Interview with Brian McLaren about previous “A letter to friends of Emergent”

Hi, everyone – the last emergent/c (February 2004) elicited more email response and blogosphere chatter than any so far. There were some really affirming replies, and some very concerned ones too. That means, I think, that either I did a good job of getting everybody to think, or I managed to offend or confuse or hurt or alienate some of my friends, or both. I think it was both. As you all well know, it’s hard to say anything significant without eliciting some controversy, but I have no desire to spread confusion and alienation – hardly gospel work! – so, I’ve just completed an interview with someone who disliked the piece. The interview is included below. Thanks to the interviewer, who asked to remain anonymous.
Q: I found your piece uncharacteristic. You are normally careful not to use inflammatory language, but you called talk about the “postmodern church” ridiculous. Wasn’t that kind of harsh?
A. I regret using that word. I’m sorry for offending or hurting people.
Q: You put people like me in a really tough situation. On our website, we refer to ourselves as a postmodern church, so now we have been judged by you as ridiculous.
A: Again, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sure you have good reasons for using that terminology on your website, and I don’t criticize you at all.
Q: I thought you were all about the postmodern church. Why would you say there aren’t any?
A: I guess I was having a bad day. I think everyone can relate to having a bad day.
Q: Is that your only excuse? What was giving you a bad day?
A: I care deeply about the possibilities of this thing that is being called “the emerging church movement,” even though I agree with Wendell Berry’s cautions about movements. I think this thing, whatever you call it, has enormous potential. But it is also always in some degree of peril.
Q: You mean because it is being criticized?
A: No. Criticism is unavoidable for all those who do anything. Widespread criticism is unavoidable for all those who do anything new. And intense widespread criticism is unavoidable for all those who do anything risky and radical. I’m less worried about those who are against this thing than I am about those who are for it, including myself. Perhaps I exemplified in that piece one of the very dangers I am concerned about. Perhaps my mistake will help others see how careful we have to be about what we say and how we say it. Maybe when some of the friends of emergent felt a sting there, they will realize how others feel when we say things that poke in the eye practices, values, groups, words, and institutions that they hold dear.
Q: Are you saying you did this on purpose to elicit the kind of reaction you received from me? Like you were trying to teach people a lesson?
A: Are you kidding? I’m so overwhelmed with emails already that I didn’t need to elicit any more email traffic! That’s why I agreed to this interview: at least I can try to respond to a lot of concerns all at once.
Q: What specifically did you mean when you said, “But let’s get real: there are no postmodern churches, people.”
A: Well, I tried to give a clue there that I was being somewhat provocative and playful, because I think I turned the “ridiculous” word back on myself, but I guess that didn’t soften the blow, eh?
Q: No, it didn’t. I try to take you seriously.
A: Well, sometimes playfulness is serious too. But anyway, here’s what I meant by that provocative, confusing, and perhaps irresponsible statement. The postmodern transition is well underway, but it’s still in process. The early deconstructive phase of the postmodern transition is evolving into a more constructive and creative phase, exemplified (for me) by thinkers and writers like Wendell Berry and Ken Wilber in the culture at large, plus a number of us writing specifically for the Christian community. (Of course, some folks are still fighting against the earliest phases, not realizing that the “battle lines” keep moving. But I shouldn’t use battle imagery, because I don’t see it that way.) For all the work we’ve done and all the progress we’ve made, we still have so far to go.
I’m worried that many of us think we’ve arrived: we’ve crossed the Jordan River and now we’re in the Promised Land. If we’ve made a crossing, it’s the Red Sea (or whatever), which does put Egypt behind us. But we’ve got a wide wilderness ahead of us, wilderness where our character will be tested and many of us will be tempted to go back to Egypt. We’re still quite a way from the Jordan River. We’ve made a beginning, but we’ve got a long way to go. And of course, once we get to the Jordan River, that’s an ending, but it’s also another beginning, you know? I just want to make sure we learn what we need to learn crossing the wilderness.
Q: I don’t really like the “promised land” imagery. It implies that we’ll eventually reach a place where we can settle down.
A: Good point. That didn’t work for our Jewish brothers and sisters, did it? A lot of us have been using Exile imagery … but that also implies a return of sorts, where the hope is that we can settle down. Any set of imagery has upsides and downsides, you know? The only we we’ll ever settle down, I think, is the way people settle down when they’re canoing or kayaking on a river. There’s still movement, and slackwater can give way to rapids without much advanced notice.
