November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
Brian McLaren’s newest book, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope1 was released in bookstores on October 2, 2007. The Other Journal is grateful to have received an advance copy from McLaren and to have had the opportunity for an extended in-person conversation in Toronto about issues related to what he describes as his most worldly book to date and one that his closest friends were nervous about him writing.
The Other Journal would be happy to speak with McLaren at any opportunity, but our conversation was particularly timely for our current issue—Psychopathology: Virtue, Sin, and Psychosis in the New Millenium. McLaren is candid both about the deep pathology that is driving civilization into environmental, economic, and security crises and about the ways in which Western Christianity itself is complicit in this societal suicide machine. But McLaren does not only diagnose the problem; he is also interested in providing substantive proposals for positive change. We talked with McLaren about why everything must change and what Jesus might have to say to bring about such needed change.
The Other Journal (TOJ): You describe your book, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope, as growing out of and revolving around two preoccupying questions. What are these questions?
Brian McLaren (BM): Back in my twenties I remember asking a question that has stayed with me ever since then: what are the most serious crises facing our world? That question has been with me for a long time. And then a second question naturally follows: what does Jesus have to say to those top global crises?
TOJ: In your book you describe these as very live, timely, and personal questions prompted by current life experiences and political realities and as building upon themes you’ve taken up in your previous writing (particularly in The Secret Message of Jesus2), yet also as questions that every person serious about faith or ethics must eventually take to heart. So how did these questions come to the fore for you at this particular point in your life and theological journey, and why are they important for everyone to consider?
BM: Let me start by way of my own story, my own narrative. In the late eighties and early nineties, I would have considered myself a well-educated conservative Evangelical. I was always on the innovative side of things, but I wouldn’t have really rocked the boat on many issues.
TOJ: That’s kind of hard to believe [smile]. It would be very interesting to have known you then.
BM: I mean, I came from the Jesus movement, so in many ways I’ve seen the really good side of Evangelicalism, and I had a lot of great experiences. So that’s my background. But in the early nineties, in large part because my main calling is evangelism, I was really listening to the questions that people were asking me. By the way, this is one of the ways the seeker sensitive movement has really had a far-reaching impact. I know many people are critical about a lot of things related to the seeker movement, but I think this particular influence is very profound and very positive. When you say, as Bill Hybels says, “Lost people matter to God,” then they start to matter to you, and then you start to listen to their questions; you don’t just dismiss them as unsaved or whatever. Well, their questions re-opened for me something I had encountered a long time ago in graduate school, and that’s postmodern philosophy, and this cultural shift from a modern to a postmodern culture. So in the early nineties I started grappling with that shift, and it really was tough. Then in the late nineties, I started writing about it because I started to feel a little bit of hope.
TOJ: Would that have been your book, A New Kind of Christian?3
BM: That’s right, my first book where I opened this up was Church on the Other Side4, and then in the New Kind of Christian series I opened it up some more. If you want to use a term that comes out of that postmodern world, the word would be deconstruction. I was undergoing a deconstruction. Not a deconstruction of my faith as a personal trust in God, but of my theological categories and of my theological methodology. So that’s not an easy thing to go through, but once you do a lot of deconstruction, then you have to start reconstructing or else you end up with nothing but a bunch of fragments. And for me that reconstruction drove me, or drew me, back to the Gospels. And so the last several years I have been spending huge amounts of my spiritual attention on trying to understand Jesus again and trying to read the Bible with as much of a second naïveté as I possibly can. And that resulted in my previous book, The Secret Message of Jesus.
Well, one of the things that hit me in that exploration in a really profound way is that to understand Jesus you have to understand his time, particularly the first-century context. You know, we would think it’s ridiculous to try to understand Martin Luther King Jr. or Abraham Lincoln without knowing something about the history of slavery, the Civil War, and civil rights in America. Well, very often we do just that with Jesus, abstracting him from his situation in order to try to understand him. And so the last several years I’ve been trying to understand Jesus in his own context. N. T. Wright challenges you to this.
TOJ: Yeah, I am curious who your guides were in this new reading of Jesus in his first-century context.
BM: N. T. Wright’s work has been really, really influential in my thinking. And then people like Dominic Crossan. I think Dominic is doing some great work on this front. And Marcus Borg as well, even though I think a lot people really misunderstand him. All of them are saying: we feel there is more to Jesus than what is often given credit! And then there are people like Richard Horsley and Ched Myers writing on the relationship between Jesus and the Roman Empire. And of course, the Latin American liberation theologians have a lot of insight into Jesus and his context. For example, John Sobrino’s Jesus the Liberator5 and Leonardo Boff’s Jesus Christ Liberator6; these were really phenomenal books for me. So I was reading everything I could get my hands on about Jesus from a variety of perspectives. Not rejecting my Evangelical understanding of Jesus at all, but not believing it had given me the whole story. So when you realize that Jesus was addressing a lot of the most pressing questions and issues in his own day, then you can’t help but ask what Jesus has to say about the most pressing questions and issues in ours.
TOJ: One of the things you’ve done throughout your writing, and perhaps most explicitly in Everything Must Change, is that you’ve introduced your readers to thinkers and writers that have been meaningful to you in your journey and who your largely Evangelical readership might not otherwise encounter. This has actually been a point of criticism from some in more conservative circles. I recall reading one particular interview where your interlocutor said something to the effect of, “That sounds like liberation theology; you’re not reading them are you?” How would you make a case for the value of broadening our theological exposure and expanding our dialogue partners as Evangelicals?
BM: Well, the first thing I would want to say is that I [would] read one paragraph of N. T. Wright or listen to one CD of a lecture he gave at Regent Seminary in Vancouver and then go back and read the New Testament. What was exciting wasn’t N. T. Wright—no insult to N. T. Wright; I hope people say the same thing about my books. What was exciting were the Gospels themselves. I’d go back and read Matthew and Luke, and that was the stuff that was really transformative. So mentioning different lists of names isn’t that important, but what’s really important is that this stuff has been simmering in the biblical text itself, and we’ve been very well trained not to see it. We’ve been trained to look for certain things and not for others. One of my mentors has a great statement: “What you focus on determines what you miss.” So we go to the Bible being very well trained to focus on certain things, and we miss all the other things. That’s a huge theme of Everything Must Change, and I really hope it will help people who love the Bible and love Jesus to notice things that have been there all along but that we have been trained not to see.
