An Interview With Brian McLaren by Bill Dahl
An Interview With Brian McLaren by Bill Dahl
If you aren’t familiar with Brian, you can read his bio here or read an excerpt below:
Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, pastor, and networker among innovative Christian leaders, thinkers, and activists. He is a frequent guest on television, radio, and news media programs. He has appeared on many broadcasts including Larry King Live, PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, and ABC News Nightline. 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, and many other print media. He is Chairman of the Board of Sojourners. He is the author of/contributor to a few dozen books.
His most recent book is entitled, A New Kind of Christianity – Ten Questions That Are Transforming The Faith. My review of this book is here. The book is Available on February 9th 2010.
I always enjoy the opportunity (privilege) to pose questions to Brian on a wide range of issues. His most recent book covers ten questions, so I decided to pose him ten of my own. In my opinion, He is one of the most gifted thinkers of our time – and – a really wonderful person. So, here’s a very special interview with a very special man — Brian McLaren…. Enjoy!
Question # 1 - First, how are you, your wife and your family?
McLaren — Grace and I are at a really fun season in life. Our kids are grown which gives us new freedom and a chance to simply enjoy each other’s company in a fresh way after 30 years of marriage and about 29 years of raising kids. On top of that, we’re expecting our first grandchild in June, which is really hard to believe. We leave in a few days for Israel, where we’ll be meeting with people who are working for peace there.
Question # 2 – Throughout the history of religion, even in our contemporary epoch, we hear pundits extolling the onset of the death of religion. I read your forthcoming book back-to-back with The Future of Faith by Harvard’s Harvey Cox. Harvey writes: A religion based on subscribing to mandatory beliefs is no longer viable” (221). “The wind of the Spirit is blowing. One indication is the upheaval that is shaking and renewing Christianity. Faith, rather than beliefs, is once again becoming its defining quality.” You write in A New Kind of Christianity, “I sense the wind of the Spirit of God in these questions, and in them I feel a powerful summons to faith, hope and love.” It seems that you and Harvey are observing the same sort of future. If that’s true, what are three essential changes that we, the people who claim the name of Christ, must adopt to make the realization of this vision a reality?
McLaren – With that quote in mind, the first change that comes to mind would have to be a reappraisal of faith. What I mean by faith is almost impossible to understand for people who are secure and happy in their current beliefs-focused ecclesial setting, at least I know that I would have struggled to see this before my personal struggles back in the 90’s. But there really is a difference between beliefs and faith, and it’s more significant, more profound, and more important than many people realize. There’s a difference between having confidence in a system of beliefs about God and in having naked and direct personal confidence in God. Obviously, there are a million connections and overlaps between the two … which people who are primarily identified with a belief system are quick to point out. So I’m not against beliefs, obviously! This isn’t an either/or kind of thing. But there is a kind of spiritual transformation that occurs when you begin to discover what this deeper more experiential dimension of faith means. My friend Richard Rohr would say that we can probably only see it when we have been opened up either by great pain or great love. And that was the case with me. However it occurs, if we don’t experience a shift from being loyal to a rigid and detailed system of beliefs about God to experiencing, through faith, God’s expansive and profound faithfulness to us … I don’t think we’ll get to far in this quest.
Second, we need to be reoriented around hope. Many of us have been taught a system of belief that includes an eschatology of despair. History is going down, down, down … so in that system you’re poised to feel unfaithful to God and the Bible if you have hope! I believe we need to rediscover what the resurrection teaches us about hope, and to face our lives, our world, and the changes and challenges we face with resurrection-inspired hope.
And finally, there’s love, without which, Paul said, we’re nothing. It’s interesting in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul lists love last, after faith and hope, but then says it’s first in importance. The syntax of that sentence is brilliantly designed, I think, to remind us that love quickly gets taken for granted, but it’s at the center of everything. We keep forgetting that and have to reorient our priorities. Again, many of us are taught to circumscribe our love and limit it to those who share our beliefs, but that, I think, is one of the assumptions (whether it’s stated overtly or felt covertly) that we need to overcome.
