The Equation of Change
Brian McLaren is a leading Evangelical pastor and author of several books including A Generous Orthodoxy, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, and the forthcoming We Make the Road by Walking.
March 13, 2014
BRIAN MCLAREN: I think one of the things that’s happening to a lot of us is that there’s this vision of the beauty of God that transports us and that takes us to a new depth and a new height. It’s one of those things about beauty. You can’t capture it in a word or a formula. When you get to that humble place where the beauty of God has overwhelmed you, I think it changes everything. You can say the same creed that you said before, but now it’s not a creed that grasps God in the fist of the words, but it’s a creed that points up to a beauty that’s beyond anybody’s grasp.
[Music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: Brian McLaren was raised a Christian fundamentalist, and later became one of the most influential outside the box evangelicals in the U.S, a kind of progressive counter-voice to the media pulpits of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson in the 1980s and ’90s. He’s a former college literature professor, who then served as a pastor for a large non-denominational congregation in Maryland for 20 years. The 21st Century evolution of Christianity, the idea of an “emerging church”, and the meaning of progressive Evangelicalism – these were undergirding themes at the 2013 Wild Goose Festival, where I interviewed Brian McLaren.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
I spoke with Brian McLaren with a gathered crowd in folding chairs and on blankets on a campground in Hot Springs, North Carolina, on a sweltering August day.
MS. TIPPETT: Okay, we were just instructed to speak to everyone back in the shade. Which is where I would be if I was out there.
Brian McLaren is one of the original articulators of the notion of emergent Christianity, the emerging church. Among other things, he said — among other things, he said he envisions a community where diversity no longer means division. Time Magazine has called Brian McLaren one of the country’s most influential Evangelicals.
A former college English teacher and pastor, he’s best known for his books that range from fiction to best-selling spiritual guides, from A New Kind of Christian to Naked Spirituality. He’s also the author, more recently, of Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World.
So, you know, I’d like to start by just hearing a little bit about the religious and spiritual background of your childhood. You’ve described yourself as growing up in hardcore church.
MR. MCLAREN: Yes. Well, I grew up in a little Protestant group called the Plymouth Brethren.
MS. TIPPETT: Oh, you did?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Woo!
MR. MCLAREN: [laugh] Both of the Plymouth Brethren in the United States are here [laugh].
MS. TIPPETT: Surely, there were four or five, though, back when you were growing up.
MR. MCLAREN: That’s right, and Garrison Keillor is probably the best known of them.
MS. TIPPETT: Exactly, yeah.
MR. MCLAREN: When he talks about the Sanctified Brethren, that’s my people. But I kind of reached my turning point as a young fundamentalist. I think I was in seventh grade and my Sunday School teacher said, “You have to choose. You either can believe in God or evolution.” And I remember at that age, I thought evolution was absolutely magnificent.
MS. TIPPETT: ‘Cause you were also kind of a science geek in school, right?
MR. MCLAREN: I was the biggest science geek. I still am an outdoors guy, like my passion now — this is so embarrassing, but my passion is dragonflies. I’m learning the names of dragonflies and I just love all facets of the outdoors. So that was — my first problem was science and my second problem was rock and roll [laugh]. Those don’t fit well with fundamentalist upbringing. So I was kind of on my way out of this whole thing and then I encountered the Jesus movement in the early ‘70s and I’m one of those people who had a kind of dramatic conversion through the Jesus movement.
MS. TIPPETT: A dramatic conversion back to Christianity, but a different kind of Christianity?
MR. MCLAREN: Yeah. You know, I think what happened is what had been a system of belief that I’d inherited became a real experience and I really had a very profound experience of the love of God. And I think that has been formative for me because what brought me back into the Christian kind of fold was this experience of being loved and that was at the core of it. And in some ways, I had to live with the tension of this primary experience of being loved together with an awful lot of other religious static that wasn’t quite in sync with love.
MS. TIPPETT: And then you originally — you delved into your love of literature and you became a college English teacher. And as I read you, I sense that your love of literature actually is very much present in how you approach the Bible and theology.
MR. MCLAREN: In fact, it’s funny you say that, Krista, because here I grew up with this fundamentalist background where you really learn the Bible. I mean, I memorized lots and lots of the Bible. You tend to only memorize certain verses. You have to carefully avoid the ones before them and after them.
MS. TIPPETT: I grew up in that place too. I know [laugh].
MR. MCLAREN: So I had this knowledge of the Bible, but when I was in college and graduate school studying literature, especially when I encountered the amazing work of Walker Percy, I realized that, if I were to read the Bible literarily as opposed to literally, it would be a completely different experience.
