Are You Familiar with Brian McLaren’s Book A New Kind of Christian?

Question from a reader:

Are you familiar with Brian McLaren's book A New Kind of Christian? He presents postmodern beliefs as a positive alternative to evangelicalism, and says we need to be post-evangelicals. He seems to be saying there isn't objective truth.

Answer from Randy Alcorn:

You will hear McLaren's book mentioned with increasing frequency. It's having a wide impact. Christianity Today and Books and Culture magazines have had a number of articles concerning it, including these:

Andy Crouch in Christianity Today:

Tony Jones:

A serious critique by Mark Dever:

McLaren's response to critics:

My concerns would probably follow most closely those expressed by Mark Dever in the third article above, though I also agree that McLaren raises important points that evangelicals certainly need to address.

A friend in our church came to me a few months ago about his nonchristian theologically liberal sister, a Princeton grad. He proposed to her they each pick a book and ask the other to read it, then discuss both books. She picked A New Kind of Christian. A revealing choice. While McLaren takes the Bible more seriously than she does, as a fairly extreme theological liberal she nonetheless respects his departure from "modernism" (which essentially means evangelicalism, an ironic turn of the phrase since fundamentalists, the parents of evangelicals, fought "modernism," which meant theological liberalism).

Of course, evangelicalism as a sub-culture is riddled with any number of failings, and tends to be geared toward a certain audience that can unintentionally exclude postmoderns. These criticisms we should welcome and take seriously and make changes where appropriate. But we dare not throw out the baby of Christian truth with the bathwater of evangelical failings. What's at stake in this issue is not merely different ideas on how we relate to culture or live out and share the Faith—what is at stake is the Faith itself, historic Christianity.

Young man drinking coffeeMy son-in-law Dan Franklin was previously our church's college pastor and my daughter Karina was a church staffer whose job was working with and discipling college girls. Dan would ask students "Where do you want to meet?" and the answer was typically, "Starbucks." He hates coffee, but hey, it's the culture, and that's fine. Become all things to all men. When we had dinner one night he smiled and said, "Tomorrow I have three appointments at Starbucks."

Some postmodern congregations use a lot of liturgy and in some ways they appear more traditional-not post-evangelical as much as pre-evangelical. Some are solid on truth—they're not changing the painting, but simply changing evangelicalism's frame and borders, many of which are as culturally-driven as the new distinctives of postmodern churches.

But when it comes to the issue of objective truth, this is where McLaren and others like him seem to me to be stepping over the line. Truth is an issue of seismic proportions, and if we have eyes to see it is everywhere around us. Often we don't see it, though, because we can have nice fellowshippy conversations in which we assume that those we've talked with meant the same thing we did when they used certain words. But in fact they didn't.

For instance, teenager comes home from school. Christian parent asks, "What did you learn today?"

After an obligatory mumble, she says, "In social science we talked about the importance of being tolerant."

"That's nice," parent says. Daughter talks, you nod, because you know Jesus loved people and extended them grace and we should too. A few minutes later the conversation is over, and you walk away having affirmed what she learned in class, without understanding the context and meanings of her culture—and the fact that what you actually affirmed was anti-Christian.

Why? Because the word "tolerant" means two radically different things to you and to her. To you it means being kind and loving to people who think and act in ways you know to be wrong, according to Scripture. To the students and their teacher—and by assimilation even to your Christian teenager unless she is exceptionally well-grounded in Scripture—tolerant means believing that all ways of thinking and acting are equally valid, and NOT wrong.

Hence, by definition if you believe homosexuality is wrong you ARE intolerant, no matter how lovingly you may relate to and reach out to and pray for and bring meals to the person you know dying of AIDS. By believing Jesus is the only way for people to enter heaven, you are by definition intolerant. By embracing tolerance, in the sense it is most widely used in this culture, our young people (whether or not they state it and regardless of what their church believes) are rejecting the idea that Jesus is the only way.

