Brian McLaren has become a very important voice in contemporary Christianity—in part, by declaring that modernity has been a noxious pill for the body of Christ. His recent book, A New Kind of Christian, became a tonic for many who had become soured on the church and religiosity. But it was the following quote from Adventures in Missing the Point that made us want to interview him for this particular volume of Conversations:
I love the Bible, and I want those I serve to learn to love the Bible, too. But sometimes I feel like a guy trying to hook up a buddy with a girl I know—you know, do a little matchmaking—but the introduction isn’t going so well.
It’s not because the two are incompatible, but how I set them up. I told my buddy that the girl was gorgeous, brilliant, outgoing, warm, accepting, personable, charming, “Perfect for you,” I gushed.
Then they met. It’s not that I stretched the truth about the girl—she’s everything I said—but the truth is, she can be a bit shy at times. She doesn’t just go around spilling her heart out to everyone. You have to know the right kinds of questions to ask her; until then, sometimes she can seem a little aloof. And although she is beautiful by anyone’s standards, she dresses a little oddly by American standards, being from a Middle Eastern country and all. And I never mentioned her accent, and my buddy found her hard to understand, which made their first date awkward and uncomfortable. I think they still have a chance, but next time I matchmake, I need to be more realistic.
That’s how I understand the Bible in these strange and changing times. As we move from a world of high modernity to a transitional world, half in and half out of modernity and half into a new postmodern world that nobody quite knows how to describe—well, let’s just say that introducing the Bible can be rocky. Brian McClaren and Tony Campolo, Adventures in Missing the Point (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 69f.
I caught up with Brian in Atlanta, Georgia, a couple of hours before he was to go onstage at a large convention center down the street. He appeared very comfortable in faded jeans and a T-shirt. I felt overdressed in business casual. Minutes into the conversation, lyrics from a U2 song began to play in the back of my mind. Several times I had to actively repress the temptation to hum them out loud. I think Brian has caused many others to hear it, too, and to see Christianity in a whole new way.
And I’d join the movement
If there was one I could believe in.
Yeah, I’d break bread and wine
If there was a church I could receive in
’Cause I need it now
To take the cup
To fill it up
To drink it slow. U2. Larry Mullen, Jr., Adam Clayton, The Edge (Guitarist) & Bono, “Acrobat,” (Achtung Baby), 1991.
GWM: Brian, you have a wonderfully ecumenical background that includes spending a considerable amount of time in the evangelical and charismatic camps. In fact, I think you’ve spent some time swimming in each of the six tributaries of Christian spirituality represented in the Conversations journal.
Some from the evangelical and charismatic streams now want you to wear a scarlet L for “going liberal,” being willing to sacrifice biblical orthodoxy on an altar of cultural relevance. But this is not the way I read what you have to say about the Bible. In fact, you say in A Generous Orthodoxy that your regard for the Bible is higher now than ever. How so?
BDM: The older generations of the evangelical world have lived in a cold war situation for a long time. It’s not as bad as McCarthyism, I suppose—well, maybe it is; I’m not sure—but in a cold war situation, anything that’s not “us” is “them.” So for many older evangelicals, “them” means “liberal.” For younger generations, “them” would mean a lot of other things before it would be liberal Christians, partly because liberal Christians haven’t been doing so well for about forty years and don’t seem like much of a threat, which many of the older folks don’t seem to have noticed.
The irony for me, of course, is that I see fundamentalism and liberalism as two ways of being Christian in modernity, and my whole interest is exploring territory beyond modernity and its polarities. I suppose you could say that I’m searching for some new territory that is post-liberal and post-conservative, but that sounds like nonsense to some people.
Polarization has sad consequences. Each side demonizes and dehumanizes its opponents. In the political world, I hear some unnamed people say of our political enemies, “They hate freedom.” But that kind of blanket statement blinds us to reality; it’s a wonderful slogan, which makes it an excuse to dehumanize people, which makes it easier to bomb them and exterminate them. What they really hate might be secularism or consumerism or sexploitation or militarism or whatever—things we shouldn’t be too fond of either. But by saying, “they hate freedom,” we keep ourselves from thinking about any of that.
