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Jesus, Reconsidered: Book Sparks Evangelical Debate

Mar 26, 2010 (Morning Edition)

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March 29 marks the beginning of the holiest week for Christians — when believers reflect on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. This year, there's something of a dust-up among evangelicals over core beliefs about who Jesus was and whether he is the only way to salvation.

Recently, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., convened a school-wide event to talk about a new book by a popular evangelical Christian. It wasn't pretty.

"It is a new kind of Christianity that is no Christianity at all," says Southern Baptist theologian Jim Hamilton.

Evangelical author Bruce Ware adds, "I've thought of Brian McLaren for years as a wolf in sheep's clothing, but I think in this book, he took the sheep's clothing off."

Rethinking Christianity

Who is Brian McLaren, and what has he done to make these people so angry?

It turns out that McLaren is considered one of the country's most influential evangelicals, and his new book, A New Kind of Christianity, takes aim at some core doctrinal beliefs. McLaren is rethinking Jesus' mission on Earth, and even the purpose of the crucifixion.

"The view of the cross that I was given growing up, in a sense, has a God who needs blood in order to be appeased," McLaren says. "If this God doesn't see blood, God can't forgive."

McLaren believes that version of God is a misreading of the Bible.

"God revealed in Christ crucified shows us a vision of God that identifies with the victim rather than the perpetrator, identifies with the one suffering rather than the one inflicting suffering," he says.

McLaren says modern evangelicalism underplays that Jesus — who spent most of his time with the poor, the sick and the sinners — saved his wrath primarily for hard-core religious leaders.

Others, such as Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, say McLaren's view of Jesus and the crucifixion is like a shot to the heart of Christian beliefs.

"Did Jesus go to the cross as a mere victim? If so, then we have no Gospel, we have no hope of everlasting life," Mohler says. "Did Jesus go merely as a political prisoner, executed because he had offended the regime? Well, if so, that's a very interesting chapter of human history, but I'm not going to stake my life on it, much less my hope for eternity."

Discrepancies Between Old And Young Believers

Mohler says McLaren and others like him are trying to rewrite the Christian story. And what alarms Mohler is that young believers are attracted to this message.

That's absolutely right, says McLaren. Consider the core evangelical belief that only Christians are going to heaven and everyone else is doomed. That may have rung true for his grandparents' generation, he says, but not now.

"A young evangelical, Roman Catholic [or] mainline Protestant growing up in America today, if he goes to college, his roommate might be Hindu," he says. "His roommate might be Muslim. His roommate might be Buddhist or atheist. So, suddenly the 'other' is sleeping across the room."

McLaren is onto something here, says David Campbell, a professor at Notre Dame and co-author of American Grace: How Religion Is Reshaping Our Civic and Political Lives. His surveys show that nearly two-thirds of evangelicals under age 35 believe non-Christians can go to heaven, but only 39 percent of those over age 65 believe that. That's because young evangelicals have grown up in a religiously plural society.

"And, it's really hard to condemn someone to eternal damnation on the basis of their religion when you know them well and have come to love them," he says.

Campbell adds that young believers are more flexible about Christian doctrine in general.

"We also know that — particularly within the evangelical community — the younger you are, the less likely you are to take the Bible literally, to believe that the Bible is the inerrant 'word of God,' as compared to a book of moral precepts," he says.

Surveys by Campbell and others show young evangelicals differ from their elders in a lot of ways. They pray less often, read the Bible and go to church less often. And they're more open to culture and social issues, such as evolution and gay rights.

An Appetite For A New Evangelical Christianity?

Mohler says he's saddened by all this. But he's not surprised that young people buy McLaren's version of Christianity.

"I'm sure he's tapping into an exhaustion, a fatigue, a sense of wanting to be culturally relevant, a sense of not wanting to stand out from one's peers and neighbors," Mohler says. "I certainly understand that. I just believe that the cost of following that route is literally the abandonment of historic, biblical Christianity."

Mohler is determined to nip any such trend in the bud. But if McLaren and surveys of young people are any guide, there seems to be an appetite for a different sort of evangelical Christianity.

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