A Generous, not Suspicious, Orthodoxy
Brian McLaren is often referred to as the dean of the Emergent Church movement. The word is apt because, in his late 40s, he is older than most in the emerging church scene, and also because he, perhaps better than anyone else, articulates the issues for the younger church, or what Robert E. Webber calls the “younger Evangelicals.” (See our interview with Webber in the Homiletics archives”)
McLaren was recently named one of the top 25 most influential Evangelicals in America today by TIME magazines and appeared shortly after that on Larry King Live!
McLaren is the author of a number of books published in recent years including A New Kind of Christian, The Last Word and the Word After That: A Tale of Faith, Doubt and a New Kind of Christianity, and most recently, A Generous Orthodoxy.
He is the founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in the Washington-Baltimore area and is in frequent demand as a speaker and worship leader.
We went to Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, where McLaren was speaking at the Worship, Arts, Liturgy and Preaching Conference sponsored by Emergent. We listened to his address, “Public Worship as Spiritual Formation” and then began our own conversation.
HOMILETICS: You haven’t always been a happy Christian?
McLAREN: I am by temperament a pretty upbeat person, but I’ve had a couple of difficult times in my life, and some of them very strongly related to my faith. I love God and I want to follow Christ, but I’ve struggled with the church and some of the constraints of the religious subculture I was born into.
HOMILETICS: Do’s and don’ts?
McLAREN: Really, those haven’t been the big issues. It hasn’t been about behavioral things. It’s been more about conceptual things, ideas, about being able to ask questions. I remember that as a young kid I was really interested in science, and once, in a Sunday school class I was told that you either believe in God or you believe in science. That made it sort of hard for me.
HOMILETICS: So you actually wondered whether you’d stay in Christian ministry or even be following a Christian path.
McLAREN: When I was in graduate school, I had been exposed to what people now call postmodern philosophy. It came into my world through literary criticism in the 70s. I realized back in the 70s that there were questions being raised that I didn’t have good answers for and I put those questions on the back burner, but in the early ‘90s a lot of people were coming to the church who were asking those same questions and I couldn’t escape. So those back-burner questions became front-burner questions. So I was very disturbed because I couldn’t find any Christians who even seem to understand the questions, much less have good answers for them. So that was a big part of the crisis I was dealing with in the early ‘90s.
A couple of things happened. I was able to hold on spiritually because, by the grace of God, I had developed some spiritual disciplines in my life. I kept praying, I kept worshiping, I kept giving — that sort of thing. Those things really sustained me, even when I had a lot of questions about my theology. One way to say it is to say that I learned how to trust God even when my theology was shaky.
HOMILETICS: Of the disciples, would you be the Thomas of the group?
McLAREN: Maybe. I wasn’t satisfied with the kind of answers others seemed to be satisfied with. Another piece of it that was brewing under the surface was that, really, since the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the religious right has been more or less dominant, and I didn’t fit in with that. I didn’t feel that those people spoke for me. I felt that it was very possible that I would leave ministry. And if I left ministry, the same things that drove me out of ministry, made me feel like I wouldn’t fit well with many churches.
HOMILETICS: At that point, were there other faiths that were attractive to you?
McLAREN: No, the interesting thing was that I wanted to be a follower of Jesus no matter what. It was just a question of what the word “Christian” meant in our culture and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be affiliated with all that went along with that.
HOMILETICS: If you think of Christianity as a brand, what is the brand proclaiming to the culture today?
McLAREN: There are many messages. Unfortunately one of the messages that comes through is that Christians are pro-war, anti-homosexual, anti-environment, and in the United States to some degree, when people hear the word “Christian” they think of one political party and the most conservative fringe of that party. There are a lot of truths in that party and in that expression of Christianity, but it doesn’t seem to match with the gospel as I understand it.
HOMILETICS: Jim Wallis has been fairly successful as a self-identifying Evangelical but not identifying with one political party or the other.
McLAREN: I really appreciate what he has been doing. I think what’s been happening in recent years with Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo and others, is that enough people have become dissatisfied with the status quo they’re listening to voices like Jim’s and Tony’s.
HOMILETICS: How did you react when Ed Dobson and Cal Thomas came out with Blinded By Might?
McLAREN: I remember thinking, “Thank God, some people are saying we don’t think this is the way to go.” I was impressed by their courage in making a break with that approach.
HOMILETICS: You have characterized the sermon as more of a ritual than a means of communicating information.
McLAREN: If you define ritual as “bonding to meaning,” that is, the 20 or 30 minutes that people invest in the ritual, it becomes bonding to the idea that God speaks to us, it becomes bonding to the practice of attentiveness. A group of people come together every week and say, “We’re going to listen, and we’re going to listen to see if God speaks to us today.”
