In his latest book, Brian McLaren calls the church to a deeper and broader vision of the gospel that makes room for contemporary issues of justice and reconciliation. But has the controversial author gone too far this time? PLUS: Keep reading to find out how you can receive a FREE copy of McLaren’s book, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith.
Reading a Brian McLaren book is not for the theologically faint of heart, nor is it for those who wish to stay safely ensconced within their doctrinal comfort zones. McLaren is, to put it mildly, an evangelical agitator. He has been labeled everything from “unbiblical” to “dangerous.” A lot of that stems from his prominent role as a leading proponent of what we now call the “emergent” or “emerging” church movement, which seeks to recast the Christian faith in the context of postmodern culture while staying true to Scripture. More often than not, this means questioning the customs and practices of the modern evangelical movement and its various institutions.
The founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Maryland and a popular speaker and writer, McLaren has traveled far and wide with his controversial ideas on spirituality and faith. In 2005 TIME magazine named him one of the “25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America.”
• The Narrative Question: What is the Bible about, and what problem is it trying to solve?
• The Authority Question: What does it mean to say the Bible has authority?
• The God Question: Is God violent? Does he make innocent people suffer?
• The Jesus Question: Who is Jesus and why is he so important?
• The Gospel Question: What is the core message of the Christian faith?
• The Church Question: What are the church’s primary, essential functions?
• The Sex Question: Can we move beyond polarization to constructive dialogue on the issue of homosexuality?
• The Future Question: What is our vision of the future?
• The Pluralism Question: How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?
• The What-Do-We-Do-Now Question: How can we open a discussion about these questions without creating needless controversy and division?
McLaren argues that he’s not proposing a new set of beliefs, but rather a “new way of believing” the truth of God’s Word.
Not surprisingly, the book is already stirring up debate. In Christianity Today, North Park University theologian Scot McKnight, usually generous toward thinkers in the emerging church, finds the book lacking in evangelical orthodoxy. And Kevin DeYoung, pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan, takes it a step farther. He writes: “McLaren’s Christianity is not new and certainly not improved. I don’t believe you can even call it Christianity. It is liberalism dressed up for the 21st century.”
With these criticisms in mind, UrbanFaith’s resident Jazz Theologian, Robert Gelinas, spoke to McLaren about what he wants to accomplish with his new book, as well as the popular critique from many that the emerging church movement is a decidedly “white” phenomenon that has very little relevance for non-Caucasian believers and those coming from an urban context.
JAZZ THEOLOGIAN: How does A New Kind of Christianity build upon your past works, and what’s wrong with the old kind of Christianity?
BRIAN McCLAREN: Several people have said that the book summarizes my work to date and extends it into new territory, and I think there’s a lot of truth to that, although it is less directly engaged with contemporary crises than Everything Must Change, or with spiritual formation than Finding Our Way Again. Instead of saying what’s wrong with the old kind of Christianity, I’d simply say that as the Christian faith matures over the centuries, we are ready for new challenges, new learnings, and it would be a shame to fail to keep maturing. So older kinds of Christianity were appropriate to their times and our maturity, but we need to keep growing, learning, and maturing.
In your 2001 book, A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey, you draw an analogy between modern churches that look like everything is fine with being like “horse buggies” that were built when the automobile was invented. That is, the best buggies were built right when they were becoming obsolete. Is that who your new book is for, Christians who have bought into a form of Christianity that is fading?
Nobody has asked me that question yet, and it forces me to face something that I probably haven’t really faced so far, namely, that the folks who are thoroughly bought into current forms of Christian faith are unlikely to change. They’ll be likely to interpret this new book as an attack on what they hold dear, which really isn’t what I intend at all.
I’d say this book is more for Christians who have tried and tried to buy into the dominant forms of Christianity today … traditionalism, the religious right, the prosperity gospel, and so on — and who simply can’t give their hearts to those forms of Christian living. They feel there’s something more calling them, and they’re on a quest for that something more. That’s more, I think, who I’m writing for, although I’m glad to have any of the others come along who are willing.
I’m assuming that you believe that the emerging church is not just a renewal movement for young middle-class Caucasian Christians. So I’d like to ask you a few questions to get at how emergent Christianity addresses the issues of following Jesus within the urban context. First, how does A New Kind of Christianity help urban Christians address issues such as the high incarceration rate among young men, substandard schools, and fatherlessness while at the same time there is a proliferation of churches preaching a prosperity gospel?
