A follow up to “A New Kind of Christianity”

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I saw this today and that it would be great to link these four posts for you.  Emergent Village did an interview with Brian McLaren.  So, if you are not reading his book you can at  least hear him talk in his own words.  I thought it was a good interview and will help give you more insight into his positions.  While many of my own issues are not dealt with, he gives you more to think about.

Melvin Bray and Brian McLaren – Pt. 1

Melvin Bray and Brian McLaren – Pt. 2

Melvin Bray and Brian McLaren – Pt. 3

Melvin Bray and Brian McLaren – Pt. 4

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So what? or The What-Do-We-Do-Now Question

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This is the tenth and final post interacting with Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity. Please remember that I cannot reproduce the book in these posts. I will do my best to summarize without being overly simplistic or reductionistic. Each post will be two parts.  The first will be a summary of McLaren’s discussion and the second will be my reflections.

The What-Do-We-Do-Now Question: How can we translate our quest into action?

The final question that McLaren presents us with is really not a question that the Church is asking but is the question that the movement he is calling for needs to ask. This full out application, how do we move forward in light of the answers given to the previous nine questions?  To answer this question McLaren turns to historians to help frame his answer.  Specifically he calls on the macro-historian to help us understand where we are in the human quest.  He labels each movement of humanity with a color of the rainbow.

  • The Red Zone: The Quest for Survival: This is where all humanity begins.  We have a need for food, water, shelter and look to the gods or God to provide this for us.
  • The Orange Zone: The Quest for Security: We look to the gods of God to be our Warrior, Protector, Provider in relation to other clans. Current example: Current examples: Prosperity Gospel Churches and Pentecostals.
  • The Yellow Zone: The Quest for Power: We developed city-states and needed God to ordain them as good to keep the people in line under the authority of kings and emperors. Current examples: Fundamentalists and Hyper Calvinists.
  • The Green Zone: The Quest for Independence: We found the earthly kings to be oppressors and so we needed God to become a judge who mandated laws and punishment.  Current examples: Those developing systematic theology.
  • The Blue Zone: The Quest for Individuality: Thanks to law and judgment based on rationality we are now free to pursue God’s “blessing” on our plans and salvation became individualistic. Current example: Mega-churches.
  • The Indigo Zone: The Quest for Honesty: We realize that through our rampant individualism we have done great harm to the creation and one another in the name of God and we call for an honest re-assessment. Current example: Emergent Church Movement.
  • The Violet Zone: The Quest for Ubuntu: Once we have come to the place of honesty where we are humbled we begin the seventh quest for healing.  This is the peace, shalom, or ubuntu: embracing one-anotherness, common-goodness, and interconnectedness.

In light of this, McLaren argues, that we need to have “indigo” Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, and others come together to create a “violet” zone where healing and unity can take place.  This zone,

“…challenges us, then, to learn to see in a completely new and unpracticed way, to forgo seeing previous stages in the old dualistic terms of good/evil or right/wrong.  As we get acclimated to the violet zone, we learn to see all previous zones as appropriate and adequate for their context, just as we consider infancy, childhood, and adolescence as appropriate and adequate in their time, not bad, evil, or wrong.  Similarly, the new stage into which we are growing isn’t right; it’s simply appropriate and adequate for the challenges we now face. (237)”

To support this religious evolutionary mindset McLaren argues from 1 Corinthians 13:11-14:1:

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.”
(1 Corinthians 13:11–14:1 ESV)

It is here that McLaren sees Paul calling for an evolution in our understanding.  He argues that Paul is calling for a consistent move away from exclusive faith to an inclusive faith because in so doing we find greater wholeness and ubuntu.

Reflections

I appreciate McLaren’s desire to bring some closure to the discussion.  I am thankful that in this chapter he has laid his cards on the table and allowed us to fully understand his presuppositions. I also think that his use of other disciplines is warranted and appreciated.  It is always helpful for us to think through our faith from the macro-historical level.