In the religious world, similar things happen. Even more, fear is used to keep people silent. There’s a pervasive political correctness in many religious circles that makes the secular political correctness seem tame.
Anyway, back to the Bible . . .
GWM: Yes, the theme of this issue . . .
BDM: I have loved the Bible since my teenage years. As you said, I’ve been around the block in terms of association with various Christian traditions. I’ve learned the way fundamentalists read the Bible and the way charismatics read the Bible—which is often nearly indistinguishable from the fundamentalists; they just draw different conclusions—
GWM: Hmm . . .
BDM: —the way Anabaptists and Anglicans and Baptists, and, yes, even liberals read the Bible. Each of them sees things the others don’t see. Once you listen to them and pay each group the respect of believing they have something to offer, you start to see at least some of what they see. Then, you can never go back to not seeing that again. So I feel that I have been enriched from many perspectives, and in the end, the Bible looks bigger, richer, deeper, more dynamic, more mysterious, more challenging, more radical, more beautiful, more life-sized, more liberating than ever.
GWM: You’ve also said that your problem is not with the Bible, but with the traditional grid through which it is read by the modern world.
BDM: Modernity loves analysis. Analysis means seeking to understand something by breaking it down into parts, reducing complex wholes into simple components or elements. So in modernity we break the Bible down into testaments, testaments into chapters, chapters into verses, sentences, clauses, phrases, words, roots, prefixes, suffixes. Then we feel we have fully understood it, like a frog we’ve dissected in a lab.
But the frog in the lab is a lot less interesting than the frog in a pond, where it interacts with flies, snakes, fish, sun, wind, rain, drought, pollutants, cattails, algae, mud, and dragonflies. When you put on your hip waders and study the frog on her terms in her habitat, you learn a million things about the frog you never would have learned in the lab. In fact, you may actually begin to like the frog—maybe love isn’t too strong a term. You start to care about whether bulldozers come and drain and destroy the pond, or whether people fill it with trash or chemicals and kill this little animal that you now care about. In fact, you might even feel a bit angry when somebody catches the frog and takes her to a lab to dissect her.
Something similar happens when we don’t limit ourselves to modern analysis of the Bible. We see the Bible as part of a bigger world . . . a dynamic, essential player in the story of the human ecosystem.
I think we should have some degree of skepticism about our analytical approach to the Bible. It allowed us to consider ourselves as very knowledgeable, “biblical” people while we were capturing, transporting, owning, and selling slaves; while we were trashing environments around God’s world; and while we found amazing new ways to kill and abuse people, beginning here in the United States with Native Americans. But that’s another whole subject.
GWM: Yes, analysis in the hands of an eisegete has been a very dangerous thing, not to mention arrogant. I’ve often wondered if some think God intended for key understandings of Scripture to lie dusty for two thousand years until someone with an IQ of 140 and expertise in Greek grammar came along and unlocked a hidden treasure. That never seemed like Jesus’ style.
I am captivated by the possibility of being a Christian without having to have an adjective like liberal or conservative in front. I’ll confess, however, that trying to think this way sometimes makes my head hurt. In fact, a Yogi Berra quote often came to mind as I read your books—you seem to have come to a fork in the road, and you took it.
What do you mean when you say that neither liberals nor conservatives take the Bible seriously enough?
BDM: Both liberals and conservatives, ironically enough, approach the Bible with the same or similar methodology. It goes back to that brilliant but problematic theologian/philosopher René Descartes. Anyway, conservatives are generally completely unconscious of the fact that they have been “discipled” by the Cartesian method, so that it affects their approach to the Bible. There’s a saying, “What you focus on determines what you miss,” and I think that’s true in this regard. Descartes teaches us to focus on mining abstract propositions from the mountains and valleys of Scripture. So we venture into the mountains looking for propositions that we can take back to our factories and process into raw materials for systematic theologies. Think of the way a miner goes into the mountains, compared to the way a biologist does, or an artist does, or a botanist does, and I think you’ll see what I mean . . . we miss a lot.
