Here is a recent interview with Brian McLaren.
Q. Let’s start with the title of your new book, “Everything Must Change.” Everything?
Well, hyperbole is one of the most common literary tools we use. So, obviously, I don’t think the laws of gravity should change. Or the size of the earth or anything.
But the title really is trying to emphasize that the change we need is not just cosmetic. It really goes deep. The title actually comes from an interaction with a woman in Burundi, East Africa. When you think about the kind of world that about a third of our planet experience, you realize that for them everything must change.
Q. You say that many Christians should start by replacing the idea of getting themselves and others “saved” so they can go to heaven — the evacuation plan, I think you call with — with this idea of getting out there, in the here and now, and healing the hurts of the world. So when Jesus said, “As the father sent me, so I sent you,” he was talking not really about conversions but about tackling the world’s crises — Is that right?
Actually, I would put the two together. If we keep recruiting people to evacuate the earth, then every person who gets saved is, in some ways, taken out of the action. It’s like going to the bench of people who want to play in a football game and trying to recruit them to leave the (stadium) altogether.
A better image would be: What Jesus is asking us to do is go into the stands and recruit some people to come on the field and join us to play. The recruiting of new disciples is really connected to wanting to make a difference in the world.
Q. You’ve said that the “WWJD: What Would Jesus Do?” model is too simplistic. How would those people who get out of the stands proceed? What I want to say is that we have to listen to Jesus’ teaching. If “What Would Jesus Do?” means “How can we live our lives in a way that’s pleasing to Jesus?” then I think that’s a great question.
The problem is, we have to account for the differences between the first century and the 21st century. So if Jesus went from one place to another, he would walk and take a donkey. We take a bus or a plane, maybe.
Then we have to deal with other differences in context. For example, Jesus lived in a monarchy; we live in a democracy. So, Jesus never voted. But I think if he were here, he would vote. And Jesus never really talked about elections, because there weren’t any. But if he were here today, he might talk about that.
Q. You want a deeper reading of the Gospels…
Exactly. One of our problems is that some people don’t take the Bible seriously. They just dismiss it. And then other people claim to take the Bible seriously, but they read it in a very simplistic way. I think what we need to do is have people read the Bible with maturity and depth. And take it seriously.
Q. Have we domesticated Jesus because we don’t like the sting of his real message? Loving your enemies, for example. The title of Peter Gomes’ new book is “The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus.”
I think this is exactly right. It’s not that individuals intentionally try to domesticate Jesus. It’s that we have centuries and centuries of traditions and traditional ways of reading the Bible that keep us from seeing certain things.
The net result is that the Jesus in a lot of our churches has a lot of bad things to say about other people’s sins but not about our own. And he challenges other people to change, but kind of pats us on the back.
Q. Poverty — particularly this gap between the rich and poor — is certainly something Jesus talked about in his time. And it’s still with us, as he predicted it would be. And yet, a lot of Christians today seem to want to focus more on other things: homosexuality, abortion, evolution. Why?
This is really an important question in an election year. I think there’s a kind of a collusion — whether it’s intentional or accidental, I don’t know. But it’s a collusion between political parties and religious communities. So that religious communities end up emphasizing issues that political parties can exploit to divide an electorate and win elections.
As a result, we make a big deal about issues that Jesus said absolutely nothing about. And we say very little about issues that Jesus said so much about.
Q. But some Christians may see the title of your book and worry that you’re saying that what also needs changing is some basic doctrine. For example: Jesus’ divinity. Is that negotiable?
I affirm in the book that I am completely orthodox in all of my beliefs about Christ. I affirm all the ancient creeds.
But here’s where we have to face some deeper issues. The creeds teach us to affirm the deity of Christ. But then we have to say: What does it mean to live out the belief that Jesus was really the word of God incarnate? If we really believe that, then we’ll take very seriously what he said about how we treat our enemies. Instead, we often affirm the doctrine in our words — we can say “Lord, Lord” — but then we don’t actually do what he said.
The change I’m interested in is helping us flesh out what it means to affirm the ancient creeds and historic faith.
Q. You call yourself an evangelist. A fisher of men and women. Who are your fish in the “emerging church” conversation you talk about?
First of all, I was a pastor for 24 years in a neighborhood here (in Maryland), just between Washington and Baltimore. When I was a pastor, the people I worked with, they had never heard of “emerging church” or any of this stuff.
They were people who were truck drivers and construction workers and lawyers and teachers. The reason they came to the church had nothing to do with whether I wrote books or not. It had to do with whether the church really brought them good news and helped them get in touch with God.