There are a lot of other triads that can replace faith, hope, and love. There’s correctness, conformity, and co-belligerence, for example. There’s guilt, fear, and competition. We’re always at risk of losing our grip on these three core treasures. But I find that to the degree they are primary, things change. Things flow. Things grow.
Question # 3 – Ron Cole recently wrote on his blog, a post entitled “Stop it!” In the same vein, you write in your new book (p.87), “It’s amazing what people have cooked up to do to others in the name of God.” How do you stay healthy based upon all the criticism, cynicism and cruelty that is thrown at you by those who claim the name of Jesus?
McLaren — Well, for starters, I try to avoid the blogs and radio broadcasts that are characterized by attack and inquisition. There’s a kind of morbid attraction that they hold, but I find it’s bad for the soul. It seems to feed self-righteousness whether you agree or disagree with what’s being said. But speaking personally, I’d have to say that the positive feedback I receive is something like 100 to 1 over the negative feedback. Take last week, for example. Someone I know said some things about me that, frankly, hurt pretty deep. But then the same day someone told me that if it weren’t for a book I wrote, he wouldn’t be in the pastorate today, and might not even identify as a Christian. So I try not to obsess on the former kind of comment to the exclusion of the latter. It’s easy to dismiss the positive and focus on the negative, you know? That’s wrapped up with all kinds of immaturity about needing to be liked, needing to be perfect – or at least thought perfect!
That doesn’t mean I deny or avoid the criticism, of course. I need to feel the pain, bring it to God, and share it with a close friend or two as well. So much that’s unhealthy about us comes from our reaction to pain – we run from it, get revenge for it, pretend it doesn’t really hurt, whatever. So I think it’s an important part of our spiritual lives to learn – and the cross of Christ images this for us – to let our pain be a point of connection with God. I love what Parker Palmer says. Broken hearts are inevitable to anyone with a heart. The question is how will our hearts break? Will they break into pieces which are projected out like shrapnel to wound those who wounded us – a kind of emotional suicide bombing, if you will? Or will they break open – increasing our humility, our compassion, our empathy, our Christ-likeness?
I always tell people that there’s a prayer that has helped me immensely. People can find it on my website if they search under “prayer for enemies.” That prayer has done my soul immense good, and helped me deal with being called all kinds of names by brothers and sisters in Christ.
Question # 4 – There seems to be some culture folklore that sounds like this from people in North America who are 50 + years old: “It’s time to leave those things to the younger generation.” As it relates to the conversations you identify in your book as the one’s we are having and must have, the questions we must ask — do you believe that 50+ year-old people of faith have a place in initiating those sorts of conversations and providing the courage and leadership amidst faith communities who are avoiding them?
McLaren — What a mess we’re in regarding youth and age. There are so many dimensions to this problem. I think it helps to start by saying that growing older is not optional, but growing wiser is. So we have a lot of people who are 65 but who haven’t matured much – emotionally, intellectually, and so on – since they were 35 or 45. But others go through a transition – an underrated transition, by the way, in terms of its emotional intensity – from being adults to being elders, from being parents to being grandparents. As parents, we need to be in control and I suppose we try to be heroes, and this is appropriate in many ways, although like everything, it can go sour too. Later on, we’ll either try to hold on to parental power and becoming a controlling older adult, or we’ll “graduate” to a different role, the more gentle power of influence, which is what elders display, I think.
To the degree I’m transitioning from a parent/adult into an elder role as a fifty-something, I find that there are things I can and will say to younger people that their parents won’t. And there are things I won’t say that their parents will. And younger people, I think, need both parents and grandparents, adults and elders. So, Bill, I hope that people like you and me can graciously and constructively model this other way of leading, moving from adults to elders. People like yourself, Phyllis Tickle, Wes Roberts, Wes Granberg-Michaelson, Peggy and Tony Campolo, and Pat Kiefert model this eldership for me, along with some personal mentors in my life, and really, my own parents too.
Question # 5 – Regarding President Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech where he put forth the moral argument for war and armed conflict, as well as his recent decision to deploy more troops to Afghanistan —- How do you respond to these actions based upon what you say in your chapter entitled, Is God Violent?