Liberals would hate for me to say this, but their approach isn’t all that different—it’s Cartesian or foundationalist through and through. The difference comes when they feel free to argue with the propositions and say they’re wrong, or contradictory, or false, or whatever. Conservatives don’t like to do that, although they find ways to sublimate difficult texts to other texts they favor more, which has a pretty similar effect.
In some ways, these days, I think the difference can be simplified—this really is an oversimplification, but there’s at least a small grain of truth in it—to one statement: conservatives take the propositions they’ve mined from the text and fit them into a system that conforms, by and large, to conservative politics, and liberals do the same with liberal politics. Again, that’s oversimplified and therefore false, yet there may be enough truth in it to say it anyway.
GWM: Yes, but what if liberalism and conservatism are two patterns so ingrained within the human personality that they will be with us always? What if it’s impossible actually to live above the conservative/liberal line as you suggest in A New Kind of Christian?
I like to think that Jesus encountered the same assortment of personality and temperament patterns that exist today. I envision the Zealots as being very much like today’s right-wing, militant Christians. They were ultra-conservatives who wanted to advance the kingdom by might and power. I envision certain of the Sadducees (and Sanhedrin-sitters) as empowered mainline liberals who talk politely about spiritual virtues while sipping iced tea (maybe Long Island iced tea) at the country club. And the Essenes as those who are more like me—so sick of the pointless tensions that they want to escape the whole thing by either becoming monks and nuns or idealizing their lives.
I’m rambling. Here’s the question: Do you ever wonder if it is impossible to move past taking a liberal or conservative approach to Christianity and think that no matter how hard you shake up the mixture, with time it always settles out as liberal or conservative? Do you worry that you may shake up a mixture with the main result being the production of more liberal Christians?
BDM: I love this question. First of all, I think we make a mistake to identify the Sadducees with liberalism. The fact is, they were the conservatives—
GWM: Don’t spare my feelings . . .
BDM: —holding to older, uniquely Jewish views about the afterlife and so on. The Pharisees were the liberals, the syncretists, who had borrowed freely from Zoroastrian/Persian and Hellenistic philosophy and religion. Both, according to Jesus, were wrong, and not only wrong, but dangerously, violently wrong.
But I think you’re right: liberalism and conservatism are both perennial dangers. Both were enemies of Jesus. Both wanted to trim him to fit their boxes, and when he refused, both loved their boxes more than him, so they were happy to see him eliminated. In our context in America, our churches are pretty much divided between the two polarities, which suggests to me that we’re pretty much all missing the point.
My biggest fear these days isn’t about there being too many liberal Christians. The liberals have been more or less in decline for four decades now, so they don’t seem like too much of a threat. If anything, they may be becoming so humbled by their decline that they may be open for a season of repentance and humility, and God’s grace flows in those directions. I think the term “post-liberal” may indicate a promising movement among former liberals who are repenting of their syncretism with leftist politics and culture.
My biggest fear is about the conservatives. They are no less compromised with right-wing politics and culture, and not only do they seem, by and large, strident and arrogant at times, but they also have fear on their side. I’m worried about what happens if and when alQaeda lands a few more strikes on our homeland. I can too easily imagine that the religious conservatives may then lose their equilibrium and go into a kind of warrior trance. Put a trancelike, unreflective, God-is-on-our-side self-confidence together with the richest economy and the most dangerous weapons in the history of the world, and I can imagine two things: millions dead and Christianity associated with the killings.
It’s ironic, heartbreakingly and terrifyingly so to me, that Islam and Christianity—the world’s dominant monotheistic faiths—could get into a hot “gods race” that could make the arms race look like a Sunday school picnic. Now, I know this whole line of thinking may be a far cry from the normal focus of Conversations and from the subject of the Bible in spiritual formation, but let’s be realistic and honest. People are being spiritually formed in the context of “principalities and powers”—a fascinating turn of phrase endemic to Paul’s writings—so if we ignore these larger historic realities in relation to spiritual formation, we’re being naïve.
