Here's the Q:
First, let me say how instrumental your work has been for me personally. Books like The Secret Message of Jesus and A New Kind of Christianity have forever shaped my life and ministry, and I'm exceedingly grateful for that.
Second, I feel "stuck in conservative Christianity" as I watch and listen to you and others like Rob Bell and Adam Hamilton embrace a Christian position that embraces faithful, monogamous homosexual lifestyles. I consider myself fairly open to those biblical arguments that push to legitimatize faithful and love-filled homosexuality. In fact, I even offer to some of my friends better arguments than they have that push in that direction. But alas, I still find myself unconvinced.
I believe and hope I'm that person that truly loves and values those who are homosexual, wanting always to seek their good. I even know and have family members who embrace this lifestyle, and I truly think they know that I am for them and for God's best in their lives. But still, in the end, I'm one of those Christians that can't seem yet to accept any line of argument that endorses such behavior as God's best or desire for humanity. I really wish I could.
Like you, I'm hugely influenced by N. T. Wright, who, as you know, also has yet to allow space for God-condoned homosexual behavior. I know your admiration for him remains, but I wonder how you would articulate such respect. On one level, I feel deeply connected with those of the "Brian McLaren ilk"—if I could put it hat way—but on another level, I feel disconnected due to this issue. What would you say to someone like me or Wright on this particular issue knowing there's disagreement but a large degree of affinity? How would you encourage our continued camaraderie as fellow Christians who share so much in common and yet diverge on this particular point?
Thank you in advance for whatever insights you offer here.
You're right - I've expressed a lot of admiration for Tom Wright. His work played a big role in helping me see the New Testament and the gospel in a new, brighter, bolder, more expansive light. I'll always be grateful to him for that. I've not paid a lot of attention to his writings or statements on LGBT issues recently, but I wouldn't be surprised if we see these issues differently. That's fine with me. We're in different contexts, prioritizing different goals, balancing and negotiating different limitations and concerns and constituencies. None of us agree on everything, none of us can excel and do everything, and I think we all appreciate others for helping us in some ways, even if we don't agree the others.
Some of my friends differ with me on this, but I'm glad that Zone 2 people provide a more humane alternative to Zone 1 people, and I'm glad Zone 3 people provide a more humane alternative to Zone 2 people, and of course I'm glad Zone 4 people provide a more human alternative to Zone 3 people.
One more thing. I want to respond to this statement:
I even know and have family members who embrace this lifestyle, and I truly think they know that I am for them and for God's best in their lives. But still, in the end, I'm one of those Christians that can't seem yet to accept any line of argument that endorses such behavior as God's best or desire for humanity. I really wish I could.
Second, the idea of "God's best for their lives" is a more problematic concept than you may have considered. When men tell women "what's God's best for their lives," when whites tell people of color "what's God's best for their lives," when married people tell singles "what's God's best for their lives" and so on, I think we should be very cautious. Same when straight people tell LGBT people "what's God's best for their lives." These things don't often turn out well. I'm not trying to be critical - just to respond to your request for feedback. I hope it's helpful.
I was invited to be part of a panel on LGBT human rights recently. I shared a four-zone schema for understanding religious responses to the reality that something like 3-6% of human beings turn out to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered.
1. Promote violence against and stigmatization of LGBT people in the name of God and religion.
2. Oppose violence but uphold stigmatization of LGBT people in the name of God and religion.
3. Oppose violence and seek to reduce stigmatization of LGBT people in the name of God and religion.
4. Oppose violence and replace stigmatization with equality and dignity in the name of God and religion.
I was remembering in recent days something a little less clinical and a little more personal. For many years I was an Evangelical pastor firmly in Zone 3 on the question of LGBT identity and equality. I didn't know that some members of my immediate family were gay. I hadn't taken any kind of public stand (either way) on the issue. I recall some barely-articulated thoughts and feelings from that time. I'm not proud of these memories, but I hope other pastors and Christian leaders might be helped if I try to articulate them roughly in their order of appearance:
1. It's fine if gay people want equal rights in the secular world, but why do they have to disturb the church? Why can't gay people just be satisfied with being "out" and accepted in society? Why can't they just be satisfied with civil unions? Why do they keep pushing? Don't they know how hard this is for religious communities? Can't they be more patient? Ministry is hard enough without having to deal with this on top of everything else.
2. Oh no. This issue isn't going away. My congregation is going to have to deal with it. Let's see … if we stay the same, we'll lose maybe 4% of our people who are fired up about this issue. If we change, we'll lose maybe 40% of the people…. Maybe someday, but we can't change yet. The cost is too high.
