A Better Christianity?

I’ve just finished reading Brian McLaren’s The Great Spiritual Migration (Brian D. Mclaren: The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to be Christian, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 2016. ISBN 978 1 473 62672 0).  He calls us to escape “conventional” or “traditional” Christianity, which he believes is causing a catastrophic decline in faith, and invites us to embrace a just and generous way of life more true to the example and teaching of Jesus.  Conventional Christianity, for McLaren, means a literalistic interpretation of the Bible, a “a system of beliefs” that is no longer credible, a dominating and frequently violent God and religious institutions pathologically resistant to change.  He is convinced that a new movement, based on a fresh understanding of faith and a “just and generous Christianity” is emerging.  His book can be a workbook for groups, with questions for reflection and discussion at the close of each chapter.

The migration McLaren speaks of reflects a personal journey of faith.  A Church leader from a fundamentalist Plymouth Brethren background in America, he experienced a crisis of faith when he found himself unable to believe the concepts and doctrines he had been taught and often preached from the pulpit.  He rejected his previous understanding of Christianity, and in a moment of conversion, discovered “a deeper treasure”, embracing a life style derived from a more genuine relationship with Jesus.

It is difficult to argue with the Christianity the author discovered, and the book will hopefully help many Christian believers whose experience of faith mirrors his own.  His description of the history of Christianity and his advocacy of a “great spiritual migration” is, however, fundamentally flawed.  The conventional Christianity he describes, and from which he believes he has escaped has never been typical of the faith of those who are genuinely seeking to follow Jesus, and cannot properly be described as traditional.  The literalistic, fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible he condemns may have gripped the minds of many, particularly in America, but it is a relatively modern phenomenon.

He claims that the traditional “belief system” Christianity led to appalling acts of violence and genocide, such as those perpetrated by the Spanish and Portuguese Conquistadors in the sixteenth century, and continues to justify the destruction of the environment.  Any thoughtful Christian must admit with shame that Christianity has been used to justify many dreadful things, but the Jesus of the Gospels has always stood in judgement against them, and it is wrong for McLaren to argue that his modern migration is needed in response to such horrors.  People in power have often sought to manipulate religious enthusiasm to further and justify their ambitions, and will no doubt continue to do so, but that is not the fault of the faith that derives from Jesus.  Far from being the source of all kinds of wickedness, historical Christianity has often led the way in pursuing justice and peace, championing the rights of the poor and opposing oppression.

Religious institutions, like all other kinds of institution, are resistant to change, and exercise considerable power over individuals, sometimes to do them harm.  Prophetic voices have always been needed to challenge them and expose injustice.  It may be true that none of today’s institutions seem able to solve the environmental, economic and political problems facing us, but McLaren’s extravagant claim that a new spiritual migration can move Christianity and the world to a new and better place, is misleading and overambitious.

Christian people have always been called to pursue a distinctive and prophetic way of life, in every age, to travel with Jesus, show love to all and pursue what makes for peace and justice.  The call today is the same.  We do not stand, as McLaren asserts, like ancient Israel, before a Red Sea, summoned by God to abandon the old ways and launch out into unfamiliar territory, in order to discover a new land of milk and honey.  Instead, we are invited to renew our commitment to follow Jesus in our day, just as our Christian forebears did in theirs, striving in his name to make the world a better place.  There is no better Christianity.

Peter Shepherd (December 2018)