The question on the cover of the January issue of Sojourners’ magazine grabbed my attention. It was the title of an article by Brian McLaren.
As one who has struggled for years with the problem of war and violence in the Old Testament as well as in the world, I read the article with eagerness. I thought that this article might answer some questions I’ve had or help me clarify my positions on these issues. What a disappointment! It seemed to me to be condescending and based on false dilemmas and red herrings, as well as a selective reading of Scripture, I felt it wouldn’t have been worthy of a C as a college paper. So I dashed off a letter to the magazine giving some of my views.
When I first read the article, I didn’t know who Brian McLaren was, though I had heard of him through conversations and other articles I’d read. The magazine informed the readers that he is an author and speaker whose new book is entitled, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith. Pretty heavy sounding. Anyway, I looked up his book on Amazon.com and read some reviews and a short bio.
Mr. McLaren is apparently one of the chief intellectual spokespersons for the “Emerging (or Emergent?) Church.” The reviews that I read were mostly positive some actually gushy, though a few questioned the author’s arguments and logic.
So, though I have no plans to read the book, here are some of my thoughts on the article.
It begins with a note from someone that the author says, “we’ll call Pete.” It concerned the previously mentioned book. Pete, while agreeing with much in the book, said, “I do think you are doing disservice to this argument … when you shun the ‘violence’ of God and the subsequent need for the cross’ justification, which was also quite violent.” Pete spoke of the “plethora of biblical examples (of violence)” and continued, “The fact is the Old Testament is a God-ordained bloody mess, and the cross is the ultimate expression of it.”
McLaren’s comment is “I don’t know which shocks you (i.e., the reader) more – that I would question God’s violence, or that Pete would defend it.” Here is the first of his false dilemmas. As I read Pete’s comments I did not see him “defending” God’s violence, simply stating its factuality which, it seems, McLaren denies.
McLaren goes on to discuss religious violence in the post 9/11 era and violent language by Muslims, Israelis and U.S. Televangelists. “A lot is at stake,” he tells us. I (and I suppose Pete) would agree. However, it seems to me that the implication is that our interpretation of Scripture should somehow be a reaction to others’ misinterpretation.
McLaren gives a pretty clear definition of violence, which Mr. Webster would basically agree with: “force with the intent of inflicting injury, damage, or death.” He then gives what he says are “four primary responses to the question of God’s violence.”
1. God is violent and as humans made in God’s image we’re free to use it.
2. God is violent, but in a holy way. So it’s generally prohibited to us except to those whom God has designated.
3. God is not violent, so human violence is never justified.
4. God is not violent, so violence in any form is absolutely forbidden.
McLaren chooses option 4, but can accept option 3. He thinks Pete would choose option 2, but be tolerant of option 1. This whole “choose your option” thing is a frustrating oversimplification. It’s a false dilemma times two!
He then tells us that non-Christians are “interested bystanders” in this conversation. Their perception of us as violent or non-violent is important to their perception of the Good News we present. Agreed! But need we reinterpret Scripture because of others’ perceptions? Another false dilemma! He returns to this warning at the close of the article.
He gives us a bit of autobiographical material concerning his own growth in understanding of this topic. Much of what he speaks of is similar to my own pilgrimage, though we somehow didn’t arrive at the same conclusions.
McLaren then goes on to discuss “the plethora of biblical examples” of violence. Again I would agree with him that they are indeed troubling and admit that though I have sought ways to deal with them, I am still uncomfortable – as I am with the violence that I see outside of the Scriptures.
But McLaren’s solution is to recognize that “there was another plethora of verses that present God as kind, reconciling and compassionate …” and that he was “going to have to choose one plethora over another …”
Wow! I never thought of that! Just pick and choose whatever Scriptures I like and reject the rest. He tells us that he no longer reads the Bible as “an inspired authoritative constitution” and now reads it as “an inspired and authoritative library.” Now I have no idea what this means or what the difference is, and I suppose I need to read his book to find out (this view is mentioned in many of the book reviews). But whatever it means in theory, in practice it appears to mean one can select whatever volumes agree with one’s position and leave the others on the shelf.
McLaren acknowledges “tension in the Scripture” but seems to look down on those who look to other authorities to help resolve their conflicts; he says, “I first turn to Jesus.” “When in doubt consult Jesus” is his mantra. He tells us that “the staggering reality is that Jesus didn’t kill anybody … He didn’t hit anybody. He didn’t hate anybody.” Wait a minute! This is the same WWJD argument I’ve seen on many poorly written college papers. Jesus didn’t speak exhaustively to these issues and we should be wary of putting our thoughts into His mouth. (Although Jesus did speak of hellfire and outer darkness and that sounds pretty violent to me!)
McLaren frowns on “the theory of penal substitutionary atonement.” He asks, “Where do you primarily find God on Good Friday?” and concludes that “God is located first and foremost with the crucified one.” I agree. But what does it mean that He was “delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God”? (Acts 2:23; see also 4:27, 28.) Whose wrath was propitiated by Christ’s death? The work of Christ on the cross can only be explained in the light of the doctrine of the threefold person of God and the incarnation of the Son.
The Bible presents a multi-faceted and inscrutable God. We aren’t given the right to pick and choose those facets of His character that we prefer.
McLaren ends his article with a paragraph that begins, “I probably agreed with Pete when I was his age. Now my journey has taken me to a place to which Pete may never come, or even want to come.” This sounds a bit condescending, like Job’s friend Zophar: “What do you know that we do now know? … Both the gray-haired and aged are among us, older than your father” (Job 15:9, 10). Perhaps McLaren should read Elihu’s rebuke: “The abundant in years may not be wise, nor may elders understand justice!” (Job 32:9).
I am in my seventies and have been wrestling with these questions for more than a half century. My journey has taken me to a different place than McLaren’s has. I have come to understand that I may never understand God’s ways. I have come to realize that God ways are inscrutable and while I may continue to seek and gain wisdom, I will have to be content with a limited knowledge of God and His ways.
For some of my other posts on this topic see:
THE CHRISTIAN AND WAR
VENGEANCE, WHOSE PREROGATIVE?
VIOLENCE IN THE OLD TESTAMENT