Between Mixed Martial Arts and the “L” Word: An Interview with Brian McLaren
Brian McLaren has been asking important questions about Christian practice for decades, stirring needed debate within the world of evangelicalism and beyond. His newest book, A New Kind of Christianity, continues McLaren’s project of assessing and reassessing our assumptions concerning the foundations of modern Christian practice by asking ten important questions about the pillars of the Christian faith: narrative, authority, God, Jesus, gospel, church, sex, future, pluralism, and what-we-do-now. In this interview, McLaren discusses various responses to his book and continues the conversation about Christian faith that has characterized his work and ministry.
The Other Journal (TOJ): In A New Kind of Christianity you talk about ten questions that are changing Christianity, and you invite readers into a renewed understanding of narrative, scripture, Jesus, eschatology, sex, and so on. I would like to begin our interview by acknowledging a dynamic that you outline at the beginning of your book and that is that some people are very upset with you for asking questions about what they take to be orthodoxy whereas other people are very relieved and grateful for your asking of these questions. Now, having engaged in conversations around your book for four months or so, have you seen similar types of responses to this book? What has been different and similar about the responses to A New Kind of Christianity as compared to your other well-known books?1
Brian McLaren (BM): As for your last question, the response has been similar and predictable. Perhaps the positives have been more positive and the negatives a bit more negative, but there haven’t been any surprises. People generally stick to their scripts.
Some folks have been very happy to ask questions about our methodology in theology, but when others of us ask questions about the theology itself—especially certain “untouchables”—these folks get really nervous, even hostile. But the fact is, our methodology and our theology are far more interwoven than many of us have thus far realized. Our problems aren’t simply stylistic or methodological: they have theological roots, and it’s time for us to deal with them.
Now I understand why some folks don’t want to go into disputed territory, even though on some deep level they know it’s necessary. They realize that if they even crack open the door to some needed conversations, they’ll be blacklisted from the communities they seek to influence. Their situation is like Peter’s in Galatians: they don’t want to offend the inner circle of evangelical gatekeepers, because once they’re cut off, they will lose the chance to bring along people who currently trust them. I respect this, because I think these folks are positive influences, and I’d be sad for the more conservative Christians to lose their positive influence. These folks are in a touchy situation, and I’ve been there myself, so I feel a lot of empathy for them.
I wouldn’t be surprised if ten years down the road, many of these folks will be active participants in the very conversations they’re now critiquing.
TOJ: In a review of your book by Scot McKnight online at Christianity Today, he dismisses your book with the phrase, “Unfortunately, this book lacks the ‘generosity’ of genuine orthodoxy and, frankly, I find little space in it for orthodoxy itself.” McKnight reiterates a critique many have of the emergent movement by collapsing it into a “been there, done that” dismissal, that is, saying that the emergent movement is in many ways a repeat of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century liberal Protestant responses to or collusions with modernity, which made the faith anemic.2 What was your reaction to McKnight’s review (who I believe is an old friend of yours)? And what do you make of his critique that your project, particularly your reading of scripture as evolving in its view of God, is a rehashing of failed theological movements that are heterodox?
BM: Scot, to his great credit, remains friendly toward me, even as he holds these rather harsh critiques, and of course, I like Scot and am so glad his voice is heard and respected in “E”vangelical circles, where he is light-years ahead of so many of his fellows. We have talked at some length about the interchange, and Scot’s response fascinated me on several levels. For example, Scot seemed in the review to elevate creeds to or above the level of Scripture: when he says to be orthodox is to see everything through the light of the creeds, I assume that means Scripture itself. That’s quite a statement for an evangelical to make, but I think Scot represents a growing number of scholars who see that as the way to go.
Personally, I liked Scot’s position in The Jesus Creed much better. That’s the creed that I’d want to emphasize.3
As for the “L” word, I think one of the best ways to prove your evangelical credentials is to follow a certain narrative that stereotypes, trivializes, and vilifies those liberal mainline Protestants. As I’ve gotten to know a lot of well-known so-called liberals—from Walter Brueggemann to Marcus Borg to Rita Brock and many others—I’ve had to conclude that much of the narrative I was taught about liberalism is in fact little more than prejudice. Of course there are areas of disagreement between evangelicals and traditional Protestants, but both evangelicals and liberals, whatever these terms may mean, tend to compare their own best to their antagonists’ worst, and neither side is as homogenous or as bad as the other side thinks. So even if I were a classic liberal Protestant, I would no longer take this as the insult or epithet I know many evangelicals intend it to be.