All of this puts spiritual formation in an even more important light for me. Are we forming people in a way that is stronger than the ways the Republican or Democratic parties form people? Are our people being conformed not to the image of Christ but to the world, in conservative or liberal ways, without even realizing it? Do the teachings of the gospel and the Bible in general form us into a truly unique community, or are we a religious echo of secular movements? Are we really being transformed by the renewing of our minds? And if we’re being transformed, what transforming effects will we have on the world around us? Those aren’t just little private, religious, or “spiritual” questions. Those are questions on which the future of the world may hang.
GWM: I certainly hear you. I admit I’m still pondering the implications of your statement about how easy it is to want Jesus to fit our box and even loving the box more than him. But let me follow up with a question about the formative role of Scripture and the box of certainty. In Adventures in Missing the Point, you say with regard to the Bible, “Drop any affair you have with certainty, proof and argument.” Let me confess something else and then ask you a question.
I’m a “kite” sort of guy. I’m more attracted to the brightly colored triangles and boxes dancing in the wind than I am to the string. I like to contemplate ideas that dance and dart around. But I sleep better at night because of the “string” thinkers. While I don’t enjoy talking with them very much, I take comfort in that fact that ultimately my ideas will fly better if they have theological anchor points.
Some of the things you have to say about Scripture are like a beautiful kite to me. I’m mesmerized. But tell me about your string. What are your anchor points when it comes to interpreting Scripture?
BDM: Before I answer that, I should say that I am with you. The string is important; the anchoring is important. Otherwise, the kite will crash to the ground. But your question assumes—and I don’t mean this as a criticism—that the kite is currently flying, and I think it has already crashed to a great degree. Let me switch metaphors. We’re worried about the slippery slope as if we’re at the top of the slope. I think we’ve already slid to the bottom.
So for me, the question isn’t just, “How can we avoid being taken captive by postmodernism?”—even though that’s an important question. For me, the questions are, “How have we already been taken captive by colonialism, consumerism, and modernity? How far down the slope of colonialist, consumerist modernity have we slipped?” I think pretty far, much farther than any of us realize, myself included.
Here’s where I thank God for my Protestant, evangelical, even fundamentalist heritage. In times like this, people like us know what to do. We go back to the Bible.
The difference this time, though, is that we don’t go back to find abstract propositions to organize into a systematic theology which exempts us from having to think in the future because it explains and answers everything. This time, instead, we need to learn the biblical story and find our place in it.
GWM: So what biblical story or stories serve as anchors for you?
BDM: I’m not sure why that feels like a hard question to answer. They all seem so important that it feels wrong to pick one. Obviously, all the stories of Jesus—the ones about him, the ones he told. They become the portal through which I see all the other stories. On a humorous note, my main Bible hero lately has been Balaam’s ass. He looks like he’s going off the path; he appears to be wandering and recalcitrant. But really, he’s trying to avert a disaster. I keep wondering if I’m willing to get treated like that nameless beast for a higher purpose.
GWM: I have to bring in the famous passage from 2 Timothy: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” How do you explain to a conservative Christian that you have not exegeted this text with a pocketknife?
BDM: I talk about that very text in my newest book, A Generous Orthodoxy. I observe that Paul doesn’t say, “All Scripture is God-breathed and authoritative” or “inerrant” or anything like that—not to say that those things aren’t also, in some senses, true. He doesn’t say, “Scripture provides propositions to serve as an incorrigible foundation for a foundationalist epistemology,” either. Nor does he claim that Scripture operates in a special category of language that needs no interpretation. Paul’s sometime friend and fellow apostle Peter suggested the very opposite—that Paul’s writings themselves were difficult to understand and easily misinterpreted.
We could go further and observe that Paul doesn’t say Scripture is useful for creating something called “the biblical worldview,” so that Christians can be confident in judging others. Of course, we so often act as if this is what Paul says that we miss what he really says Scripture is for, which is something about good works. That’s what I love most about Scripture: that if we are trained by it, we will be equipped to do good works. And somewhere else—isn’t it Romans?—Paul says that the purpose of the Scriptures is to give us hope. Those are the primary needs I have when I come to Scripture: equipping for good works, and hope.
