Brian McLaren, Evangelical author and activist: Interviews & book reviews

Brian McLaren author photoBrian McLaren
Resource Page
for Small Groups

Read The Spirit helps individuals and small groups nationwide. This Resource Page gathers, in one place, links to our extensive coverage of author and activist Brian McLaren. Please feel free to share this helpful information with friends (click on the blue-“f” Facebook icon above, or the envelope-shaped email icon):

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH

Brian Mclaren was born in 1956;  he published his first book in 1998 in his early 40s and he became a nationally influential Christian leader just before he turned 50 in 2005. A Google Trends analysis of his popularity shows that the all-time peak of online search activity for his name was 2005 to 2006, shortly after TIME Magazine named him one of the “Most Influential Evangelicals.” However, Americans have never thought of him exclusively as an “evangelical.” The millions of men and women Googling to find out more about him tend to associate his name with the phrase “emergent church,” Google Trends reports. He also spiked in Google searches in 2010 around the time he published A New Kind of Christianity and again in 2012 around the release of his 9/11-and-interfaith themed book (find out about both of those books below).

A WIDELY VARIED MINISTRY: Brian McLaren earned a BA and MA in English from the University of Maryland; he also has been given honorary doctorates in divinity. Over the years, his studies and talents have ranged from literature and philosophy to Christian history and music. In 1982, he helped to co-found Cedar Ridge Community Church, near Washington D.C. He became a close friend of Rob Bell, Tony Jones, Phyllis Tickle and other emergent church leaders; he also has worked closely with Sojourners. Then, as his ministry evolved into a national calling as a speaker, writer, consultant and activist, he left his pastoral ministry at Cedar Ridge in 2006. He now lives in Florida with his wife Grace. They have four adult children and several grandchildren.

Christianity Held Hostage

A defining theme runs through Brian’s work—a belief that Christianity has been taken hostage by politically conservative forces that push churches toward lock-step allegiance in political campaigns. He was an early evangelical voice calling for inclusion of gay and lesbian Christians, for example. He also preaches that Christians must be concerned for the welfare of the world’s most vulnerable people, especially the poor. In honoring him in 2005, TIME wrote: “If his movement can survive in the politicized world of conservative Christianity, McLaren could find a way for young Evangelicals and more liberal Christians to march into the future together despite their theological differences.”

Misunderstood Religious Words

In 2006, during the period when he was bursting into national news media, New York Times religion writer Laurie Goodstein reported on evangelicals and described McLaren as “a leader in the evangelical movement known as the ’emerging church,’ which is at the forefront of challenging the more politicized evangelical establishment.”

Goodstein also quoted McLaren: “More and more people are saying this has gone too far—the dominance of the evangelical identity by the religious right,” Mr. McLaren said. “You cannot say the word ‘Jesus’ in 2006 without having an awful lot of baggage going along with it. You can’t say the word ‘Christian,’ and you certainly can’t say the word ‘evangelical’ without it now raising connotations and a certain cringe factor in people. Because people think, ‘Oh no, what is going to come next is homosexual bashing, or pro-war rhetoric, or complaining about ‘activist judges.’ ”

Brian McLaren’s warnings about the dangerous baggage packed in Christian language has been obvious since his break-through book in 2004, which had the extremely long title: A Generous Orthodoxy: WHY I AM a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/calvinist, anabaptist/anglican, methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished CHRISTIAN. Many love his message; many take issue with it. To date, for example, Generous Orthodoxy has nearly 200 Amazon reviews: He scores 100 rave reviews (4 and 5 stars) and is panned in 70 reviews (1 and 2 stars).

BRIAN McLAREN 2014:
‘We Make the Road by Walking’

Brian McLaren book cover We Make the Road by Walking

Click this cover to read our 2014 interview with McLaren.

In 2014, McLaren published We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation. And ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed him about this important new book. Here are just some of the words of praise for this book-length invitation to take a year-long Bible study with McLaren …

“This is one of the most remarkable documents in recent Christian writings … There is no evangelizing here, and no preaching, only a sinewy, but orderly and open, presentation of the faith that holds. The result is as startling as it is beautiful.”
Phyllis Tickle, author of The Age of the Spirit: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy Is Shaping the Church.

“A ton of people have been waiting for this book—they just didn’t know it! Brian has biven us a clear and compelling guide to walking the Jesus path together, around the table, in the living room, discussing and learning and growing. This book is going to help so many people.”
Rob Bell, author of What We Talk About When We Talk About God.

“This is Brian McLaren at his best, and I think this is what so many readers want from him. Deeply rooted in scripture, yet offering fresh, even radical, readings. We Make the Road by Walking will surely be a benefit and blessing to many.”
Tony Jones, author of The Church Is Flat: The Relational Ecclesiology of the Emerging Church Movement.

