Recently, I have been reading through Generous Orthodoxy & A New Kind Of Christianity by Brian McLaren. His piercing insights, fresh takes, and unconventional wisdom forced me to test the solidness of some of my taken-for-granted doctrines. I reached out to him to ask a few questions. He graciously consented to an interview.
Brian can be a polarizing figure in contemporary Christianity. His “no stones unturned” approach to theology have ruffled many feathers as he seeks to follow Jesus. And while you may disagree with him, the frankness of his approach is refreshing. So follow along on this short interview and engage McLaren’s approach to Christianity, the Bible, and the Good News.
(click in the bar below to read a little more about Brian McLaren)
Below is a condensed excerpt from his website:
Brian D. McLaren is an acclaimed author, speaker, and theologian. Brian has been active in networking and mentoring church planters and pastors, a popular conference speaker and a frequent guest lecturer, but is primarily known as a thinker and writer. His first book, The Church on the Other Side: Doing Ministry in the Postmodern Matrix, has been recognized as a primary portal into the current conversation about postmodern ministry. His second book, Finding Faith, is a contemporary apologetic, written for thoughtful seekers and skeptics. (It was later re-released as two short books, “A Search for What Makes Sense” and “A Search for What is Real.”) “More Ready Than You Realize” presents a refreshing approach to spiritual friendship. “Adventures in Missing the Point” explores theological reform in a postmodern context. “A Generous Orthodoxy“, is a personal confession and has been called a “manifesto of the emerging church conversation.” In “A New Kind of Christianity,” Brian articulated ten questions that are central to the emergence of a postmodern, post-colonial Christian faith. His 2011 HarperOne release, “Naked Spirituality,” offers “simple, doable, and durable” practices to help people deepen their life with God.
Brian’s books have been translated into many languages, including Korean, Chinese, French, Swedish, Norwegian, German, and Spanish. He has written for or contributed interviews to many periodicals, including Leadership, Sojourners, Tikkun, Worship Leader, and Conversations. He is an active and popular blogger, a musician, and a songwriter, offering a variety of resources through his website, www.brianmclaren.net.
A frequent guest on television, radio, and news media programs, he has appeared on All Things Considered, Larry King Live, Nightline, and Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. His work has also been covered in Time (where he was listed as one of American’s 25 most influential evangelicals), Christianity Today, Christian Century, the Washington Post, Huffington Post, CNN.com, and many other print media.
He has taught or lectured at many seminaries and has served on a number of boards, including Emergent Village (emergentvillage.com), Sojourners (sojo.net), Mars Hill Graduate School (mhgs.edu), International Teams (iteams.org), and Off The Map (off-the-map.org), and he is a founding member of Red Letter Christians (redletterchristians.org).
Brian is married to Grace, and they have four adult children. His personal interests include wildlife, ecology, fishing, hiking, music, art, and literature.
An Interview with Brian McLaren
Q:In your book, “A New Kind Of Christianity,” you describe how, while a pastor, people would come to you and ask “good questions” that eventually unraveled your set doctrines. Can you tell us one that stuck with you and how it informed your reassembled beliefs? How did you make sense of this “unraveling?” Why was it OK that your belief structure evolved?
A:I remember one important visit from – literally – a rocket scientist. (Our church was near NASA headquarters, so they were quite common.) “I was an atheist when I came here,” he said. “Now I believe in God, so that’s progress, I guess. But what you say about Jesus’ death being a sacrifice for our sins doesn’t make sense to me. How could God punish an innocent person? Doesn’t that make God unjust? How can two wrongs – human sin plus God’s unjust punishment of an innocent man – produce a right? I’m not trying to be difficult – it’s just that this sounds highly implausible and morally suspect to me.”
When he left, I pulled all of my books on atonement off the shelf and dug in, trying to find a good response. I quickly realized that the answers they offered to my friend’s question didn’t satisfy me either. I wish I could say that his question prompted me to rethink my atonement theology starting that day, but it took a comment from one of my mentors a while later to really do that. He said, “If your only theory of atonement is penal substitution, you’d better do some rethinking.” That was a huge blow to me, because my entire theology centered on penal substitutionary atonement. I had been led to believe that without penal substitutionary atonement theory, Jesus was worthless and the Christian faith a waste of time. I found the very opposite to be true – my love for the gospel has grown immeasurably since discovering that the gospel is quite different from what I had been taught.
