10 Questions for Brian McLaren

by Terry L. Heaton
Tom KennedyBrian McLaren is a postmodernist Christian leader, and that makes him a controversial fellow in a religion with roots in absolutism. He's the author of ten books and pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church, an innovative, nondenominational church in the Baltimore-Washington region. He's one of the leaders of Emergent, a growing generative friendship among Christian leaders. In February, Time Magazine listed him as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America.

Soft spoken and charismatic, Brian McLaren has a lot to say, and I had the pleasure of meeting him and interviewing him at a Pastor's Conference in Nashville this month. Despite the recognition by Time, his views of the religious right and his thoughts about the media and government don't get a lot of play in the press, because he doesn't fit anybody's mold. When people do write about him, it's often Christians doing the writing — many of whom view his positions as a threat to their faith.

This is a very long interview. I had planned to edit it, but I would've done it an injustice in so doing. So if talk of postmodernism bores you, scroll down to the segments on the media and especially his views on the religious right using the government to censor television. You'll find him thoughtful and provocative.

In a nutshell, whatís your definition of postmodernism?
That's a hard question to put into a nutshell. Those who use it usually mean it as something that involves continuity and discontinuity with modernity. Itís not anti-modernism. Itís not the same thing as pre-modernism. It means people who've gone through the modern era and been changed by it, so now they argue its principles in many different ways.

I actually find a couple of related words more useful. One is Post-Enlightenment. As a friend of mine says "they (postmoderns) become Enlightened about the Enlightenment. They realize that the Enlightenment wasn't everything. It was a way of thinking to solve a set of problems in the 17th and the 18th centuries.

Another word is Post-Colonial. I think Post-Colonial is the more useful term, because what is happening is people are realizing how Colonialism affected the colonizers and the colonized. The colonizers are excessively confident in the sense they understand the way things ought to be, and they have the right to make everyone dance to their tune. It affects the colonized because they find themselves for decades or centuries dominated and oppressed and inferior and unworthy, and then they start saying, "Those are lies, and we do have the chance to think for ourselves."

The church has done exactly what it should do: it has effectively adapted to modernity. It has learned to speak modern language. It has learned to how to engage with modern media. It has learned to use modern technology and all the rest. Now when that happens itís always likely we'll go too far — that we'll become "of and in the world" instead of "in but not of it." A lot my friends and I, when discussing postmodernity, feel that the church doesn't realize the degree to which it is over-accommodating to modernity.

Do you view postmodernism as a threat to culture or as something positive?
I think, like everything, itís got good and bad features. What I suggest is, I think modern absolutism is — which I'm defining as an excessive confidence by European, mostly white people — is the confidence that made us not blink about taking Africa, Latin America, North America, making people slaves, and all kinds of genocides — that kind of excessive confidence.

Christians were as involved as everyone else. But that kind of absolutism is like cancer. I think early Postmodernism is a kind of chemotherapy. Chemotherapy will kill you. Itís not a vitamin. Itís not nourishment. Itís poison but itís exactly what you need when you are trying to treat an excessive confidence.

I define that as the early stages of postmodernism. I think new stages are yet to emerge. For us as Christians I'm interested in how we can be involved instead of complaining about it, how we can be involved in helping shape it in positive directions.

What are the issues that make your approach to Christianity different than the others?
I would say there are maybe three significant differences that come to the top. The first is an understanding of the Gospel that centers on Jesus' teaching of the Kingdom of God. I think just about everyone agrees the message Jesus proclaimed is the message that the Kingdom of God is at hand. I grew up in the church, and I never heard about that. When I heard about the Kingdom of God it was always interpreted as going to heaven after you die. So the message that the Kingdom being at the center of the Gospel is just staggeringly important, in my opinion. We're not unique in emphasizing that, but itís important.

The second thing would be an eschatology of engagement rather than abandonment. The idea that the world is going down the toilet and that we should just abandon and prepare for evacuation, I think, creates horrible possibilities of injustice. And so, we're trying to have an eschatology that thrusts us into the world as agents of justice and peace and reconciliation and service, rather than one that makes us stand on the edge with condemnation and judgment, because we're always planning to depart.

The third one would be the word integral. We're interested in integrating things that previously have been seen as polarities. So that involves, for example, finding the strengths of mainline Protestants and strengths of evangelicals and saying we're better off with the strengths of both than strengths and weaknesses of only one.

Under their breath, some evangelicals speak of you as a heretic. Whatís your response to them?
Well you know one definition of a heretic is someone who thinks for himself, and I am trying to think for myself. But another definition is someone who tries to cause schism. I'm not trying to cause schism. I'm a pastor. I value unity. Every opportunity I get I encourage people to have generous attitudes towards people, especially people with whom they disagree. The word schism works both ways, and divisiveness works both ways, but I do everything I can to not be involved in anything that's divisive. Although, when I say things that people don't like, that is uncomfortable for both of us.

Also under the word heresy, people often mean people who are denying essential doctrines of the faith. If I'm not on their list of bona fide Christians, then C. S. Lewis certainly shouldn't be. If they're going to say I have heterodox beliefs, they're going to have to eliminate a whole lot of other people as well. What I am saying is not that original; an awful lot of other people have said the same things.

Do you envision the day when people will write their own version of the Bible in the manner of, say, Wikipedia?
I don't know. I imagine they will. Thatís a fascinating question. This is one of our problems, whether people rewrite it in print or not, we do tend to rewrite it in our own thinking, so, for example, the difference between Fox News and Aljazeera — two different ways of telling the same stories. I think we have that kind of diversity in telling the Biblical story.

To an observer such as myself, the media in this country is facing the same kinds of pressures as the church. Do you agree with that, and how do you see that playing out?
This is so important. Let me talk about that from two perspectives. One is the perspective of left-right polarization and the other is the perspective of consumerism.

On the political side, research defines the Evangelical church as 45% religious right, 45% moderate or mainstream, and 10% progressive. The interesting thing is that the 45% in the middle never, ever speak against the 45% who are the most conservative. So letís say I'm over in the 10% progressive side. An awful lot of ink and energy gets spent on the danger of somebody like me is, but nobody ever talks about what's the danger of Jerry Falwell, or whatís the danger of James Dobson or the danger of Pat Robertson and the enormous power they have — not only the power with huge amounts of money and power with huge influence on the media, but also power in a sense to brand Christianity. This is incredible power and it effects every Christian, not just in the U.S. but in the world.

So when there are people in power, and other people are cowardly and they are afraid to stand up and tell the truth — those in the media and in the church — I think the results are disastrous. I always think of the old quote by Edmund Burke that all thatís necessary for the forces of evil to win in this world is for enough good men to do nothing. Of course, the tragedy is if you do nothing long enough, I don't think you can tell the good men from the bad.

So thatís one side. The other is that this power of consumerism, the power of money, and the power of the desire for more, and the idea that we live for the economy — I think this has an enormously subversive and subtle power.

A quick example: Right now, I'm involved with a group of people who are very concerned about the situation in Darfur in the Western Sudan. I knew there was a genocide going on there twelve months ago, and four hundred thousand more people have died since then. I think I just assumed somebody would do something about it. And itís just stunning to me about how little can get done. Meanwhile, Christians are arguing about what seems to me to be incredibly pathetic, trivial things compared to 400 thousand people dying, when, if they can get so much stuff out there about their national agenda, if they were to push this to the front, four hundred thousand lives could have been saved.

So were trying to do something about this and one of the things were going to do is five Sundays of outdoor public worship in Washington, D.C. where I live, and the second week, we're going to be in front of the National Press Club. And we're going to publicly, in prayer, thank the journalists who have covered Darfur in trying to keep this on the national consciousness. But we're also going to pray by name for all the news directors who are giving us twenty hours of Michael Jackson coverage a week and seconds, or minutes or nothing in Darfur coverage. Those are moral decisions, and when you see this lack of moral discernment in the Christian world and in the media world and in the church world, I think your question brings something very important to light. Thereís an awful lot that is similar there.

The mainstream news media seems to be under attack on all fronts these days. Whether it's bias or trust or their journalism, the press finds itself in a very strange and different place. From your perspective, what's going on?
I think we're at a bad place, because in the modern era, we believed there is something called objectivity. The problem is objectivity usually meant the viewpoint of the people in power. So then, we lost our naivetť about objectivity and then what happens? Well then what happens is maybe ratings rule. So what is news is what will get more people to watch or what will keep them watching longer, so they'll see the next set of commercials. So the power of the consumerism thatís underneath this is just monumental. Add to that we're in a time of war, and in a time of war it becomes harder and harder to question the government without being seen as unpatriotic.

