Derek Walker meets the thinker that Time Magazine called a “paradigm-shifter”.
Anyone who smiles as much as Brian McLaren does is either a very contented man or a politician. After meeting him, I still wasn’t sure which I took him to be.
I certainly wanted to like him, particularly after reading how he responded to a question about gay marriage. He told Time magazine in 2006, “The thing that breaks my heart is that there’s no way I can answer it without hurting someone on either side.”
In that polarised and increasingly tedious issue, characterised by much posturing and little listening, it was refreshing to find a leader who, seeing two sides to the argument, preferred to hesitate and respond in grace than fire shots at fellow believers.
His appeal is somewhat similar to Barack Obama’s: he avoids the judgmental right-wing approach and seeks to build up, promoting third-way, common sense views that click with ordinary people, while showing trains of deep thought.
In 2005, Time Magazine featured this “paradigm-shifter” in their list of America’s 25 most influential evangelicals, an inclusion he described as a “mixed bag,” explaining, “It drew some attention to my work, but the downside was that it made me seem to be something of a threat to some people, which intensified some of their critique.”
When I asked why he seemed such a prophet to some, yet a danger to others, his answer lay in understanding the American religious landscape. “The bi-polarity between liberal and conservative is very deep and very vicious,” he explained. “Those words are epithets, not descriptors; they are insults for people on either side. So the fact that I come from a very conservative background, but really like liberals, has made the conservatives more nervous.”
This is key to his popularity and importance at a time of fracture for the church. McLaren recalled the same magazine’s observation, “If he doesn’t get eaten by the sharks, he may be capable of helping liberals and conservatives come together.”
He could do this because he wants to help the church to re-engage appropriately with the world’s huge cultural shift, and refuses to think along tribal lines. Overlaying his metaphors, he pictures the church as both slices of a pie and rings of a tree. Describing more denominationally-minded Christians as being at both the centre of the tree and at the pointed end of a slice, he noted that those who are on the outer edges of the tree or slice can work together more easily than with some of their own party: “If you are a Roman Catholic dealing with contemporary issues, rather than issues of the 20th, 19th or 15th century, you suddenly have a very interesting conversation with a Pentecostal who’s dealing with contemporary issues.”
McLaren stopped teaching English in college in 1986 to lead the church that he and his wife helped to start. He found that people with little Christian experience would turn up, looking to connect with God. He answered their enquiries as best he could, but soon realised that they did not share his assumptions. “Actually, I get their questions,” he said, “but my Christian community doesn’t have answers to their questions. “
Over the first four years he noticed this trend, and for the next few it had the effect of destabilising his faith. “In 1996 I reached a point where I’d taken enough things apart that now things could start to fit back together in my faith. I am sincerely hopeful now.”
“Human beings are only capable of so much change so fast.”
When I asked him to move forward 150 years and imagine what future historians would consider to be the successes and failures of both the modernist and emerging churches, he answered at length, but obliquely, revealing how much he lets waiting and watching determine his approach. He worries that, because church leaders want a quick fix to end their confusion, we might box up the ongoing cultural shift; but “if you package it, it stops developing. Part of our challenge is: things are emerging, developing, and you can’t rush them – they are organic. Human beings are only capable of so much change so fast. As individuals I think that’s true and as communities it’s even more true.
“At the time of the Reformation, they had to deal with Copernicus and Galileo; the loss of a whole worldview that had worked extremely well for 1300 years; radical deconstruction of that worldview; and the gradual replacement of a new worldview, largely through Sir Isaac Newton and others.
“I think we’re in a similar period now. We’re going from the world of Newton to the world of Einstein and Darwin. Still the church hasn’t done enough serious theologizing on what it means to live in a post-Darwinian world.
“There’s a huge dimension to this. What is a human being? First we have got Freud to deal with; but now we’ve all the issues of genetics, neurobiology, psycho-pharmacology. There’s a deep re-thinking about what a human being is that we’ve got to do justice to. All this is going on at a theological level.
“On the church level, we’ve got issues of what a local community looks like, because a lot of our current structures were formed in the medieval world. When those ancient cathedrals were built, I think the mind was: ‘This is the infrastructure of the Kingdom of God, and it will last forever, and our structures will last forever’. I think in recent centuries, we’ve had a lot of thinking about the church as an institution, and the idea is we set up invisible structures that will last forever. The structure is whether it’s Presbyterian or Episcopal or whatever. All of that I think is up for grabs.
“On the level of personal spirituality – absolutely huge things are going on.
“I’ll mention one more: the relationship of Christians and people of other religions or secular people. So much of the encounter between Christians and people of other religions in recent centuries was formed by colonialism, and we are having to face the degrees to which what we called Christianity is actually a form of colonial Christianity. What does it mean to debug our faith of some of those colonial viruses?
“All of that is going on and it takes time. To me, the real legacy will be on these deeper levels.”
With such a long view of context, it is easy to see why so many perceive McLaren as a threat. You think you have a handle on him, then you find that you are no longer sharing assumptions. But he often resonates with ordinary Christians by eschewing ecclesiastic politics, looking again at Jesus, and asking provocatively, “What if?”
What if the Pope flew to Harare to chat with Robert Mugabe in the cause of justice?
“We have a mission to be agents of peace, justice and reconciliation. These are inherent in what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. If that happened, what a fascinating moment it would be. Let me use a hypothetical situation. President Mugabe of Zimbabwe is identified as Catholic. What would happen if the Pope said, ‘A member of my flock is devastating a nation; it’s my responsibility to fly to Harare and chat with a member of my flock?’ What if the Pope used his influence in the cause of justice? Why isn’t that happening?
“What about these people who have so much influence? The most powerful denomination in the United States is actually not Baptist or Pentecostal; it’s the people who control the religious broadcasting networks. There is a handful that controls almost all the radio stations. There are deep political ties with these main corporations. In my country, religious broadcasting has used that (influence) primarily around the issues of abortion and sexuality. They’ve been largely ineffective and have had a very limited focus on what they‘ve tried to do. What if that were to be broadened to issues of the environment, of poverty, of war?
“I think one of the things we have to realise is that when people of faith think about influencing the public sphere, if they immediately go to legislation, they are skipping a lot of steps. There are some things far more subversive and powerful: begin with inspiration and persuasion, then changes in society happen more naturally.”
Turning to the Anglican Communion’s present difficulties, Mclaren noted that “It isn’t as simple as being Africa versus the West; it’s tensions within all of our cultures. The stance on sexuality in Nigeria is different even than South Africa, so I think part of what we are dealing with is changes that everybody is going to face.”
And then to underline how the issues keep changing, often beyond what we expect, he added, “It’s not as simple as progressive vs. conservative, either. I was with a Christian leader in Sweden a couple of years ago, who said to me, ‘Our issue is not sexuality; our issue on the horizon is marriage for more than two people’.”
He laughed with exasperation and just said, “Oh boy!”