Complexity and Directness: A Response to Brian McLaren

Reviews and Interviews: A New Kind of Christianity Round-up

I have to admit that I’m more star-struck than someone my age should be at the fact that a writer of Brian McLaren’s public prominence has responded at length to something that I’ve written.  Michial and David have extended me the favor of responding quickly to his post, on the understanding that I’ll lay off a bit in the weeks to come.  (I’ll likely have plenty to do anyway, but that’s a story that folks already know.)  Because you took the trouble to address my post at some length, Brian, I’m going to try to write this post in second person, not talking about some chump who wrote some book but writing to someone who has taken the time to respond.

Mea Culpa and an Initial Suggestion

I should start this little foray by saying that I probably played the consultant angle too hard.  When I looked at the opening to the “Unlocking and Opening” section, with its harsh change in typeface and rather strident tone, I did take it as a direct, head-on charge at designated teachers of the church (one of which I am) in general and at seminary grads (one of which I am) in particular.  So when the consultant bit came out of the blue towards the end of the book, I did become suspicious.   I probably should have mentioned (for those who have not been reading my material as long as I have) that I’m one of those English teachers who finds most kinds of hermeneutics of suspicion inadequate to a genuinely open life of the mind, and when I said I was getting suspicious, I was reproaching myself for the hypocrisy of practicing that hermeneutics of suspicion just as much as I was expressing irritation with the pitched battle that I thought I saw shaping up.  So I’ll take your word that you weren’t trying to start a fight so long as you’ll take mine that I didn’t think I was throwing the first punch.

That out of the way, I want to make clear that I don’t expect every book to be a commentary on one or more Platonic dialogues.  I think that Jacques Derrida does just that masterfully in his book Of Hospitality, but I also know that Derrida and people who enjoy reading Derrida are strange birds, and you’re not writing just to my sort of strange birds.  My objection to your own use of Plato and Aristotle is not that you took this or that side in a scholarly debate but that you took two of the folks who I think of as great tutors for the Church (I’m one of those John Milbank readers you allude to) and used them rather as blunt instruments to advance a point that I don’t remember seeing in their texts.  You seem to be concerned with certain points of theology that really do not concern those two philosophers, and your arguments suffer, in my view, when you try to import them.  You note yourself that the Greco-Roman thing wasn’t really essential to the argument, so my question in response is why you elected to bring their names into the argument at all.  Again, when I gave in to the suspicion that I think of as a temptation rather than a valid mode of inquiry, I did entertain the possibility that you’ve used them because they’re rather unfashionable in certain intellectual circles, that you were using a cheap guilt-by-association trick when you doubted the power of your argument, and I stand ready to repent of that suspicion as I did with the consultancy suspicion if you say that you did not intend such.  That said, I still see no good reason to bring Plato and Aristotle into fights that aren’t theirs, and I do wonder why you did so.

For what it’s worth, as you read in my initial review, I do find some of your theological points quite compelling, and I’ve been teaching the Bible-as-library model for some time.  (My senior sermon from seminary, “The Last Word,” does things with Job that resonate pretty plainly with the ways you read Job in ANKoC.)  And honestly, I think that you’re doing valuable work when you call into question certain modes of interpreting Matthew 25, Daniel 12, and other passages that folks often deploy to support what you call a “soul-sort” narrative.  If those doctrines are true, they should be able to weather some criticism, and I welcome writers who articulate such criticism.  My problem with the way you went about it is that you’ve actually obscured the urgency of and your contributions to those Biblical-exegetical conversations with faulty reference to writers and books that don’t have horses in those races.  (As I’m sure you told your students in your college teaching days, and as I tell mine, it’s a pity to derail a good thought with material that doesn’t advance the argument.)

Excursus: On the Origins of the Review

I should back up and tell a bit of a story of my own.  I’ve been a part of the Ooze Viral Bloggers program since it ramped up, and although I’ve enjoyed the free books, none yet has really knocked me over with its power of argument.  (The one I’ll be reviewing for this Wednesday was really quite good, but that will have to wait until Wednesday.)  When Mike Morell sent out the email soliciting reviews for your book, I threw my hat in the ring, figuring that all the copies would get snatched up and that I’d likely hear about your book second-hand, and that would be about the end of it.  But as it turned out, I was one of the quick ones or the lucky ones or whatever governed the selection process.  So when my copy arrived in the mail, I knew that the book came with responsibility, and after digging in I started thinking about what I could do in a review that other reviewers couldn’t do as well as I can.  When I got to the fourth chapter, I had a feeling that would constitute a healthy part of my review, not so that I could play “gotcha” with my book review but so that I could attempt to take something about your book and advance a discussion about the way that Christians use such terms as “modern,” “Greco-Roman,” “feminist,” “postmodern,” and other shorthands for complex debates among important writers.  Since I’ve spent the last three years teaching Plato to undergraduates at a state university, I figured I could position myself as someone who knows those particular texts and by extension call for a degree of caution when we Christians cite familiar names whose texts aren’t as familiar.

