Conversation With Brian McLaren on His Call to Reclaim Ancient Practices

Journalists like to call Brian McLaren a leader—sometimes even “The Leader”—of “the emergent church,” the popular phrase used to describe the next generation of congregations springing up like wildflowers with new names and new formats for worship and social action.

But tagging him with that title is a mistake. Brian points out that calling anyone a leader of this movement misses its core conviction that each pilgrim in this new style of Christianity is called to be a leader. Instead, it’s more accurate to think of Brian as the Bob Dylan of the emergent church movement—a restless prophet, chronicler and provocateur. He’s a creative voice who is so honest in talking about his own spiritual journey that he sometimes infuriates people. For example, the Wikipedia page about Brian currently lists nine major foes—traditionally minded evangelicals who have become his critics.

He’s not trying to be divisive—just honest. In fact, he’s a healer, especially in his role as chairman of the board at the famous social-justice magazine Sojourners, founded by Jim Wallis. It’s a sign of Brian’s catalytic energy as a best-selling author and popular speaker around the world that he has stirred reactions from all ends of the religious spectrum.

Right now, he’s stirring up a lot more spiritual energy with the launch of a multi-year, eight-volume series of books from the Thomas Nelson publishing house. Individually, these books are manifestos by eight writers, calling on all Christians—but especially evangelical Christians—to reclaim seven ancient spiritual practices that originated thousands of years ago in the era of Abraham.

Brian’s introductory volume is called, Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices. Other leading Christian voices have pointed in this direction over the past year, including Tony Campolo and N.T. Wright. But what’s remarkable about the series Brian is kicking off right now is the authors’ affirmation that these practices are valued, as well, by our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters. This is a milestone in interfaith relations—a warm hand reaching out to other men and women in this Abrahamic family of faiths. In tomorrow’s story, we’ll talk more with the series’ General Editor, Phyllis Tickle.

Highlights of our Interview
With Brian McLaren:

DAVID: Let’s start with Abraham, because the spiritual lives of more than half the world’s population today start with Abraham—a patriarch for Jews, Christians and Muslims. But, I have to say: It’s a surprising starting point for a series of books kicked off by a couple of evangelicals. So, tell us why you’ve found yourself all the way back at Abraham’s feet looking at practices like fasting, pilgrimage and regular hours of daily prayer that may seem to many evangelicals like ideas—like ideas written on a postcard from a distant land.

BRIAN: Thanks for starting here and drawing attention to this. I have to say this is partly due to Phyllis Tickle. She wanted to frame this entire series as practices shared by the three Abrahamic faiths and the invitation to work on this was a wonderful gift to me—and I think it will be to readers as well. I was asked to write the introductory volume to the whole series.

My own background is that I was brought up in a fundamentalist church. Through much of my life I’ve been a conservative evangelical—and among conservative Christians, there’s this feeling that you’re being unfaithful to Christ if you’re too friendly with people of other faiths.

In one sense, that’s laughable the moment you say it, isn’t it? But, I think it’s important to talk about this, because it’s an important issue for so many people. There are conservative Christians who continue to feel that the only authentic contact Christians should have with people of other faiths is evangelistic. They continue to argue that we should only talk to people of other faiths to convert them.
But that is not what I actually experienced in my life. I would meet and become friends with a Buddhist or a Hindu or a Muslim or a Jew or an atheist—and I would find myself, as I got to know them, learning from them. And I found that there was something very—very right—about meeting other people and learning from them. Of course, I’m a follower of Jesus Christ and I do believe that Jesus Christ came for all people, but believing that that doesn’t mean that I need to cut myself off and that I can only have these utilitarian relationships with people—that I’m only meeting other people as a way to convert them.

Something happened to me right after September 11, 2001. Like a lot of people, I went to a prayer meeting—and I had this overwhelming feeling at the prayer meeting that there would be reprisals against Muslims after this attack and I felt that there was a strong need for me to visit the mosques around me. There were four mosques near me and so, on September 13 I think it was, I visited all four mosques. Of course, several of them were locked up tight, but one was open and I visited and began building relationships—and my relationships with Muslims now are extremely important to me.

