Monday, April 26, 2010

Brian McLaren says "Everything Must Change"

Warning: this is a commentary on a religious book. If you hate religions, this is probably not addressed to your condition as my Quaker friends might say. Take what you can use and leave the rest.

I wanted very much to like Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope. McLaren is a prolific writer on contemporary Christianity; I've heard him preach and read some of his articles. He almost manages to communicate some substance to that amorphous, but perhaps real, notion, "The Emerging Church."

What follows is a mix of appreciation that slides over into an unhappy critique of this very ambitious little book.

Let's start with what I liked about McLaren: He asks the big questions that comfortable religious people often avoid.

  • What are the biggest problems in the world?
  • What does Jesus have to say about these global problems?
  • Why hasn't the Christian religion made a difference commensurate with its message, size and resources?
Having asked the hard stuff, he then proposes a set of interlocking systems that constitute the unhappy current "everything" that must change:
  • The prosperity system: an unsustainable global economy that is running up to and over the planet's environmental limits, while making about one third of humans comfortably rich; (some of us would call this unfettered "capitalism" but not McLaren);
  • The equity system: the gap between rich and poor ensures that social structures that ought to ensure fairness (like democracy) and a measure of compassion toward our neighbors (welfare systems) are breaking;
  • The security system: the dysfunction of the other two systems ensures that instead creating mechanisms for peaceful resolution of disputes, we end up trying to dispel fear through ever more all-encompassing prisons and ever more cataclysmic wars.
The whole mess, in McLaren's terms, amounts to a "suicide machine."

Not bad analysis from the point of view of this leftist Christian. And how could I dislike someone who writes that our religion

"can become a benign and passive chaplaincy to a failing and dysfunctional culture, the religious public relations department for an inadequate and destructive ideology."

But I kept having the gnawing feeling that something important was missing from McLaren's world picture. When was he going to get to two massively dysfunctional aspects of the our suicidal society that I see playing out every day? I kept reading and waiting ...

McLaren understands very well that what we see often is shaped by the position from which we look at it. For example, he says this about fundamentalist readings of scripture:

"They underestimate how the original words and teachings were situated -- how deeply their sacred texts were rooted in gritty contemporary problems and human social contexts; instead, they see their sacred texts as timeless, placeless utterances coming from an arid, Platonic plane of universal abstraction. And these fundamentalist movements also underestimate how equally situated their own interpretations and applications are."

But I gradually realized that my sense of something missing in McLaren's "everything" probably derives from where he stands: he's an entitled white guy. There are two unmentioned systems of oppression that are so obvious to me that he misses completed that I would call:
  • The Otherness system: our human use of race, ethnicity, and/or cultural differences to create hierarchies;
  • The patriarchal system: all the accumulated weight of tradition and custom that subjugates women to men.
These two realities of our condition are invisible in this book.

Actually, it's worse than that. In a discussion of abortion, McLaren offers an ignorant, deeply misogynist description of what he thinks leads to unwanted pregnancies:

Putting rape-induced pregnancy aside, abortion is considered necessary because some people [buddy -- can't you manage to say "women"?] contract a pregnancy they don't want in the process of seeking pleasure, intimacy, or other consequences of intercourse they do want. [Do you have any idea of the multiple reasons women may feel they have to fuck, whether they want to much or not? Evidently not.]

There's more, but I'll spare you. When are men going to get it that they should simply shut up about abortion until the only people who can get pregnant, women, have enjoyed equality and the freedom to interrogate the meaning and morality of pregnancy for a millennium or so? Contemporary men -- and also women emerging from centuries of patriarchy -- simply are not placed to lay down the law about what women must do with our bodies.

Okay, so McLaren pissed me off -- a lot. But I cannot fault the ambition and the goodwill intended in this book. That appreciation almost makes my sad reaction to it stronger since it seems likely to reinforce among people who stand where McLaren does -- comfortable white men -- an obliviousness to race and gender that directly injures the planet's majority.

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