What’s the Story Jack? or the Narrative Question
This is the first of ten posts on Brian McLaren’s, “A New Kind of Christianity”. As we begin this little quest of ours I want you to know that I am not commenting on the introductory chapters and just diving into the “red meat”, so to speak. Also, I cannot reproduce the book in these posts. I will do my best to summarize without being overly simplistic or reductionistic. Each post will be two parts. The first will be a summary of McLaren’s discussion and the second will be my reflections.
Without further ado…
The Narrative Question: What is the overarching storyline of the Bible?
For us to make sense of any book we must come to some conclusion about what is its main idea. We do this so that we can make interpretive decisions regarding a text’s finer details. To answer this question McLaren contrasts two ways of understanding the overarching storyline. The first way is that of the “Six Line Diagram”:
[caption id=“attachment_762” align=“aligncenter” width=“410” caption=“Six Line Diagram (34)”]
This diagram, states McLaren, is the dominant understanding of the Bible from the “fifth or sixth century” (33). He argues that this storyline is brought about through isogesis by forcing upon the biblical texts “the Greco-Roman narrative” (37). What exactly does this mean? Succinctly, it is the application of Platonic thought to the Bible and specifically taking the cave illusion and adding biblical themes. He goes on to argue that the god that is represented by this story shall be called, “Theos” who “loves spirit, state, and being and hates matter, story, and becoming, since, once again, the latter involve change, and the only way to change or move from perfection is downward into decay. (42)” Theos is the christianized version of Zeus.
In this context McLaren argues against the concept of “the Fall”. This is because the term is never used in the Bible and is inherently “un-Jewish (en 15).” Theos stands at the ready to destroy because people are changing and becoming and imperfect. Salvation then is the return to perfection and to stasis. Those who are not saved are eternally punished because Theos will not destroy the Spirit.
To summarize, the good news in the six line diagram is, “Theos, plus perfected souls of the redeemed in heaven, plus everyone else suffering the absolute, ‘perfect’ torment of eternal, unquenchable, pure, and unchanging hate from Theos, getting what they deserve for being part of the detestable fallen universe. (44)”
McLaren provides a counter-story. He argues for developing the story by reading “forwards through Abraham, Moses, David, and the prophets to Jesus. (46)” For the sake of his text he focused on Genesis, Exodus, and Isaiah to grasp the story arch of the Bible which can be understood in three dimensions. The first is found in Genesis. Genesis sets the table for the rest. This first dimension is “Creation and Restoration”. Here, McLaren argues that what we see in the Creation narrative is the Jewish concept of “goodness” as opposed to the Platonic “perfection” (47). Goodness, it is argued, is a relative term as opposed to the absolutism of perfection. It is from this platform that McLaren argues against the ontological fall (i.e. original sin).
To that end he states that what is seen in Genesis 3 is a “coming of age story” (49). In this story Elohim gives his daughter greater and greater freedom and she responds with greater and greater foolishness. His response is not judgment but a patient lovingkindness (this is seen in the fact that Adam and Eve do not actually die on the day they eat the fruit contra God’s own words earlier in Genesis 3).
The movement throughout the story of Genesis is from garden to city. This could be understood as “development” or ascending in progress. However, it is an ironic ascent “because with each gain, humans also descend into loss. They descend (or fall — there’s nothing wrong with the word itself, just the unrecognized baggage that may come with it) from the primal innocence of being naked without shame in one another’s presence.”
It is in the story of Abraham that we see this reversed. It is ultimately experienced through the life of Joseph and the reconciliation that he makes with his brothers.
The second narrative dimension is the Exodus’ liberation and formation. The people are liberated from their city-dwelling bondage and returned to the primal wilderness where they are formed. This narrative “situates us in humanity’s oppressive, resistant world in which God is active as liberator — freeing us from external and internal oppression forming us as the people of God. (58)” This narrative ends in progress.
The third narrative is exemplified in the prophet Isaiah. It is the narrative of “the sacred dream of the peaceable kingdom.(59)” The dream becomes ever more encompassing as time goes by and moves from a physical concept to that of the “Day of the Lord”. Here we experience the liberation and reconciliation and the return to the good. This narrative, McLaren argues, free us from a deterministic future and draw us into a realization that, “history is unscripted, unrehearsed reality, happening now — really happening. (63)”
So what do we do with all this? I am thankful for McLaren’s gracious and creative approach to the storyline of the Bible. I appreciate that he desires to moves us away from a purely propositional reading of the Bible. This approach is the product of modernist epistemology (whether we want to admit it or not, it’s true). He also does a nice job of helping to move us from a foundationalism that is unhelpful when one considers the depth and interconnectedness of the biblical narrative. I also think that McLaren has hit on significant themes: Creator, Reconciler, and Liberator. I am grateful for his deconstruction of the modern isogesis.
I do have some concerns. Firstly, I am concerned with the move away from an ontological fall. I agree with McLaren that the six line diagram is overly simplistic, however, I think that we can rightly understand Genesis 3 as an ontological fall if we choose to take a nuanced view. What I mean is this: while we as people on this side of Genesis 3 are indeed born into sin we are also born as image bearers of God. This means that while we are radically corrupted we also bear the marks of our creator. I think that McLaren falls prey to his own critique here in that while he seeks to move away from a Platonic reading he simply substitutes it with the Aristotelian. To argue away the ontological fall one must deal with Romans 1–6 and he does not.
Secondly, I think that he needs to do more with the issues of justice. While Theos is first-rate tool, McLaren’s Elohim is a spineless parent who chooses not to discipline his children. The pastor to the Hebrews in his sermon says, “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons (Heb 12:7–8). ” It is notable that McLaren chooses not to discuss the slaying of animals on behalf of Adam and Eve and that in so doing God made a way to atone for their sin.
Finally, I am concerned about the fact that McLaren seems to be using the fundamentalist Christian movement as his foil and lumps all of Christianity from the “5th or 6th century” on into that same category. I would argue that Edwards, Calvin, and the like had much more nuanced understandings of the story line of the Bible than what is presented in the six line diagram. I would also argue that what we find in the writings of those doing work in the field of social identity theory provide for us this nuanced vision that we need (for a great example see Dr. J. Brian Tucker’s work).