Of course, I didn’t count on the strange ways of the Internet.  I expected, when I gave myself too much credit, to appear in some list akin to Mike Clawson’s, perhaps the sixth of seven “generally positive” reviews of the book, and not hear much after that.  As it stands, it appears that I’m being claimed and condemned by folks who hold the book in all sorts of degrees of esteem and scorn.

Go figure.

That said, I set about writing my review as “the pedantic Plato guy,” hoping that other folks would articulate the points that I thought other folks could articulate, and for the most part, because of the sheer volume of reviews the book has gotten, I think that mission is accomplished.  That said, since I’ve gotten some attention, I figure I can go ahead and keep hammering on my point about relationships between philosophy and theology.  So behold as I raise my hammer.

Why Greeks at All? (or Byzantines, for that matter?)

I’m glad to read that you’re also an admirer of John Howard Yoder; his theology, more than most Christian writers’, has influenced the way I go about teaching and serving as a Christian professor and as a deacon in my own congregation.  I acknowledge that he holds what he calls “the Constantinian turn” in deep suspicion, and although I share his concerns about relationships between Christian congregations and empires of various sorts, I also see much merit in those critics of Yoder who note that his account (also largely in popular press books) rather flattens out the complexity and diversity of historic Christian responses to Constantine’s (and Theodosius’s) turn to Christianity and Christianity’s turn to the establishment.  What the most acute critics have noted, I think, is that Yoder’s theological point is strong enough that he should have advanced the theological point without trying to lean on a historical allegory that ultimately detracted from rather than advanced the power of his point.

And that’s really my concern with your use of “Greco-Roman” as an umbrella term, Brian.  As I noted in my initial review, I think you’re a skillful and articulate advocate of a form of Christianity influenced by Hegel among others, a vision with which I’m going to disagree at many points but which forces me, precisely at those points, to examine and to articulate why my own vision of how things differ.  In other words, precisely where I think you’re wrong I want you to be the strongest sort of wrong that you can be, partly because I know that, as a mortal, I might actually be the one who needs to rethink things; and partly because someone who’s wrong in an intellectually powerful manner inspires me to try to get things right in a manner that rises to the challenge.  (Incidentally, that’s why I teach Plato to undergrads–it’s not that he’s right all that often but that he’s wrong in such compelling ways that he inspires my students in their own thinking and writing to produce Plato-caliber responses.)  And I think that, when you’re taking on the content of the theological questions at hand and performing exegesis of Bible texts, you’re at your best, especially in places where I disagree.  So when I see those places where you fall short of the argument you could make because of a sloppy guilt-by-association move, I’m disappointed because I know you could have done better, and I might have had occasion to attempt to raise my inquiry to match yours.

My call to you is not to stop doing the theology that you’re doing by any means; my call is to do so better, engaging the question at hand with the right rhetorical tools for the moment.  If that means bringing particular texts from the Greeks or the Romans to bear on the question at hand, by all means break out the Cicero, and let’s reason together.  But if you want to talk about eternal conscious torment, that’s not a question Plato’s interested in (unless you want to take his allegory of reincarnation at the end of Republic far more seriously than I do).  It’s not a question that especially concerns Aristotle.  It’s a Christian-era question, and my challenge to you is to frame your opponents’ positions not in terms of a syncretism that doesn’t find support in the texts to which you appeal but in your opponents’ own terms, matching Scripture for Scripture and contending on the open field of interpretation rather than avoiding the real Christian questions by slapping a label on your opponents that doesn’t really fit.

You express a hope towards the end of your email that you hope that we can meet some day and talk as neighbors and as friends.  As you’ll see if you click on “Why Christian Humanists?” at the top of our own site, we Christian Humanist writers are at our core dedicated to a vision of friendship advanced in its classical form by Aristotle in the last books of the Nicomachean Ethics, one whose basis is the common pursuit of excellence.  Part of that pursuit is honesty in difference, and if you do indeed wish to engage in the sort of friendship that the vocation of teaching calls for (and I believe you do), please believe me that my critiques of your book are not for the sort of points-scoring that Plato condemns in his Sophist opponents but all come your way in the spirit of friendship, a sincere conviction that you’re dedicated to doing the absolute best that your abilities will allow in the enterprises of writing good questions and trying out interesting answers.

(As you see, I’m quite inclined to cite Plato and Aristotle, which might account for my own focus in these exchanges.)

Oh, and Brian?  If you’re ever in North Georgia, look me up.  I’ll buy lunch.

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