Those whose anxiety or paranoia drive them take desperate refuge in conventionality and institutionalism will thus find him annoying, judging him to be less Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant, whichever they are, than themselves. And, as is ever the case, from their own self-referential points of view they will be entirely correct. The truth is, in fact, he is engaged in the brave enterprise of pioneering how to be more of all three of those things than those who think tradition is a matter of increasingly shrill conformity to type rather than a living stream.
Brian Claren’s new book, A New Kind of Christianity, Ten Questions that are transforming the Faith, gathers up and recapitulates the great themes he has been exploring for many years. In it, he prefers to talk about “discipleship,” a word he points out occurs 262 times in the Bible, rather than “Christianity,” a term unknown to Scripture, except for 3 instances of the noun “Christian”. For those who use labels as mapping pins instead of flick-knives or shibboleths, his challenge to the Pharisees is radically Protestant, generously Orthodox and profoundly Catholic.
It is radically Protestant because he centres his thesis, ruthlessly, on a historical rather than institutional Jesus. He points out how many take their concept of Jesus mediated through lenses supplied by the theoligical giants of the past, Luther, Aquinas, Augustine, and friends. That’s a choice you can make, but what makes those theologians themselves giants is their radical Christocentricity. Unless their work points you to Jesus, they are wasting your time. Which Jesus? Well, Jesus seen in the light of the tradition from which he came, within which the gospels are at pains to locate him, represented by the Hebrew Scriptures.
The Bible is, he suggests, best read as a narrative in its own terms, rather than a compendium of soundbites to reinforce a priori dogmas. Thus our shallow infatuation with the unchanging first Cause Greaco-Roman god of the philosophers who cannot do change is a poor substitute for the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and Moses who is ever in dialogue with his people, working through their lives in weal and woe, giving them compassion and hope, and weaving his love as a golden thread through the warp and weft of their story. This book begins with Scritpure and takes it utterly seriously as the living, active Word of God, constantly to judge and reform the Church. Its intent is to be more, not less, Evangelical than conventional Biblicism.
Thus, in Radical Protestant mode, this book throws down afresh Luther’s challenge from 1517:
Out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed... in the Name our Lord Jesus Christ: (1) Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance...This traslates for McClaren as a suggestion that Jesus our Lord
“when he said Poenitentiam agite willed that the whole history of the Christian faith should be repentance, rethinking and quest.”This idea is not less red-bloodedly Protestant and Christocentric than conventional Evangelicalism. It’s more of both, in spades.
The label “Orthodox” can being appropriated, ludicrously, as a synonym for “Conventional.” Real orthodoxy, even in the merely denominational sense of the term, is far from that. Although you may say Orthodox Christians have a funny way of showing this aspect of their faith, its first principle is to be is radically plugged into a living tradition, with a dynamic view of the Holy Spirit. Checkbox conformity to type is very much less than that.
This book expresses generous Orthodoxy, to use the title of another of Brian McClaren’s books, because it emphatically does not substitute modern thought for tradition — something it will be doubtless accused of doing by people who know very little about either. McClaren ain’t no Jack Spong. His working materials are the ancient creeds and practices of Christianity. These he uses as bricks with which to construct a building rather than smash windows or construct coshes. To continue the building metaphor, this is not a new building, but a tithe barn conversion in which the materials of the old structure have been lovingly taken down and cleaned to give them another 500 years of life, rather than disposed of.
Finally, this book is profoundly Catholic. Those who think Catholic is just a label for a denomination will disagree. For McClaren Catholic is the great mark of the Church in the creeds. Catholicity is not secured by trading in your brain at the door and doing what the Pope commands, a silly concept that the Pope himself rejects by his very Christocentricity, but by being baptised. Catholicity is an inherent mark of the Church, and the Church is not a club or an institution, but the whole company of Christ. McClaren’s book is radically and thoroughly trans-denominationalist in its Ecclesiolgy.
This book’s Catholicism is a spirit, temper and extension inherent in baptism, not an institutional mechanism for exclusion. It is not based on Roman Imperialism, but the Holy Spirit, enabling us to embrace the whole work of Christ in other people’s lives for what it is. True Catholic instinct for him is not measured or secured by what the Italians call romanità, but by capacity for extension and comprehension in the sprit of Edwin Markham’s famous tag:
He drew a circle that shut me outSome will think this book less Catholic than their own attachment to the RC denomination, and if that’s what catholicity is they wil be right from their own point of view. Most readers will find it, in a broader sense, more Catholic.
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout
But love and I had the wit to win;
We drew a circle that took him in
Ten questions? Here goes...
- What is the overarching story line of the Bible?
- How should the Bible be understood?
- Is God violent?
- Who is Jesus and why is he important?
- What is the Gospel?
- What do we do about the Church?
- Can we find a way to address human sexuality without fighting about it?
- Can we find a better way of viewing the future?
- How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?
- How can we translate our quest into action?