Sunday, November 28, 2004
Being Brian McLaren
Last week pastor and author Brian McLaren spoke in one of my seminary classes about his book The Story We Find Ourselves In, a book our class had read earlier in the semester. What follows is not to be taken as a direct quote transcript of the conversation. Rather, imagine meeting some one and then days later drawing a picture based on your memory of the encounter. That's what this--me making sense of my piecemeal notes. If parts feel especially sound-bite-ish, it's because, well, that's the best I can do 10 days after the fact. I take all credit for creative embellishments...

He sat behind a lectern in front of a class of about seventy. His trim beard is still graying. The top of his head completely bare. The sleeves of his button-down shirt rolled back to reveal a charcoal undershirt. He wore blue jeans. Complete with the wire-rimmed glasses, he exuded a kind of rugged intellectualism that wouldn’t look out of place in a J.C. Crew catalogue. He spoke confidently, like this was his element, a fish in water, in a smooth voice perfect for radio. No agenda. What are some questions we have about Story We Find Ourselves In?

Are you Dan or are you Neo?

Hehe. Good question. I have a divided psyche and each of the characters represent a different voice in my head.

I most enjoy seeing God reflected in the beauty of process, or what some might call evolution. How encouraging that a molecular biologist came to faith through reading Story We Find Ourselves In.

When it comes to a discussion of Darwinian evolution, it’s risky to look for God in the gaps, that is, in the things we can’t explain. Instead, it’s better to look for God in those things we can explain.

Christianity failed in Europe in the last fifty years because it was so enmeshed in colonialism. When European colonialism was unmasked for all of its ugliness, Christianity was then indicted along with it. The parallel with modern American imperialism is startling. The possibility exists that Christianity will once again be similarly discredited.

People are not afraid of change. Rather, they are afraid of other people’s idea of change.

Somewhere along the line we have lost an eschatology of hope. Today the dominant American eschatology is one of abandonment and escape. If abandonment and escape are our end goal as Christians, what reason then do we have to engage with culture?

I wrote New Kind of Christian to an audience of alienated Christians, and my hope was that Story We Find Ourselves in would appeal to non-Christians. My hope is that non-Christians would be the end user of all we do.

When it comes to the fallout of the recent elections, my hope is that it leads us to a place of post-liberalism/conservatism. As it presently stands, both the political and religious worlds offer the two extremes of private justice without public justice on the conservative end and public justice without private justice on the liberal end. This is unacceptable. We must be able to embrace justice in both the private and public arenas. Private injustice piles into public injustice.

How do you deal with stereotypes against the Church?

I would disagree with you. I would say that most perceptions about the church in America are true.

On the other hand, I know exactly where you’re coming from. I worked for many years in upper education, and believe you me, it is no bastion of open-mindedness. We’re all just narrow-minded about our own different things. The early church suffered similar misunderstandings, misconceptions and stereotypes. It’s a part of our history.

Does evolution weaken the doctrine that man is made in the image of God?

According to the Genesis account, we’re made of dirt, and that’s not very flattering. We are made in the image of God and that’s what I want to affirm. Apes are not our ancestors; they are our cousins. Perhaps we need to develop a theology that acknowledges our close relationship with nature. St. Francis understood this relationship in his brother-moon-sister-sun view of creation.

Why are you leery of miracles in the book?

The church presently lives with a dualism between the natural and supernatural that just isn’t biblical. Signs and wonders—these are the finger of God in the Bible. God is always a player in the story. This is opposed to the naturalistic science that excludes God. God is involved in all of the natural stuff. Signs and wonders are very natural but they are filled with meaning from God. The semantics of “miracles” is from modernity. In postmodernity, among people raised in the new science, it is a far different world. Everything is about a pattern, and a pattern is information.

One of the problems with miracles I if you get one, you can never get enough. Thus, either God becomes your genie, or God has to say “no.” I think the film Bruce Almighty illustrates this principle perfectly. I believe in the intervention of God and miracles, but I also think that the idea of miracles on demand is weak. I plan to cover this in the next book The Last Word. And the Word After That.

Could you expand on your idea of the afterlife that is touched on in the book?

I believe in an eschatology of hope and an eschatology of realism. The story of creation is not finished. God finishes in six days, but creation is an ongoing process. Creation is not winding down, as Newtonian physics would tell us, but rather still winding up.

I believe more strongly than ever in judgment. Unfortunately, our current understanding of heaven and hell minimize judgment. Judgment is not the same as condemnation, which may not be the same as being sent to hell. The kingdom of God is not the same as heaven. The biblical view is not that heaven is the end goal. The end goal rather is resurrection. Revelation does not end with us going to heaven. Instead, the grand finale of the biblical story is the New Jerusalem coming to earth. The current idea of neo-platonic timeless, matterlessness is not biblical.

There is no concept of fire and brimstone hell in the Old Testament. This comes from the way of thinking of the Pharisees. The kingdom of God is the center of the gospel message, not whether you go to heaven or hell.

How has our view of the Bible changed through the years?

I grew up in a little-known sect of fundamentalism. It was a wonderful heritage where I learned the Bible. I was raised with a great love for the Bible. But I also loved science. My goal as a kid was to know the scientific names of all the animals. I had checked out all the library books by the seventh grade. Unfortunately, due to my background I was given the ultimatum, “either you believe in God, or you believe in atheism.” It was a very black and white world. It was a very rigid interpretation.

I think we’re in the midst of an incredible renaissance of biblical studies. In a bizarre way, my church thought we knew the Bible, but it was a systematic theology with the Bible crammed in. I have been preaching the Bible now for 22 years and I am more amazed by it than ever.

Consumerism is not the same as materialism. It’s more along the lines of, how much life have you gone through? It’s the difference between growth and wealth. Nothing is ever enough. This is the Trojan horse in American culture. When we talk about freedom, sneaking up behind it is the freedom to consume. And then, the church becomes just a purveyor of spiritual goods.

Is it better to embrace the established patterns of traditional denominations or to buck the system and begin new patterns of church?

We need both. They are symbiotic. One is innovative and the other imitative. New things need to be done with humility and the realization that one day they will become an established system. One concern I offer you: the Methodist system offers job security in exchange for your services. John Wesley would jump off his statue if he saw that today.

Most importantly, our focus must be on mission, not inner transformation. Transformation comes as a result of mission.

posted by Peter at 5:13 PM
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