GWM: I have a friend who says with both arrogance and humor that he expects to spend his first year in heaven teaching St. Paul how to write clearly. Besides risking thunderbolts, he also raises an interesting question. Why doesn’t the Bible consist of a more precise and ordered schema? What are your thoughts on this?
BDM: “A precise and ordered schema”—I like that phrase. It really captures what we wish the Bible would be, like something from the Internal Revenue Service, I guess, or Robert’s Rules of Order.
Can you imagine how deadly boring that would be?
It would also be colossally counterproductive, I think. Let’s say that the world isn’t about to end in a left-behind conflagration. Let’s imagine that the universe will keep on expanding for four billion more years, maybe eight, maybe twenty. Let’s imagine that sometime far in the future, people are living on some planet in some distant solar system, and they’re still reading the Bible, as I think they will be if this kind of scenario plays out. Imagine if the Bible had been an Internal Revenue Service-style document that spelled out rules for living in AD 60. Can you see how it would be a completely dead book, completely useless for people far in the future? The fact is, it would be that for us now, if it came to us in the form of a rulebook or recipe book or blueprint.
Oddly, this is more like the expectation some of our Muslim friends have of the Koran. One of the major problems of Islam these days is that they believe the Koran was dictated by God, so it’s impossible to be faithful to it if you’re not living a more or less seventh-century Arabian lifestyle. Maybe many Christians wish they were Muslims, or that God was more like Allah—dictating rather than inspiring the Scriptures.
Instead of a dictated rulebook, we have this wildly inspired collection of stories, songs, fiction, nonfiction, history, fable, and poetry. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where one genre begins and the other ends. But put together, it gives us the rhythm and shape of a story that gives meaning and context and purpose for our lives, a story that confuses and therefore humbles us too—not a bad thing, considering how proud and dangerous we become when we think we have all the answers, when we think we’re the possessors of the “absolute truth.”
GWM: Okay, let’s get practical. If you were asked to design the Biblical Studies Department at a seminary, how would you go about it, and what types of courses and experiences would you include?
BDM: I would begin by teaching literacy. We train people in languages—grammar, vocabulary—but not in literacy, which involves learning genre, imagery, rhetoric, and imagination. I’d immerse them in ancient Near Eastern culture, so they could put the first three chapters of Genesis, for example, in the larger context of other sacred creation narratives of the time. I’d make them read poetry until they got it, and then I’d let them read the Psalms and the Prophets, who wrote most of their work in poetry.
I’d also take them to lots of movies, art galleries, and plays because most of the Bible is art, and without sensitivity to art, students will read the Bible like tax accountants, as we were saying before, and that kind of reading gives us the mess we’re in.
I would get them to write as well—letters, poetry, treatises—and then have others interpret and analyze what they’d written, so the students would sympathize with poor Paul or Luke or Isaiah when they’re interpreted.
I’d have them listen to Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion every week, since it provides the closest contemporary analogue to biblical genre that I can think of—a variety show of songs, stories, social commentary, and some fun, too.
As for scholarship, I’d give them strong doses of Walter Brueggemann on the Old Testament and N. T. Wright on the New Testament. I’d expose them to the most offbeat interpreters I could find, too, and get some rip-roaring (but hopefully good-natured) arguments going on, to help people hear “the voice of the other” both in and about the biblical text.
As you can imagine, my job security would probably be low.
GWM: I’m not so sure; the flood of students might save you. And what if you were to structure a Christian education department (pardon the dated language—Christian formation ministry) in a local church, how would you approach biblical literacy?
BDM: If we had some people trained in the imaginary program you just asked me about, then I’d have them pass on what they’d learned. I’d also create places for oral midrash.
GWM: Our dog developed oral midrash once from eating too many dead squirrels . . .
BDM: Hmm. I’m a firm believer—even though I’m a preacher—that people learn more when they’re talking than when they’re listening. In other words, conversation forms people more than lecture. So I’d have people gather and read large portions of the Bible aloud, in unison. Then I’d have them dialogue about that passage—maybe three to five chapters.
