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.
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