Thursday, July 5, 2007

book review, part 1--a different kind of christian

These reviews are to a large degree an experiment. I'm not sure how they will work out, or even if they will. They will be about things that interest me, so I can't say for certain how they might or might not interest anyone else. I had thought at first to do them as a chapter-by-chapter thing, but I don't think that will work out well for many books. So I'll probably do it more in that sense of what I've read thus far. In that sense, I guess calling it a 'review' may not be completely accurate, but for the moment no better word comes to mind.

Also, it may not be a very linear thing. For one thing, I'll probably to looking at a lot of books from libraries, so there is the time limitation (don't like overdue fees). I may be reading more then one book at a time, too. I'll try not to let things get too confusing.

This first book will be "A New Kind of Christian", by Brian Mclaren. It's not a completely new read, as I read some parts of it a few months back. The book is set up more in a story fashion, even as a dialogue as one might find with Plato, then as a normal teaching book. The good and bad of that could be debated, but it's only secondary, I think.

The book opens with the disillusioned pastor, Dan, contemplating leaving the ministry. In the first chapter, he meets Neo, the Jamaican high school science teacher, and some early levels of friendship begin in the second chapter.

There is always a risk when trying to 'read things' into a writer. What is to be made, for example, with the fact the our white pastor Dan is being taught throughout the book by the black Jamaican teacher/former pastor Neo? Also, the book was published in 2001, so does Mclaren expect us to make the connections between Neo the Jamaican teacher and Neo the hero of the movie "The Matrix"? And how big of a connection is there? Given that the word 'neo' means 'new', and that the book is about a new kind of Christian, is Neo being set up as the prototype of this 'new' Christian, or something else?

I really cannot help but think that the use of the name "Neo" was not an accident. In a sense, it's an almost Bunyan-like thing for him to do, and it borders on being cheesy. Nor can I think that the racial makeup of the two men is accidental, though I suppose it should be pointed out that Mclaren himself is closer to being a Dan then a Neo. One should keep in mind, then, that the fictional Neo is giving the opinions of a white guy, though Mclaren's sources may themselves be of other races.

The second chapter gets into the real beginnings of the book's points. The two men meet at coffee shop, and as they talk Neo gives a history lesson, in which he contends that an age called the Modern is ending or has ended and an age called the Postmodern has begun or is beginning. He claims that Dan's main problem is that he is a Modern person in a Postmodern world.

Neo gives some characteristic of what he calls the Modern age, or modernity. He says that modernity was a time of --conquest and control, the machine, analysis, secular science, objectivity, criticism, modern nation-state and organization, individualism, Protestantism and institutional religion, and consumerism. He says that the Postmodern age, or postmodernity, is simply that we have gotten past those things, we are post-(insert modern characteristic here). Yet outside of that, postmodernity isn't really defined, and Neo even says that trying to define it may be premature.

It should be pointed out that Mclaren does say that describing modernity by the characteristics he lists is "a gross simplification", and that he is "painting with very broad strokes". Acknowledging that, we must still assume that he considers those characteristics (hormones as he calls them in the book) to be true, so we can deal with them as his real thoughts.

And one thing that struck me the first time I read that was simply this, that few if any of them could be considered as characteristics of only that age. One can find plenty of pre-modern examples of conquest and control, analysis, criticism, institutional religion, and even consumerism. Protestantism may be a characteristic of that age only, but such is because of the Reformation. The machine is iffy, as I think that has more to do with technological advances then with people of the past not using what machines they had. Secular science could also be another that may be safely relegated to modernity, at least as a recent phenomena. Still, conquest and control go back almost as far a history itself, as do religions that would be considered institutional in their cultures. Consumerism is simply a fancified word for greed. I think few moderns could be thought to have taken analysis as far as such Greeks as the Pythagorians, or criticism as some of the Greek philosophers and playwrights.

Nor am I so certain that postmodernsim can really be considered a post-any of it. I don't think we have gotten passed, or even begun to get passed, conquest and control--the only difference may be that the postmodern 'weapons' will be different then before. The weapons of the present time are such things as emotional appeals, misinformation, bias in media, silencing and marginalizing of those who disagree, labeling, and even legislation. The machine and technological advances are not going away, unless something incredibly drastic happens. If anything, postmodern will increase individualism, rather then lessen it. Perhaps analysis and objectivity will be casualties, but I even doubt that, as Mclaren's book itself is filled with analysis and even a few objective claims of its own.

If you've noticed so far, I haven't said anything about religious matters. They have been in the book, so please keep in mind that I'm not putting all of what is in the book in these reviews. But also, so far what is being written about is mainly a groundwork, which while not without fault, is still what the book builds on. The changes Neo claims to see are very much philosophical and cultural, and his claim is that they effect also religious and Christian thought and faith.

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