Interview with Brian McLaren on ‘Naked Spirituality’

Brian McLaren Naked Spirituality coverBrian McLaren set off a terrific buzz nearly a decade ago with a book title so long that most people couldn’t read it all in a single breath: 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. Yes, that was the full title and, if you’ve never read that milestone book—click on the title to visit Amazon now.

Back then, the buzz around Brian McLaren indicated that he was a very smart, aggressive evangelical who wanted to build bridges across the entire Christian church—and wanted to slap some real-world sense into both traditionalist and progressive Christians. Back then, there were lots of examples of Brian’s tough-and-smart stature. Consider these lines from the Foreword to “Generous Orthodoxy,” which explains that book’s significance—and also may make your head swim just a bit from the terminology:

“Many of these developments can be traced to the failure of modernity’s categories and paradigms to recognize the social and cultural diversity of the human experience. This failure has promoted the emergence of postmodern theory with its critique of certain, objective, universal knowledge and its quest to construct new forms of thought in the aftermath of modernity.”

Now, you have to remember that “Generous Orthodoxy” was a big, strong manifesto that many of us read cover to cover as a sign of an emerging wave of pragmatic Christian leaders. Brian had published several books before that 2004 landmark—and he’s published more books since then.

TODAY, in Brian’s new Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words, you’ll find a very compelling, very readable narrative that meets readers where most of us live our daily lives. From this new book, here’s an example of what Brian is writing:

“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.”

In short: You’ll like this Brian McLaren immediately—and you’ll understand every word he’s writing! By the time you reach the back cover, Brian will have introduced you not only to a wealth of stories and spiritual principles, but you’ll also find a guide to fresh approaches toward prayer—as we described in Part 1 of our coverage of “Naked Spirituality.”

Now, we welcome Brian McLaren to ReadTheSpirit …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH BRIAN MCLAREN
ON NAKED SPIRITUALITY: A LIFE WITH GOD IN 12 SIMPLE WORDS

DAVID: Since we’re getting “naked” here—transparent, honest—let’s start with some updated facts about your life. Like, where do you live now? Tell us a little about your family.

BRIAN: We’ve lived in the Washington D.C. area for a long time. Now, we live in Marco Island, Florida. I’m 55, married with four children and one grandchild, soon two. I’m a quiet member of the little Episcopal church here on the island.

DAVID: You’re known for your work with Sojourners. Does that continue?

BRIAN: I have no official relationship right now. I was the board chair for some years, but I haven’t been on the board for more than two years. I do contribute on different blogs and I contribute to Sojourners, too.

DAVID: As we’ve been reporting, there’s a civil war going on over who can use the “evangelical” label these days. For example, some evangelicals are fighting mad about your friend Rob Bell and want him to stop using the e-word. How about you? Are you still an evangelical these days?

BRIAN: My heritage is evangelical and I feel that I’m providing an important connection by continuing to use that word. A lot of young evangelicals ask me to keep the connection with that heritage, so I do. But I am aware that a lot of evangelicals, including some gatekeepers in the evangelical world, consider me to be an outsider.

DAVID: As I look at your new book, there are fresh approaches to prayer and Bible study and spiritual life—but you’re drawing deeply on Christian traditions as you have in your earlier work. This is an authentically Christian book. You’re talking here about transparency, honesty, cutting back to the core of the faith. This is what I find a lot of emerging Christian writers are trying to do—writers like Kent Annan, who writes about his work in Haiti. But we should explain to readers of this interview: You actually do write about some famous examples of nakedness in your book.

BRIAN:  That’s right. The theme of nakedness in the Bible is so powerful from the Garden of Eden in the opening pages—through prophetic nakedness—to the fascinating scenes at the end of the gospels where nakedness keeps coming up.

DAVID: We just published a story about all that nakedness during Lent.

NAKEDNESS FROM ST. FRANCIS TO JOHN PHILIP NEWELL

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-0525_St_Francis_of_Assisi.jpgICON of ST FRANCIS OF ASSISI’s life.BRIAN: This theme—and the corresponding theme of clothing and covering up—is very powerful throughout the Bible. But it goes beyond the Bible, as I write in the book. The theme resurfaces again and again in church history. St. Francis scandalized his hometown when he stood naked in front of the bishop and his father and others assembled in front of the local cathedral. He stripped off his clothes and said he would go nakedly to meet his Lord. The idea is to try to strip away all the layers to reach the essence, the heart of our faith.

DAVID: In introducing your book to readers, we’re going to quote John Philip Newell on prayer. I find that the prayers and the teaching in his two new books, both of which we recommend, are a strong parallel with your own new book.

BRIAN: I’m a huge fan of Philip’s work and much of this new book clearly resonates with the Celtic tradition that Philip has done such a good job of helping people to rediscover. Part of the idea of nakedness is stripping back analysis. There’s a certain way that our own analysis begins to control us. When we analyze too much, we get the feeling that we control God. We domesticate God through our words and our assumptions about how God operates. There is something powerful that happens when we strip away all of that and simplify our words. We allow awe to resurface. And with awe, we have a fresh eruption, a fresh start.

DAVID: This year, as we reported earlier, John Philip Newell is urging Abrahamic gatherings for prayer—Jews, Christians and Muslims praying together.

BRIAN: It doesn’t surprise me that, when we get Muslims, Christians and Jews together to talk about peace, the best place to go is a place where we are all speechless—where we are reduced to silent wonder in the presence of mysteries too great for us. Philip knows this, of course, in the work he’s doing.

