Brian McLaren on why interfaith peace begins at home

Brian McLaren’s new book is prophetic, as we explained in Part 1 of our coverage. That also means there’s real heat surrounding the book’s launch—at least in some quarters. Clearly, Brian now has legions of fans who follow his books for their inspiration and their fresh ideas. We dug into those ideas in …


DAVID: You’ve faced firestorms. It’s got to hurt when some other evangelicals claim that you’re no longer a Christian—or say worse things. As a journalist covering religion in America for nearly 40 years, I can tell that you’re clearly one of the most passionately committed Christian voices, today. So, how does it feel when you sometimes face misguided fire?

BRIAN: It’s always a little hurtful and sad. It’s ironic, too. If a Christian Fundamentalist says I’m not a Christian, I think: Well, I’ve met other Christians—Eastern Orthodox Christians for example—who think that American Fundamentalists aren’t Christians. So, the truth is: Everyone defines their terms in different ways. Some people don’t realize how big the Christian pond truly is.

DAVID: This new book, your first book really focused on interfaith relationships, is likely to fuel more fire, right?

BRIAN: All I can say is that I’m 56 now and I’m glad that I didn’t have to deal with this when I was 26. It would have been devastating then. Now that I’m older, it’s not as hard to deal with this kind of response. What we’re seeing in those responses really is an anxiety within our religious community. When we’re anxious, we immediately guard the doors and gates. We guard them not only because of who might get in—but because of who we fear might get out.


DAVID: I’ve researched this and we can say that you’re the person who has coined the new term CRIS, shorthand for Conflicted Religious Identity Syndrome. That phrase describes people who are, indeed, committed Christians but who find the label “Christian” full of troubling baggage and likely to cause misunderstandings.

BRIAN: It’s funny to see how far that term I started using a year or so ago is spreading. I came up with it to describe what a lot of people are experiencing today. We are Christians, but the term is loaded for so many people—so we wind up going through all these explanations and adding all these adjectives to describe the kind of Christian we are to others.


DAVID: In your book, you write about Anne Rice’s turbulent relationship with Christianity. I know that you’ve had some contact with Anne Rice as she began writing her series of Christian books.

BRIAN: I read an early version of her first book about the childhood of Jesus, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. I was asked to read the manuscript and see if there were things in the story that might be offensive to Christians from my background. I remember there were two or three things that I thought should be revised. These were things she had picked up from extra-biblical traditions and I just thought they threw up some red flags that she didn’t need to provoke. I recommended she take them out and she was very gracious and hospitable to my suggestions. Writing about Jesus and Christianity was a whole new world for her. I was impressed with her.

DAVID: She’s in your new book because you describe how she has sort of rejected Christianity, or at least she has rejected the power structure of “Christian” leaders who like to beat up on vulnerable people like Rice’s gay friends.

BRIAN: That’s the problem I’m describing. This problem of Conflicted Religious Identity Syndrome really came to a head with Anne Rice, when she said she was quitting Christianity. She announced her change on Facebook. She made it clear she still loves God and believes in Jesus, but she didn’t want to be associated with a community that seemed so hostile toward nonmembers and toward people who didn’t agree on any number of matters.


CLICK THE COVER to jump to the book’s Amazon page.DAVID: OK, so here’s where it gets interesting. CRIS isn’t a problem just for Christians, right? That’s a point you make in your book.

BRIAN: Right. You see this problem in so many forms. I was just talking with some Mormons yesterday and when I raised this point, they laughed. They said they certainly feel this. They see themselves as Christians but many other Christians say they’re not.

DAVID: And, Christians aren’t alone in condemning fellow Christians. I know lots of Muslims and Jews and Native Americans and people of other faiths who publicly reach out across religious boundaries—and other members of their groups condemn them as betraying the core faith. You’re saying we share this problem with people of other faiths.

BRIAN: Yes, that’s one of the most important points in the new book. I don’t think we will achieve greater harmony and understanding among the faiths by minimizing our differences in belief and practice. But one of the things we hold in common is that there are features of our identity and our internal conflicts that we all do experience.


DAVID: You’re a good friend of Rob Bell, who has followed a similar vocational course. He’s now left his big Midwest pulpit for the independence of life in California and the freedom to preach and write in any way he sees fit. Having recently interviewed Rob and seeing all these similarities in your career paths, let me ask: Are we in an era when our world is more in need of prophets than pastors?

