Brian McLaren’s Poke at Orthodoxy
Our blindness is one thing the emergent church may have right
Syncretism is the melding of different philosophies or religions or schools of thought. The term (“syncretism”) becomes a pejorative that casts some practice in a negative light. My Christian missionary friends will talk about, say, Hindus who have converted to Christianity. And they’ll notice that some of the Hindu practices have found their way into the expression of Christianity—maybe harmless. Maybe not.
Once upon a time fundamentalist preachers would decry drums as a pagan beat that has no place stirring up emotion in a church service (somehow they missed the use of percussion instruments in Old Testament singing—and dancing).
Are those examples of syncretism? Possibly. I doubt there is a black and white standard about such things—there’s no on/off switch for what’s right and what’s wrong. More likely there is a continuum. And at some point along that continuum we decide (that is, someone claiming authority arbitrarily decides based on their understanding) this other person has crossed the line. The convert has gone too far and now that person has mixed the gospel with paganism.
Brian McLaren might say: “Not so fast.”
McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith points out that modern reflections of Christianity (even/especially modern evangelicalism) may themselves owe a lot to this syncretistic impulse. In A New Kind of Christianity, McLaren argued that the reading of the Jewish Bible (the Old Testament) and the New Testament have been overtaken by platonic thinking. He describes a six-step formula that many Christians immersed in the Bible would subscribe to—and then he goes on to point out that formula owes much more to Plato than it does to the Torah. Some argue that McLaren’s is a naïve reading of Plato, which may be accurate: whenever we reduce this to that, we lose nuance and insert our own biases.
McLaren’s notion that we are at cross-purposes with the Bible when we read it as a constitutional law document rather than diligently seeking out (and sticking to) the purposes for which the documents were written also rings true for me. I’ve been on the giving and receiving end of too many interpretations that conveniently keep the people in power in power. But McLaren’s notion has lots of layers that require extensive teasing out and discussion.
Brian McLaren is a lightning rod. People love him. People hate him. It’s not hard to see why, when he accuses the entire ecclesiology industry of syncretism.
I like McLaren’s book because it is a beginning of trying to strip away our syncretistic impulses. Especially those impulses we are so embedded in that we can’t see them, sort of like the fish who doesn’t understand the concept of water. Sure—McLaren’s book has flaws. It turns reductionistic every so often. It makes huge leaps. Yes.
And yet we need real help to see where we have inserted our own thinking into a holy document and called it God’s word. Because this happens over and over again. And I think God doesn’t dig that tendency on our part. I would guess he would prefer the attitude behind, “I am blind. I would like to see.”
McLaren points out some of our blindness.
Image Credit: Kirk Livingston