I read this chapter and my breaking heart finally broke.  I found so much in this work that I appreciate but this heart broke me because in it I found that McLaren was not calling for a new kind of Christianity just an old kind of religious pluralism.  I felt as though I was reading John Hick from nearly fifteen years ago. McLaren could have just pointed us to a Newsweek article on how we are all becoming Hindus and made it easier on himself.

The treatment of 1 Cor 13:11-14:1 does not do justice to the passage and ignores it’s immediate context. The problems that the Corinthians had was in-house.  This passage is in connection to the worship service and is followed by chapter fifteen’s description of the resurrection and its centrality to the faith.

Conclusion

To close these posts I want to say that I recommend a reading of McLaren’s text.  The reason is that it provides a good dialogue partner.  McLaren raises many questions that need to be answered.  In the near future I will seek to give my own perspectives on these ten questions.  Some of the answers are better than others.  Some of the pendulum swings are necessary and good.  However, at the end all of this is left wanting because Jesus the crucified and resurrected God the Son is strangely absent.  His uniqueness is set aside in the name of “peace”.  Yet Paul in his letter to the Romans is quite clear, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Why Don’t You Eat Cows? or The Pluralism Question

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This is the ninth post interacting with Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity. Please remember that I cannot reproduce the book in these posts. I will do my best to summarize without being overly simplistic or reductionistic. Each post will be two parts.  The first will be a summary of McLaren’s discussion and the second will be my reflections.

The Pluralism Question: How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?

McLaren begins his chapter on pluralism by setting the stage with this statement:

“If we want to get on the right side of the life-and-death divide, we need to start with some sober, serious, old-fashioned repentance, starting with this admission: Christianity has a nauseating, infuriating, depressing record when it comes to encountering people of other religions (and a not much better record when encountering people of other brands of Christianity either). (208)”

The question he determines to answer is, “how do we find a better approach to the religiously other in our quest for a new kind of Christianity?”  This is in contrast the various genocides, abuses, and oppression that Christianity has perpetrated over the course of the centuries. The answer is straightforward:

When I’m asked about pluralism in my travels, I generally return to Jesus’s simple teachings of neighborliness such as the Golden Rule, “Our first responsibility as followers of Jesus is to treat people of other religions with the same respect we would want to receive from them.  When you are kind and respectful to followers of other religions, you are not being unfaithful to Jesus; you are being faithful to him.” Then I ask them how they would want people of other religions to treat them. They typically say things like: “I would want them to respect my faith, show interest in it and learn about it, not constantly attack it, find points of agreement that they could affirm, respectfully disagree where necessary – but not let disagreement shatter the friendship, share about their faith without pressuring me to convert, invite me to share my with them, include me in their social life without making me feel odd,” and so on. After each reply, I generally say, “That sounds great. Go and do likewise.” (211-212)

McLaren goes on to discuss John 14:6, “And Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one can come to the Father but through me.” First, he argues that the context is talking about the Temple and not heaven.  John 14:1-3 reads:

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.And you know the way to where I am going.”

Here he argues that the phrase “Father’s house” is in reference to the Temple because the last time the phrase is used in John’s gospel is when Jesus “cleansed the Temple” in John 2.  McLaren argues that unless it is explicitly stated otherwise we should assume continuity in the terms. However, Jesus has said that he is changing the rules from an earthly temple to his body.  Therefore, he is calling them into a “new-people-of-God-as-temple”.

He goes on to state that the disciples concerns are not in reference to others but themselves.  They want to know where he is going.  They do not understand. Therefore,  the words that Jesus states in verse 6 in response to Thomas’ question about what to do after he dies.  McLaren argues that Jesus is saying, “Thomas, you know the way, the truth, and the life. It’s me.  Just remember me and do what I did and you will find your way into my new temple, my peaceable kingdom here on this earth.” The “no one” then of verse 6 is the disciples, only.  That if you look at Jesus you see the Father and all is well.  This alternative understanding of John 14:6 should make us realize that the Christian faith is in no way calling for a soul-sort between other religions, but to serve, love, and respect them.

