A New Kind of Christianity: The Greco-Roman Six Line Narrative

Brian McLaren suggests that there is one overarching storyline in the Bible that has been accepted by the Church for many hundreds of years, and it is broken up into six sections:

  1. Perfect Eden
  2. Fall from Grace into Sin/Imperfection
  3. Condemnation (The world as we know it)
  4. Salvation
  5. Heaven
  6. Hell (Eternal Conscious Torment)

God created a perfect, or ideal world in the beginning. Then mankind chose to sin, which resulted in a fall from grace that infected all of humanity with “original sin”. The world is defined by this state of sin and condemnation and would have continued as such if not for the salvation provided by Christ. Those who accept him go to heaven. But those who do not, go to eternal conscious torment. McLaren asks, “Could this be the story of a sorting and shipping process, the purpose of which is to deliver souls into their appropriate eternal bin?” (35).

Over time, McLaren decided to reject this biblical narrative. He realized that “nobody in the Hebrew Scriptures ever talked about original sin, total depravity, the Fall, or eternal conscious torment in hell” (37). But where did these concepts come from? McLaren claims to have come to an answer during a talk with a friend.

‘What we call the biblical story line isn’t the shape of the story of Adam, Abraham, and their Jewish descendants. It’s the shape of the Greek philosophical narrative that Plato taught! That’s the descent into Plato’s cave of illusion and the ascent into philosophical enlightenment.’ Some time after that, in a conversation with another friend, I realized it was also the social and political narrative of the Roman Empire, and so I began calling it the Greco-Roman Narrative (37).

I am now going to take a shot at describing Plato and Aristotle. If you’re reading this and you know more about philosophy, I apologize. Please feel free to correct me or add on to what I’m saying.

Plato taught that the material world was not the ultimate reality. The ultimate reality was above this, and existed as an eternal and unchanging Truth. All of the things we see and experience are only illusions or shadows. In this way, the ever changing material world is less real and true than the unchanging immaterial Reality. At best, the material can point to this higher truth.

Aristotle was Plato’s student and he challenged this position. Aristotle believed that the material world was the true reality and all of these “higher” concepts were merely human constructs developed to define the material world. The physical chair is more real than the concept of chair.

McLaren suggests that this argument between the two philosophers was adopted by the Greeks and later the Romans, helping to form the Greco-Roman culture (38).

The problem, as McLaren understands it, is that Western Christians adopted these concepts and reframed the biblical data to fit them. McLaren states, “I believe the Christian religion in the West, as it habitually read the Bible backwards through the lens of later Christians, largely lost track of the frontward storyline…within which Jesus emerged. It unwittingly traded its true heritage through Jesus from Judaism for an alien heritage drawn from Greek philosophy and Roman politics” (41).

Looking at the six line narrative in this light, it now breaks down like this:

  1. Platonic Ideal/ Being
  2. Fall into the Cave of Illusion
  3. Aristotelian Real/ Becoming
  4. Salvation
  5. Platonic Ideal
  6. Greek Hades

McLaren believes that if you read the Bible frontward, from the Hebrew Scriptures leading up to Jesus, you will see a very different story and even a different Jesus. But Christians have been reading it backward. He writes, “When we look backwards to Jesus in this way, we aren’t directly seeing Jesus. We’re seeing Paul’s view of Jesus, and then Augustine’s view of Paul’s view of Jesus..and so on” (36).

To sum up, McLaren believes that the storyline of the bible that has been accepted by most Christians throughout most of our history is severely tainted by Greco-Roman thought. In a later post I will describe how McLaren suggests we read and understand the storyline of the Bible. But in my next post, I will discuss the character of Theos, which is the name given by McLaren to the false God that came out of this false Greco-Roman narrative.

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