We’ve done this at Cedar Ridge, and it has been electric. We never felt that we had to agree at the end of the day, although we did emphasize that we needed to treat one another charitably in our disagreements. We were very firm on that. We gave ourselves permission to argue with what the text was saying, or what we thought the text was saying, because biblical writers do that very thing. For example, one prophet says, “Beat your plowshares into swords,” and another says, “Beat your swords into plowshares.” Ezra gets furious because Jewish men marry foreign wives, but Boaz is celebrated for doing that very thing when he marries Ruth. Rather than seeing these internal tensions as contradictions, we would see them as telling us that the people of God have to struggle with war and peace on the one hand, and in the case of intermarriage, we must struggle with identity and openness, with assimilation and insularity. Both are struggles we have today. The Bible may not give us a simple answer to those questions (unless you reject Boaz and accept Ezra, for example—a common option), but I think it does something better: it immerses us in the struggle and renders us vulnerable to the voice of the Holy Spirit, something to which we will be less vulnerable if we always enter our decision-making processes with clear, certain answers. Sometimes, certainty is just an excuse to stop thinking.
GWM: Is there a curriculum for younger folks in the church that provides biblical stories and teaching that—pardon the repeated word—anchor these conversations?
BDM: I wish I had good recommendations in this regard. My friend Ivy Beckwith, author of the newly released Postmodern Children’s Ministry, is grappling with this question, as are a few others. I love John Westerhoff’s thinking in this regard in Will Our Children Have Faith? But as far as I know—and I truly hope I’m wrong—the fresh thinking in this regard hasn’t made it too far into actual curricula yet. But it will. I’m confident it will. In my travels, I meet a lot of people who are wishing, praying, hoping, and creating.
GWM: What do you mean when you say in a couple of your books that we need to be not as concerned about reading the Bible as about letting it read us?
BDM: I’m thinking about more contemplative ways of reading the Bible, ways that emphasize active, attentive, “thirsty” receptivity rather than aggressive, dissecting analysis. I suppose you could say it’s a more feminine way to read the Bible—receiving the seed, so to speak, and letting it gestate in us, disrupt our lives, and give birth to something new—rather than a warrior’s approach to the Bible, where we go in with our sword swinging, chopping things apart until we find what we’re looking for.
I heard a wonderful pastor in Waco, Texas, describe this aggressive approach vividly the other day. She said we sometimes tie the biblical text to a chair and start flogging it with a hose until it breaks down in tears and says what we want it to say.
When we let the Bible read us, we don’t try to domesticate it, force it into our systematic pigeonholes, harmonize it, and smooth it out. We let it encourage us, and we let it bother us. We let it comfort us and afflict us. We let it assure us and fill us with questions and doubts. And we do this in a posture of trust in the Holy Spirit.
GWM: A specific example of how this has happened to you?
BDM: Of course, lectio divina comes to mind. I’ve had many experiences of simply opening my soul to a text through that beautiful and important spiritual practice. But let me go back to the Bible study at our church that I mentioned earlier. It just so happened that the Sunday after September 11, 2001, we read the story in Exodus of the ten plagues and the escape from Egypt. We read the passage aloud, in unison, and then I said, “Okay. What do you notice? What struck you? What do you want to talk about?” A flood of comments poured out, nearly all of them asking this question: “Was God a terrorist?” The things that God inflicted on the Egyptians certainly seemed like terrorism, and the goal seemed similar: to soften up the powers of Egypt so they’d change their mind about some of their policies.
Now, it might sound sacrilegious even to consider such a question. But there it was. We didn’t resolve it that night. Even now, several years later, I know that night had an effect on me, and the issue is like a thorn stuck in my mind. The text read my soul in this way: before that night, when others practiced violence against my country that killed civilians, I would call it terrorism. But if my country did something that killed civilians in other countries, I would call it collateral damage of legitimate military action. Now, I’m not saying the two things are always the same, but I am saying that because of that night, I became sensitive to this prejudice in my heart. That night, for the first time, I identified with the Egyptians because of the previous week’s experience. It “flipped the script” for me—forced me to see things in a new light and exposed my self-interest, my nationalism, my assumption that God was always on “my” side.
