A New Kind of Christian Summary
by Brian D. McLaren

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A New Kind of Christian Summary

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

A New Kind of Christian begins when Dan Poole, pastor of Potomac Community Church in suburban Maryland, meets his daughter’s science teacher, Dr. N. E. Oliver (“Neo” to his friends), on a day when he is considering abandoning the pastorate. Dan can no longer live in harmony with a church culture that he now sees as stagnant and self-satisfied, and he is suffering in his faith because the kind of Christian he feels unable to serve is the only kind of Christian he knows how to be. Neo takes a generous interest in Dan’s plight, and Dan quickly discovers a thoughtful Christian in the erudite, personable, Jamaican-born science teacher; he is struck by Neo’s ability to abandon evangelical myopia without at the same time falling into liberalism or vacuousness, and he decides to cultivate the friendship.

From their first, extended conversation over coffee and bagels, it becomes apparent that Neo, a former pastor, has long pondered the kinds of Church problems that are on Dan’s mind and has developed a theory to illuminate them. To Neo, Dan’s apprehensions are symptoms of a larger cultural paradigm shift. Though culture is always evolving, Western society is currently experiencing its deepest mental reconfiguration since medieval culture began to give way to “modernity” in the 1500’s under the combined pressures of modern science and Protestant Christianity. In Neo’s estimation, the modern culture that thus arose fixed its sights on values such as objectivity, proof, argument, mechanization, institutionalization, secularization, individualism, and consumerism. While this cultural focus yielded various great achievements (many important technologies, for example), it also was based on a view of the human person that now appears incomplete, resulting in a single-minded pursuit of progress and control that marginalizes the aesthetic, spiritual, and interpersonal needs of human life. The cultural shift to postmodern thinking thus involves a general recognition that the modernistic mentality must be transformed into something more open, comprehensive, and humane. In Neo’s view, Dan is experiencing cognitive dissonance as a result of the ways Western Christianity has assimilated itself into its modernistic cultural environment; modern Christianity is embattled because modernity in general, not necessarily Christianity as such, is being radically challenged by an increasingly postmodern culture.

Dan finds Neo’s ideas to be a source of insight, hope, and challenge. Over several months, the two continue to converse about the problems and opportunities that emerge when modern-style Protestant Christians are confronted with postmodernity. Neo typically attempts to transcend the customary options in many modern Christian quandaries, holding that “people are often against something worth being against but in the process find themselves for some things that aren’t worth being for.” Together, he and Dan discuss contemporary attitudes about heaven and hell and who goes where; the role and interpretation of the Bible in the Church; faith and finances; the trivializations caused by law-centered and individual-centered morality; inadequate conceptions of Christian truth; patterns of theological smugness and vitriol; the pervasiveness of hollow or self-absorbed spirituality and of “numbers-oriented” evangelism.

Neo is suddenly called upon to move to Seattle to bury his father and care for his ailing mother. In the few months before Neo’s mother dies, he and Dan continue their friendship, exchanging insights and support via e-mail and telephone. With the passing of his mother and the sale of his parents’ house, Neo receives a large inheritance and is inspired to spend a year of self-renewal traveling the globe. He tells Dan that he has also resolved to reenter the pastorate...

(The entire section is 889 words.)