I contended in my review of Brian McLaren’s new book that his sketch of how “conventional” Christians understand the biblical narrative is a narrative not held by any reputable thinker, and the aim of this new series on this blog is to explain Brian’s sketch of the soul-sort narrative, sketch the conventional narrative in its own terms, and then to posit a suggestion of why he has so described it. (Should be three posts: today, Friday and next Monday.) This soul-sort narrative is not a tangential point; it’s at the heart of his whole book.
One reason I’m doing this series is that I’ve had a few say to me that they actually grew up with Brian’s soul-sort narrative. My contention is that they didn’t; nor can they find one gospel tract or one youth pastor who will ever admit to having believed in or preached Brian’s soul-sort narrative as he describes it
. I’ll explain in another post why I think Brian sketches the narrative as he does.
Before I go any further, I have to say this: Yes, those six elements on p. 34 (listed below) are in all conventional narratives, even Tom Wright’s. It is not those elements that concern me; it is how Brian frames those six elements and the Story into which he places them. Or the Story he creates out of those six. That’s the issue for me.
How would you characterize the Western Church’s narrative of the Bible/gospel? How do Catholics sketch the narrative? How about the Reformed? The Lutheran? The low church evangelical?
First, let me sketch what Brian calls the “soul sort narrative” or the “Greco-Roman narrative.” In so doing, I’m leaving out whether or not his Plato and Aristotle is an accurate philosophical set of categories, and in saying that I’m not suggesting that 2d-4th Century theologians didn’t adopt and adapt some Greek philosophers or some Roman patterns of thought. Instead, I want to focus on the narrative itself.
Second, Brian finds six elements in this “Western Christian religion” narrative. He contends these six characterize the Western Church, though I would not omit the Eastern Church from this narrative as much as he does. Those six elements are:
Eden … Fall … (State of living on earth in) Condemnation … Salvation … leading to either Hell/Damnation or Heaven.
But the elements are put into a special kind of narrative by Brian, and that’s my issue.
This narrative he says is about sorting out who will go to heaven and who will not, which, as far as it goes, is characteristic of nearly all of (non-universalist, non-pluralist) Christianity, even in the East. Yes, it is true especially of Protestantism and Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism (and Eastern Orthodoxy too): the gospel is about delivering people from their sins and therefore from judgment, and rejection of the gospel leads to judgment. Yes, that is true. Not all will be saved. If that’s the case, all of those who believe in a heaven and hell use a “soul sort narrative.”
Third, Brian digs and digs until he finds what he thinks is really inside that soul sort narrative. Here’s some of his description:
He wonders “if it would have been better for this story never have to begun” (35).
He wonders if it is “morally believable” (35).
He wonders if Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul or James believe this?
He calls the entire narrative into question (35).
He proposes we learn to read the Bible from the front forward and not from our time backward, which is a contention without distinction: all theologians, all biblical scholars, and all biblical theologians have always done just that — taken us from Adam to the Consummation.
He believes no one in the Bible taught original sin, total depravity, the Fall, or eternal conscious torment (37).
He thinks the six-line narrative came from the imposition of Plato and Aristotle on the Bible, but he offers absolutely no one who either imposed or who actually teaches his proposed narrative. [I don’t doubt dualism crept into the narrative from the Greeks and Romans; I’d like to see Brian show someone’s actual narrative doing what he says. In brief, that narrative looks like this in reality: Platonic ideal being… Fall into the Cave of Illusion … Aristotelian real/becoming … Salvation … or Greek Hades or Platonic Ideal.]
He believes the God of this narrative is like Zeus; he calls this god “Theos.” This Theos is a Monster God. He is not the deity of Genesis 1 or Genesis 2-12. This Theos “loves spirit, state, and being and hates matter, story and becoming … as soon as something drops from the state of perfection, Theos is possessed by a pure and irresistible urge to destroy it (or make it suffer)” (42). “Theos stands above, holding his thunderbolts ready to strike, ready to melt the whole damned thing down to primal lava, ready to set it all on fire to purge all that is imperfect, so only perfect purified being remains” (43).
Let’s be clear here: Brian thinks this narrative is characteristic of the Western Church. In his next sentence from that last one above: “according to conventional Christian theology” (43). When we use original sin and Fall we are buying into this narrative, so says Brian (43).
Salvation: “salvation … occurs when Theos finds a way to forgive this fallen, dropout, broken, detestable creation for its descent from perfect holy being into pathetic detestable becoming” (43). I don’t know how to read “finds a way.”
What remains in the end? “Theos, plus the perfected souls of the redeemed in heaven, plus everyone else suffering the absolute, ‘perfect’ torment of eternal, unquenchable, pure, and unchanging hate from Theos, getting what they deserve for being part of the detestable fallen universe” (44).
So, does anyone believe this? According to Brian this is “more or less, and put baldly — the ‘good news’ taught by much of the Western Christian religion (not all of it, thank God), the religion in which I was raised, in which I have done my life’s work, of which I am a part today” (44).
It is seldom put this crudely. [I’d say never.] He thinks theology is always running around trying to rescue the narrative from this bald caricature. He proposes trying to read the Bible frontward (which is what that narrative does, if he’ll look at it again: it begins at the beginning). But his contention is the classic one: the Church got it wrong, badly wrong, early, and it’s been wrong ever since. Almost everyone.
Let’s end today with this question: Did you observe how in Brian’s sketch of conventional Christian narrative there’s no Jesus Christ (read the chp again if you need to) and there’s no grace and no love of God and no mercy of God and no covenant of God with Israel … and no real Israel as God’s covenant people and no pleading of the prophets … and no Easter or Resurrection or Pentecost or Spirit or Church?
Instead, he’s got the fifth element in the Story as “salvation” and he brings in other terms like justification and atonement. What is amazingly absent here — and it’s a tragic omission — is Jesus Christ. Which conventional narrative has no place for the living, dying and ascended Jesus Christ? When Brian is actually describing this conventional narrative, and I don’t mean when he is setting up his narrative of creation and liberation and new creation (which, by the way, is a set of terms that was fashioned by theologians who believe in the six elements) that lead to Christ, there is no place for Jesus Christ in his narrative. Fine, but don’t call it “conventional.” There’s no “conventional” narrative that doesn’t make Jesus, as God’s redeeming Son and our Savior and our Lord, as the very center of the narrative. None. Ever.
One more time: it is not the six elements in the narrative that concern me. It is how those six elements have been construed in what Brian calls the conventional narrative, the soul sort narrative, the Greco-Roman narrative.