Interview with Brian McLaren on questions that can renew our world

“It’s true that what is trying to be born today echoes the Great Reformation in many ways. … We may not nail theses to the door, but we post hypotheses on a Web site or publish questions and reflections in a book. We may not gather in secret around a table in a German castle, but we raise questions in conversations between sips of Kenyan coffee, Belgian or Mexican beer, or Australian, Chilean, or South American wine. We may not argue about which propositions should serve as major and minor premises in formal debate, but we lovingly proposition people to consider secret liaisons with truths and dreams that the ‘authorities’ have banned.”
    Brian McLaren, “A New Kind of Christianity”

He’s right!

The words that launched ReadTheSpirit magazine in 2007 were: “We haven’t seen times like these in 500 years.” As we launched ReadTheSpirit, we “nailed” our own 10 theses to a Web portal.

That’s the enormous scope of Brian’s work these days—and our own work. In Brian’s new book, just published in time for Lent, he is not merely producing yet-another-book-for-small-group-study. He’s packaging spiritual dynamite and shipping it to cells of believers nationwide who are so restless with the bondage of “church life” that they want to blow the roof off and start again.

Of course we’re talking about this metaphorically! Brian is world-renowned as a peacemaker, among other things. But that language captures the urgency and the dramatic scale of this transformation Brian—and ReadTheSpirit—see unfolding for millions upon millions of men and women.

Earlier, we published a brief excerpt of his book that includes the 10 questions he raises. And, CLICK HERE if you want to get a copy of “A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith” from Amazon right now.


DAVID: Let’s start with an update on the last major publishing project you helped to launch. We featured that in ReadTheSpirit back in 2008. You wrote “Finding Our Way Again,” which was the foundational book in a series designed by Phyllis Tickle to help recapture the wisdom of ancient spiritual practices.

In your new book released this week, you’re writing about ways to move our communities forward. But, this new book comes on the heels of that earlier work you did on rediscovering ancient religious practices.

So, why was that earlier book so important? And, how does it relate to what you’re doing right now in 2010?

BRIAN: That earlier project was the brainchild of Phyllis Tickle. She realized that, amid all of our other struggles and crises that we’re facing in the Christian faith today, we really have a crisis of formation—a crisis of cohesion.

We tend to place so much emphasis on doctrine and ideas that we can ignore formation. If we do that, we wind up with a lot of opinionated people who think they’re good Christians because they can argue loudly! (laughs)

If our only reason for staying together is our agreement on our opinions at the moment, then we have a very fractious atmosphere. Phyllis recognized that the spiritual practices bring us together in a way that merely agreeing on our current opinions can’t achieve. The practices contribute to our inner formation. The practices connect us in ways that opinions can’t hope to do.

DAVID: We certainly agree on the enormous scope of the transformation taking place all around us—whether we like it or not. But I want to challenge you on a statement you make in the opening of your new book. You write: “The Christian faith in all its forms is in trouble.”

Now, I know that it’s popular to sound the alarms, but frankly America remains one of the most passionately religious nations in the world. If you look at nationwide surveys of youth—contrary to what some authors are claiming these days—the fact is that 2 out of 3 high school seniors are quite friendly to religion. There’s a lot of data showing that Americans in huge numbers value spirituality as a very important part of our lives.

So, what gives? How can we be “in trouble” and so passionate about religion all at the same time?

BRIAN: When I write a sentence about the Christian faith being in trouble, I’m thinking about things like attendance patterns. Attendance in Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant, evangelical, charismatic and Eastern Orthodox communities isn’t anywhere close to keeping up with birth rates. So, that’s the first thing. Attendance is down.

Second, in many places the constituency is aging much faster than the population. Those are negative trends.
Even if we look outside of the United States into Africa, Latin America and Asia, there are real signs of distress there, too. I’m spending quite a bit of time in Latin American and Africa, now, where I’m told again and again that there will not be a second or third generation of church leaders there. There was a lot of growth in Pentecostal and prosperity-preaching movements in these areas, but that may not continue either.

DAVID: These are areas where Christian leaders, to this very day, continue to celebrate the explosive growth. You’re saying that this growth is quite fragile?

I’ve seen signs of that myself. I know that a whole lot of promises that were made, let’s say to eastern European congregations or African congregations in the past 20 years—those promises are all too often forgotten. And a lot of those congregations, which sprang up in the hope that their churches would lead to prosperous new communities—well, they’re in trouble.