TOJ: When you speak of your book growing out of the experience of reading contemporary crisis literature together with the gospels in their first-century context, I couldn’t help thinking of a particular statement by Karl Barth: “Christians must read the world with the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other.” Is such double-reading a conscious methodology for you?
BM: You know, I imagine I always would have agreed with Karl Barth on that, and I think I probably understand a little bit more of what he meant now. For example, I’ve heard very fundamentalist pastors quote that, and they don’t mention Barth’s name, of course. But what they mean is to look for anecdotes from contemporary culture that you can bring in while teaching the Bible. And I guess that’s a good start. It’s better than being in this hermetically sealed religious ghetto. But I think part of what Barth was saying is that the headlines of the newspaper tell us what the crises are, and that God is very concerned about the crises of our world, and when you are touched by those crises and you open the pages of the Bible, you begin to notice things that you wouldn’t notice otherwise.
So when you read in the newspaper about the serious gap between the world’s rich and the world’s poor, and that the gap is expanding—the rich are getting richer at a phenomenally fast rate and the poor are staying about the same or at best getting very little better—well, then you go to the Bible and read the story about the rich man and Lazarus. And see, we’re trained to think that this is a story about who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. By the way, even in this way of reading, it doesn’t turn out the way many of our traditional theologies would lead us to expect. But then you realize that this is really a story that tells us that God cares deeply about poor people and calls us to care deeply as well.
TOJ: That’s very helpful as an example of the way such double-reading—reading the Bible in light of the world and reading the world in light of the Bible—calls us to address what you describe in your books as the equity crisis. Your book is full of this kind of work, showing how an understanding of today’s world can actually help us be better readers of the Bible.
BM: I hope so! I hope people will feel that this is really a book—maybe more so than any other of my books—about reading the Bible. But the opposite is also true. If you read the Bible, you begin to notice certain themes, and that enables you to see certain things that others might miss when you read the headlines. For example, the headlines in the United States especially are filled with things like “U.S. versus Islamic Fundamentalists,” and so that’s the narrative we’re given. But you see, when you read the Bible you begin to see that evil—and Calvin highlighted this in his doctrine of total depravity—doesn’t reside on one side or the other, but that it resides on both sides. So when I hear our president making it sound like we are virtuous and “they” are evil, my reading of the Bible makes me suspicious of my president. So to me, this is the way it should be, God wants us to be readers and thinkers of the Bible, and we must do that in the world, but not [be] of it.
TOJ: So our president, who confesses to be a Bible-believing Christian, isn’t employing a very biblical understanding of evil. And to be fair, it’s not only our president who has a simplistic understanding of evil—the idea that we can locate evil here or there is pervasive.
BM: Exactly, the us/them approach to evil is far more simplistic than what we find in the scriptures. This is where a biblical understanding of evil can really speak into the mutual demonization that is escalating into what I refer to as the security crisis.
TOJ: You refer to Everything Must Change as your most worldly book to date, in that you take the world and its contemporary social, political, ecological, and economic realities as a subject of rigorous analysis. One doesn’t find many books of this sort in the average Evangelical bookstore. Why don’t we see more worldly books? And how do the type of books one is likely to find (self-help, end times, et cetera) reveal the ethos of Evangelicalism and what Evangelical priorities are?
BM: It would really be a very interesting study to go in and look at all the new book releases in a six month period in the Christian book publishing world and even to do the same for the subjects of Christian radio broadcasts and television and then to make assessments on what’s really important to us based on what we find. And I wouldn’t criticize those things; people read those books because that’s what’s important to them and they find them helpful. But here’s the problem: let’s say I want to read a prosperity gospel book about how to pray in order to get rich. Now, if global warming is even partially true, and if we are pushing our environment beyond its limits of sustainability, then we are going to eventually reach a point where the environment is so degraded that nobody’s prayers for prosperity are ever going to get answered. In so doing we lean on one part of the biblical text—verses about prayer and the promises of God—and we completely forget about another part of the biblical text that speaks about wisdom, foresight, responsibility, and stewardship. And this is the great danger, you see: we say we are biblical, but we get a choice about which things we emphasize.
TOJ: Even here, as you’re critiquing the prosperity gospel movement as being misguided, you’re quick to acknowledge the part of the Bible they are rightly tapping into. This spirit of appreciative critique seems to characterize your work.
BM: If I could maybe make a little side comment about that. I appreciate you noticing that, because one of the few terribly ugly things that’s going on in the Evangelical world, the Islamic world, and all throughout the political world, really—and this goes back to our discussion about a biblical understanding of evil and how it can help us to effectively address the complexity of the security crisis—is the vilification of those with whom we disagree. To vilify and demonize people with whom we disagree sets all sorts of terrible things in motion. I think this is why Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount not to call your brother an‘idiot’ and that you’re liable for judgement if you do so. He says to love your enemies and to do good to people who do evil to you, which stops so many terrible things from getting set in motion.
If I call anyone with whom I disagree a heretic, infidel, idiot, or whatever, it is a way of excluding them. Or even calling someone insane, which is politically a very powerful word, you know, we simply say, “the terrorists are insane.” Or even a word like evil. Evil almost removes from us the obligation to understand them, you know: “there’s nothing to understand; they’re just evil.” By using words like that we’ve stopped listening and we’ve dehumanized the other, making it possible to treat them in horrible ways. So Jesus says, take all the people in that category and love them, and that is what truly brings transformation. Demonization is a huge problem in our debates on these issues.
BM: Well, we have to remember that Evangelical identity is very complex and that it changes over time. And the terms Evangelical and fundamentalist are very slippery, and it’s hard to tell where one starts and the other stops. And the proportion of the people who are Evangelicals—whom we call fundamentalists—rises and falls over the decades.
TOJ: Fair enough. I am presuming a lot when I speak of Evangelicals as a whole.