3. The way I've been thinking about this (see #1 and #2) sounds a lot like the way the previous generation dealt - or failed to deal - with race and desegregation. Isn't that why Dr. King wrote "Why We Can't Wait" in 1964? Am I like a segregationist in 1964? In my seemingly daring compromises - "accepting but not affirming," members but not leaders, civil unions not marriages - am I simply creating Jim Crow laws for LGBT people? If discrimination is wrong, and if it's been going on for millennia, and if 3+% of the population is suffering, why wouldn't I be willing to take some risks and take some heat? Instead of asking, "Why can't gay people be more patient?" - I should be asking, "Why can't church leaders like me be more courageous?"
4. I've changed my view. I now support LGBT equality. But if I go public with that change, my colleagues will simply think I've capitulated to "the world" or "the culture." They'll accuse me of compromise, liberalism, and all that. I'll be completely written off by the people of my heritage. I wonder how long I can stay incognito and quietly work for change from the inside?
5. Oh well. It was bound to happen. I've been "outed" as someone whose view has changed. Now I'll have to deal with the consequences. But thank God, my conscience hasn't felt this clean and clear for a long time! Why did it take me so long?
My guess is that thousands of Catholic and Evangelical priests and pastors are thinking thoughts like these. Sadly, self-interest and institutional ego can easily trump humane compassion for LGBT people and their families. Perhaps these words from Dr. King will help stir the conscience of my fellow Christians who share the same background and world view in which I was raised …
“Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim…when you see the vast majority of twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky…when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you…when…your wife and mother are never given the respected title ‘Mrs.’…when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”
I'm not trying to say that the struggle for gay equality is exactly the same as the struggle for civil rights or that all who experience discrimination experience the same degree of pain. It's never wise to compare the suffering of one group to another.
But I am saying there is a common struggle within priests and pastors to acknowledge reality and respond appropriately when they and their congregations are on the wrong side of justice … whether regarding women's equality, gay equality, equality for Palestinians, the atrocities of colonialism, latent racism and white privilege, silence over environmental destruction, carelessness about the poor and systemic economic injustice, and a host of other issues. It's not easy to adjudicate wisely between concerns for personal or professional comfort, the needs of others, institutional survival and health, and justice … whichever side of this issue one is on.
Here's the Q;
For the last 9 years, my husband and I have been working as youth pastors at a large evangelical church in the Northeast. But as we've spent the last 3 years diving together into the thoughts and writings of a number of progressive and emergent Christian leaders, such as yourself (thank you, by the way!), we've been increasingly interested in experiencing new ways of doing church and thinking about the church's mission. However, as youth pastors, there really hasn't been a way for us to do that. We don't even get to attend our own church on Sunday mornings, let alone experiment with others. :)
This summer, we are moving to [a new city] to take new jobs in a nonprofit organization. For the first time in our marriage, we won't be working at a local church... which means we have some freedom to explore new expressions of the church. We're really excited about it.
So. My question. Do you know of any progressive or emergent churches in this area you would recommend for a young couple with no kids? Or do you know of anyone in the area who might? We are coming from a fairly typical nondenominational evangelical church. We're not sure exactly what we're looking for in a church, but we'd love to explore and try new things. :)
Any ideas? Thanks so much for your time and for your voice!
PS: I've been mentoring a crew of college-aged girls since they were 10 years old, and they talked with you for a while back in April when you spoke here. Maybe you remember them? They loved your talk and conversation afterward. We'll be diving into WMTRBW together starting in a couple of weeks. :)
Here's the R:
First, thanks for the encouraging words. I'm so glad my books have been helpful.
Your question about finding a church is one I hear often. As more and more Evangelical (and Catholic) churches hold firm or double down with a kind of fierce conservatism, more and more moderate and progressive Evangelicals (and Catholics) feel they don't fit.
Often they end up in Mainline Protestant churches - Episcopal, UCC, DoC, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, etc. In addition, some Evangelical and charismatic churches are changing - becoming less fearful and more accepting of science (relating to evolution and global warming and sexual orientation), more committed to social justice, more reflective and less rigid theologically. There are websites that help people locate churches that are committed to LGBT equality, for example … Some of these groups, like The Fellowship, are forming networks that make them easier to find.
But I think we're all still waiting for a multi-dimensional church locator site that brings together a number of qualifications - welcoming and affirming, committed to peace-making, poverty-reduction, and planet-care, and committed to vibrant spirituality and worship, for example. (Some friends of mine are working on this right now - stay tuned.)
I hope that general guidance will help you in your search.