In the book, I’m trying to help us get a deeper and broader vision of the gospel. The gospel that many people believe in says very little about issues of justice and peace in this life; it focuses on personal morality in this life and salvation from hell after this life. It would be very concerned about, say, homosexuality, but not very concerned about systemic racism and economic exclusion and oppression. It would say a lot about personal morality but not so much about social morality. I’m proposing that the gospel of the kingdom of God — the gospel Jesus preached (and Paul too, I propose) — is about God’s will being done on earth as in heaven, and so that has everything to do with the city, with racism, with incarceration, with unemployment, with equity in education, and so on.
I’m also suggesting that the eschatologies that many of us were taught — eschatologies that predict the world will get worse and worse and then be destroyed — work against working for the healing of this world, including our cities. So I would say that this book, along with Everything Must Change, would be of real interest to folks engaged with urban issues.
You argue that a new kind of Christianity will require that we ask, “What is the overarching storyline of the Bible?” How will the answer to this question help African American churches that often read the Bible through an Exodus or Exile narrative?
Actually, in this book I’m saying that those African American churches that read the Bible through an Exodus narrative have been right all along, and that the white churches that tended to read the Bible exclusively through an atonement and evacuation narrative are missing something tremendously important. Sadly, in my experience, quite a few of our African American churches are switching over to the more traditional white narrative, which says that it’s only about Jesus and me (and maybe my family, or my religion), with little concern for the more social dimensions of the gospel for the poor, oppressed, excluded, marginalized, and forgotten, not to mention our enemies. I’m recommending that we take that Exodus narrative that African American theology has cherished, and then set the narrative of Creation as its prequel, and the narrative of reconciliation as its sequel. In that way, I think we’ll have a three-dimensional narrative that has room for us to live, serve, and breathe.
Not long after telling our nation about his dream, Martin Luther King Jr. said that he started to see his dream turn into a “nightmare.” One of the reasons for this can be found in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which he expressed his love for the church while at the same time he pled with pastors to reject the “fear of being non-conformists.” Do you ever feel like that?
The pressure to conform really is great, and the punishment for stepping out of line can be harsh. For a lot of years, I did what a lot of people do: tried to conform and stay out of trouble! But eventually, I just couldn’t do so any longer. In part, the Bible drove me out of conformity, because the Bible didn’t fit in the narrow framework I was given. In part, people drove me out — when I met people who were experiencing injustice, and when I took seriously my call to love them as I love myself, their burdens and concerns became my own and I had to take some risks.
Knowing how much to risk when is a real matter for spiritual discernment. Some of us are liable to be too timid, and others of us to be too rash, so I think there aren’t one-size-fits-all answers to this, except to say that we need to be prayerful and open to the Spirit’s guidance, and we need to have a circle of soul-friends with whom we can process our lives and our work.
Malcolm X’s main critique of Christianity in America had to do with how race seemed to determine our habits more than Jesus. Which of your ten questions in A New Kind of Christianity can lead us closer to the unity that Christ prayed for in John 17 and why?
The first of the ten questions probably is key here — the Narrative Question. I suggest that what many of us take to be the biblical narrative is actually the Greco-Roman narrative, and that narrative is inherently dualistic. It creates us vs. them, civilized vs. barbarians, insiders vs. outsiders, and that dualism easily gets translated into racism and related -isms — white versus black, settlers versus native peoples, Americans versus immigrants, whatever.
I’d also say that the third question is really key, the God Question: Is God violent? If we believe that God plays favorites — loves some, hates others; chooses some, rejects others; makes some rich, lets others be poor — then it becomes very easy to see our race (or nation, or denomination) as blessed and everyone else as cursed. That connects us quickly with the fourth question, the Jesus question, because if we believe that God is like Jesus, and we see Jesus constantly crossing boundaries to show love to the other, then we see God as being the God who breaks boundaries too, rather than the one who creates boundaries.
Then I think about the sixth question, the Church Question, because we need to ask how we manifest and embody our view of the biblical narrative, our view of God, our view of Jesus, in our local churches. All of our theology needs to be translated into real life in local faith communities. That’s where it makes a difference — especially in our cities, where it is needed so much!
You’re a musician and songwriter and I’m a jazz theologian, so let’s jam a bit. Jazz assumes standards and practices before one takes the stage. What are the basic practices that need to be assumed before we can experience A New Kind of Christianity?
First, that there’s a key we’re playing in: that’s the key of the gospel of the kingdom or dream of God. Second, that there’s a rhythm we’re working with: that’s the rhythm of Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and indwelling. Third, that there’s a bandleader who calls the tune and sets the rhythm: that’s the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Fourth, that there’s a chart, the Bible, that gives us some basic chords and notes and melodies to learn by heart and play from the heart. Fifth, that the chart makes room to improvise — that each of us has the freedom, opportunity, and even responsibility to let loose and make our unique solo contribution, always being sensitive to what the other musicians are doing and to the integrity of our song. Sixth, that there are dynamics to be respected — you don’t play too loud, you don’t solo too often or too long. And seventh, that there is a goal — to get people up off their seats and dancing with joy to the music of God, so they’re caught up in the glorious dance, something bigger than any of us, something that enfolds all of us in God’s song of celebration and love.