For example, did liberal Protestantism in fact make the faith anemic, or is that simply a prejudiced narrative? Was Dr. King’s faith anemic? Desmond Tutu’s? Walter Rauschenbusch’s? The brave liberals who first stood up for civil rights, for women’s equality, for the destigmatization of gay people; who first stood up against unjust wars, against the plundering of the environment, against carelessness toward the poor, against a mindless rejection of science? Evangelicals tend to come to these disputes thirty years too late and see themselves as heroes, but I think you could make a case that liberals have been the courageous thought leaders and ethical pioneers in American Christian faith over the last century. (Of course, that’s more the narrative that some liberals tell about themselves, as they portray evangelicals with their own dismissive narrative.)
Meanwhile, there no doubt has been an insipid, comfortable, smug institutionalism among many liberal Protestants. That has been deadening, as pride always is. But I’m not sure it’s any worse than the smug political maneuverings of the Religious Right, the crazy manipulations of some televangelists, or the biblical and political insanity of Christian Zionism, of which evangelical gatekeepers have been remarkably tolerant, since these manifestations aren’t “liberal.”
I suspect that under the surface, Scot shares many of the questions I have raised, and he and I are both trying to grapple with them in our own ways. But our differences may stem from the fact that we are called to two different audiences. Scot speaks within the evangelical heartland: in a seminary in the Midwest, to young people coming up from evangelical churches who love evangelicalism and want to make it work. I think he will help those people a great deal—more than I will, at least in the short run. To do that, he must not transgress evangelical boundary lines; he must speak the mother tongue in the correct accent, using the accepted vocabulary. Critiquing “liberals” as the other is part of that. Scot is good at bringing people along in good directions within those parameters, and I hope he keeps up the good work because it’s greatly needed, and it takes great talent and gift to do it.
I speak more to people at the margins, to people young and old for whom evangelicalism stopped working, to seekers trying to come into the faith but finding huge obstacles in the Christian subculture, to pastors who need safe space to think and put everything on the line, to the spiritual but not religious, and so on. I also speak to a lot of mainline folk who want to receive the gifts and perspectives I bring as a guy with evangelical, charismatic, reformed, and contemplative experience. This requires me to leave some of my evangelical language and accent behind. So perhaps Scot and I are both, in our own settings, following Paul’s example of becoming all things to all people. He has to critique my work to be faithful to his community, and I have to expose myself to that critique to be faithful to mine.
TOJ: In your chapter on Jesus, you critique Mark Driscoll, though you don’t name him by name, and his now infamous quotes on Jesus-as-pride-fighter in Relevant Magazine.4 In a related phenomenon, I recently read that ultimate fighting ministries are cropping up in churches across the country, and one popular T-shirt that is now on sale says, “Jesus Didn’t Tap Out,” meaning he took his beating like a man. How did we get from the Jesus of the gospels to T-shirts portraying Jesus as a MMA fighter? What is behind our impulse to make Jesus into an action hero? And how is this related to our views of justice?
BM: Just the other day, I saw a guy with a T-shirt with a big handgun on the front. Above the gun, it said, “Protect Your Second Amendment Rights,” and under it, it had a reference from the Gospel of Matthew. I was stunned. Quoting Matthew to defend the right to bear arms—when Matthew features a man who died on a cross? The fact is, we can take Jesus and use him for anything—to sell indulgences in the medieval Catholic Church, to justify racism in U.S. and South African history, to justify hatred of Jews, Muslims, gays . . . In many ways, the Christian religion has, up until now, too often failed to lift God above the level of a tribal deity. God becomes the God of the Romans, the God of the Francs, the God of the Anglos and Saxons, the God of the English or the Spanish or the United States, the God of Capitalism and Free Markets or Planned Economies, the God of the South, whatever.
