NPR today dutifully carries out the semiannual media-nod-to-God by noting the controversy [deliberately] stirred up by Brian McLaren's latest, A New Kind of Christianity. On the opposite side, doing some stirring of his own, is Southern Baptist potentate Al Mohler.
The controversy concerns the meaning of the cross, and for that NPR quotes McLaren as follows:
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. If this God doesn't see blood, God can't forgive. . . .
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.
Mohler's quoted response:
Did Jesus go to the cross as a mere victim? If so, then we have no Gospel, we have no hope of everlasting life. 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.
This is extremely a non-argument prompted by both spotlight-hungry individuals having employed a false choice as a means of pandering to their core audiences, which constitute specific demographics hungering for the red meat of polemics.
McLaren is the super-guru of young evangelicals who resent the megachurch, religious-right Christianity of their parents or who, being older, want to identify with such youthful rebels as a way of certifying their cool credentials. So he takes aim at a decidedly repulsive image (blood for propitiation), identifies with a righteously rebellious political position (social justice in place of market economics), and sets up a means of providing a comfortable escape for an awkward dilemma (no one enjoys God condemning non-Christians).
So no substitutionary atonement for McLaren. Jesus dies to show solidarity with the suffering. Only! That includes just about everyone except rich Christians.
Mohler is the super-pastor for traditional evangelicals, especially resurgent Calvinists who are attracted to the stubborn Puritan counterculture. Identifying as fatal theological flaws the departures that others make from his own sectarian orthodoxy is mother's milk for him. It is also his means of staying in print, on the air, and flush with cash at his seminary. Any move in any direction away from Mohler is for Mohler a sign that someone is not to be trusted.
Before we engage in more of the preceding characterization of the persons, we now reveal the essential theological problem: the biblical witness--in nearly every book of the New Testament and thematically grounded in the Hebrew Bible--is to both these interpretations of the cross. These are not mutually exclusive positions. They are as complementary as they can be. It takes a theological numbskull not to figure this out, if we may be so bold as to say so.
As to the biblical witness, one need simply note the way that all discussions of the cross sooner or later get to these ideas. Jesus dies fundamentally and foundationally for others. He takes what we deserve. Call that the Isaiah 53 perspective on the cross: "He was bruised for our transgressions." At the same time, Jesus dies as the victim of victims, the one who experiences exactly what the suffering people of God have always experienced. Call this the Psalm 22 perspective on the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
Now, there's no reason we can't have both of these, right? Must the cross only be one of them? That answer is obvious. What ought not be missed, however, is that these ideas must coexist for the sake of the coherence of either. If Jesus dies as something other than "one of us," he is no fit substitute (St. Anselm, developing ideas in Hebrews, stated this classically). If Jesus dies not as our substitute, it's difficult to see any point in his identifying with us.
We therefore blast McLaren for pursuing the false choice that provides a nasty, narrow caricature of substitutionary notions on the way to promoting something cool.
We therefore blast Mohler for his telling and tendentious use of "mere(ly)," which like its cousin "just" (in the sense of "limited to," not in the sense of "right before the law") does massive theological and rhetorical mischief.
The truth is that McLaren may well acknowledge the substitutionary nature of the cross somewhere in his book. We don't know, because we don't have time to spend reading McLaren's book, which doubtless offers nothing genuinely "new" that could be genuine "Christianity."
The truth is that Mohler probably sometime has acknowledged that Jesus identifies with victims in his death. We don't know because we don't find Mohler to be someone who offers anything resembling exceptional insights into the historic Christian faith, just loud insistence that his sub-version of it is the only valid one.
The bitter truth is that without pushing false choices and narrow characterizations of opponents, neither McLaren nor Mohler can function as a celebrity controversialist. Each gains prominence by dividing his disciples from others' disciples.
God save us all from self-promotion that relies on hyped up sectarianism. For the good of the Body of Christ, gentle readers, ignore these guys.