I wonder if that action is as formative as any of the information that gets transferred in the sermon. My guess is that there’s greater value in the practice of being attentive to God than in the amount of information that’s disseminated or retained. And that’s not to disparage the importance of the information, but it is to say that there’s something incredibly wonderful — well, it’s sacred — about a group of people saying, “We believe there is a living God who has something to say to us.” I think it’s sacred for the listener and it’s really wonderful for the preacher to feel that he or she is participating in this communal act of attentiveness to God.
HOMILETICS: So what does a McLaren sermonic ritual look like?
McLAREN: Oh, you know, I don’t think I’m the best example of a preacher. But I usually work with a passage of Scripture, one chunk of the Bible. It also depends upon the time of the year. Since we get more visitors in the spring and the fall, I do things that are more topical. We have a lot of people who come who really desire to get some spiritual content. They’re not just interested in how to potty train their kids, or the five steps to this or that.
In the fall, I do a series called “God in the Movies” where I will try to find four or five movies from the previous year (I only choose movies that I think have something constructive to say; I don’t choose a movie and bash it) and look for a theme and make a connection between the theme and Scripture. In the summers we engage the biblical text. This summer we’re going to do the book of Exodus. One summer we did the Minor Prophets. We do a variety of things.
HOMILETICS: Work without notes?
McLAREN: Our worship space is set up in a U and I’m out in the middle there, so I have to walk around and face different directions, and I find that the more I do that, the more I do it. And that takes me farther away from my text. One of my big problems, that I think is a big problem for pastors, is that the farther I get away from my text, the longer I get. So for me there’s always this thing where I’m getting too long, and I need to get closer to a manuscript.
HOMILETICS: But you try not to have notes in your hand?
HOMILETICS: So you study and do the work ahead of time, then you’re ready and you go for it.
McLAREN: And we project our Scripture passages on the screen, and one of the things that is good about that is that it is up there in plain view, engaging the people. And sometimes we read it aloud together. Quite often I will ask questions of the congregation and get feedback. It’s not a pure monologue. People respond to that very well, especially if you ask questions that don’t have right or wrong answers, but elicit honest input.
HOMILETICS: What’s an “old kind of Christian”?
McLAREN: That phrase in the book [A New Kind of Christian] is trying to suggest that we’ve had ancient Christians, medieval Christians and modern Christians and we’re having to imagine a Christian beyond modernity. Just as a modern Christian is different from a medieval Christian and a medieval Christian is different from an ancient Christian. I think this will be different in some ways. One of the differences is that modern Christianity has been polarized between liberal and conservative. There were two ways to be a Christian in the modern world, by and large, and what many people feel is that something beyond that polarization is needed. Many of us feel affinities with all sides of the spectrum.
HOMILETICS: So a new kind of Christian is one who transcends these labels?
McLAREN: I don’t want to use the word “transcend,” as it sounds superior. But a new kind of Christian is someone who doesn’t feel like he or she fits anymore, and feels he or she is moving into something beyond these polarizations. Another word for post modern is post-colonial. Part of what goes along with a colonial approach to Christianity is a very control-oriented approach to things. One way to describe colonialism is that the people of Europe or people of European descent know how things are and the rest of the world needs to conform to their way of thinking.
And in preaching, there’s a way of preaching that renders the audience into the role of stupid and disobedient children, and they come for a spanking or stern scolding every week. I grew up in this kind of setting. The preacher tells the people how bad and miserable they are for 45 minutes, and then at the end, the people walk out smiling and saying, “Thank you, great sermon, pastor.” They’re not saying, “I took that sermon to heart.” They’re saying, “You did what was expected of you and you did it very well.”
I think we’ve got to move beyond that setting. First, we pastors have to be more honest about the fact that we’re not better than anyone else and that we probably shouldn’t be in the mode of scolding other people all the time. We ought to regard our audience as conversation partners. We are the story tellers, and we invite them to be a part of the story.
HOMILETICS: Is orthodoxy a bad word?
McLAREN: I like the word myself. I think it’s a great word. We all have to face the possibility that we can miss the point. We all have to face the possibility that we can drift from the message of Jesus. Sometimes it can be used in an inquisitorial way.
HOMILETICS: But orthodoxy can be used as a litmus test to determine those who are truly in the kingdom?