I was in the Holocaust Museum the other day and thereís a chilling display of where Hitler's doctor said, in a letter that is displayed, that basically the Fuhrer wants to keep the war effort going, because if it slows down, the churches will start criticizing him over what heís doing to people with birth defects and the mentally retarded and so forth. The idea that keeping a war effort going inhibits criticism is a very, very old idea.

I think this is very important to recognize and something we should be tremendously concerned about.

One more thing. In the Christian media, I don't know the exact number on this, but there are Christian radio stations and Christian-owned television stations, all of which I think are incredibly powerful. I think they get people elected. And they're all owned by a small number of people with a very strong political agenda. Now they tend to complain that the mainstream media have a liberal bias, but of course, their solution to that isn't to try to give something with more balance; it's to have an opposite bias. Whenever everybody is trying to counter balance each other, it pretty much guarantees that everything we see veers toward Jerry Springer.

I'm going to put you on the spot and ask for your thoughts about some conservative Christian organizations, like the Parents Television Council, seeking to pressure the government into censoring television programming. Is this going to work or will it backfire?
I think the Christian community is making an extremely dangerous mistake with this. The mistake is we are going from dissatisfaction to legislation and missing the middle step of persuasion. Now you would think, from our beliefs from the Gospels, that God isn't just interested in us being focused on the law, but he actually wants to change our hearts. Thatís my understanding of how the Kingdom of God works, but we (the church) don't seem to understand that.

So our first move when we're unhappy about something is to get laws passed about it. To me that is pure Colonialism, Colonialism says change the world, by controlling other people against their will. The work of persuasion would be much harder, and it requires us to change our rhetoric 180 degrees. You can't, you don't, influence people you identify as the other side of the culture war. The language of the culture war is the language of "strength on our side" to dominate the other side. That leads to belief in things like redemptive violence, which is incredibly widespread in the Christian community, and which, I think, needs to be questioned in light of the teachings of Jesus. That discussion you certainly aren't going to hear on religious broadcasting.

So, firstly, I think itís a gross and foolish mistake of strategy. If we were to take 30 percent of the effort spent on legislation and invest it instead on sensible and palpable persuasion, we would get an awful lot farther.

Secondly, itís hypocritical, because the conservative religious value always talks about how we want to weaken federal government. They want to weaken the federal government when it talks about the government helping the poor, preserving the environment or doing a lot of other things that I think Christians should care about, and they want to strengthen the government in all these other ways. They ought to at least be honest and say, "We want to strengthen the federal government for our agenda and not somebody elseís." I think itís incredibly duplicitous to, in one breath, call for weakening the federal government and then try to use it for your advantage. I'm stunned that people who call themselves Christians would practice that kind of duplicity. It's stunning. It feels to me like George Orwell.

Take us inside your home and give us an idea of how your family uses media? Do you watch television? What are the favorite shows in your house? Do you have a wireless network? Use the Internet?
We have a wireless network. I have four children between 18 years of age and 24 years of age, in and out between semesters, that kind of thing. Our wireless network is always heavily used. Itís a major channel for us. The Internet is increasingly the channel through which we get news. One reason is I'm concerned about the genocides underway in Darfur, and I visit websites that keep me informed about the problems there. I would never read or see any information about this situation, not even the Washington Post. Well, maybe a small blurb one day a week. We rely more and more on the Internet for things we are interested in that we know we'll just never get anywhere else.

If I have time — this is embarrassing to say — but I watch the Weather Channel to fall asleep. I watch the History Channel, Nature and Discovery Channels.

As our culture changes, a lot of people are living in fear, because everything they've believed in seems to be crumbling. In the industry I cover, for example, many people fear losing their jobs. What advice do you have for them?
Itís an interesting time for us to have to actually practice the faith that we said we believed. For example, a lot of us are making decisions that are bad for our careers and bad for our pocket books. And we're making those decisions, because we're trying to do whatís right, and because we care about what's happening in our world. So I think that the lure of security, we should probably assume, will make us less effective in doing what we say we believe.

On the other hand, the answer to that is not to become destitute, but the answer is creativity, and we have to believe that God will give us the creative power. So for example, I'm terribly concerned about the control of religious media by groups with what I think are extreme political ideologies. Well, I can't just sit around and complain about that. Maybe the future is in new technologies that will present spiritual perspectives on life and maybe we will do some of it in even better and more far reaching ways. Maybe what some of us need to do is to take some risks in some entrepreneurial directions.

Brian McLaren Websites:
A New Kind of Christian
Emergent Village
Cedar Ridge Community Church