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Brian McLaren: An Interview

Brian McLaren: An Interview

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)

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,

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,, and many other print media.

He has taught or lectured at many seminaries and has served on a number of boards, including Emergent Village (, Sojourners (, Mars Hill Graduate School (, International Teams (, and Off The Map (, and he is a founding member of Red Letter Christians (

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.

Closing Thoughts:

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.

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About The Author

Ken Mafli

is passionate about Theological Anthropology and has been studying the Bible, humanity, and how we relate to God for over 20 years.

Number of Entries : 53

Comments (19)

  • Jared Says

    Great interview! I must admit, I am having a tough time with saying that it is OK to allow new converts to remain within their old religion. I think that while we should not ask them to forsake friends, family, society, etc; we should encourage them to “come out” of their old way into the “new way” of the Gospel. Just my two cents…

    • Ken Mafli

      Ken Mafli

      OK, Jared, thanks for piping up! While I agree that it is a little unnerving to think about leaving new believers in their old religions – I think what Brian is calling for is a Jesus revolution within all world religions. I am not sure how that would flesh out with the boots on the ground, but as a concept, I like it.

      • Ryan

        That’s kind of the problem, right? Does McLaren offer up any idea of what such a happening would look like? As far as I can tell, it would mean those religions would cease to exist unless we reduce “religion” to the practice of secular ritual only. What would be left for a Hindu who cleanses his house of idols and ceases to make sacrifices? Of a Muslim who can no longer confess the Shahada? Of the “a” when an atheist becomes a theist?

        In other words: I don’t think a reduction of religion is possible, nor are Christians merely called to do good things. We make faith claims in contradiction with the faith claims of other religions, so I don’t see an alternative to a religious conversion that coincides with a new faith.

        • Ken Mafli

          Ken Mafli

          Ryan, thanks for jumping in – you raise some valid points. I personally don’t see how the old religion would tolerate it for long. If a Hindu turned disciple threw away all idols and encouraged others to do the same in preference to the One True God – it would cause no small stir and the young converts would be put out on their ear.

          It does have me thinking. I think my take away (from Generous Orthodoxy) is this: all too often we “colonize” other people with our brand of Christianity when we fail to ask why God allowed other religions to flourish in the first place. For example: while the Greco-Roman culture was pagan to be sure – it also informed early Christianity to such an extent that we still appreciate its effect on us today. And while I will not be bowing to the pantheon of Hindu gods anytime soon – I must ask how their perspectives and understandings can inform my own. We must seek to separate human experience and diversity from falsity. To say that every part of another religion is false is truly throwing the baby out with the bath water.

          • Jason

            I don’t think McLaren is saying that Hindus should throw out their “idols” at all or that Muslims should cease reciting the Quran. First, the range of experience and belief within these religions is as diverse and conflictive as they are within Christianity. For many Hindus, for example, these idols aren’t really worshipped in the same sense that we worship Christ. Rather, they’re representations of different aspects of humanity and the universe that are utilized to provoke reflection. For others, they’re really nothing more than cultural markers. Conceived as such, they don’t really undermine a belief in the One True God (whoever and whatever that is!). At the same time, I don’t think McLaren is saying that Hindus just need to squueze in a little bit of Jesus and a few Christian rituals to be Christian-Hindus or Hindu-Christians or whatever. It’s more about following Christ’s call for transformational love and self-sacrifice, drawing upon whatever aspects of one’s religion that will help one come closer to following that call. Or maybe I’m just projecting on McLaren because that’s what I believe :-)

          • Ken Mafli

            Ken Mafli

            Thanks for the comment. While calling people from other religions to higher levels of transformational love is laudable, it misses, for me, the thrust of the Gospel:
            -that there is a God,
            -He loves us,
            -He wants to be in communion with us,
            -He has made a way for us to be in communion,
            -and He wants those in communion to share in His Character and mission.

          • Jason

            Ken, how does anything I said conflict with anything you said?

          • Ken Mafli

            Ken Mafli

            It seemed to me that your statement cut short of the full thrust of the Gospel. You seemed unsure as to who the “One True God” was and while transformational love is a goal of the Good News, it is predicated upon being in relationship with God first. If these were implied in your statement, consider my statement only a clarification. I appreciate the interchange!

          • Jason

            Ah, I see what you’re saying. You’re right,I am unsure of who exactly the One True God is. As God said to Moses, “You can see my back, but my face cannot be seen.” Or as Paul said, “We see through a glass darkly.” But then the Bible also says that God is love and ANYONE who loves, knows and loves God. The Bible never explicitly says that we’re supposed to have a relationship with God, though that could easily be implied. I think that when we’re striving to love one another, sacrificing and giving in order to build each other up and alleviate suffering, then that’s what it is to be in a relationship with God, no matter what religion we belong to.

          • Ken Mafli

            Ken Mafli

            Yes, I agree that there is great communion with God in sharing with His work. Here is how I, for one, believe that we can know God – it is through His Son. Jesus said in John 14:

            “‘If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him.’ Philip said to Him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father’”

            In John 5, Jesus equates Himself with God when He speaks of doing God’s work:

            “‘My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working.’ For this reason therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God.”

            So since Christ also said, “my food is to do the will of the One who sent me” – I too see great communion with God in fulfilling His work on earth. But I think certainty can be found in the Character, Nature, and Identity of God – it is in Jesus Christ.

  • Two Cents

    ” we can join God in God’s healing work. We must do so humbly, as servants, not as fixers or saviors ourselves.” I just thought this thought was liberating in and of itself. I puts us to the work and Him to figuring out the how and why.