MS. TIPPETT: And so, how did you walk into ministry then? How did that happen?
MR. MCLAREN: Well, I was teaching at University of Maryland and my wife and I had a little apartment off campus. And I kept inviting people over for dinner and my wife said, look — you know, she was a high school teacher and my schedule was a little more flexible and she’d come home and find five people there and she’d say, “Listen, we’ve got to get more organized about this, so if you want to invite people over, invite them on Thursday night.”
So we started with these little Thursday night dinners and one thing led to another. That became a little fellowship and that went through a few permutations, but ended up another couple joined my wife and me and we said, “Hey, this is kind of a little church. Let’s see what could happen.”
MS. TIPPETT: But you didn’t call it a house church, did you? You called it a dinner group.
MR. MCLAREN: I mean, it really started as dinner.
MS. TIPPETT: And then your sense of calling grew out of that?
MR. MCLAREN: I think I realized some sense of my calling was that, if I became a traditional priest or pastor, I would be in the religious world and I wasn’t that attracted to the religious world.
I was in this situation of loving the spiritual life, loving and talking about the Bible, loving and talking about mission and purpose and so on, but not that thrilled about the religious life whether it was the fundamentalist form of religion or the more liturgical high church forms of religion. So it wasn’t this wonderful aha moment. It was more, well, I can’t do that and I can’t do that and I can’t do that. Then when this fellowship grew to a certain size, that became my, oh, this is what I’m supposed to do.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. OK, so what years are we talking here?
MR. MCLAREN: We’re talking — this little fellowship formed in 1982 and I left teaching in 1986.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. You know, you’ve written about, um, well, the way religion reentered — and especially Evangelical Christianity — reentered American public life in the ’80s and ’90s and during that time and then in the ’90s in a big way. You know, I really feel like there’s a trauma from that time for a lot of Christians that’s still there, that’s still present. It’s not only that really Falwell and Robertson were in a class on their own that they presented themselves with such great sound bites, but journalists who I also give a lot of credit for this trauma too, you know, gave them this incredible legitimacy and this incredible platform. And you wrote honestly — and I think this is an experience a lot of people had who weren’t where they were, that you became part of that silent majority that didn’t associate with that, didn’t want to be associated with it, but instead the really damaging thing that happened is everybody else got so quiet.
MR. MCLAREN: Yes, yes. That’s a part of history that I think we should pay more attention to. And what happened in the ’90s, I mean, it’s a complicated thing and I’m sure the whole story will someday be told when a lot of the key players decide to tell what is still unknown.
But however it happened, watching the Evangelical community become this mouthpiece for a certain form of republicanism, and the irony of this is not only did that alliance change Evangelicalism, it changed republicanism, I think, for the worse. I think I just withdrew to say let’s have a good church. I tried to avoid politics. I tried to avoid anything that would get me even in the same ballpark with that kind of strident religiosity.
MS. TIPPETT: So — so where in that story that, as you say, you know, a lot of people are still going to have to make sense of, where does emergent church come in? Where does the idea that language — you’re not the only person who was thinking about it — you really are a key person who you started to give voice to that. So where did that come into that picture?
Ms. McLaren: Sure. Well, I can tell you about my personal experience and then explain how that maybe links up with other peoples’ experience. Around 1990 or 1991, I had more and more people coming to my church who were unchurched and they were what we might today call postmodern people. And they were looking for God and they felt like I maybe had faith and some amount of a brain and they liked the church.
And they would come to me with their questions. And I would listen to their questions and I would give them the best answers I’d been taught. And I remember many times having this feeling. They would leave the office and I would think, “I hope they didn’t buy that” because I don’t really buy that.
Their question was better than my answer. And little by little, their questions became my questions and my answers did not become their answers. So they had a big influence on me to say I need to be more honest about these — some of these questions that are coming up. And I thought I was the only person in this mess and it was not an easy couple of years.
The first book that I wrote was called Church on the Other Side and in some ways detailed my journey in this. And I remember thinking, when this book comes out, I will not have any friends. But when the book came out, it turns out all these other people said, “I thought I was the only one. I thought I was the only one.” So it turns out there was a lot of this questioning behind the scenes and people just needed a few people to raise a flag and say, “It’s safe to talk here” and they would flock into that space where it was safe to be honest.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. I’m outdoors at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina. Today with theologian and author, Brian McLaren.
MS. TIPPETT: So — so what is this phrase, emerging church, mean for you?
MR. MCLAREN: There were a couple of things going on. You know, we were using the word postmodern a lot and that’s such a contested word.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, it is, but you still use it. So, I mean, also what did it mean when you used the term postmodern?
