Caricature and constructive critique

Scot McKnight has an interesting review/critique of Brian McLaren’s newest book at Christianity Today.

In this paragraph, McKnight outlines and critiques McLaren’s summary of traditional Christian faith:

Brian believes in an old saw—namely, the Constantinian Fall of the Church, the event and era in which the Greco-Roman narrative was developed. In short, this narrative teaches that humans were created in a Platonic, ideal, and perfect world in Eden; then the Fall occurred, which tumbled humans into the Aristotelian and real world of becoming (which is bad). Out of this becoming world, one can either escape or be saved into the Platonic-ideal heaven, or choose eternal perdition in a Greek form of Hades. Brian will later call this the “Greco-Roman soul-sort narrative,” by which he means that life in the here and now is about sorting out the saved from the damned. McLaren’s soul-sort narrative is a caricature of a narrative that no responsible thinker really believes or teaches in the bald, insensitive, and barbaric ways described in this book. It’s a caricature of Romans 5.

I don’t know if that is fair to McLaren. I have not read this book. But I do often see contemporary critique of traditional faith that feels like caricature or even intentional mischaracterization.

It would be better if we agreed that 2,000 years of Christians were neither fools nor idiots before we launch off into our bold reconstructions of what has come before.

My thoughts are not really the point, though. McKnight’s review is.

I liked his closing.

Alas, A New Kind of Christianity shows us that Brian, though he is now thinking more systemically, has fallen for an old school of thought. I read this book carefully, and I found nothing new. It may be new for Brian, but it’s a rehash of ideas that grew into fruition with Adolf von Harnack and now find iterations in folks like Harvey Cox and Marcus Borg. For me, Brian’s new kind of Christianity is quite old. And the problem is that it’s not old enough.


Here’s another response to McLaren that goes after him in much more direct terms.

So I’ll repeat my criticism: McLaren’s move in A New Kind of Christianity only works if he cites well-known names who wrote little-read books, borrowing force from familiarity and potential for evasion from unfamiliarity. And that range of possible coordinates on the name-recognition axis and on the text-familiarity axis, and the corresponding range of possibilities that exist on those axes, mean that those particular moves do indeed deserve criticism because he could have done otherwise in a number of ways. What’s at stake here is not the difference between “popular” and “specialist” but the difference between writing honestly to and exploiting a popular audience, and that is an important distinction.

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