I’ve gotten to know rabbis, too, and others. These relationships were important when I wrote, Everything Must Change: When the World’s Biggest Problems and Jesus’ Good News Collide, my book just before this new one. That earlier book was my attempt to ask: How can we understand our global crises? And, as I explored that question, it became more and more obvious to me that at the heart of every other global crisis -– both in the potential of making problems worse and in the potential leverage point for making them much better -– is religion. Are our religions going to be forces for fear or forces for healing?
I’ve continued with those conversations around the world. In January this year, I was invited to be part of the World Economic Forum dialogue with Christians, Muslims and Jews in Davos. I was doing that as we were finishing the final editing on this new book.

BRIAN McLAREN: Abraham as our model

DAVID: In your new book, you talk about Abraham as a model of someone who was—and I’m borrowing some of your words here from your book—“fully awake to God, real, abundant, examined, conscious, worth living.”

BRIAN: One of the things that is so appealing about Abraham in what we might call our post-modern, post-colonial, post-“Christendom” context is that Abraham was directly in touch with who we Christians, Muslims and Jews believe was the Creator of the universe. Abraham was directly in touch with God without a religion. Abraham was before Judaism as we know it, and of course he was long before Christianity or Islam were established.
Abraham had that primal calling from God to be on a pilgrimage, on a journey. He’s not the representative of a dominant religion -– certainly not a state or an imperial religion. He becomes a sole believer in a transcendent God in the midst of a polytheistic, pluralistic world. This idea of Abraham as having faith before a religion was organized makes him a very, very important figure for us when many of us are struggling to have faith in spite of the religion we see around us today. Many of us have this sense that religions have great resources for genuine, authentic faith, but they have somehow lost their way.

DAVID: That’s actually a perfect way to describe why you call this first book in the new series, Finding Our Way Again. In addition to talking with you today, I’ve also just talked with Phyllis Tickle. She’s been involved with the design of all the upcoming volumes—and on the day after we publish this interview with you—we’ll have second story talking with Phyllis about her view of this project. She said to me that, in this series, she wanted this collection of top thinkers—you and the other seven writers—to help people go way back and see Jesus and Christianity from a whole different vantage point than most Protestants have viewed Jesus. Does that sound like your understanding of this series as well?

BRIAN: It really does make sense. It’s been just fascinating to focus on this whole idea of practices. Rediscovering ancient practices. It’s not where I started in my Christian theology, but this idea runs deep. Celtic Christians, for example, have embodied practices into their faith for centuries. But, this is a new idea for a lot of American Christians. One of the things that’s so powerful about making this connection is that it becomes a part of a much deeper movement in our culture. Our whole culture is moving now from being primarily a rationalistic, book-oriented world -– to this world of the screen that combines image and voice and music into this larger experience. We are talking here about reconnecting Christianity with something that runs deep in our tradition –- and that makes sense to people in our changing culture right now.


DAVID: You use the phrase “ancient-future” in your book to describe this. And you’re not alone, of course. We just had both N.T. Wright and also J. Philip Newell visiting here at ReadTheSpirit in similarly in-depth interviews we did with each of them. And both of them—Wright speaking as an Anglican, a bishop, an evangelical, in many ways a traditionalist—and Newell speaking as one of the great prophets of the Celtic movement today—they were talking about this need to rediscover these ancient treasures. It’s pretty startling to hear this chorus of voices.

BRIAN: It is absolutely stunning. One of the next books I’m planning to write will talk about this. I think that we’re grappling, maybe for the first time in 1,500 years, with the Greco-Romanization of the way of Jesus.

DAVID: Explain that a little more. You’re talking about how Greek culture and Roman imperial culture reshaped Jesus’ message.

BRIAN: Right. What we have called Christianity for 1,500 years in the West turns out to be a Greco-Roman version of Christianity. There’s been a lot of talk already about the Greek influence on Christianity. But I think we’ve underestimated the Roman captivity of Christianity from those early centuries when Greco-Roman philosophy was becoming the tool of Roman domination of the empire. The problem is that this process led to a connection between Christianity and systems of power and domination throughout Christianity that sure look antithetical to the way of Jesus.

We’ve mentioned the Celts. Well, the early Celtic Christians represented this minority report on the way of being Christian that wasn’t Roman—and it flowered in one era, but was domesticated again by the Romans. You can make a pretty strong case that St. Francis himself represented a re-flowering of the non-Roman, Celtic approach to faith. And I’m sure this is a speculative idea as I’m describing it here—but I think that Francis represented an alternative idea much like what the Celtic missionaries spread through Europe.