  • Joyce

    Very interesting interview. I have to digest some of it but I think the comment that has generated the most discussion concerns staying in one’s religion while following Jesus. I don’t see this as a conflict or a problem. For example, in Islam Jesus is a prophet and highly respected. I have some personal experience in this area that I’d rather not post publicly here but if someone wants to contact me, we can chat.

    • Ken Mafli

      Ken Mafli

      Joyce, thanks for your perspective. Yes, I agree with you that Islam holds Jesus in high esteem. But to say that He is God is blasphemy in Islamic law. I just have a hard time understanding how a disciple of Christ would be welcomed for long in any faith other than Christianity.

  • Deb

    I think my struggle comes from religion needing to have the “answers.” It seems to me that McLaren has just put a different slant on his “answers.” I find that many contemporary views come from a belief that the Bible was written by men, not necessarily fully inspired by God. This gives the opportunity to pick and choose what we follow.

    I am much more content not to have the answers. To trust God from who He says He is in the Bible. Less of me and more of HIm. I completely agree with our need to be humble servants. I also agree that in many instances the church could do a better job of this. I just think we need to admit that God is far greater than our ability to explain or understand Him. That’s faith.

    • Ken Mafli

      Ken Mafli

      Deb, thanks for the comment! I agree that God is much bigger than we will ever know. Our wildest dreams merely touch the fringes of Who He is. I too was touched by the call to be humble servants. It is something that I constantly have to remind myself of…

  • TJ

    Well, I answer this post humbly, as a person who is still learning and growing in Jesus and learning truth. I don’t have all the answers to all of life’s mysteries, but I know the One who does and the Book He has spoken though and every Christian should be reading and learning in, the Bible. See the Bible is perfect, in every assertion. It can’t be broken and doesn’t just give truth to religious matters as some make claim. It is truth. For instance, man was created, man fell, these things happened in space and time. As Christians, we can’t say, “I hold some parts to be true, but that stuff about creation, well, haha, that is garbage.” Ehh, see that doesn’t work. As well, we can’t believe Jesus was a good moral person, and think we will go to heaven either. It is not how things work, a person has to believe in the Biblical Jesus, the one the Bible presents as the Savior of the world. Now I can’t judge a person’s salvation, but I do know, you can’t believe that Jesus has a biological dad named Larry and go to heaven. So, with that being said, let’s try to take apart some of his points McLaren. I won’t spend time on all of them.

    First off, here is a statements that has made the world make more sense to me. All truth is God’s Truth, and the Bible is absolute truth. If so called truth does not line up with Scripture, for example Darwin’s theory on evolution, well, it is not true. So, to sum that point up, all true truth is God’s. And as Christians we should be concerned with having truth, so we don’t live in lies. Think of this, if a calculator did not provide the right answer every time you use it, would you continue using it? Think about it, if the Bible was not correct in everything it says, why use it for anything?

    Then, being seeker sensitive is not the way to be a Christian, there is no such things as a undercover Christian. We are to be bold about our faith in Christ, why? Because He is the truth. There are some scary Scriptures on denying Jesus, so in referencing the idea that McLaren makes, to say it is okay to stay in one’s religion when he receives Jesus, that is wrong. We come out from them, we separate ourselves from them. We are salt. And Jesus is not a religion, it is a relationship, so when we are saved, Jesus needs to become Lord of all. Lord over our sex life, pryer life, our money, our resources, our time, He is Lord, we don’t pray to other gods, or to people. We don’t mix hindu and Jesus. We follow just Jesus, we come out from the world. So McLaren is wrong in what he says there.

    Understand: McLaren questions have already been answered by God. These are settled issues.

    Then in response to the first question: I would of answered the scientist with a answer that could of help the man understand what God did for man, when he says, ” “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.””

    Now, I have to admit, I did not know or could not remember what penal substitution meant, haha. So, I did look it up. Then, I would of answered the scientist like this, “Well sir, God did not punish any man, He, God Himself came down as that man, Jesus and took the punishment of man. And bore our sins. Because God is the only one who could do it! God was the only one who could fulfill the Law, and bring peace to man. He took our sins on the cross and took our punishment. But again, McLaren’s answer to that first question is a whole bunch of words with no real meaning or point. It is very vague, and again unclear as to what he is saying.

    I think, though not for sure, McLaren is looking for attention with what he says. He get’s reactions. Also reading this conversation, what McLaren says is unclear as to what he is saying and vague, not really letting himself be nailed down.

    Now, I’m not God, I don’t know who is saved or not, I can’t judge. I do know you have to believe in the Biblical Jesus to have salvation. Understand: The Bible has the answers, but not everyone is concerned with the answers to their questions, some just like to ask questions. So, I don’t mean to use this thought harshly, because I love listening to women. But think about this, women like to talk, they don’t necessarily want answers to their problems. So for people like McLaren, the Bible has the answers , if people choose not to accept them, even though they are plain, stop the conversation, there others who need Jesus and will gladly accept Him if they are told. Pray for people like McLaren, but don’t waste time engaging in endless conversation that have answers already. Time can be used more efficiently. Now keep pray for people, and engaging when appropriate, but know time is precious, and people need the life Jesus has for them.


    • TJ

      To clarify where I said this, “I think, though not for sure, McLaren is looking for attention with what he says. He get’s reactions. Also reading this conversation, what McLaren says is unclear as to what he is saying and vague, not really letting himself be nailed down”

      What I mean is McLaren seems to not let himself get nailed down to saying something concrete more often then not in this article, least that is what it appears to be to me. Now there are some definite things he says, but for the most part it seems to be not so solid.


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