Read our in-depth interview with Brian McLaren on We Make the Road by Walking right here.

AND in 2014:
PREFACE for ‘UNITED AMERICA’

th United-America-Brian-McLaren-Preface

Click the cover to visit the bookstore.

In January, McLaren provided the Preface for United America, a book by University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker reporting on years of research into 10 values that unite all Americans. In his Preface, McLaren appealed for a rebuilding of American communities (a goal he encourages in his own 2014 book). He writes, in part:

“If we want to strengthen the key subsystems that make up the American system, we will promote the deep values that Americans share. That means that even in disagreement, we will practice civility and a respect for others. We will build on our common ground of both symbolic and critical patriotism. We will emphasize our shared love for freedom, security and self-reliance. We will celebrate equal opportunity, the dream of advancement, and the pursuit of happiness. And we will unite around a sense of wider connectedness.

“Just as destructive interventions target multiple points in a system, healing interventions must arise system-wide.”

Click the book to visit its SkyLight Paths page.

Click the book to visit its SkyLight Paths page.

BRIAN McLAREN 2013:
‘Men Pray’

In 2013, McLaren offered the opening section of the SkyLight Paths prayer book, Men Pray: Voices of Strength, Faith, Healing, Hope and Courage. This nearly 200-page collection of prayers by dozens of men, down through the centuries, is worth buying especially to read McLaren’s moving 8-page introduction in which he describes his own grandfather’s example of prayer as Brian observed it when he was just a boy. After telling that personal story, McLaren concludes with this appeal:

If men like us don’t pray, where will emerging generations get a window into the soul of a good man, an image of the kind of man they can aspire to be—or be with—when they grow up? If men don’t pray, who will  model for them the practices of soul care—of gratitude, confession, compassion, humility, petition, repentance, grief, faith, hope and love? If men don’t pray, what will me become, and what will become of our world and our future?

The book includes prayers by Daniel Berrigan, Wendell Berry, St. Francis of Assisi, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, Robert Frost, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Father Thomas Keating, C.S. Lewis, Nelson Mandela, Thomas Merton, John Philip Newell, Rumi, W.B. Yeats and many others. The collection also includes prayers by two Read The Spirit authors: Benjamin Pratt and Daniel Buttry.

BRIAN McLAREN 2012:
The 9/11 Interfaith Book

Brian McLaren’s most recent major spike in Google Trends was around September 2012, when he released a book with a seemingly humorous title: Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World.

Click the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Click here to read our entire in-depth interview with Brian McLaren about that book. In reviewing Why Did …, we began this way:

In his 19th book, the prophetic evangelical author Brian McLaren is publishing his first interfaith book. It’s timed to appear on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that opened and still define this turbulent new century. As you will read in our interview with McLaren, the best-selling writer argues that this new book is far from the typical appeal for interfaith understanding that other writers are producing these days. While many of those books are noble, he has a different purpose. While readers are smiling over the old joke in the book’s main title—he doesn’t want us to miss the book’s real focus, which lies in the sub-title about “Christian Identity.” This book is a passionate appeal to enrich Christian appreciation of cross-cultural relationships by doing some thorough house cleaning within Christianity itself. In this book, Brian is primarily writing to the Christians who comprise a majority of the American population.

In the interview, Brian says, in part:
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.

BRIAN McLAREN 2012:

Click the image to visit one of the books' Amazon pages.

Click the image to visit one of the books’ Amazon pages.

3 politically satirical novellas

In the midst of the 2012 campaigns, McLaren released three e-books—a trio of short, razor-edged satirical novellas: The Word of the Lord to Democrats, The Word of the Lord to Republicans and The Word of the Lord to Evangelicals. (Those links go to the three books’ Amazon pages for Kindle.) In our coverage of those books, we described them as “Fiction with a Sting.”

Read our entire review of the first volume in the series, which includes quotes from Brian McLaren and a brief excerpt from the Democrats book.

At the time, Brian McLaren was saying, “When you’re silent on issues of injustice, your silence tacitly supports the status quo. So even silence ends up being political.”

In our review of the Democrats volume, we called it “broad-brush humor more than deft farce.” We said, in part:

Borrowing the kind of acerbic style we normally associate with New York Times commentator Maureen Dowd, McLaren is firing off a series of short, political e-books cast as fiction. … McLaren says he hopes this dramatic switch in styles will cause Americans both to laugh and to think in fresh ways about the sorry state of politics in 2012. That’s the bottom line: If you’ve cheered Brian’s stances in the past, then you’ll have fun with these e-books.

We also wrote:
This book is a far cry from Saturday Night Live comedy and mainly McLaren focuses on his provocative central question: What if God did come back in the voice of a female prophet, sent to shake up the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign? That’s really not a laughing matter and, in the end, this book isn’t intended as a joke.