MR. MCLAREN: Well, if you think of it like this, the modern era is the era of the Conquistadors. It’s the era when the whole world is colonized by a form of Christianity. Its southern European form was Catholic, its northern European form was Protestant, but it was a European form of Christianity that assumed that believing in Jesus gave you the right to steal everybody’s land, either make them your slaves or put them on reservations.
And when you look back and say, “Our religion has fused and become the chaplaincy for these imperial projects, colonial projects,” when you start paying attention to that, you either have to leave your Christianity or you have to become savvy about what happened to it.
So what I would say, in that way, postmodern is postcolonial and then that gets intensified through the holocaust. I think postmodern, postcolonial and post holocaust because the holocaust also forces Christians to say, “How did we create the conditions where six million Jews could be exterminated?” And, of course, right around those post…
MS. TIPPETT: In a Christian country.
MR. MCLAREN: In a Christian country. And after those years of World War II, then that’s when people start paying attention. Wow, we did it to women too. Wow, we did it to the Native Americans too. Wow, we’re killing the environment too. And when you have second thoughts about the entire civilization and religious justification for that civilization, you have second thoughts about modernity at that moment. To me, that’s the broadest and best definition of postmodernity.
So when something is emerging in the aftermath of modernity, whatever that emerging thing is, we felt like we were part of it. We didn’t have the five-point plan. We didn’t have it all figured out, but we said something is happening here. We know we’re leaving something behind. For those of us who were involved in these conversations, we’re Christians, we’re committed to Jesus, we love God, we want to stay with that, but we’re willing to really go through a kind of virus scan and figure out what really ought to be here and what ought not be here.
MS. TIPPETT: But, you know something that’s really intriguing to me about when Christians use the term postmodern, when emerging church people use the term postmodern, it was also a move all the way back to the fourth century or the second century. It was a move back to recover ancient roots. Very interesting.
MR. MCLAREN: Kind of paradoxical, isn’t it?
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, yeah.
MR. MCLAREN: But in one way, it makes perfect sense because one of the tools that Europeans used to justify enslaving and stealing the lands and the free labor and resources of everybody else was to say, “You all have a story. We have a system. You all have stories that are situated. We have a system that’s universal and absolute.” And when you are a Christian who — in all of your Christian faith, for Protestants, it happened all the way from the Reformation up to the 20th century in both liberal and conservative forms. They were two versions of the same thing.
When you see there’s something wrong with this whole modern project, you realize you what know what? We Christians, we have a story too. And in fact we’re probably at our worst when we present our faith as a system rather than as a story.
When you do that, you say, well, how can we rediscover our faith? Let’s go back and look at our faith before it was reduced to a system, before it was reduced to a system of abstractions and beliefs. How can we rediscover our faith as a series of stories and as a series of encounters? So for that reason, a lot of us, for example, who were very Protestant and sort of doctrinaire in our thinking, we rediscovered the sacraments because liturgy and sacrament, different kind of encounter.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, and you could almost say, in a sense for Protestants, that was a move back into history, right? Yeah, it was reaching back into history.
MR. MCLAREN: Yes. And then weird things happen. Like you then — I think we also started to realize that this modern phenomenon of the Christian colonization of the world really had roots back to Constantine when the Christian faith had its first affair with empire. And when you go back then, something really interesting happens because you look at the monastic movements as an attempt to have a form of Christianity that is not part of this religious industrial empire, you know.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Well, the monastic movements were spiritual renewal movements, right? They were the early emerging church.
MR. MCLAREN: Well, when you think about it like this, I mean, this comparison probably is never made before and maybe never should again. But, you know, when you think of the ’60s and ’70s and all the hippies who want to get back to nature, I mean, in a way the monastics were saying let’s get out of this whole civilization that’s built around weapons and raising children to be — raising boys to be soldiers and this whole militarized fusion of Christianity. The only way we can rediscover our faith is to get back out in the country, get away from the cities.
Now, look, I don’t think that’s the whole solution, but I think it’s a very valid response when you are saying if we’re going to save our faith, we have to find a way to extract it. And I’ll tell you, that still keeps me up at night, because I think we’re very early in this rethinking process and we have a lot of deep questions that still have to be asked about how we practice a faith that is not just either a nice diversion while the empire rages on or is actually a chaplaincy to the continuation of this juggernaut that is affecting people and is affecting the environment and is affecting the future.
MS. TIPPETT: And in this span of decades, I mean, those were the Cold War days, right? That was a different world.
MR. MCLAREN: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: It was pre-internet, pre-9/11, pre-fall of the Soviet Union. And now, um, you know, now we have what Phyllis Tickle calls the great emergence, which is — you know, it’s the entire, all of our civilizations in flux.
