Question #5: “What Is The Gospel?” (McLaren’s “A New Kind of Christianity”)

In this series of posts we are taking the questions Brian McLaren addresses in “A New Kind of Christianity” one by one.  The method will be to ask the question, look at how McLaren believes Western Christianity answers the question, how McLaren answers the question himself and lastly how I would answer the question.  In this post, we will address the 5th question McLaren mentions in the book.

The Question:  What is the Gospel?

Western Christianity’s Answer:  Western Christianity’s answer, McLaren believes, would come mostly if not solely from the Book of Romans.  The Gospel according to Western Christianity is justification by grace through faith.  The Gospel according to Western Christianity is about how to escape earth and get to Heaven.  The Gospel is about avoiding Hell.  Ultimately, the Gospel is about me, me, me.

Brian McLaren’s Answer:  Brian McLaren wants to say that the Gospel is about the Kingdom of God coming to earth.  He emphasizes that what Jesus preached and talked about in the Gospels was the Kingdom of God being at hand.  McLaren then goes through the Book of Romans, which has so often been used to propound the “Gospel is about me” mindset, and he shows how he sees the Gospel of the Kingdom of God in it.  McLaren’s interpretation is as follows: Continue reading

The Role of the Priest (Telling the “Big Picture” Story of the Bible #5)

In the previous post in this series, we talked about the role of the prophet.  This time, we will explore the Biblical role of the priest. 

When we think of a priest, what kinds of things do we picture him doing?  In our current time we may think of a Catholic priest, as that may be our most common understanding.  But the Jewish priest was somewhat different.  A Jewish priest had a few main roles.  First, the priest gave offerings and sacrifices to God for the people.  The people would bring their offerings and sacrifices to the priest and the priest would offer them to God himself, performing different rituals or ceremonies depending on the offering or sacrifice. 

A second role of the priest was to represent the people before God.  Many times the priest would pray for and even plead for the people who were the responsibility of that given priest.

The third role we want to highlight is the simple fact that the priest taught the people.  It was the priest’s job to teach and explain to the people all thing things God wanted of the people–in the way of sacrifices and rituals, in the way of commandments, and in the way of beliefs.

Just as we saw with the role of the prophet, Jesus comes in the New Testament and fulfills the role of the priest.  Let’s look at the roles of the priest again, this time in reverse order, and see how Jesus becomes the ultimate example of each.  Obviously, Jesus teaches and explains to us the things God wants us to know.  Jesus did not simply come to die on the cross.  He lived for 30 years first, and had a ministry for 1-3 years before he died and was resurrected.  Part of the reason for that was so Jesus could teach us by his words as well as his life and actions.  There are many examples of Jesus fulfilling this teaching role of the priest, but one example would be the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus also fulfilled the role of representing the people before God.  Jesus, being God himself, was the perfect mediator for the people.  Again, we see this role coming through in many of the things Jesus did–indeed, arguably everything Jesus did was to bridge the gap between God and man.  One obvious example is one we used for the last post as well.  Jesus’ pastoral prayer in John 17.  Here, Jesus is clearly speaking to the Father on our behalf.

That second role flows right into the third role, as well.  Jesus is our priest in that he offered the necessary sacrifice.  Not only does Jesus offer the sacrifice, though–he becomes the sacrifice himself.  The priest–the only perfect, clean, spotless priest–becomes the sacrifice.  (Interestingly, he doesn’t get rid of all the rituals–he implements a new one–the Last Supper/Communion).

Jesus the prophet is also Jesus the priest.  The Old Testament meets the New Testament, and rather than the Old dying to make way for the New, the Old is fulfilled in the New.  Jesus doesn’t get rid of the Old Testament–he lives in its roles and makes it come alive.

