We are looking at Brian McLaren’s soul-sort narrative. I have, in two previous posts, sketched Brian’s soul-sort narrative, which I contend is not the conventional Christian’s narrative, and I have sketched the Christian conventional narrative and also suggested that the Protestant evangelical soul-sort narrative is actually better seen as a plan of salvation and not the biblical narrative. The biblical narrative is behind the plan of salvation, but the two are not the same. (This distinction is not often observed.)
Today I want to make two contentions:
First, that Brian’s own theology is outside, and other than, the soteriological scheme of conventional Christianity, that he sees Jesus’ kingdom vision to be the creation of an alternative society (maybe that sounds more Anabaptist than Brian’s own categories), and that therefore the broaching of soteriological questions, which Brian does in this book, is actually in conflict in some important ways with what Brian’s theology is actually about. He is, in some senses, a universalist and that the soul-sort narrative grates at every nerve in his theology and mind and body and soul. It frames things in ways that minimize and shrink what he thinks Jesus’ social, peaceful, justice kingdom vision is about. His theology is shaped by liberation themes, and one finds compatible theologians in Rauschenbusch, Sobrino, Donovan, Boff and in some ways David Bosch.
Second, and this is the focus of this post, conversion theory helps me understand why Brian describes the conventional narrative as he does. I have argued that we can’t find anyone who sketches the conventional narrative as he does, and I mean how he frames the six elements (not the six elements themselves), and I want now to suggest why.
Some of you will know that I have studied conversion narratives professionally. I have both written a theoretical book on conversion (Turning to Jesus: The Sociology of Conversion in the Gospels
) and plotted conversions stories of various sorts of conversion (Finding Faith, Losing Faith: Stories of Conversion and Apostasy
). One theme that emerges to the surface in all theoretical conversion study is this:
Converts develop an anti-rhetoric for their former theology and faith. This anti-rhetoric denounces their old faith and forms into an apologetical defense of their new narrative. That is what I see in Brian McLaren’s caricature of the soul-sort narrative. It’s both anti- and it’s pro-; it’s anti his old beliefs and its pro his new beliefs. His liberationist, universalist theology sees the soteriological narrative of most of Christianity as deficient and he describes it through its insufficiencies.
Ask a strong evangelical who was formerly Catholic what Catholics believe and you will often hear something that has little do with what you find in the Catechism or in the official statements. Instead, you will get a powerful rhetoric that caricatures RC theology and beliefs: you will hear terms like superstition, magic and popery. You will get terms about worshiping Mary and idolatry and works salvation. Sometimes this anti-rhetoric is vile. I’ve heard it hundreds of times. You can try but you will rarely succeed at getting such folks to see the positive gospel within Catholic theology.
So now here’s my point: As a post-conventional narrative (liberationist and universalist, in part because he thinks that soteriological narrative is not at the heart of the biblical narrative), Brian has rejected and renounced the particularism, exclusivism etc of Protestant evangelicalism and the particularism one finds in the Catholic Church. In fact, he finds that narrative sadly neglecting God’s grace and creating an image of God that is monstrous — the Theos of his soul-sort narrative. Because Brian evidently thinks that kind of God is inherent to that narrative, he cannot accept that God or that narrative at the moral level. So he brutalizes it for what he sees as its inherent nature.
Brian, so I believe, has abandoned the plan of salvation narrative of the evangelical narrative and he has come to the conclusion that the God of that narrative is violent. As a convert to a different narrative Brian now writes as one with an anti-rhetoric toward that old narrative he formerly believed in and has tried to rescue and reform, but he no longer thinks it can be reformed or rescued, he’s abandoned it, and now he has a different narrative that shows that old narrative (the soul-sort narrative with a monstrous god) for what (he thinks) it is. His description of the soul-sort narrative is simultaneously a foil for his new narrative narrative.
And this applies also as a corollary for those who are fellow converts and see things the way Brian does. A further corollary: those who are still in the soteriological narrative, what Brian calls the soul-sort narrative, would never describe their narrative as Brian does.
My plea: If you think the conventional narrative that is shaped by soteriology, one that divides those who are saved from those who aren’t, is wrong, I ask you to be sensitive to how those who do believe it in how you frame it and describe it. Or, tell us you think it is morally deficient and that its moral deficiencies shape how you describe it. Wednesday morning a friend of mine will be posting another response — from a different angle — on the soul-sort narrative.