Friends 2007: Introducing Brian – the writer I [23]

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“Sometime in 1994, at the age of thirty-eight, I got sick of being a pastor. Frankly, I was almost sick of being a Christian.”, p. ix.

Now, what a way to start an introduction in a book. That line itself made me finished reading perhaps Brian’s most well-known book which brought also controversy into his life and the lives of those who are even caught reading it!

But the reality is I’ve been hearing different version of the above statement many times the past 7 years. And even when I did not mention my own feelings about being a pastor and a Christian especially during the lowest moments of my journey of faith and ministry, secretly where no one is looking the words were not far from my lips. But that’s never always the whole story … our lowest moments are not the end.

“… seven years later, I am still a Christian, still in ministry, and enjoying both more than I ever have.

But at that low tide of faith, my soul was trying to tell me something important, something I needed to listen to.”, p. ix

I think the hardest thing in life is too actually quiet down and listen to what’s going on inside us honestly … especially when many of us are already busy with our lives (and for pastors busy with our ministries!).

This last week, I’ve already heard two different episodes of people who are paying attention to what’s inside their soul for a change. And it’s scary, and it’s sad .. because at least one has told me that the church is not the place where she can ask these questions and work through them. The other person at least is asking, is there a church open enough for him to find his answers and learn.

Is it that tragic that the alternatives we have for people who are genuinely serious about their faith, about following Christ, about being human is so limited in our Malaysian Christian context? There’s something in me shouting “No! it can’t be! It mustn’t be that way!”

“At that time I could only see two alternatives: (1) continue practicing and promoting a version of Christianity that I had deepening reservations about or (2) leave Christian ministry, and perhaps the Christian path, altogether. There was a third alternative that I hadn’t considered: learn to be a Christian in a new way.”, p. x

I too was looking for a third alternative since 2000 and when I read this book in August 2001, I wrote or more like I prayer: “Father God, what a breath of fresh air for me … I think we are in a new kind of world that’s pretty unkind. I want to learn how to be a a new kind of Christian.” This process there has been pain and struggle as well as a load of misunderstanding and non-understanding thrown in the mix, especially when we’re asking hard questions which Brian does in p. xi-xiii (This is all before the more fictional characters get started in the book … so I’m sure Brian is asking these questions with what now I noticed his very helpful “What ifs?”!)

“What if God is actually behind these disillusionments and disembeddings? What if God is trying to move us out of Egypt, so to speak, and into the wilderness, because it’s time for the next chapter in our adventure? What if it’s time for a new phase in the unfolding mission of God intends for people (at least some of the people) who seek to know, love and serve God? What if our personal experiences of frustration are surface manifestations of a deeper movement of God’s Spirit? In other words, what if this experience of frustration that feels so bad and destructive is actually a good thing, a needed thing, a constructive thing in God’s unfolding adventure with us?”

In a world where we tend towards “get well soon” and “quick fix” ways of doing Christianity …. these words were words of hope and still are. Brian later mentioned Martin Luther as an example. And as a Lutheran pastor, I’ll admit my bias and say I can relate.

And the questions Brian asked were good ones:

“1. Why am I not the same kind of Christian I used to be?
2. What might a new kind of Christian be like?
3. How might one become a new kind of Christian if one is so inclined?”
, p. xvi

of course, in the last seven years (interesting to note this for myself) it became more like I became an “old kind of Christian” in a way .. or I slid back into some more essentials in my faith compared to a lot of fluff I was accustomed to. Ironically, I found myself reading more church history and theology to nourish this quest I had and still have. I had already begun a steady diet of Christian spirituality since seminary days and as a pastor in our pluralistic contexts I began to re-discover insights from former missionaries in missiology. I know I wasn’t and I am not that smart.

The last seven years have had many ongoing diverse conversations both local and global with scholars, mentors, fellow pastors, friends, young people and old people which have totally expanded and enriched the way I look at life, faith and the world. Many whom I never expected would even connect with me at various levels. For all of these relationships and conversations, I count myself blessed.

There are some who might pick up this book and get a little scared. In an interesting review by Bob Hostetler (who is an award co-author with Josh Mcdowell) he says,

“It will be exceptionally scary to some. If I had read this book ten—or even five—years ago, I would have been offended (like the main character of the book at one point). And many “modern” Christians will definitely find this book offensive and threatening. They will want to condemn its premise and argue with its claims…and in so doing, they just might show the extent of their allegiance to modernity (rather than to Christ).