So, my interest has always been people outside the church and helping them get connected with God. Really, since I began as a pastor. And that’s continuing now.
I get a lot of really encouraging emails and letters and sometimes people send me CDs. What really means the most to me is when I hear people who say, “I have never been a Christian. I’ve been turned off to Christianity. But your books are really making me interested in Jesus and helping me believe in God.” Or people say, “I got turned off to the church when I was a teenager. I haven’t been back in 20 years. But you’re making it possible for me to kind of re-start my search.”
Q. So you’re tapping into a hunger out there for something more honest?
I think so. Especially among our younger generation, there’s a feeling that a lot of our churches in America have lost their way. They’ve gotten completely preoccupied with money. They’ve gotten so infatuated with numbers. They have made unholy alliances with political parties.
So there’s a good bit of disillusionment out there. But, yet, there’s spiritual hunger. People don’t just want to walk away from God and be atheists or agnostics. They want to find a way to have a real relationship with God, but not feel they’re being dishonest or immoral in the process.
Q. Up in Washington, Sen. Charles Grassley is investigating some evangelists who are preaching the “prosperity gospel.” What’s your take on the prosperity gospel and on whether the government should be looking at religion?
There is the issue of whether the government should be involved. My first thought when I hear that is that, if the government does need to be involved, it says that we Christians haven’t done a good enough job of addressing this issue ourselves.
At the very least, instead of complaining about the government, we should get a wake-up call that we’re letting an awful lot of shabby stuff go on in the name of Christ.
Regarding the prosperity gospel: I’ve been in over 30 countries in the last several years and the prosperity gospel is spreading like wildfire over Latin America and Africa and parts of Asia. And it’s very strange to see hundreds of thousands of poor Africans or Latin Americans line up to hear one of these prosperity gospel preachers who has four gold rings, drives a limousine, is wearing a $3,000 Italian suit. And they’re coming barefoot and in rags and they’re giving him money. There’s something about this that is deeply distasteful.
At the same time, we have to ask: Why does this message have an appeal to these people? I think one of the reasons it has an appeal is that the prosperity gospel preacher is talking about poverty. And he’s saying that God cares about poor people’s situation.
And God really does care, I believe, about poverty. In Luke, chapter four, Jesus begins his very first message by quoting Isaiah, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me. I’ve come to bring good news to the poor.”
So that’s this ambivalence I feel about the prosperity gospel. On the one hand, it’s telling the truth. God cares about poor people and wants to help them in their poverty. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s giving them a good answer. And the methods of a lot of these preachers are pretty suspect.
Q. And clearly Jesus didn’t walk around wearing gold rings or riding in chariots.
Exactly right. So we have prosperity gospel preachers flying around in private jets and staying in five-star hotels.
But then, back here in the United States, we live in unbelievable luxury as well. It’s one thing to complain about the prosperity gospel preacher. But what are we doing to really address the deeper and systemic issues that keep people poor?
And that’s one of the things I hope my book will do: Help Christians to start really caring about poverty beyond just charity. And to start thinking about this.
Q. There’s a new group of best-selling atheist writers — Richard Dawkins and others — who lay the blame for these global crises at the feet of religion, particularly Christianity. What do you say to their challenge?
In my book, I try to respond, for example, to some things (atheist writer) Sam Harris said.
First of all, I’m sympathetic. I believe a lot of what these New Atheists are saying is, “Gosh, it looks like religious people are always for war. They’re very concerned about their own wealth, but not concerned enough about the desperately poor. They’re very often careless about the environment and use their religion to justify exploitation of the environment.”
So they’re seeing some bad fruit from the religious tree. Their solution is: Cut down the tree. And I think that’s a mistake.
I also think that we need to realize that here in the United States, for example, 85 percent of people have some affiliation with the church. Worldwide, atheism makes up much less than 10 percent of the global population. So, since most people are religious to some degree, every problem will be associated with religious people.
To me, the fatal mistake that the New Atheists make is that the best alternative to bad religion is no religion. I think the best antidote to bad religion is good faith.
Q. This week, we marked the birthday of Martin Luther King. He was clearly a religious person who went out there and tried to deal with the hurts and injustices of the world. Are there models — saints even — that we can follow? King, Mother Teresa — people who went out there? Catholics talk about saints, but I don’t hear much about them from evangelical Christians.
To me, this is one of the great resources that Roman Catholics bring to all other Christians — this awareness that, by elevating certain people as heroes, we have some great examples to follow.