What if Francis had started the Reformation?

DAVID: It’s fascinating that you raise this, because I’ve spent a lot of time over the past decade exploring the Reformation. We talked about the Reformation in the first article we published at ReadTheSpirit. I often wonder what would have happened if the full-scale Reformation had started, not with Luther and Calvin, Erasmus and Zwingli—but with Francis. It’s a curious twist of history. Somehow the Catholic church was able to embrace Francis and enfold him within the one existing church. But what if the splintering—what if the full Reformation—had started right away with Francis? What would our world look like now? What would Christianity look like now?

BRIAN: That’s a tremendous question. What if the Reformation started with Francis? That question resonates strongly with an idea I’ve heard Jim Wallis raise. He asks: What would have happened if the church had spent the years from about 300 to about 600, instead of having esoteric theological arguments, instead devoting 300 years to exploring how people should live out the ethic of Jesus against the backdrop of the Roman Empire. To me, those two questions—the one you’re raising about Francis or the one Jim raises about how the church spent those 300 years—those questions do the same thing for us. They ask us to come to terms with the fact that we’ve all inherited certain versions of the Christian faith.

DAVID: In your new book, you repeat an important point that you’ve made before: “I am convinced that Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion; he came to proclaim a new kingdom.” That’s really what you’re talking about here—putting our focus back on what Jesus meant about this new kingdom he described. What practices can we follow that bring us closer to that kingdom, right?

BRIAN: Yes. One of the truly seminal discussions going on right now is the rediscovery of Jesus within his Jewish context. Many people from many different perspectives are involved in this conversation—but one of the important ideas here is to find a new vantage to see and understand Jesus. If someone asks, “Who is Jesus?”—we can answer that from more than one perspective. We could look back toward Jesus through a set of lenses—John Calvin to Martin Luther to Augustine to Paul to Jesus. Or, we could try to look at Jesus through Abraham to Moses to David to John the Baptist to Jesus. There are two different lines of sight to Jesus. And if we’ve only ever look backward through the lenses of institutional Christianity, when we begin to look from other perspectives—what comes back to us may be radical and liberating and unsettling to us.

DAVID: And there are other lines of sight, too, right? I’m thinking of Tony Campolo’s and Mary Albert Darling’s book, The God of Intimacy and Action: Reconnecting Ancient Spiritual Practices, Evangelism, and Justice, where they’re looking back through another line of lenses. I was surprised, when I read Tony’s book, to find him writing about John Wesley as a powerful lens.

BRIAN: You can look back, let’s say from John Wesley to St. Francis to St. Patrick to the Cappadocian Fathers to Jesus—and that’s yet another line of sight to Jesus.

BRIAN McLAREN: ‘Leader’ of Emergent Church?

DAVID: I appreciate what you’re doing in raising these new perspectives, but let me ask about an odd thing that keeps happening in the news media. I went back through some press coverage of you in recent years and, for example, Larry King had you on his show and I was looking at the transcript. He introduced you pretty much as the leader of the emergent church movement. That kind of introduction as a leader of the whole movement shows up in many press reports on your work.

I know that’s not a claim you make personally. It’s how people introduce you. But I would like to ask you about it because, to be honest, calling someone “the leader” of the emergent church is like calling someone “the author” of post-modernism. The terms are antithetical to the movements. They don’t make sense.

BRIAN: I’m so glad you’re bringing this up, because I fight against this all I can and I think all of us who are involved in this movement are trying to fight against this. Anytime people try to centralize these things that are unfolding—they’re just being dishonest.

Any of the helpful ideas I’ve shared with people in my work have come to me as conversations among friends. And this is especially important to say here: I think the conversations that need to happen right now are global conversations—conversations between the colonial North and the post-colonial South, between Americans and Africans, between people in the North and people in Latin America, between people in the majorities and people with minority voices. A lot of what people are calling “the emergent church” is quite simply a movement of all those people who, a generation later, realize that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was right. I’ve been writing a lot about “the kingdom of God”—but that’s really what Dr. King was talking about as “the beloved community.” To see what’s unfolding as a truly global conversation—that’s what is so exciting for me.

