Top critical review
Misses the mark
Reviewed in the United States on January 14, 2009
McLaren here presents a case-study of his spiritual friendship with a post modern seeker called Alice. The friendship spanned over two years and resulted in Alice's whole-hearted and joyful acceptance and experience of Christ. McLaren extracts a number of key points and insights from this friendship that he contends could substantially alter, or even revolutionise, the church's attitude and approach to evangelism in a contemporary context. His focus on two-way friendship which never demands timetables and set responses is refreshing and uplifting; and his insistence on mutual interactions and asking questions instead of giving answers is empowering for the modern Christian.
McLaren is compelling in his argument that evangelism is mostly about responding to people's individual questions and life experiences, and less about completing a series of classes. To be sure, there is a body of Christian knowledge - known as the Gospel - which must be communicated. McLaren tells us extremely little about the Gospel message in his short book, unfortunately, but he does display a Christ-like attitude to the lost (to an extent). He demonstrates that rapidly presenting the Gospel and then expecting a sudden affirmation of its key points rarely has any lasting effect. Instead, questions, doubts and conflicting experiences and emotions should be expected and to some extent encouraged.
The book seeks to understand modern Western culture and interact with it in a way that communicates the Gospel in a relevant and powerful way - this is a noble goal and worth reflecting on. So even though McLaren falls far short of achieving it, I cannot give the book 1 star. McLaren writes as if the post-modern worldview completely dominates the world today, and the fact that Alice is a university student seems to confirm this. I am not persuaded, however, since it seems that many older people and people from different cultures (particularly traditional cultures) are not post-modern in their worldview, and therefore McLaren's approach may actually be far more specific than he assumes it to be. If I spoke to 20 or 30 people in my extended family about postmodernism, I doubt more than 1 or 2 would agree with it - and I'm not talking just about religious people either.
The book is helped by its strong thematic focus on the contrast between the modernist view, which sought to locate truth in abstract propositions and monolithic philosophies, and the post-modern view, which constantly questions and re-evaluates truth and meaning. Instead of seeing this as a great threat to Christian truth, McLaren embraces the post-modern mindset as a good approach to Christianity, since we only see in part anyway, and are constantly in a process of sanctification and growth in the knowledge of God. Tragically, however, McLaren fails to make explicit that turning postmodernism into a lively interaction with Christianity requires a shift from the post-modern posture of suspicion (which proudly casts off truth, fact and any `meta-narrative' such as the Gospel story) to a more amenable humility (which reassesses established truths primarily in order to gain greater understanding). And even more tellingly, is it true that society has moved decisively from modernism to post modernism? Or has that shift gone no further than Arts faculties? (I have a graduate degree in literature so I'm aware of both sides of the divide!)
The book's major weakness, and it is a critical failure, is its lack of theological depth. An instructive example of this lies in his presentation of God. On page 34, McLaren lists many competing ideas of God, such as the feminist God and the military God. McLaren's point is that God transcends all of these categories and that, overall, God is far more amenable to the post modern mind set which constantly questions and re-evaluates. This idea is central to McLaren's approach. However, he never provides any substantive biblical or theological basis for his claim. He says that God is "alive and out of the box" (page 64), but makes this claim purely from his own perspective, providing no basis from the Bible or church authority as to why we should agree with him (passages such as Luke 20:38 and John 8:58 may have served McLaren's purposes very well here). This is a major shortcoming. Even if we are eager to embrace McLaren's world-view and theology, he has failed to provide us with any basis or grounding about how to present or talk about God in this way. In his eight factors in chapter 18, none of them focus on teaching the Bible or searching the Bible in order to know God and apprehend Christ.
Overall, the book could be read to be recommending a highly subjective and individualistic approach to who God is and what the Gospel teaches; an approach that is only tangentially interested in the Bible's teaching, the insights of theology and recognition of the historical experience of the church body.