Mclaren -- I wrote two lengthy blog posts on this, which are available on my site. (The first is here - http://www.brianmclaren.net/archives/blog/afghanistan-surge-disappointed-b.html). I try to avoid getting into ideological arguments about pacifism and just war theory; I think the answer lies beyond that polarizations which frequently freeze into non-communication among ideological purists. On the positive side, President Obama rejected the idea of holy war. Thank God for that. It was a little hard to tell whether he was brushing Dr. King’s nobel acceptance speech aside, or implying that it is an ideal he’s moving toward.
The question of the violence of God is, I think, terribly important. If we believe that Jesus images and embodies the fulness of God, and if we don’t neutralize the four gospels by a terrible reading of Revelation 19 (which I address at some length in the book), then I think we have to see God’s character reflected, not in a crusading warrior, but in a crucified savior, a God who works not by the love of power but by the power of love. I hope the book opens more of us up to this important question, because if we see God as violent, then our being violent can be defended – even promoted – as godly.
Question # 6 – The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently came out with a remarkable observation in a recent study they conducted about faith in America. The study basically pointed out: “The religious beliefs and practices of Americans do not fit neatly into conventional categories.” In George Barna’s recent book, The Seven Faith Tribes, The Barna Group research reveals that; “Every person we have interviewed on these matters has held a hybrid worldview — that is, a perspective that combines pieces of two or more worldviews into something that makes sense to that person.” Harvey Cox wrote: “We stand on the beautiful threshold of a new chapter in the Christian story – Christians on five continents are shaking off the residues of the second phase (the Age of Belief) and negotiating a bumpy transition into a fresh era for which a name has not yet been coined. I would like to call it the Age of the Spirit.” — In your opinion, what is the “state of the biblical worldview?”
McLaren — First, very frankly, I don’t think there is such a thing. The Bible was written over many centuries and within a few different cultural systems, and so you can find several different worldviews in the Bible. As a result, what many people actually mean when they say “biblical worldview” – and most are hardly aware of this – is “the Calvinist worldview,” or “the worldview of American civil religion,” or “a Euro-American colonial worldview,” or “an Enlightenment Rationalist/Western White Male Christendom worldview” or “a neoconservative Republican worldview,” or whatever. In other words, there is an enormous amount of unacknowledged interpretation in anything that’s labeled “THE biblical worldview.”
Of course, on a simpler level, what some people mean is “a worldview where we should do right and not wrong.” They’re trying to help people see that there is a secular or hedonistic or nihilistic worldview that needs to be resisted – which is what Paul meant, I think, when he said “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Obviously, I’m all for that! The trick comes when we assume we’ve got that figured out. For too many people espousing a “biblical worldview,” doing right and not wrong includes fearing Muslims, exploiting the environment, putting women in an subordinate position, refusing to listen to the real experiences of gay folks and their loved ones, blaming the poor for being poor, being pro-big-military and pro-big-corporations but against regulating either, and so on.
One of the things I try to propose in the book is that we would be wiser to focus on a dynamic quest rather than on a static system. And the Bible provides us, not with material to write a timeless legal constitution, but priceless resources for the quest. So, I wonder what would happen if we talked about “the biblical quest” instead of “the biblical world view.” The latter implies something we have in hand, and the other, something we’re reaching toward.
Question # 7 – Former President Bill Clinton wrote (in the introduction to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s book), in The Mighty and The Almighty – Reflections on America, God and World Affairs) the following: “Once people acknowledge their common humanity, it becomes more difficult for them to demonize and destroy each other. It is far easier to find principled compromise with one of “us” than one of “them.” Our religious convictions can help us erase the age-old dividing line.” In terms of Part IX in your new book, The Pluralism Question, how has what you’ve suggested provide additional ballast to the quote above?