Reflections

I appreciate that once again McLaren is able to bring to the surface again a huge issue that makes many Christians squeamish.  I am also thankful that he calls the institutional Church to the dock and finds them guilty of great horrors in the name of Jesus. I think he is right that we as the corporate body of Christ needs to continue the process of repentance for our ancestors and own them as part of our history. I also agree that we are called to treat people of religions with respect, charity, and grace.

Unfortunately I think that he has done violence to the text of John.  Let’s take a moment and look at this. First, the context of John 14 is Jesus’ preparation of the disciples for his death and what comes next.  In chapter 13 Jesus washes their feet and tells them about his betrayal and Peter’s denial. But, he wants to raise their understanding from the immediate circumstances to the bigger picture.

We come to John 14:1 and Jesus’ comforting words that proclaim his preparation on their behalf in his father’s house. The most likely and simple understanding of this is that he is referring to heaven.  Why? Because the context is his death. There would not be place for him to prepare for his disciples anywhere else. Then he refers to his return and his calling the disciples to himself.

Thomas asks the “what’s the way” question.  Jesus responds with “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me.”  How do they get to the Father’s house? They get there by embracing Jesus. There is no other way.  It seems here that Jesus is making a point here by repeating the article three times (which would have been unnecessary in the Aramaic and is unnecessary in the Greek).  To come to the Father there is but one way.

I agree with McLaren that the key to the passage is not John 14:6 but John 14:9b: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”  This points to the divinity of Jesus and his uniqueness.

The argument that “Father’s house” relates to the earthly temple does not jive.  Jewish understanding of the Temple was that it was a shadow of heaven.  Therefore, it makes sense that Jesus is turning their understanding upside down. It is no longer through the sacrificial system that people get right with God but through the perfect sacrifice of Jesus, God the Son. The earthly Temple is replaced by full entrance into the real Father’s house. No longer would his people be worshiping in shadows but in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24).

If we really love people then we must call them to faith in Christ.  Again, McLaren leaves us wanting more.  If a man is about to drink poison we can respectfully ask him to stop.  But, at some point there is a necessity to stop him from killing himself if we really love him.

I think that Penn Gillette said it well, “How much do you have to hate someone to not proselytize them?”

Where’s that Magic Eight Ball? or The Future Question

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This is the eighth post interacting with Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity. Please remember that I cannot reproduce the book in these posts. I will do my best to summarize without being overly simplistic or reductionistic. Each post will be two parts.  The first will be a summary of McLaren’s discussion and the second will be my reflections.

The Future Question: Can we find a better way of viewing the future?

McLaren now sets to go to work on dispensational eschatology in his third question regarding the application of a new kind of Christianity.  He paints a humorous and relatively accurate picture of the dispensational premillenial understanding of eschatology. McLaren sees in this understanding of the eschaton the inherent willingness to destruction and war because Jesus is coming back and will be setting the world right through massive bloodletting in the war of the apocalypse.

If this is the old way of understanding the future, then what is the right way?  We are to understand the eschaton not from a perspective of a “fixed end point toward which we move, but rather a widening space opening into an infinitely expanding goodness. (195)” We are to reject the “soul/sort” universe where people are eternally sorted into eternal bins marked “redeemed” or “damned”.

No, the future is un-doomed (195).  Jesus, by inaugurating his peaceable kingdom brings resurrection, liberation, reconciliation, and salvation.  Judgment is the forgetting or destruction of things which are deemed unworthy and the good things of a person’s life will be saved, remembered, brought back for a new beginning.

McLaren argues for what he calls a “participatory eschatology” where we participate in God’s work and we anticipate it’s ultimate success (20o-201).

Reflection

Anytime that the predominant dispensational premillenialist view of the eschaton is brought into question I am grateful. This understanding of Christ’s return is damaging and does violence to the text. It indeed brings about the concerns that McLaren highlights. Much of what is said in answering this question is to be commended.