Some years ago, I was invited to a gathering of Christians, Muslims and Jews that was part of Miroslav Volf’s effort on A Common Word at Yale. During the discussion time, an elderly Muslim scholar came up to the microphone and said, “We’ve heard a lot about the love and justice and goodness of God, but no one yet has mentioned the beauty of God.” He quoted a number of surahs from the Quran that spoke of God’s beauty. As he spoke, there was a qualitative shift in the room. Talking that way about the beauty of God took everyone into a place of awe. It was, for me, the moment I won’t forget in the entire gathering because there was suddenly a sense that we were moving together beyond analysis to awe and worship.

NEW APPROACHES TO ANCIENT TREASURES OF PRAYER

DAVID: You certainly draw people toward awe in your approach to prayer. I urge people to get your book and read about all 12 words to fully appreciate this experience, but you do seem to be poking and prodding and urging people to jump start their approach to prayer, right?

BRIAN: There is no fool-proof method for prayer. Any method we develop eventually seems to stop working as it once did. The Christians I encounter tend to fall into three camps or practices regarding prayer. One, you have people who are prayer book people. If they don’t have something to read, they don’t have anything to pray. For them, reading through prayers can have great meaning—but it also can become somewhat automatic. I’m not against prayer books. I collect them and love them, but it’s a process of running pre-written words through the brain so it runs the risk of becoming a process we kind of check off on our daily list.

At the other end of these groups is the camp where people don’t believe we should read prayers. Praying should be spontaneous, this camp says. But what actually happens is that we don’t come up with entirely new forms of prayer and, instead, we tend to link together a lot of cliché phrases into these long trains of what we consider spontaneous prayer. In a written prayer, at least we know someone put enough thought into the content that it comes to us written—and often republished through the years. Now, spontaneous prayer is important and it can work very well for people. At its best, spontaneous prayer lets us process what’s going on in our hearts, right now, in a beautiful way. But it’s not perfect either. All too often, we get stuck riding on this long train of tired phrases.

Then, there’s a third camp that concerns me: It’s the camp of people who become aware of how rarely they pray, then they feel guilty about it, but they don’t quite know how to develop a meaningful prayer life. Mainly, it’s a camp where bringing up prayer makes people feel guilty.

I’m trying to help all three camps. I’m offering people ways to center their prayers in a series of simple words. This has stood the test of my own life. It’s simple. It works for many people.

BRIAN MCLAREN AND MARCUS BORG: THE PROBLEM IS LANGUAGE

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-0525_Marcus_Borg_Speaking_Christian.jpgDAVID: At ReadTheSpirit, we are watching this emerging national conversation about the nature of faith and religious life. I’m always looking for connections in the conversation. And, I was surprised at the similarities between your new book and the newest book by Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power—And How They Can Be Restored. Both of you argue that one of the biggest problems handicapping Christian communities today is language. We’ve turned language into barriers that lock people into old patterns—and lock other people outside the faith.

In Borg’s new book, he writes: “Ultimately, the central message of Christianity is simple. It is about loving God and loving what God loves. This means loving God as disclosed in the Bible and most decisively revealed in Jesus. … The Christian message reduced to its essentials is: Love God as known in Jesus and change the world.”

In your own book, you write: “The word that enfolds them all is love. … It all comes down to love or call it compassion, if you prefer. Love is the vital connection. A life with God is a life of love. You know God by loving God. You know God by loving others.”

Pretty amazing, I think, that some sections of your books could almost be swapped back and forth. Both you and Marcus are trying to slice through today’s doctrinal civil wars and both of you see one of the biggest challenges as clarity of language.

BRIAN: First of all, that is a very good insight about what we’re both writing right now—and I never thought of it before—but, yes, these two books are alike. We’re both grappling with words of engagement with God. I hadn’t even thought of that connection between the two books—but you’re absolutely right. Walker Percy liked to say that words can become like coins that grow smooth as poker chips through use. We wear off the specificity. The very fact that certain words are of great value means that we use them too often and we end up sabotaging their value.

We need to go through periodically and clean house, then we can rediscover words that have been hidden from us—often in plain sight. In Marcus’ book, I’m thinking about a word like “sin” and how that word becomes reduced, trivialized and almost chopped in half so you get just part of the meaning of that powerful word. Eventually, the word becomes a problem; it becomes despised.

DAVID: I like the idea of suggesting that small groups divide up and have half the members read your book—and half of them read Marcus’ new Speaking Christian. That certainly would make for a fascinating discussion!

BRIAN: I read his new book a week or two ago and I have huge respect for him. In my travels over the last couple of years, I speak to a lot of evangelicals and a lot of mainline Protestants and I also speak to some Catholic groups and others. But, wherever I go, I find people deconstructing our theological systems. Because we’ve tried to lock them into certain systems, many people now want to go in with a machete and chop it all down. If that’s your method—just chopping it all down—then you may find that, in the end, there’s almost nothing left. In writing this new book, I’m trying to fill that vacuum in a healthy way.

DAVID: Obviously, you’re hopeful. You’ve said so on the cover of your 2004 book and anyone who reads this new book will realize you’re hopeful. But you’re also urgent in explaining the challenges we face.

BRIAN: Opposite things are happening with increasing intensity. You have Christians, Muslims and Jews coming together and working for peace—and that’s happening with greater intensity now. And, at the same time you have other Christians, Muslims and Jews plotting each other’s downfall with greater intensity. What that kind of horizon line says to me is: We all need to choose what we’re going to do now. How can I leverage my life that shifts the outcome in a positive direction? Traditionally, we’ve thought of activism as the way that’s accomplished. I am an activist. I believe in activism. More and more we see that activism and spirituality are deeply integrated.

But 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.

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

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