It’s interesting that you mention both Mother Teresa and Dr. King because they represent to me two very important but very different models. Mother Teresa represents the model of caring for the poor, being with them as they die and, in a very personal and compassionate way, showing the love of God to poor people. Dr. King represents a very different approach, which says that we also have to deal with the unjust systems that keep causing people to suffer.
So I would hate to have Dr. King without Mother Teresa or Mother Teresa without Dr. King. But when we have the two of them, that’s a great balance. It’s the balance of mercy and justice.
Q. Talk about the difference between social sin and personal sin. There seems to be an emphasis, in the West and especially among evangelical Christians, on personal sin.
In the Bible, sin is both personal and social.
As an individual, I can lie. As an individual, I can steal. As an individual, I can commit adultery. Sometimes we think of personal sin as God keeping a scorecard to decide how he’s going to dispose of souls after death.
But I was a pastor for 24 years, And I can tell you, when a husband lies to his wife and when he commits adultery and cheats on his wife, he causes an awful lot of suffering and pain for her and for their children. When a person steals and somebody else goes out of business, he causes a lot of suffering.
So, personal sin isn’t just about keeping a scorecard before God. It’s about God’s concern for human beings and human societies so that we don’t cause damage to each other, so that the world is filled with less sadness and grief and betrayal.
But if we only deal with personal sin, we miss so much because the Bible deals extensively with social sin.
Social sin is about systemic injustice. It’s about institutionalized racism. It’s about institutionalized chauvinism. It’s about unjust trade policies.
I feel this when I go into a store and I see a great bargain. I think, “I can buy a shirt for $7.” But then I look on the label inside the shirt and it says. “Made in China” or “Made in Malaysia.” I just looked at one of my shirts the other day and it was made in Cambodia. And I just have to wonder: How were the people who made that shirt treated? First, were they in a factory filled with toxic chemicals? So that by making my shirt, they’re really at high risk of cancer or some other terrible disease? Are they working for 14 hours a day and making 12 cents an hour? Are six-year-old children involved in making my shirt?
These are questions of systemic injustice.
Q. Yet, in the United States, we’re encouraged to think of buying as almost patriotic. And it does help people keep their jobs if their companies are making money. How do we balance that and not let consumerism become an idol?
When we face that complexity, then I think the hyperbole in my title — “Everything Must Change” — becomes justified.
Just this morning, I had the television on and there was a commercial from a credit card company. And here was the line in the commercial: “I want it all. I want it all. I want it now.” Then the credit card company’s motto is: “Chase what matters.” So, getting it all and getting it now is what really matters.
I call it the “covert curriculum.” When that covert curriculum gets into people’s brain, this (message of) “have everything and have it now and go into debt if you need to to get it and go after material possessions, that’s what really matters” — I think you could say that is as dangerous and maybe more dangerous to people spiritually than pornography.
I think we Christians have to go to the spiritual roots of a lot of our marketing, for example, and we have to expose the destructive and harmful beliefs that are being embedded in us through advertising.
And you asked: If people stopped buying, doesn’t that hurt? The idea that we always have to consume more and that we have to do it faster is an idea that’s suicidal. Because it will eventually run us up against environmental limits.
For example, we’ll eventually run out of petroleum. Some people say it’s 10 years, some say it’s 100 years. Either way, we’re in deep trouble when that happens. And we’re in deep trouble before that happens, actually.
What I’m recommending is that we have to face the fact that the status quo itself is dangerous and unsustainable. If can start making sensible, moderate adjustments now, it will save us or our children or grandchildren from cataclysmic disruptions later on.
Q. We’re in this war in Iraq and I think a lot of people around the world consider America the Roman Empire of our day. And yet, that is very hard for a lot of American Christians to hear. As you read the Gospels, where does America come in?
When we look back across history, there are, of course, the Greek Empire and the Roman Empire. More recently, there was the Spanish empire and the Dutch empire and the British empire.
When you look at the history of empires, there is a glorious period for people in power, when everything looks great. But then there is a kind of ugly decline and decay that happens when the empire begins to crumble.
Some of us think the U.S. is already in the empire mode and others of us think we’re not there, but we’re in danger of going there. Either way, what we need to do is open ourselves to the possibility that we can follow a well-worn path in history and the results of that path is not attractive.
So what I’m hoping people will do, after reading my book, is become more aware of these longstanding historical patterns and make the decisions that we can make to avoid those bad consequences.