MR. MCLAREN: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: Um, so how does that change the project? I mean, how has your imagination about that evolved? I mean, you know, here’s the sentence of yours: Christianity is in trouble and pregnant with possibilities.
MR. MCLAREN: OK. So this becomes what someone calls a weapon of mass distraction. Let’s get everybody worried about the gays and we won’t ever talk about nuclear weapons. We won’t ever talk about the growing gap between rich and poor. We won’t ever talk about how we’re living in a completely unsustainable economy. Now as soon as I say that, people will say, “Yeah? What are your answers to it?”
You know, I don’t have easy answers to these things, but one thing I know is, if we don’t keep grappling with the problem, those answers will never appear. So what that has made me want to do is go back to my sources. I want to go back to Genesis, to Revelation. I want to go back to especially Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Are there resources there that could help us deal with this constellation of problems?
MS. TIPPETT: And I also am really aware — I’m really aware of how media shapes our perception of these things.
There are a lot of people — I also don’t know that there’s really a center, but there are a lot of people who are left of center or right of center and not at the extreme ends who also don’t know how to be in that conversation, want to be having that conversation too with people who see things differently than them.
MR. MCLAREN: Yes. Well, here’s what — what you’re describing, it seems to me, is a phenomenally unstable status quo when so many people think a whole lot of things privately that they can’t say publicly. Well, Parker Palmer says this beautifully. He says that we live divided lives where we our internal reality says one thing and publicly we say another. And he says, in that way, we are complicit in our own diminishments. And when people say, I will not be divided anymore, I will at least try to speak the truth or I’ll ask the question that needs to be asked that further destabilizes the situation. Where it will lead is anybody’s guess. And, of course, when all this happens in times of instability, growing numbers of people are afraid that the institutions will fail.
And here’s where a lot of people are surprised. I am a pro institution guy. I think institutions are tremendously important. I just think institutions constantly need movements knocking at the door to challenge them to take the next step forward. This to me is part of what’s emerging, I think, is not an anti institutional movement, but a movement of people who want to try to articulate some next steps forward.
MS. TIPPETT: And so, one of the things you also write about a lot and it can be kind of insider language that I think is worth opening up is how the western imagination about Christianity is very much framed in Greco-Roman terms, that the Bible itself was framed in those terms, much of it.
MR. MCLAREN: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: Um, and, you know, you use words like anxiety and paranoia [laugh] in terms of what that injected into the western imagination, the western life in this faith. So just open that up. So what’s the alternative? And I think this gets at your idea of divisions that one wants to break open.
MR. MCLAREN: Yes. You know, you might say that one of the most important Bible stories for our time is the story of Tower of Babel which says that our great dream, when we live in a world of conflict, maybe we could have peace if we would all be the same. If we’d all speak the same language, if we all had the same government, we could finally make everybody the same.
And in that story with all of its primitive and, you know, powerful, primal imagery, in a strange way, God votes against sameness and God votes for diversity. And this to me is one of our great challenges and I think those of us who are Christians, my goodness sakes, this is one of, you know, the most orthodox Christian teachings of all is the doctrine of the Trinity which dares to say that unity and diversity are not enemies. They are at the core of the most profound reality of the universe. That’s a pretty amazing claim.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. You know, diversity is one of many good words that it’s like we’ve overused it and made it superficial.
MR. MCLAREN: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: I don’t know. Do you have any thoughts about another word for diversity?
MR. MCLAREN: Well, I’ll tell you the word that to me captures what we need is ecosystem. It’s like the difference…
MS. TIPPETT: We need an ecosystem, yes, yes.
MR. MCLAREN: In a monoculture, you’ve got all this acres and acres of corn spreading across Iowa. But in an ecosystem, which we’re somewhat surrounded by here, we have probably 10 different kinds of trees just that we can see here and, of course, we’d have all different kinds of insects. You know, it’s an amazing diversity.
MS. TIPPETT: And all different kinds of people [laugh].
MR. MCLAREN: And all different kinds of people.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, yeah.
MR. MCLAREN: So that idea that difference is mutually beneficial…
MS. TIPPETT: Part of the vitality, yeah.
MR. MCLAREN: Yes. But you’re right. The word diversity ends up being a code word like tolerance.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. MCLAREN: And what we need is something way deeper than those kind of tame concepts.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, yeah. I like that.
[Music: “Kid A” by Punch Brothers]
MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share this conversation with Brian McLaren through our website, onbeing.org.
