Interview with Brian McLaren

In working on an article with Len Sweet for Relevant Magazine I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Brian McLaren. Over the next few days I will post pieces of our Q&A.

To begin with...

  • "Brian, is Emergent truly a postmodern Christian reflection, or is it becoming a replay of the 1960s Mainline Churches? (candles, acoustic guitars, dialogue, etc...)"

Peter, a couple of things strike me about your question. First, you may be assuming that Emergent is more of a defined thing than it really is. We've tried to accurately describe ourselves as a growing friendship engaging in what we hope will be constructive conversation. Part of that conversation is about what it means to be followers of Jesus in our emerging "postal" context – postmodern, post-Enlightenment, post-christendom, post-colonial, and so on.

These days, I hear us talking less about the word "postmodern" and more about things like spiritual formation, mission, church planting, justice, preaching, theology, and leadership – which feels like progress to me. In otherwords: instead of talking almost exclusively about the changing context, we're talking about what we're supposed to be about in this changing context. That's not to say we don't need to keep talking about context, but every conversation has its natural unfolding.

I don't think any of us have ever felt that the point is to be"postmodern." I think we'd all agree the point is to be faithful to God, and trying to understand the times is an important part of faithfulness and mission.

o, speaking for myself, I've never wanted to be a postmodern reflection. I've wanted to be a reflection of God's grace in whatever contexts I find myself: modern, postmodern, whatever. Sadly I've been caricatured, as have a number of my friends like Len Sweet or Doug Pagit or Stanley Grenz, as if I believed postmodernism itself was the Good News, which is ridiculous.

I also sense in your question an assumption that the 1960's Mainline churches represent a terrible disaster story that we should diligently avoid. We should be sure we're talking about the same thing when we bring up 1960's Mainline churches. For example, I'd be proud to have been part of the 1960's Mainline story that sided with Dr. King on behalf of his vision of the "beloved community" and against segregation. Personally, I would much rather have been on the side of those who helped bring the war in Vietnam to an end instead of those who tried to prolong it. But I wouldn't want to be part of the Mainline story that endorsed the"God is dead" movement; that was preoccupied with its own internal institutional bureaucracy, or that seemed to lose its sense of identity and message and mission in the rush of political engagement - that sifted the rich recipe of the gospel through the colander ofEnlightenment assumptions, or that substituted voter registration for prayer and evangelism - each of which had something to do with several ensuing decades of decline in numbers and vitality.

I actually think there are several ways to tell the story of Mainline decline, andEvangelicals like to tell one of them, Mainliners another, but probably nobody is telling the more interesting ones. I should add that for a lot of the people I'm around, the 1960's are what the 1940's or 1930's are for me – a decade or two before I was born, in 1956. What was formative for me is ancient history for a lot of the people around me. Many of my younger friends have no memory of the modernist-fundamentalist debates, for example. Their whole conscious life has been lived in the era of the uncontested dominance of the Religious Right. For them, worrying about Mainline liberalism is like worrying about the Viet Cong. That's part of a battle that's long gone.

Of course, we need to realize that a resurgence of old ideologies is always possible – especially if the factors that contributed to their original growth aren't addressed. That would mean that unless poverty is addressed, Marxism always has a chance of resurging, or that unless religious obscurantism is addressed, liberalism has a chance of reviving.

That's why a lot of the people I'm around are concerned about another disaster story –the story of how Evangelicalism from the 1980's to the present became more or less synonymous with the Religious Right, so that the word "Evangelical" itself became known as the religion of aggressive neoconservatives in the Republican Party. In one sense, this could be seen as a real success story. Evangelicals came to such a place of power that they can claim to own the White House, both houses of Congress, and the Supreme Court. They're poised to enforce their agenda in a number of state governments along with the federal government, not to mention the rest of the world. In addition, they have huge influence in the media – both secular and religious.

But many of us feel that they have gained power at a terrible cost, and those Evangelicals who agree haven't been bold enough to speak up. So, nobody wants to repeat the 1960's Mainline trajectory of decline, but we aren't terribly excited about aiding and abetting the trajectory of the Religious Right either – actively or through our silence and complicity. And that's an understatement.

So that's why so many of us are, at some personal risk, pursuing a third option, instructed we hope by the strengths and weaknesses of both our mainline and Evangelical brothers and sisters in the last half-century.


Existential Punk said...

Peter, great interview! i look forward to the remainder of it. How did you hook up with Brian? I will be with him next week for a retreat. What did you think of his answers in light of some of the things Len Sweet said on our weekend together in Portland? Just curious. Adele

Tyler said...

you are officially too cool for me now.

I'm not kidding.

Ok. Maybe.

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