BM: These terms are all so slippery for all of us. For example, in the nineteenth century, there were people we would call Evangelicals, people passionate about their faith and personal relationship with Christ, devoted in prayer, believing in Jesus as their savior, and desiring to share their faith—all great markers of Evangelicalism. Well, these Evangelicals were the leaders in the feminist movement, and (a lot of people don’t know this) the animal rights movement was really born out of Evangelical fervor. And of course, the abolition movement, although to be honest, Evangelicals probably defended slavery in far greater numbers than opposed it. But there certainly were Evangelicals at the forefront of opposing it as well.
And so, you know, we have a complex history. But right now, it seems what’s happened in the last few decades is that, because of the religious right, Evangelical forays into public life have been focused on what some people call pelvic issues or genital issues or sexual issues. So Evangelicals have been focused on abortion and homosexual marriage, and I do think those issues are important—in the book I have a section where I talk a little bit about abortion—but the issue to me is by being preoccupied with those issues, we’ve effectively missed the larger issues that I think actually fuel some of the symptoms. In this sense, we’ve dealt with the symptoms and not the causes.
But if you want to talk about Evangelicals who really have affirmed the need for Evangelicals to be involved in public life in a positive way, then people like Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, and Ron Sider come to mind right away. But I think we also have to pay attention to people from Latin America like Rene Padilla and Samuel Escobar. There have been many, many people who have done this well in my opinion, but a lot of them are non-white and non-American, and so, sadly, they haven’t been heard. But you know, John Stott would be a great example of an English Evangelical deeply concerned about a wide range of social issues.
TOJ: Yes, you quote Stott extensively in your book.
BM: I do, and I think many people don’t appreciate the fact that John has been reflecting on these issues for decades and has a lot of very wise things to say. Not only because of the length of time he’s been reflecting on these issues, but also because of his decades-long friendship with Rene Padilla from Latin America.
TOJ: Now I wouldn’t say this with respect to the security crisis per se, but on the whole, the Evangelical community seems very resistant to the thesis that the world really is suffering from an equity crisis and an environmental crisis. If this is accurate, why do you think this is so? Is it political, out of the refusal to believe anything Al Gore and the Hollywood liberals have to say? Is it theological, in that reigning Evangelical views of providence or sovereignty relegate world crises to a theological impossibility? Or is it more pragmatic—that admitting to crisis implies, as you say, that everything must change, which would require a radical reorientation of the American way of life?
BM: First of all, I think that’s a very important question, and part of me doesn’t want to give an answer just because I think it deserves a lot of reflection. But I’ll offer a couple of thoughts. First, not just as Evangelicals, but as Western Christians, we have a leaning toward emphasizing personal sin and minimizing social sin. We tend to focus on personal righteousness rather than social justice, but the Bible doesn’t make that distinction. Now in the Catholic church there is a deep tradition of Catholic social teaching, but on the popular level, largely because of the abortion issue, even many Roman Catholics are now focused almost exclusively on personal morality. When they hear the word morality they immediately think sex. But biblical justice and biblical righteousness is inherently integral; it brings together both the social and the personal. So that would be one problem.
A second problem—a huge problem—is our eschatology. The dominance of left behind eschatology means that millions of American Christians expect the world to get worse, believe it’s God’s will for the world to get worse, and that the worse it gets, the happier they feel they should be because it means they will get raptured all the sooner. I think this is a gross misreading of the biblical text. I think three hundred years from now people will look back on this reading of the text like the way we look at people who believed the world was flat or that the sun rotated around the earth. However, it’s very popular right now.
And the third problem is political. Because of the religious right in recent decades, the issues of abortion and homosexuality have been used to gain percentage points in elections for one party and against another party. And that has led some powerful Evangelical leaders to say: “We can’t talk about the environment because that will dilute attention from our high-leverage issues.”
TOJ: The therapeutic world has been telling us for years that in order for things to get better in the future, we must first acknowledge how bad things are in the present. You seem to employ this therapeutic wisdom (which also happens to be very biblical) in both your book and in your Deep Shift7 material that is meant as a follow up to the book. A friend and I were perusing your Deep Shift website, and he read the phrase “We are in Deep Shift” as saying “We are in Deep Shit.” Before he realized what it really said, his response was that of relief, saying, “Finally, someone’s willing to acknowledge the shit we are in.” Now, I don’t know if you intended this textual echo, but as you’ve been communicating this crisis material over the past few months, has the response been more characterized by relief, like my friend, or by resistance?
BM: Well, it’s interesting how it ends up being very polarizing. I don’t want to be polarizing, but what tends to happen is that some people are saying, “Everything has changed too much already. We’ve got to get back to keep things the same as they were in the past.” So those people don’t like to hear this stuff—it’s uncomfortable for them. But I think there are a lot of people, and I’m finding this as I interact with people, who say, “Ahh, finally somebody is giving us a chance to bring into the light of day our anxiety about the direction we’re going.” There’s a theological dimension to that anxiety, but it’s also economic, political, military, and social.
In the book, I tell a story about being in East Africa with a lot of Rwandans who look back on the Rwandan genocide of 1994, one of the most horrific genocides in history, that took place among people who all go to church—almost all of them go to church. And in fact, it was the Muslims who actually participated in the genocide less than the Christians. So there is something in them that says, “Something is wrong with the way we’re doing this.” And it [has] given them the space to admit, “You know, it’s shameful to have to face what we did, but let’s go into the shame and try to understand what’s really going on here.” To me, this is the kind of thing that has to happen if there is to be real change.
TOJ: It’s been said that only those with great hope can generate the courage to face how bad things really are, whether that be in our personal lives, our relationships, or in our world. So in many ways, your book is communicating not only a message of crises but also a message of hope.
BM: My friend Jim Wallis says this, from his experience of speaking all over the country: “The real choice we have to make is between hope on the one hand and cynicism, despair, and resignation on the other.” I really feel that.
TOJ: How did you come to identify these particular crises—prosperity, security, equity, and spirituality—as the key crises in our time?
