November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
TOJ: “The” distinction for the emergent church and for younger Christians over the last 10 years has been that of being postmodern. The binary category of being postmodern, rather than modern, and such dedication to that label has given needed identity to younger generations experiencing a new culture. How important do you think it is for emergent churchgoers to understand the philosophical underpinnings of postmodernism such as the ramifications of Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, Rorty, etc…? Given the frequent and perhaps overuse of the word “postmodern,” is this label still helpful, and what do you think are some other helpful distinctions we can use in getting at “a new kind of Christian?”
McLaren: First of all, I think your comment on the issue of identity is quite insightful. Many younger – and older – Christians don’t feel they are “spoken for” by the dominant Christian voices in the media. In particular, the rhetoric and priorities of the Religious Right are an embarrassment to them and don’t resonate with their understanding of the gospel of Jesus. So they’re seeking some space where they can be faithful to Christ without being associated with a lot of other things. I think, as you say, that the word “postmodern” has probably served an important purpose in helping them find that space.
But the word “postmodern” has always been problematic. For some people, it means the earliest, most immature, most extreme, and least credible fringes of philosophical debate from the 1970’s and 1980’s. It becomes an easy straw man for some people to whack. Even for some people who use the term positively, it comes to mean “anti-modern” more than postmodern, and again creates as many problems as it solves.
The fact is, relatively few people are ever going to read Derrida, Rorty, Fish, or Foucault – and even fewer will understand them if they read them! So, to answer your question, no, I don’t think most people need to deal with all the abstract philosophy – although we should thank God for those gifted and called to do so, as they have an important role. Christian philosophers have always been important in the Church’s history, no less now than before with so much at stake.
To me, there are two sides to the coin of postmodernity. The “tails” side is philosophy. The “heads” side is social history. There are needed discussions on naïve realism, antirealism, critical realism, Cartesian foundationalism, epistemology, relativism, absolutism, and the all the rest. But most of these discussions go over the heads of most people, including those who think they know what they’re talking about. So I think we might be wiser to focus on social history for most people. That’s why I like social history terms like “post-colonial,” “post-Christendom,” “post-nationalist,” “post-Holocaust” and “post-civil-religion.” In what ways has modern Christianity compromised and colluded with social forces like colonialism, industrialism, consumerism, and nationalism? And how do we extract ourselves from these strange bedfellows? How do we follow Jesus in a consumerist, militarist, therapeutic, hot-war world?
TOJ: Our current issue is on capitalism. One of the critiques of Dr. Dan Bell in our issue is that capitalism deforms desire and relationship. Where do you feel the Church in America needs to be aware of its allegiances to the market and a market-driven society?
McLaren: I’m so glad you’re tackling this issue, because really – it is very close to the heart of what the whole emergent conversation is about. A lot of people think we’re about trying to accommodate the Gospel to postmodern culture – to use that “p”-word again – but really, I don’t think that’s our primary aim at all. Instead, I think we’re trying to figure out how we have already over-accommodated to modern culture. In other words, some people act as if we’re sliding down the slippery slope of postmodernity – which is a real danger, obviously. But I think we’ve already slidden down the slippery slope of modernity; so we’re starting at the bottom of the slope, not the top!
So, I’d say that whenever salvation becomes a commodity – something you “get” like you “get” a free trip to Disney World or a tattoo – we’re in trouble. Whenever worship becomes commodified – so that people walk out saying, “They have good worship at that church” – we’ve run into the ditch. Whenever community becomes a commodity – something we expect to be given as a packaged experience, rather than something we help create through sacrifice and suffering and forgiveness and love – we’re speeding for a crash with devastating disillusionment. Whenever the church exists to baptize American foreign policy, American wars, and a new American economic empire … we’ve sold our birthright for a bowl of cold oatmeal. Whenever we proclaim the Gospel promising the same benefits a bank promises its customers – our way of salvation is free, fast, easy, and convenient – we should wonder whether Jesus has become our logo instead of our Lord. And whenever our faith is reduced to “personal salvation” – where “personal” works in the same way as it does when it modifies computer, identification number, trainer, or hygiene – we can be sure we have been co-opted by the spirit of the age.
TOJ: The Evangelical sub-culture is a lucrative business, from Christian Music to Christian Dating Services. Where has marketing and profiting from the Christian sub-culture distorted the call of the church?
