Monday, February 15, 2010

A heretic by any other name (3)...

Reading Brian McLaren is sort of like dealing with a sleight of hand artist. The problem for Brian is that he's not very good at it. As you read you can almost hear him saying, "Look at my left hand, not my right hand!" Straw men abound in his books. False choices are repeatedly insisted upon. For instance, Brian insists that the Bible is either a wonderful book (Brian loves the Bible you see) but merely a human product full of errors and contradictions (but that's what makes it so great!) OR the cold and dispassionate rule book of those mean 'ol fundamentalists. In Brian's world you have to pick one or the other.

More from Mike Witmer's review and interaction with Brian McLaren's new book:

How should the Bible be understood?

Martin Luther warned us not to destroy something good simply because it is abused. He said that some people worship the sun and moon, but we don’t “pull the sun and stars from the skies;” some people visit prostitutes, but we don’t “kill all the women;” and some people get drunk, but we don’t “pour out all the wine” (actually some of us Baptists do that one, but you get the point).

Destroying the good thing that is abused is precisely the mistake Brian makes on question two. He recklessly alleges that this list of atrocities—“slavery, anti-Semitism, colonialism, genocide, chauvinism, homophobia, environmental plunder, the Inquisition, witch burning, apartheid” was committed because Christians thought their authoritative Bible was telling them to do so. To the extent that this is true (e.g., slavery in America), the obvious solution is a more careful reading of Scripture. But Brian doesn’t consider this option. Instead, he asserts that the only way to stop such crimes against humanity is to stop reading the Bible as our constitution.

Brian smuggles two disparate terms into his definition of constitution, effectively confusing the issue for many readers.

1. He says that we misuse the Bible as a constitution when we read the Bible as a legal document without appropriate attention to genre. Paying attention to genre is simply good hermeneutics, and no one would disagree with him here. But that doesn’t prevent Brian from caricaturing the other side, asserting that reading the Bible as a constitution demands that we naively consider the speeches of Job’s misguided friends to be as much the Word of God as what God himself says in the book. If the Bible is a legal document, then every word in it—even the speeches of Satan—is equally what God wants us to believe. Brian says that “there isn’t an easy way out of this problem.” Actually there is. It’s called hermeneutics, and every seminary teaches it.

2. Perhaps Brian spends so much time on his hermeneutical red herring so his readers will not notice when he smuggles in what he’s really against. Brian says that we also treat the Bible as our constitution when we stand under it as our authority. Brian knows that this point will offend many of his readers, but if he can persuade us that reading the Bible as our authority also commits us to naively reading the Bible without attention to genre, then he may be able to convince many that the Bible is not our constitution.

The key to not being swept away by this sleight of hand is to realize that (1) and (2) are mutually exclusive. It’s easy to stand under the Bible as our authority (2) and still read biblical poetry differently than Paul’s epistles (1). All of us do it all of the time. Brian surely knows this, so I can only conclude that either he is being extraordinarily sloppy here or he is trying to trick us into rejecting the Bible as our authority.

After caricaturing the Bible as constitution, Brian goes on to give his solution: we must treat the Bible as a cultural library for Christians. Just as a library presents competing perspectives on perennial questions, so the books of the Bible present different answers to the big questions of life. We should not expect our Bible to be internally consistent, but should take its messy conversation as our cue to join its great debates. Even God, when he appears in the biblical text, does not give the final answer on anything, for doing so would oppressively “shut down any conversation.” Instead, the “God character” in the book of Job is “not the real God” but merely “a representation,” an “imagined God, the author’s best sense of God, the fictional character playing God for the sake of this dramatic work of art.”

Brian realizes that his view may open the door to moral relativism. He reassures us that it doesn’t, but he doesn’t even attempt to explain how. Indeed, I suspect that Brian’s reading of the Bible opens the door more widely to moral atrocities than the constitution view he blames. Which person is more likely to abuse the Bible to commit violence on others—someone who believes that the Bible is God’s Word which he must obey or someone who thinks that the Bible is a library where one can pick and choose which answers he likes and which ones he doesn’t? How exactly would Brian convince Hitler that God says genocide is wrong? Couldn’t Hitler respond that he was more into another book in the cultural library, thank you very much? Yes, I just played the Hitler card (this is a blog after all), but note that the card was dealt by Brian when he said that my view led people to commit genocide.

Brian’s naiveté or duplicity (it’s hard to tell which) is on display when he accuses people like me of being the “religious thought police” who defend our views because our jobs and reputations are at stake. I confess that I am a sinner whose motives are never entirely pure, but does Brian really think that he does not stand in danger of the very same thing? He has made a very nice living from his “new kind of Christianity,” and he stands to lose much if evangelical Christians conclude that his “third way” forward is actually a fast track back to liberalism.

It would be nice if Brian felt confident enough in his views to discuss their merits without resorting to ad hominem attacks. Writing that we may “politely notify the thought police that we don’t fear them anymore” may score points with some readers, but its “us vs. them” mentality simply poisons the conversation. Even his fictional God thinks he can do better.

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