BRIAN McLAREN: ‘In some areas, it’s a crisis.’

BRIAN: That’s right. In some of these regions where we all celebrated rapid growth, we could see those numbers turn around in a hurry.

In some areas, it’s a crisis. I was just in the West Bank and it’s so discouraging over there to hear that the majority Christian communities, which have been Orthodox and have this deep, resilient Christian identity, are in real trouble.

In the big scheme of things, I suppose we can say that Christianity always is in trouble! But I think the changes in the world right now justify writing that line: We’re in trouble.

DAVID: Yet you’ve got such enthusiasm! Such optimism. I understand that. Like you, I wake up each morning and my prayer always starts with thankfulness that I’m able to live in times like these. I can’t imagine a more exciting time to be doing this work, as a journalist, as a person of faith, as a person who cares about the world.

Your book certainly isn’t a “downer.” It’s full of creative energy. How do you explain that?

BRIAN: As you say, this is a very, very exciting time.

In the first half of this new book, I talk about theological pregnancy. We’re in an era of very positive rediscovery of the treasures buried in our own back yards.

But to access those treasures, it requires us to dig up some of the sod.

This will get messy before we can move on.


DAVID: In your introduction, you salute Harvey Cox. I’m guessing your book was finished before Harvey’s “The Future of Faith” came out. But then you wanted to acknowledge Harvey’s book in your introduction. Is that right?

BRIAN: That’s it exactly. That was the timing.

I found complete resonance on a deep level with what Harvey is writing. He is seen as a great expert on Pentecostalism, in particular, and the part of his book that intrigued me was his “read” on Pentecostalism. I hope he’s right. I hope Pentecostalism will be able to shift itself into this new era. I hope movements like that won’t become just another form of Fundamentalism. I hope we see a generation of young leaders around the world who seize a non-Fundamentalist way forward.

DAVID: For a moment, let’s jump to the very end of your book. You argue, in the end, that we may be experiencing a crisis in organized religion, right now. But, overall what you’re talking about—what’s really at stake in this global effort—is not merely attendance in congregations. What’s at stake is humanity. What’s at stake is the Earth itself. That’s what you’re really arguing here, right?

BRIAN: I’m so glad that’s the impression you carried away from reading this. I couldn’t be happier to hear you say you got that point!

Yes, you’re right. Every generation down through history likes to think it’s unique, but now we live in the century after the invention of the nuclear bomb. We live with that kind of destructive potential in the world. And we live in a time when we’re discovering the fossil fuels that transformed our way of life are also threatening our world.

Fossil fuels, for example, brought unimaginable prosperity to a minority of us, but we left millions behind. In this new century, it’s terribly irresponsible to carry on business as usual in any dimension of our life—and most of all in our faith.

In hindsight, we can see so many things clearly, now. What I hope people can do is take advantage of our foresight and look at the crises that are going to dominate the lives of our children and grandchildren.

If we can discover resources in our faith to help us address these issues, then we’re doing our job as a generation.

BRIAN McLAREN: ‘No more exciting times to be alive’

DAVID: I agree entirely. Religion is no longer just a matter for lively debate around a table in the church basement. Faith actually matters. The world hangs in the balance.

BRIAN: And that’s exactly why we can say: There are no more exciting times to be alive than when we can see our work in that light. This becomes breathtaking, when we realize the scale of what’s at stake.

DAVID: Let’s give a couple of examples of how you kick off this process of “rethinking” in your book. You don’t start way up on the mountaintop. You start with some very practical, nuts-and-bolts questions that can begin to point our study and our reflections—and our entire communities—toward fresh paths.

I like this one in particular: “What is the overarching storyline of the Bible?”
You’re asking people to quit arguing, for a moment, over individual passages and doctrines and spend some time focusing on the big picture in scriptures between God and humanity.

BRIAN: Yes, this kind of question is underneath everyone’s feet, wherever I travel around the world. What’s the big narrative?

In the modern era, we look at the world, first, through the lenses of various ideologies. So, when we open up the Bible or listen to a sermon, what we’re really doing is seeing how the information we’re getting at the moment fits into the ways we already see the Bible. We’re seeing it all through this lens we’ve got set up in advance.
Often, we’re not allowing ourselves to think about the larger narrative that’s there in the Bible. We think we already know it. We’ve got our lens set. We pick and choose Bible verses to defend all kinds of things. We proof text.

