Excerpt from "A New Kind of Christian" by Brian McLaren

Neo stopped walking and faced me. "Well, let me ask you a question. You're aware of how conservative Christians in the United States just 150 years ago used the Bible to defend slavery, just as they did in Jamaica? And now you'd say that those chaps were dead wrong, would you not?" I was nodding my head slowly, realizing that this issue affected us in very different ways. "How can you be sure that some of your ironclad interpretations today aren't similarly fueling injustice?"

I protested: "Neo, I never said that my interpretations were infallible. I'm just saying that the Bible itself is."

He responded, "Well, I'm wondering, if you have an infallible text, but all your interpretations of it are admittedly fallible, then you at least have to always be open to being corrected about your interpretations, right?" I was nodding again. Yes. Of course. Neo kept talking: "So the authoritative text is never what I say about the text or even what I understand the text to say but rather what God means the text to say, right? So the real authority does not reside in the text itself, in the ink on paper, which is always open to misinterpretation-sometimes, history tells us, horrific and dangerous misinterpretation. Instead, the real authority lies in God, who is there behind the text or beyond it or above it, right? In other words, the authority is not in what I say the text says but in what God says the text says."

At this point, I wasn't sure what to say. Neo continued, "Our interpretations reveal less about God or the Bible than they do about ourselves. They reveal what we want to defend, what we want to attack, what we want to ignore, what we're unwilling to question. When Judgment Day comes, God might ask a lot of us how we interpreted the Bible-not to judge if our interpretations are right or wrong but to let our interpretations reveal our hearts. That will be telling enough."

"Does Neo believe in a literal Judgment Day?" I wondered to myself. I was shaking my head, more out of confusion than clear disagreement. Neo stooped down and drew his line in the dirt. "Over here you have the conservatives, who look at the Bible the same way medieval Catholics looked at the church and pope: infallible, inerrant, absolutely authoritative. Then over here you have the liberals, who see the Bible more or less as a collection of artifacts, reflections of the religious life of the Jewish and early Christian people-inspiring, perhaps even inspired in places, but not authoritative. I know this is a caricature, but are you with me?"

I said I was.

He continued, "What if the real issue is not the authority of the text down on this line but rather the authority of God, moving mysteriously up here on a higher level, a foot above the ground? What if the issue isn't a book that we can misinterpret with amazing creativity but rather the will of God, the intent of God, the desire of God, the wisdom of God-maybe we could say the kingdom of God?

I just raised my eyebrows, as if to say "OK, go on." He did. "If that's the case, both sides have to wake up and take notice. Conservatives may have gotten terribly comfortable perpetuating slavery or the extermination of the Indians or the subjugation of women or the marginalization of minorities or the exploitation of the environment because they can use the text to justify it, and liberals may have become terribly complacent because they've kind of dispensed with any clear word from God other than 'be nice modern American consumers and citizens of liberal democracies.' But if there is a real, living, active, relevant desire of God and wisdom from God that needs to be brought to bear on our concrete life situation, then both sides had better move to the edge of their seats, start praying, start listening to each other; and start reading the Bible in fresh ways for all the new wisdom they can mine from it, don't you think?" Neo was jabbing his right forefinger into his left palm and pretty agitated, about as close to angry as I had yet seen him.

I didn't know what I thought, so I let out a long whistle, as if to say, "Wow, you're pretty worked up, and you just said a mouthful." On the one hand, he didn't seem to be giving the Bible the same place of absolute reverence and authority I had been trained to give it. On the other hand, he wasn't simply giving up on the Bible, nor was he shopping it, picking and choosing what he would buy and what he wouldn't. He really seemed to care about what God's will was, and I wondered, isn't that all that really matters?

This thought really disturbed me. "Oh no. I'm becoming liberal," I said to myself, with an almost physical shiver of fear. (Looking back, I'm amazed by how much fear the label "liberal" elicited in me. I have to wonder if there are others out there who are equally frightened by the label "conservative.")