I do find that there are two key problems that need to be highlighted (McLaren also does a poor job of handling the term, “parousia” but responding to that would make this post too long!).  First, the issue of judgment from McLaren’s perspective is problematic in that it does not take into account the text.  It is not that someone foisted the idea of “soul-sort” onto the text.  Jesus describes the time when when he will sort the sheep from the goats. This is not simply a “forgetting” of the things that Jesus did not appreciate.  This is a casting out from his presence.  McLaren simply goes too far and is wrong.

The second problem is greater than the first.  The second problem is that there is no sense of an actual end a “telos” if you will.  The eschatology that McLaren proposes does not include an ending of time where we see a real redemption of all things. We do not see any understanding or description of the life to come.  What we do have is a works based, faithless,  evolutionary understanding of Christian religiosity.

I would encourage McLaren to spend some time reading and understanding fully amillenialism.  This perspective handles his concerns and remains true to the biblical text.

It’s All About Sex Baby! or The Sex Question

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This is the seventh post interacting with Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity. Please remember that I cannot reproduce the book in these posts. I will do my best to summarize without being overly simplistic or reductionistic. Each post will be two parts.  The first will be a summary of McLaren’s discussion and the second will be my reflections.

The Sex Question: Can we find a way to address human sexuality without fighting about it?

McLaren begins this second question of application in a way that plays to our prejudices (it’s a fantastic bit of writing!).  He paints the picture of what many Christians would consider to be the “homosexual movement”.  However, he is really painting a picture of what he calls “fundasexuality” which is centered on “heterophobia” or the fear of the different. He says that this is packaged in many forms, “Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, or even atheist. (174-175)” McLaren goes on to argue that sociology tells us that “groups can exist without a god, but no group can exist without a devil (175).” Who is the devil for the fundasexualist? Gays, lesbians, bisexual, and trans-gendered people.

The argument against “fundasexualism” is built on the story of Ethiopian eunuch from Acts 8.  I think I rightly summarize the argument this way:

  • The Ethiopian eunuch had visited Jerusalem to worship.
  • The Ethiopian eunuch had not been allowed to worship because he was not Jewish and Deuteronomy 23:1 prohibited a eunuch from doing so.
  • The Ethiopian eunuch hears the gospel of creation, liberation, and reconciliation “embodied in a man who was stripped naked and publicly humiliated, despised, rejected, and misunderstood, a man without physical descendants, a man who was cut and scarred forever.” This is a man to whom the Ehtiopian eunuch can relate.
  • The Ethiopian eunuch who was condemned “by the Jewish scriptures” now has found entrance into the kingdom of God and requests baptism. Which he is by Philip.
  • The Ethiopian eunuch a “non-heterosexual” becomes a missional leader taking the gospel to Ethiopia.

This argument is then extrapolated to be inclusive of homosexuals and undocumented aliens.

McLaren continues to paint the horrific picture of sexual brokenness that exists in the heterosexual world and within the church. The list of sexual sin is long, painful, and honest.

The solution? “We must pursue a practical, down-to-earth theology and an honest, fully embodied spirituality that speak truthfully and openly about our sexuality, in all its straight and gay complexity.(189)”

Reflections

I continue to appreciate the fact that McLaren does not let us get away from the hard questions that face us today. Sex is the predominant topic everywhere.  Ads, pop culture, the news, and even Sportscenter: sex overshadows it all.  I agree with McLaren that the dialogue must be opened.  We have to have the conversation, no, we need to have the conversation.  I also agree that we must move beyond the binary, “I’m right, you’re wrong” bickering. I agree with McLaren’s conclusion.

There are parts of the discussion that I disagree with though.  I think that he makes a leap with Ethiopian eunuch.  There is nothing in the text which tells us of his gender identity.  We simply know of his physical limitation to carry out the sex act.  This has nothing to do with gender.  To make the leap that he was “non-heterosexual” is too far and it is too far to assume that he was “heterosexual”. I think that his sexual identity is not the question at hand.  I think that McLaren rightly identifies the issue of the Ethiopian eunuch not being allowed to worship, but is wrong when he asserts it has to do with gender identity.