BM: As I said, I knew I wanted to address this question about global crises, but I had no idea what books were out there, so I did like anybody would [do]—I started on the internet. I started googleing “global crisis,” “global problems,” et cetera. And it doesn’t take too long, you know. Five or six hours on the internet, and you’ve covered hundreds of people talking about this and that and maybe twenty books or so. And so I started on the Internet, then I just started reading books. And I was so happy there were some books, but [I was] quite surprised to find out how few books […] are out there that are really looking at crises globally. But I think this is starting to happen more and more. It’s happening among economists, biologists, political scientists, and theologians.
Then the challenge was to look at all these different lists and to try to figure out how to integrate these—how they relate. Literally, I spent months with a couple yellow pads with notes and diagrams and lists and compiled lists, and [I] just fooled around with it until I began feeling some stuff click into place. And you know, it ends up being quite simple, but it’s usually a complicated process getting to simplicity.
TOJ: One of the strongest theses in your book is the idea that these crises are in fact interrelated and driven by a common social pathology. I suppose this is why, if anything is to really change, everything must change.
BM: Yeah. As I started trying to work with these lists, it really became very clear to me that these issues were interrelated. The first thing you realize is that there are all these lists, and an effect in one list is a cause in another list, you know, and you see the complexity of this, and you begin to realize that you cannot deal with these as discrete items.
For example, you can say that malaria is a terrible problem in Africa, and that it’s an easy problem to solve because we can solve it with mosquito nets and other things. But then the question is, well, why haven’t they acquired mosquito nets already? Well, then you have to deal with economic issues. And then you realize that if we solve the malaria problem in the next few years, and we go on to the next problem and ask why we haven’t solved it yet, well, once again there is an economic problem behind it.
So you find yourself drawn to economics, because that’s the way in which a lot of these issues are related. It goes back a little bit to that election slogan in the nineties, “It’s the economy, stupid,” but I think it’s true in a far deeper way than people realize. So a group of the problems cluster around issues of economics as they relate first to the environment and second to redistribution and opportunity.
So those are my first two crises: the prosperity crisis and the equity crisis. And then there are a whole group of them that flow out of the fact that you have a lot of people desperately poor and other people extravagantly rich in a world that is under increasing stress because of environmental changes in a civilization that doesn’t have much of a margin for environmental change. You put those things together, and then you have a security crisis. So I saw those three things—prosperity, equity, and security—as really being interwoven.
But then the question that I asked myself was “Why aren’t we solving those problems?” And that’s where this idea of framing stories came in. And that, to me, is the fourth crisis, and in some ways it’s like the drive shaft that drives the three first crises. If we have a dysfunctional framing story, then it either makes us respond to the first three crises in counter-productive ways, or it simply makes us oblivious to them.
Let me use an example from the family. Say you have a man who’s really a lousy husband and a terrible father, and he’s driven by the story in his mind—the framing story—that the solution to all family problems is to be a strong authoritarian father. So whenever his wife or children complain, his solution is, “I’ve got to be tougher. I’ve got to be tougher.” The more he lives by that framing story, the more he destroys his family, even though his desire is to have a good family and to be a good father. And that’s the kind of thing I’m looking at in terms of culture and civilization: what are those kinds of stories at work in our corporate soul?
TOJ: That example demonstrates a way of working with the relationship between desire and framing story that’s very interesting. It seems that it allows you to honor good desire even when the operative framing story is bending it in a particularly destructive direction.
BM: It’s interesting that the understanding of desire really becomes key in this, because the desire for prosperity, equity, and security are all good desires. And this may bring us back to St. Thomas Aquinas who said that “the essence of evil is the corruption of a good desire.” So a good framing story can harness those desires toward holiness, goodness, and justice, but a bad framing story can harness those desires toward oppression and destruction.
TOJ: Speaking of the relatedness of particular crises, as I was reading your book, I was also reading Hegel’s Elements of the Philosophy of Right8, in which he argues that a state where individuals are free to pursue their economic self-interest in an unlimited manner will inevitably become characterized by radical economic inequity and social unrest and thus will necessarily become a police state. That sounds so much like your analysis of the relationship between the prosperity crisis, equity crisis, and security crisis on the global level. And I thought to myself, either you’ve read Hegel, or you are both onto a deep insight into the nature of society.
BM: You know, I’ve never read that in Hegel, but to me this is really exciting, because of course I don’t think my book is the final word to solve all the problems. But if my book can help other people like you notice things elsewhere, and then patterns begin to emerge among different writers that lead us forward, then see, that brings the conversation forward. So it’s very encouraging to me to hear that.
TOJ: By the way, your analysis was written much more accessibly than Hegel’s [laughter]. But I’d say that’s characteristic of the book as a whole as well. You’ve taken the crisis literature, which is typically written for other academics, and really made it accessible to those of us who are unfamiliar with the professional lingo.
BM: Well, thanks. I do hope I’ve done that in the book. And you know, much of the literature is becoming more accessible to the interested reader. There are a whole bunch of economists who are coming to understand that economics is so important that they realize they actually have to learn to speak plain English [laughter]. And that’s a trend that I expect will continue.
TOJ: When you speak about the contemporary global situation, you do so in terms of a suicide machine. How does this metaphor draw things together for you?
BM: Well, when you think about civilization, in many ways it’s like a machine. It’s this complex structure that we put together to help us achieve these three good desires for prosperity, equity, and security. Not to say there aren’t other desires too, but those seem to be the fundamental purposes of civilization. But if that machine is driven by bad programming, and once again, the term I use for this is a destructive framing story, then the very machinery that you’ve built to help you becomes machinery that can destroy you. That’s why I call it a suicide machine. And you know, it’s interesting that this shows up in modern film. You think about a movie like The Matrix. It’s about a machine that we’ve built turning on us. Or the movie I-Robot. Or even the movie Titanic, in a certain way. It’s a machine that we’ve put our confidence into to take us where we want to go, and because of the hubris or overconfidence that drives it, we sink!
TOJ: This critique of human overconfidence is a strong theme in your book.
BM: You know, in a way, this brings us back to really core issues as Christians, and especially as Evangelicals, because we believe that we are saved by faith. And the issue is, do we have faith in God and in God’s ways, or do we have faith in our own techniques? And I think Jesus’s call to us to have faith in him is a call to stop trusting in these external systems. In his day it was “Stop trusting the gospel of Caesar” or “Stop trusting the gospel of the zealots who think they can beat Caesar by using Caesar’s methods,” and “I’m offering a different gospel (or news), in fact, good news to trust in.”
