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A Better Way to Be Christian
Introduction: Coke and the Can
In the introduction to The Great Spiritual Migration, Brian McLaren makes a bold claim: Christianity is in need of change. It needs a migration, he says, from a system of beliefs to a way of life based on love. I'm sure some of you are asking, Isn't Christianity already a way of life based on love? According to McLaren, the way of life set forth by Jesus in the Gospels has been redefined as a system of beliefs, a system that has sometimes supported harmful actions and ideologies. He goes on to identify three migrations needed to transform Christianity: spiritual, theological, and missional. The first migration moves Christianity from a system of beliefs to a way of life of love. Rather than an expression of faith in action, McLaren says, Christianity has become a list of beliefs or tenets that define what it means to be Christian. He argues that Christianity needs to stop holding on so tightly to its beliefs and start focusing on the faith, the truth, and the way of life that Jesus embodied so many centuries ago.
This return to a way of life of love set out by Jesus comes with a second migration, a theological shift. Just as Christianity has been defined as a system of beliefs, God has grown large as a Supreme Being who blesses and punishes in equal measure. According to McLaren, Christians must migrate to a new vision of God, one that reigns over the way of life of love and demonstrates the kind of loving, healing, and reconciling spirit that Jesus proclaimed. A God who is punishing and dominating does not match up with the God of Jesus, who eats with sinners, welcomes outsiders, takes the role of a servant, and forgives without bound. This is the God we need, and this is the God of Jesus: the God of the way of life of love.
Christianity defined as a way of life with a God who is loving and reconciling needs just one more migration. This missional migration involves a new understanding of communities and institutions that are flexible and transformative. What Christianity needs, says McLaren, is a mature openness to change and adaptation. We need a Christianity that is willing to transform itself, over and over. We should challenge our institutions to learn and grow, ever moving toward a new vision of God and a way of life of love.
With these three migrations as spiritual — moving away from a system of beliefs and toward Christianity as a way of life, theological — thinking anew about Scripture and rediscovering a vision of a loving God, and missional, or practical — going from an organized religion to a religion organizing itself for the common good, McLaren sounds the call for a new way of thinking about Christian identity.
The introduction begins with this parable about a can of Coke: You call customer service and report that your Coke tastes terrible. The customer service agent asks about the appearance of the can, and you say that it looks shiny and red and normal. The customer service agent says that's the most important thing and then asks about the cardboard box that held the cans. You reply that it was also perfectly normal, with all the logos in the right place. The customer service agent says that everything sounds fine and thanks you for calling! In this parable, we see someone completely miss the point — it's what's inside the can that matters, not the can or the packaging. What if we applied the same principle to Christianity? What are the qualities of Christianity that really matter, aside from all the institutions and structures and systems of belief?
Dear friends, I wanted very much to write to you concerning the salvation we share. Instead, I must write to urge you to fight for the faith delivered once and for all to God's holy people.
Compete in the good fight of faith. Grab hold of eternal life — you were called to it, and you made a good confession of it in the presence of many witnesses.
1 Timothy 6:12
"How terrible it will be for you legal experts and Pharisees! Hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and plate, but inside they are full of violence and pleasure seeking. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup so that the outside of the cup will be clean too.
"How terrible it will be for you legal experts and Pharisees! Hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs. They look beautiful on the outside. But inside they are full of dead bones and all kinds of filth. In the same way you look righteous to people. But inside you are full of pretense and rebellion.
Have you ever competed in a fierce athletic contest? Maybe contended against some of the best runners in a 10K, or fought down to the last point in a championship basketball game? This is the kind of fighting that Jude is getting at when he counsels his readers to fight for the faith. In fact, the Greek word he uses is most often used when talking about intense effort in the context of athletics. Christianity is worth fighting for.
The metaphor of an athletic challenge used to describe the fight for faith is not unique to Jude. Paul uses the same language in 1 Timothy: "Compete in the good fight of faith. Grab hold of eternal life." "Compete," "fight," and "grab hold" are all physical images that demonstrate the kind of strength and determination it takes to fight for one's faith. Both Paul and Jude use the same Greek word for "compete" and "fight": agonizomai. Look closely: this is also the root of the English word "agony." It's a powerful and meaningful and gut-wrenching task to fight for one's faith.