McLAREN: To some degree we have established the notion that if you have the right ideas, right behavior or right relationships are optional. You can get an A for having the right opinions, and if you have right attitudes or right behaviors, it’s like taking an optional course — it doesn’t really count in your G.P.A. Orthodoxy and orthopraxy are intertwined. I wouldn’t want to say that one is more important than the other. To some degree our practices turn us into the kind of people who are more or less capable of seeing truth. So if we are proud and treat others in an arrogant way, we put ourselves in danger of not being able to see new truth, because the more proud we are the less ready we are to admit that we might be wrong or that we didn’t see something.
HOMILETICS: A generous orthodoxy is not just a theological way of asking “Why can’t we just all get along?”
McLAREN: In some ways, it’s a paraphrase of Paul’s words in Ephesians 4 about speaking the truth in love. Or in 1 Corinthians 13. I can have knowledge, but without love, it’s nothing.
HOMILETICS: You use the words judgmental, intolerant and dogmatic and oppose those to loving, forgiving and peaceful. Aren’t there times, if we use the parental metaphor, when all six of those attributes can be a part of the process?
McLAREN: I’ve raised four teenagers, so I have had to learn a good bit about being firm, but not being firm in such a way that you lose the relationship with your child. Firm and courageous stands on things are essential.
HOMILETICS: You and I can think of people on both the left and right who take positions we might not take and you’re asking us to be generous toward them, and would hope they would themselves extend generosity toward us.
McLAREN: It would be nice if it were a two- way process. But sometimes, some people, because of the way they understand themselves, their roles and their opinions, have some sort of exemption from generosity, or they think it actually is the loving thing to do to be something less than respectful and gentle toward other people. One of our challenges is: How do we stand for truth and show our real fidelity to truth — whether that’s moral truth or historical truth — without violating the clear commands that very truth puts upon us in the realm of charity.
HOMILETICS: Some would say that the position you outline in A Generous Orthodoxy expresses rampant relativism. Catholics just learned within the hour [of this conversation], that they have a new pope, Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI. Ratzinger, Dr. No, is not known for being particularly flexible on moral issues. We don’t have a pope or a moral theologian, or a Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith who will draw a line in the sand for us. Isn’t relativism a danger to the church?
McLAREN: It’s a shame that anyone would accuse me of relativism, especially in reading A Generous Orthodoxy where I devote a chapter to relativism.
HOMILETICS: Al Mohler for example. He’s not stupid. Why would he say that?
McLAREN: It’s really perplexing to me. I agree with you. He’s not stupid. But yet he just makes this statement. In the book I make the analogy that absolutism is like cancer, and chemotherapy is like relativism. And chemotherapy, if you take too much of it, will kill you. So I certainly don’t hold up relativism as a great thing. It’s a dangerous thing. I think absolutism is a dangerous thing. We need something beyond both. So I don’t know why he would say that.
But for some people certain issues seem very simple. So anyone who doesn’t agree that this or that isn’t an open-and-shut case, they would tend to see as a relativist. But for those of us who are pastors, when you sit across the table from people with serious problems and you hear their stories week after week, a lot of things are pretty complex. And those same people who are open-and-shut on some issues, then they will deal with a lot of complexity on other issues.
HOMILETICS: So you’re willing to pound a stake in the sand on certain things, but on a lot of other things that separate communities you’re not quite so willing to say —
McLAREN: That would be a great way to put it.
HOMILETICS: So you have only one or two “Here I stand” issues.
McLAREN: For example, the issue of homosexuality that’s so divisive. I’ll bet you could find someone who is as conservative as possible on the issue of homosexuality, and if there were bands of thugs who were going around beating up homosexuals, I’ll bet that some of those most conservative people would stand up courageously and say, “You shouldn’t go beating people up.”
HOMILETICS: That brings up an interesting question. I read your response when you were asked about your position on gay marriage. You said, “What breaks my heart is, that no matter what I say, I’m going to hurt some people.” It seems to me that Brian McLaren is letting everyone else do all the heavy lifting for him, while he stays neutral, because those on the left are saying, “Yeah, we have a position and we’ll give you an answer” and those on the right are saying, “Yeah, we have a position and we’ll give you an answer,” but McLaren isn’t willing to hurt anyone because he evidently has a value that he holds higher than the need to state a position. It’s slacker spirituality.
McLAREN: Yeah, slacker, or some would say “cowardly.” The irony is that I am willing to stand up and say that and take a good amount of criticism for it.
HOMILETICS: I can see the irony. I am not asking you to answer that question, but to respond to the reticence to take a position on some of the questions that are being asked out there in the culture. And why are you unwilling to do that?
McLAREN: I appreciate the question. Let me say two things: First, I think this issue is badly framed. It’s like walking into a domestic violence argument. There are so many things going. It’s not the right time to resolve the argument.