TOJ: That’s a very earthy and refreshing interpretation of salvation by faith, which is commonly taken to refer solely to how one gets to heaven after they die.
BM: Yeah, you know, in Romans 1 when Paul writes, “The just shall live by faith,” he’s actually quoting Habakkuk. And when Habakkuk is writing, he’s not writing about how you get to heaven. He’s saying, you know, we’re about to be conquered by the expanding empire next door, and the only way to survive this security crisis is not to trust in an arms race of horses and chariots but through faith in God, which means being faithful and just before God.
TOJ: You are openly critical of a simplistic “What Would Jesus Do” approach to global crises. Yet you maintain that a serious study of Jesus and his proclamation that “the kingdom is at hand” can give us invaluable insight and direction in engaging the most serious problems in our world. How so?
BM: Well, yes, one of the things I definitely want to avoid is the simplistic WWJD thing. It’s really the urge of fundamentalism to want to take things from ancient texts and assume we’ll solve today’s problems if we simply slap the texts onto contemporary situations. That’s part of what Sharia Law is about, and I think it’s part of a reactionary tendency among some Christians. I think they’re almost right, but in that they’re fatally wrong. And where they’re fundamentally wrong is in their assumption that they can simply slap a text onto a contemporary situation without understanding the deeper narrative and the deeper meaning of what’s being dealt with in the text.
And so, I want to go back and ask, what was the world Jesus was in, what were the issues Jesus was facing, and how does his message make sense against that backdrop? And only after we’ve seriously engaged these questions can we begin to address the question of what that means for our context. So, for me there are several intermediate steps between asking what are the crises and what does Jesus have to say to them. We’ve got to make sure we take those steps. Now obviously, in a two hundred page book, I can’t do that in a very thorough way but I hope I can at least introduce people into a way of imagining that being done.
TOJ: In the book you give a lot of attention to the relationship between Jesus’ ‘kingdom of God’ movement and the other movements in his day. How is this particular work an example of such an intermediary step, illuminating the way in which the Jesus of the gospels can speak to contemporary crises.
BM: This is where it really gets interesting, because I think it would be a serious mistake to assume that today’s world is identical to Jesus’ world. Yet, I think what happens when you reflect upon these things, at least what happens for me, is that you really do begin to see similar themes. So, you see the global economy, or the American Empire, as having a lot in common with the Roman Empire in Jesus’ day. And you see somebody like Osama bin Laden and his movement of Al-Qaeda as having a lot in common with the Zealots. And you see a lot of our religious leaders having a lot in common with either the Sadducees or the Herodians, who in a sense side with Caesar, where the Pharisees end up siding with the Zealots. And then you see Jesus come onto the scene and he has things in common with each of them, and he also diverges from each of them, so that in the end all of them reject him. When he goes to the cross he is utterly alone as a failed would-be messiah, and it looks like his movement is completely discredited. But here we are two thousand years later and we believe that he was actually right and that God vindicated him through the resurrection. It’s remarkable!
TOJ: In your book you distinguish between “conventional” and “emerging” views of the content of Jesus’ kingdom message, the meaning of his death, and the nature of his return, the conventional view being ‘dualistic’—focusing on spiritual experiences and postmortem salvation—and the emerging view being ‘holistic’—emphasizing the unity of personal, social, and global transformation in both this life and the life to come. Now, if (as you indicate) some of our best theologians have been teaching the emerging view for quite some time, why is the Evangelical consensus still characterized by the conventional view? Why is there such a gap between the Evangelical theologian and the average Evangelical? And if not the theologians, who’s responsible for the shape of Evangelicalism?
BM: To me this is where life gets really interesting because there are many layers to this and many things going on. Part of what we are dealing with is the reality of media—of mass media. So, who has the most influence on the average teenager in America today: our most brilliant scholars or Britney Spears? And what Britney Spears—and you know, add any other name here—is to popular culture, some (not all!) radio preachers and televangelists can be to religious subculture.
Now I’m not making a one-to-one connection here. But what I am saying is that the people who control the popular media end up having massive influence, and they’re quite disconnected from the scholars. In fact, you might even say that while scholars often are searching for what’s true and real, popular media are simply responding to what’s popular, and frankly, in religious broadcasting what people will make donations to sustain.
So there’s kind of a democratization of popular religious media that creates what I call an ‘echo chamber’. People want to hear about a subject so the preachers talk about it because when they talk about it, people send them donations, so they talk all the more about it. So, for example, what we need to do to help the poor is not a real popular subject in religious broadcasting these days. Now, maybe because of my book and other people’s work people might begin to call in and say, “hey, we want you to talk about how to help the poor,” and then that can change.
So, I’m not against religious media at all, and you know, wouldn’t life be easy if we could just say, “this is good and this is bad.” But again, a lot of my background is reformed, and total depravity tells me that I should expect corruption to sneak into every sector of life, including my own life. So, take a doctrine like the ‘dictation theory of inspiration’ and here’s where life gets interesting, because now we are in this cultural struggle with Islam, and Islam does hold to a dictation theory of the Koran. So, here’s the question: will our engagement with Islam make us revert to a dictation theory of inspiration in order to counter the Muslim message, or will it force us to become more sophisticated and mature in our understanding of the scriptures?
TOJ: It seems that a similar example is when the Catholic Church ‘reverted’ to the doctrine of Papal infallibility in response to the Protestant doctrine of the infallibility of the scriptures. Rather than both traditions taking it as an opportunity to develop, as you say, a more sophisticated and mature understanding of authority, they simply radicalized in order to out-do each other.
BM: Beautiful example. And, of course, this is one of the other struggles currently under way—how do we talk about authority? Some of my fundamentalist colleagues say that the only way to have authority is to have certainty. Well, in their system that may be the only way to have authority, but we’ve seen the downside of certainty that is incapable of taking critique.