Q: One blogger who refers to you as the godfather – not sure how you feel about that – offered another metaphor. You’re telling people there’s this great new restaurant across town, and they go there with you, only to hear on arrival that the menu won’t be printed for another twenty years.
A: I can see how that’s frustrating. I think the metaphor makes the point very well. But I wonder if I could put a spin on it. Maybe that story should continue by the people saying, “Hey, let’s go in the kitchen and see if we can help create some new recipes.” If we get more people involved in the creative process, maybe it will only be ten years, not twenty. I think people need to feel empowered, like they’re contributors, not consumers buying the latest “postmodern ministry in a box” program. We’re all in this thing together.
Q: That’s exactly what was discouraging. Here I am, trying, doing my best, and you call what I’m doing ridiculous.
A: I’m so sorry. That’s not what I intended.
Q: You should be more careful.
A: Yes, I should. But I think you’ll agree, as I said in the article or whatever it was: having postmodern churches isn’t the point.
Q: I think you’re wrong about that. It is the point. You made the analogy to languages. If Spaniards move into the area, having Spanish churches is the point. It’s exactly the point.
A: I see what you mean. I’m afraid my analogy again creates confusion along with adding some clarity. Here’s the problem. We can translate our modern version of the gospel into postmodern idioms … candles, coffee, community, digital imagery, etc. But it’s still a modern version of the gospel.
Q: Hold on. That bothered me too. You wrote, “Which reminds us that none of us has a complete grasp of the gospel…. It’s very dangerous to assume you’ve perfectly contained the gospel in your little formula.” I think with all the other change going on, one thing we’ve got to hold firm on is the gospel.
A: What do you mean when you say “the gospel?”
Q: You know, justification by grace through faith in the finished atoning work of Christ on the cross.
A: Are you sure that’s the gospel?
Q: Of course. Aren’t you?
A: I’m sure that’s a facet of the gospel, and it’s the facet that modern evangelical protestants have assumed is the whole gospel, the heart of the gospel. But what’s the point of that gospel?
Q: What do you mean? I guess it’s so that people can spend eternity with God in heaven in an intimate personal relationship as opposed to … the alternative. You don’t seem to agree.
A: Well, for Jesus, the gospel seemed to have something to do with the kingdom of God.
Q: Which is the kingdom of heaven, which is going to heaven after you die.
A: Are you sure about that?
Q: Aren’t you?
A: This is exactly the point I was trying to make in the article. Many of us are sure we’re “postmodern” now with our candles and hipness and so on, but we haven’t asked some important and hard questions – not about postmodernity, but about modernity and the degree to which our theology and understanding of the gospel have been distorted or narrowed or made “gospel lite” by modernity.
Q: If you were intending to make me feel better, you’re not succeeding.
A: Well, I hope you’ll at least think about this. And search the Scriptures, you know, to see if there’s any validity to the question I’m raising.
Q: You say, “We all know that the more traditional churches live in a ghetto of unreality; they speak only to themselves, write books for themselves, and make music for themselves. No one else has any clue what they’re saying. That’s why serious people have been ignoring them for a couple of decades.” Isn’t that kind of harsh, like calling people ridiculous?
A: Actually, I didn’t say that. A friend of mind named Ed did. I thought I made it clear I was quoting him. Plus, I already apologized for the ridiculous choice of words on my part. Can you give me some grace on that?
Q: By quoting him, aren’t you agreeing with him?
A: Well, I’m at least agreeing that he’s saying some things that we ought to hear. As you can imagine, I get a good bit of criticism, and I try to listen to it and learn from it however I can. But listen – I do want to go on record saying that I see many wonderful things happening in traditional churches, and I’m sure Ed would agree. In fact, some of the best things I see in my travels are happening in the most traditional churches. Yet, at the same time, there is too often a “ghetto of unreality” in the Christian subculture in both is liberal and conservative forms, as Ed said. That’s the problem with blanket statements – you know, like that old self-contradiction, “All generalizations are false.”
Q: Speaking of self-contradiction, your friend then says, “I’m not looking for more apologetics and theology.” In one breath you’re saying we need to rethink our theology, and then you’re quoting someone who isn’t interested in theology. That’s either sloppy thinking or confusing writing.
A: (silence) By the word “theology,” I think my friend meant … something different from what I meant when used the same word. I can see why this is confusing.