Coming up…Brian McLaren on the beauty of God and the shift in his understanding of gay marriage. I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[Music: “Kid A” by Punch Brothers]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today: writer, former pastor and Christian theologian Brian McLaren. He’s an influential voice in the worlds of progressive Evangelicalism and what has been called “emerging” Christianity. His books on these subjects range from A New Kind of Christianity to Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? – Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World. I interviewed him outdoors at the 2013 Wild Goose Festival.
MS. TIPPETT: So you’ve said that there’s a renaissance underway regarding our understanding of Jesus. Talk about that a little bit.
MR. MCLAREN: Oh, what an amazing time to be alive. So I’m sure I can’t be exhaustive in this, but I’ll just give you a couple that quickly come to mind. So 100 years ago, Walter Rauschenbusch, this German Baptist pastor — Walter Rauschenbusch goes back and reads the Gospels and realizes, wow, Jesus had this message called the Kingdom of God.
And for so many Christians, Kingdom of God had been reduced to going to heaven after you die and he made this slight observation that, in the Lord’s Prayer, it says “may your kingdom come, may you will be done down here on earth.” In other words, the direction of the Bible was downward, not upward. I mean, that changes the world. Martin Luther King, Jr. got hold of that. Others got hold of that.
That was one of the most transformative ideas of my life. I grew up in the church all my life. It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I realized that the Kingdom of God was not going to heaven after you die. Oh, my goodness. Then you add to that the insights of liberation theology from Latin America and places in Africa, this obvious, obvious discovery that the primary biblical narrative is exodus, that when God made a decision to support slaves, not slave owners, that’s one of the most radical ideas in the world.
It has powerful implications for how we read the whole Bible. For example, when you read the Book of Exodus, that’s where the word salvation gains meaning. And salvation means essentially liberation. One of my mentors said to me, “What you focus on determines what you miss.” And I was taught to read every verse in the Bible to find out who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell. But when you start noticing other things, you start looking for other things, the Bible becomes a different book. And I think Jesus becomes a very different person and the Christian faith can become a very different faith.
MS. TIPPETT: And what’s interesting to me too is that this renaissance in the understanding of Jesus is not restricted to Christians or to inside the church.
MR. MCLAREN: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, so I see this in a few different ways and one would be this category that’s been defined by Pew opinion polls, you know, the Nones, N-o-n-e-s.
MR. MCLAREN: Yes, yes.
MS. TIPPETT: A very, very tiny percentage of whom describe themselves as not belonging to an organized religion. But I sense that the person of Jesus is very powerful and compelling.
MR. MCLAREN: Yes. Boy, I experienced this. When I’m in conversation with my Muslim friends, my Jewish friends…
MS. TIPPETT: Right, and then there’s that. It’s beyond — it’s also among people with a very strong, different religious identity.
MR. MCLAREN: In fact, it works on several levels. On one level, if we say, hey, let’s talk about Jesus, we end up in fascinating discussions very different than let’s talk about Christianity. But what’s interesting is, among my Muslim friends, they say, “We’re trying to rediscover what Islam is. We’d like to go back and actually pay attention to what Mohammed said and did and allow ourselves to understand Mohammad in his native historical context.”
That’s very much what we’re trying to do with Jesus. Put Jesus back into context of first century Judaism, Second Temple Judaism, as it’s often called. And, you know, something very interesting happens among my Buddhist friends. They say, “We’re going through a similar process.”
It’s as if we’re at this moment when the structures of religion that have evolved for very good reasons and you don’t have to be dismissive or judgmental or whatever. For very good reasons they have taken the paths, they’ve taken. But when those evolved forms stop working so well, then it becomes a natural time to say, well, let’s go back and take a fresh look.
MS. TIPPETT: And you’ve really been delving into this matter of the Christian relationship to religious others. And there’s a really profound shift there that — in the world and in — I almost feel like it’s one of these things that every once in a while we should just step back and acknowledge, you know. You married a Catholic woman which I bet was a really — I mean, a Protestant-Catholic marriage in the ’60s, ’70s, still was an interfaith marriage, right? In the world you came from?
MR. MCLAREN: Yeah. My wife’s world too. My mother-in-law said to me, “Well, if you couldn’t be Italian, at least you were smart enough to marry an Italian.” But, you know, there was that sort of thing that…
MS. TIPPETT: You had to make an excuse. I mean, I grew up in the 1960s and ’70s learning that, you know, Southern Baptist. Methodists were going to hell. I mean, it’s not just Muslims who might have a problem.
MR. MCLAREN: And Plymouth Brethren weren’t sure about the Southern Baptists.
MS. TIPPETT: No, of course not. But this was serious, serious stuff.
MR. MCLAREN: Yes, that’s right.
MS. TIPPETT: And there’s been a huge shift.
