishness to the world.  Sound familiar?

So in fact, Bell is not only not lining up with Scripture when he says that God is pulling us forward into where the culture is heading, he is saying the opposite of what Paul is saying in 1Corinthians.  Rather than pulling us forward along with the culture, God has reversed the engines and is pulling us in the opposite direction. The culture says “strength”, God says “weakness”.  The culture says “impressiveness”, God says “humility”, the culture is puffed up self love, God calls for costly, other person-centred love.

The primary clash in the world is not the clash of cultures (right/left – liberal/conservative), but rather the clash of the ages, an age that is coming to an end and is enervated and dying versus an age that has broken into this age and is  flourishing and living.  Of course, on the surface it can often seem as if the exact opposite is the case.  It often seems as if those who wish to be true to Jesus are on the wrong side of history.  McLaren put it like this:

 “It takes courage to make these kinds of statements when you’re an author and speaker as Rob and I are, but it’s especially painful for pastors and priests to work this out in the midst of pastoral ministry.”

Not so Brian.  It only takes courage to be on the perceived wrong side of history and stand firm nonetheless, and that is where many Christians are going to have to decide if they are shaped by this age or the age to come.

And for those of us nodding in agreement with this, let’s not get too cocky.  The religious left’s capitulation on these matters is simply mirrored by the religious right’s capitulation on other matters, indeed weighty matters, such as seeing that justice is truly served regardless of race, colour creed (and yes, sexuality) and oppression (think James 5:1-6.  The workman in the field whose wages have been withheld has become the factory girl in the Bangladeshi building whose life has been snuffed out for the sake of cheaper clothes for the West).

To sum up, God called a people – first Israel, and then the new Israel, not to watch where the culture might head and then follow it, but to be a counter culture. A counter culture lives with the tension of being located within the culture, but being distinct from it. A counter culture wants what is best for the culture, but is not unnerved when the culture stamps its foot like a child, demanding the church fall into line or be sidelined.  Let’s face it, we are sidelined because we follow a Messiah who was sidelined, both by the religious culture of his day, and the all-conquering super-power culture of his day.  Yet on the third day, he rose from the grave. The resurrection is the death sentence to this age, and the inauguration of the age to come.  The brave ones are not those who fall into line with what is passing away, but those who stand firm, confident in the age to come, regardless of whether this age sidelines them or not.

 

6 Comments

  1. I’m preparing for a sermon at the moment on Galatians 5, Law, Freedom, Love and the like. And as I was reading a rather large and heavy book on the subject I came across something that might just add another dimension to this conversation (hence I’m writing a comment now and not weeks ago). I am largely of the same mind as you as to the counter cultural call of Jesus. But it seems maybe that it is not quite as simple as being completely counter cultural in every aspect.

    James Dunn, in ‘The Theology of Paul the Apostle’, suggests that “Paul’s ethics were influenced by the already well-established ideas that certain fundamental laws were applicable also to Gentiles.” (661)

    Dunn goes on to say that a lot of Paul’s virtues/Vices were “more or less universal across the eastern Mediterranean.” Further down he says that, “It would be a peculiarly crass arrogance for Christians to believe that they had been given a unique moral sense or to be embarrassed because their ethical teaching did not mark them out completely from all others. On the contrary, Paul had no hesitation in aligning himself with the wisdom of previous generations, as it had been learned, often at bitter expense, by both Jew and Greek.”(664)

    That is not to say that all of Paul’s teaching on Morality was generally accepted in society, it’s clear as you mentioned above that there is a certain counter cultural attitude, such as weakness vs strength etc. But it seems from what I can read in this book and from what I see in scripture that adopting something from the culture was ok. Albeit while the outside form may have been the same the motivation was different.

    Dunn concludes the chapter by saying, “there was also recognition among the first Christians of ‘Good Practice’ elsewhere and readiness to support good order in both household and state.” (667)

    How I see it, and I don’t think this speaks directly to Bell or Mclaren’s quotes, is that God could/can speak to us through whatever is good and true whether that be from within or without, as long at conforms with the law of faith, the law of the Spirit, and the law of Christ.

    anyway some rough thoughts when I’m meant to be doing my sermon (naughty me).

    “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8 NIV11-GK)

    Let us know what you think.

  2. Good thoughts there Ben. I do think that to some extent that is correct. Paul does call attention to the household codes that were doing the rounds of the Graeco-Roman world, although having preached on Colossians recently, it is interesting how he subverts them, especially in relation to women and slaves. The household codes made no allowance for either group, whereas Paul addresses each of these directly. Which is topical to the Bell/Mclaren issue actually. William Webb has written a book: Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis. Alas I would like to say I have read it, but I have only read reviews. However the one thing that comes out very clearly is that on the first two issues – women and slaves – is that the early church was way ahead of the culture in pronouncing freedom and liberty and dignity and worth – equality even! But, with homosexuality, and every other sexual practice outside of heterosexual, monogamous marriage, the church of the early centuries went in entirely the opposite direction of the culture. Worth a read I think.
    What this tells us is that the relationship between the prevailing culture and the church, while nuanced, was never one where the culture set the agenda for the church, but where the church always added the missing gospel ingredient to it. This stands to reason when we look at Romans 1, in that we realise humans should know about God, but suppress the truth in unrighteousness. Their culpability is demonstrated by the fact that sometimes their consciences accuse or excuse them. In other words the culture has a ropey handle on right and wrong, because it refuses divine revelation. And in concluding, the book “That is What Some of You Were” deals with the homosexuality issue from a perspective linking back to 1Cor6:11, where Paul highlights the new identity conferred on many different sinful lifestyles. Worth a read too.
    Blessings bro

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