We started walking again. I was quiet for a few minutes, tending my own thoughts. I remember this question presenting itself to me: Wouldn't I rather be a 'liberal" who really cared about God's will than a good conservative evangelical who was smug in my understanding, who had perhaps stopped "hungering and thirsting after righteousness"? Another chill crawled up the back of my neck; I was scaring myself. Neo probably could tell I needed time to think, so he didn't speak either.

Finally, he spoke up. He seemed to have been having his own internal conversation: "Besides, the whole notion of authority as so many people conceive it is thoroughly modern." Now, I must have looked even more confused, because Neo gently hit me on the shoulder, smiled, and winked. "Relax, Dan, I'm only saying what the Bible says. That oft-quoted passage in Second Timothy doesn't say, 'All Scripture is inspired by God and is authoritative.' It says that Scripture is inspired and useful-useful to teach, rebuke, correct, instruct us to live justly, and equip us for our mission as the people of God. That's a very different job description than we moderns want to give it. We want it to be God's encyclopedia, God's rule book, God's answer book, God's scientific text, God's easy-Steps instruction book, God's little book of morals for all occasions. The only people in Jesus' day who would have had anything close to these expectations of the Bible would have been the scribes and Pharisees. Right?"

All I could say was, "Wait a minute. Wait a minute." Then I said, "What-do you want to throw out the Bible, then?" Neo said, "Daniel, Daniel, a little defensive, aren't you? I never said anything like that. I think that when you let go of the Bible as God's answer book, you get it back as something so much better." I asked what that would be, and he said, "It becomes the family story. Look, you have kids. You must give them some idea of what the Poole family name means. You tell them stories about their great-grandparents and grandparents. You give them the idea that to be a Poole means something, right?" I nodded.

"Well, the Bible does the same thing. It tells the family story-the story of the people who have been called by the one true God to be his agents in the world, to be his servants to the rest of the world. It's absolutely essential-to give the family a sense of identity, so we know who we are and why we're here and where we're going. And not only that, it's wonderfully honest about our weaknesses and mistakes. I mean, there's no mistaking who the hero is in this story-it's certainly not any of us humans! So I think we need to let go of the Bible as a modern book, but that doesn't mean we discard it. Not at all! When we let it go as a modern answer book, we get to rediscover it for what it really is: an anclent book of incredible spiritual value for us, a kind of universal and cosmic history, a book that tells us who we are and what story we find ourselves in so that we know what to do and how to live. That letting go is going to be hard for you evangelicals."

"What are you saying?" I asked. "That the Bible doesn't have any answers?"

"Sure it has answers, but I don't think that's the point. Think of a math book, Dan. Is it valuable because it has the answers in the back? No, it's valuable because by working through it, by doing the problems, by struggling with it, you become a wiser person, a person capable of solving problems and building bridges and balancing your checkbook and targeting the trajectory of a rocket to Mars. That's one way I see the Bible as being valuable. The whole answer-book approach is what modern people want the Bible to be, but it's not necessarily what the Bible really is. Of course, the Bible is even more than a book of wisdom and wisdom development. It's a book that calls together and helps create a community, a community that is a catalyst for God's work in our world."

I protested, "But Neo, you can talk all you want about wisdom and community. We need something more than wisdom and community. We need some rock-solid answers-some hard facts to be the foundation for our Christian worldview. Every building needs a foundation, right?"

He replied, "The Bible never speaks of itself this way. You're the pastor; you should know-there are only two places I know of where the New Testament speaks of foundations-no three. In one case, the church is the foundation of the truth, and in the second, Jesus is the foundation of the church, and then there's a third, when Jesus told Peter he was the foundation. But unless I'm mistaken, the Bible never calls itself the foundation."

"Well, you've got me there," I said.

He looked at me, perturbed, and said, "I'm not trying to 'get you,' man! Just a minute." Then, with no explanation of where he was going, he adjusted his faded red baseball cap and stepped off the path and in a second vanished into the forest undergrowth. I walked over to the edge of the path and strained my eyes to try to see him. A minute passed. Then two. I could hear the snap of breaking twigs moving toward the river but still couldn't see him. What was going on? I called his name once, twice, three times. No answer.