There are significantly different meanings out there for the old words truth, tolerance, love, grace, redemption, salvation and even "Christ." This is the challenge of different worldviews or belief systems. They do not simply invent new words, which would be far better for purposes of clarity—they use the same old words and attach to them new meanings, often meanings contradictory to the original. This makes it appear that communication or agreement has taken place when it hasn't. As long as they use the same vocabulary, it makes it appear that two people are both historic orthodox Christians when they're not.

When you say you believe in the resurrection you may mean it as it has always been meant as a doctrine of historic Christianity, or you may mean what one famous minister meant by the resurrection: "Though the remains of Jesus are in an unmarked Palestinian grave, his deathless spirit goes marching on."

For example, Marcus Borg of the Jesus Seminar said, "As a child, I took it for granted that Easter meant that Jesus literally rose from the dead. I now see Easter very differently. For me, it is irrelevant whether or not the tomb was empty. Whether Easter involved something remarkable happening to the physical body of Jesus is irrelevant."

As a child, Borg was right. As an adult—considered a spokesman for Christianity—he couldn't be more wrong. What he calls irrelevant is what Paul considers absolutely vital to the Christian faith. So vital that Paul says, "And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins...we are to be pitied more than all men" (1 Corinthians 15:12-58)

Church father Justin Martyr wrote, "If you meet the people who describe themselves as Christians... but affirm that there is no resurrection of the dead... do not recognize them as Christians."

Borg doesn't only commit heresy—he commits one of the most significant heresies possible. He fails to grasp that the physical resurrection of Christ is the cornerstone of redemption, both man's and the earth's. Indeed, without the resurrection and what it means, there is no Christianity left for Borg to be a spokesman for.

Marcus Borg is not young, but he is post-modern and people like him are trying to take Christianity down paths that will make it no longer Christian. But does he believe in the resurrection? Sure. (He's a Christian, after all, right?) He just redefines resurrection in a way that denies the resurrection.

The notion that there is no such thing as objective truth is a natural extension of both our culture's self-preoccupation and mental laziness. It is self-flattery to imagine truth is merely what I decide, think and make of life (and therefore truth has changed as often as I've changed my mind). It is also laziness. Once people sought truth by going outside themselves to the philosophers and historic religions. Now they sit and watch TV and simply absorb worldviews without consciously evaluating and choosing them based on merit.

Everyone has a worldview, but few anymore really seek to find the right one. The myth that there is no right one, that all are equally valid, becomes moral justification for believing whatever I wish, and keeps us from seeking further. One need not go to the trouble of searching for truth if no objective Truth exists. Because if truth is merely whatever I think, at the end of the day—or the end of my life—I will have truth even though I've never expended any effort to find it. And, let's face it, we can be as lazy as nonchristians when it comes to studying and exploring the central doctrines of Christianity (and therefore we can be as gullible, failing to recognize heresy and passing it off as merely a different way of saying—or a fresh way of perceiving—the same old truths).

The bane of fundamentalism is truth without grace. The bane of much post-modern evangelicalism (or post-evangelicalism, if you prefer) is grace without truth. This is tolerance, something much cheaper than grace, and which—unlike grace—doesn't require Christ to empower it.

So tolerance is the world's self-righteous substitute for grace. True grace recognizes truth and sin and deals with it in the most radical and painful way (Christ's redemption). Tolerance recognizes neither truth nor sin, and says "Everything's fine," negating or trivializing incarnation and redemption and the need for regeneration. Christ came precisely because people ARE NOT FINE without him.

Francis Schaeffer profoundly affected me and countless other young seeking minds in the 70s. We need to hear voices like his today. And we need to listen carefully as we talk with each other, and especially with the young not only in our culture, but IN OUR HOMES AND CHURCHES. We need to not simply hear the words they say but ask them "What do you mean"? And then we need to say words back to them, words steeped in Scripture, and explain to them what we mean-which is hopefully what God means-by those revealed words.

It is a mistake to assume a postmodern (or anyone) is just using different words to express old truths. Many always resort to saying, it's "just semantics," that is, "You and I mean the same thing though we're using different words."

What's more common is exactly the opposite—today we are meaning radically different things even though we're using the same words.

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries