Staley Lecture: Revolutionary Love, Purpose and ‘Jesus Beyond Christianity’ with Brian McLaren

Brian McLaren, a national leader in the “emergent church” movement, will deliver the 2017 Staley Distinguished Lecture at 7:30 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 24, in the C. Shaw Smith 900 Room of the Alvarez College Union. The event is free and open to the public.

Brian McLaren advocates for "a new kind of Christianity"–just, generous and working with people of all faiths for the common good. McLaren's thought provoking deconstruction of the old and reconstruction of a new kind of Christian faith has led to international recognition and controversy for the self-described mild-mannered author, activist and public theologian. McLaren will bring his message to the Davidson community as this year's Staley Distinguished Lecturer.

McLaren is an Auburn Senior Fellow and a leader in the Convergence Network, through which he is developing an innovative training/mentoring program for pastors, church planters and lay leaders called Convergence Leadership Project. His most recent book is "The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World's Largest Religion Is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian."
In this Q&A, McLaren talks about Hurricane Irma, Charlottesville, "open source" Jesus, purpose, organized religion and more.

The title of your Davidson talk is "Jesus Beyond Christianity: Taking His Life and Teachings Open Source." What's an example of "open source Jesus" at work beyond Christianity?
One fascinating example is the dissemination of the idea of nonviolent resistance. Jesus speaks of nonviolent resistance in the Sermon on the Mount, when he teaches people not to strike back when struck (which is the nonviolence), but to stand tall and turn the other cheek (which is resistance). Gandhi in many ways popularizes this idea, which is later picked up by Martin Luther King Jr., and others, and then spreads to Muslim liberation theology through leaders like Farid Esack. So an idea of Jesus'–nonviolent resistance–goes to a Hindu, then to a Christian, then to a Muslim. Of course, it takes many other paths as well, but it's fascinating to see Jesus being taken seriously as a thinker by people who aren't Christians. Meanwhile, many Christians abstract Jesus into a theological formula, and stop taking him seriously for his brilliant ideas.

Another example–the power of forgiveness. A group of philosophers and political scientists have formed "The Love-Driven Politics Collective," and they're considering forgiveness and revolutionary love as political ideas, as ways of transforming and healing conflict. Obviously, this was at the heart of Jesus' teaching, but we Christians have tended to spiritualize it rather than taking it seriously as a real-world resource.

I think of a friend of mine, an economist named David Korten. David doesn't profess Christianity, but he sees Jesus as a narrative-changer, and he sees, wisely, I think, that narratives underlie economic systems. This has monumental implications for how we address our current ecological crisis.

You returned to your home on Marco Island mere days after Hurricane Irma. What did you find? Did the experience illuminate your faith?
Our little island was the second and main landfall for Irma, so it was buffeted with 100-130 mph winds and four-to-six feet of storm surge. Trees are everywhere, and there's a lot of damage to homes, but nothing like you might expect, because of building codes. Most of Marco Island has been built since the 1980s, as building codes were improved based on past hurricane experience. People love to complain about government regulation until they see a situation like this–where smart regulations save billions of dollars and many, many lives.

My faith tells me that we need to respect reality and be responsible. In other words, for me, faith isn't make-believe. So, my experience with Irma only intensifies my desire to activate people around climate change, and the larger issue of our unsustainable economy. And this is definitely a theological issue, because it asks us if our god is money, or if we have a higher set of values to live by.

You were in Charlottesville at the time of the white supremacists' march and violence.
Charlottesville was a powerful experience. It took things I knew intellectually and made me feel them viscerally. For example, I know something about the history of white Christian supremacy that fuels American history like dirty energy. But seeing it seething as anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant and anti-Black rage in all these young white men... it's like the difference between knowing something and getting punched in the gut.

Equally powerful, I was so impressed by the faith leaders who showed up to provide a counter-witness. They were saying, "Listen, if white supremacists and Neo-Nazis are the only voices speaking in our city, we are allowing them to win. So we will stand up and offer a counter-demonstration of love and inclusion and nonviolence in the face of their bigotry, exclusion and cruelty." I wish I had seen my role as a pastor in a more public way during my 24 years in the pastorate, as these faith leaders did. And I hope that future generations of spiritual leaders will see this kind of public witness as central to their ministry.