I come back to the same issue as I have had so many times before.  How? At this point in the text McLaren has removed all means by which to have any kind of authoritative ethic.  Sexual conduct is of deep concern in the Scriptures and there is an expectation of honoring God with our bodies and there are limits. However, if the Scriptures are simply one voice in the discussion then we can regulate them to a more primitive idea and that we have evolved past their prescriptions for healthy lives. This is very dangerous and unwise.

The sexual brokenness that exists in our world is in desperate of not only a “man who was stripped naked and publicly humiliated, despised, rejected, and misunderstood, a man without physical descendants, a man who was cut and scarred forever” but a man who also died and rose again and in so doing made a way for reconciliation between God and people, people and creation, and people and people.

You get up on Sunday and do what!? or the Church Question

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This is the sixth post interacting with Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity. Please remember that I cannot reproduce the book in these posts. I will do my best to summarize without being overly simplistic or reductionistic. Each post will be two parts.  The first will be a summary of McLaren’s discussion and the second will be my reflections.

The Church Question: What do we do about the church?

This is the first of five questions on how McLaren sees his vision of A New Kind of Christianity working itself out practically in the real world. McLaren paints a sad and realistic picture of the church.  He says that owe are “divided, immature, confused about our purpose and identity, in danger of fragmenting our way into nonexistence, all at  once bending over backwards and straddling fences, stiff of neck and soft of spine, and otherwise twisted and contorted in compromise.  We have financial problems, sexual controversies, pride problems, schism threats, excesses in some forms of spirituality and deficits in others, and all manner of authority issues (165-166)."  It is not a rosy outlook.  McLaren reminds us that these were the same issues that the Corinthians faced and so he sets out to show how Paul dealt with these issues in 1 Corinthians.

Paul’s perspective, according to McLaren, can be summarized this way, ”…the church most truly is: it is a space in which the Spirit works to form Christlike people, and it is the space in which human beings, formed in Christlike love, cooperate with the Spirit and one another to express that love in word and deed, art and action. (171)“

We are to become a people who take action by "listening, dialogue, appreciate inquiry, understanding, preemptive peacemaking, reconciliation, nonviolence, prophetic confrontation, advocacy, generosity, and personal and social transformation (171).” This is the mission of the church.

Reflections

I think that the picture that is painted of the church here is beautiful, powerful, and engaging.  I think that McLaren has hit on something that we need to embrace again.  If the Church looked like this then we would see a renewed engagement with the world that is far from Christ.  We would see movements that seek to transform culture and build bridges to the gospel.

Nevertheless, there is something missing.  I found myself getting excited about the picture that he was painting as it is very similar to the dream and picture I have of the Church.  It is challenging.  It calls the Church to a higher standard.  However, in his exposition of 1 Corinthians there was again the absence of the discussion of the cross and the resurrection.  McLaren handled the issues of knowledge, love, and power with insight but again excluded the cross.

Again, I must beg for more.  I am concerned that McLaren “The Pendulum Swinger” (as a friend calls him) has removed the pendulum.

Extra, Extra, Good News!!! or the Gospel Question

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This is the fifth post interacting with Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity. Please remember that I cannot reproduce the book in these posts. I will do my best to summarize without being overly simplistic or reductionistic. Each post will be two parts.  The first will be a summary of McLaren’s discussion and the second will be my reflections.

The Gospel Question: What is the Gospel

The question of the gospel is critical.  It is critical because in his letter to the Galatians, Paul says it is. McLaren specifically sets out to refute the following line of reasoning:

I had always assumed that “kingdom of God” meant “kingdom of heaven, ” which meant “going to heaven after you die,” which required believing the message of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which I understood to teach a theory of atonement called “penal substitution,” which was the basis for a formula for forgiveness of original sin called “justification by grace through faith.” (138)

This description of the gospel now explicitly clarifies what McLaren believes the six-line diagram of Christianity to be teaching. He calls those that hold to the six-line diagram to “repent” as he has done (138).