HOMILETICS: You have to take one person to jail and then deal with the other person.
McLAREN: Exactly. And any policeman who walks in on domestic violence is going to have the husband saying, “I’m right, and she’s wrong” and vice versa. So there are times when it’s best not to take sides. And I’m not saying that other people are wrong to take sides. But maybe everyone is not supposed to take sides on some of these things. And I should say as a sincere Christian, if I felt before God I was supposed to take sides on this, I would gladly do that.
When there are political things going on, political parties can separate votes. I worry very much that abortion and homosexuality have been used by the political parties so the church might not even know that its strings are being pulled by political movements.
Second, because I travel a lot, I’m around a wider range of Christians than most people. And my honest feeling is, that across the board you really see great signs of the Holy Spirit at work. I think some of these issues are the tip of the iceberg and there are deeper issues going on. I would rather focus on the deeper issues. I think these other issues are distractions.
For example, the issue of homosexuality brings up some very profound issues that the Christian faith has to deal with. They have to deal with psychopharmacology — to what degree is the human soul related to the biochemistry going on in the brain? Because when we deal with sexuality, we’re dealing with the relationship between the soul and the body. We’ve got challenges to deal with there that are very, very profound.
What percentage of our people are on Prozac? What does that say, and what does that mean? There’s Viagra out there. What if they get a really good anti-Viagra pill? There’s not too much of a market for that! But would it be the right thing for Christians to do in a sex-crazed culture, to give their 13-year-old boys the anti-Viagra, have them take it until a week before their wedding? We’re right in the middle of these issues of the chemical and genetic dimensions of behavior. Huge moral issues for us to deal with. For us to fight about homosexuality on one level without going down to those deeper issues, it seems to me, it’s badly framed. And the way my mind works, it’s hard to take sides on an issue that you feel just isn’t framed well.
HOMILETICS: So the science isn’t all in on some of these issues?
McLAREN: That’s part of it. Five hundred years ago, Copernicus comes up with a different model of the universe and it really took the church 150-200 years —
HOMILETICS: Well, in the case of Galileo, it took over 400 years.
McLAREN: In terms of officially apologizing, that’s right. And what’s interesting in that issue is that it was never formally resolved. It just gradually resolved itself over a couple hundred years. We’re dealing with issues that might take us decades and decades before we’re able to think our way through them and reach any semblance of unity. That’s why I am least happy with people who are very quick to pull the trigger on each other. I was with a leader in one denomination who told me that he’s leading the way for a schism in the denomination, and he’s on the conservative side, and he told me that as soon as the schism happens, “I am then the most moderate member of the conservative new denomination.” And he said, “I expect that they will then turn on me — as soon as the schism happens.”
Paul said, “If we bite and devour each other, take heed lest we consume one another.” We have to be careful of what happens when we start practicing suspicion and a party spirit. In Galatians, that’s a fruit of the flesh, not a fruit of the spirit.
HOMILETICS: Is it hard to be generous toward those you think misunderstand you, or deliberately misunderstand you?
McLAREN: It’s hard sometimes.
HOMILETICS: You were recently dis-invited to a conference. Your response was very gracious (reported in Christian Century). What is so dangerous about Brian McLaren?
McLAREN: I think the kinds of issues that I’m raising are really delicate issues, and I don’t blame people for being upset.
HOMILETICS: You’re asking questions about missions and the salvation of the lost. What is the fate of those who have never heard the name of Jesus Christ, and Hindus following Jesus Christ as Hindus. Strange-sounding stuff.
McLAREN: Yeah, it is. So I can’t blame people for being upset. I’m amazed how well treated I am.
HOMILETICS: What is radio orthodoxy?
McLAREN: This is something we should really pay attention to in the United States. The power of religious broadcasting is very possibly greater than the power of any denomination, with perhaps the exception of the Catholic church. Religious broadcasting is incredibly powerful in the United States. It’s interesting to ask what forms religious broadcasting. If research were done on this, I think we would find that most of the radio stations are owned by a very few people who have very, very strong political agendas. So there is a political dimension that we ought to be aware of that leaves us open to being manipulated. Certain things will be heard, other things won’t be heard. That kind of thing.
I hate to say this, but I think it’s true, that because religious broadcasting requires donations to stay afloat, then the subjects that elicit donations get reinforced. That’s another reason to be concerned about the balance. So if fear raises money, there will be a lot of fear; if greed raises money, there will be a lot of greed; if compassion doesn’t raise a lot of money, there won’t be so much compassion.
HOMILETICS: What’s the value of creeds?