Many Christians from across the ideological spectrum are uncomfortable with today's political climate. What do you reach for to help you find your way across shifting sands?
I grew up in a very conservative, Evangelical/Fundamentalist form of Christianity.  For us, to be Christian was to be conservative, or even regressive. We were taught that the world would get worse and worse until God destroyed the whole mess and then started over. It's funny, but when you're taught that's how things will be, that's what you see. But I began to feel that this approach was morally irresponsible. It led to passivity, to apathy, to defeatism and to complicity in injustice.

So, I re-examined the way that my teachers interpreted the Bible, and I realized that there is a much better, much more hopeful way of interpreting the Bible. It's not the assumption that things will get better and better rather than worse and worse. It's the assumption that God has given us the responsibility to learn, to think and rethink, to seek wisdom and faith, and then to translate that into loving action. The future isn't determined–it's waiting to be co-created between creative, loving people and the creative, loving Spirit of God. That faith is what helps me keep moving forward, even when times are scary and the sands are shifting.

You draw a distinction between "organized religion" and an emerging approach to "organizing religion." What's the difference?
The issue is what religion is organized for. Is it organized to keep certain people in power? Is it organized to make certain people rich and powerful, and keep other people poor and docile? Is it organized to make people feel better as they do terrible things? Is it organized for no apparent reason, except to keep old rituals going on and on and on forever, long after we've forgotten what they were supposed to mean or do?

That's what organized religion looks like to a lot of people, including many people deep on the inside of organized religion. But there's a turning taking place. I don't think we're at a tipping point yet, but we could be sooner than many people think. This would be a turning toward seeing religion, and as a Christian, I'm thinking of Christianity, being "born again"–so that our purpose isn't reduced to an evacuation plan for getting souls to heaven after we die, but rather, our purpose is to form genuinely Christ-like people who join God in the healing of the world. In that spirit, we organize to seek the common good... of all people, and of all creation, including generations yet unborn.

A few questions you treat in your book A New Kind of Christianity:

What is the Good News?
For Jesus, the good news was clear and simple: "The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, believe this good news, and follow me." Today, I think we could translate that in terms like these: "The way of life that pleases God and brings fullness of life for people is available. It is within reach now. It requires us to rethink our assumptions and be open to a new way of seeing and living. I will show you what that looks like so you can follow in my footsteps."

Why are we so preoccupied with sex?
I guess there are two ways people are preoccupied with sex. Some people are preoccupied with sex as others are with money: it's all about more, more, more, regardless of the cost in other areas of life. Other people, often religious people, are preoccupied in another way: it's less, less, less, regardless of the cost in other areas of life. In today's politics, since abortion and LGBTQ equality are both related to sex, I think sex is the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface, we're arguing about patriarchy, how the Bible is interpreted, the relation between personal and social morality, and so on. To some degree, I think we argue about sex to avoid the more important arguments we need to have...about money and its power, and about race.

How should Christians think of people from other faiths?
As neighbors. That's a good start. Jesus taught we should love our neighbors as ourselves. That means our Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic or whatever neighbors. If I ask myself, "How do I wish people of other religions would treat me?" and then use that as a guideline for how I treat them, I would say, "I wish people of other religions would respect me and not stereotype me as a Christian. I wish they would not project on me the worst behavior of the worst Christians. I wish they would be curious about my way of life and the spirituality that sustains it, and open to receiving insights from my faith. And I wish they would share their insights with me, but without pressure to agree or need to argue."

What's next?
Right now, I'm working on a children's book with another writer and a gifted artist. It's called, "Cory and the Seventh Story." And I'm deeply involved in creating curriculum for something called Convergence Leadership Project. In a way, it's an attempt to put all my work together with the work of people I respect, so that congregational leaders can go through a one-year learning process together.

Professor and Chair of Sociology Gerardo Marti, co-author with Gladys Ganiel of "The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity," contributed to this Q&A.

John Syme


  • September 21, 2017