We’re still struggling to see what Jesus saw, what Peter and Paul saw: that God is not a respecter of persons, that God loves the Samaritan and Syrophoenician woman as much as the pious Jewish Pharisee, that God loves Cornelius and the Ethiopian eunuch as much as the Galilean underclass and the Judean elite, that God is the God of all creation, not just this or that nation or tribe or religious enclave within it. If we can cross that boundary, we will have a new kind of Christianity. That’s an amazing thing to imagine.
TOJ: Having the theological imagination to see that God is a lover of all persons (in a way that is more than just lip service) is an amazing thing, but for many people that may also be a threat to their Christian identity in that it recontextualizes difference and recontextualizes who and what the enemy is. How do you understand what or who our true enemy is as Christians? And how might we transition to adopting such an understanding given this fixation on an enemy that grounds identity to things like liberalism, conservatism, activist judges, feminists, male chauvinists, et cetera?
BM: What a great question. First, let me say something on Christian identity. Right now I think we have two unacceptable options. On one extreme, there’s a strong Christian identity that defines itself as an antagonist toward other faiths. It says, in essence, “We will convert you if we can, and if we can’t, we will resist you and limit your influence. In any case, we will outlast you. Resistance is ultimately futile—you will either be assimilated or punished for failing to convert. For us to thrive, you cannot thrive.” It’s not said that overtly, but I think this is the underlying assumption that motivates a lot of the public behavior we’re seeing today.
On the other extreme, there’s a weak Christian identity that reacts against the first one and says, “Oh, whatever you believe is fine. All beliefs are good. One religion is as good as another.” If the former approach threatens the existence of other people, this one threatens the existence of Christian faith, because it doesn’t offer a good reason to take the faith seriously. Of course, on the line between these extremes, there are any number of variations.
But I think we need a third option, an “above the line” option, so to speak. That option is a strong Christian identity that says something like this: “Because I follow Jesus, I see you as my neighbor and I love you, as I love myself, whatever your religion. Because I follow Jesus, I believe God loves you and accepts you just as you are. Because I follow Jesus, I believe that the Holy Spirit is active throughout the world and that the light of Christ has already shined on you and is at work in and around you. Because I follow Jesus, I believe that God has a special concern for the marginalized and the weak, and so I refuse to use a position of privilege, especially as a member of the world’s largest, richest, and most heavily armed religion, to harm you. In fact, I want to be your servant, your friend, and your neighbor—to love you as God in Christ has loved me.” That, to me, is a very strong identity; it gives me a good reason to be a Christian, and it promises blessing to others, not a threat.
On the enemy question, I immediately think of those words in 1 Peter about being on guard against lusts which wage war against the soul. Then I think of Paul’s words about not being anxious, but rather letting the peace of God be the border guard to keep our hearts secure. Then I think about his words about our warfare not being against flesh and blood, not being waged with “carnal” weapons. Then I think of Jesus talking about the plank in our own eyes. So I’d propose something like this:
Our enemy is sin—pride, lust, fear, greed, hate, and so on. Sin exists on an individual level and on a social level. People become controlled by individual sin, as in addiction, and by social sin, as in ideologies of hate and fear. My job is always to deal with the personal and social sin–planks in my life—and the life of “us,” whatever that “us” may be—before worrying about the sin-splinters in the lives of others.
Of course, that’s the opposite of what’s happening in so much of our political and religious lives these days. We are scapegoating left and right—immigrants, Muslims, liberals, conservatives, and so on. We really need to grapple with this question of our enemy, so I’m glad you raised it.
The fact that many sectors of the Christian faith can’t function without an enemy du jour suggests how little of Jesus’s actual message we have internalized, not to mention Paul’s. Jesus doesn’t tell us to pretend we have no enemies. Human life involves friction at times, and all the more when we try to stand for justice and compassion in his name. He does say (a) that if we are tempted to posture ourselves as someone else’s enemy, we must go and seek reconciliation, and (b) if someone postures themselves as our enemy, we should do good to them, pray for them, and never return evil for evil to them. Paul says that we don’t fight against flesh and blood. Our enemies are spiritual forces, which some think of as demons and others think of more as ideologies (like Nazism or consumerism or nationalism or racism) that enter and control people so they behave in demonic ways.
