Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, pastor, and networker among innovative Christian leaders, thinkers, and activists. He is a frequent guest on television, radio, and news media programs. He has appeared on many broadcasts including Larry King Live, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, and Nightline. His work has also been covered in Time (where he was listed as one of American’s 25 most influential evangelicals), Christianity Today, Christian Century, the Washington Post, and many other print media.

1. You’ve been a pastor, literature professor, and now a public communicator. Given some of your recent work, and your quasi-fictional Neo trilogy, would it be fair to characterize you as a storyteller? And if so, would you care to expand upon what you think gives stories the power they have, and the means by which we “follow” different stories? Why, if at all, should this be important particularly to Christians?

I would be honored to be characterized as a storyteller – and as a story-hearer as well, trying to discern the stories implicit in messages, news, and other information. It was rather obvious all along, but it took me a surprisingly long time to see that three of my great passions in life –  literature and theology and politics – were really wrapped up in storytelling. Even science, whether we’re talking about evolution or geology or ecology or astrophysics, ends up being in large part a process of evaluating evidence, not unlike a detective at a crime scene, and trying to construct a plausible narrative based on that evidence.

Stories, it seems to me, weave together seemingly random data or evidence or observations in coherent patterns that we call plots or narratives. The stories of the physical sciences look for the interplay of forces in a drama of regularity and unpredictability. The stories of the biological sciences look for the interplay of drives – like the drive to eat or mate or flee or defend territory. In human stories, and no less in theological stories, we trace the interplay of desires, dreams, beliefs, hopes, fears, and values – both those of humans and those of God or the gods.

In my work as a Christian thinker and activist, I’ve become convinced that, as Ivan Illich said, the only way to bring lasting social change for a culture is to help them change their stories. Stories unite us – for good or ill – because they offer an account of what’s been going on before we came on the scene, and they frame for us what’s going on in the moment, which then sets us up for action, again, for good or ill.

The Bible itself is a collection of stories, and in some cases, it’s a collection of dueling stories, stories competing for the privilege of framing a community’s actions in the present and hopes for the future. It’s not an exaggeration that we live by telling and interpreting and re-interpreting stories, no less than we live by breathing and eating and sleeping and working.

2. Here at Patrol we’re interested in the relationship between Christianity and culture. How do you see the story of Christianity, as you now tell it, related to the cultures to which we as global Christians belong?

As I tried to explain in my most recent book, A New Kind of Christianity, I am troubled by a nagging suspicion. The book has been out about nine months now, and the response it has received, both critical and congratulatory, has only deepened my suspicion: that the Christian faith as practiced by conservative Catholic and Protestant Christians in the United States is framed within a mega-story that is actually foreign to and incompatible with Jesus and his good news of the kingdom of God. If we have confidence in Jesus – more confidence in Jesus himself than in our various religious institutions that claim to represent him, then it matters a great for us to try to understand the stories in which he found himself, and the great story he was telling.

Otherwise, we can capture Jesus like a lion on the African plain, and ship him to a zoo somewhere in America, and cage him in a small, confining story that suits our interests – national, racial, economic, political, and so on. We can reverently watch him pace the cage in which we’ve placed him, and we can even worship him in that cage. But something has gone terribly wrong in this scenario, and that’s what has animated a lot of my work over the last twelve years since I began writing.

3. You’ve written in A New Kind of Christianity, and reinforced recently in the Snell Lectures here in Toronto, that the various stories we tell ourselves and find ourselves in have been based on what you call the “Greco-Roman narrative”. Given how much weight you put on this story, and your desire to see us move away from it, how would you respond to a challenge about its details? Rather than an internal Christian discussion alone, I’m here thinking about what someone like Diarmaid MacCullough, author of Christianity: The First Three Thousands Years, which runs over 3000 pages, might ask you, given how complex his story of Christianity is.

Of course I’m always open to challenges. I’ve wondered, since writing the book, if I should have named that narrative “the domination narrative” as Dominic Crossan does, or perhaps the Imperial Narrative or something similar, since almost anything anyone says about Plato and company will be contested by someone. (I tried to acknowledge this in a number of long footnotes.) I’m offering a very generalized sketch, based on the assumption that Greco-Roman civilization has been formative for a lot of Christian thought and action, more formative, I fear, than it should have been, and formative to such a degree that it has limited our vision of Jesus. Jesus was, after all, crucified by the Roman Empire, so we shouldn’t assume he’d be terribly happy about his followers embracing the values and thought structures and narratives of that empire uncritically.