Question #4: “Who Is Jesus And Why Is He Important?” (McLaren’s “A New Kind of Christianity”)

In this series of posts we are taking the questions Brian McLaren addresses in “A New Kind of Christianity” one by one.  The method will be to ask the question, look at how McLaren believes Western Christianity answers the question, how McLaren answers the question himself and lastly how I would answer the question.  In this post, we will address the 4th question McLaren mentions in the book.

The Question:  Who is Jesus and why is he important?

Western Christianity’s Answer:  Instead of giving us a summary of who western Christians think Jesus is, McLaren takes this time to address two of his critics and their views of Jesus.  The first critic McLaren addresses is Mark Driscoll.  (McLaren never names his critics, but the quotes are widely available online, such that their identity is no secret).  Apparently, Driscoll has made the claim that McLaren wants to “recast Jesus as a limp-wrist hippie in a dress with a lot of product in His hair, who drank decaf and made pithy Zen statements about life while shopping for the perfect pair of shoes…In Revelation, Jesus is a prize-fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed.  That is the guy I can worship.  I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.”  Wow. Continue reading

The Role of the Prophet (Telling the “Big Picture” Story of the Bible #4)

What do you think of when I say “prophet”?  Maybe you think of a fortune-teller–someone who can predict the future or a palm-reader or some lady dressed funny with a crystal ball.  Maybe you think of someone who can do miracles–or at least someone who makes it look that way.

What is a prophet in the Bible?  A prophet has many “jobs”, but the major job of a prophet is to be a spokesperson for God.  A prophet hears from God, then speaks to the people the words that God told him to speak.  There are numerous examples of this in the Bible.  Think of all the times someone writes “The word of the LORD came to…” (In most translations, if the word LORD is in all caps it refers specifically to the name God gave Moses at the burning bush).  All of those individual speakers are prophets–Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc.  So one role of a prophet is to be God’s spokesperson.

Sometimes a prophet does tell the future, although that is not true in many cases.  Other times, a prophet tells what God might do if something doesn’t change.  We think of Jonah preaching to the Ninevites what will happen if they don’t repent.  Still other times, prophets are told specifically to act out certain things, almost as a dramatic parable, as a symbol to the people.  One example of this is Jeremiah 13, where God commands Jeremiah to bury a linen belt, so that it will get ruined.  This was to represent the way God would ruin Judah’s pride.

So the role of the prophet is to be God’s spokesperson.  Sometimes this involves speaking of the future, although this isn’t necessarily the case.  This speaking for God can be literally, in that the prophet speaks the words of the Lord, or this can be symbolically, in the “dramas” the prophet is called to act out.

This role of prophet is ultimately taken up in the New Testament by none other than Jesus Christ.  Jesus in the New Testament becomes what the prophets were in the Old Testament.

Jesus of course becomes a spokesperson for God (not to imply he isn’t God himself).  It is made pretty clear that the local Jews understood Jesus to be a prophet.  In the story of the men on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24, the men understand Jesus to have been a prophet.

Jesus also speaks the words of the LORD.  There are many examples of this, but if we look to Jesus’ prayer for his people at the end of His life, it is made pretty clear.  In John 17:7 & 8 Jesus prays, “Now they (Jesus’ followers) know that everything you have given me comes from you.  For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them.  They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me.”  Jesus says that God gave him words, and that he spoke the words to the people.  What were the words?  All of the sermons Jesus preached.  All of the parables Jesus told.  There were times, too, when Jesus spoke of the future–see Matthew 24.  These were the words of God that Jesus gave to the people.

Not only this, though.  Jesus also performed prophetic signs.  There weren’t a lot of them, mind you, but they were there.  Maybe the most obvious example is when the woman is caught in adultery.  The leaders bring the woman to Jesus to ask if they should stone her, and what does Jesus do?  He bends over and draws in the sand.  Strange!  We don’t know what he drew.  But the leaders did.  And as a result they dropped their stones and walked away.

Another example of a prophetic sign could very well be the way he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.  In some ways, of course, this would be reminiscent of a king riding in to the praises of his people.  In other ways, though, it was symbolic, because Jesus wasn’t a king (at least not a king like the people expected–more on that in a future post).

