A faith open to question

07 December 2012

Ed Thornton meets Brian McLaren, the writer who has been described as 'the Martin Luther of Emergence Christianity', and whose theology ­­has divided Evangelical opinion

BRIAN McLAREN was about 11 years old, and enduring the tedium of another Sunday sermon, when it occurred to him that the Christian faith might be more complex than he had been brought up to believe.

Leafing through the pew Bible at the Plymouth Brethren church that he attended each Sunday with his parents, he stumbled on the book of Ecclesiastes. "There was all this about 'vanity', and all this question­ing, and my first thought was, 'I wonder if my mother knows this is in the Bible?'," he says. "It sounded very sceptical and dubious."

The presence of books such as Ecclesiastes, as well as Job, and various psalms, suggested to Mr McLaren, who is now 56, that "there is a place in the community of faith for the voice of doubt". 

It would be some years before his doubts would surface again and find their voice. Growing up "on the far-right twig of the far-right branch of fundamentalism", he experienced Christianity at its most conservative and fractious. 

"They [the Plymouth Brethren] would divide over just about any­thing," he says. But he also experi­enced "some loving, wonderful, Christlike people. . . I grew up see­ing this strange mixture of love and rigidity."

It was while studying English Literature at the University of Mary­land, critically engaging with texts, that the fundamentalism of Mr McLaren's youth began to unravel. The apologetics of C. S. Lewis shored up his faith to some extent, but he came to realise that "I would never again fit in a vision of Chris­tianity that was a closed room. . . I needed to be in a Christian faith that had windows and doors that enabled me to look out to some­thing wider and greater."

AFTER pursuing post-graduate research on the novelist Walker Percy, he taught English at university level for several years. In 1986, he founded Cedar Ridge Community Church, a non-denominational church in Maryland.

The church attracted people who had the same sort of questions as he had wrestled with during his college years - and to which he had failed to find satisfactory an­swers. 

Members of his fledgling congre­gation would visit his office to unburden themselves of their questions. "I would give them my very best answers. But sometimes they would leave my office, and I would say: 'Your question was better than my answer.'"

The difficult questions did not go away, and, in the early '90s, he had a crisis of faith. Friends in whom he confided reacted with horror and mystification. "One of the hardest things is to be a member of the clergy while going through a faith crisis. There was a great sense of aloneness in not knowing who I could talk to."

Mr McLaren eventually found a few sympathetic mentors with whom he could work through his questions and doubts. He also started to translate his critical think­ing into books. The Church on the Other Side, in 1998, was followed the next year by Finding Faith.

But it was the publication of A New Kind of Christian: A tale of two friends on a spiritual journey, in 2001, that catapulted him to fame and, in some circles, notoriety.

A New Kind of Christian is a work of fiction that explores theological ideas through the dialogue of two principal characters: Dan Pool, a burned-out Evangelical pastor; and Neo, his daughter's high-school science teacher, who has formulated a Christianity that is more accom­modating of post-modernity.

SINCE then, books have followed at a consistent and impressive rate, including The Last Word and the Word After That, which questioned the traditional doctrine of hell; The Secret Message of Jesus; and A Generous Orthodoxy, which caught the eye of the Arch­bishop of Canterbury when he was perusing the shelves of a bookshop.

It was not long before Dr Williams and Mr McLaren met for dinner; and Mr McLaren was invited to speak at the 2008 Lambeth Con­ference, on mission in a post-modern and post-colonial context. The invitation was accepted eagerly by Mr McLaren, who had read Dr Williams's Arius: Heresy and tradi­tion, as well as other devotional works, and held him in "such high regard".

At the Greenbelt Festival in 2011, the writer Phyllis Tickle (Features, 30 September 2011) credited Mr McLaren, whom she describes as the "Martin Luther of Emergence Christianity", with inspiring Dr Williams to set up the Fresh Expressions movement.

Mr McLaren is reluctant to take that much credit, but says: "I feel I'm almost a marketing department for Fresh Expressions in the US, getting Anglicans and Methodists to see what's happening here [in the UK]."

There are parallels between the Fresh Expressions movement and the "Emergence Christianity" that Mrs Tickle credits Mr McClaren with founding. "I think there is some­thing global happening," Mr McLaren says, "and these are all outcroppings of it. There's been a lot of cross-pollination in various ways."

Fresh Expressions and the Emerg­ing Church have had their share of detractors. Some say that grass-roots, amorphous movements lack a coherent ecclesiology.

"There are many people who react to hierarchical and historic expressions of the Church with what we might call very low-church understandings," Mr McLaren says. "What I'm an advocate for is what I would call deep ecclesiology, which says, 'let's honour the Church in all of its forms'. . .

"I was a pastor of one of these very grass-roots churches, and I think the Holy Spirit must have lower standards than we do, because the Spirit is willing to fill and bless things that we very often aren't."

MR McLAREN's critics in the Evan­gelical world, particu­larly in the United States, are more concerned about his doctrinal conclusions. Some accuse him of asking pro­vocative questions but failing to give solid answers. It may be, however, that they do not find his answers palatable.

