Earlier this month R. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, convened an hour-long panel dedicated to Brian McLaren’s latest book A New Kind of Christianity. More than a scholarly debate about the book, however, the panel amounted to four Christian apologists teeing off on the book like six-year olds with an oversized bat.
I’ll be honest and admit that I have not read McLaren’s book. So this is neither a review nor judgment, thumbs up or thumbs down. But listening to these Southern Baptist seminary professors toss out such words as “orthodoxy,” (good thing) “heresy,” (bad thing) and “apostasy” (stop, drop and roll!) with no seeming sense of intellectual irony or epistemic humility was pretty disturbing. Particularly since, according to their own account, the major animating impulse of the book is to redirect evangelical Christianity away from the narcissism of minor doctrinal differences toward the amelioration of human suffering, promoting a pluralist worldview and preserving the environment as stewards of God’s resources.
Being Holy Week, one of President Mohler’s criticisms really caught my attention. It involves McLaren’s consideration of the cross in Jesus’ atoning work. “Did Jesus go to the cross as a mere victim?” Mohler asked. “If so, then we have no Gospel, we have no hope of everlasting life. Did Jesus go merely as a political prisoner, executed because he had offended the regime? Well, if so, that a very interesting chapter of human history, but I’m not going to stake my life on it, much less my hope for eternity.”
Here I am reminded of a story about civil rights legend and Christian iconoclast Reverend Vernon Johns, Martin Luther King Jr.’s predecessor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. In 1960, white Southern Baptists and black National Baptists gathered at the Seventh Baptist Church in Baltimore to discuss racial tension in the city. During the worship service, historian Taylor Branch recounts that Vernon Johns sat visibly annoyed as he listened to the white preacher preach on salvation and being “washed in the blood of the Lamb.” When it was Johns’ moment to address the assembly, to the consternation of white preachers and the humiliation of most black preachers in attendance, the ecclesial journeyman went right after the preacher who went before him. “The thing that disappoints me about the Southern white church,” Johns said, “is that it spends all of its time dealing with Jesus after the cross, instead of dealing with Jesus before the cross.”
He then turned directly to the preacher and said, “You didn’t do a thing but preach about the death of Jesus. If that were the heart of Christianity, all God had to do was to drop him down on Friday and let them kill him, and then yank him up again on Easter Sunday… You don’t hear so much about his three years of teaching that man’s religion is revealed in the love of his fellow man…That is what offended the leaders of Jesus’s own established church as well as the colonial authorities from Rome. That’s why they put him up there [on the cross]… I want to deal with Jesus before the cross. I don’t give a damn what happened to him after the cross!”
I reckon this is the point McLaren is trying to make in his own way in the contemporary moment. If the Christian “orthodoxy” of the evangelical church fails to cause the Christian community to act more in accordance with the life and model of Jesus, than its all a sounding brass and tinkling cymbal. On the other hand, if celebrating Jesus as a moral exemplar of love, compassion and care for the humanity and world renders me a heretic, well, sign me up. I’ll take my chance on love over law on any day!