McLaren – President Clinton’s quote reminds me of a sign I saw at a genocide site in Rwanda. A young girl had said, “If you know me, you will not kill me.” Our religious communities – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, whatever – can teach us to dehumanize the other, to turn the other into a faceless example of a category — one of the infidels, the lost, the superstitious, the unclean, the unsaved, the demonic, whatever. But they can do the opposite too, thank God. I think of the Old Testament … a nonJew named Melchizedek is honored, a nonJew named Rahab, a nonJew named Ruth or Uriah. Each one has a story, a name, and is humanized by the Bible. The same happens with Jesus in the parable of the Good Samaritan. A faceless “other” – part of the “them” that is rejected by “us” – is turned into the hero of a story. And in real life, Jesus responds to a Samaritan woman, a Syrophonecian woman, a Roman centurian, and a Pharisee as a fellow human being. The other isn’t demonized, but rather humanized. When our faith communities teach people to humanize the other – the poor or rich other, the fundamentalist or liberal other, the GED other or the PhD other, the Muslim other or the gay other, the red-state or blue-state other – we are teaching people the first step in being peacemakers.
Question # 8. Harvey Cox shared the following in the Future of Faith: “Faith is resurgent, while dogma is dying. Faith is about deep-seated confidence – vital for the way we live – it is primordial – hope and assurance that translates into the way we live our lives, Belief, according to Cox, is more like opinion – We can believe something to be true without it making much difference to us. Madeleine Albright has written that we have fostered a culture in the U.S. whereby “dogmatic belief is deemed a virtue and open-mindedness a weakness.” How do these two quotes speak toward a few points you are making in Part X entitled, The What Do We Do Now Question?
McLaren - First, I need to say that I’m very sympathetic to the people who will hate this book. Their responses will, no doubt, be completely consistent with their assumptions, including the assumption that we live in a bipolar world, and they’re firmly on the right side of the divide. So there’s Communism and the Free World – two poles. There’s Those With The Terrorists and Those With Us. There’s liberals and conservatives, the good guys and the bad guys, and so on. One of my problems is that I can’t see the world in those simple black-and-white terms like I used to. For example, I actually agree with conservatives that there are real dangers in what is called liberalism. The problem is that I see equal and sometimes greater dangers in conservatism. It goes back to the famous quote from Solzhenitzyn, that the line between good and evil doesn’t run between nations or religions or cultures, but through them all, and through each of us as individuals too.
But here’s where it gets tricky. We can see the problems with dualistic thinking and then create a new dualistic category – those who think dualistically and those who don’t! We can be very black and white about not being black and white. So we need a new approach, a higher or deeper approach, that transcends some of the old ways of thinking without excluding those who think in those ways – and without excluding the good and valuable things that are preserved among them. So we have three options – don’t transcend, transcend and exclude, and transcend and include, and it’s that third option that I’m trying to explore in the book.
Question # 9 – Tom Friedman has written in his most recent book, Hot, Flat and Crowded: “And that is the real energy shortage in America today; a shortage of the energy we need to get serious about a big goal” (p.404). In terms of what you have written, and what you are thinking, in terms of the global communities of faith, what is the “big goal we need to collectively and energetically get serious about?
McLaren — If I were to put it in a word, it would be “love.” I remember Jane Goodall saying something like this: you thought the Age of Reason was good? Imagine what could happen in the Age of Love! If I were to put it in a sentence, it would be: For us as Christians to let Christianity continue to grow and mature. Thinking in terms of all our religions, we could say: to help our traditions repent of their failures and sincerely turn toward God for guidance as to where to go from here.
Question # 10. Symbols speak to us. Is this one pertinent to your book?
McLaren — It’s so relevant, Bill, because as you know, the book is based on a simple observation: Statements create debate that can lead us to a new state (and sometimes create, as a byproduct, hate), while questions create conversations that can lead us on a new quest. So this book is very much about the power of questions, and about seeing our faith less as a tradition we inherited from our ancestors, and more as a quest which both they and we are on … the quest for truth, the quest for beauty and goodness and love, the quest for God … the quest for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
From Bill Dahl – May God Bless you and yours Brian, guide you, inspire you, protect you, grow you — and may he continue to evidence more of himself to you, provide you with the courage to speak the words he deems to be spoken to all those you encounter. We will pray for you throughout 2010, as, in my opinion, this book will take you farther, faster and wider, that your travels ever have before.
Thank you Brian,
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