McLaren: I was with a famous Christian music star the other night – a good man, a truly good man. But he told me that the previous night after his huge concert he had stood in his dressing room, looked in the mirror, and asked himself, “Am I really doing anything worthwhile? It feels like I’m just servicing the religious entertainment needs of a subculture of a subculture of a subculture of a subculture.” This man is doing much that is worthwhile – for one thing, he is using his considerable wealth not to live in luxury but to help the poor, which is dear to God’s heart. But even though he’s “made it to the top” in the Christian subculture, he’s not happy there.
My non-Christian friends are repulsed by the Christian subculture. Actually, my own kids are too. Come to think of it, so am I. The hype, hoopla, rah-rah stuff – maybe it’s harmless enough in one way: I mean, maybe it’s a kind of good clean fun, better than seeking a high in other ways. But when it reduces Jesus to my buddy and when it so quickly creates a glib “us-versus-them” where we’re in and good and they’re out and bad … that seems so dangerous, so contrary to the calling Jesus gave us.
One of the most insidious things is that the definition of a “good Christian” seems to devolve into being “an enthusiastic consumer of Christian products and services.” Meanwhile, many of us can’t stand most Christian radio and TV, and we wouldn’t be caught dead in a religious T-shirt, and we think that the Gospel wasn’t meant to fit on a bumper sticker, and we find most Christian music trite, boring, and sappy. Does that mean we can’t be good Christians? Or maybe it means that we need to redefine what we mean by the term.
TOJ: Issues of social justice are certainly hot-button issues for many conservatives and liberals. Do you see a shift within the evangelical world towards a more holistic “war” on poverty and a more holistic approach to creating a culture of life?
McLaren: I see contrary things happening at the same time, but overall, I see some hopeful signs. The immense popularity of my friend Jim Wallis’ new book God’s Politics, is a thrilling sign to me. The subtitle says it all: why the right gets it wrong and the left doesn’t get it. Jim is asking really important questions for all of us to consider – like “How did Jesus get associated with pro-war, anti-poor, anti-environment, and pro-judgmentalism?” I think that increasing numbers of evangelicals are realizing that there are more moral issues out there than two – abortion and homosexual marriage. It’s exciting to see more people caring about environmental stewardship – a personal passion of mine. They’re seeing that poverty is a moral issue. All the mission trips people have taken are starting to have an effect: people who have lived among the poor in Guatemala or Mexico or Haiti for a couple weeks start realizing that American foreign policy – including economic policy – affects their new friends. And I just heard a well-known Christian leader question the war in Iraq – something too few have been willing to do. At the root of it all, I think, is a growing emphasis on the central message of Jesus: the kingdom of God. People are realizing that Jesus wasn’t just about evacuating or abandoning earth for heaven: He was about welcoming God’s kingdom – which means God’s will being done – on earth as it is in heaven.
TOJ: Pope John Paul II died this past weekend. What can evangelicals learn from this great man, and how did this Pope influence your views of social justice and of caring for the most vulnerable?
McLaren: One thing I love about the Pope’s legacy is that you couldn’t put him in anybody’s polarizing categories. Was he conservative? On sexual matters, yes. He called people to a high moral standard – higher than many people could handle. But did he support the war in Iraq? No. He called people to a higher standard regarding warfare too. And he did the same regarding caring for the poor and victims of oppression. He was a strong anti-communist – but he was also aware of the dangers of capitalism. Nobody owned him – not conservatives, not liberals, not communists, not capitalists. He challenged both sides – and that example challenges and inspires me.
A specific way the Pope influenced me was in his attitude toward other religions. His chapter on that subject in Crossing the Threshold of Hope really helped me – on the one hand, to uphold my faith in Christ as the ultimate Savior, but on the other hand, to see that God’s grace and power are at work in the context of other religions too. He spoke of the “semini verbi” – the seed of the Word – God’s self-revelation that is spread far and wide in creation, and I find that a beautiful and helpful concept.
TOJ: Your ministry calls people to an authentic and bold way of engaging culture through faith. CT recently described the emergent movement as “Frequently urban, disproportionately young, overwhelmingly white, and very new.” Is this a fair description of the emergent church, and, is the emergent movement one primarily for the white, middle-class suburbs?