McLAREN: Some people get into arguments with me about propositional truth. The creeds are statements of our story. They tell the Christian story. They’re short ways of telling the story. They were especially important in preliterate eras when people didn’t read books. They would memorize the creed. I wouldn’t be surprised if the creeds became more important, because I believe we’re moving into a certain kind of post-literate society.
HOMILETICS: A creed, then, would be a ritual, as you say, “that attaches meaning” to our basic understanding of God?
McLAREN: Yes. I’ll give you an example. A lady at my church a couple of years ago on a Sunday and said, “I’m really glad we said the Nicene Creed today.”
I said, “Why is that?”
She said, “Because it says ‘We believe,’ and the Apostles’ Creed says ‘I believe.’”
And I said, “Why do you prefer that?”
She said, “I’ve really been struggling with doubt lately.” She had been a Christian for a couple of years and she’d hit a skid of doubt. “This morning I got up and thought, ‘Why even go to church? God doesn’t seem real to me anymore.’ But I got my body out of bed and got to church, and I thought ‘I can say I’m part of a community that believes this when we say the creed, even though today I’m having my own questions and doubts.”
So I think this is a very valuable thing. I’m bonding to the shared belief of the community.
HOMILETICS: So if an alien from another planet jumped into your path and asked, “What is Christianity? What do Christians believe?”— would you tell them a story, or would you give them a list of creedal propositions?
McLAREN: I’d want to find out why this person wants to know, and it would be fun to meet an alien person and have those kinds of conversations.
HOMILETICS: You’ve probably met a few. [laughter all around]
McLAREN: Couple I’ve had questions about, that’s true! I wrote a book called The Story We Find Ourselves In that’s my attempt to tell the biblical story. and I would try to tell “a big picture” story like that — the story about creation, the story about human beings in crisis, the story about God calling Abraham and his descendants, the story about a conversation between people with God and with each other about God, the story about Jesus and his coming, the story about the church.
HOMILETICS: A lot of people have trouble explaining or understanding what the emergent church is.
McLAREN: The reason people have trouble is because all of us have trouble with this. There is a lot of diversity of opinion about any issue you could raise. People feel I am being evasive when I say this, but a conversation is the best word for it. In a conversation you have people saying different things about the same thing. A statement, a counter-statement, a question, an answer. Everyone is not just saying the same thing, but they’re dealing with the same set of problems. And what the emergent conversation is about is people dealing with the problems of living in a post-colonial, postmodern, post-enlightenment and maybe post-denominational world.
HOMILETICS: So the emergent church is people having conversations about these kinds of questions?
HOMILETICS: And it’s not more than that?
McLAREN: It’s not just having conversations, but about practitioners who are trying things and talking about what’s working and not working and trying to tell one another about some advice about how to deal with this. So it’s people engaged in church ministry, working with the poor, working internationally, and that sort of thing. So we’re sharing in that practice of theology.
HOMILETICS: How can the church be more responsible in terms of our relationship to the environment?
McLAREN: It really goes back to a renewed theology of creation. What has happened in western Christianity is that we believe in the Creation, that it happened, but the Fall has become so big in our minds, that the goodness of Creation has almost become obliterated, and if you add to that an eschatology that says everything is going to blow up in a few years, it makes it hard to take this matter of caring for the environment as seriously as we should.
If we go back and get a new understanding of Creation and understand that part of what it means to be human before God, according to Genesis, is to be good caretakers of creation. That would be a good start.
This is another place where post-colonialism and post-industrialism come in. Part of what has happened to us over the past 500 years is that we’ve looked at the world and seen it as a source of raw materials for industrialization. We’ve got to get beyond that and say, no, this is God’s creation first and foremost and so it deserves our love and appreciation.
HOMILETICS: What was your favorite movie of the past year?
McLAREN: Hotel Rwanda.
HOMILETICS: If you could really turn pastors on to some big idea, what would it be?
McLAREN: Our job is to make disciples. Our job is to actually make people who are followers of Jesus and who have a role in this world similar to the role that Jesus had in this world. Jesus said, “As the Father sent me, so send I you.” We’re actually preparing people to be sent into the world.
Every Sunday when we say the benediction, we’re sending them into the world as representatives of Jesus. And so what did Jesus do? Jesus taught, Jesus asked questions. Jesus loved people. Jesus healed. Jesus spoke up about injustice and exposed hypocrisy. If we had a sense that what the Christian project is all about is actually about sending people a little better prepared week after week to represent Jesus, I think that would be a tremendously exciting thing. And in many ways this is really what this whole emergent conversation is about. How we can actually rise to that mission of making disciples.