I’ve read some and skimmed some of MacCullough’s book, and I especially like the way he ends it. He asks something like this: “Has the world seen all that the Christian faith has to offer?” In other words, does the first 2000 years of Christian history (not to mention the previous 1000 years) exhaust what the Christian faith has to offer the world? That’s very much what I’m asking in A New Kind of Christianity. For our faith to offer new resources to face new challenges – the kind of emergencies I wrote about in Everything Must Change – I think we need to liberate it from what I call the six-line narrative, a narrative which I believe draws more from Greco-Roman dualism than it does from Jesus’ good news of the kingdom of God. That’s not to vilify Greek and Roman thought with another kind of dualism – it’s just to say, “There’s another way to frame or understand Jesus and allow his life and teaching to frame our faith.”

4. You’ve recently completed a book entitled Naked Spirituality that’s due out next year. Tell us a little bit about the book’s aims, the story, if you will, you’re here trying to tell.

In many ways, it is a sequel to A New Kind of Christianity. Where New Kind focused on theology and the mind, Naked Spirituality focuses on practice and the soul. If New Kind proposed a narrative space structured around creation, liberation, and reconciliation, Naked Spirituality asks how our individual faith-stories develop and unfold within that space, and I offer a four-stage framework. I focus on specific practices that I have found to be catalytic in each of those four stages, and I try to capture each of those practices in a simple word – like here, sorry, why, or behold.

I wanted to turn to the personal, hidden dimension of the spiritual life – stripping away, if you will, a lot of the external finery of “organized religion,” another highly contested and problematic term. I felt this was the right thing to do for a number of reasons. First, for many people, when their inherited theology begins to unravel, they lapse into a kind of practical agnosticism, atheism, or despair, which suggests their spiritual life had been overdependent on systems of belief and underdependent on practices of faith. Since I see so many people going through a necessary process of theological rethinking (or repentance), I felt pastorally that it was important to offer some help in this regard, drawn largely from my own experience as a Christian and a pastor.

Second, I often meet people – this just happened again last night on a plane – who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” I wanted to offer some simple practices that I believe will help more-spiritual-than-religious folks open their hearts to the Spirit of God. A lot of what I do really flows from an evangelical impulse, a desire to share Jesus’ good news of the Kingdom of God and help them come into a more dynamic relationship with God.

Third, there’s a whole new generation of Christians coming up who will never fit in the existing paradigms and structures of Christianity. They are having to rediscover and re-create new and ancient practices for the development of their spiritual lives, and I hope this book can be a truly helpful resource in that expansive process. There’s so much that needs to be done, and so many wiser and more gifted people making really important contributions … along with their contributions, I hope my small offerings can be of some small use to at least a few people.

Getting back to your question about stories – the underlying story, I suppose, on which this book is based is simple. The Creator of the universe invites us creatures into a never-ending adventure of relationship and growth … and there are simple postures of soul that we can practice that will help us become dynamic characters into that great adventure.

About The Author

Kenneth Sheppard

Kenneth Sheppard's book, Anti-Atheism in Early Modern England 1580-1720, was published in 2015. You can follow him on Twitter.

0 Responses to Saving Stories: An Interview with Brian McLaren

  1. The Jones says:

    Brian McLaren has so many problems with right teaching that I don’t even think he can be considered Christian.

    Christianity believes that the actual person named Jesus is God, that the death and resurrection of Jesus saves Man from sin, that believing Jesus’ claim to Divinity is sufficient to gain access to that salvation, and that scripture, the revelation of God and the means by which we know of Jesus, is authoritative and should have a real effect on the way humans live their lives.

    Brian McLaren certainly has a problem with certain parts of scripture, like the parts about going to hell and about homosexuality for example. So when those things get in the way, well, they can be changed.

    He also sees the actual events (like the death and resurrection) as secondary to the effect that the story has. This can be seen here where he doesn’t necessarily say he wants to correct the story, that is, turn an incorrect interpretation of events into a correct interpretation of events. He wants to “change” the story. Weird…

    And while I don’t have time to get into it, a quick survey of Brian McClaren’s work will show that he does not “represent” Jesus better than other religious institutions that claim to. Brian McLaren represents Brian McLaren, and when he can use Jesus to reinforce his view, he does. When he runs into trouble in scripture, well, he glosses over.

    For a better critique, see Kevin DeYoung’s diatribe here: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/files/2010/02/Christianity-and-McLarenism2.pdf

    • Brian McLaren says:

      Hi, The Jones – I hope you don’t mind a brief reply to your comment. I’m sorry you don’t think I can be considered a Christian. I’m not sure where you’ve gotten your information about me. As you can imagine, it’s quite surprising for me to read other people writing about me, telling the world what I think. If you read any one of my books, you’ll see that I am in fact a deeply committed follower of Jesus, a sinner saved by grace just like you. No doubt you’ll find things in my thinking that you disagree with … but that doesn’t mean we can’t both be considered followers of Christ.