In that way, the racist—or fundamentalist, or liberal, or whatever—isn’t my enemy: the racist (etc.) is a victim who has been deceived, possessed, and oppressed by an anti-compassion, anti-justice, dehumanizing ideology or spirit. My posture toward that person isn’t to attack or try to conquer them, but rather to love, to seek to understand, to seek to liberate that person from captivity, and to lovingly speak the truth to that person, always with humility, gentleness, and respect, even if it means I will need to suffer for doing so. That isn’t always easy, but I think it’s the way of the Spirit rather than the way of the flesh, to again use Paul’s terms.
What the person needs in contemporary terms is a paradigm shift. The ancient biblical word for it is “conversion” or “repentance”—metanoia: a change of mind and heart.
TOJ: Circling back to men’s action sports, there are a glut of ministries and materials that are concerned with articulating masculinity, or recovering masculinity in an emasculated culture. Why is there a crisis of masculinity in America, and how might the church engage this issue by not just developing men’s ministries that look to copy popular men’s hobbies?
BM: I think my friend Richard Rohr is right on this: there is a crisis in masculinity. But sadly in many quarters, the diagnoses and prescriptions being offered often make things worse. In some religious circles, you hear a lot of people suggest that the remedy for the crisis in masculinity is to get men to be more bold, dominant, combative, or aggressive. They often use warrior language and imagery to convey their ideal image of manhood, thinking that just because it’s in the Bible, it must be good. And of course, they sometimes caricature anyone who disagrees with them as being effeminate, gay, weak, and so on.
The secularized version of this would highlight sexual dominance rather than religious dominance, but interestingly, both versions require women to assume a subservient, de-voiced position, and both versions lean toward being hawkish when it comes to war. Doves—with no apologies to the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus—seem wimpy to them.
As Richard explains, in ancient cultures, there was often a rite of passage that marked a boy’s passage into manhood. There were several essential dimensions to these rites of passage, often focusing on fear, competition, and sexuality. In each case, the goal wasn’t simply to say fear is bad, or competition is good, or sex is bad. That’s the sort of immature, dualistic, black-and-white thinking that is very common in both contemporary fundamentalism and liberalism. Ancient people were in some ways far more advanced or nuanced in their thinking in this regard. They understood that fear has a place: it keeps you from taking foolhardy risks. But there are times when fear has to be overcome with courage. So we limit our fear by wisdom on the one side and courage on the other; we don’t let it control us. Similarly, with competition and sex. A good rite of passage would help young men learn wisdom and self-control in relation to competition and sexuality, which, like fire in a hearth, have their place, but otherwise can become destructive.
It strikes me that fear, competition, and sexuality are key issues in today’s world as well, to which we might add issues of money, consumption, and time management.
This requires elders who have made the journey to mature manhood themselves. Sadly though, many of our leaders haven’t gone terribly far in that journey yet. Leaders and the communities they lead can enter into a kind of unwritten contract that perpetuates adolescence in leaders and dependence in followers. That’s why I’m so grateful to people like Richard who are challenging us to think more deeply about what mature masculinity and femininity are about.
I should add that in the long run, manhood and womanhood have to be considered together, I think, since neither reflects the image of God without the other. I wouldn’t trust a group of men to talk about manhood or womanhood without women at the table as equal partners, and vice versa. Idealized forms of masculinity or femininity in isolation from one another easily become idols now as they have throughout history, recalling Baal and Asherah. Cultures, including Christian subcultures, can easily idolize a disconnected masculinity or femininity, and the results are not healthy.
TOJ: Let’s talk about sex. I was struck by your aside extricating the challenges to marriage in modern culture in part seven of A New Kind of Christianity, “The Sex Question.” You very succinctly outlined why marriage is in crisis: higher dependence on dual incomes, earlier puberty/later marriages, abstinence education only delaying the loss of virginity on average a year and a half, higher rates of sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancy with teens taught only abstinence. I have a question, then, about process. How do we stay reverent about important aspects of the Christian life, in this case about marriage and fidelity, while being open to change and movement?