McLaren: This is a complex question, and it would take a whole book to answer it well. First, let me say that most of the churches served by CT would themselves be primarily white and middle class, so if this is true of the emergent folk, it’s largely because the conversation emerged among churches that were already white and middle class. My guess is that the emergent conversation is more diverse than the churches from which it has sprung. There are already quite a few Asians and increasing numbers of Hispanic and African-American folk becoming engaged. Second, I should say that another reason for the preponderance of white folk is that the white church is in trouble, especially among the young. The Black church and the Hispanic church play an important role in their respective cultures, and in many ways they are stronger and healthier than white churches. So, if white folk are realizing they’re in trouble and their churches are losing the next generations, you can’t blame them for taking their problems seriously and having gatherings to address those problems. And you can’t blame other folk for not feeling those problems are so relevant to them, and staying away from those gatherings.
But I would very quickly want to add that issues of racial reconciliation are incredibly important to us – and we are working hard to broaden the conversation – not only racially, but also by including women leaders, an area emergent folk have made good progress in, although we still have a long way to go. I’m investing most of my time in the next couple of years internationally – working with our brothers and sisters in the global south: Africa, Latin America, and Asia. It’s widely known now that the church there is growing, while the church in the global North is stagnant or declining. But what isn’t so widely known is that many young people in the global South are increasingly disillusioned with the church for many of the same reasons their Northern counterparts are. This is why I mentioned the word “post-colonial” earlier. Colonial Christianity created terrible consequences for both the colonized and for the colonizers – theologically, socially, spiritually, personally. It is my firm belief that we need to work together to acknowledge the damage and move forward together.
As for the middle class and suburban dimension – in very practical terms, it’s only middle class and wealthier folk who can afford to take airplanes to conferences in the first place. So the question is, not why are middle class and suburban folk there, but since they’re there, what are they being taught? Are they being taught to circle the wagons and only care for their own interests? Or are they being taught an understanding of the Gospel that thrusts them out into the world – and especially among the poor and disadvantaged.
In this regard, one of the most important conversation partners in the emergent conversation is a group called “the new monasticism.” These people are some of my heroes. They are intentionally living in “the places abandoned by empire” – especially depressed inner-city areas. They are incarnating an understanding of the gospel that never separates the spiritual from the social, that always links God’s kingdom and justice. I hope that their influence will spread to every sector of the emergent community.
TOJ: Recently when you were interviewed on CNN you found yourself in pretty diverse company (Rev Jakes, Franklin Graham, Tim and Beverly LaHaye). What did it mean to you that you were chosen as one of America’s top 25 Evangelicals; and as the emergent movement/conversation continues to grow, can the “emergent church” avoid being politicized by the right or left?
McLaren: As you can imagine, I was shocked that I had been included in the list. First, I consider myself a pretty obscure person and rather insignificant in the big scheme of things. Second, my sense was that the article was mostly about the Religious Right and the leverage they would have on the President’s second term, since they were seen as the key to his re-election. Although I love and respect the President and pray for him, I haven’t been a fan of many of his policies, and I do not at all associate myself with the Religious Right. So I didn’t see how I fit in with the rest of the group.
After the Larry King episode aired, I was deluged with letters, phone calls, and emails from people who said, “Thank you. We don’t feel that the normal talk-show guests represent us. You spoke for us. Thank you.” That’s the problem, I think: the old polarities of left and right are counter-productive. They represent two boxes that most of us don’t really fit in. As Christians, we care about personal morality; we don’t believe you can be sexually irresponsible, for example, without creating terrible consequences for yourself and others. But we also care about social morality – public justice; we don’t believe you can be irresponsible in regard to the poor, or irresponsible in regard to God’s beautiful creation – without creating still more terrible consequences. We don’t think that moral issues can be reduced to two or three. Instead, we see how sexual irresponsibility and irresponsibility about the environment are actually related problems: we are seeking to live outside of our limits as creatures – it goes back to the Garden of Eden, and we’re trying to be our own gods.
As you may have heard, some of my friends and I have become the target of some of our brothers on the Religious Right side of things. The sense I get from some our critics is that they just wish my friends and I would go away. The question is – where would we go? We don’t want to bother anybody; we certainly don’t want to cause division or conflict. So, we have some important decisions to make – how we respond to these criticisms graciously, many of which are somewhere between inaccurate and unfair. We want to respond wisely, humbly, ironically, and in accordance with the Spirit of Christ.
TOJ: Your new book “The Last Word and the Word after That” is the third book in the New Kind of Christian trilogy. Your book deconstructs fear-driven fundamentalist theologies and calls the Church to a loving, generous, joy-filled community. Hell has historically been motivation for
faithfulness to the Church—how can we as believers start to look differently at the doctrine of hell and, for that matter, fear?
