An Interview with Brian McLaren

What is the overarching storyline of the Bible? What does it mean to say the Bible has authority? Is God violent? Who is Jesus and why is he important? What is the gospel? What is the function of the Church? Can we find a way to address human sexuality without fighting about it? Can our view of the future actually shape it? How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other faiths? What should we do next?

If you think these are stupid questions and the answers to them no-brainers, you probably shouldn’t bother with Brian McLaren’s latest book.

But if these questions intrigue you, if they get under your skin and keep you up at night, if they challenge your faith and make you want to learn more, then you will find fodder for the imagination and companionship for the journey in A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith.

Now let me say ahead of time that I’m completely biased for a couple of reasons:

1) I read A New Kind of Christianity on my Kindle on the treadmill, which means I contemplated the effects of the Greco-Roman narrative on atonement theory with a heavy dose of endorphins pumping through my bloodstream. (Never hurts.)

2) I met Brian at a conference in Chattanooga a few months ago and instantly liked him. He’s since become a true friend and a generous champion of my writing.  I don’t always agree with everything Brian says, but I know that his love for the Lord and for the people of this planet puts mine to shame…and I think that should count for something.

So to help with the interview, I turned to my regular readers (via the almighty Facebook group) and asked for input.  Most of the questions arose from that collaboration. Brian was kind enough to spend part of his eleven-hour layover at London Heathrow Airport responding to our questions before heading to Africa for a few weeks. I am thankful he took time out of a busy schedule to talk:

Transient

So tell us a little about what you will be doing in Kenya and Burundi.

In Kenya I'll be part of the amahoro-africa network - a wonderful group of Africans who are imagining and seeking to embody the Christian faith of the future in their context. They'll be talking about creation and the environment ... how African Christians can be agents of God's concern for soil, air, water, and all creatures great and small. Then in Burundi, I'll be with many old friends there - especially some folks who are helping the Batwa, among the worst-treated people on the planet. I'll try to post some video (at brianmclaren.net) about my experiences there when I return

Speaking of Africa, in A New Kind of Christianity, you speak about the African word ubuntu, which conveys a profound sense of interconnectedness and community. Can you think of a time in your life…maybe even in your travels to Africa…in which you felt quite sure you experienced ubuntu, or at least a taste of it?

My experience with the Batwa began in 2004 when three Twa men gathered around me and asked me to make a vow: "We can tell that you care about us. We want to ask you to make a vow to never forget us." I've tried to keep that vow, and some beautiful things have happened because of it. Here I am, a privileged white male from the richest country in the history of history, connected to three men from the most marginal group in one of the world's poorest, violence-torn countries ... and we are finding more of our own humanity through one another. It's an amazing thing.

It happens whenever we cross a boundary that divides people - when straight folks befriend gay folks, when Republicans befriend Democrats, when Christians and Muslims become friends - not just for the purpose of mutual conversion, but for the sake of friendship.
 
The response to A New Kind of Christianity has been strong. Some people love it. Some people hate it. Some people love parts of it but hate others.  Why do you think the response to this book has been so emotional? Were you expecting that?

The negative response has been about what I expected. Part of the negative response is that some people actually "get" what I'm saying and they rightly realize that if I'm right, radical change is needed - theologically, socially, personally. Of course, most folks in that category think I'm wrong. Some of the negative response comes from people who don't actually understand what I'm saying, but it's not familiar to what they already know, so they're suspicious of it. Some of the negative response is from people who haven't even read the book, but are trying to be loyal members of their group by disapproving what they're told to disapprove of.

What's been surprising has been how emotional the positive response has been ... tears, long letters of gratitude, many people saying this book is helping them stay Christian, or stay in ministry, and so on. It's very gratifying and humbling, as you can imagine.

Surely the negative comments—and I mean the really hateful ones— get under your skin sometimes.  How do you deal with that, and what advice would you give readers who find themselves the target of criticism for simply reading your books? 

On the question how I deal with it, I blogged about this recently.  If people are getting criticized for simply reading one of my books, I think this should tell them something about the folks doing the criticizing. I wouldn't get in a fight with the critics, but I'd be sure to find some safe friends with whom I can think and speak freely. Paul said, "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty," and when people are trying to crack down on honest questions and honest discussion, that doesn't seem like a good sign to me.
 
You organized A New Kind of Christianity around ten questions that you believe are transforming the faith. If your publisher called you up tonight and said they wanted an eleventh question for the next printing, what would it be? Is there another pivotal question you could easily add?

Here's the question: What kind of spirituality supports the kind of Christianity you're exploring in the book?It turns out that this will be the topic of my next book. So right now, I'm deep in writing about spiritual practices that are integral to a new kind of Christianity.
 
In A New Kind of Christianity, you often return to your original critique of the Greco-Roman narrative, which is found in Part One.  You have received some criticism on this front, with folks like Scot McKnight contending that you’ve created a straw man because reputable theologians do not actually operate with that narrative. Were you employing some hyperbolic license as you sketched the Zeus-like character of Theos who “"loves spirit, state, and being and hates matter, story and becoming” or do you really believe he is the God of conventional Western Christianity?

I've talked with Scot about this quite a bit. His position is a bit complex. On the one hand, he doesn't say that no reputable theologian operates in that narrative, but that none of them express it as crudely as I do. Responsible theologians nuance the narrative a good bit. (And of course, in the book, I say the same thing.) But on the other hand, Scot seems to believe that the narrative I spell out, properly nuanced, is more or less the orthodox Christian narrative. 

