Author Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith proves to be an incisive and provocative contribution to the public conversation on the future of faith. Rather than hunker down in a defensive posture or go on the attack, as our dominant religious metaphors might incline us to do, McLaren proposes Christians reach for a new metaphor, that of the quest. A quest is a search for something worth having, in this case a search for a faith more worthy of Jesus, our Lord.
The book is predicated on a surrender of several abiding paradigms, including what you describe as a constitutional reading of scripture: treating the Bible as if it were an all but closed codification of fundamental principles and precedents to which a lawyer-believer can appeal and from which one can argue. In your research, what have you found to be the previously preferred metaphors for scripture?
I don't want to overestimate how well any of us can see the world exactly as people did in sixteenth- or tenth- or second-century England, Spain, or Egypt. But I think you can make this very fragile generalization: before the Enlightenment, authority resided not in books, but in divinely ordained people. Authority figures taught with a kind of divine right parallel to the divine right by which kings were thought to rule.
My hunch is that as we dispensed with the divine right of kings, we moved toward the divine right of individuals, enshrined in a statement like "all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights." We articulated and defended those human rights through constitutions. I think we did something similar in the ecclesial realm: Protestants, at least, dispensed with the divine right of popes and cardinals, and we shifted our authority to constitutions -- doctrinal statements and systematic theologies -- which we claimed were derived from and legitimized by the Bible.
So to answer your question, I think we moved from the pre-modern metaphor of the king's court to the modern metaphor of the judge's courtroom. And now, I think we're growing as restless with the court and constitution metaphor as our ancestors did with the kingly metaphor. If the earlier one seemed despotic, the later one seems bureaucratic. So we're on a quest for new metaphors. My proposal is that we're moving from courtroom to quest as a primary metaphor. We're not trying to once and for all arrange the evidence that demands a final verdict: we're on an unending quest for truth, for better understanding, for insight that leads to love for God and neighbor.
It seems to me that the crux of the book is the "What is the Gospel?" chapter. Of all the questions, what do you think makes the gospel question such a challenging conversation for so many to have?
I tell the story in the book of how shocked I was when an Evangelical theologian once proposed to me that most Evangelicals -- including me -- didn't have "the foggiest notion" of what the gospel really was. So perhaps this question will seem like a shock to folks, but I can't put into words how liberating it is to rediscover Jesus' gospel of the kingdom of God, and to see that Paul and Jesus have the same gospel, not different ones.
As one might expect, you use Romans as a means of confirming your response to "What is the gospel?" but then you offer a quite unexpected reading of it. Acknowledging that absent the guidance of the Spirit there is no understanding of scripture, were there any aids in particular that helped you find cohesion in Paul's letter to Rome?
I must first acknowledge what I believe to have been a Spirit-inspired discomfort with the standard reading of Paul's letter. A key breakthrough for me came when I read Bishop N. T. Wright's work on Paul. He said that the point of Romans wasn't to explain the gospel, but to solve a problem created by the gospel: How can the Gentiles be accepted without savaging the historic and "orthodox" exclusiveness of Judaism? How can Gentiles be accepted without relativizing supposed moral absolutes like circumcision and kosher laws and so on? I had never heard anything like that before, and frankly, I was curious but not convinced.
So in my private devotional time over several months, I began writing my own personal commentary on the book. I tested Wright's hypothesis by carefully reading the text word by word, line by line. And although I may read a few things differently on the level of detail, I was absolutely convinced by the main line of Wright's thought. Romans isn't an explication of the gospel: it is an engagement with the problem of a newly inclusive understanding of the kingdom of God and the people of God. As I worked with Romans, I saw his rhetorical strategy to be more and more like that of Jesus, working with stories and metaphors that are something like parables. I began to see him making a series of moves, and gradually Romans became more coherent, dramatic, and alive for me than it had ever been.
[to be continued]
Melvin Bray (melvinbray.com) is a devoted husband, committed father, learner, teacher, writer, storyteller, purveyor of sustainability, and believer in possibilities. He is a contributing author to the recent compilation Audacity of Faith: Christian Leaders Reflect on the Election of Barack Obama (Judson Press) and a participant and host in the Emergent Village conversation.