Now, once again, all of this is very, very dynamic, and this is one of the reasons we all have to be charitable with each other, because we’re all in the midst of this; we are all trying to make do in a situation of huge change. And we don’t all know the stories of where the ideas that we hold come from. We don’t seem to understand that we are at point seventeen in a discussion that was going on long before we came on the scene and will be going on long after we’re gone. Rather, we think it’s all starting with us.
TOJ: Your book isn’t only inviting Evangelicals to get involved in God’s world, but to get involved in a certain sort of way. For example, the religious right is already engaged, but their agenda and methods are far from what you commend to your readers. You also argue that “eschatology always wins,” meaning that what one sees as the crises of our times and how one believes we ought to address them will be determined by whether one subscribes to either the conventional or emerging eschatology. I am wondering what you might have to say to the Evangelical who subscribes to the conventional view, but who really does want to be meaningfully engaged in God’s world? Will the conventional view necessarily manifest itself in neo-conservative politics?
BM: Well, there really is a link between neo-conservative politics and the conventional view of eschatology. And, of course, our conventional view is completely novel—nobody held a pre-millennial dispensationalist view before the 1830’s. The emergent view is returning to the Church’s historical view. What I would say is that I am worried that a misunderstanding of the second coming of Jesus is edging out the priority of the first coming of Jesus. And I want to make sure we give sufficient due to the first coming of Jesus.
So I believe in the ancient creeds, but isn’t it interesting that our creeds say: “I believe in Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate…” and they skip over everything in between? Well, that stuff in between was really important to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Of course, Jesus’ death and resurrection were very important to the four of them too, but so was his life. And, in many ways, I think this is one of the deepest things going on. I think we’ve gotten off track. And I know a lot of people call me a heretic, or whatever, but I actually think we’ve gotten off track and I’m trying to get us back on track. And the way we’ve gotten off track is by the voice of Jesus being marginalized in our churches, largely because of a problematic eschatology, and I want us to hear the voice of Jesus, and to allow what we hear to shape the way we live and love in God’s world.
TOJ: The idea of a common good gets strong play in your book. You argue that a truly biblical Christianity will be concerned with the this-worldly social, economic, and political wellbeing of all God’s creatures (regardless of their particular religious identity). In our religiously polarized time, is the very notion of the common good in crisis?
BM: I’m glad you picked up on this. One of the ways I think our Western Christian traditions have gotten into trouble is through a syncretism of the gospel and colonialism—the gospel and white (or Euro-centric) supremacy. This line of thinking creates an us-versus-them mindset—us-versus-the other. But I think a more truly biblical view is an us-for-them mindset, an us-for-the-other that sees not ‘cleanliness’ but ‘otherliness’ as next to godliness.
So Jesus tells us to love God, and to love our neighbor, and then he extends the definition of neighbor to mean “the other”—the Samaritan, the whore, the drunk, even the Roman centurion and the enemy. It’s one of the most radical dimensions of the gospel. It’s a major part of the scandal of the gospel, but we pretty effectively neutralize that scandal, tragically.
TOJ: Returning to the notion that ‘eschatology wins’, I am curious to hear your thoughts on how certain eschatological views might work for or against Christian concern for the common good, as well as what other theological resources you’d draw upon to highlight to help us realize that we really are all in the same boat as human beings before God?
BM: This is a huge question, and I imagine I’ll be grappling with this for years to come, because I think I’m only scratching the surface. I deal with this a bit in my book The Last Word and the Word After That9 and in Everything Must Change, and it keeps coming back. Let me just give one example. This week, news came out that while our government was telling us they don’t use torture, they were—secretly—using torture. Now if you believe, as Psalm 145:8-9 says, that God is ultimately compassionate, it becomes very hard to justify torture. But if you believe that the story of God ends with a large portion of God’s creation experiencing eternal, conscious torture of unimaginable proportions, the somehow torture can’t be that bad, because God does it, and never plans to stop. My friends who are deeply and irrevocably committed to the doctrine of eternal conscious torment need, I think, to realize this danger and to take preemptive action so that this doctrine won’t be used by governments to do unconscionable acts. Or I should say, so that these acts, which are now in fact being done, will be stopped.
TOJ: In a time when arguments are flying back and forth like bombs that religion is either an unequivocal good or an unnecessary evil, your work has been refreshing to many, particularly to those of us (Christians and non-Christians alike) who don’t identify with a traditional understanding of what it means to be ‘religious’. In your book you draw attention to the fact that religion can function either for good or for ill, and suggest that religion (including the Christian religion) is better understood in the very broad sense as a way of life rather than something immediately associated with an institution (church) or set of beliefs (theology). Could it be that by thinking of religion in terms of ‘beliefs’ (about God) rather than as ‘a way’ (of life), many Christians are operating with an unbiblical view of religion?
BM: Of course. These two can’t be separated, nor should they be. But I think we have a problem in our status quo, where, to use Dallas Willard’s image, a lot of people have a bar-code approach to faith. At death, God will scan our brains to see if we have the bar code of certain beliefs, and if we do, we go into the grocery bag of heaven. If not, we go into the trash bag of hell. That is a travesty of Jesus’ actual teaching. Jesus called people to follow him, and he said he was the way, truth, and life. So, as I see it, we are called to follow a way of life, and that way of life is and must be a way of fidelity to truth.
I sometimes find it helpful to replace the word “truth” with the word “reality.” Jesus says, “I am the way, the reality, the life,” and we need to follow him, being faithful to the way he leads, the reality he manifests, and the life he shares.
TOJ: What criteria (biblical or otherwise) are available for discerning whether a given religion is indeed functioning for good or for ill?
BM: I don’t think I have an easy litmus test, but your question brings to mind Jesus’ words about good trees and good fruit, bad trees and bad fruit. So we might let the prophet Micah help us: is this religion drawing people to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God? Or we might let Jesus define it as love for God and love for neighbor, stranger, and enemy. Or we might let Paul boil it down, as he does in Galatians, to “the only thing that counts is faith working through love.”
Now I’m not saying that every religion that results in these fruits is equally good or true. But if we’re looking for fruit, these kinds of things should be good signs. And if we see their opposite—I think of Paul’s words, again from Galatians—we should be suspicious. Things like sexual immorality and debauchery, idolatry, hatred, discord, jealousy, ambition, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and so on.
