JHH: Brian, you are an evangelical with an intensely culturally-transformative, interfaith-relating, social justice-advocating mission. How does that all hang together?
BMcL: Ironically, it hangs together easily in my mind, but not so much in the minds of my critics. In my mind, if we just keep simplifying things – that to follow Jesus is to love God with your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself – then if your neighbor is a Muslim, then you get into inter-faith dialogue because you can’t love your neighbor if you’re bombing him and not talking to him. And, if your neighbor has to eat food as most of us do, and food is dependent on the environment. then to love your neighbor means loving the land and the planet and caring about the climate. So to me, all of these things integrate in that simple, great commandment.
JHH: When Stacy Johnson introduced you at the beginning of the conference, he highlighted the fact that, when Googling your name, one of the first links was titled, “Brian McLaren: Heretic.” Is that a label you wear comfortably?
BMcL: I take that word, heretic, seriously. My understanding of the word is, first, it is someone who denies essential truths of the Christian faith and, secondly, it is someone who seeks to divide and bring people away towards some alternative. I don’t believe I deny any essential truths of the Christian faith. And I’m not trying to bring anybody away. In fact, if anything, I’m trying to do the very opposite, to bring people back TO the essential truths of the Christian faith that are often obscured by secondary and peripheral arguments. I’m interested in drawing people back to that. Probably one of the most common e-mails I get from readers goes something like this. “I had left the faith and then I read one of your books. I guess I can be a Christian again.” So, I’m not interested in taking people away; I’m interested in helping people remain connected to Christ and come to Christ. But on the other hand, I’m aware that the word “heretic” is thrown about very lightly by a lot of people. So for some Calvinists, Methodists are heretics. For some Pentecostals, non-Pentecostals are heretics. So a lot of Christians throw that bomb around pretty freely. I’m not going to spend a lot of time defending myself against people that use the word so cavalierly.
JHH: You made a quick mention in your first response to your critics. In one of your lectures you said that some of our biggest challenges come not so much from our opponents but from our allies. You sounded like one well experienced with that. Tell me more.
BMcL: One of my great blessings is I grew up in a very conservative, but wonderful, little Protestant group — some call them a sect — the Plymouth Brethren. Garrison Keillor was one. Jim Wallis, too. The Plymouth Brethren were ready to call you a heretic on a moment’s notice. They would split over very fine and short theological hairs. I grew up seeing this fractious behavior, and I think my surprise was I thought it was only in our group that you find it; but then I realized, no, every kind of group has this kind of fractious behavior. So I’m glad for my background sensitizing me to the universality of this. If you have any group of people that aren’t united and working hard on a common mission, they tend to polarize along a left-right continuum. In some ways it’s a sign of too much time on their hands. If we were more productively engaged in the mission that matters – when you think that we have people dying, and we’ve got diseases spreading and we’ve got the need to construct a new kind of economy, when you think of the urgent needs before us – a lot of people are just on the sidelines and these are petty arguments that they have.
When I began to get some heat, one of my mentors, an evangelical, gave me a little two-page handout that had a prayer from a Serbian Orthodox bishop, called, “A Prayer for Enemies.” He had no idea how much he was helping me. This prayer was written by this bishop while at Dachau. He’d spoken against the Nazis, and one of the priests under his care betrayed him to the Nazis. While he was in prison he felt so much hatred toward his betrayer that he worked out his fury in a prayer, and this prayer is so powerful. That prayer was on my desk and I prayed it almost every day to the point where it is almost entirely memorized, and it’s quite long. To be honest that couple of pages of prayer have done immeasurable good for my soul (find it at BrianMcLaren.net). It’s just gold. I’ll give you one line from the prayer, “Just as a hunted animal must find safer shelter than an unhunted animal, so I, pursued by my enemies, have found safer shelter in the shadow of your wings.”
JHH: In your reflections at the conference you have elevated an unfortunate 20th century divide between piety and transformation, between evangelization and justice mission. How can the 21st century turn a different page?
BMcL: The first key is theological. The interesting thing here is I think we are farther ahead in practice than we are in theology. So you can have an evangelical mission who still talks the language of saving souls – and that to me is the language that we are extracting souls to ship them to heaven with little care about their bodies or their culture or their life – and then on the other extreme you have organizations that are doing wonderful social work but act as if people didn’t have a soul or as if there weren’t much to pay attention to in terms of their relationship with God. So, the good news I think is that on both sides the behavior is better than the rhetoric. But the problem I see is that the rhetoric is theological. That is, we haven’t had an understanding of the gospel that successfully integrated the spiritual and the social, the personal and the global, the temporal and the eternal. In my opinion, the help is there for that, because the understanding of the gospel of the kingdom that Jesus preached is the most integrative tool and resource that we have. So I actually think this is going to work out pretty well. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the mission people who lead the rest of us into a better integration.
JHH: You did point to hopeful changes going on within mainline denominations. Can you say a little bit more about that?
BMcL: Because mainline Protestants have had a liberal or progressive wing, that has created safe space to ask questions. When people ask questions, are given space to explore, that means you’re going to have some misadventures. And, I think there have been some misadventures. But the fact is, though, that if you look into evangelicals who don’t make much room to explore, they’ve had their share of misadventures too, [laughing], you think about the whole prosperity gospel thing, or the religious right’s uncritical alliance with neo-conservative, imperial politics, you just realize we all can make mistakes. So I think one of the things we must all realize is that we can and we all do make mistakes. But, that space for inquiry in the mainline, I think, opens up the possibility for the mainline to become the mainstream, because when people shut themselves off from asking questions – you aren’t allowed to ask any new questions, we have all the answers already – you can no longer be a stream; you’re a pond, or a lake, or a swamp. But the faith progresses by asking questions. So that space in the mainline Protestants sadly is evaporating in evangelicalism, and it’s evaporating in Roman Catholicism, and this is a special calling. The mainline has been kicked around a bit for it for the past 30 or 40 years, but I think that they’re going to find out that their suffering will be redemptive.
JHH: What projects are you exploring these days, what might we be reading about in your next book or two?
BMcL: I’ve written a couple of books about theology and a book about global crises, and it’s very hard to move on from those topics, because those topics are with me for the rest of my life. But, for 24 years I was a pastor and my main work was dealing with the spiritual lives of my people. So my next book is about spirituality. I’m not certain of the title yet, but I think it’s The Vital Connection: Spiritual Practices for New Kind of Christianity. It should be out next spring. This is the kind of a book that I wish somebody could have given me when I was a new Christian to help me develop my inner life. This is what sort of helped me sustain my inner life. And then after this, I have some non-fiction I’ve already been working on that I’m kind of excited about, and then I hope I will be able to spend a couple of years doing some liturgical resources – believe it or not. I think that in many cases the best way to embed the faith and deepen the faith and articulate what I call a “New Kind of Christianity” is not just through books; it’s through worship. And so I hope I can play some role in contributing to that.