03/12/2012

A New Kind of Christian (by Brian McLaren)

It's some years now since I first heard of Brian McLaren, one of the best known speakers and writers in the so-called 'emerging church'.  Like Marmite, it appears, people either love him or hate him; he has recently become an even more controversial person within the Christian world, yet his writing is gentle, his personality apparently warm and accepting.

'A New Kind of Christian' is the first of a trilogy, one that has sat on our shelves for quite some time until I picked it up on my husband's recommendation.  The book is written in pseudo-fiction format, a style which seems a bit odd at first but which works very well. McLaren calls it 'creative non-fiction' in a later work, although I prefer to think of it as 'fiction with an agenda' - and not in a negative sense; it means that he can explain his thought processes and propose new ways of 'doing church', without seeming either condescending or as if he's preaching.

So a fictional scenario is set up: Daniel, a tired pastor, who is thinking of resigning, becomes friends with Neo, a Jamaican high school teacher who is a graduate in history and philosophy.  Dan wants to ask Neo about the process of registering as a teacher, but the two become friends and have lengthy talks  about how the church, if it's going to stay relevant to 21st century people, needs to move from modernism into post-modernism. It includes some of the best nutshell-style explanations I have come across on this topic, explaining clearly what post-modernism is - and also what it isn't.

Written over ten years ago, much of this was probably very radical at the time, although reading from a similar perspective, it feels almost mainstream. Many people around the world seem to have become disillusioned with traditional churches (including those congregations that consider themselves non-denominational and contemporary), and have moved forward in what can seem like a scary way, forming new kind of communities and relationships, seeing God in a broader, vaster way that includes paradox. I was reminded several times of 'So you don't want to go to church anymore?' which, similarly, was very radical when it was first published.

Although there were some complex concepts in this book, meaning I couldn't just sit down and read it all at one sitting, the writing was good, the story sufficiently interesting that I wanted to know what would happen, and the ideas thought-provoking. I was particularly impressed that the author manages to stay balanced and fair. He doesn't criticise those who remain in the traditional and/or modernist style within the church, nor does he suggest that it is better to be post-modern as a Christian. While Neo's lectures and emails must inevitably reflect McLaren's viewpoints, the fictional nature means that it should be entirely possible to read this book, disagreeing with every word, and yet still find it interesting.

I felt personally that the fictional style allows for disseminating of ideas without the author directly speaking to his readers, which could have been condescending - instead, Neo speaks to Dan at the stage he's reached, sometimes pushing him beyond the level he's prepared to go - sometimes pausing to answer questions, or come up with new ideas.

It's cleverly done, and my only gripe - if that's the word - is that towards the end there was an unexpected and abrupt style change that didn't seem quite right; the last chapter is then written as a series of emails from Neo to a youth pastor who was also exploring the idea of a postmodern community of believers, and the story with Dan is rather left hanging. I realise that this leaves open the path for the sequel - which I plan to start reading immediately - but I prefer books to be complete in themselves.

Anyone reading 'A New Kind of Christian' needs to approach it openly, prepared to have their beliefs challenged. Readers may need to put aside any preconceived ideas about God, whether reading from a theist or atheist perspective, or indeed that of an agnostic.

Still, whatever your background, I would highly recommend this book - whether you end up loving it, as I did, or finding it unhelpful and contradictory, as some have claimed. Note that as well as paperback form, this volume is available for the Kindle.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 3rd December 2012

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