Of course this was scary to me. But I remained thoroughly Evangelical in the sense that I continually “searched the Scriptures to see if these things were so.” And the fact was, the way my inherited systematic tried to patch together and emphasize some verses and explain away or marginalize others had bothered me for years. So I was determined not to accept any “solutions” that didn’t reveal greater coherence in the Scriptures than the systematic theology I inherited. That has been the case in ways that go beyond what I could have imagined back in the 1990’s when my theological deconstruction began.
Q:How would you describe the “narrative flow” of the Bible and how can the Church help mold the future of the planet using it’s trajectory? How should we add our voice to the problems that humanity is facing now?
A:I was raised in a narrative that had six parts. It went like this: 1. perfect creation, 2. ontological fall, 3. fallen history, 4. atonement, 5. salvation in heaven or 6. condemnation to hell. In this telling, #2 ends #1, #3 doesn’t have much significance, and #6 will be the fate of nearly everyone. It’s not great news if you’re not one of the few who ends up being included in #5 for an afterlife in #6. Now I’d see the narrative being less linear and more spatial, if you will. In other words, instead of revealing a single two-dimensional storyline, I think the Bible reveals a 3-plus dimensions story space in which millions of stories – good and bad – can unfold, interact, and resolve. The dimensions of this story begin with creation (this is God’s world in the making). Then there’s liberation (God responds to human evil by graciously working for our freedom and restoration – which point to what the word “salvation” originally meant). Then there’s reconciliation (God brings all things into new harmony in Christ). Christ is central to all three dimensions.
So here we are in a world where human beings are feverishly busy destroying creation, plotting one another’s downfall, and creating systems that oppress or exclude the majority. That’s pretty serious! But if we believe God is with us, among us, within us, always working to create, liberate, and reconcile, we can join God in God’s healing work. We must do so humbly, as servants, not as fixers or saviors ourselves.
Q:In your book, “Generous Orthodoxy”, you assert that new converts of Jesus that are from different religions should remain in their perspective religions. What advantage is there to having them remain? Doesn’t that fly in the face of early church tradition of the conversion process?
A:– First, a large percentage of the problems in the world are caused by people like you and me who bear the Christian label – simply because a) we’re the largest religion with about a third of the world’s population, b) we have the most weapons, which makes us the most dangerous, and c) we have the most wealth, which makes us the most responsible for how we use what we’ve been given. So I would first of all hope that people who are from the Christian religion who actually begin to follow Jesus – the two aren’t synonymous – would stay Christian and help steer the Christian faith more toward Jesus and his good news of the commonwealth of God. Second, I’m not against people changing religions. I believe in freedom of religion. Third, I believe that when Jesus spoke of the gospel being sown as a seed around the world, he meant that this seed would grow and take root not just in one religion, but in all religions. So the world’s second largest religion, Islam – with about 24% of the world’s population, would benefit from more deeply discovering and following the good news of Jesus. And I think that message can also bring great blessings to Hindus, the world’s third largest religion with 17%. Right around the same size as Hinduism are the nonreligious – and they too can be a fertile field for the good news of Jesus.
For me, it’s not that God likes one field and hates the others and requires soil to jump to the other side of a fence before it can be fertile. The field is the whole world, and God’s good seed can be planted everywhere, resulting in a harvest of peace, reconciliation, and generosity.
Q:What can the Church do, in your estimation, to establish itself as the world-wide leader and champion of peace, justice, and hope?
A:– This is exactly the question that motivated me for many years, most of my life really. If Christianity were the leader, then people would want to join us, I thought. This would honor God and benefit people.
But now I think it’s the wrong question. Those who want to be first will be last, Jesus said. Greatness doesn’t come from seeking greatness, but from service, self-giving, suffering. So … the church should definitely not seek to establish itself as the world-wide leader and champion of anything. Instead, Christians and churches should follow Jesus, who didn’t grasp at greatness, but instead poured himself out for others, descending into service, self-giving, and suffering.
There’s a huge difference between seeking peace, justice, and hope – which I think we should do – and seeking to be seen as the leader in seeking peace, justice, and hope. One is the way of the kingdom of God … the other is the way of the kingdoms of this world, whose leaders, Jesus said, call themselves benefactors to others when really they’re just seeking dominance over others. When we seek peace, justice, and hope, we’ll begin as Jesus did … with the most marginalized, the most forgotten, the most misunderstood, the most vulnerable. Our solidarity with them will require us to confront the powerful. That is never easy or without cost. But it is the way of the cross.
My thanks for Brian McLaren for talking with us today. It is always a pleasure to engage such a sharp mind. Hopefully this short interchange has given you something to wrestle with. Agree or disagree – give me your thoughts and let’s keep the conversation going.