Instead, I’m talking about turning to narrative theology. We’re asking people how these shorter verses and stories in the Bible fit into this much larger sweep—this big story that connects it all. The first question I ask in this new book is trying to get people to think about: What’s the big story?

DAVID: Your questions continue this approach. For example, you ask: Is God violent? When you ask it that simply, I think it’s almost like a refreshing splash of cold water on our faces. In the end, that’s the big question related to violence, right? Is God violent?

BRIAN: When you put the question this starkly, I think it brings certain things to the surface. If our assumption is that there is this violent part of God’s character, then it becomes a lot easier to justify a violent behavior within ourselves and our nation.

But if our overall conviction grows that, no, in the truest understanding of God’s character, God is a god of compassion and love and reconciliation, then that leads us toward very different kinds of behavior.

There’s not a more lively issue right now to consider.

BRIAN McLAREN: A Sermon Series?

DAVID: I love this line toward the end of your book: “Please, please, please don’t announce an exciting new sermon series on ‘A New Kind of Christianity’ next Sunday!”

That’s 3 “pleases” strong! You mean it! The point you’re making here is that this is a process that must take place in groups—people to people, sharing stories, talking with each other.
In this transformation we’re experiencing, men and women aren’t willing to passively accept something someone is cramming down their throats. People want to engage with each other, right? And that’s not just a question of personal preference—it’s how the transformation takes place.

BRIAN: We preachers are always so sure that a sermon can actually solve people’s problems. (laughing as he says this) We underestimate how deep and difficult this transformation is!

I’m so happy that this book is shaped around questions, rather than statements. And, I don’t answer all the questions. That wouldn’t get us where we need to go.

This is why Jesus taught in parables so often rather than just issuing pronouncements. The very form of the parable invites us into a space where we’re using our imagination and reflection. We actually have to understand the story before we can even begin to agree or disagree.

DAVID: We just welcomed Barbara Brown Taylor for one of these in-depth interviews and, after our time on the telephone was over, Barbara said to me: “You know, I think focused conversation is a spiritual practice.”

BRIAN: I agree! Very much! Focused, respectful conversation is a new spiritual practice. We haven’t even appreciated it fully as a spiritual practice. This is what Jesus does when he works with the parables. He invites people into a space where our normal agree/disagree responses are set aside.

This is where we are desperately in need of people like you and places like ReadTheSpirit—and thousands of dinner table conversations and all the rest. These ideas won’t matter if they aren’t translated into conversations around people’s tables.

DAVID: Also at the end of your book, you recommend that people incubate new “parastructures to foster new approaches to faith rather than trying to bend existing structures to that end.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. That’s our whole approach here at ReadTheSpirit. We’re constantly seeking out new ideas, new programs, new ways to connect people—and we want to share those broadly with others.

BRIAN: Here’s a fascinating example: Look back into history at the shift in Christian consciousness from an Earth-centered view of the cosmos to a Sun-centered view of our solar system. The first people to argue that the Earth moves around the Sun were arrested, tortured, executed. It was considered a crime even to say this. But, then a couple of centuries later, no thinking Christian in the world believed that it was essential to the faith to believe in the old Earth-centered model of the universe.

How did that happen? A radical shift took place within Christianity, but it didn’t happen through sermons that told people to change their view of the universe. It happened through thousands and thousands of voices and conversations that changed the way we all thought about these things.

Or, in our own era, think about the change in South Africa. Apartheid was a deeply theological system. Yet, today, there has been this remarkable change in millions of people’s hearts and minds.

Change can happen, but it can only happen if we create safe zones where we can talk about these things.

DAVID: Your book really is a guidebook to questions you can raise in these “safe zones,” these circles of conversation.

BRIAN: And the beautiful thing is: We don’t need anyone’s permission! We can create these new zones around tables in restaurants or in our living rooms. We all have the power to create these wonderful transformative zones.

DAVID: We both refer back to the Reformation 500 years ago. If people know anything about that era, they tend to have this skewed snapshot that shows the invention of moveable type and, the very next day almost, this German preacher nails some ideas onto a door—and the world changes.

In fact, more than 70 years passed between movable type and Luther’s public declaration. That was three lifetimes back in that era! It took the spread of pamphlet shops, people reading scraps of paper to each other, circles of people talking to each other. That was the real fuel of change.

BRIAN: That’s right. And what books and pamphlets and, now, Web sites can do is create, at first this private forum between author and reader. Then, if that spreads, people begin to sit down together in pubs, their homes, wherever—and that’s where real change happens.

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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