      You suggest four beliefs are essential to Christianity:
      1. That Jesus (the actual person) is God, 2. That Jesus’ death and resurrection save humanity from sin, 3. That if you believe in Jesus’ divinity you will gain access to that salvation, and 4. That Scripture is authoritative and should have a real effect on the way we live. As you know, many Christians (Roman Catholics, Calvinists, Eastern Orthodox, and Southern Baptists, for example) would argue over with the details of how you have articulated some of these items, and some might add additional qualifications or remove some, but I can assure you that I believe in the deity of Christ, in his saving birth, life, teaching, suffering, death, resurrection, and sending of the Holy Spirit, in salvation by grace alone through faith alone, and in the authority of Scripture. These themes are repeatedly affirmed in my books – and on my blog.

      You say I “have problems with Scripture” – I actually think the issue isn’t Scripture, but various human interpretations of Scripture and assumptions about Scripture. My desire isn’t to “change” the story of the Bible, or the stories in the Bible – not at all, and frankly, you misrepresent me when you say that. My interest is in seeing potential differences between the biblical story and our interpretations of the biblical story, and I want to change the latter whenever necessary to make it more in sync with the former. I don’t think that’s “weird” but rather faithful and responsible.

      On me not representing Jesus any better than others – you’re probably right about that. There is much in my life that fails to represent Christ as well as you or I would wish it did. Perhaps you could say the same thing about your life?

      • fonsoc says:

        Your suggestion that Roman Catholics are Christians cannot be sustained because their doctrinal stance and dependence on performance instead of the completed work of Christ on Calvary makes them heretics who deny the sufficiency of the blood of Christ apart from works.

        When Christ died on Calvary he made a short but succinct statement – “It is finished.” Nothing can be added to it or subtracted from it. Salvation has been procured for all who will believe in their heart and confess with their mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. Everyone who believes otherwise is living under a delusion.

        Catholic and Christian are not synonymous! There are other perverted teachings inherent in Catholicism that could be shown to be outright heresy, but if you, a learned man, cannot see the superficialisty of this perversion of Christianity there is little hope that you can exercise any objectivity concerning it.

        It is one of the greatest burdens on my heart that men of your ilk profess to be Christian on one side of your mouth but accept false teaching as gospel or refuse to confront it as evil. You cannot be a peacemaker to those who are deceivers and deceived and maintain a right relationship with God. We are to reprove, rebuke and exhort with all longsuffering and “doctrine” for in so doing we will not only save ourselves but those that hear us.

        You need to hear the rebuke that I present to you now because your teaching subverts many who will be duped into believing you to be wise. The gospel never changes! Your attempts to fit this message into some kind of century-appropriate message has no place in Christian life because the gospel has stood through many centuries without your help to reinvent it to suit your beliefs, and it will stand long after you and I are gone in all its simplicity and power. Preach it as it is or step aside for those who will.

      • fonsoc says:

        Your suggestion that Roman Catholics are Christians cannot be sustained because their doctrinal stance and dependence on performance instead of the completed work of Christ on Calvary makes them heretics who deny the sufficiency of the blood of Christ apart from works.

        When Christ died on Calvary he made a short but succinct statement – “It is finished.” Nothing can be added to it or subtracted from it. Salvation has been procured for all who will believe in their heart and confess with their mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. Everyone who believes otherwise is living under a delusion.

        Catholic and Christian are not synonymous! There are other perverted teachings inherent in Catholicism that could be shown to be outright heresy, but if you, a learned man, cannot see the superficialisty of this perversion of Christianity there is little hope that you can exercise any objectivity concerning it.

        It is one of the greatest burdens on my heart that men of your ilk profess to be Christian on one side of your mouth but accept false teaching as gospel or refuse to confront it as evil. You cannot be a peacemaker to those who are deceivers and deceived and maintain a right relationship with God. We are to reprove, rebuke and exhort with all longsuffering and “doctrine” for in so doing we will not only save ourselves but those that hear us.

        You need to hear the rebuke that I present to you now because your teaching subverts many who will be duped into believing you to be wise. The gospel never changes! Your attempts to fit this message into some kind of century-appropriate message has no place in Christian life because the gospel has stood through many centuries without your help to reinvent it to suit your beliefs, and it will stand long after you and I are gone in all its simplicity and power. Preach it as it is or step aside for those who will.

  2. Joshuardabca says:

    Hey Ken a few simple remarks, Being a Chrustian is being like Jesus, He was love and practiced love. God the Father desired something to love and willingly wanted some people to freely and willingly love Him back, Only some of the people today freely and willingly love him back and do what He has told them to do to fit in this world and keep pure for Him, I am a simple man and dearly love my children and their spouses, God Bless

  3. Brian continues to caricature Christians to make his point. Someone should remove the needle from his scratched and broken record.

    • Anonymous says:

      In what way has Brian caricatured Christians? I’m missing it.