In The Great Spiritual Migration, Brian McLaren lays out a modern-day concern much like Paul and Jude's — Christianity has suffered at the hands of Christians, has become a rigid system of beliefs, and no longer reflects the way of life of love taught by Jesus. Note that Jude and Paul urge believers to fight for faith, not for systems of beliefs. Christianity is in danger of being lost, but this way of life of love is worth fighting for. It's a race worth winning, and we as Christians should put our most intense effort forward, agonizing as it may be. Think back to that all-important race or championship game. Fighting for the faith means fighting with that kind of strength and determination.
In the passage from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus offers fighting words to his listeners. The verses here take the form of woe oracles, which were often used by the Old Testament prophets to castigate and accuse. The audience is not necessarily just the Pharisees, but anyone listening to Jesus' pronouncements, and further, anyone reading Matthew's Gospel. The warnings concern the mismatch of inner and outer characteristics, much like the short parable of the Coke and the can offered by McLaren. It is a mistake to focus only on the outer appearance of things. A sparkling clean cup and plate might still hold violence and pleasure seeking. Whitewashed tombs look clean and beautiful, but they are full of death and impurity. The same is true for Jesus' audience, he says. "You look righteous to people. But inside you are full of pretense and rebellion."
Jesus speaks out against hypocrisy and urges his listeners to match the contents with the container. Brian McLaren tells his story of the Coke can for the same reason. What are the qualities of Christianity that matter regardless of the building, the structures, or the systems of belief? On the outside, Christianity might look very good, but McLaren challenges us to look deep inside and see how things appear. Christianity, he maintains, has focused on polishing and perfecting its outer wrappings without addressing the troubling theology and beliefs that have grown up in its core.
Questions for Reflection
1. What do you think of the idea that Christianity needs to "migrate" to something new? Is that an uncomfortable idea? Why or why not?
2. McLaren writes, "We all love Jesus. To us, he is the best thing about Christianity. We all think he was right, and we all want to follow the way of life he modeled and taught." In your own religious tradition, how is following Jesus already taking place? What is lacking?
3. How might McLaren use the image of an athletic contest to describe his call for migration? Where does he seem to identify the need for a "fight"?
4. Imagine ways you can fight for your faith in today's world. Simply speaking about your convictions to other people could be a form of advocating for your faith. When was the last time you talked to someone about Jesus?
5. In what way(s) is McLaren fighting for Christianity?
6. Do you know anyone who has left the Christian faith or is close to doing so? What has driven them away?
7. In response to Jude 1:3, McLaren writes, "The message of and about Jesus is in fact a given — it is Christianity's pearl, our treasure, our gift, and it must never be lost. The meaning-rich stories of what Jesus said and did form the unique heart of Christian faith that must always pulse within us." What "meaning-rich stories of what Jesus said and did" are most important to your own faith? How would you summarize "the message of and about Jesus" in just one or two sentences?
8. Some people interpret Jude's mention of a "faith delivered once and for all" as proof that Christianity is meant to stay the same throughout history. How do you understand that part of this verse?
9. What if one of your non-Christian friends asked you, What does it mean that Jesus taught a way of life of love? How would you explain? What examples would you use? What is the modern-day expression of the way of life of love?
10. McLaren shares this quotation: "A religion will be what its adherents make of it." Offer your reflections on that statement.
It is tempting to leave Christian faith altogether, I know. But there is a treasure hidden in its field, and I want to assure you that you have permission to shovel away the distractions and rediscover the precious gift that has for too long been buried. That's my good news: you don't have to give up on Christian faith. Nor do you have to accept it as it is. Christian faith can be saved, and you are invited to participate in its conversion.
-from The Great Spiritual Migration, Introduction
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. When he found one very precious pearl, he went and sold all that he owned and bought it."
The above excerpt from The Great Spiritual Migration presents a hopeful vision for the future of Christianity. McLaren doesn't want to debunk or devalue Christianity; he wants to save it. He believes that a great conversion can happen and Christianity can become the way of life of love that it was meant to be. He invites all Christians to grab hold of their love for Jesus and come along for the ride.
Reflect on your response to the above passage and its companion Scripture, the parable of the pearl of great price.
Where in Christianity is the "one very precious pearl"? How can we get to it?
What is McLaren's plan for discovering that pearl?
What does he mean by "conversion"? What is your response to the word "conversion" used in this context? Do you think Christianity needs a conversion?
What is it about Christianity that has "too long been buried"?
Do you feel hopeful about McLaren's vision?
What You Love, You Protect
Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you.
1 Timothy 6:20 (NRSV)
Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.