It also got me thinking about my image of God. Is God violent? Is God careless of human life?
Thinking about that issue more and more deeply has had a profound effect on my soul.
GWM: Causing you to want to run from God or toward God?
BDM: Well, my faith always tells me that God is good, better than my best thought of God. So I want to run to God. But I do so with a heightened awareness that I may feel and succumb to the temptation to distort my image of God to validate my desire for hate or revenge, to assume that “we” are God’s favorites and can do no wrong, while “they” are God’s enemies and can do no right. I wouldn’t have been so aware of that danger if we weren’t wrestling with Exodus in community, in the context of real life.
GWM: I love your grandmother’s advice to read the Bible like you eat a fish. “Enjoy the meat that’s easy to eat first; come back and work on the bones later if you’re still hungry.” How does this work for you as you interact with the Bible?
BDM: There are lots of things I don’t get. I remember something my friend Chris Seay said: “Why is Lot called righteous in the New Testament? He seems like a pretty shady person in the Old Testament!” So, when I’m reading the Bible more devotionally, I might put those issues aside, as my grandmother suggested, and come back to them later. It’s important to come back to them at times, I’ve found, because sometimes those issues open up new treasures. But especially for people who are just approaching the Bible for the first time, there’s a lot you just have to set aside because you’re not ready for it yet.
For example, I remember going through what a lot of people go through as young Christians, the big debate between Calvinists, who emphasize predestination, and Arminians, who emphasize free will. I began as neither, then became one, then switched sides to the other, but never felt either side did justice to the issues or the Scriptures. So the whole question became a “bone” for me that I just put aside, hoping that later I would get some clarity on it. Two decades later, I read missiologist Lesslie Newbiggin, who gave me a radically different understanding of what “election” means. That new understanding of election—that it is being chosen for service for the blessing of all others, not for blessing to the exclusion of all others, gave me a new perspective on the old predestination vs. free will debate, something I never would have seen if I had either swallowed the bone or thrown it out entirely. I suppose the point is that it’s okay to hold some issues in an “I don’t know” zone, in hopes that someday things will become clearer, and meaning will come. That’s a far better alternative, according to my grandmother, than demanding to digest everything now and make a false confession of understanding.
GWM: What is rekindling your own fascination with Scripture?
BDM: You ask hard questions! I find that question almost impossible to answer because I can’t think of anything in Scripture that doesn’t fascinate me these days. Let me do a kind of brain-dump and tell you what comes to mind most quickly:
- The kingdom of God as the center of Jesus’ message. Why is atonement theory or hell-evasion the center of our message, and not the kingdom of God coming to earth?
- The kingdom of God as the center of Paul’s message. True, he didn’t use the phrase as much as Jesus did, but is the concept as central to Paul? If not, why not? If so, why don’t we notice that in Paul?
GWM: Just a quick insert. Perhaps Paul’s repeated use of “being in Christ” was his way of describing how we can be alive in the new order of the kingdom.
BDM: Wow, that’s a great insight. Yes, that makes a lot of sense. It resonates with John’s phrase—having “the life” or “abundant life” or “walking in the light.” I think these are all ways of trying to capture the same thing, just as you say.
GWM: Where were you in your list?
- Resurrection as the end of eschatology. Why do so many people see a disembodied, Neoplatonic heaven as the end of the story, and not resurrection in the new creation?
- Peace issues. Does the teaching of Jesus have anything to say about war? Do Christians keep the violence and ethnic cleansing cards in their back pocket, using the slaughter of the Canaanites as biblical justification, or does the teaching of Jesus put an end to that?
- Environmental issues. Why has the doctrine of creation been swallowed up by the doctrine of the Fall in Western Christianity? What would happen if we reasserted the doctrine of creation? What does a rich understanding of creation have to say about our priorities and lifestyles today?