After the fourth time I called his name, he called mine: "Dan, over here, come here!"

I'm a bit nervous about poison ivy and snakes, but I gingerly pushed through the bushes toward his voice. When I saw him, my first thought was that he was relieving himself. He was standing perfectly erect, with his back toward me. Then he turned and motioned me to come closer. When I came up beside him, he pulled a branch aside to reveal a perfect web made by a huge yellow and black spider. "That's exactly what I was looking for, a common garden spider, Argiope aurantia," he said, always the science teacher. "But in spite of the "common" in their name, they aren't all that common. Beautiful, isn't she?" That wasn't the word that had leapt to my mind. "Let me ask you a question, Daniel. Where is the foundation for the home of this spider?" I replied, "Well, I guess it doesn't exactly have one. But it does have anchor points-like where the web attaches to that leaf and that branch and that branch there.

"OK," Neo said, "I think you can see where I'm going. What if faith isn't best compared to a building, but rather to a spiderweb? Instead of one foundation, it has several anchor points. Those points might be spiritual experiences, exemplary people and institutions whom one has come to trust, that sort of thing."

"But where does the Bible fit in?" I asked.

"Well," Neo replied, "it could be seen as one of the anchor points. Or perhaps every passage in the Bible that has affected your life could be seen as an anchor point. Or perhaps the Bible isn't only in the anchor points. Perhaps it is part of every thread of the web."

I wasn't satisfied. "But I think you're stretching things, Neo. I mean, why just pick a spiderweb as your model for faith? That seems kind of arbitrary, doesn't it?"

"No more than a building with a foundation, really. When you think about it, a spiderweb has some real advantages over a building It's flexible. It can be repaired when it is damaged. It functions as both a home and a tool for catching food. But if you don t like spiderwebs let's use a different model altogether. Let's take the earth. What's the foundation of the earth? What keeps the earth stable?"

"Well, it's not that simple," I said. "The earth seems to get its stability from a combination of things-its own momentum, the gravity of the sun; maybe even the moon and other planets play some role, I'm not sure."

"What if faith were more like the earth than a building? What if faith could never be stable in the way God intends it to be if it didn't have forward momentum and if that momentum weren't in the field of the gravity of God himself? And if you don't like that metaphor, think of a bird in flight or a bicycle or a ship on the sea. In each case, there's movement in relation to some larger forces and realities. Stability comes through an interplay of those factors. Stability is not always as simple as a static building sitting on a solid foundation. John Wesley-he was an Anglican, you know-understood this very well: he talked about the church deriving its stability from a dynamic interplay of four forces-what were they? Scripture, tradition, reason, and . . . what was the fourth? Oh yes, spiritual experience. Maybe," - and here he backed away from the spiderweb, knelt down again, and drew his line on the ground - "maybe both liberals and conservatives are working from a static model of authority and both need to be called to a higher point of view to see that our situation is much more dynamic, much more predicamental, moving up here instead of down in the dust."

Finally Neo stopped and said, "Maybe neither the liberals nor the conservatives take the bible seriously enough."

I almost laughed, "That's a good one."

"No, I'm serious," he said. One thing that both liberals and conservatives have in common is that they read the bible in very modern ways. Modern conservatives read the bible as if it were a modern book. They're used to reading modern history texts and modern encyclopedias and modern science articles and modern legal cods, and so they assume that the Bible will yield its resources if they approach it like one of those texts But none of those categories even existed when the Bible was written Sure, there was history, but not with all of the modern trimmings like a concern for factual accuracy, corroborating evidence, or absolute objectivity. Sure there was law, but I'm not sure there is a one-to-one correspondence between an ancient Near Eastern concept of law and our modern concept. The conservatives seem somewhat blind to these kinds of differences, I think."

He continued, "The modern liberals seem to make a corresponding mistake. They acknowledge that the Bible is a different kind of text from our modern texts, but then they in a sense judge it by modern standards. If something doesn't fit in with a modern Western mind-set that reveres objectivity, science, democracy, individualism, that sort of thing, it is dismissed as primitive and irrelevant.

