Monday, September 24, 2012

the view from... Brian McLaren

Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and public theologian. A former college English teacher and pastor, he is an ecumenical global networker among innovative Christian leaders. He is primarily known, however, as a thinker and writer. His first book, The Church on the Other Side: Doing Ministry in the Postmodern Matrix, (Zondervan, 1998, rev. ed. 2000) has been recognized as a primary portal into the current conversation about postmodern ministry. His second book, Finding Faith (Zondervan, 1999), is a contemporary apologetic, written for thoughtful seekers and skeptics. (It was later re-released as two short books, "A Search for What Makes Sense" and "A Search for What is Real.") "More Ready Than You Realize" (Zondervan, 2002) presents a refreshing approach to spiritual friendship. "Adventures in Missing the Point" (coauthored with Dr. Anthony Campolo, Zondervan, 2003) explores theological reform in a postmodern context. "A Generous Orthodoxy" (Zondervan, 2004), is a personal confession and has been called a "manifesto of the emerging church conversation." (For Brian's official site, go to http://www.brianmclaren.net/)

Tell us a little about how you became a Christian. What experiences led you to believe that there had to be something more than just this life?

Brian McLaren: I was brought up in a committed Christian family, and like a lot of church kids, I had to reach a point where I either rejected the faith or made it my own. That happened for me in my teenage years. Right at the point where I had the opportunity to walk away, God brought into my life several friends my age or a little older than me who lived a life of radical discipleship, and they challenged me to join them, and I did. During this time, I had some very powerful experiences with the Holy Spirit which led me to the conviction that God was real.

How did those experiences and that decision to follow Jesus Christ impact your life and the relationships you had with others?

Brian: Interestingly, the first thing that I remember was a desire to get along better with my parents, and the second was to "cease and desist" from some of the crude and hurtful behavior that a lot of my buddies were part of. The third was to begin sharing my faith with some friends.

What does your faith mean to you? Why is it crucial to you?

Brian: I think that life boils down to a choice between running my own agenda (or some other agenda created by human beings) or seeking God's agenda. My own agenda will focus on my personal interests, pleasure, prosperity, security, and so on. God's agenda will focus on love, joy, peace, justice, character development, and so on. One will make me part of the problem in the world, and the other will make me part of the solution.

What lessons have been the most valuable to you during your experience of following Christ?

Brian: I'll mention three. First is the importance of staying in close contact with God. It's so easy to keep up religious activities but not actually be "abiding" in God. So, disciplines or practices like prayer, practicing God's presence, solitude, silence, Scripture reading and meditation, and so on, have been central to my life. Second, I've learned how important it is to see Christ in the people most often rejected or forgotten by others. The Holy Spirit always draws me to find the loneliest person in a crowd, or the youngest, or oldest, or most different to befriend them and connect with them - and this has been very important to the direction my life has taken. And third is the need to keep learning. I'm in my early fifties now, and I feel that I have more to learn than ever. I've seen some acquaintances become complacent or even proud - as if they have all the answers - and I don't think this is a good sign. So I try to keep learning, keep asking questions, keep aware that however old I am, before God I'm just a little kid who knows next to nothing.

Many Christians seem to have retreated to a subculture where they can recreate the world into a "safer" version of reality, with Christian TV, Christian music, Christian fashion. Do you feel this retreat from the world has helped give the impression that Christians don't really care about people but instead care about protecting themselves from the "bad" influences out there?

Brian: Yes. Sadly, there's a dangerous religious impulse - I read where someone called it a "religiously transmitted disease" - where people create us/them, in/out groups. They become culture warriors and exluders instead of healers and peacemakers as Jesus was. Jesus' movement in the incarnation was downward, to come among us, to bring God to us, while the Pharisees movement was upward, to place themselves above others and look down on them in judgment. This whole movement into a Christian subculture and parallel religious universe, it seems to me, is both understandable and problematic for people who want to be followers of Jesus, not modern-day Pharisees.

How do you avoid that retreat, particularly as a writer and established "Christian thinker"?

Brian: I remember feeling this very much when I left my first career as a college English teacher and became a pastor. I had to take intentional action or I would have been isolated in a religious parallel universe. What I did back then was to get involved in community soccer and start doing volunteer work in an area of interest for me. Just yesterday, my wife and I organized a picnic for all our neighbors and we had a great time getting and staying connected with everyone.

Because my works are considered controversial by some people, I could easily get sucked into intramural arguments with my critics. But I've chosen instead to focus on issues that are common to all humanity - not just religious folks - so I'm increasingly focused on what the gospel says to global crises like the environment, peace and war, and the gap between the rich and poor. This puts me into increasing contact with people in the society at large who care about these things.

