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McLaren Reviews McKnight

posted by xscot mcknight

“Atonement Wars”? Let’s Hope Not.
A book review of Scot McKnight’s A Community called Atonement by Brian McLaren.
Although “the emergent conversation” happens largely online and through informal gatherings and off-beat conferences (what some have called un-conventions), it also happens in the more standard format of books. Some of these books – like Mark Scandrette’s recent Soul Graffiti: Making a Life in the Way of Jesus – are artistic and literary, combining memoir and religious nonfiction. Others are multi-author works like An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, bringing together a wide variety of voices to explore a general subject through short essays. Still others are more scholarly works, like Peter Rollins’ How (Not) to Speak of God, which, even though Peter speaks in the academic tongue of polysyllabism on many occasions, has an uncharacteristically playful tone for a “serious” book.
Joining this creative and well-written stable of books is Scot McKnight’s new A Community Called Atonement, part of the new Living Theology series with Abingdon Press, edited by Tony Jones. The series aims to deal with “real theology” on a deep level, but in a way that is approachable and accessible to a wide range or readers, not just professionals in the academy. Here are four words I would use to describe this important debut book in this important new series by this important theologian.
First, it is timely. The book comes just as some scholars in the U.S. may be tempted to sharpen their pens to join a westward expansion of an atonement war begun in England over the last few years. That conflict began as my friends Steve Chalke and Alan Mann found themselves in hot water for raising provocative questions about a popular theory of atonement in their book The Lost Message of Jesus. Some Evangelicals, largely ignoring the main point of the book — the good news of the kingdom of God — said Chalke and Mann no longer belonged in their tribe because for them, Evangelical means a) subscribing to that particular theory of atonement, and b) equating that theory with the gospel. For a thoughtful online response to this controversy, I’d recommend Bishop N. T. Wright’s recent article .
Meanwhile, here in the U.S., a number of Evangelical authors have also been raising questions about atonement. Among them are Dallas Willard, whose The Divine Conspiracy critiques what he calls “the gospel of sin management,” Hans Boersma, whose Violence, Hospitality and the Cross exemplifies a hospitable Reformed tradition (and is highly regarded by McKnight), and Joel Green and Mark Baker, whose Recovering the Scandal of the Cross seeks to counter the popular (some might say dominant) reduction of atonement understanding to one theory. More recently, Mark Baker edited Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross, to which I contributed and which shows how various metaphors and theories of atonement are being preached in churches today. Each of these books has stirred up enthusiastic support (and I am among the enthusiastic supporters) along with some strong criticism.
For Scot McKnight to step into this tense terrain may recall the old maxim about fools rushing into territory avoided by angels, but it’s not only fools who rush into conflict: peacemakers are also drawn there, and this is the spirit in which McKnight enters the fray. Like an ambassador arriving on a troubled shore hoping to avert violent conflict, McKnight comes not to fire salvos or drop bombs on behalf of one side or the other, but to invite all sides to the table seeking better understanding.
That brings a second word to mind regarding the book: irenic. McKnight isn’t advocating a mushy “let’s all get along” evasion of the issues, which are many and important. But he is seeking to practice what we preach whenever we preach atonement: that God calls us to reconcile with God, ourselves, one another, and all creation. That means that the way we treat one another when we disagree about atonement can’t be separated from what we preach when we preach atonement. Theory and praxis are profoundly inseparable. This conviction helps explain why people with whom I imagine McKnight disagrees are treated in these pages gently, respectfully. McKnight prefers to “catch people being right” over exposing where he thinks they’re wrong, and thus seeks to build a community of atonement through his manner of addressing the issue. Normal academic discourse does not require this irenic tone, but in keeping with his theme, McKnight is seeking to follow a higher standard.
I would also call this book comprehensive, weaving together many threads of atonement theology in one tapestry. The book relies on a golfer’s metaphor rather than one from weaving. One is glad for many clubs, McKnight says, because each is useful in various situations. One would hate to have to drive with a putter or putt with a sand wedge. Similarly, various theories of atonement serve various functions in various settings according to McKnight, which is why all should be kept in the bag and used appropriately to the situation.
To be comprehensive, McKnight has to see the game differently than some for whom faithful golf may have become a matter of “using the five iron in all situations from the first tee to the eighteenth hole.” So he offers helpful ways of describing the “game” as a whole – speaking of the restoration of cracked eikons and identification for incorporation.
One more descriptor: the book is evocative. It lightly touches a number of important subjects along the way which are fascinating but tangential to this book’s purpose. Among important topics McKnight opens up in ways that leave this reader hungry for more are the centrality of metaphor in theology (p. 36 ff) and the sociopragmatic dimensions of our theologizing about atonement (p. 44 ff). Perhaps they will become future contributions to the Living Theology series.
We could conjure up many examples of the socio-pragmatic outworking of atonement theology – a reason to take this subject very seriously. For example, one might argue that an exclusive focus on one theory of the atonement could result in an administration that approves of military invasions and even torture. Similar thought experiments could be launched in a number of areas from ecology to poverty to the treatment of undocumented refugees. Although McKnight doesn’t get into these kinds of specifics (nor should he in a book of this sort), he does devote a very important chapter (16) to the relationship between a well-formed atonement theology and the practice of justice.
We have now come full circle to the word timely again, since the previous hypothetical situation is, for American Christians, less far-fetched than it may appear. At this critical time in history, I believe we need, not atonement wars (or other kinds of theo-combat), but rather mature and generative conversation on atonement, so we can together go back to the Scriptures and in their light savor the rich meaning of Christ’s saving work. A Community Called Atonement joins books by Willard, Boersma, Green, Baker, and others as an excellent and accessible resource for this conversation, informed by both current and historic scholarship.
For those who persist in claiming that people in the emergent conversation are unconcerned with truth and morality, or are only concerned with candles and guitar distortion, this book is one more demonstration that something robust and material is going on. The fruit of this conversation, of course, must go beyond books. Informed by this timely, irenic, comprehensive, and evocative book’s content and inspired by its manner and tone, we in the emergent conversation must keep building the community called atonement which Jesus gave his life to make possible and real and transformative in our world. May it be so.
Brian McLaren is an author, speaker, and former pastor active in the emergent conversation. His next book, Everything Must Change.



