The Bible’s Narrative
The first of the questions proposed by Brian McLaren as necessary for a new kind of Christianity for the emerging church is: what is the overarching story line of the Bible? I found this section very interesting because I’ve heard some of the ideas but never really put together in such an effective way. Whether you directly hear it this way or not, the storyline of the Bible is generally summarized like the chart on the left. It conveniently fits within just 6 lines. First, there is Eden, which of course was perfect. Then there was “the Fall” to Condemnation. The offer of Salvation came, through which some go back up to perfect unchanging Heaven, and others go even farther down to the “eternal conscious torment” state of Hell or Damnation. The big question: is this actually the message of the Bible?
McLaren argues that it isn’t, and I agree. Instead, this story lines up a lot more with Greek philosophy. He gets into that philosophy really well and how much Neoplatonism shaped Christian theology. The big theme of which that comes up time and time again in church history is that God is incapable of change or emotion or suffering or in general of any kind of relating to anything that is not perfect. The ideal, the perfect, is not one of becoming but one of being. The Fall, then, is what happens when we stop being and we fall to only becoming, and we must get back to that static state of simply being. There is a very strong dualism between matter and spirit. It is a very Neoplatonist framework, and our tendency to look backwards continues to reinforce it. We see Jesus through Paul, and Paul through Augustine, through Aquinas, Luther, Erasmus, Calvin, Wesley, Newton, Pope Benedict, Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, etc. I think that’s why I love church history so much. Because it helps trace where these ideas came from, so if we need to, we can look back to the ideas before them. And yes, everything I’ve studied agreed completely with his analysis of how certain ideas came to be through the Greco-Roman framework.
McLaren challenges us to look at the narrative of the Bible from the back forward instead. So instead of seeing Jesus through Paul and everybody else since, what would happen if we viewed Jesus through those who came before him: Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea and the rest? He traces first the Genesis and then the Exodus story, which put together (especially Exodus) does form the core of the Jewish and therefore the biblical narrative. He says that Elohim’s story (Elohim = God) is one of “a kind of compassionate coming-of-age story” rather than one of a judge annoyed that we have lost his perfection and he needs to either make us perfect again to love us (ever heard that sin separates us from God because he is too holy for relating to it?) or else he needs to punish us with a different negative eternal state (which is why Hell has to be eternal – God wants being, not becoming).
God gives us freedom in the Garden with one rule, and we break it. He had said we would die, but he forgave us and only reduced our responsibility instead by sending us out of the Garden, like a parent who withdraws some privilege from a child because they can’t quite handle it yet. Interestingly the story works in two ways: we get more freedom and more technological advances as the story continues (going up), but we also seem to have more problems morally (going down). Finally, he surveys a lot of the prophets with texts that sometimes we basically ignore as something to happen some day and some different place that we escape to in the future. And in the mean time we just wait, according to a lot of Christians. That would not have been a Jewish idea. It was always assumed that the Kingdom of God would be on this world, renewed.
The God of the Bible is not an unchanging, emotionless, safe and calculating God who needs everything to be perfect and static to be able to relate. The God of the Bible is one who takes chances, who feels love and regret, who liberates people now and not just promises to pull them away from the evil people at some point in the future, and who reconciles/forgives without a legal framework – a very Roman framework – of making sure people get their punishment. This isn’t just a question of whether to follow Greek philosophy or Jewish thought – it is a radically different idea of the nature of God. The Christian church has always opted for Greek philosophy, initially as an apologetic tool to differentiate themselves from being just another sect of Judaism and to attract Gentiles into the movement. I agree with McLaren – it’s time to go back to the biblical view of God.