Q. Today, many evangelicals are fascinated with the end of the world. There’s the popularity of the “Left Behind” books. And talk about the Rapture. Their belief is: Things will get worse, we will have world crises. They say that’s part of God’s plan, to have Armageddon. Is that biblical or is that thinking part of the problem, in your opinion?
I write a good bit about this in the book. And on the tour, one of my talks will be devoted to this subject. I think this is an incredibly important subject.
What a lot of well-meaning, committed evangelical Christians don’t realize is that the view of the end-times that they believe is biblical and the historic Christian view is actually a newcomer and an anomaly in Christian history. That view of the end-times was never, ever thought of in Christian history until the 1830s. Now, that doesn’t make it wrong. But it does make it suspect.
Q. How, then, do you read the Book of Revelation?
I was a college English professor. So, I have a background in literature. And one of the question I ask about a piece of literature is what genre is it in?
For example, if you watch “Star Trek,” but think that you’re watching “The Office” — there’s a difference between science fiction and situation comedy. There’s different genres.
If someone reads Revelation and thinks that it’s one genre when it’s another, they’re going to misread it.
It turns out that Revelation is a classic example of a genre of literature that existed in the Jewish world from about 100 B.C. to about 200 A.D. Modern scholars call it Jewish Apocalyptic. It turns out that Jewish Apocalyptic is not trying to predict the end of the world. But it uses bizarre imagery — often dreamlike imagery — to describe contemporary politics and to give people encouragement to be faithful in the midst of oppressive political regimes.
When you read the Book of Revelation in that way, it just comes alive. And instead of being a kind of strange code book that tells us that there’s no hope and we should just expect things to get worse and worse, it becomes a call to courage and faithfulness against all odds. That, to me, is the best way to read Revelation.
Q. A lot of younger evangelicals seem to embracing environmentalism.
Exactly. The assumption that we could make for the last 20 years really, that evangelical Christians care about two issues — abortion and homosexuality — is in fragments. It’s still true for a large sector of evangelicals. Those are the two issues they’ve been told to care about and they’re faithfully staying with the program.
But younger evangelicals and a lot of older ones, too, are reading their Bibles. And they’re seeing that the environment is really a concern. They’re reading the Gospels and they’re seeing that Jesus was not hawkish on war. Jesus had a lot to say about peacemaking.
In some ways, evangelicals are learning what Catholic social teaching has been saying for a long time: that the Gospel has relevance to every area of life — economics, the environment, medicine, politics. And they’re trying to get a more mature understanding about how the Gospel relates to all these dimensions of life.
Q. What’s your view of homosexuality and abortion? I know that’s a big question.
The first thing I’d want to say is that I don’t think they’re the two most significant moral issues in the world.
I believe in the sanctity of life, but I believe that our efforts should be toward reducing the need and desire for abortion on the front end by way of persuasion and education rather than putting our efforts on the side of legislation.
Regarding homosexuality: I think that the entire issue is badly framed and that the entire argument has become so combative and spoiled by a cultural wars mentality.
So what I’m advocating is for us, first, to acknowledge that good Christians disagree. Some of us are open and accepting toward gay people. Some of us are accepting of gay people, but we don’t affirm their homosexual behavior. Some of us are neither open nor accepting. So, what we need to do is say that there is diversity and that good Christians disagree. And then we need to have some charitable and intelligent dialogue rather than the name-calling and polarizing discourse we’ve had in recent years.
Q. Have you taken a position personally?
My position has been that I treat gay people just like I treat every other kind of person. I don’t have any discrimination toward gay people.
But my position also has been that I want committed Christians to have wise and intelligent discourse about it. And that not only do we need to be tolerant and accepting of gay men and women — and their parents, by the way. This is a huge issue: there are twice as many parents of gay people as there are gay people, so they’re very often caught in this in a very painful way.
Not only do we need to be accepting of gay people and their families, we need to be accepting of people who don’t see the issue in the same way we do.
Q. I’ve been surprised in this job about the antipathy I’ve heard from a lot of mostly conservative Christians toward Islam. Franklin Graham voiced their concerns when he said it was an evil religion, that Allah is not the God of the Bible. What do you say to people with that view?
I do think we really have to dialogue about this.
I believe that there is something like a form of racism going on right now among well-meaning, but misguided and misinformed evangelical Christians. It’s becoming acceptable to create stereotypes of Muslims that are inaccurate.
The problem is, Muslims are just like the rest of us. They’re like Christians in this regard. There are wonderful, kind-hearted Christians and there are mean-spirited Christians. There are sincere Christians who live with integrity. And there are hypocritical Christians who are just out for a buck. We’ll find that kind of diversity among every group of people.