For example, he is no proponent of the doctrine of penal substitu­tion­ary atonement cherished by many con­servative Evangelicals. Salvation, in his view, is not about being rescued from the wrath of an angry God, but about liberation. "Salva­tion is not: do you have the right salvation card in your pocket? It's about whether we are participat­ing in that creative, reconciling work [of God]," he says.

Perhaps what some Evangelicals find most frustrating about his writings is that he refuses to work according to their paradigms. He shrinks from adopting labels such as "exclusivist", or "universalist", be­cause, he says, such words "depend on a definition of salvation that involves getting people out of hell".

The Reformed Evangelical scholar D. A. Carson spoke for many con­serva­tives when he said that Mr McLaren had "largely abandoned the gospel".

Nevertheless, the Bishop of Buckingham, Dr Alan Wilson, an admirer, says that it is inac­curate to label him as a theological liberal. "McLaren ain't no Jack Spong," he says, referring to John Shelby Spong, the retired Episcopalian bishop known for his attacks on traditional doctrines.

Mr McLaren "emphatically does not substitute modern thought for tradition", Dr Wilson says. "His working materials are the ancient creed and practices of Christianity. These he uses as bricks with which to construct a building rather than smash windows."

WHEN asked about ten­sions in the Episcopal Church - where some Evangelicals have formed breakaway groups against what they see as the Church's revisionism - Mr McLaren says: "One of the things I think folks in the UK need to know is that there was a concentrated effort by our political parties to gain control of various sectors of the Church, and there was a simul­taneous, inten­tional power-grab from religious leaders to gain political control.

"So, each of those groups has been playing games with each other. So many of these issues have to do with political and economic power, not just pure theological power."

Mr McLaren, who recently led a commitment ceremony after the civil marriage of his gay son, Trevor, says that tensions over sexuality in the Church are symptomatic of "a deeper theological issue: how the Bible is read and interpreted.

"In my country, most Christians supported slavery, and we stopped using the Bible to support slavery, but we didn't do our homework and change the way we read the Bible. . . Sooner or later, we have to grow up and do the hard work of consciously moving to a new way of interpreting and applying the Bible."

Mr McLaren's growing profile as a theologian and public figure led him to step down from Cedar Ridge six-and-a-half years ago. "It's very complicated to be a pastor, in any circumstances," he says. "To be a pastor and an author adds levels of complexity; to be a pastor and an author, and to some degree a public figure, you reach a point where you start making trade-offs. . . I didn't want my writing and public speak­ing to hurt the Church."

HIS new book, which he was promoting in the UK last week, on a speaking tour with Greenbelt, is Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road? Christian identity in a multi-faith world.

In the book, Mr McLaren writes: "I have found myself trapped be­tween a strong Christian identity that is hostile towards outsiders, and a weak Christian identity that is benign (or harmless) towards out­siders."

Is it possible to maintain a strong Christian identity while being open to dialogue, or even worship, with other faiths, he asks. "Does sincere faith in the uniqueness and univers­ality of Jesus Christ require one to see other faiths as false, dangerous, or even demonic?"

To the latter question, Mr McLaren's broad answer is "No." Instead of offering Jesus to other religions as a "threat", Mr McLaren advocates offering Jesus as a "gift".

He says: "I take John 3.16 very seriously: 'God so loved the world that God gave Jesus.' God didn't give Jesus to the Church; God didn't give Jesus to the Jews only. God gave Jesus to the whole world. So the gift of Jesus has already been given; so I want to help people realise what a gift they've been given in Jesus."

But does this sharing of Jesus stop short of attempting to convert people of other faiths to Christian­ity? He distinguishes between "pro­selytising" and "evangelising". The former means "going out as an advocate of my religion and pro­claiming religious supremacy"; the latter is "sharing the treasures that we've received in Christ".

HE LEARNT from Joy Madeiros, of the Oasis Trust, which has set up academy schools that have pupils of different faiths.

Ms Madeiros told Mr McLaren that there had been a need to "move from interfaith to multifaith. Interfaith often involves setting the least common denom­i-nator, finding what we can agree about. But, she said, multifaith says 'No, when we come to the table, we're not trying to find out what we have in common, we're actually interested in our differences.'"

He says that acknowledging dif­ferences between religions should not lead to discord, where each faith makes only demands for conces­sions for religious holidays or clothing. Rather, they should ask: "What unique blessings can I bring to this community because I'm a Christian? And what unique bless­ings can you bring to this com­munity because you're a Jew, a Muslim, or a Hindu?"

In the book, Mr McLaren says that living alongside those of other faiths is "not just a matter of talking to­gether about religion, but more of living together, sharing the gifts of life together - attending one another's weddings and funerals and birthday parties."

The friendship should also be one of "con­spiracy", he says: people of different faiths can work together, in creative and even subversive ways, for the common good.

In answer to the book's question  "Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed cross the road?", he believes that they would be part of this "conspiracy of plotting for the common good. When we cross the road to meet one another as friends, in some way, perhaps, they do, too, through us. Perhaps their story is not yet over, but continues to un­fold in us."

Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road? Christian identity in a multi-faith world, by Brian McClaren, is pub­lished by Hodder & Stoughton at £12.99 (special CT Bookshop offer £10.99); 978-1-444-70367-2.

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