It could very well be that Jesus’ clearing the Temple could be a third prophetic sign.

So while the role of the prophet is most often associated with the Old Testament, it exists throughout the whole Biblical story.  And like many other things, the role of the prophet is ultimately filled in the person of Jesus Christ.

Question #3: “Is God Violent?” (McLaren’s “A New Kind of Christianity”)

In this series of posts we are taking the questions Brian McLaren addresses in “A New Kind of Christianity” one by one.  The method will be to ask the question, look at how McLaren believes Western Christianity answers the question, how McLaren answers the question himself and lastly how I would answer the question.  In this post, we will address the 3rd question McLaren mentions in the book.

The Question:  Is God Violent?

Western Christianity’s Answer:  McLaren doesn’t really have much to say about how Western Christianity has answered this question in the past.  He talks about how certain groups of many different religions have read their holy books in a constitutional way and have used their respective holy books to justify violence, but McLaren in no way indicates that he thinks this is normative of Western Christianity.  (For more on what it means to read the Bible in a constitutional way, read the post on Question 2: How Should The Bible Be Understood?)

Brian McLaren’s Answer:  In short, Brian McLaren’s answer to the question “Is God Violent?” is “No.”

The obvious next question, then, is “What about all those stories in the Old Testament where God seems to command and/or approve war?”  Continue reading

Good Without God?

One of the major contentions of modern atheism/agnosticism is that it is possible to be good without needing to believe in God.  There are plenty of people, atheists will say, who belive in God who are not good.  And of course I agree.  Simply believing in God does not suddenly change a person into a good person.  But is the opposite true?  Is it possible to be good without believing in God?

If we are simply talking about a person’s actions, then the answer is “yes”.  There certainly are atheists who do good things.  There are all kinds of people all over the range of “religiosity” that donate time and money to good, worthy causes.  Of course agnostics and atheists do good things.

But it is with the next question that everyone tends to get nervous:  Does it make sense for atheists to do good things?

I would have to answer “no”. 

So, am I saying that we need some Big Guy in the sky cracking a whip over us in order to get us to do what is good?  Nope.  That’s not what I am saying.  I don’t think people need to see God as a Task-Master beating us into submission before they will do good.  I have already acknowledged that atheists do good things.  They presumably aren’t doing good things because they are afraid of the Angry Task-Master, or else they aren’t really atheists.

The reason it doesn’t make sense for atheists to do good things is because it is impossible to define what is good without talking about God.  Without some type of god, it is impossible to talk about good and bad.  There is no way to define “good” or “bad” without appealing to something outside of oneself to for a definition.

A common argument against what I am saying is put forth by Richard Dawkins, and many others.  In his The God Delusion, Dawkins proposes the idea that morality is determined by “the selfish gene”.  Basically the idea is that what is beneficial for survival is moral.  What extends our life is good and those things that benefit the evolutionary process are good, and the opposites are bad.

But why should this be the case?  For the Christian, we believe life is good because the Creator created us and loves us and is Life Himself.  But for someone who doesn’t believe in God, why should life be any “better” than death?  Why is life any more moral than death?  The problem with atheism is, if I was holding a gun to an atheist’s head (which I would never do), there is no logical argument that atheist could give me to not shoot him.

Without a standard of morality, “good” and “bad” lose their meaning.  Without a standard of morality, why is democracy any better than tyranny?  Love better than hate?  Freedom better than slavery?  Without a standard of morality, we are left with only moral relativism, which is to say, no morality at all.

And yet I said at the beginning that I believe that atheists do good things.  Why is that?  It’s not because it makes sense in their worldview.  It is because deep down, even atheists believe there is right and wrong, there is good and bad.  Deep down, even atheists can’t get away from the need for morality.  And this need for morality must ultimately point to a standard of good and bad outside of themselves.  Perhaps a moral atheist is closer to believing in God than he or she might think.