Whatever confusion there may be among Christians about redemption today, it must be small compared to that which accompanied the birth of the Christian movement in the first century…Yet we can be sure of the upshot: the disciples’ recognition that Jesus’ story that had engaged them was not ended by his death. For him and for them, there was a new beginning. Strangely but surely a new era had begun.
James McClendon, Doctrine (1994)
Today, on the 15th anniversary of his passing, we honor James McClendon, one of the most underrated Christian theologians of the 20th century. McClendon, raised in Southern Baptist Louisiana, became the first Protestant theologian to ever be hired by a Catholic theology department (University of San Francisco). His contract was mysteriously not renewed at USF after he passed around a petition denouncing American military adventures in Vietnam. Later in the 70s, McClendon became a pioneer in postmodern theological endeavors after reading John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus and attending a conference in Manhattan with his wife (the philosopher and theologian Nancey Murphy) called “The Church in a Postmodern Age.” From there, McClendon did ground breaking work at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union and Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.
For the last two decades of his life, McClendon penned his 1300-page, 3-volume Systematic Theology, the enduring legacy of his yearning for a 3rd way, transcending modern liberal and fundamentalist Christian options. The substance of McClendon’s theology was even more exhilarating than his book covers were boring (see below). McClendon called this brand of Christianity “the baptist vision,” a variety of movements which flowed out of the Radical Reformation of the 16th century. As overlooked as McClendon himself, these “Anabaptists” dedicated themselves to a non-coercive, separation-from-government discipleship to Jesus that led them to reclaim adult baptism, a knowing pledge of allegiance to God’s Reign even though all Europeans were already baptized as infants (“anabaptist” was a pejorative label which meant “baptized twice”). These Christians are neither Catholic nor Protestant, going beyond the work of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli (thus, the “radical” reformation).
When we say that McClendon was engaging with “postmodern” sensibilites long before they became popular, we emphasize a few key concepts:
1. He was dedicated to understanding the Christian life as an ongoing Story about God and the world that we participate in today. This “narrative” approach differentiated from modern understandings which emphasized the Bible as an encyclopedia of timeless truths and principles that are self-evidently mined out. This tired, worn-out construal focused on proper belief, built on a naively constructed absolute truth. McClendon, instead, presented the Bible as a Script that communities interpreted for guiding and inspiring an active lifestyle of faithfulness.
2. McClendon’s narrative approach led to a humble acknowledgment of the multiple traditions of Christian engagement over the past 100 generations of faithfulness to Jesus. As McClendon wrote: “God loves variety.” Along with atheist philosopher James Smith, he coined the term principle of fallibility for dialogue within and between traditions: “even one’s most cherished and tenaciously held convictions might be false and are in principle always subject to rejection, reformulation, improvement, or reformation.” When communities huddle around the biblical text and commit themselves to live according to the Script, they are recovering the original intent of the biblical documents. This is precisely how Israel and the early church would read and live as a witness to the wider world of competing scripts and stories.
3. The Christian life, however, was not just an imaginative game of story-telling in communities. It deeply involved both the self and the truth. McClendon believed in a final Reality, but emphasized the notion that we come to this Truth–embodied in a 1st century Jew named Jesus–through unique perspectives. To posit that your vision of Jesus is the one Absolute Truth is to see through through blurry lenses of arrogance and ignorance. But McClendon did not fall for the false “either-or” choice of relativism, the hopeless cul-de-sac of anything goes. For McClendon, the Christian way is a journey of discovering more and more about God and whatever else there is. The truth is, we will change our minds about some things along the way.
4. McClendon passed away just a week before the election of modern Evangelical George W. Bush and less than a year before 9/11. His work on the tension between the Christian gospel and the American dream was prophetic in both senses of the word: both an eerie foretelling and a bold confrontation of dominant misunderstandings about church-state relations. At many points, the faithfully lived gospel Story is the oil trickling through the waters of the American dream. Our military policy–soaked with racism, imperialism and revenge–cannot be condoned or silently tolerated by followers of the Prince of Peace who followed the will of God all the way to the cross (rejecting revenge) while opening the door of the Reign of God to Gentiles (abandoning racial profiling) and modeling a simple way of sharing and caring (transcending both isolationist and imperialist policy).
To engage faithfully with American society, followers of Jesus need to constantly draw on wisdom and discernment to find hope, issue warning and demand faithful living. This continues to be more and more of a complex task in a world filled with Facebook, texting, drones, organic foods and cable-news infotainment–a world that not even McClendon himself could imagine.
For post-Evangelicals like me, McClendon’s work is vitally important. I’ve seen too many friends, raised in the non-denominational Evangelical tradition, bailing on the Christian faith altogether because they are no longer compelled by that old, tired framework. For instance, when it comes to the meaning of Jesus’ death, McClendon provides readers with the entire gamut of metaphors offered by the New Testament authors, struggling to make sense of what happened at calvary. Unfortunately, during the 20th century, conservative Evangelicals have substantially increased market share on the cross. This “penal-substitutionary atonement” understanding (the cross acquits the believer of all sin so they can gain admission into everlasting bliss in a disembodied heaven when they die) has monopolized most tellings of the Christian Story.
McClendon’s work, on the other hand, allows us to rediscover the original understanding of Christ’s death: that he died because the Jewish and Roman powers-that-be were threatened by his subversive movement. The crucifixion of Jesus was an exposé of the willingness of these powerful leaders to do whatever it takes (even murdering the innocent leader of a prophetic movement) to retain their own power and privilege. When Paul writes that he was “crucified with Christ” it meant that he was following the clear commands of Jesus to deny self and take up the cross and follow him unto death. McClendon was known to tell his students that the Gospels presume that there should have been 13 crosses at the end of each story (one for each disciple), inviting us all to into a risky Christian Story of participatory and prophetic justice. The cross is not primarily about getting our sins wiped away so that we have eternal life insurance. It is a powerful reminder of what happened to Jesus as a result of a well-lived, full faithfulness that we, too, are called to embody here and now.
Of course, McClendon’s work provides immense resources for us, far beyond expanding our views of the death of Jesus. His scholarly-yet-imaginative construals of the authority of the Bible, the church & mission, the search for truth, the meaning of salvation and the very contested nature of Christianity itself are all just skimming the surface of the deep waters of McClendon’s postmodern Anabaptist Christian explorations. Perhaps we need to retitle his works and redesign his book covers to entice students of theology (and whatever else there is) to buy and read these treasures hidden in libraries and bookstores? McClendon himself, no doubt, would only be interested in seeing these compelling convictions lived out in real time. As the worldwide Body of Christ celebrates All Saints Day this weekend, we honor James McClendon, truly set apart as a theologian to be modeled.