BM: I’m interested in your choice of the word reverent. This brings up one of our perpetual struggles about sexuality—exactly the kind of balance a good rite of passage would try to teach, by the way. Sometimes sex loses its reverence and becomes—I won’t use the most vivid word, but let’s just say “coupling” or “hooking up.”
But sometimes we are so reverent about sex that we won’t talk openly about it at all, which is harmful in an equal and opposite way. The result is that millions die of HIV/AIDS, but church leaders are afraid to say “condom,” or domestic violence goes on in secret, but church leaders won’t talk about it, or men are obsessed with guilt about masturbation, but they can’t talk openly about it unless they’re confessing it as a sin.
In between irreverence and excessive or dysfunctional reverence is a healthy reverence. And we don’t have much practice dealing with sex in that way. Here’s what I think we’re going to have to do to get a feel for what this healthy reverence feels like: create private safe spaces where open conversation can take place, where people can think out loud together, with the security of knowing that somebody won’t quote (or misquote) them in a blog tomorrow morning. After thousands of these small, private, safe conversations take place, I think we’ll have a better sense of what needs to be said in more public arenas. We’ll have practiced an open and reverent way of dealing with our sexuality—getting it out of the shadows of secrecy, but doing so with, as you say, reverence. We’ve got a long way to go on this, but thankfully, it’s already begun quietly among many circles of pastors, youth workers, scholars, clinicians, and so on.
TOJ: Your question about my use of the word reverence points to a harsh reality of our cultural discourse in which we cannot talk openly about deep convictions without—and here I’m thinking of your chapter on pluralism in A New Kind of Christianity—fear, paranoia, and demonizing the other. Spreading the gospel probably means, then, being a people who dialogue in ways that don’t model our highly polarized and acerbic political discourse. Are Christians actually doing this? Where do you see communities who are glimpses of light in this regard, who dialogue otherwise?
BM: The good news is that for every fire-breathing radio personality, there are thousands of good Christian people who are practicing love for neighbor. They’re putting love into action, which is even more important than words. I also know there are thousands of people practicing civil discourse, but they don’t get much media coverage, you know? It’s just not news to say, “A church and a mosque had a joint 9-11 memorial service where they ate a meal together, shared stories of peace from their sacred texts, and prayed for peace.” What happens instead is that somebody promises to burn Qurans and he becomes a media celebrity. Sheesh.
TOJ: You note in A New Kind of Christianity that evangelism should not be collapsed into saving souls from “a bad ending in a sort of Greco-Roman” narrative. As you know, there are thousands of Christian church and parachurch ministries trying to win the world for Christ, which for many does carry a warfare metaphor. This fall in South Africa a significant conference, the third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization,5 will take place to talk about “confronting critical issues of our time” such as pluralism, poverty, and HIV/AIDS. What does evangelism mean in the context of A New Kind of Christianity and what are the similarities and differences when contrasted to the Lausanne project?
BM: Well, first, on the level of person-to-person faith sharing, I wrote a book on this subject called More Ready than You Realize. But I think there’s another sense of evangelism that is often underrated. That’s proclaiming and demonstrating the kingdom of God in the public sphere. To some degree, I deal with this in The Secret Message of Jesus.6 I think The Other Journal is doing evangelism in this latter sense: when you open up matters of faith in a charitable and open spirit, you’re inviting people to explore what it means to be in relationship with God in today’s world.
I was a big fan of the Lausanne Covenant back in 1974, but I’m not as familiar with what’s planned for this year’s gathering in South Africa. Confronting poverty and HIV, that sounds great, but I worry that confronting pluralism may engender some of the Christian identity problems we talked about earlier, especially if raising theological questions about the meaning of the gospel are kept off the table. If by confronting pluralism they mean, “We need to think, rethink, and seek to understand what it means to live with people of many religions in a postcolonial world,” that will be great.
TOJ: Perhaps closely related to the evangelism question is an issue that looms on the psyche of many evangelical Christians, which is simply taking evil seriously—there are so many bad things happening that we need to be aware of and to work tirelessly against. How might a new kind of Christianity reframe our common understandings of evil, and how we are to fight against it?
