Brian McLaren interview: Changing faith, staying faithful
The author and emerging church leader Brian McLaren talks to Stephen Tomkins
In 2005, Time magazine listed Brian McLaren as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in the US, calling him a “paradigm shifter” because of his new approach to church and his “kinder” version of theology. As the founder of an innovative church in Maryland, he became a leader of the emerging church movement. In 2006, he stepped down as pastor to become a full-time writer on spirituality and theology. He has published more than 20 books, most notably A New Kind of Christian, (SPCK, 2001) – a fictional dialogue exploring faith.
His latest book, We Make the Road by Walking (Hodder and Stoughton, 2014), which is partly aimed at discussion groups, talks through 52 passages from the Bible in an attempt to challenge the traditional overview of scripture and see its story in a new light. In a day full of interviews and talks, Reform grabbed half an hour with him in Pimlico.
Can you tell me about the faith that you were brought up in?
I was born in a Plymouth Brethren family, so that would probably be considered fundamentalist. Very passionate; a very deep love for the Bible. My father grew up in Africa – his father was a missionary – so very committed.
Looking back does that feel restricted or oppressive to you now?
I’m very grateful for it, for a lot that I got from it, but if my only choice had been to stay or leave, I would have had to leave. When I was 13 my Sunday school teacher said: “You can either believe in God or evolution”, and I remember thinking: “Evolution makes a lot of sense to me.” When I started playing rock ’n’ roll, it wasn’t a great fit – our church didn’t even have musical instruments. There were very tight restrictions on what women could do. There were a lot of things I would never have stayed with.
What did change?
I had a lot of ups and downs with faith in my teenage years; I had questions, and felt that I just didn’t fit. But I had a powerful conversion experience, so I was deeply committed to Christ and it was just a question of where I was going to live that out.
Can you tell me about that conversion?
I was getting old enough to go my own way, and I spent six months walking both sides of the fence. I was invited on this retreat, and a few friends of mine, I guess we were breaking the rules, but we went and sat out under the stars and I had a deep experience of the love of God, and from that night I had both feet on the path.
But your faith continued to develop.
I was part of the Jesus movement in the 1970s, in a little experimental church, which had a tragic collapse, and I thought: “I’ll never be part of something like that again.” But a few years later my wife and I started a dinner group in our home and soon 30 people were coming, and 50 people, and it ended up becoming a congregation.
I was a college English teacher, so I started doing some of the teaching, and came into ministry through the back door. I’d moved from strict fundamentalism to more mainstream evangelicalism, but I still had a lot of questions, then people came into the church and asked me questions that were from outside any framework I could answer, so I was a pastor with a lot of deep questions myself.
You’re known now as a US evangelical leader with a more positive attitude than some to other religions and to social issues. Do you feel part of a movement, or are you a voice crying the wilderness?
People talk about a movement. I hope that I will become part of a movement, but I don’t think it’s happening yet.
A review of A New Kind of Christian in Christianity Today said that you were tired of evangelicalism.
I felt the review was projecting on me the feeling of the reviewer – that he was a little tired of me!
But you have a critique of evangelicalism?
Faith is always a journey, not just saying the same things in the same ways. Evangelicalism needs to keep moving forward.
Time magazine quoted you as saying, about a question of gay relationships: “The thing that breaks my heart is that there’s no way I can answer it without hurting someone on either side.” Is there a way to deal with that, other than keeping silent?
I have no memory of saying that! But yes, if you challenge conventional assumptions you really upset some people, yet if you stick with conventional assumptions you damage other people who have already been damaged a lot. I think we can do what we think is right in more careful ways. But whatever we say, it’s going to have consequences.
I read that in 2006 you suggested a five-year moratorium on talking about Christian attitudes to gay relationships. How did that go?
That was also interesting! What I said was “a moratorium on making pronouncements”. If we rush to label people “homophobe” or “accomodater”, we stop listening to each other. Making pronouncements often is a way of shutting people out of a relationship.
I was in a conversation on homosexuality [on Premier Christian Radio] a few minutes ago, with a fellow from a mainstream evangelical standpoint. I noticed his position is very different than the position before. Fifteen or 20 years ago it was: “If you’re gay, it’s a choice, it’s a sin, you should repent and change.” Five or 10 years ago it was: “If you’re gay, you have a psychological problem and you can be healed.” Fewer and fewer evangelicals are saying that; they’re saying: “If you’re gay this is your sign that you should be celibate.” I still don’t think that’s the only valid response, but it’s interesting how those answers change.
You write about a new approach to spiritual development. Is there something lacking in modern Christian spirituality?
Where I grew up, the way to grow spiritually was: Go to church, read your Bible, witness, pray. It was a checklist, and it was clear a lot of people had done those things for years and hadn’t become less mean. Recently, more and more people, Protestants and Catholics, are asking how to become more Christlike, and realising that a checklist is not what brings change.