Thanks also for telling me about the group of college students you've been mentoring. Yes, I remember this enthusiastic and energetic bunch … and I'm thrilled they'll be using the new book.
In the last 24 hours or so, I've learned of two churches that will be using We Make the Road by Walking for their 2014-2015 curriculum, a "learning circle" forming in the DC area, a college class that will be going through the book this semester, and some groups for incarcerated people. It's exciting to see!
Today I read this, about yesterday.
(My son-in-law is in the picture - part of the AIDs organization to which the victims were traveling.)
And today I received this, about tomorrow.
It was accompanied by this:
Joel the Aussie Red head poet here. Just thought I'd flick you this new film clip of mine as I thought you might be interested and also because it was really you who was able to put into words for me the concept of the coming new creation when I had no words for it. I had grown up in a conservative, evangelical church and the idea of God's holistic redemption was totally foreign. But 'The Story We Find Ourselves In' was the first time, as a late teen, that I really began to see how holistic God's dream for his world is. Anyways- just wanted to thankyou! Hope you enjoy....
A reader writes:
I just read book 3 of the NKOC-trilogy.
The first and second instalment of the trilogy did appeal to me, but more in an intellectual way. Somehow I couldn't connect to the more personal/emotional level within the narratives.
In the 3rd book, the character Pat wrote some poems that struck me, like lightning. Like a total surprise I was in tears, while not being able to grasp their cause. The poems comforted me, made me pray after a very long time. Asking questions to the one I call God.
Can I love God again. Can I trust him. Can I truly believe He loves me? Loves my children? Can I really trust Him the life of my children? With all the worries I have about their social and emotional development?
No answers came, but comfort did.
I grew up in a strict calvinist/reformed ilk of dutch christianity. My family and I are still part of a reformed church. Allthough I feel a connection to my local church, especially the people. Somehow I seem to have questions about everything we stand for. I'm not able to share them. Everyone seems to get annoyed and/or uneasy when I try to express them. I'm even an elder, so I should confirm everything we stand for. But no brother or sister seems to understand why I find it so hard to pray. Why I'm not on fire for Jesus. It's like I'm always on the road towards answers, never resting.
Thanks for meeting me 'on the road'.
Thanks for writing. I felt the character Pat was very important in that book, and you're one of the first readers who have written me about Pat or Pat's poems. It means a lot to me that you noticed this element of the book - and that you felt it helpful. Again, thanks. May you find the Spirit of Christ walking with you on the road.
A reader writes:
I just read the post from the young Irish man who said how you have stretched his imagination. I want to give a hearty “second” to that and share something how, beginning with “A New Kind of Christianity” you have stretched my imagination and helped me get out of my “Spiritual Rut”.
I am 71 years old and grew up Roman Catholic. Having just celebrated Trinity Sunday, my mind went back to the days when I was an altar boy (yes, I had to learn the prayers in Latin). There was a little pamphlet in the magazine rack in back of the church titled “Between Heaven and Earth”. On the front was an illustration. Hovering in the clouds were God the Father (stereotypical – old, long white beard), Jesus on his right side (instantly recognizable because it looked just like the statue of the Sacred Heart), and hovering between them and the dome of St. Peters Basilica was the dove of the Holy Spirit.
For many years, my idea of “Trinity” was that it was something existing “out there” and totally academic thought up by theologians long ago and far away.
Upon reflection, I am coming to the realization that our belief in a triune God is a lot more than an intellectual construct, and a lot closer to my everyday life.
I have started grappling with the notion that God is indeed three – God totally transcendent, totally “other”, totally unknowable; God incarnate, fully revealed in Jesus to be sure, but also incarnate in all of Creation (including you and me); and God relational between transcendence and incarnational – the Holy Spirit. I can’t understand it, I just “know” it. It works for me. I am not sure if I’m onto something or if I’m in a blind alley constructed of my own ignorance, but I did want to share the insight with someone I trust and respect.
But like you, I believe there is a deep truth and beauty in the healing teaching of the Trinity. I tried to capture some facets of that truth and beauty in Chapter 45, Spirit of Unity and Diversity, in the new book. Here's a quote from the chapter:
This all sounds highly speculative but it was a sincere attempt to put into words the radical way they were rethinking and freshly experiencing God in the aftermath of their experience of Jesus. By God's parental love, through Christ's beautiful life, death, and resurrection, and through the Holy Spirit, they felt that they had been caught up into this divine communion themselves. God could never again be for them a distant, isolated One to whom they were "the other." Now they knew God as a dynamic and hospitable one-another in whom they lived, moved, and had their being. The Trinity described how they experienced God "from the inside."