The notion of separating the sacred (that spiritual existence) and the secular (the "real" world of jobs and flat tires) -- what's your response to the person who tries to divide the world into these simple divisions?

Brian: This shows the degree to which we've become devotees of the Greek god "theos" instead of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. The Jewish concept of God was not dualistic -- God was the creator of the physical world and all its stuff, and God called it all "good" and "very good." The Greek god "theos" was interested in spirit but not matter, souls but not bodies, eternity but not history, and escape not incarnation. So, I would encourage the devotee of the Greek deity to reconsider how different Jesus was, and what he reveals about God - a God who "became flesh" and "dwelt among us," who ate with tax collectors and sinners, who immersed himself in our world of dust and dirt and sweat and tears.

In your open letter to worship songwriters, you address several concerns that could be leading to a lesser level of spiritual depth or at least to a less well-rounded faith that goes beyond just "me-nes." How has recent spiritual songwriting contributed to generating Christians that don't seek to engage the world with the mystery of Christ?

Brian: I think that "the worship industry" has great intentions, but sadly, it begins to function like the mass media of which it is part. TV, radio, video games, even the internet have a way of sucking you out of "real reality" and into "virtual reality." You watch "Animal Planet," but you never get out and see an osprey diving for fish, or ride a real horse, or make friends with the neighborhood squirrels. In a similar way, we can become addicted to a "feeling" of "God's presence" which we experience "in worship" - maybe like Peter wanting to stay on the mount of transfiguration in the Gospel story. We want to build our tents there. But Jesus always leads us down the mountain and into ministry. I love to be on the mountaintop and have those intense experiences, but I find that they go stale. As Jesus said, he is is the kind of shepherd who leads us in and out to find pasture ... he doesn't lead us in and in.

Who are the thinkers, artists, and writers who have influenced your understanding of the life of faith?

Brian: There are so many, it's hard to know where to begin. In my early years, C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer were a huge influence. Then, Walker Percy's writings really helped me. In the last decade or so, Lesslie Newbigin, David Bosch, Walter Brueggemann, Wendell Berry, and N. T. Wright have helped me so much. In the last few years, I've been tremendously inspired by African, Asian, and Latin American theologians - like Alan Boesak, Jon Sobrino, Leonardo Boff, Rene Padilla, and others.

I'd have to say that the music of Bruce Cockburn, David Wilcox, Carrie Newcomer, Mike Blanchard, and others like them has been the kind of soundtrack for my spiritual life. The poetry of Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver mean a lot to me, along with William Wordsworth and William Blake and John Donne.

What do you see as the biggest hang-ups keeping Christians from being able to make an impact in the world at large, or becoming what Bob Briner refers to as "roaring lambs"?

Brian: Lately, I think it's the culture war mentality that has swept through Evangelical and Charismatic Christianity. I think its long-term effects will be so negative. Put that together with the Prosperity Gospel, and I think you have a religion of power, aggression, selfishness, and greed ... hardly what Jesus intended. Much of this is made worse by the "left-behind" eschatology that encourages Christians to dream of evacuating or abandoning the earth rather than incarnating the gospel into it and seeing it transformed by the good news of the kingdom of God. Some of this comes from a theological assumption that God hates the world because of its sin, and that God wants to destroy it as soon as possible. So, I think the causes of these problems are deep, interconnected, and highly related to some bad theology.

What do you see as the real issues Christians should be addressing to a today's generation and its culture?

Brian: This is really the subject of my newest book, which is called Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope. I try to understand the world's most serious crises and see what the message and example of Jesus teach us about how to respond. In the book, I describe four crises - the prosperity crisis, the equity crisis, the security crisis, and the spirituality crisis. I'm very hopeful that the book will get people thinking about the question you raise - and help us focus on deeper issues than we've been preoccupied with.

Suppose I'm an honest skeptic standing before you at this moment. What's the one thing you wouldn't want me to leave without hearing?

Brian: First, I'd want to say I'm sorry for all the confusion and aggression that religious people create in the name of God. I would want you to know that I can see why, in light of crusade and jihad, in light of religious scandal and hypocrisy, you would feel that being a skeptic is a better option than being a religious bigot or hypocrite. But then I'd say that there are many of us who are devoting ourselves to seeking a better way, and we believe that this is the way God showed us in Jesus. I would want you to know that you're welcome to come along and see what we're up to, what we're learning, and whether there is good reason to move from honest skepticism to honest faith. I would want you to know that we're not perfect and that you'll see a lot of problems and failures in our lives, but that we won't expect you to be perfect either, because in the end, we believe that God loves and accepts us all just as we are.

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