At the beginning of Part 3 (Chapter 10) in Everything Must Change, on “Reframing Jesus,” McLaren offers the emerging view of the gospel contrasted with what he considers the conventional view. At the end of this section McLaren will write that his conventional view articulated here “…can be modified with an almost infinite number of variations – Protestant or Catholic, Calvinist or Arminian, Pentecostal or traditional – but the basic shape of the story is similar despite differences in the details: …” (80)
The Human Situation: What is the story we fin ourselves in?
Conventional View: God created the world as perfect, but because our primal ancestors, Adam and Eve, did not maintain the absolute perfection demanded by God, God has irrevocably determined that the entire universe and all it contains will be destroyed, and the souls of all human beings – except for those specifically exempted – will be forever punished for their imperfection in hell.
Emerging View: God created the world as good, but human beings – as individuals and as groups – have rebelled against God and filled the world with evil and injustice. God wants to save humanity and heal it from its sickness, but humanity is hopelessly lost and confused, like sheep without a shepherd, wandering further and further into lostness and danger. Left to themselves, human beings will spiral downward in sickness and evil.
Basic Questions: What questions did Jesus come to answer?
Conventional View: Since everyone is doomed to hell, Jesus seeks to answer one or both of these questions: How can individuals be saved from eternal punishment in hell and instead go to heaven after they die? How can God help individuals be happy and successful until then?
Emerging View: Since the human race is in such desperate trouble, Jesus seeks to answer this question: What must be done about the mess we’re in? The mess refers both to the general human condition and to its specific outworking among his contemporaries living under domination of the Roman Empire and who were confused and conflicted as to what they should do to be liberated.
Jesus’ Message: How did Jesus respond to the crisis?
Conventional View: Jesus says, in essence, “If you want to be among those specifically qualified to escape being forever punished for your sins in hell, you repent of your individual sins and believe that my Father punished me on the cross so he won’t have to punish you in hell. Only if you believe this will you go to heaven when the earth is destroyed and everyone else is banished to hell. That is the good news.
Emerging View: Jesus says, in essence, “I have been sent by God with the good news – that God loves humanity, even in its lostness and sin. God graciously invites everyone and anyone to turn from his or her path and follow a new way. Trust me and become my disciple, and you will be transformed, and you will participate in the transformation of the world, which is possible, beginning right now. That is the good news.
Purpose of Jesus: Why is Jesus important?
Conventional View: Jesus came to solve the problem of “original sin,” meaning that he helps qualified individuals not to be sent to hell for their sin or imperfection. In a sense, Jesus saves these people from God, or more specifically, from the righteous wrath of God, which sinful human beings deserve because they have not perfectly fulfilled God’s expectations, expressed in God’s moral laws. This escape from punishment is not something they earn or achieve, but rather a free gift they receive as an expression of God’s grace and love. Those who receive it enjoy a personal expression of God’s grace and love. Those who receive it enjoy a personal relationship with God and seek to serve and obey God, which produces a happier life on Earth and more rewards in heaven.
Emerging View: Jesus came to become the Savior of the world, meaning he came to save the earth and all it contains from its ongoing destruction because of human evil. Through his life and teaching, through his suffering, death, and resurrection, he inserted into human history a seed of grace, truth, and hope that can never be defeated. This seed will, against all opposition and odds, prevail over the evil and injustice of humanity and lead to the world’s ongoing transformation into the world God dreams of. All who find in Jesus God’s hope and truth discover the privilege of participating in his ongoing work of personal and global transformation and liberation form evil and injustice. As part of his transforming community, they experience liberation from the fear of death and condemnation. This is not something they can earn or achieve, but rather a free gift they receive as an expression of God’s grace and love. (78-80)
What is the basic story common to conventional Christianity?
Earth is doomed, and souls are eternally damned unless specifically and individually saved, and the purpose of Jesus was to provide a way for at least a few individuals to escape the eternal conscious torment of everlasting damnation. (80)
I think McLaren is overreaching here. Christian Century magazine was founded 100 years ago because Mainline Christianity believed that the Kingdom of God would be ushered in during the twentieth century. A few decades latter there would be disillusionment with this expectation but Mainline denominations, who continued to dominate the religious scene until at least the 1970s, never adopted the “conventional view.” Nor do I believe a great many Roman Catholics would subscribe to the conventional view. This conventional view strikes me as reductionistic to the point of becoming a caricature of any Christian who doesn’t share the “emerging view.”
The conventional view strikes me as indicative of certain streams of conservative and Fundamentalist of Christianity from which I think McLaren wants to emerge. I think his “conventional view” is the context from which he has emerged. There is nothing wrong with this. We all come from some context. What I find objectionable is the extrapolation of his context to the context from which Christianity is emerging. As someone who has been wrestling against the liberal foundationalism of Mainline Christianity, I don’t even exist according to this framing of the issues.
This has been a persistent experience of mine as I’ve tried to engage in emerging church conversations. The emerging church conversation to this day still seems to be driven by its response to (and defining itself contra to) evangelicalism. I think this presentation of two views reflects this. There seems to be little critical engagement with Mainline Christianity (or any other stream) apart from ecclesiastical critique. The theological critique is about how not to be an evangelical. On the contrary, based on the references in McLaren’s book, there appears to be a ready embrace of theologians like Jesus Seminar promoters Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossen, so popluar in Mainline circles. From my context this isn’t emergent. It is merely revisiting the same old things those of us in Mainline denominations have been hearing for years.
I'm not going to spend considerable time on theological issues but I wanted to raise this issue because I believe it is indicative of a tendency to be contra-evangelical. This has implications for how issues like prosperity are viewed later in the book.