MR. MCLAREN: It’s amazing, isn’t it?
MS. TIPPETT: There’s a reality and a recognition that we share the world with different others, different religious others, and this is what I think you’re delving into now. This question of the Christian relationship to religious others is a matter for Christian theology. It’s not a separate thing over here.
MR. MCLAREN: Yes. But one of the things that amazed me when I wrote this book recently was that, again, you don’t notice things because you’ve been trained not to notice them.
But you think about Moses, the story of Moses. Here is the child of a Jewish couple living under an oppressive regime who wants to kill him. He gets adopted by that oppressive regime, so he grows up with a dual identity, genetically part of the oppressed and culturally part of the oppressors. When he comes of age and has to choose sides, he’s rejected by both, ends up having to leave and becomes a refugee in another culture. He marries a woman of another religion whose father is a priest of that religion. I mean, that’s a pretty interesting guy, a pretty conflicted religious identity.
MS. TIPPETT: 21st century guy [laugh]
MR. MCLAREN: Yeah, that’s right. It could be — we could tell the same story today. You think about the story even of Abraham who leaves an empire with its own panoply of gods. His whole life is engaging with people of different religions. So this crazy idea that I think has to do with our European history, this crazy idea that mono religious cultures are normal, is certainly foreign to the Bible.
MS. TIPPETT: And another big shift that you have participated in also on a very personal level is you took part in the marriage of your son to another man.
MR. MCLAREN: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: And you’ve been pretty open about that being a journey you were on, theologically.
MR. MCLAREN: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: So talk about that because that’s a journey that the culture is on and that the church is on.
MR. MCLAREN: Yes, it’s really true. It’s really true. I mean, Krista, we could talk so much about that because it’s such a painful issue on so many levels for people. But, you know, growing up as I did in a fundamentalist context, a certain way of interpreting the Bible was the bedrock of everything we did.
And by the way, not just theoretically, our social structure of our church, we gave power to the people who upheld the traditional interpretation of the Bible. So to have a different interpretation is to stand up against the power structures of your local congregation. So, so much was invested more than we realized in our traditional interpretations and it’s so ironic for Protestants like myself.
We made so much about following the Bible, but we didn’t even realize that there was a lot of fine print. It was following our interpretation of the Bible and now that is under so much pressure because let’s say that somewhere between 3 and 9% of people are gay. Let’s say 6%. If that person has two parents, that’s another 12%. So now we’re up to 18%. If that person has a sibling, now we’re up to 24%. Wow, pretty soon we’ve got half the population who’s the grandparent or the sibling of a gay person. And when they start coming out, now all this really becomes very intense.
I think the under-reported part of this, though, and the pain that people feel — a friend of mine said it to me. His son came out and, in tears, he said to me, “If I accept my son, I reject my father. And if I side with my father, I reject my son.” And that’s where people live.
MS. TIPPETT: What kind of reaction have you had within the Christian world, within the Evangelical community and beyond? Have you had to — being open about this? And also about your interfaith. I mean, you know, you’re touching on nerves. You’re touching on points of change and points of fear in both of those places.
MR. MCLAREN: Well, you know, the Roman Catholic church has a very clear process for excommunication. The Evangelical church is more complicated and I think I had already been excommunicated before this happened.
But what has happened, people would be surprised how many Evangelical leaders emailed me or called me and said, “I can’t say this in public, but I think you did the right thing and I appreciate what you did.” I received a lot of very heartfelt private comments, you know, from them. People would be surprised who I heard from.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. I’m outdoors at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina. Today with theologian and author, Brian McLaren.
MS. TIPPETT: So I wanted to ask you if you still identify as Evangelical and if you identify as progressive. You know, these are also labels that are…
MR. MCLAREN: Yeah, they’re really problematic.
MS. TIPPETT: They’re problematic.
MR. MCLAREN: Yeah, you know, I come from an Evangelical background and what I learned in my Evangelical background is that the Bible is really important and commitment to Jesus matters and Jesus has good news for the whole world. I still believe those things. So I’m happy to still say that I think I’m being true to my tradition.
You know, a Catholic friend of mine told me recently that he heard from one of his superiors that the Holy Spirit has moved us on now. We don’t need Jesus anymore. We’ve moved on to new teachings. And talked about things like Canon law and so on. I was shocked to hear that and I believed my friend who told me this.
But something similar happens in the Evangelical world. In a strange way, there’s this thing called conservatism and conservatism becomes this new philosophy and Jesus is important to the degree he agrees with conservatism. In that way, I think I’m more Evangelical than a lot of my Evangelical friends, because I actually am still, I think, more committed to Jesus than to, you know, I hope an ideology whether conservative or liberal or whatever.