So if we put the hyperbolic language aside, Scot and I agree that this "soul-sort" narrative has been dominant in the Christian faith for a long time (I'd say since the fourth century, and not so much in Eastern Orthodoxy). But where Scot thinks it's true, I think it's a distortion - an example of syncretism to Greek philosophical dualism and Roman imperial politics. I think there has been a minority report in the West -- St. Patrick, St. Francis, Duns Scotus, the Anabaptists, liberation theology, black theology, feminist theology, eco-theology, postcolonial theology - and they're providing alternatives to the dominant narrative that I think is inherently dangerous.

I'm glad that Scot and others will try to rehabilitate the conventional narrative - to make it less violent, dualist, etc. But my sense is that the "three dimensional" narrative I propose has a lot more to offer long-term, even though it's harder for devotees of the dominant narrative to accept short-term.
 
As I’ve spoken with my readers, several of them have expressed interest in the sources you used while researching A New Kind of Christianity—some because they are skeptical about your scholarship, others because they liked what you said and want to learn more. What books would you recommend as good companions to A New Kind of Christianity? And to what sources did you find yourself returning most often?

On the issue of Greek dualism, there are hundreds of sources. They might start with Harvey Cox's The Future of Faith. On the issue of Roman politics, they could look at the work of John Howard Yoder, starting with The Politics of Jesus. My footnotes are pretty thorough for other sources. I'd also recommend folks look at the work of black and postcolonial theologians - Gustavo Gutierrez, James Cone, Rene Padilla, Leonardo Boff. My friend Richard Rohr is doing great work on the issue of dualism in general, from a Franciscan point of view. And the work of folks seeking an alternative to mind-body dualism could also be helpful - Nancey Murphy, Joel Green, and others. They might also go to the sites for Christian Nondualityand Cathlimergent.

This is a question from Stephen, one of my readers—“A rough translation of ‘In certis unitas In dubiis libertas et in omnibus caritas’ is ‘In certainties unity, in doubts liberty, and in everything charity’ What do you consider to be ‘certainties’ or fundamentals of the faith?”

This could be answered from many angles, but I'd start by saying, "Love God, love your neighbors." That to me is the most essential, most foundational. Doctrinally, I'm certainly supportive of the apostles and nicene creeds, but I'd want to be sure we put Scripture above the creeds, and I want to put Jesus at the pinnacle of the Scriptures. It's kind of sad, for example, that you can affirm the creeds and still be a racist ... which is why I want to focus on Jesus' own words rather than words of the later church, as important as they may be.

How do you respond to those who say your views are outside the realm of orthodoxy? How do you define orthodoxy?

Oddly, when Evangelicals say I'm not orthodox, they have to realize that Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox might say the same about them, since apostolic succession and the primacy of the bishops aren't small matters in those traditions. Calvinists tend to think of Arminians as missing the boat, and Pentecostals are similarly excluded by others - while doing some excluding of their own. And the strictest fundamentalists say that Catholics aren't orthodox! So I'm sorry that people feel this way about me; I think they're wrong, but they're entitled to their opinion.

When you close your eyes and imagine what a new kind of Christianity would look like, what do you see? And what gives you the most hope that a new kind of Christianity is possible?

I see it all over the place. I'll see it in a few hours when I arrive in Africa, and I saw it right before I left in a group of church planters. It's pervasive ... in all denominations ... like the green tips on the branches at this time of year.
 
This is a question from Monika—“What would you say to someone who wants, really wants, to live following Jesus but has seen so much evil and brokenness in Christianity that they don't see a way to make it work anymore?"

For all the people asking questions about orthodoxy, I meet a lot more like Monika, who see people proclaiming their own orthodoxy, but doing all kinds of ugliness and damage. I was speaking to a group of pastors a few weeks ago about the new book, and the first question was, "I get the need for 'a new kind,' but I don't see why we don't just leave Christianity behind. Is it beyond repair?"

I think God's Spirit wants to heal everything that's broken - including me. That's why I'm writing and working and doing what I'm doing - to participating in God's healing work, trying to heal what's broken. The only alternative, I think, is to give up ... and that's terribly depressing. So my prayer would be that Monika would know she's seeing real problems, but that this is our opportunity to make a positive difference.
 
And now for some fun. When I interview people for the blog, I like to pretend I’m James Lipton from “Inside the Actor’s Studio” and ask the ten famous questions from the Pivot Questionnaire. (Short answers.) Here it goes: 

Pivot Question #1: What is your favorite word?

Today it's "beyond."
 
Pivot Question #2: What is your least favorite word?

Today it's "closed." 

Pivot Question #3: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Good poetry. 

Pivot Question #4: What turns you off?

Sermons that go on too long, especially my own. 

Pivot Question #5: What is your favorite curse word?

These days it's "tea party." 

Pivot Question #6: What sound or noise do you love?

Gray treefrogs singing. 

Pivot Question #7:  What sound or noise do you hate?

Flatulent mufflers in busses. 

Pivot Question #8: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

To join Jane Goodall in protecting chimps and other wildlife. 

Pivot Question #9: What profession would you not like to do?

Accounting. Tax preparation. Taking the tolls at toll booths.

Pivot Question #10 (which might have been a bit influenced by the Greco-Roman narrative): If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

I got a kick out of watching you learn and grow.

***

Buy A New Kind of Christianity here.

Read Brian's Blog here.

Question for you: Which of the ten questions (stated at the beginning of the post) intrigues you the most?  Also, feel free to weigh in with your thoughts on A New Kind of Christianity (but only if you've actually read it!) or post a link to your own review.

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