At the time, McLaren described the three novellas as “warm up” books for the release of his 9/11 interfaith book, Why Did …

BRIAN McLAREN 2011:
‘Naked Spirituality’

In 2011, Brian McLaren described Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words by saying, in part:

Click the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

This is a book about getting naked—not physically, but spiritually. It’s about stripping away the symbols and status of public religion—the Sunday-dress version people often call “organized religion.” And it’s about attending to the well-being of the soul clothed only in naked human skin. As a result, it must be a vulnerable book, tender in tone, gentle in touch. You won’t find much in the way of aggressive arguments here, but rather shy experience daring to step into the light.

Not only is this book deeply inspiring and a fresh pathway to reviving our spiritual practices—its focus on redefining sloppy and sometimes dangerous “Christian language ” was a step toward his later 9/11 book. First, read our initial interview with Brian McLaren about the release of Naked Spirituality.

In the interview, he says, in part:
We have to find ways to deal with the conflict. If I am filled with conflict in my soul, then it’s going to be very hard for me to contribute to a more peaceful world. If I’m filled with greed and unbridled desires, it’s going to be very hard for me to contribute to a sustainable world. The solution, I believe, is to rediscover the missional and spiritual dimensions at the core of our faith. Yes, I am a person of hope, but I’m also a person who has never felt more urgency about this need to create honest conversation. If we fail, if we give up, the consequence is beyond scary. I am a person of hope. Week by week, I’m inviting people to build on the hope at the center of our faith.

We also published, at that time, some brief samples of the more unusual passages in Naked Spirituality.

A bit later that year—in one of our most popular efforts in Read The Spirit magazine—we published a combined interview with Richard Rohr and Brian McLaren talking about spiritual perspectives on aging. Richard Rohr had just published his book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. Richard Rohr welcomed this approach, saying:

I consider Brian a dear brother. Think of how he comes from an evangelical background and I come from a Franciscan Catholic background—so this truly is an example of the emerging Christianity. Yes, we’re on the same page—sharing many of the same details! It’s amazing!

You can read the entire three-way interview between McLaren, Rohr and Read The Spirit Editor David Crumm starting here.

BRIAN McLAREN 2010:
‘A New Kind of Christianity’

One of Brian McLaren’s most popular early works was the 2001 fictionalized call to religious transformation, A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey. (We still recommend reading that book; and it’s still available, if you click that linked title and visit Amazon.)

Click the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Then, a decade later, Brian McLaren issued a far more ambitious manifesto with a similar title: A New Kind of Christianity, Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith. In reviewing the book, we wrote, in part, that Brian was:

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 Read The Spirit—see unfolding for millions upon millions of men and women.

We published a short version of  the ’10 Questions’ in the book’s subtitle.

We also published an in-depth interview with Brian McLaren about A New Kind of Christianity. In that interview, he said, in part:

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.

Later in the same interview, he poked fun at himself as he argued:

We preachers are always so sure that a sermon can actually solve people’s problems. (laughing) 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.

BRIAN McLAREN 2008:
‘Finding Our Way Again’

Click the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

In 2008, Brian McLaren worked with author and editor Phyllis Tickle on producing a landmark series on Ancient Practices for Thomas Nelson. This was a landmark partly because of the high caliber of the authors Tickle assembled to produce the series. Other examples in this series were Scot McKnight writing Fasting and Joan Chittister writing The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life. The series also was historic because it represented one of the world’s most famous evangelical publishing houses, Thomas Nelson, offering its readers deep explorations of practices that Protestants once might have dismissed as “too Catholic.” Going even further, this series pointed out that versions of these ancient practices are shared by Jewish and Muslim communities.

Brian McLaren wrote the first and perhaps the most important book in the series, Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices. At that time, still soaring from the pinnacle of his 2005-2006 role in national news media, McLaren was a prophetic guide working with Phyllis Tickle to urge evangelicals toward these deeply rewarding Christian traditions.

In reviewing the book, we wrote in part:

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.”

Read our entire in-depth interview with Brian McLaren about Finding Our Way Again.

In that interview, he says in part

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.”

At that time, we also published a story with Phyllis Tickle, architect of the series for Thomas Nelson. That story includes a very quotable excerpt from Phyllis’s Foreword to the new series that says, in part:

Young men and women of faith, especially, are crying everywhere, “Give us a faith that costs us something! … Teach us the things that will mark us as children of God! …” Their demands swell out with heat and vision, and what they foretell is that Christianity must be a way of living life as much as it is a system of belief. What they envision are Christians who belong to each other in common cause, regardless of place and circumstance, a tribe of people marked by how they are and live as a nation peculiar unto God, regardless of where they may exist on this earth. It is a soul-shaking concept.

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

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