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Tiger Woods was raised a Buddhist, and now he’s returning to his childhood religion. Hopefully, he’ll avoid one of the great pitfalls many of us Christians fall into when it comes to living out our faith.
Recently, Tiger Woods went before TV cameras and a roomful of journalists and friends to apologize for his marital infidelity and all the damage it has wrought. In the midst of his confession, he revealed what he considers to be a key component to his rehabilitation: A return to his Buddhist roots.
I admit, as a Christian pastor, I would’ve loved to hear him announce that he had committed his life to Jesus while in rehab, but I was nonetheless thankful that Tiger seems to be confronting the spiritual dimensions of his problems. He now takes responsibility for his actions and recognizes that true restoration will require something greater than himself. And, based on his family background, Buddhism was the natural choice.
The thing is, most Christians are as Buddhist as Tiger Woods wants to be!
Can you guess what I mean?
Tiger Woods is facing the same challenge we all do: What do we do with our desires?
Two basic answers: Feed Them or Deny Them.
Option #1 is fraught with promise and peril. When we feed our desires we can say, “We are doing what comes natural.” That is, God gave me these desires and it’s only right to follow their lead. The downside? Weight gain, broken hearts, STDs, debt, and, oftentimes, a secret life.
Secrecy sets in because something inside us knows that just pursuing our desires without limits is wrong. Tiger said as much.
Option #2, a denial of our desires, has one big downside: Suffering. We suffer when we don’t indulge our desires. There is a discomfort that goes along with not doing what you feel you have to do. Just try not to scratch your next itch and see if you wouldn’t describe it as suffering. Denial of desire carries with it ultimate satisfaction. But we rarely get to experience it, because we don’t like the suffering required to get there.
Tiger’s solution to the dilemma is to become a better Buddhist. This ancient philosophy teaches a great deal about dealing with desires.
Here’s a summary of “The Four Noble Truths” of Buddhism: Life leads to suffering; suffering is caused by desires; suffering ends when desires end; thus we should eliminate our desires.
I think that most Christians, in practice at least, are as Buddhist as Tiger wants to be … unfortunately.
Unlike Buddhism, Christianity has a very different view of suffering and desires. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Unearned suffering is redemptive.” Jesus didn’t exempt himself from suffering and he invites us to take up our cross and follow him (Matt. 16:24-25). Furthermore, desires are meant to be pursued to their fullest extent. That is, all the way to God.
That’s why Jesus is revealed as bread and water … so that we might feast on Him. That’s why the psalmist sang, “Fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (Ps. 16:11) . Our soul is able to sing because it is God “who satisfies our desires with good things” (Ps. 103:5).
Like Tiger Woods, we all need to confront the root of our sins and strive for healing and restoration. I just hope we recognize that genuine healing must eventually get beyond the act of simply denying ourselves and focus on the process of allowing ourselves to be filled with the good things of God.
C. S. Lewis was correct in The Weight of Glory when he said that our problem is that we satisfy with too little. Like little children making mud pies in the gutter when we are being offered a vacation to build sandcastles on the beach.
After my 13-year-old’s jarring confession, I talked to other youth about their impressions of God, the church, and “Christ vs. Christianity.” I quickly discovered that my son was not alone in his doubts about the integrity of adult Christians.
In my last column, I related part of a conversation I had with my 13-year-old son during the Christmas holiday break, wherein he admitted some resistance to how Christians package Christianity by emphasizing the rules and not so much the Ruler. “I want to walk with Christ,” he said. “It’s Christianity that doesn’t interest me.” His comments jarred me, to say the least.
As a result, I wanted to know what other teenagers think about his remarks, so I had a conversation with a youth group from a local church. These questions were running through my mind: Do they feel the same way? Are they drawing the same distinction he is between following Jesus and adhering to the system of Christianity? What has their Christian experience been like? You never know ahead of time how a discussion with young people might turn out, but I hoped for the best. They didn’t disappoint.
The group consisted of seven kids, ranging in age from 10 to 17, two males and five females. I could tell they weren’t sure what to expect either, so I did my best to put them at ease by telling them what I would use the information for, that no one’s name would be mentioned, and that I was not there to gather intel for the church administration or their parents. With those preliminaries covered, we plunged right in.