One of the unfortunate things — and one of the messages I’d like to get through to my evangelical brothers and sisters — is that when we try to make peace, we’re not being unfaithful to Jesus Christ, we’re being faithful to Jesus Christ.
And when we try to practice Jesus’ teachings about loving our neighbor and even loving our enemy — when we practice those teachings toward our Muslim neighbors, we are not being unfaithful to Jesus Christ, we’re being faithful.
But when we create stereotypes of people and when we are ready to call a person an enemy and have nothing to do with them, at that point we are being unfaithful to Jesus Christ. This is one of my calls to evangelicals. And when I’m with Muslims, I try to provide a better example.
Q. What do you say, though, to conservative Christians who say, “What about the Great Commission? These (non-Christian) people are doomed and we need to save them through conversion.”
First of all, I love to help every person I can to become a follower of Jesus Christ.
A lot of people don’t want to become followers of Jesus Christ. And when they don’t want to, they are not disqualified from being my neighbor. In fact, they still are my neighbor.
And so, everything Jesus teaches me about loving my neighbor applies to a person who has no interest in being a Christian. This idea that because some people don’t want to become Christians, we should ignore them or treat them as enemies, I just don’t get it.
Q. You began your ministry years ago in your apartment. That reminded me of the first Christians, who met in homes and in small groups. Have we lost something today? We seem to be into big buildings and big numbers. Have we lost the intimacy of what those first Christians experienced?
That’s a really great question.
I am for the church in all of its forms. I believe we can glorify God in great cathedrals in Europe and in big megachurches here in the United States and in storefront churches in the inner city and everything in between.
But there is something about Christian faith that has to always be a way of life, not just a religion.
I’m so grateful for my experience in being part of a community where we had meals in each other’s homes and we took people in off the street. For us, our faith really wasn’t about buildings and budgets. It really was primarily a way of life and a group of people doing right together.
Wherever Christian faith is most vibrant, that’s present. So often in our megachurches, we have people who meet together in their homes between Sundays. So I think there is really something vibrant and vital about that.
Q. How important is music in the way we worship? It seems to be pretty important to you.
I’m a musician and I love music.
And I think when you look back through history — especially Protestant history — music has been so important in the spiritual formation of Christians. And so I believe we should aim for great diversity and excellence in our music.
I’m especially interested in us paying attention to our lyrics, because the lyrics of our songs, in many ways, imbed our theology in us.
I often ask people who are worship leaders: “Look over all the songs that you use in your church. How many of your songs ever mention poverty and poor people? How many of your songs ever mention widows and orphans and vulnerable people? How many of your songs ever mention God’s concern for justice? How many of your songs ever mention our responsibility to care for the planet? How many of your songs ever mention our need to reconcile with each other and make peace?” People are usually pretty surprised when they really evaluate it. It’s a pretty short list.
Q. My last question: People are always saying, “If Jesus came back, he’d this or that.” Let’s say Jesus did come back. Where do you think we would find him? Would he be in the pew on Sunday? Or in the front lines, at Darfur? Would he be in a monastery? Would he be everywhere?
What a great question.
I think Jesus would surprise us today just as he did in the First Century. Because he would be in so many different places.
He would be — exactly as you said — in Darfur and he would say, “If you’re going to kill these people, you’re going to have to kill me, too, because I’m with them.”
He would be in the inner-cities in our own country, with the people who are often vilified. He would be with the illegal immigrants.
But I also think he would make sure to show every once in a while at the halls of Congress and have some words with our national leaders. He might even knock on the door of the White House.
I think we’d see Jesus crossing all kinds of boundaries and barriers and inviting everybody into reconciliation with God and with each other.
Age: 51.Home: Laurel, Md.
Education: B.A. and M.A., degrees, University of Maryland. He also taught English at the school, 1978-86.
Religious background: Grew up in ultraconservative Plymouth Brethren church. Was part of “Jesus Movement” in 1970s. Co-founded nondenominational Cedar Ridge Community Church in Montgomery County, Md. Served as pastor, 1982-2006.
National impact: Starting in mid-1980s, has mentored pastors and church founders planters as guru of “emerging church” movement. He’s among leaders of progressive wing of evangelicalism, along with Tony Campolo and Sojourners editor Jim Wallis.
Books: Best-selling author, his 16 books about contemporary Christianity include “The Secret Message of Jesus,” in which he says Christians should focus less on getting to heaven and more on creating a just “Kingdom of God” here on Earth.