Friday, June 27, 2008

Brian McLaren and a Zoein Aionian: Rethinking Christ’s Teachings on Salvation

Last weekend (June 13th – 15th), I had the privilege of taking part in Sojourners’ Pentecost 2008 conference. Much of the conference was centered on training church activists for the Vote Out Poverty campaign, which my schedule prevents me from taking part in, so I found the group discussions only somewhat relevant. The panel discussions, workshops, and worship services, however, were informative, enlightening, and uplifting. I attended a useful workshop on congregational organizing led by two Ohio pastors and heard some great speeches about poverty, youth, and activism from Jim Wallis and other leading Christian social justice lights*, but would like to focus this post on Brian McLaren’s workshop, "Scared to talk politics in church?" I almost chose another workshop, given that no, I am most certainly not scared to talk politics in church, but ultimately decided that I really couldn’t pass up a class from McLaren. I made the right decision.

Brian McLaren (pictured at left), as you may know, is a leader in the emerging church movement. Although he takes the most pride in his international work, he is best known for his books A Generous Orthodoxy and Everything Must Change. His talk glossed over the reasons Christians should be engaged in politics, hitting some of the highlights of Christ’s struggle against Rome, but in the interests of time he said he assumed the audience already knew that theology well. He focused on criticizing the modern church’s focus on the individual; redefining salvation; and giving advice on how to respond to people who resist the introductions of politics in church.

We are required to talk politics in church because Jesus engaged the political system, and many of the things He demands of us – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, being kind to immigrants, resisting unjust prison systems, in short, fighting injustice – are political in nature. Thankfully, we can be political without being partisan. I have written a little about this topic myself, but am not nearly as eloquent or elaborate as was McLaren.

McLaren began his criticism of salvation-focused churches by quoting Dallas Willard, who said that “the gospel of sin produces ‘vampire Christians’ who want Jesus for his blood and little else.” He had two very damning slides about the current state of the church. Here is, as best I can recreate it, the first:

THE CHURCH’S PRIMARY FOCUS IS ON HOW YOU AND YOUR FAMILY CAN GET TO HEAVEN.
*With an important footnote on the righteousness of gaining riches and prosperity while you are here.

*With a smaller footnote on spreading the Gospel and the Church to others.
*With an illegible postscript on the social welfare of the rest of God’s children.

And here is the second:
The current common evangelical setup:

And what it should be:

I have always been inclined to this way of thinking myself, as a church focused on how to get to Heaven is a church that encourages putting one’s own fortunes first, and that is not a message I have ever been able to locate in the Gospel. McLaren challenged this theology, suggesting that the Gospel is not about saving souls from hell, but about saving the earth, including souls, from human sin, and working to realize the kingdom of God here on earth. The focus on saving souls from hell, he said, comes from a misunderstanding of these words "kingdom of God," a misunderstanding that derives from the "Matthew problem" and the "John problem."

The "Matthew problem" is that Matthew uses the phrase "kingdom of Heaven," whereas Mark and Luke use the phrase "kingdom of God". Focusing on the word heaven instead of the word God makes it easy to put the focus on somewhere far away instead of on the here and now – and thus we forget that Christ did not teach us to pray, "the kingdom come, thy will be done, in heaven once we’re dead." No, Christ’s prayer was very much about realizing God’s will in this life and in this place: "on earth as it is in heaven." When we say "kingdom of God," it is easier to remember that the kingdom is not a place and a personal reward, but rather a vision and a commandment.

The "John problem" is the Gospel of John’s discussion of eternal life. When Christ lays out his vision of eternal life, he never says that it includes the destination of heaven, or that it begins with our earthly death. McLaren said that eternal life can include heaven, but it includes much more. Now, the 55 verses of John 6 are fodder enough for ten sermons and a lifetime’s worth of reflections, but a cursory reading shows McLaren is right – the afterlife never comes up, nor does sin. Jesus repeatedly tells us that He is the bread of life, sent from Heaven, and those who eat of His flesh will find eternal life and be raised up on the last day. There are many valid ways to interpret such a passage, and we should not stridently proclaim that it can only mean non-Christians go to hell. In fact, the phrase that stands out to me personally is not "eternal life" but "bread of life," putting the focus on Christ rather than the afterlife. At the end of the chapter, some of Christ’s followers reject the bread, saying his teachings are too hard to follow. This suggests, I think, that believing in Christ and eating of His flesh does not mean worshipping Him and thanking Him for saving your sorry butt from Hell, but rather following His teachings in our actions even before our prayers. His teachings, of course, put their primary focus not on personal behavior (although that certainly comes up) but on using non-violent resistance to an imperial government’s oppression and reaching out in love to all God’s children.

Returning to McLaren’s lecture, he further said the phrase “eternal life” is one of the greatest translation errors in Biblical history. The original Greek, “zoein aionian,” actually means “of the ages” rather than “eternal.” Christ is not talking about a life that lasts forever and ever, but a life of the ages – life the way it is supposed to be, transcending what we are stuck in now. A life lived in God’s kingdom.

Having redefined the understandings of Scripture’s message on salvation, McLaren gave advice on how to talk to evangelicals about these concepts. The slide that got the best audience reaction read, “We must stop answering questions that are framed badly.”

If someone asks you a loaded question, don’t answer it! When did you stop beating your wife? Does your mother know you’re a pedophile? There are no right answers to these questions, so why answer them? Instead, reject their basic premise. This is the perfect opportunity to rub that lucky What Would Jesus Do bracelet, for the Gospel is full of Christ doing exactly that. McLaren used Caesar’s coin as his primary example, though many others come to mind (John 6:25-27, to return to our earlier chapter of intrigue). Ultimately, just be smart about the questions you are asked, the questions you answer, the questions you ask, and the relationships between those questions.

One common challenge kingdom-based social justice workers will get from conservative fundamentalists is that old line, “But Jesus said his kingdom is not of this world, why are you focused on the here and now?” The answer is very simple. While Jesus’ kingdom may not be of this world, it is certainly for this world!

On a related note, leading Episcopal blogger Father Jake wrote a book review about McLaren’s book “Everything Must Change” earlier this week, focusing on a passage about Christianity and war. It's worth a read.

*But let’s at least give credit where credit is due. This entry focuses on Brian McLaren, but I also enjoyed hearing from:
  • Jim Wallis
  • The Rev. James Lawson
  • The Rev. Alexia Salvatierra
  • The Rev. Joseph W. Daniels, Jr.
  • Alexie Torres-Fleming
  • Pastor Troy Jackson
  • Derek Webb of Caedmon’s Call
    Many other accomplished figures gave talks and workshops that I was unable to attend, but these were the ones that I heard and enjoyed.
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