It is also exceptional in tone. McLaren manages to present his case—for a new kind of Christian that is not blindly loyal to modernism, scared of postmodernism, nor unfaithful to God and his Word—in a way that (to paraphrase another reviewer) eschews ‘control, condescension, and smug certainty [in favor of] incarnational faith.'”

And “incarnational faith” is REALLY what at least for me at that time and even till today is what I’m looking for. And I think underneath many of the complaints and struggles of Christians after slowly uncovering the layers frustration and questions they bring up … what we really want to say “yes!” to.

The Navigators US has another helpful pdf review of the book which I’ll pull out some excerpts:

“… one may be tempted to jump to the conclusion that McLaren is “going liberal”, sacrificing Biblical orthodoxy for the sake of cultural relevance, or even guilty of syncretism. Nothing could be further from the truth.

… This story/dialogue format makes the book much more enjoyable to read than an academic volume on post-modernity. In addition, this form is consistent with one of the fundamental aspects of post-modernity, which favors story telling over propositional argument. The author insists that the story is not autobiographical, even though he has undergone a “mid-life pastoral crisis” in real life much like Dan does in the book. The difference is that McLaren probably did not have a personal mentor like Neo to help guide him through the transition from being a modern Christian to being a post-modern one. This is not an easy transition to make, of course, and it may be easier for a post-modern non-Christian to become a Christian than it is for a modern Christian to become a post-modern one.

… In my opinion, Brian McLaren has done an outstanding job of highlighting many of the opportunities and pitfalls offered for the advance of the Gospel by post-modernity. His critique of modernity and the syncretism of evangelical Christianity with modernity is disturbing, but largely accurate. He correctly observes that post-modernity offers many advantages for the advance of the Gospel, and to have a “knee-jerk reaction” against it is both shortsighted and counterproductive. On the other hand, he does not advocate a naive view of post-modernity that overlooks its unbiblical aspects. He also notes that someday we will see the shortcomings of post-modernity as clearly as we see the shortcomings of modernity today.”

Personally, I don’t think we need to be over-locked into the more academic side of the modernity/postmodernity discussion to benefit from the book. Now there are already many more resources which deal with those more nuanced discussions which a New Kind of Christian is not aimed at dealing with. Some might not like the broad strokes in the book, others like me may find it helpful to give some space to re-configure how we look at our faith and live it in todays often fragmented world. But as an Asian, and Malaysian dealing with the “debris of modernity”, and a very USA influenced Christianity .. I was not surprised to resonate with many of the concerns and questions raised in the book. But then, of course, that is just a starting point … there’s still more work to be done on our end. Which is another story we hope will continue after the Friends 2007 event (and of course with others who have already gone before us!).

Brian does carefully mention three points of orientation when we read this book, and I think these points are very crucial in reading his NKOC trilogy. It’s very easy to misrepresent Brian’s personal views if one in a hurry wants to equate it with the characters in this series.

I think the basic rule of reading is to appreciate the intention and the genre of the literature at hand, for me reading the series was a fun and thoughtful way of exploring the ideas and questions very often I may have had for myself, and most definately have heard from others. Perhaps we are just not used to this kind of writing, whatever the case read on before you read further into the series and even more especially if one seeks to be fair, before reading nto the mind of Brian Mclaren 🙂

At least we can try the golden rule, “do unto others what you want them to do to you”. The Confucius Chinese version is in my own rough more direct translation … “What you don’t want people to give you (or do to you), don’t give to others (or do to others)” :

“First, as you’ll see, I’m going to blur the lines between fiction and nonfiction in the pages that follow. I think you will understand why I have done so as we proceed. This book started as a work of nonfiction but evolved steadily toward fiction with each revision. Knowing that I was not trying to commit a work of artistic fiction from the start will help lower your expectations about character development, plot, and other artistic concerns. Things will go much better for both of us if you consider this more in the category of a philosophical dialogue than a novel.

… Second, you will soon meet Neil Edward Oliver, Dan and Carol Poole, and Casey B. Curtis. Please don’t assume that any of these characters can be fully identified with the “I” who wrote this Introduction.

Third, this book is just a beginning. There are a number of other questions, and important questions that follow on from these, that I will only nod toward in this book. Please don’t be disappointed that you didn’t get the last word.

… It is my hope that these imaginary conversations will prompt you to engage in real-life ones and that those conversations will take you where these cannot.”p. xviii (underlined emphasis mine)

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