The term Jesus uses is “hunger and thirst”. The cultivation of desire is really important. Something that’s helping a lot of people is a rediscovery of monastic and contemplative practices. Exercising our souls is analogous to exercising our bodies – if you run everyday you will be able to run distances you physically cannot today.
Has your relationship with the Bible changed?
Maybe it’s changed the way my relationship with my wife changes – we’re still married but we’ve changed and grown and our understanding of each other has deepened. I hope my relationship with the Bible is more mature, not forcing it into what I want it to be.
It has become more complicated too, hasn’t it? You talk in Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road? about the New Testament seeing “other-aversion” as the greatest sin, while parts of the Old Testament are guilty of it.
The big change came through the fact that I was preaching from it constantly so I had to pay attention to parts I wouldn’t normally; and then from reading an article by Walter Breuggemann, where he made a very obvious statement: If you ask what the Bible’s view of the monarchy is in the Old Testament, there are two different views; they are in conflict, and some passages defend one and some the other. I had never been able to verbalise that before. As soon as I was given permission to see arguments going on, the Bible became a lot more interesting.
We need to take seriously the form of the Bible, the fact that it has different voices over hundreds of years, many different literary genres and political agendas. People say those are contradictions, but you can only have contradictions where there is one voice; what the Bible brings us is many voices, and acknowledging that enables us to engage with it more maturely.
Is there something at the heart of the Bible for you?
An American theologian defined “a culture” as a people united by their arguments. They say: “This issue is so important we’ll keep fighting about it” – the rights of the many versus the rights of the few, a big one in western civilisation; in some eastern culture the rights of the living versus the rights of the dead; in Native American culture the rights of the living versus the rights of the not yet living. I think that’s what’s going on in the Bible: “What is a good life? What does God require? What is God like?” They argue because they agree these questions are important.
Can an understanding of these conversations in the Bible help us to live together as Christians who disagree?
In the long run. In the short run, it might scare us, because we assume the only way we can get along is if we all see things the same way. This is part of the drama of the New Testament: People can be part of one faith community who have different practices and customs. All that strange stuff about eating meat sacrificed to idols – there is never any pressure to choose the right position on this, there’s understanding that people hold their positions for different reasons. Ironically that’s why 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter, was written. It wasn’t written for weddings, it was written for these areas of disagreement. It’s hard to experience strong love without the experience of difference.
What does orthodoxy mean to you?
GK Chesterton used this great image of a charioteer riding down a rocky road and how hard it is to keep balance. It’s not a static picture: Orthodoxy moves, because times change. It is not a matter of always saying the same thing in the same way, but of responding faithfully to our changing setting as our ancestors did to theirs.
I have to acknowledge that in American history, you could be “orthodox”, believe the creeds and be a racist. Whatever orthodoxy means it shouldn’t allow you to be a racist. We have to shift our emphasis from ticking a list of statements to a way of life – and one which copes with the realities of our world today: Climate change; the growing gap between rich and poor; war and the possibility of blowing ourselves up. Whatever word you want to use – “orthodoxy”, “faithfulness” – we can’t think we’re fine so long as we say what’s always been said.
Do you face hostility from people who feel let down by your change of opinion?
Yes. It’s easier than it was 10 years ago, I’m really glad I didn’t have to deal with this in my 20s or 30s. Some things hurt. It’s complicated when you turn up somewhere and realise some people wish you weren’t there. Though I was reading recently how St John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila were thrown in gaol. People were killing each other for religious differences, so I have nothing to complain about.
In Why Did Jesus…? you say the remedy for strong, hostile Christianity is not weak, benign Christianity. What’s wrong with weakness?
It’s maybe better, if we want to reduce hostility in the world. The problem is that if whenever people lose hostility they also lose religion, then the only people left in the world of religion are the people with a hostile identity. And being benign to people who are different from us is not enough. We need something far more robust than tolerance, we need to learn love and respect, and a willingness to hang in there through deep misunderstanding, sometimes a willingness to suffer. That’s not easy to come by and requires a deep spiritual commitment. That’s why we need a strong spiritual identity that is also strong in benevolence.
What does evangelism mean to you these days?
It’s presenting the Good News of the Kingdom of God, as Jesus did. Traditional evangelism calls people to commitment, and I think that’s something we have to become much better at. Unfortunately the old evangelism either called people to a hell-evacuation plan or a tribal conversion from one group of people to another. We need a deeper sense of calling people into a life of discipleship, which begins with a commitment but continues with a lifelong process of growth; but if I have a Muslim who I’m able to share some of my gifts with, I want him to be able to receive those gifts without having to change clubs and join a different religion.
This article was published in the December 2014/January 2015 edition of Reform.