DAVID: I agree with you. That’s what this weekly author interview format is all about at Read The Spirit. This idea is as simple as walking outside, down the street—or around the world, sometimes—and meeting other people. But, I also want to be honest about this. It’s risky. There are some people who feel threatened by this. I just had a review copy of a paperback book land on my desk the other day—and I won’t even say who wrote it or mention the title because I hope this book vanishes. It was by an evangelical who tries to tell Christian readers in his book that Muslims are devoted to killing them—and that we all are called to defeat Islam before it destroys the world.

Now, on one level, that book is just ignorant. The author just doesn’t know much about the real world. But, as a Christian myself, it also makes me realize how risky this work can be. I just checked your entry on Wikipedia, Brian, and you’re now up to nine links on your page to noted evangelicals who oppose your work, who say you’ve gone astray.

BRIAN McLAREN: Seeing beyond ‘a binary world’

BRIAN: This can be threatening to people. So many people don’t even realize they’ve locked themselves into a very, very deep spiritual rut. And the problem with finding yourself in a rut is that the world only seems to offer you two options—moving even deeper into the rut or turning around and going in the opposite direction. If you’re deep in a rut, you may not even realize that you have other options. Any movement except deeper into the rut starts to feel like unfaithfulness. I’ve thought a good deal about this problem, because for some people it’s gotten worse. People have gotten angrier. Part of what’s happening, I think, is that anxiety and defensiveness are signs of a declining movement that’s investing more and more of its fading energy in boundary maintenance — and less and less energy in its outward mission.

Another dimension is that so many conservative evangelicals were raised in a binary world that was shaped by the Cold War narrative. There have to be two sides: good and evil. In the Cold War, the whole world was reduced to two bins, remember? That’s why in South Africa, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu used to be called Communists by the leaders of the Apartheid regime. There were only two bins in which you could put people in the Cold War—so Mandela and Tutu had to be labeled Communists, and now we know that was absolutely absurd.

But many people still can’t see beyond a binary world. So, now for many conservatives, Christianity has become the client religion of the American empire—and any defection from this particular conservative form of Christianity becomes treason.
DAVID: There are some other voices raising this concern—and one of the powerful voices is N.T. Wright, who is a hero to many American evangelicals. But, Wright is British and now in his role as bishop, he actually sits in Parliament—and in our Conversation With Tom Wright just a few weeks ago—he ended with this same point you’re raising.

We were talking about the dramatic way that the minds and the spiritual lives of Americans and Europeans may shift in coming years if the world does tilt on its axis and China and India become the world’s superpowers. This isn’t just a political question. The world is changing and, if our faith is connected to our assumptions about global power—then we’re in for some huge changes ahead, right?

BRIAN: Exactly right. What I started to realize as I was researching my earlier book, Everything Must Change, is that the world is moving from an era in which our major crises were “us vs. them” problems. Instead, our whole world is moving into an era when our crises are “us vs. us.” Here’s an example: Our consumptive way of life is our problem. That’s an us vs. us problem. If our whole view of the world is focused on finding a bad guy out there who we can go and defeat -– then we’re missing the fact that what we’re doing is self-sabotaging our world. This is our world.
But there’s hope. We’re in an era where fascinating defections and amazing new alliances can occur.

DAVID: Case in point, in a recent Read The Spirit newsletter we sent out, I asked readers if they thought that the news stories about religion in the U.S. presidential race really represent the “big story on faith and politics.” And I argued that, quite the contrary, the biggest and most important faith-and-politics stories at the moment aren’t even happening in the U.S. The biggest stories involve the monks in Myanmar as a visible force of social change in that ravaged country—or, an even bigger global story is former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his big millennial foundation. He’s a Catholic and he’s working with U2’s Bono, also a Catholic, and on their board is Rick Warren of Saddleback—an American evangelical—and together they’re all committed to working with Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs. Now, that’s the sort of “amazing new alliances” you’re talking about.

BRIAN: I could not agree with you more. Yes, that’s what we’re talking about—and, really, that’s what makes this such an exciting moment to be alive and to be doing this kind of work.

And so ends our Conversation with Brian McLaren.

Want more on Brian McLaren?

OTHER BRIAN McLAREN BOOKS and INTERVIEWS are described in our Brian McLaren Small Group Resources page..

(Originally published at, an online magazine covering spirituality, religion, interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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