BRIAN: Rob and I have been friends for years and, yes, we are frequently on the phone sharing advice with each other about different things. We both come from very conservative evangelical backgrounds. As pastors, we were growing, thinking human beings who publicly went through changes in our thinking. I read your interview with Rob in ReadTheSpirit and I hope other people read it, too.

We do have examples today where pastors are prophetic, but it usually means that they’re prophetic on behalf of their congregations. All good pastors are trying to bring their congregations along in their ongoing preaching and teaching. I hope that Rob’s books and my books and ReadTheSpirit all are helping pastors. If pastors can encourage people in their congregations to start reading websites like yours and books like the ones we’re writing now, then that puts a pastor in a much better position as a moderator for what the congregation is reading and is discussing. It’s a lot better, as a pastor, to be in the role of advocate and moderator helping your congregation think through the new things they’re reading.


DAVID: I’ve described this as your first interfaith book, but it’s not like most of the other “interfaith” books on my library shelves. This really is a deep exploration of the barriers that Christians throw up against their neighbors of other faiths.

BRIAN: One of the biggest insights that came to me, as I was researching this book, is the realization that it’s not our differences that are keeping us apart. What’s keeping us apart is something we actually have in common: The way we often try to build our own identity through hostility. Leaders build loyalty among “us” by building hostility toward “them.” It won’t work to simply rush off into interfaith dialogue until we deal with some of the deep work within our own identity. We won’t get far in our relationships with others until we deal with some of the often hidden ways we have defined ourselves through our hostility.

Perhaps we can see this problem more easily in the political campaign going on right now. If you took away hostility toward Democrats, I’m not sure how much substance is left in the Republican Party. And, if you took away hostility toward Republicans, I don’t know how much substance there is in the Democratic Party. The same problem exists in our religious communities.


DAVID: That’s a key insight and, when readers actually go through the book, they’ll see that you explore this in detailed ways. You look at liturgy. You look at our missional outreach. You look at the Christian calendar. You get down into the nuts and bolts of parish life. I would describe your message as: There’s almost more danger to our diverse communities in the way we talk amongst ourselves, inside our houses of worship, than what we actually say in public. Or maybe: Interfaith peacemaking begins at home.

BRIAN: Yes, that’s fair to say. Think of it this way: Even if 10 or 15 percent of us are involved in interfaith experiences—or, let’s even say it reaches 25 percent of us who are doing these things—the problem is that leaves 75 percent of us isolated and stoking fires of hostility in our home congregations. Sooner or later, we have to deal with that identity issue.

DAVID: As I read your book, I turned down corners of pages and circled words. The opening half directly addresses the many ways we stoke the fires. Dozens of times, you use words like tension, hostility, conflict, attack, threaten, rivalry and violence. Then, in the second half, when you get into the nuts and bolts of building healthier and more welcoming communities, your chapters are full of terms like benevolence, generous, harmony and unity. Is that a fair way to express the movement between the first and second sections of your book?


BRIAN: Yes. That’s the challenge I’m asking readers to grapple with in the book. When we build our identity around hostility, it’s a very strong identity. Then, we begin to fear that, if we reduce the hostility, we will weaken our identity. If I say that it matters less to me that you’re Muslim—then does it also matter less to me that I’m Christian? Does it have to be like that?

I think the phrase “spiritual but not religious” is one sign people are giving that they want to end the hostility that they perceive is part of “religion.” We can build a strong and benevolent society—we can choose to do that and pursue it. But the second half of my book really is looking at the obstacles we have to overcome in building a Christian identity within our society that is strong, robust and highly committed—but that achieves this strength without defining itself against people who don’t share our identity.

DAVID: Before we end this, let’s update readers on where you’re based now.

BRIAN: For 24 years, I was a pastor in Maryland just outside of Washington D.C. Then, six-and-a-half years ago I left the pastorate for more time writing and speaking. For a couple of years, I continued to be involved in the church where I was pastor. Then, three-and-a-half years ago we moved here to Florida. I live in southwest Florida in a small town and I go to a small church where I don’t think anyone has read my books. It’s been wonderful to go from the pulpit to being the guy who sits in the fourth row from the back.

DAVID: And what’s next?

BRIAN: The next project looks at the whole church year. I have been working on an outline for 52 sermons and a kind of alternative lectionary that would give people a fresh introduction to the Christian faith. What I’m envisioning now is something that, when it’s finished, will be useful for a single family, or a congregation or even a whole diocese to adopt for a year. Individuals could sit around a table together, once a week, and go through the year together—or a whole region could do it together. Right now, the most important challenge I see is to help people take a fresh look at what it means to be a Christian in our world.

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

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