MS. TIPPETT: But don’t you think progressive can be a trap as well?
MR. MCLAREN: Yeah. I mean, if the word — see, if the word Evangelical means I’m committed to evangel, good news, it means one thing. But if it means association with a certain cultural phenomenon, it means something very different. And the same with the word progressive. If it means I’m interested in making progress, we still have a long way to go, that has one meaning. This is so hard. I bet I’m in a conversation two or three times a month where people say, “What do we call this thing?” And it really gets interesting.
I got a phone call seven or eight years ago — I was still a pastor — from a rabbi. He said, “I represent a group of several dozen rabbis who’ve read all your books.” Which really impressed me. I thought, my wife hasn’t read all my books [laughs]. They said, “We’d like to meet with you.” So I met with some of these rabbis.
They’re having the same problem. If you’re a Jew who really thinks that what’s being done to Palestinians is wrong in the name of your religion, it’s very, very hard to be a Jew who’s faithful to the prophetic tradition. And so, we’re all struggling with this. I know Muslims are struggling with this too.
And, you know, that’s why I think a lot of people are joining the Nones. They just say, “I don’t want any of those labels. I’ll just be a None.” But in the long run, I think that those of us who are Christians or Muslims or whatever, and we want to articulate a new kind of Christianity, it’s our responsibility to do that and not be angry, not be bitter, but to just try to do it.
MS. TIPPETT: I do wonder if the Nones are a force for spiritual renewal that people might look back on this phenomenon and look at this period of time and see that as something that actually brought the institutions forward. I don’t know.
MR. MCLAREN: Can I say something really cynical about that?
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. MCLAREN: So because I come from an Evangelical background, a lot of Evangelicals don’t listen to anybody, but they pay attention to numbers. And in some ways, the Nones by voting with their feet, might be the only people who a lot of the leaders listen to. I think there is something that happens when people just say, “I won’t put up with this anymore” that is an important part of the equation of change.
MS. TIPPETT: So, you know, I was invited to an emerging church event a few years ago and there were four people on the panel who’d been in the movement for a long time and they all started churches. And they could not have been more different and they’d all gone back to the fourth century and thought anew about what atonement meant and what the role of women is, coming out of really different places.
And on that panel, you could see the person who was reinventing mainline Protestantism and the person who was kind of reinventing the Monastic movement and the person who was showing what charismatic and Pentecostal renewal was gonna be like. And, there’s that issue of what we do with our passions. Do you see evolution in terms of — I mean, what’s the spiritual correction to that kind of reality check?
MR. MCLAREN: Krista, that question, it seems to me, forces us to face two realities that are very hard to hold at the same time. And the first one is that institutions really matter. My definition of an institution is an organization that preserves the gains made by past movements. And my definition of a movement is an organization that arises to propose gains to current institutions.
So to me, they’re a yin and a yang there that are very important. But then you bring in this issue of the spirit behind the thing. And this to me is where any movement deeply depends on the spirituality of the people who are moving. If we don’t become people of peace in our own heart, then we will just have another set of theological ideas about which we’re violent and that’s where the spirit part of this thing is to me.
MS. TIPPETT: And maybe that’s where the festival comes in also, these deep dives into nurturing that spirit.
MR. MCLAREN: You know, one way to define a festival is a short term monastic experience. So we enter into a shared life with some physical privation and a little bit of a asceticism, but we order our lives around things we really care about. There’s a sense that this is a deep dive into a short term monasticism [laugh].
MS. TIPPETT: Is your experience of the emerging church that it crosses political lines? Because a lot of the language is — and, again, I hate these labels — liberal language. And I think another one of these untold stories of our time is how the next generation of young Evangelicals is totally blurring these boundaries. I mean, holding some positions which, again, sound liberal and some which sound conservative the way we define those things now, but not being predictable.
MR. MCLAREN: I just hope that this old polarization between left and right, I hope it collapses and I hope something more creative emerges. And I have a feeling that the activism of the future is going to be an activism that focuses on economics. You know, I often say when I’m speaking about this that there’s a little ballot that every one of us votes with every single day. Figuring out how could we organize…
MS. TIPPETT: And that’s a credit card, for radio listeners [laugh].
MR. MCLAREN: Yes. How could we organize to say part of our Christian duty is to only spend our money with companies that are going to treat the environment well and are going to treat the laborers and the migrant workers and all the rest? That could be the basis of a different kind of political action.
MS. TIPPETT: And you’re saying that to see those as spiritual priorities as opposed to political matters, as opposed to restricting them to political matters?