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Comments read comments(21)
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Wolf N. Paul

posted August 24, 2007 at 2:57 am


Aren’t you afraid that such glowing review by McLaren will irredeemably taint the book in the eyes of others? :-)
Wolf



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Wolf N. Paul

posted August 24, 2007 at 2:59 am


Scot,
the link to the N.T.Wright article is broken, I think it needs “http://” in front of it.



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joe

posted August 24, 2007 at 6:25 am


i got to tell you scot. i am definately interested in reading this now. not so much because mclaren reviewed it, but what he had to say. definately curious.



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Paul Baggaley

posted August 24, 2007 at 7:29 am


Hey Scot, I ordered your book but apparently there is a problem and it will not ship until November 30. I emailed Amazon and this is the reply I got from them :
“Currently, we are waiting to ship your items until we receive “A Community Called Atonement “.
Items listed as “usually ships within 24 hours” typically take up to 24 hours to obtain and prepare for shipment, but can occasionally take longer. As you may know, we have several fulfillment centers across the U.S., and the items in your order may sometimes be in stock at different locations. When you place your order, we estimate your shipment date based on the proximity of inventory to the delivery address, as well as how quickly we can obtain and assemble items for shipment.
Now the estimated delivery date is December 13 – December 21, 2007.”

Just thought I’d let you know that some of us are still having issues. Either way I’m looking forward to reading it, I’d just prefer not to have to wait until Christmas. Doubt there’s anything you could do about it though.
Thanks for posting the review.



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Scot McKnight

posted August 24, 2007 at 7:32 am


Wolf,
I’m delighted Brian liked the book. I’m delighted Hans Boersma and Kevin Vanhoozer and LeRon Shults endorse the book. I hope all kinds of Christian thinkers like the book because I have no desire to appeal to one group alone.



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Scot McKnight

posted August 24, 2007 at 7:34 am


Paul,
I’m certain Amazon’s messages are not accurate — we’re hearing they have the books and are sending them out.