McLaren: This is a great question, and in many ways, it’s the question my book is trying to answer. It took me a couple hundred pages to answer it in the book, so I don’t think I can give a very full answer here, except to say that many of us have a conventional way of reading the Bible – one that has been inculcated through various systematic theologies. What the book seeks to do is help us see that the Bible is actually far more intriguing and dynamic than our systematic theologies might lead us to believe. In my own experience, when I tried to get a fresher look at Scripture – not assuming that I already had the right system, but believing that the Scriptures were bigger and better than my conventional understandings – the Bible came alive to me in a new way. What moved to the center for me was the Kingdom of God – which was, in my reading of the gospels, the heart of Jesus’ message. The kingdom isn’t about escaping earth to go to heaven: it’s about welcoming God’s justice and goodness and desires for us here, in this world, in history, in our individual lives, and in our social structures too.
The effect of this Kingdom-focus on me has been nothing but positive. My love for God has grown. My love for my fellow Christians has grown. My love for my non-Christian neighbors has grown. And my love for my enemies has grown too. It’s revolutionary. The amazing thing to me is that this message of the Kingdom has been there all along – but somehow, because I was looking for other things, I missed its importance. As I say in my current writing project, “What you focus on determines what you miss.”
TOJ: One claim of the emergent Church is that it is a return to a more apostolic, historical Church, at least ontologically. Will this return be able to occur without building significant bridges to the traditional denominations of the Church as well as what are considered the more “modern congregations?” In other words, can a return to an early Church ethic be done faithfully without the trans-generational connection to our Christian elders?
McLaren: First, I should say that I was brought up in a restorationist context, where people thought they could skip twenty centuries of church history and return to some ideal golden age they called “The New Testament Church.” Although I respect the radical idealism of restorationist folk, I think the project is flawed for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the early church wasn’t so idyllic – it was filled with problems just as our churches today are.
Many people would be surprised how many older Christians contact me or come to talk with me at speaking events. People in their seventies, eighties. They say to me, “I’ve never felt I fit in with the typical American church. I’ve always felt like a misfit. When I read your books, I feel that I belong. I feel that I finally found my tribe.” So, already there are large numbers of older people engaging with my friends and I, and that number is growing.
And you’re right – we need to engage modern churches. Many of them know they’re in trouble; they know that what they’re doing isn’t working: numbers tell them that, but also the clear lack of spiritual transformation in many of their members tells them that. Those folk are eager to engage. Unfortunately, whether through a lack of clarity on my part – or perhaps some pride or arrogance in my spirit – other modern church leaders take offense at what we’re doing. They think we’re relativists, or that we don’t believe in truth – which is a complete misunderstanding. Over time, I hope that they’ll realize we aren’t these terrible enemies, but rather we are friends seeking to serve Christ, just as they are, and that what unites us is a hundred times more important than any differences we have.
I’m glad you bring up this question about history, because one of the characteristics of modernity was a general disregard or disdain for the past. For example, many modern Protestants acted like Catholicism was nothing but a big mistake. Their church history would jump from the 4th century to the 16th. But my friends and I are deeply interested in the spirituality and theology of all twenty centuries of Christian history. There are resources there we need, because the problems we face are huge. It’s really true – that old saying that we stand on the shoulders of giants. We need all the help we can get – including help from modern and premodern Christian leaders, theologians, mystics, pastors, missionaries, and common saints who sought to live their lives in fidelity to the Gospel.
TOJ: It seems that both fundamentalists and more “postmodern” Christians have a fundamental lack of understanding (and sometimes respect) for the other. You and Chuck Colson recently had an interesting letter exchange that was started from an article he wrote in CT. What was that experience like for you and how have you maintained an ecumenical focus in your ministry? Where does the Evangelical community need to be reminded of our call to oneness in Christ?
McLaren: I was pleased that Dr. Colson and I could have a cordial dialogue over areas of disagreement. Perhaps the conversation can continue in person some time. So much changes when people get face to face – when we become more than words on a page or talking heads representing philosophies or theologies, and when we meet each other as human beings – with headaches, joys, weaknesses, hobbies, families, a sense of humor, passion, heart, humility, vulnerability. One of the terribly important things Evangelicals need to remember is that our concern for the truth does not exempt us from the commands of love. When in the name of truth we betray the command to love, we dishonor the very truth we are trying to defend. I’m certainly not perfect at this myself – I think we all have a lot to learn in this regard, a lot of growing to do.
Brian D. McLaren
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.