Of course, as a follower of Jesus, for me being centered on Jesus is absolutely central, but because of what Jesus himself teaches, I can’t be satisfied with a religion that sings and preaches Jesus but bears bad fruit. Nor can I be satisfied with a religion that bears good fruit but ignores Jesus.
TOJ: And how is the Christian religion faring on this front? You hint that the Christianity is a ‘failed religion’. In what way has Christianity failed?
BM: Well, I think what I say is that many people see Christianity as a failed religion, and we Christians must face the evidence they can point to. We shouldn’t be defensive; we should be humbled. Of course, the gospels set us up for this—the disciples are constantly clueless. They’re sending children away, telling people to shut up and go home, getting ready to call fire down from heaven on other people. The gospels never lead us to believe that the disciples are going to be all that stellar. It’s God in Christ who is reconciling the world, not us.
TOJ: Many people seem to doubt that it’s possible to be both deeply committed to, and deeply critical of, one’s religion. Yet, you seem to argue that commitment and critique should go hand in hand, and that there is room within Christianity for something like a critique of Christianity for Christ’s sake.
BM: I like the way you say this. Our loyalty to Christ requires us to be critical of this or that expression of Christianity where it betrays Christ. Jesus, of course, does this in relation to his own religion—Judaism—as do all the prophets. It’s their loyalty to God that makes them speak out against priests who give sacrifices according to the law but forget the widow and orphan.
TOJ: Turning from one controversial term to another, I’m eager to see what impact your book will have on the debate over Evangelical identity (and the proper ‘marks’ of an Evangelical) that has been going on for the past few years. My sense is that those of us dissatisfied with current definitions could rally around the notion of evangelion (or good news) that you explore in your book. In this way, being an Evangelical would mean something like believing in the good news that God overcame the dis-ease within our world through Jesus of Nazareth, and that humanity can now take up its role again as those called to fill the world with justice and love.
I admit this is a far cry from those who want to establish Evangelical identity according to a particular religious experience (usually a common conversion experience) or a particular doctrine (of Scripture, end times, or the atonement), but I am curious to hear your thoughts on how your book might contribute to the development of a more generous and worldly understanding of what it means to be an Evangelical?
BM: My honest feeling is that this is a great question, but I’m not the best person to ask this of. I would think that people who are more invested in the term ‘Evangelical’ should be having this conversation. I think people who love the term ‘reformed’ also need to have this conversation, because very different understandings of faith coexist within that term, some of which I think are glorious and others less so.
My real calling—as I understand it—is not to be primarily an Evangelical reformer. At heart, I’m an evangelist, and I’m hoping to call as many people to be followers of Jesus as I can, whatever tent they go into at night, whether it’s the Evangelical tent, the Mainline or Catholic or Orthodox tent, or some little lean-to with no name on it at all.
TOJ: If anything, Evangelicals consider themselves ‘gospel people’, yet you’ve invited your readers to reconsider the very meaning of ‘the gospel’—as an announcement of the renewal of God’s creation rather than a technique for how one ‘gets saved’. This alone requires a deep shift in foundational Evangelical assumptions about the message of Jesus.
BM: Yes, but I don’t think a lot of people will see it that way. So many people seem completely incapable of even considering the remotest possibility that their understanding of the gospel isn’t already one hundred percent correct.
TOJ: In what way could such a notion of the evangelion be the basis for a new ecumenicism, where it might be no more surprising to hear someone refer to themselves as an Evangelical Catholic or Evangelical Orthodox, than as an Evangelical Protestant?
BM: You’ve articulated exactly my preferred understanding. I think the gospel should be our guiding star, and we should live that out wherever we are called, whether that’s in an Evangelical, Catholic, orthodox or whatever community. My hope is that we’ll see a growing convergence of Evangelical Evangelicals, Evangelical traditional Protestants, Evangelical Catholics, and others—Evangelical in this integral, holistic sense.
TOJ: You describe the journey you’ve been on for the last ten years or so as discovering and conversing about what it means to be a new kind of Christian, which is something other than a “reactionary fundamentalist,” a “stuffy traditionalist,” a “blasé nominalist,” a “wishy-washy liberal,” a “New Agey religious hipster,” a “crusading religious imperialist,” or an “overly enthused Bible-waving fanatic.” You are candid about the fact that this book is written primarily for those already dissatisfied with conventional Christianity (in any of its aforementioned forms), yet we can safely assume many conventional types will read your book as well. What do you hope their response will be?
BM: Here would be my dream: that, for example, some of my highly conservative Reformed critics, or some of my loyal left-behind critics or prosperity gospel critics, would say, “You know, we think McLaren is pretty much an idiot and a fool. But he does raise some important questions. What are we going to do for the planet? What are we going to do for the poor? What are we going to do for peace-making? Because even though we think Brian is stupid and wrong, Jesus does care about these things, and because we love Jesus, we need to care too.” That would be wonderful.
The way I say it in the book is something like this: some of us are questioning the theological contract we’ve been given—the belief system we’ve inherited. But others will not—and probably should not—question their theological contract. What they’ll do is add fine print to it to make it more compassionate, humane, and responsible. If that happens, I’m overjoyed. I have pretty low expectations, I suppose. Or maybe those are still unreasonably high.
TOJ: Moving from dreams to reality [smile], how do you think your book will be received by these folks who are resistant to a new kind of Christianity?
BM: Most people will ignore it, I imagine. They’ll be told by their leaders that it is wrong and dangerous, so they’ll steer clear, which is probably good because it’s probably not the right book at the right time for them anyway. Some have already started to go after it. What saddens me is that they seem to skip over all the issues I raise about poverty, about planetary plundering, about an addiction to war, and they focus on a few things they disagree with. I can’t believe that they can just skip over these other issues, but that’s what some of them seem to do. It feels like straining gnats and swallowing camels to me, but I guess this is what will happen. I’m more hopeful for the children and grandchildren of these folks; maybe my books will help them after I’m buried under a tree somewhere.
TOJ: It’s well known that fear is one of the biggest motivators, and well, let’s just say many of your critics seem to be highly motivated. How would you rate the fear factor in all this, particularly among those who see themselves as the guardians of conventional Christianity?
