The holiest week on the Christian calendar is nearly upon us. Next week, believers reflect on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. This year, there's something of a dustup among evangelicals, over core beliefs about who Jesus was and whether he is the only way to salvation. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Recently, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Louisville, convened a school-wide event to talk about a new book by a popular evangelical Christian. It wasn't pretty. Southern Baptists theologian Jim Hamilton summed up the book this way.
Dr. JIM HAMILTON (Theologian): It is the new kind of Christianity that is no Christianity at all.
HAGERTY: Then, theologian Bruce Ware chipped in.
Dr. BRUCE WARE (Theologian): You know, I thought of Brian McLaren, for years, as a wolf in sheep's clothings, but I think in this book, he took the sheep's clothing off.
HAGERTY: Who is Brian McLaren, and what has he done to make these people so angry? Well, McLaren is considered one of the country's most influential evangelicals, and his new book, "A New Kind of Christianity," takes aim at some core doctrinal beliefs. McLaren is rethinking Jesus' mission on Earth, and even the purpose of the crucifixion.
Dr. BRIAN MCLAREN (Author, speaker, pastor): 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.
HAGERTY: McLaren believes that version of God is a misreading of the Bible.
Dr. MCLAREN: 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.
HAGERTY: McLaren says modern evangelicalism underplays that Jesus, who spent most of his time with the poor, the sick and the sinners, and saved his wrath primarily for hard-core religious leaders.
That's like a shot to heart of Christian beliefs says Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Dr. AL MOHLER (President, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary: Did Jesus go to the cross as a mere victim? If so, 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, then that's a very interesting chapter in human history, but I'm not going to stake my life on it, much less my hope for eternity.
HAGERTY: Mohler says McLaren and others like him are trying to rewrite the Christian story. And what alarms him is that young believers are attracted to this message.
That's absolutely right, says Brian McLaren. Take the core evangelical belief that only Christians are going to heaven and everyone else is doomed.
Dr. MCLAREN: A young evangelical, Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant growing up in America today, if he goes to college, his roommate might be Hindu. His roommate might be Muslim. His roommate might be Buddhist or atheist. So, suddenly the other is sleeping across the room.
HAGERTY: Brian McLaren is on to something here, says David Campbell, a professor at Notre Dame and co-author of American Grace: The Changing Role of Religion in America. His survey showed that nearly two-thirds of evangelicals under 35 believe that non-Christians can go to heaven, but only 39 percent of those over age 65 believe that. That's because young evangelicals have grown up in a religiously plural society, Campbell says.
Professor DAVID CAMPBELL (Co-author of American Grace: The Changing Role of Religion): And, it's really hard to condemn someone to eternal damnation on the basis of their religion when you know them well and have come to love them.
HAGERTY: Surveys by Campbell and others show that young evangelicals differ from their elders in a lot of ways. They are less likely to read the Bible or take it literally. They pray and go to church less often. And they're more open to say, evolution and gay rights.
Al Mohler says he saddened by all of this, but he's not surprised that young people buy Brian McLaren's version of Christianity.
Dr. MOHLER: I'm sure he's tapping into an exhaustion, a fatigue, a sense of wanting to be culturally relevant, a sense of not wanting to standout from one's peers and neighbors. I certainly understand that. I just believe that the cost of following that route is literally the abandonment of historic biblical Christianity.
HAGERTY: Mohler is determined to nip any such trend in the bud. But if Brian McLaren and surveys of young people are any guide, there seems to be an appetite for a different sort of evangelical Christianity.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.
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