- Hell and judgment. I’ve just completed a manuscript on this subject, which will conclude the A New Kind of Christian It will be called The Last Word and the Word After That. Why and how did Jesus use the doctrine of hell? How do we square the conventional doctrine of hell with an image of a truly good, just, and loving God? Why do many Christians emphasize hell for others, but pay little attention to judgment in relation to their own lives?
- What does it mean to believe in a God who suffers at our own hands in Christ?
- How do public justice and personal morality relate? Why do we, in our English Bibles, often translate the original words for justice as righteousness, and what are the consequences of that translation?
- How does God want us to relate to members of other religions? What does it mean to be a good neighbor and a blessing to non-Christians?
- How can I become less reactive or hurt when my work is criticized unfairly? How can Scripture help me prepare for and wisely respond to these kinds of experiences of harsh treatment?
- How do I deal with passages where God is portrayed as vengeful, violent, unforgiving, and merciless, in contrast to other places where God is portrayed as patient, gentle, forgiving, and merciful? Where do poetic language, rhetorical flourish, and anthropomorphism end and something closer to literal revelation begin?
Those kinds of questions are sparkling in my mind whenever I open the Bible these days. And if I thought about it more, a dozen more issues would quickly come to mind. I guess you could say that my questions keep my interest rekindled. For me, the Bible raises as many questions as it answers, maybe more, and I’ve grown to love that about the Bible because I think it’s the posture of seeking, questioning, curiosity, hunger, and thirst that keeps us pressing on to know the Lord.
That’s actually a way we are formed spiritually: we are made thirsty, hungry, curious.
GWM: Brian, it looks like they are about to pull the breakfast buffet, so I’d better limit myself to one last question. Your writing has stimulated my thinking and given me an excitement about finding a new way to be a Christian like nothing else I’ve read. But I am left with a question: If modernism has been bad for Christianity—and you’ve sold me on this—why look forward instead of backward? You seem so taken with Orthodox theology and spirituality—the thinking of our premodern church fathers and mothers—that I wonder why you would point readers toward a foggy-at-best future instead of back to a time before modernism. Why not champion a return to the ancient version of Christianity that has already stood the test of time and fended off classic heresies?
BDM: Well, as you say, I believe that Eastern Orthodoxy has much to offer us. So do the medieval monastics, the Celtic missionaries, the desert fathers, the Benedictines and Franciscans, and many others—all voices from the premodern world. I’m all for listening to those brothers and sisters, against whom we shouldn’t be prejudiced just because they are no longer visible among us. As Chesterton said, tradition is the democracy of the dead. I’m all for reclaiming our full tradition, not only the Protestant era of it, but also the pre-Protestant eras, as I’ve said again and again in several of my books.
But at the same time, I don’t think we can ever go back. We can reach back. We can listen back. We can look back. We must. But escapism into some imagined golden age of whatever century—fourth, sixteenth, or whatever—strikes me as unfaithful to Jesus, who promised to be with us until the end of the age. If he’s out there waiting for us in the future, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to retreat into the past. Our world is in desperate need of missionaries who will be waiting as millions of people leave the modern world and enter the postmodern world. I want to be there waiting for them, and I hope a lot of others will be there too. It won’t be easy. We’ll need to be formed by a force far more powerful than the cultures, whether modern, postmodern, or whatever, that want to squeeze us into their molds. But I believe it will be exciting, and Christ will be with us.
BRIAN D. MCLAREN is pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church, an innovative church in the Baltimore-Washington area. He is the author of a number of groundbreaking books on the theological and ministerial issues in an emerging postmodern environment, including A New Kind of Christian (Jossey-Bass/Leadership Network, 2001) and More Ready Than You Realize: Evangelism as Dance in the Postmodern Matrix (Zondervan, 2002). Brian is married to Grace, and they have four young adult children. He has traveled extensively in Europe, Latin America, and Africa, and his personal interests include ecology, fishing, hiking, kayaking, camping, songwriting, music, art, and literature. To learn more about Brian visit https://brianmclaren.net/