Jesus Was a Liberal: Reclaiming Christianity for All by Scotty McLennan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book is interesting. Scotty McLennan doesn’t actually argue very vehemently that the historical Jesus was truly a liberal, but that a liberal political and spiritual ideology can be compatible with Christianity. So, that being said, the title’s a bit misleading. McLennan makes a great case for liberal Christianity in this book, but I think he kind of fails to convince me that Jesus himself was liberal. At least, he doesn’t spend much time on that argument, instead choosing to press the case for liberal Christianity. Once you can get past that, and I found it a bit disappointing, it’s a rather good book and a stimulating read.
First of all, I come from a strong evangelical background that I’ve recently rejected, having found happiness in a mainline church where I live. It comes closest to preaching what I’ve come to believe, and I’m very anti-evangelical, truth be told. I think evangelicals are largely judgmental, intolerant, mean spirited, Republican, haters who are doing a world of evil in this country. I know that might surprise some people, but that’s honestly how I feel after being indoctrinated for the past 45 years. I’m repelled by evangelicalism.
So McLennan immediately identifies the principles of liberal Christianity to start the book. These include
“The Bible is meant to be read largely metaphorically and allegorically, rather than literally. Science and religion are compatible; we are committed to the use of logic, reason, and the scientific method. Doubt is the handmaiden of faith. Love is the primary Christian value, and it is directly related to the promotion of liberty and justice in society at large. All people are inherently equal and worthy of dignity and respect. Free religious expression should be governmentally protected, but no particular tradition should be established as the state religion. There are many roads to the top of the spiritual mountain, and Christianity is only one of them. Interfaith understanding and tolerance are critical. We see Jesus primarily as a spiritual and ethical teacher and less as being identical with God. Living a fulfilled and ethical life here and now is more important than speculating on what happens to us after we die. Nonviolence is strongly preferred in relationships between human beings, groups, and nations. Women and men must play an equal role in religious leadership. And in terms of current American hot-button issues, we tend to be pro-choice on abortion and in favor of marriages for same-sex couples.”
Wow! That’s a lot to swallow at once. And I don’t necessarily agree with all of these principles. For instance, the statement, “There are many roads to the top of the spiritual mountain, and Christianity is only one of them,” goes against my ingrained teaching, although I like it in theory. So too the part about Jesus being an ethical teacher and not identical with God. In my tradition growing up, Jesus was part of the triune God, one and the same. It’s hard for me to shake that. This said, these principles are largely what I’ve come to believe over the past several years and I’m elated to see them in print and elated to know I’m not the only one who sees things this way.
McLennan dives right into the concept of Jesus as God on page nine.
“Although Jesus during his lifetime on earth would never have recognized certain titles later applied to him – ‘coequal with God,’ ‘of one substance with God,’ ‘ the second person of the Trinity’ – the early church began developing these ideas about him soon after death. There’s no doubt that his followers after his death moved from considering him a spirit person or mystic to increasingly speaking of him as having qualities of God and then as being divine himself…. Yet, personally, I don’t believe that Jesus was or is identical with God, nor do I think that’s what he believed either, based on the biblical evidence.”
He certainly puts it out there. Since I was taught from day one that Jesus is God, it’s hard for me to accept this from a minister and dean of religious life at Stanford University, but there you have it. Accept it or reject it, it’s out in the open.
He moves on to abortion.
“’There has always been strong support for the view that [human] life does not begin until live birth. This was the belief of the Stoics, It appears to be the predominant … attitude of the Jewish faith. It may be taken to represent … a large segment of the Protestant community.’… I’m personally part of that large Protestant community that believes that human life and personhood begin at birth [and not conception]…. I’m also personally compelled by the notion that it’s the breath of life that makes us full human beings.”
I know for a fact this is what Jews believe, as I was married to one for a number of years. I was taught early on that life begins at birth, so therefore abortion is allowed by the religious community. That may seem shocking to most evangelicals, but there are scriptural references Jews use to support this (which I don’t have at hand at the moment). My primary complaint about this section is McLennan doesn’t really tie this topic into Jesus’s personal beliefs on the subject, or his proposed beliefs. And isn’t that what this book is supposed to be about?
McLennan moves on to another hot-button issue – women’s roles in the church. Most evangelicals are opposed to having women in leadership positions within the church. This was my own experience growing up. McLennan believes differently:
“A careful reading of Paul’s letters makes it clear that women were among the most eminent leaders in the early Christian church. They were missionaries, teachers, worship leaders, preachers, and prophets.”
McLennan notes Paul as citing Prisca or Priscilla as co-worker, Apphia as sister, Phoebe as deacon, and Junia as apostle. Further, in Romans, Paul commends Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis for having “worked hard” in the Lord. I was never taught this growing up. I wonder why. Why is the Bible such a patriarchal document and why are women feared by Christian men so very much? These comments from Paul seem to recommend women for church leadership positions. McLennan does address Paul’s famous admonition of women in Corinthians about women being silent in church and ties it into first century social propriety. It makes sense.
The author then goes on to address whether the Bible in the “inspired” word of God, something I was brought up to believe without giving it much thought at all. It was an accepted “truth.” McLennan cites NT Wright as writing that some people (evangelicals) assuming the Bible was inspired as “an act of pure ‘supernatural’ intervention, bypassing the minds of the [biblical] writers altogether. This would suggest that God either dictated the Bible word by word or was ‘zapping’ the writers with some kind of long-range linguistic thunderbolt.” He then discusses literal versus metaphorical readings of the Bible and makes a case for metaphorical, citing Wright’s not thinking the resurrection is “the Bible is speaking of a resuscitated corpse.” He shows cases of instances in the Bible that can’t be taken literally (Egypt is a broken reed of a staff, etc.) and ends the section by writing that “To speak of the ‘authority of the Bible’ is to refer to ‘the authority of a love story in which we are invited to take part’.”