BM: The first question of the ten that I raise in the book is about the biblical narrative. In what I call the six-line narrative, the primary goal is to escape the punishment we deserve for sin. But in the alternative narrative space that I propose, the primary goal is to actually overcome evil with good. It doesn’t reduce sin to a legal problem; it grapples with sin and evil in a multidimensional way. As I said earlier: there are personal and social dimensions, but there are also cultural, economic, ecological, political, educational, familial, artistic, and other dimensions too.
TOJ: In your conclusion to A New Kind of Christianity you encourage like-minded Christians to theologically come out. You write, “As we near the five hundredth anniversary of the day when Martin Luther came out of the closet, so that all would know what he had been thinking in secret, it is time, I propose, to reinvigorate the dialogue by having many of us come out of our closets and admit we have been asking these and other important questions in secret.” As we conclude this interview, could you talk a little bit about this movement you see developing on the horizon? And what challenge would you like to leave the TOJ reader with as we end?
BM: I believe that in each religion—starting with Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—there are ugly forces at work. Violent forces, fearful forces, truly dangerous forces. As Paul said, they often are disguised as angels of light, and they seem right to adherents, but in the end, they lead to death.
As those ugly forces become more obvious, more and more of us wake up and see the need for an alternative. So in the Christian faith, here’s where I hope that awakening will happen and grow: I hope that among progressive evangelicals and post-evangelicals, there will be a movement away from the kind of right-wing xenophobia and militarism that have been growing lately. I hope that among progressive Catholics, there will be a similar movement—whether or not the Roman centers of power approve of it—reclaiming the whole range of Catholic teaching and resisting its reduction to anti-abortion and anti-gay-marriage. I hope that among mainline Protestants, there will be a spiritual awakening and renewal that rediscovers Christian faith as a dynamic revolution, not merely a staid and procedure-bound institution. I hope that among Eastern Orthodox, there will be a willingness to acknowledge the rest of us as their brothers and sisters. And I hope that among Pentecostals, there will be a bigger and even more dynamic understanding of the Holy Spirit, realizing that the Spirit was active long before human beings were present and that the Spirit can’t be contained by any one group. I imagine that these different movements could emerge from their respective communities and converge into something really exciting.
Meanwhile, I hope that the Holy Spirit will graciously continue to inspire and build parallel movements in Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and so on. I’ve been in conversation among Muslims and Jews in recent years who convince me that this is already happening. At the end of the day, the Christian religion doesn’t own Jesus. God gave Jesus to the whole world. And the Christian religion doesn’t own the Holy Spirit—the Spirit was around and working long before any religion came into existence. And the Christian religion doesn’t own God the Father either. As in Jesus and Paul’s day, it may be that the religious-industrial complex is one of the biggest resisters to the wind of the Spirit. So I suppose what I hope is that we decenter religion and recenter the Creator. That’s not something we have to wait for somebody else to do: that’s something that can begin in each of us, right now.
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1. Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2010).
2. Scot McKnight, “Review: Brian McLaren’s ‘A New Kind of Christianity,’Christianity Today, Books, February 26, 2010,http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/march/3.59.html.
3. Scot McKnight, The Jesus Creed (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2004).
4. 7 Big Questions: Seven Questions On Where The Church Is Heading.Relevant Magazine, Issue 24, Jan/Feb 2007. http://web.archive.org/web/20071013102203/http://relevantmagazine.com/god_article.php?id=7418
5. Cape Town 2010: The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization: http://www.lausanne.org/
6. See Brian McLaren, More Ready than You Realize: Evangelism as Dance in the Postmodern Matrix (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002) and The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2006).
McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, 257.
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 and was listed in Time magazine as one of America’s twenty-five most influential evangelicals. The author of numerous books and articles, his most recent offering is the book Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words. Brian is married to Grace, and they have four young adult children. His personal interests include ecology, fishing, hiking, music, art, and literature.
Chris Keller is Founding Editor of The Other Journal and a psychotherapist in Seattle, Washington.