So what is the gospel? McLaren calls us to read Paul through the Gospels because as we do so we will ultimately be reading Paul through Jesus.  This means then that the gospel becomes very clear, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15)  So, what does this mean?

First, the free gift of God is being born again into a new life into a new participation in a new Genesis.  Second, it means beginning a new Exodus by passing through the waters of baptism (as opposed the Red Sea). Finally, it means receiving the kingdom of God to become a “citizen of a new kingdom, the peaceable kingdom imagined by the prophets and inaugurated in Christ, learning its ways (as a disciple) and demonstrating in word and deed its presence and availability to all (as an apostle). (139). ”

McLaren argues this from an exposition of Romans  where  he argues for seven moves that Paul makes (Chapter 15):

  1. Reduce Jew and Gentile to the same level of need (Rom 1:18-3:20)
  2. Announce a new way forward for all, Jew and Gentile: the way of faith (Rom 3:21-4:25)
  3. Unite all in a common story, with four illustrations: Adam, baptism, slavery, and remarriage (Rom 5:1-7:6)
  4. Unite all in a common struggle and a common victory, illustrated by two stories: the Story of Me and the Story of We (Rom 7:7-8:39)
  5. Address Jewish and gentile problems, showing God as God of all (9:1-11:36)
  6. Engage all in a common life and mission (Rom 12:1-13:14)
  7. Call everyone to unity in the kingdom of God (Rom 14:1-16:27)

Reflections

This chapter was tough for me. It was tough because for the first time I am having a hard time finding the connection. However, I think that there is something that we need to remember and be reminded of over and over.  McLaren says, “Jesus’s gospel of the kingdom must welcome Jews in their Jewishness and Gentiles in their goyishness, and Paul whats to show how that can be. (144)” I say to that a  hearty, “AMEN!"  We too often ignore the issues related to social identity and that the fact that in Christ, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are on in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)” This points to the fact that “converting” is not converting away from one aspect of your identity but becoming something new, something other.

I struggle though with the bulk of McLaren’s answer to this question.  I think that here McLaren has made a move away from what the scriptures teach concerning the gospel. First, I think McLaren contradicts himself.  He says that Romans is not a linear text, yet he treats it as such with seven linear moves. He says Paul is not moving from A to Z, yet this is exactly how he treats Romans in his exposition of it. Why? Because Paul actually did think through how he wanted to describe the core beliefs of the Christ following community.

Second, while I appreciate the idea of reading Paul through the gospels this seems to be poor exegesis.  We should not reading anything through anything else.  We ought to read texts alongside one another.  Why do we always have a need to find a “controlling” text?  Is it not possible to set these texts next to one another and allow them to inform us? This is especially important due to the reality that the epistles were written prior to the gospels. I understand that there was an oral tradition regarding the gospel narratives that informed Paul’s writing.  However, it also seems that Paul had direct influence on Matthew (who most likely wrote from Antioch, Paul’s home church), Mark (who probably traveled with Paul), and Luke (who definitely traveled with Paul).  So, it makes sense to all these text to inform one another and not to give primacy to any one of them. If we follow this method we will see that the gospel is not ONLY concerned with penal substitutionary atonement but it is also concerned with victory, liberation, and re-creation.

Finally, to set aside issues of propitiation and to never once deal with Christ’s death and resurrection is deeply problematic.  Anyone genuine reading of the gospels points to the cruci-centric nature of the ministry of Jesus.  The epistles all point to the crucifixion and the resurrection as the central tenets of the faith.

I think, sadly, McLaren has made a move that authentic followers of Christ cannot make.  In his gospel paradigm there is no means by which people are reconciled to their creator and to his creation.  He calls for peace, liberation, and re-creation but there is no means by which that is achieved. It is here that we must part ways.