Beyond Business-as-Usual Christianity
Brian McLaren talks about hell, the emerging church, and seeker Christians who are fed up with traditional Christianity.
BY: Interview by Sherry Huang
Brian D. McLaren's laid-back style might fool you into thinking he's a hip college professor. In reality, he's a pastor and a leader in the emerging church movement. His book 'A Generous Orthodoxy' and his 'A New Kind of Christian' trilogy have challenged conservative evangelical views of Jesus, the Bible, and non-Christians. He spoke to Beliefnet about 'The Last Word and the Word After That,' which explores the concept of hell and completes his trilogy.
Congratulations on making TIME magazine's '25 Most Influential Evangelicals' list. How did you feel about being included?
It's complicated because my sense is that the article was really trying to equate the word 'evangelical' with 'conservative Republican.' Although I think there are many wonderful things about conservative Republicans, I don't fit in that category. So I felt I probably was the oddest duck in the article (laughs). On the other hand, I was glad if I could be an example of someone from an evangelical background who is not happy with the tone of the religious right. So if I provided an alternative voice, I'm glad that I could be included.
You were involved in controversy when the Kentucky Baptist Convention rescinded your invitation to speak because of a controversial paragraph in your book 'A Generous Orthodoxy.' You said, in part, that making disciples doesn't necessarily "equal making adherents to the Christian religion." Did you think the dis-invitation was justified?
When I go to speak somewhere, I'm a guest so I'm not offended if someone would invite me and then decide they would rather not have me. And [the Kentucky Baptist Convention] were very kind and polite in the way they did it.
When you wrote that paragraph, did you feel it would make waves or did it seem natural to write?
I knew it would be seen as controversial to some people. If they had asked me for further explanation, I would have told them that this is an especially important issue for Americans to think about right now. Since the invasion of Iraq, there are millions of Christians around the world who now are in danger. If they associate with a Christian religion, that makes them seem to be associated with the United States for a whole number of reasons. It becomes dangerous and impossible for people who want to follow Jesus in their lives to identify as Christians. Very often if you're in a Muslim country, and you identify as a Christian, you're set up for exclusion and bad treatment. In some cases, worse.
What made you want to tackle the concept of hell in the final book of your trilogy?
In the message of Jesus, I think there is a balance between how the message relates to our would in history as we know it and how it relates to the experience of people beyond death, outside of history. For many Christians, their faith is primarily about what happens to people after they die. That distracts them from seeking justice and living in a compassionate way while we're still alive in this life. We need to go back and take another look at Jesus' teachings about hell. For so many people, the conventional teaching about hell makes God seem vicious. That's not something we should let stand.
In your book, your main character Pastor Dan is "put on trial" by his church board and his doctrinal beliefs are examined. Is Dan's experience like other pastors' in America today?
These are very difficult and challenging times for pastors. In the last thirty years, there's been more crossover between denominations. People are exposed to a lot more theological diversity even though many of our church structures were set up to preserve a lot more theological uniformity. Dan represents someone working in a church structure that did not have much room for diversity and yet he began to stretch outside of those parameters. I think that is a very common situation. Even in my travels I meet pastors who have gone through an awful lot of pain in these kinds of circumstances.
Will this continue to be a struggle within Christian churches?
A lot of these very detailed doctrinal statements arose in an era where almost everybody went to church. You had a little bit of competition about who would get a bigger part of the market share, if I can say it that way. Churches tended to emphasize their distinctive features. You could tell somebody that they should leave their denomination and join yours because their denomination is wrong about X, Y, and Z. But that's not the situation that most of us live in anymore. Now, less than 20% of Americans attend church on an average Sunday.
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