BM: Some people are trusted by their communities to be watchdogs. They fulfill this role by taking their communities’ established standards and testing everyone who comes along by these established standards. So, left-behind guardians will say, “He doesn’t believe in our form of dispensationalism. He’s bad. Avoid him.” Prosperity gospel folks will say something similar, and so on. This is certainly a legitimate task. Some are more fair than others. But none of them are able to say, “This book has me questioning some of our established standards,” because the second they do so, they will be under attack by their fellow watchdogs, and there is so much fear in so many of our religious settings. It creates a kind of pathology, where people think, “I’m either going to be a suspect or an interrogator. I’ll either be an inquisitor or I’ll be held for questioning.” It’s very intimidating, even oppressive, at least to me. I guess some people like it; otherwise they’d leave.
TOJ: Speaking of watchdogs and interrogations, it seems that one of the challenges associated with making the case for the legitimacy of what is coming to be called “progressive Evangelicalism” is that your more outspoken critics repeatedly attempt to locate and confine you within one of the styles of Christianity you are attempting to differentiate from—unsurprisingly, usually the one they are already most critical of for one reason or another. Perhaps this simply goes with the territory of attempting to articulate something new, or that is currently emerging—it is simply interpreted within familiar, existing categories. So, “reactionary fundamentalists” refer to you as a “New Agey religious hipster” or a “wishy-washy liberal,” while “wishy-washy liberals” refer to you as a “stuffy traditionalist” or an “enthused Bible-waving fanatic.”
BM: Yes, you’ve just described my life in the blogosphere. There are a million legitimate criticisms to make of my work. We’re all open to criticism. But what saddens me is that people are so quick to turn one another into enemies. My feeling is that we can all learn something from one another if we approach one another speaking truth in love.
TOJ: Okay bloggers, listen to this once and for all [smile]: how would you differentiate progressive Evangelicalism from both liberalism and fundamentalism? And how does it posture itself with respect to the longstanding divide between these two main trajectories within North American Protestantism?
BM: You ask good questions, but my guess is that it would take a long book to do that question justice. Here’s what I think is happening. I didn’t start this. I’m just a small part of something that’s been brewing for a long time. I mean, really, people like me are just picking up insights and themes from Luther, even Calvin, from Kierkegaard, from Rauschenbusch, from Dr. King and Desmond Tutu, from Nancey Murphy and Rene Padilla and N. T. Wright and Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo and Diana Butler Bass and so many others. These things have been brewing for a while and a kind of convergence is happening, drawing together those you’re calling progressive Evangelicals, those I would call postliberal mainliners, and progressive Catholics and Orthodox too.
This convergence is a kind of common ground, so we’re less interested in distinguishing ourselves from others than we are in emphasizing our commonality with them, and inviting them into conversation. I have no interest in being part of some sect, creating a new us-versus-them. Some people’s reactions make that more likely; they label and exclude and vilify and so on, which can make people in my situation defensive so that we create our own little us-versus-them circle. But you see, my understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ makes me see that kind of us-versus-them thinking as part of the problem.
I believe that when Jesus died on the cross, he didn’t say, “God, now you see who the bad guys are. Let them have it,” but he said, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” He was “us-for-them” even on the cross, and that’s what I hope more and more of us can be. It’s not easy. Jesus was labeled a friend of drunks and sinners. What could he do? He couldn’t say, “No I’m not! I hate drunks and sinners!” He had to let that label be used, and he just went on with his business, trusting God to sort it all out.
So, if I’m labeled a friend of liberals, that’s true: I am. And I’m also a friend of conservatives. I have a lot of great things to say about the prosperity gospel and the left-behind eschatology too, even though I’m critical of some dimensions of each. At the end of the day, we’re all in this together. We’re all trying to do what’s right. And we all need a boatload of grace and mercy because we’re all a mess, even at our best moments. At least that’s how I see it.
TOJ: One of the things I appreciate most about your book is that you aren’t simply addressing local churches, but you are calling individuals, families, neighborhood associations, community organizations, businesses, and governmental bodies all to address our world’s crises in the unique ways that each of them are able. That said, a good way to draw our interview to a close would be to hear your thoughts on what it might look like if one or two of these groups took your book to heart.
BM: That’s a fantastic way to end the interview, because this is what I really hope will happen. I don’t offer a simple, “Here are three steps to take,” at the end of the book. Instead, I offer one step, which is very deep and very hard and also very simple and very powerful. When people take that step, I hope they’ll go to my website, www.brianmclaren.net, where we’ll be putting together an auxiliary blog that invites people to share ideas on what to do to put the book into action. I think this is exciting, because there are so many small ways we can respond, and together, these small ways can create something quite transformative if they flow from faith.
Mountains can be moved with faith.
TOJ: We like to give our conversation partners space for any final comments. Any parting thoughts?
BM: Just thanks for asking such thoughtful questions. In a world of sound-bytes, it’s really refreshing to have some substantive dialogue. Thanks for really engaging with the book. As you know, it’s so important to me that people will take seriously the two questions we started with—what’s going on in our world, and what does Jesus’ message have to say about it? Because the problems are real and critical, and Jesus’ words are good and true.
1. McLaren, Brian. Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2007.
2. The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth That Could Change Everything. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2006.
3. A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends On A Spiritual Journey. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001.
4. The Church on the Other Side. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.
5. John Sobrino. Jesus the Liberator: A Historial-Theological Reading of Jesus of Nazareth. Maryknoll: Orbis Boos, 1993.
6. Leonardo Boff Jesus Christ Liberator: A Critical Christology of Our Times. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1978.
7. DeepShift at http://deepshift.org
8. Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Elements of the Philosophy of Right. First published in 1820.
9. McLaren,Brian. The Last Word and the Word After That. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005.
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.
Jon Stanley is pursuing a Ph.D. in Interdisciplanary Philosophy (emphasis: Theology) at the Institute for Christian Studies. Also a therapist, he is very interested in how the biblical tradition can be a resource for (sexual) healing in our time. Jon and his spouse, Julie, enjoy living in Toronto.