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Julie

posted August 24, 2007 at 7:47 am


What a nice (wonderful, really) review. Much more thorough than I guessed it might be.
Kudos to you! (Irenic is a great word to describe you in theological discourse.)
Julie



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brad brisco

posted August 24, 2007 at 8:02 am


Wow, what a wonderful and informative review, I am glad I order the book yesterday!



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Rodney

posted August 24, 2007 at 8:49 am


I am so excited for this book to finally be made available to buy.
I would also recommend S. Mark Heim’s Saved From Sacrifice. Another great book on the atonement.



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Nathanael

posted August 24, 2007 at 12:27 pm


insightful review…sounds like another good book, Scot.
I loved Brian’s sentence in the sixth paragraph, “That means that the way we treat one another when we disagree about atonement can’t be separated from what we preach when we preach atonement.”



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Bob Postiff

posted August 24, 2007 at 12:56 pm


“For example, one might argue that an exclusive focus on one theory of the atonement could result in an administration that approves of military invasions and even torture. Similar thought experiments could be launched in a number of areas from ecology to poverty to the treatment of undocumented refugees.”
I don’t understand how Brian can make this connection.



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Scot McKnight

posted August 24, 2007 at 1:17 pm


Bob at #11,
There are many today who connect one’s theory of atonement to one’s political ideas. So, what Brian is saying is that a preoccupation with the ransom theory, a military metaphor at times since it draws on the themes of Passover and Exodus — as does the theme of Christus Victor, could lead to a justification or encouragement of more a militaristic theory of political life.



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Andie

posted August 24, 2007 at 3:51 pm


Scot, they may be telling you all that, but they had my order for a week and never charged my credit card, so I canceled it. The second time I ordered, I emailed them and got the same statement that Paul Baggeley got. I finally just ordered from Abunga, and it is on the way. It shipped today, I think.
Amazon has this one messed up some way.



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Wolf N. Paul

posted August 24, 2007 at 4:46 pm


I just ordered two copies VIA Amazon from a Marketplace vendor in the UK — but then I am in Europe and use Amazon.de rather than Amazon.com. Estimated delivery time a week to ten days.
I plan to keep one and give one to my pastor.



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Brad

posted August 24, 2007 at 6:03 pm


What does Brian mean when he says: “theory of atonement?”



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Paul Baggaley

posted August 24, 2007 at 7:51 pm


Hey Scot, I emailed them a second time and got a better response :
I’ve checked your order #103-4333923-647476, and see that the estimated delivery dates were incorrectly listed for this order as December 13 – December 21, 2007.
We have recently completed some upgrades on our web site, and it is possible that the problems you encountered are linked with those changes. However, at this time, I believe that this error has been fixed, and the correct estimated delivery dates were listed for your order.
Now, corrected estimated ship date of your order is September 05 – September 10, 2007 and estimated delivery date is September 18 – October 01, 2007. We will send you an e-mail at the time of shipment.

That looks a bit more promising. And I must say I’m impressed with Amazon customer service. I’ve ordered hundreds of books from them and this is the first time I’ve ever had to email them – and both emails I sent were answered very quickly – so kudos to them for that.



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Christine

posted August 24, 2007 at 8:20 pm


Congrats, Scot, on your fabulous endorsements. Now, since book sales no doubt will soar on “our” book from all the good comments, are ya gonna share “our” royalties with us? :-)



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Scot McKnight

posted August 24, 2007 at 8:23 pm


Yes, Christine, if you find me in my office I buy coffee at “our” expense.



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Christine

posted August 24, 2007 at 9:06 pm


Is it the Jesus Creed blend? Made in a french press? If so, no doubt some of us’ll be there soon!



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Scot McKnight

posted August 24, 2007 at 9:12 pm


Well, I doubt Starbucks has Jesus Creed blend. We’re about to the end of JC Blend.



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Patrick

posted August 24, 2007 at 11:03 pm


Scot,
Great review, and I look forward to the book. I was stopped short by a remark in a recent book called “Heresies and How to Avoid Them” (ed. Ben Quash and Michael Ward, I recommend it), that the early church argued about who Jesus *was* not what he *did*, and that this shows where our central concern and starting point should be. Get your Christology right, and whatever else you need to know flows from that.



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