A New Kind of Christian:
by Brian D. McLaren, Josey-Bass, 2001, 173pp.
This book is Brian McLaren’s attempt to chart a new course for Christians in the context of the transition period between modern and postmodern worlds. He does not accept the notion that postmodernism simply represents a standard, generational shift of perspectives. Rather it describes the world that is emerging on the scene to replace a 500-year modern experiment. He argues that as surely as Galileo’s discovery that the earth is not the center of the universe placed the world on a major trajectory toward modernism, so the signs of a faltering modernism testify to the emergence of a post-modern era.
McLaren asserts that it is this major societal shift that is creating a lot of uncertainty about what it means to be a Christian. He compares the contemporary Christian to an immigrant who has arrived in a new country where few familiar patterns and practices of the old country work well. Or a pubescent teenager in transition from one stage of life to another. This transition is often difficult and filled with frustrations. But it is both necessary and important, argues McLaren, that Christians, like the immigrant and the teenager, must adapt to their new, emerging environment.
In the introductory chapter, McLaren makes the case for rethinking what it means to be a Christian in a postmodern context. The rest of the book documents the journey of two fictitious characters on a road of discovery. One is a disillusioned pastor, named Dan, who is ready to throw in the towel because of a dissonance he feels between the new realities he faces and the worn patterns, practices and answers he has been taught in seminary. The other is Dr. Oliver, known as NEO, a Jamaican-born high school teacher who has come to terms with the post-modern trajectory of history.
In a series of highly dramatic encounters, NEO helps Dan understand how the ground is shifting underneath his feet and how he must change some of his perspectives if he is to survive and thrive as a Christian and as a pastor. For example, NEO suggests that he must move beyond the modern, analytical way of reading the Bible. “I wonder what would happen if we honestly listened to the story and put ourselves under its spell, so to speak, not using it to get all our questions about God answered but instead trusting God to use it to pose questions to us about us” (58).
As their mutual respect and friendship flourishes, Dan and NEO discuss a wide range of issues that need rethinking in our new context. Evangelism being more “an invitation to dance,” than a conquest - counting authentic conversations instead of conversions. The disappearance of the terms “liberal” and “conservative.” Truth understood in terms of being in sync with God, not just factual accuracy. Trusting the Holy Spirit to guide us in our search for relevance. Understanding heaven to be more of a by-product than the main point of belief. Opening up to pre-modern practices of spirituality, as well as exploring creation spirituality. And many more.
This is a landmark book and deserves thorough study and reflection. To those committed to maintaining the status quo within institutionalized Christianity, this book will be highly disturbing. To those who already know that some new faith perspectives must emerge in the context of a failed modernity, this book will be a breath of fresh air. Even if NEO doesn’t provide final answers on all fronts, the views of this feisty, fictitious Jamaican are worth considering. I can not imagine not having read this book. Get it. Read it. Discuss it.