Several pages later, he furthers his argument by stating the the Bible is a human product – “not ‘God’s revealed truth’ but a response of these two ancient communities [Israel and early Christians] to God that describes what they think is required of them ethically by God, how God has entered and influenced their lives, what kinds of prayers, praises, and practices are the most appropriate way to honor and worship God, and their hopes and dreams as a people of God.”
At this stage of the book, I’m intrigued by his arguments and persuaded by some of them, but am left wondering where Jesus enters into all of this. He’s not even trying to prove Jesus was a liberal, merely that Christianity can be. Oh well.
Later in the book, McLennan takes on people who accept what they’re taught in the church by blind faith. He quotes Daniel Dennett as being
“deeply bothered … by people who unapologetically take things on blind faith, without subjecting them to logical, scientific, and historical confirmation. He observes that ‘blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging ration inquiry,’ thereby rendering the ideal of truth-seeking and truth-telling its victim.”
Moreover, “Religion is the most prolific source of the ‘moral certainties’ and ‘absolutes’ that zealots depend on. Throughout the world, ‘people are dying and killing’ in the name of blind faith and unapologetic irrationality.”
On the issue of separation of church and state, McLennan finally gets around to Jesus: “Jesus in effect says ‘yes’ – separate church and state.” He uses the passage on rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s. He then goes into describing life in the former Iron Curtain as an example of no separation of church and state, with the communists having an official religion that was heavily guarded in what it could teach.
Many liberal Christians have problems with the concept of the Trinity – three gods in one. McLennan begins the section by asking, “What’s the meaning of the Trinity?” He goes on to provide analogies of how it can be viewed realistically. One such is
“to think of the transcendent God of the universe (out there as the creator of all we knew in nature), the God who walks by our side in human form – both rejoicing and suffering along with us (having known suffering in the extreme of crucifixion) – and the God who is deep within our own souls but also working as the force that ties us together in community with each other. This is one God, but one who can feel quite different in an operational sense….”
Those of you who are familiar with tradition Protestant Christianity – fundamentalism, evangelicalism – know of the topic of being “born again.” One can’t escape it in our Christian culture. Indeed, our presidential candidates must profess to being “born again” if they’re going to get Red State votes. It’s so prevalent, that conservative Christians feel that those who have not been born again aren’t Christians and are destined for Hell. Yet many liberal Christians don’t believe in this concept. McLennan writes that “baptism is not fully effected until one believes, until one actually lays hold by faith of what God has mercifully granted us through the gift of his son, Jesus Christ,” as being the primary belief system for conservatives, and yet it’s been my experience in a mainline church community that the holy sacrament of baptism is the sign one is “saved,” and that one needn’t go, and doesn’t go, through a “being saved” one time experience in order to go to Heaven. Indeed, McLennan writes that one must be “born of water and Spirit.” Further,
“In the gospel of John, John uses another image for being born again: ‘The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Jesus’s offer of a new birth here is connected with wind. It doesn’t sound like something one can grab hold of by conscious intent. The proper attitude would seem to be more like gratitude for an undeserved gift, and a radical openness to the variety of ways it chooses to envelop and massage us.”
“So there’s being ‘born again’ in this Cheever story, with all the elements of deep, inward, radical change – baptismal water, wind blowing – worked by the Spirit in the inner recesses of the human personality – and of undeserved gifts of life and love, if only we can appreciate them. There’s no self-generated moral reformation. There’s no conscious repenting of one’s sin and turning to Christ. Just sudden regeneration, out of the blue, utterly transformative. It’s in that sense I hope for all of us the experience of being born again.”
McLennan acknowledges that “Easter is the great holiday of Christianity” due to the Resurrection. Then he goes on to ask, “But was the resurrection a flesh-and-blood photographable event? Most liberal Christians like me can’t possibly subscribe to this literalist claim. As I … read the gospel accounts, this was not a matter of a dead person coming back to his prior life of walking around, eating, drinking, and sleeping like the rest of us. Instead, what’s meant by resurrection is that Jesus was transformed into an entirely different level of being, beyond the usual categories of life and death…. [Witnesses seeing him] These are all visions or epiphanies or revelations of Jesus, not meetings with a resuscitated corpse.”
Wow. Heresy and treason to the people and traditions with which I was brought up. Still, it makes one wonder, does it not?
As you come to the close of the book, he addresses political liberalism and writes, “Liberals, often in the face of fierce conservative opposition, have been the ones to guarantee equal rights, and they have made laws that help keep our food and automobiles safe and college education affordable…. Liberal Christianity can point to the Old Testament prophets and to Jesus as the original political liberals.” Yet, somehow, I think, McLennan fails to make the case of Jesus as a liberal in this book. It’s rather ironic. He could have done so much more with this topic, written such a better book, although it’s good in its present form. He ends the book by writing, “Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly. Jesus was a liberal.” I only wish McLennan had shown that Jesus was a liberal. Otherwise, a decent book….
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To quote a seminary friend of mine, “Oh, that sounds nice. It’s pretty thinking. It’s wrong, but it’s nice.”
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