You are hereAn Interview with Brian McLaren
An Interview with Brian McLaren
Brian McLaren, author of several books, including A Generous Orthodoxy and A New Kind of Christian was kind enough to give up some of his precious time to answer some of my (our) questions. Brian has been indeed very generous towards us and allowed us to title our 2005 conference Preterism, A Generous Orthodoxy. Please join me in welcoming him to Planet Preterist. We are again very thankful for taking his time to share a slice of life and wisdom with us.Virgil Vaduva: Brian, thank you so much for this interview and for taking time to converse with us. Last year you graciously allowed us to title our yearly conference Preterism, A Generous Orthodoxy and we are very thankful for allowing us to also promote your books and communicate the same openness and understanding that you advocate. Have you seen the interest in a "generous orthodoxy" move beyond the boundaries of emergent circles since your first book came out?
Brian McLaren: Yes. I would say that part of what is happening is that emergent, as a conversation, has expanded to include mainline protestants, roman catholics, and others. I just heard the other day that the Archbishop of Canterbury has quoted the book affirmingly recently. I think a wide variety of people on both "sides" of the religious cold war between conservatives and liberals feel a desire for convergence and collaboration and mutual learning - rather than continuing polarization, attack and counterattack, reaction, and mutual criticism.
Virgil: Besides the immediate personal impact your work had on me, I think many Christians within the Preterist movement are being deeply affected by your work and by what Emergent is doing across the world. Why do you think that your message appeals to so many of us?
Brian: First, it's encouraging to hear you say that it does.
Theologies work as systems, don't they ... and they have a beginning, and middle, and an end, and the three are integrated into a single system. I think many of us are realizing that if we have one part mixed up, it will affect our understandings of the other two parts. I didn't start with any interest in rethinking eschatology, but of course eventually I had to realize that if I rethink one area, it will lead to rethinking other areas. I think many of us are in this kind of rethinking process - some starting from the beginning part by rethinking, perhaps, the relation of faith and science in relation to evolution and young-earth creationism ... some starting from the middle, as they re-examine what the gospel of the kingdom of God is supposed to mean, or the idea of integral or holistic mission ... and some starting from the end, re-examining eschatology. Wherever you start, you end up looking into the other areas too, I think.
Virgil: Reading A Generous Orthodoxy brought me to tears several times, and it is evident you speak and write from your heart. Why do you care so much? Why did you choose to leave the comfort of modernism for the heavily critiqued, less-traveled and unfinished road of post-modernism?
Brian: Well, I am not that brave by nature. I would have stayed in my comfort zone if left to myself, I imagine. But as a pastor whose main calling is evangelism, I've had to encounter seekers and their questions, and some of their questions got me thinking, and rethinking. Their questions became my own, and then sparked new questions for me. As you know, the terms modernism and postmodernism are heavily contested, and many in the religious world have a very different understanding of the terms than I do. (On top of that, their understanding of what I am saying is very different from mine too!) So I prefer to talk about questioning a conventional understanding of the gospel and the Biblical narrative in search of a more Biblical understanding.
After I started writing, I had so many people contacting me, saying that they were grateful someone was opening up some of these questions. I can't tell you how many people have told me they would have left the faith entirely otherwise. It seems like many of us in the faith - and even in Christian leadership - aren't satisfied with the status quo, and we share a sense that "something more" is out there, or perhaps I should say "back there," or "in there," residing in the Scriptures and our primal stories of the faith.
Virgil: Are you confident that the dialogue (or perhaps stone throwing) between liberals and conservatives will ever get past the deconstructive stage and move into a phase of constructive exchange of ideas, both into the theological and political spheres?
Brian: Sometimes I'm more hopeful than others. In the last few days, a particularly nasty round of stone-throwing and name-calling has taken place, and at the moment I'm pretty disappointed in the way people behave who claim to be speaking with or for God. Lately, I sense a growing humility among liberals, and even though I disagree with traditional liberalism in many ways, one can't help but think that grace flows downhill to humility's low places. At the same time, so many conservatives are embarrassed and broken-hearted by the rather arrogant and unthinking behavior of some of their colleagues, so there's humility there too. I'm hopeful wherever there's humility.
Virgil: I was very excited to see a preteristic book coming out of the emergent thought, in Andrew Perriman's book, The Coming of the Son of Man. What do you think about Andrew's book?
Brian: I think it's very stimulating. What's especially important, I'd say, is that Andrew presents a painstakingly careful re-examination of the Scriptures. Some people accuse anyone who departs from conventional views as jettisoning the Scriptures - but Andrew shows that this is not the case at all. I think any conversation and re-appraisal takes time - especially in the world of theology, and I hope that people won't try to foreclose on dialogue with name-calling, harsh rhetoric, and that sort of thing until these explorations reach their "fullness of time." A lot is at stake in these conversations - and very literally, the lives of thousands of people hang in the balance because if the dominant religious group in the country with the most weapons of mass destruction embraces an eschatology that legitimates escalating violence ... well, I hate to think about it.
Virgil: Do you feel that placing the Parousia of Jesus and the terrible events of the Apocalypse in a first-century context is important to how Christians today approach the various aspects of life, such as economics, environmentalism and involvement in politics?
Brian: This is one reason why I feel these subjects need to be addressed, even though doing so is painful for so many people. An eschatology of abandonment, which is how I would characterize certain streams of the left-behind approach, has disastrous social consequences. Ecology is marginalized - something we can't afford to do in an age of global warming and species extinction and habitat destruction. The rights of Palestinians are ignored in favor of the Israeli state - as if God is happy to bless some people at the expense of others. Any project geared toward improving the world long term is seen as unfaithful, since we're supposed to assume that the world is getting worse and worse. If people get involved in the world's affairs at all, it is for compassion more than justice - but as Micah said, what God requires involves more than mercy: it also involves justice - and again, humility.