      • Here is the caricature, “that the Christian faith as practiced by conservative Catholic and Protestant Christians in the United States is framed within a mega-story that is actually foreign to and incompatible with Jesus and his good news of the kingdom of God.”

        He says these things often, offering up an image of a Christian that most people would not recognize. It is tiring.

        • Anonymous says:

          I send a prayer to you for renewed energy in your tiredness. And I hope I am not adding to it!

          See my sketch of the Jesus Mega-Story below. What would “conservatives” think of my biblical, back to the root understanding of Christ’s past, current, and ongoing work?

          • Why are you assuming that I’m a “conservative?”

            I thought Brian did away with all of the old dualisms?

          • Anonymous says:

            I did not ask “what would *you* think?” I asked, “What would *conservatives* think?” In no way do I want to assign a label to you.

            And now I fear that I have, in fact, added to your tiredness of the conversation– the very thing I hoped to avoid! Allow me to let it drop. Please forgive me.

  4. Brian continues to caricature Christians to make his point. Someone should remove the needle from his scratched and broken record.

  5. Acushla says:

    Dear Brian

    A true follower of Jesus, as i understand it, is anyone who sincerely wants and tries to follow his teachings. I will not be wrong to say that all his followers fail him everyday but God gives us the grace for another chance probably the very next minute. I have not met/read/heard of anyone who tries hard to follow Christ and stands for what Christ stood for so ardently. You speak for those who cannot speak for themselves and encourage others to do the same. I’m sure there are many more out there…

    I do believe no two people no matter how sincerely they believe and follow Christ can agree on absolutely everything, unless they have lost the ability to think for themselves (i know i was in that category once). Our interpretations of the bible depend on various factors like background, culture, upbringing…etc. And we are usually offended if someone challenges the interpretation that we have believed in or rather based our faith on. We need to be open (not necessarily believe everything the other person says) and yet have the humility to say…i’m a seeker and don’t have all the answers. I do agree there should be the essentials that all Christians should agree upon like the ones you’ve highlighted in your response to the Jones.

    Keep your thoughts coming, they are a huge inspiration to me. I read your blogs almost everyday. Thank you for all your work. God bless

  6. Anonymous says:

    Elements of the mega-story of Jesus as I understand it:

    From “holy war defined as wiping out the Canaanites” to “holy war as battle against the demonic” (= violence, greed, arrogance, etc)

    From “temple as building in one geographic location in Jerusalem where one must offer sacrifice” to “temple as mobile people of God who offer themselves as living sacrifices”

    From “retaliation, revenge, and retribution” to “forgiveness, turning the other cheek, resisting evil through radical love alone”

    From “hoarding resources by those at the top of the pyramid” to “manna for all, our daily bread for all”

    From “chosen people defined as privilege and rescue from torture” to “chosen people defined as the ones who serve and bring healing to creation”

    From “writing, defining, and labeling some people out of God’s circle of love” to “the practice of open, radical, free table fellowship with sinners”

    From “conquering creation” to “caring for creation”

    From “murdering enemies” to “loving enemies”

    From “holding grudges” to “forgiving hurts”

    From “murder them before they get you” to “preferring to die rather than kill another”

    This is a brief sketch of how I read the entire Bible through Jesus and His mega-story. I observe that 99% (including myself) fail to live by this Story and are in need of ongoing repentance.

  7. PreachinJesus says:

    It is a challenging task to engage Pastor McLaren in dialogue since he seems to avoid such confrontations. When one considers the few conversations where he actually has engaged (I am thinking of his Q interaction with McKnight) his answers are amorphous or so loosely stated it is hard to isolate his position.

    Pastor McLaren desires to speak into the theological fabric of the Church. That is fine but he seems to lack the framework to adequately challenge the theological leadership or has yet to offer a substantively original critique of his own. As a pastor-theologian myself (one with a PhD in theology) I have nearly everything he has published and see streams of many different traditions and thoughts within his conclusions. Yet I see nothing original in his answers. Rather they have the growing tendency to be reductionist recapitulations of tired (and disproved) post-Enlightenment liberalism.

    I would openly challenge Pastor McLaren to engage in an open dialogue with a reputable theologian of the conservative position he openly critiques. Move the conversation away from trying to synthesize these empty recapitulations and push it towards a more substantive effort of truly framing the Gospel for a new millennium.

    The stories are important but that which undergirds them, the theology of those stories is even more important. In his latest text, A New Kind of Christianity, is essentially a running objection to conservative evangelicalism in the United States. His critique is poor and his solutions even worse. In this article you see the traces of his desire to see things change for the better but at the end it ends up in the illusory challenge to the ubiquitous story without any final statement.

    All this said, I am thankful for his Christian commitment and (what I honestly perceive to be) passion for presenting Christianity in a more honest representation of Jesus’ teachings.

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