Our discussion started with their feedback on my son’s statement about being OK with Christ, but not so much OK with Christianity. Several in the group expressed right away that they totally understand where my son’s coming from. They see what they call hypocrisy among adult Christians who say one thing but do another. They admitted that the level of hypocrisy depends on the individual and even the church to which one belongs. They are turned off by this apparent double-speak, and their body language and tone suggested that they are indeed a little insulted that adults don’t seem to realize how transparent they really are. The “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” cliché clearly doesn’t work, and these teens seem to find this especially notable given how much adults emphasize the “what” of Christianity, while downplaying the “Who” or “why.”
Moreover, their comments demonstrate the very point they’re making. Although I asked them directly about any distinction they saw between Christ the person and Christianity the faith, they said very little about Jesus Himself; the overwhelming majority of their discussion focused on Christians, Christianity, and other faith concepts. I see this as a reflection of our own tendency to relegate Jesus to background status as we attempt to translate the faith for unbelievers and youth into a modern, hip (and sometimes hip-hop) version we feel will be more palatable to them.
The group participants see this emphasis on “what” manifested in how much they hear “the Bible says …” As someone who is very committed to the authority of the Scriptures, this idea immediately caught my attention. I wanted to know how they feel about the Bible. Do they believe it is authoritative or just a book full of suggestions for how to behave? One young lady was very clear that she doesn’t have a problem with the Bible, per se, but she gets tired of hearing the answers to all her questions begin with that phrase; not so much because she doesn’t want to know what the Bible says, but because she knows there’s not going to be any explanation of what the Bible means by what it says. The group agreed. According to them, it detracts from the power of the Bible when Christians stress the commands and instructions therein without showing them how to practically live according to those commands and instructions. They want to hear and see what the Bible says. There is a genuine interest in knowing how to apply the Word to their everyday lives — what Solomon referred to as wisdom — but we are coming up short by not encouraging them to get understanding as well as knowledge.
This particular segment of our discussion really brought home to me an observation I’ve made about churches and Christians. In many cases, we’ve not effectively made the transition from Old Testament Christians (which is itself a bit of an oxymoron) to disciples under a new covenant brokered by the Lord Jesus Christ. Do we ourselves really believe that it is no longer our works that save us, but His redemptive work on the cross? Are we grasping the explanation James gives to us about the relationship between faith and works, without also remembering what Paul says about grace and works? Our young people’s resentment of the Bible might be rooted in our own inability to demonstrate what it means to obey the Lord’s commands as an act of love and commitment rather than as a performance-based ritual.
Our discussion of Christianity led to a fascinating talk about the church. The roundtable participants showed a fair amount of confusion about the role and purpose of the church. Their overall sense is that people are going to do what they want to do, no matter what anyone says.
I couldn’t help but think how saturated even churched and Christian youth are with the concept of individual choice and everyone’s “right” to make their own decisions. I pressed them pretty hard on these points by asking them, if the power of individual choice is so strong, what purpose does the church really serve? Can we ever hope to impact people’s lives if they’re going to go their own way regardless of what’s proclaimed by the church? Their view was further tested when I asked how they think the church should try to address social problems like unbiblical sexuality, teenage pregnancy, and other issues. And what does our apparent cultural impotence mean for our command to bring people to Christ? You could’ve heard a rat walk on cotton at this point.
Even though it was obvious they didn’t know how to answer these questions, I was gratified to see them really struggling with it. Our spiritual ancestors knew that we have a faith able to withstand even the most robust questioning and debate. I’m not sure we have that same appreciation anymore for the value of a strong apologetic. And more than anything, I sensed that these young people are dying for us to boldly show them that our faith can stand up to peer pressure, sexual temptation, premature childbearing, broken families, broken hearts, corrupt politics, prejudice, poverty, and anything else they might encounter.
So how did our stalemate of silence end? As it often does when we find ourselves in a faith quandary, one voice offers a tentative suggestion. In this case, the 17-year-old male said this in answer to my challenges: “Hope. It all comes down to hope.”
I could almost visibly see the dam breaking. “Yeah, hope and faith,” someone else said. Everyone nodded their agreement. They concluded that even though people might not listen and it may not seem as if any change is taking place, we as the church can offer hope to those who would listen. And we take it on faith that somehow, with God’s help, a change can be made.
In the end, they realized they didn’t have a lot of answers, and I don’t think they necessarily changed their minds about how they see adult Christians and our issues. But I’m certain they left that room reminded that when it’s all said and done, Christianity and Christ are tied together by two indomitable forces of our belief system: faith and hope. I can’t argue with that.