An eschatology of domination, as you might find in some Reconstructionist circles, is similarly destructive and in my mind antithetical to the gospel's portrayal of how God exercises power. In a bizarre way, these two eschatologies can synergize - mixing abandonment and domination in a strange stew that is easily manipulated by imperialism.
So - I'm glad people are re-opening these issues. So much is at stake!
Virgil: Many Christians today are concluding that the message of Jesus was not as much about avoiding a future fiery existence (or spending eternity in heaven) but about the present, contemporary Kingdom of God, where we should and can live as God intends us to. What pressing societal issues you think Christians should tackle today with this context in mind?
Brian: This is very much what my current writing is focused on, so I'm so glad you're asking these questions. Let me mention the first key issues that come to mind ...
1. Ecology and stewardship of creation.
2. Consumerism and what has been called "theo-capitalism" - where personified abstractions like "the economy" or "free markets" are given god-like status.
3. Reconciliation between races and religions - so we can avoid a set of dangers including bland, mushy syncretism, violent fundamentalism (by both terrorists and super-powers), and a resurgence of secularism (in response to fundamentalism).
4. Extreme Poverty - which is all the more horrific when the means to end it are available to us.
5. Sexuality and family - I'm especially interested in the ways that advertising creates a sexualized culture that undermines family life and sexual sanity.
6. Nationalism, tribalism, militarism, and neo-colonialism - do we have a vision of a better world of plowshares and pruning hooks instead of swords and spears? What will we do to stop genocide?
Eschatology affects the way we approach all of these issues.
Virgil: I am puzzled by the uneasiness displayed towards you by some critics, including some in our own movement. You have been accused of heresy, universalism and relativism. If you were in a room full of critics today what one thing would you say to them to connect with them and encourage them to reconsider what your mission and your message is all about?
Brian: I'm not sure. If you have advice, I'd welcome it! Perhaps I'd say, "Let's pray together." Or perhaps, "Let's read 1 Corinthians 13 together." Or maybe I'd ask permission to share my story with them. But these days, I think that being in a room full of critics would require me not to say anything, but instead to listen and if possible, serve. So maybe I'd say, "Can I get you a cup of coffee? Can I hang up your coat for you? Can I make you a sandwich?"
Virgil: As we are also trying to also put a new face on our own movement and transform it into "a new kind of Preterism," and move beyond the theoretical fundamentalism into the practical, tangible aspects of Christianity and the realized presence of Christ, we are encountering the same friction and opposition that perhaps you have already encountered when dealing with a target audience that sees all things in black and white. Do you have any advice for us on how to better build bridges and construct better channels of communication with other believers?
Brian: Again, I wish I did. I think you are very perceptive to put the focus on "the realized presence of Christ," because that is key. I also think you're perceptive to identify the underlying problem not as mistaken eschatology but as "theoretical fundamentalism" and "black and white" thinking. Sometimes I think that people who are thoroughly indoctrinated and habituated into this kind of system will not be able to break free from it without experiencing both psychological and social dislocation and disorientation.
Psychologically, if a person has built his or her entire life on a certain methodology, it would be incredibly hard to consider an alternative. And socially, many groups are so full of fear - the fear of being viciously attacked and discredited and disowned, the fear of being called "liberal" or whatever - that families and friendships would be shattered the moment anyone began to change. And families and friendships are precious things. (This may be the kind of thing Jesus was referring to when he spoke of bringing, not peace, but a sword.) I think the most compassionate thing is to simply love people, not push them to change, and not be intimidated by them either, and to bless them if they persecute you for failing to toe the party line.
The only way forward I can see is for a few people to be willing to have their reputations trashed and their names vilified. If they can survive that with a good spirit and with their faith, hope, and love intact, it will make it easier for others to step out in faith also.
It's always hardest for the first few, and casualties are probably always high in the beginning. Through all of this, of course, you can only be sustained by maintaining primary spiritual disciplines - prayer, worship, tithing, meditation on Scripture, fellowship, etc.
Perhaps, as with the children of Israel in the desert, a new day will only come when a new generation rises up and comes of age.
Virgil: Thank you again for your gracious attitude Brian, and for your time. Do you have any other words of wisdom for your Preterist fans out there?
Brian: I think all of us are on a journey, all in process. It takes a long time to unlearn old habits and ways of seeing and to learn new ones. I'm grateful to people who have the courage to voice an alternative to the eschatologies of abandonment and of domination ... The more I get a glimpse of what Jesus meant by "the kingdom of God," the more inspired I am to live by that good, good, good news.
You mentioned "a new kind of Preterism" before. That's an interesting thought. I think a lot of Preterist thinking has, to this point, tried to get a new vision of the ending of the Biblical story without rethinking conventional ways of seeing the middle or beginning. And as you said, it has often maintained a kind of fundamentalist methodology and attitude. That's why people like Andrew Perriman and Tim King and N. T. Wright and others have a lot to offer at this juncture, in my opinion: they're rethinking eschatology, but they're doing so with a different tone - less strident, less polemical, more inspiring and holistic. That would probably be my advice to those seeking "a new kind of Preterism." Don't get stuck in small arguments about details, as important as arguments and details may be; step back and catch the big picture of the whole Biblical story - and try to convey the beauty that you see. The good news is truly good, and our world truly needs it!