"There's a third option neither of them takes, and that's the option I think we should take. Can you see what it is? I don't want to tell you, Dan. I want you to try to get it yourself."

We started walking again, Neo shuffling through the leaves with his hands in his pockets and his eyes scanning the trees, and me looking down at the tops of my shoes, engrossed in thought. After a few minutes we came to a place where the park service had installed a picnic table and an old-fashioned water pump. In the absence of lunch, we took turns pumping for one another and drinking from cupped hands, then washing our faces, cooling off. It was late September but it felt hot like August. We sat on the picnic table to rest awhile.

Finally I was ready to try to "get" what Neo was leading me to: "Neo, maybe the third alternative is to . . . to loosen up and approach the Bible on less defined terms. Instead of approaching it with our modern assumptions and expectations and our aggressive analysis, maybe we need to read it less like scholars and more like humble seekers trying to learn whatever we can from it, in the context of our sincere desire to live for God and do what he wants. I guess that would be the momentum you were talking about before-the desire to do God's will. Maybe we need to read it with more of that desire and less of our critical analysis, whether of the liberal or conservative variety. Maybe postmodern is postanalytical and postcritical. Is that what you're getting at?"

"I wonder" he continued, "what would happen if we approached the text less aggressively but even more energetically and passionately. I wonder if we could even take it a step further. What if instead of reading the Bible, you let the Bible read you?" I gave him a kind of queer look, and he responded to my puzzlement: "OK. Dan, think of a scientist preparing to dissect a northern leopard frog, Rana pipiens. How would you describe his attitude, his posture, toward the frog?" I said that the scientist would be objective. He wouldn't have any feelings for the frog. It's just dissection; it's objective science.

"OK. Tell me more."

"Well, I guess he would be curious. He would be looking for something. He would be trying to compare the frog's anatomy with a fetal pig's anatomy or a rat's anatomy. Maybe he would be looking for some abnormality, some tumor or something."

Neo replied, "OK, Dan, good. Now think of a detective at a crime scene. How would you describe his approach?" I said something about the detective wanting to prove something, looking for evidence for or against innocence, and wanting to avoid contaminating any of the evi dence by his own presence.

Neo said, "Good. Now think of a teenage boy meeting a girl at the mall. How does his attitude or posture differ from the scientist's or the detective's?"

I was starting to get it. "Whoa, Neo-you really are a good teacher. I see where you're going. It's not so analytical or objective. There's some fun in it, a sense of personal investment, a feeling of adventure. There's less caution, less holding back. But in another way, there is holding back, because he wants to make his move and then leave room for her to make her move. It's less aggressive, less controlling, and more . . . relational. So-I get it. You're saying we need to approach the Bible more that way. You're saying we need to flirt with it, romance it-or maybe let its message romance us.

Neo replied, "Yes, good, that's one way of saying it. But let's keep thinking. Let's say you're a patient and you know you have cancer, and you're meeting your new oncologist for the first time. What would your posture be like then, and how would it differ from the scientist's, the detective's, or even the teenage boy's? Do you see what I'm getting at? Our modern age has predisposed us to only a limited range of postures with the Bible. It's all objective analysis and forensic science, always trying to prove something. It's all about a kind of aggressive conquest of the text- to read it with more of that desire and less of our critical analysis, whether reducing it to something explainable by our preconceptions, turning it into moralisms or principles or outlines or conclusions or proofs or whatever.

"I wonder" he continued, "what would happen if we approached the text less aggressively but even more energetically and passionately. I wonder what would happen if we honestly listened to the story and put our selves under its spell, so to speak, not using it to get all of our questions about God answered but instead trusting God to use it to pose questions to us about us. See the difference? What would happen if we just trusted ourselves to it - the way a boy opens his heart to a girl, the way a patient trusts herself to an oncologist. Actually, I think the Catholics know more about this than we Protestants."

For more on this discussion, go to narrative * * *

A New Kind of Christian is available from Amazon.com. It is published by Jossey Bass and the Leadership Network.

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• © 2005 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on September 9, 2005