… This healing teaching began unleashing a revolution that is still unfolding today in at least five distinct but related ways.
Those five transformations make up the heart of the chapter. Again, thanks for writing.
Here's the Q:
Hi Brian. I continue to appreciate your facebook postings. They are always thought provoking. I also appreciate your efforts to build bridges between different points of view. As I look at theological trends, especially of mainline protestantism, I am reminded of a quote from H Richard Niebuhr, descibing his assessment of liberal theology. He writes, "a God without wrath brings men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a ministry of a Christ without a cross." I would like to hear your response to this. From what you have seen, do Niebuhr's concerns apply to today?
(Continued from last week)
Niebuhr, as I understand him, was trying to forge a middle way between the kind of soft and shallow liberalism exemplified in the quote and the kind of religious conservatism of which he was no friend. He saw Barth, among others, as a trailblazer of that third path.
I think my work and that of many of my friends has a lot of resonance with this desire for a new path. There are important differences too. Like them, right wing Christianity isn't an option for us, but we also see strengths and values there. Like them, we see that traditional Protestantism suffers from a lack of clarity and energy. Unlike them, we would probably see institutional apathy more the problem in the Mainline Protestant (MLP) world than an excessive commitment to "the social gospel."
The MLP world has changed a lot since 1937, its "social gospel" leanings being modified by WWII and the postwar suburbanization of America, by women's rights and civil rights, and over the last 40 years, by severe retention problems with younger generations and the rise of the religious right and megachurch.
So let me respond personally to each of Niebuhr's "withouts":
1. a God without wrath - The word "wrath" raises two questions.
First, what kind of wrath? Wrath that leads to eternal conscious torment? Vengeful wrath? Zeus-like wrath - or Christ-like wrath? Many of us believe that among the many conventional understandings Christ came to overturn were conventional conceptions of God's wrath. Which leads to a second question ...
Wrath at what? Women in leadership? Gay people accepted as equals? Laws to protect the environment from human greed? Immigrants?
Christ's anger, in contrast, focused on hypocrisy, a lack of compassion, greed, exclusion, and an inability to distinguish "weighty" matters of morality from insignificant matters.
2. men without sin - Of course, this raises questions about how we define sin. Is sin reducible to law-breaking, or does the New Testament expand and intensify the definition of sin to mean "love-breaking?" Is sin only personal, or only social - or it is an integrated system that includes both personal and social dimensions? Is the primary danger of sin that it elicits God's retributive punishment, or is the primary danger of sin that it is ultimately destructive? Is it something that insults God so God wants retaliation against us, or something that threatens us so God wants to rescue (save) us?
3. a kingdom without judgment - What is judgment? Is it primarily retributive - punishing wrong, or is it primarily restorative - setting things right? Does it involve God making a list and checking it twice, storing up eternal torment for those who have not been nice? Or does it involve humans reaping the consequences of foolish and hostile behavior that is out of harmony with God's holy melody and rhythm?
At whom is the spotlight of God's examination primarily directed - at gay people, undocumented immigrants, people on welfare … or at corporate plunderers, war-makers, self-interested politicians, and complicit publics? Is the social purpose of judgment to divide the world into clean and unclean, saved and damned, insiders and outsiders? Or is that tendency to divide humanity in these ways one of the dimensions of sin that are under God's judgment?
Does our imperfection render God against us? Or is God against what is against us? Is condemnation the last word in God's universe, or does grace get the final word?
4. a Christ without a cross - Is the cross a reinforcement of conventional notions of wrath, sin, and judgment, with Christ appeasing an angry Father by submitting to the Father's infinite wrath? Or does the cross reveal God as one who identifies with victims of oppression, who suffers with humanity, who forgives when others insult and reject?
Perhaps I could put it like this: You have heard it said that a God full of wrath condemns men full of sin to a hell full of judgment, unless they avail themselves of penal substitutionary atonement purchased by Christ upon a cross. And you have heard it said that a God without wrath brings men without sin to a kingdom without judgment through the ministry of Christ without a cross. I think both options miss the mark.
I believe a God full of love calls for radical repentance among human beings who are oppressed (and oppress) externally and internally by destructive systems of sin, so they can increasingly experience the gracious liberation of God's will being done on earth as in heaven, through Christ and his peace-making cross.
So, those who have read my books know that I believe Jesus came to radically alter our understandings of God, wrath, sin, kingdom, judgment, and the cross. For people who are interested in more … check out my new book, We Make the Road by Walking.
In a disturbing NYT piece yesterday, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz explores a popular website that promotes the kind of strong-hostile identity I described in Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?
