A New Kind of Christianity – The Narrative Question

What is the over-arching story of the Scriptures?

In Western Christianity, it has long been contended that the story of the Scriptures is the story of redemption through Jesus. Brian McLaren taught this position for a long time. He generalizes the idea in a sort of diagram that I will not reproduce here, but essentially this is what he says it is:

  • In Eden, mankind was perfect like God is perfect.
  • Man fell from perfection, which made God angry.
  • Man was thus condemned to destruction.
  • Jesus offers salvation from condemnation.
  • Those who accept Jesus are no longer condemned and go to heaven.
  • Those who do not go to hell and damnation.

In his first chapter on the subject, McLaren equates this to a neo-Platonic view of man’s enlightenment. He believes that Western Christianity looks backward through man’s interpretation, through the Hellenic philosophies that influenced the thinking of the church during the Roman Empire and thus reflects Plato’s philosophy more than it reflects the original intent of the Scriptures. Because of this, McLaren calls us to reject the typical understanding of the Scriptures’ narrative.

In this Platonic world, God is perfect. He is stiff and unmoveable; he is a Greek ideal. McLaren deems this view of God as theos (the Greek word for God.)

After laying out this view, McLaren proposes that we read the Scriptures differently, that we assume this Platonic way is incorrect and we start from the beginning of the Scriptures and attempt to read the Scriptures without this filter. McLaren asks a great question: Would the ancient audience of the Scriptures have read them the way we do? We’ll come back to that question in a minute.

McLaren then contrasts theos with the God of the Hebrew Scriptures whom he refers to as Elohim. In his reading of the Hebrew Scriptures, McLaren points out that Elohim is more good than he is perfect. He is not the Hellenic ideal and thus the story is not so much about our falling from the ideal as it is about Elohim relating to all mankind. Blessings are not because a certain people or a certain person are special but rather so they can be a blessing to all mankind. Anything unique about Israel or people in the narrative is meant for a blessing to people not in the story.

There’s more to it than this, but there’s no point in rewriting the whole book here.

So, here’s where I get really, really unorthodox. (If you’re an uber-Christian, here is where I suggest you re-read the warning I posted at the beginning of the introduction to this series of posts.)

My Response

McLaren’s question is correct. That’s my opinion, of course, and people are free to disagree. But the fact is that we do read the Bible from our perspective backward. We allow our interpretational matrix to dictate the form of the text.

Although he wouldn’t admit it (well, he might, who knows?) McLaren does it as well. I do it too. We all do it.

But Christianity in its modern form has down it dramatically, suppressing and even oppressing anyone who taught it differently. The medieval church particularly excelled at forcing this condemnation narrative down the throats of its adherents, using guilt and the threat of condemnation to manipulate the masses.

That is not to say that there is not truth in the Platonic view of revelation. Mankind is fallen and we are condemned. This is clear in the Scriptures, most notably in Paul’s letter to the Romans. This is the way the apostles viewed things; but there is also something to McLaren’s question because the truth that is in the Platonic view is not all of the truth that there is.

The Platonic deity that McLaren deemed Theos is indeed the God of many Christians but it is not the God of the Scriptures. In the Scriptures, God’s perfection is not one of immutable sterility but a perfection of goodness and completeness. His perfection does not make him unemotional. He is perhaps the personification of broken-heartedness and compassion. He is actively engaged in the story of mankind.

Previously, I posted my creation of a new term – supranarrative. I believe that this is what McLaren is looking for, although I believe he does so using the literary device of a metanarrative instead. He seeks some kind of hidden over-aching narrative that fits something of a political, liberation theology. He makes quite a stretch in certain places to make the narrative fit his idea of what it should be. It’s not intentional; but he (like all of us) is subject to his own matrix.

What do I think the underlying narrative of the Scriptures is? I have to say that I differ from McLaren on that one. I think the underlying narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures is the Kingdom – particularly, the kingdom of David. I would contend that David is the keystone of the entire Hebrew Scriptures; and it is for that reason that the Gospels make such a dramatic, obvious and insistent point of Jesus’ connection to David. I will blog on that one day; but for now, I’ll just leave it hanging.

In conclusion, does McLaren ask the right question? Yes, I think he does. I think he rejects too much of traditional Christianity’s view because he classes it as Platonic; but I think he once again asks the right questions.

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2 thoughts on “A New Kind of Christianity – The Narrative Question

  1. Hi Erik,

    Thanks for your commentary on this. This is definitely a relavant issue today (postmodernism and the emergent church) and it needs to be fairly and accurately critiqued. One of my professors, Dr. Scott Smith, has done a good job of this in his book, Truth & The New Kind Of Christian (2005 Crossway Books). Anyways, I would be interested in hearing more about how you came to the following conclusion: “that I think the underlying narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures is the Kingdom – particularly, the kingdom of David.” Blessings bro!

  2. Without giving too much away (since it will one day be the topic of a book), David is the keystone of the TANACH. Everything that precedes the David narrative points us toward his reign. It can be argued (effectively, I think) that at the time of David’s ascension, YHWH was the God of Judah but largely marginalized or ignored by the other tribes.

    David gave Israel 1) a neutral capital, 2) a national religion and 3) a national language. There was no nation of Israel before him and really there was not much of a nation after him. So, the latter portion of TANACH is a longing for a return to David. The Messiah is cast as a reinstatement of the Davidic rule – which is exactly how Matthew casts Jesus.

    Our culture has a OT/NT system so engrained in us that it is hard to imagine, but I find the Hebrew division much better:

    1. The Law
    2. Former Prophets
    3. Latter Prophets
    4. Writings

    to which I would add:

    5. Gospels
    6. Letters

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