2 Timothy 1:14 (NRSV)
I live two miles from the Gulf of Mexico. Every summer, I serve as a volunteer sea turtle monitor. About once a week, early in the morning, I meet up with another volunteer or two and a marine biologist at a dock. We board a small boat and motor out to a stretch of pristine beaches on a six-mile string of uninhabited barrier islands. We look for the tracks of mother sea turtles who have dragged their bodies up the beach during the night, dug a nesting cavity, laid about a hundred eggs, and then returned to the sea.
We protect the eggs with a metal cage, and when the eggs hatch fifty to sixty days later, we dig up the nest and collect data on the number of eggs and hatchlings. Scientists use this data to help preserve sea turtles so the turtles can continue to fulfill their unique role in the ecosystems of our oceans, and so future generations of human beings can enjoy the miraculous creatures.
Our work is fun, and it's hard, too, with sunburn, mosquitos, fire ants, and challenging weather. But it's worth it, because it's a labor of love. All of us who volunteer do so because we have grown to love sea turtles. Because we care about them, we want to protect them — and to protect the environments upon which they depend.
What you love, you protect. And that's true of many things in life, including Christian faith.
I love the treasures of Christian faith. They have shaped me, guided me, and filled my life with meaning. It's because I love my faith that I want to protect it from the dangers it faces, because make no mistake, Christian faith is in danger.
The sea turtles in my area face many external threats: raccoons and hurricanes, shrimp nets and water pollution, and other forms of human interference from shoreline development to climate change.
In some parts of the world, Christian disciples also face many external threats — persecution, terrorism, imprisonment. But in most of the world, the greatest threats to Christianity are not external. They are internal. We Christians, you might say, are the greatest threat to Christian faith.
Christians can be blinded by wealth and greed, misguided by religious or political leaders, polluted by un-Christlike attitudes, kidnapped by ideology, or numbed by comfort and apathy. As a result, we can receive and pass on versions of the faith that are distorted with racism or twisted by greed or fear.
If we love our faith, we will seek to protect it from dangers like these. In the words of Paul to Timothy, we will guard the "good treasure that has been entrusted to us. If you think of faith as a baton that is handed from one generation to the next, you could say that those in each generation improve or degrade that baton while it is in their hands. Those in each generation pass on a better or worse version of the faith than the one they received. If previous generations went astray, we must engage in course correction. If we go astray, we must pray that future generations will not simply repeat our mistakes, but will have the courage to make corrections. Make no mistake: Christian faith will be what Christians make of it — ugly or beautiful, judgmental or gracious, complacent or energetic, selfish or generous. What will we pass on?
Living God, please teach me to abhor what is evil and love what is good. Help me to discern and leave behind imperfect and immature elements in the version of the faith I was given. And help me, together with my fellow disciples, to embody and pass on a vibrant version of the faith that will empower future generations to live wisely and well.
From a System of Beliefs to a Way of Life
Part I: The Spiritual Migration: From a System of Beliefs to a Way of Life
When Brian McLaren set out to write The Great Spiritual Migration, he held the hope that Christianity might become more Christian. He maintains that the only thing that matters to many Christians is correct beliefs, and as a result they are missing the essential point of Christianity, which is that it should be defined as a way of life based on love, not just a system of beliefs. The Jesus we encounter in the Gospels wasn't all about right words or correct beliefs. He was about what we do, the fruit we bear, the houses we build on rock, the way we work for the will of God. Jesus was focused on the contents, not the container. And if we think that Jesus was right, we have to let go of our obsession with opinions and beliefs. The essence of our faith is something different.
McLaren was serving as a pastor when he arrived at a desert retreat center to spend a few days with his colleagues. It was there that he had an earth-shaking realization: "My faith is a system of beliefs, and it's not working. The system is crumbling. I can't save it. I can't save it. It's over." McLaren found himself in a struggle between the faith that he loved and a system of beliefs he could no longer adhere to. Since he was a pastor, this was an especially difficult bind. There in the desert he looked for God's presence in the realization he'd just had. What he found was that maybe what really matters are not the beliefs Christians are told to proclaim, but the stories those beliefs came from. Maybe the narratives come before the system, and the stories are where the true treasures of the faith really lie.
Excerpted from "Way of Life Participant Guide"
Copyright © 2017 Abingdon Press.
Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Table of Contents
Session 1 A Better Way to Be Christian Devotion: What You Love, You Protect 15
Session 2 From a System of Beliefs to a Way of Life Devotion: Supporting Characters 27
Session 3 Toward a Loving God of Liberation Devotion: Nonviolent God 43
Session 4 For the Common Good Devotion: Organizing Religion 61