It seems that certain parts of the human psyche - and human society - are like petri dishes waiting for anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, homophobia, and other forms of scapegoating and hostile-identity-formation to "culture" and infect. If there isn't something even stronger present - an identity strongly and passionately dedicated to reconciliation, understanding, solidarity, and peace-making - then hostility will dominate.
And we know where that leads.
This line of thinking was intensified for me over the weekend while watching the new Planet of the Apes film. "I used to think," one of the main characters mused, "that all of 'us' were good, and only 'they' were evil. Now I see there are both good and bad among 'us' and 'them'" (loosely paraphrased).
That's the beginning of a new way of living … the way, I believe, that Jesus came to teach. Maybe we're almost desperate enough to actually consider that he was right?
I'll be part of a multi-faith fast tomorrow, an expression of solidarity with innocent Palestinians and Israelis who are suffering under foolish, misguided, and heartless leadership on both sides. I hope you'll join the fast too. After the jump, I'll include in its entirety a letter from Rabbi MIchael Lerner, a friend whose perspective I trust and respect greatly. I encourage you to support Michael's organization Tikkun and use it as a source for trustworthy, morally-informed news and comment.
Nothing is going to change in the Middle East until we can change the way the struggles are understood both in the media and in the larger publics that have increasingly moved toward extremist perceptions of one side or the other. The extremists who killed three Israeli teens must be celebrating at the moment--because Netanyahu rewarded them by giving them precisely what they wanted, the kind of violent repression in the West Bank of Hamas sympathizers that would push Hamas into feeling the need to retaliate with a resurgence of missile strikes on Israel, thereby precipitating the predictable scenario: the ultra-nationalist Netanyahu has to show his toughness by escalating attacks on Gaza while Hamas in Gaza has to show its toughness by escalating attacks on Israel.
...What can you do?
Challenge the public discourse everywhere you can.
Here's Rabbi Lerner's full letter …
"We gather frequently in little communities that we call ecclesia. We borrowed this term from the Roman empire, just as we "borrowed" the cross and reversed its meaning. For the Romans, an ecclesia is an exclusive gathering that brings local citizens together to discuss the affairs of the empire. Our ecclesia brings common people together around the affairs of the kingdom of God. Whenever and wherever the Roman ecclesia gather, they honor and worship the emperor and the pantheon of gods that support him. Whenever and wherever we gather, we honor and worship the living God, revealed to us in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit." - We Make the Road by Walking (182-183)
We'll be having a memorial service for all our friends in the DC area on 27 July at 7 pm at Cedar Ridge Community Church. From 7-8 pm there will be an informal celebration of "Doc's" life, so bring some stories and memories of Ian to share, and plan to stay for a reception from 8-9 pm to renew relationships with old friends and meet new ones who share a connection because of my dad.
More info here:
In lieu of flowers, please bring a financial gift for the Cedar Ridge outreach fund.
from Mike Slaughter:
84% of Americans now live in or around urban areas. But I’m United Methodist, so I speak out of the context of what I know best. 74% of our capital resources (that’s our buildings) are where only 16% of the American population lives. The Methodist Church flourished in the 1800’s and early 1900’s in small towns and rural areas. But now we continue to send pastors to church buildings instead of populations. And if we’re really going to reach people, we’re going to have to radically rethink our paradigms of what it’s going to mean to be missional.
What would happen if Mainline Protestants deployed their resources to where the people are?
Here's the Q:
Is it possible to get a listing of the Chapter NAMES for 'The Secret Message of Jesus' prior to my purchasing the Audio Book? I just want to ensure that this IS a "Christian" book ... and NOT actually book with an "alternate view" of Christianity. (I apologize if this sounds like a silly question, but I do NOT want to purchase some "New Age" book.)
Here's the R:
Thanks for your question. You can read the table of contents here:
It's not a New Age book, but it's also not simply a restatement of conventional teachings. It engages deeply with the Bible and presents a fresh understanding of Jesus and his message, drawn from the four gospels, and it explores Jesus' deep relevance for our lives and our world today.
A reader writes:
We experimented with chapters 1 – 3 and found the same things that you listed. As a closing ritual we formed a circle and joined hands facing outward then recited the Lord’s Prayer. The meaning of the circle and joined hands is fairly well known , the outward facing reminds us that we are to take our faith into the world. Everyone loved the sessions.
Beautiful. I think this is a great suggestion for groups using We Make the Road by Walking. I'm hearing about schools, churches, experimental faith communities, college groups, and families using the new book … great conversations are happening, and people are getting a fresh sense of vision and purpose for their lives. Thanks be to God.