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