MR. MCLAREN: Let me just say, I moved to Florida four years ago and I live just down the road from a town called Immokalee, which is the center of the — where a lot of farm workers are. In fact, the coalition of Immokalee workers is here at Wild Goose. You should all go and visit them and learn from them.
And when I am with these farm workers who pick the tomatoes that we all eat in the winter and I see what they have suffered and what their working for justice, there is a spirituality there of spiritual ethos and integrity there that goes far beyond what you would see in a seminary classroom.
There is something about faith when it’s translated into caring for the earth and caring for your neighbor and caring for the poor and caring for the stranger and the immigrant and the other. Don’t you all agree? I mean, that is a spirituality that cannot be matched anywhere else.
MS. TIPPETT: So, Brian, we’ve talked about how your sense of the church has evolved across time, your sense of Christianity. What if you just speak in closing about how your image of God has evolved across these years?
MR. MCLAREN: Let me talk about two dimensions of that. The first is because I’m a Christian and I’m so centered on Jesus, I was brought up with this idea that you have a pre-existing definition of God and to be a Christian is to lift Jesus up and fit Jesus into that pre-existing definition. What’s happened to me really in the last 15 or 20 years is that I’ve come to say no. Jesus does something far more radical than that. When you really encounter Jesus, you are forced to redefine God. And to me, this is very hard to explain reality, but it’s something I’ve experienced.
So that would be the first thing. But then the second thing would be this. I can say it by way of an anecdote. I was invited to be part of this Christian Muslim dialogue a few years ago and there were all these very learned papers presented by Christian scholars, Muslim scholars.
And then there was discussion and a long line of people came to the mic and then one Muslim scholar came to the mic and he said, “We have heard brilliant lectures about the love of God and brilliant lectures about the justice of God, but no one has yet spoken of the beauty of God.” Then he spoke for a few minutes about God and beauty and I can just tell you that, for those next few minutes, I forgot whether I was a Christian or a Muslim.
And I think one of the things that’s happening to a lot of us is that there’s this vision of the beauty of God that transports us and that takes us to a new depth and a new height. It’s one of those things about beauty. You can’t capture it in a word or a formula. When you get to that humble place where the beauty of God has overwhelmed you, I think it changes everything. You can say the same creed that you said before, but now it’s not a creed that grasps God in the fist of the words, but it’s a creed that points up to a beauty that’s beyond anybody’s grasp.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. Thank you, Brian McLaren.
[Music: “Pyrakantha” by Balmorhea]
MS. TIPPETT: Brian McLaren’s books include A Generous Orthodoxy, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? – Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World, and the forthcoming: We Make the Road by Walking.
You can listen again or share this show with Brian McLaren at onbeing.org. There you can also listen to my entire interview with him at the Wild Goose Festival. And you’ll find audio and video of the three other shows we produced from there – with The Indigo Girls, Nadia Bolz-Weber, and Vincent Harding and Phyllis Tickle. You can follow everything we do all the time through our weekly email newsletter. Just click the newsletter link on any page at onbeing.org.
On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mikel Elcessor, Mariah Helgeson, and Joshua Rae.
Special thanks this week to Karen Nagle and Karen Moore of the Laughing Heart Lodge and to Russ Jennings, Gareth Higgins, Rick Meredith, Brian Ammons and all the good people at the Wild Goose Festival.
[Music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
MS. TIPPETT: We’ve started a conversation at onbeing.org about suicide — and we invite you to join in. It began with a tremendous response to our live tweet of my interview with Jennifer Michael Hecht. She’s written an original book called Stay. She pulls the lens back to illuminate how attitudes and cultural messages about suicide have shifted over time. And she proposes a new communal grappling with this – with what suicide does to those who choose it and to the world left behind.
JENNIFER MICHAEL HECHT: I think that the conversation does have to be about how important people are to each other and how vivid that becomes after a suicide. You know, we’re all suddenly reaching out to each other to say “Really? Did this really happen?” And “I miss this person,” and “I didn’t even know that I was so connected to them.” And that’s a good place to start a conversation. Not the negative side. You know, not to say, you know, “Don’t kill yourself ‘cause it would kill other people,” but to say, “Look how involved we all are just under the surface and let’s try to help each other.”
Imagine yourself alone on this planet. Would anything be the same? Would you wash a dish? Would you think about productivity? Would you think about when you slept? When you — would you think about — how would conceive of what your life means? It’s like a little kid left alone in a house, just the sudden shock of existential distress. We are — we make the meaning for each other.
MS. TIPPETT: We’ll air that whole conversation with Jennifer Michael Hecht at the end of March. In the meantime please add your thoughts and experiences at onbeing.org.