Q: I actually wonder whether your friend is real. Maybe he’s just a fictional character you created to make a point, which we know you’ve done before. Anyway, then “your friend” says, “While I appreciate the freshness and youthfulness of ‘the emergent church’ (or ‘postmodern church movement’ as some call it) … Like most other church worlds, they speak from a distinct ‘earthview’ and in a distinct earth-language.” Just a few sentences earlier, you talked about how people need to “speak postmodern” – which means speaking an earth language, but now you’re – or your friend is – criticizing us for doing so. Can you see why several of us were frustrated with your piece?
A: Yes. I’m sorry – that really was confusing. I was asking too much of my readers to leave all that for them to sort out. My point I think, was in the next paragraph: “The emergent movement (a dangerous term …) has wonderful promise, but it could just become another marketing gimmick to/sell books, build egos, and bolster sagging spirits with a new invisible wardrobe for a pudgy, pasty old emperor. No doubt, in some quarters it will squander its potential, but if you care about the possibilities being actualized …please… let’s aim deep and high.”
Q: The thing that bugged me most about your piece came near the end, when you said, “Try to leave your toxicity at home.” Because your attitude seemed toxic in my opinion. People who know you don’t expect that kind of attitude from you.
A: Point taken. Can you imagine why I might have used strong language like that?
Q: You said you were having a bad day.
A: Yes, but there’s more to it than that.
Q: I just have to think that something really got under your skin for you to write something with that degree of confrontation.
A: I’m just very worried that too many of us are swimming for too long in the shallow end of the pool. But you’re right – it’s not helpful for me to say “leave your toxicity at home” and to say so in what sounded like a toxic way. I just got a wonderful email from a young guy named Cody from North Carolina. Can I read it to you? I think he says what I was trying to say, but way, way better.
Q: Sure. Let’s let Cody have the last word. By the way, weren’t you just whining about your email load, yet here you are grateful for an email you received?
A: Yeah. OK. Anyway, here’s his email. By the way, I assure you, Cody is a real person just like Ed, not a fictional character, and he’s 17 years old. As you’ll soon see, people can be very wise and mature at 17, with a whole lot to teach middle-aged guys like me.

From Cody:
I have been receiving some e-mails lately about the differences between the Emerging Church, and the Evangelical (traditional) Church. A good bit of these e-mails have shown a promising outlook that is shared by many post-modern seekers. The e-mails have given some details to non-mechanistic spiritual formation.
But, I have one concern, some of these e-mails, and websites have some very discouraging, over-critical attitudes toward the traditional church, a lot of the time, just down-right negative. Many of the people that I am writing to may have been hurt, or turned off by the traditional church, and that is okay…God will lead us to the place that He has for us.
I attend a church that makes me think. I don’t attend the traditional type of church, rather I attend a community of faith. I have not been going very long, so I don’t know too many people, neither have I had the opportunity to experience a deep level of intimacy with the community there, but I know that Connection Church is the place that I need to be right now. I do wish that more people could attend a church (or should I say, a ‘community’) like the one that I attend. I wish that more people were spurred on to think and encouraged to grow like I am.
But, let’s face it… a church that challenges a person like the one that I have been describing is not where everyone is at right now. This doesn’t mean that they are less, or not as important or wrong, or even stupid, it just means that they are not at the point of spiritual freedom that a lot of us are at right now. Whose to say that they aren’t experiencing freedom in the traditional church? Yeah, it can be a bit hard to believe, but it is also hard to believe that a holy God is interested in me.
Whenever I get e-mails going on and on in a negative way about the
traditional church, I think of people like my parents, and my other family members. These are people that aren’t at the point of being uncomfortable with their faith, I can’t be impatient, rather I need to bear in mind that He who started something, will be faithful to complete it. I wish that every Christian I knew had the desire and fervor to be challenged like you all do, but it just isn’t happening. Instead of talking about, or making fun of the traditional church (like I have been guilty of so many times), let’s pray that God will do a mighty work. That He will challenge the believers within the traditional church to become more like Him. I find that so many times, the critical attitude toward anything different that I was once running away from, is right here in my mind, and in the minds of other people who have been ‘turned off.’
We are human, so we will fall, but let’s do our best not to down-play a different way of doing church (as hard as that may be to do). Who knows, it may be God working in a radical way to bring more believers to Himself. Our enemy seems too often to be ‘believers’, but instead of criticising, let’s pray for them, and simply love them… just like the non-believer seekers that we write books about…hmm, theres an idea… love everybody… haha, 🙂 This further proves that life is a journey… I have too many times been a judge rather than being the hands and feet of Christ, and for that I want to apologize to all of you. I have more often been critical rather than taking things with a grain of salt… forgive me.
(If you want to say thanks to Cody for these wise insights, his email is