I read A New Kind of Christian on the car trip down here to New Orleans. Since it was in the car, I didn’t really have an opportunity to take notes and all, and I did kind of read it fast. I plan to read it again, slower, as time permits.
I thought the book was fascinating.
That’s not to say I agreed with it. I loved 2/3rds of it, hated 2/3rds of it, and didn’t even understand 2/3rds of it. There was a lot of overlap. Some parts I loved and hated at the same time.
The book did address two things that I’ve wondered about for a while:
First, why is the New Testament written as it is? Why didn’t the Holy Spirit inspire anyone write a comprehensive theological treatise or creed for inclusion in the canon? The way it’s written, it takes a lot of work to put together our doctrines and beliefs, they are subject to plenty of misunderstanding and being taken out of context, and some parts sound contradictory. I’ve never understood why this is, and have wondered about it often.
Secondly, I wonder if we make a false distinction between method and message. Prevailing wisdom is that it’s OK to vary your methods to pretty much any extent in order to make the message “relevant to the culture”. But it’s not OK to change the message at all. And that makes sense, but what parts of the Bible are “message” and which are “method”?
For instance, church structure and leadership is discussed in scripture. How can we know if that was a cultural adaptation of the timeless message, or actually part of the message?
What about baptism? It had tremendous significance to the Jewish culture in the first century. Ditto for communion. Were those cultural adaptations or manifestations of the redemptive message? Or are they essential pieces of it? Can we replace baptism and communion – at least in their traditional forms – with more culturally relevant ceremonies?
What about the very idea of sin as a transgression of God’s law, of Christ’s death as a penal / substitutionary act, of justification, and redemption? All those were very relevant in a culture with a strong understanding of law, harsh penalties for transgressions, and slavery. Contrast that with our culture, which celebrates a “chaotic good” character (to use an AD&D term), where crimes are often not punished very severely, and where slavery is non-existent. How well do the ideas of law, sin, eternal punishment, redemption, and slavery communicate the eternal gospel of Christ? Would it be OK to ditch that language entirely in favor of something more relevant to the people in our culture? Doesn’t the parable of the prodigal son do a better job of expressing Christ’s work to our culture? Would it be OK to drop the whole idea of sin and justice and wrath and punishment and atonement, and replace it with different terms? Are those ideas simply manifestations to a particular culture of the eternal truth of God’s redemption of man? Is it method, or message?
I suspect the answer there is “no, not at all, of to the stake with you, heretic”. But I’m not entirely sure why.