A New Kind of Christianity — Full Transcript
The unedited transcript the conversation between Brian McLaren, Clyde Edgerton and Eric Porterfield
When I read the following apology written by Brian McLaren in his new book, A New Kind of Christianity, I figured Mr. McLaren probably didn’t suffer from that pious arrogance evident in the quiet behavior of some gentle Christians.
An apology is due here, a profound and heartrending apology to the Jewish people for the ways we Christians have colonized their story and then — this can hardly be said without the feeling of acute nausea — turned it against them through anti-Semitism and other forms of religious supremacy. And I must also apologize because I have not been careful enough in the past to avoid recolonizing their story, and I may inadvertently fail again in these pages. But I hope my Jewish readers will see that many of us are trying to fix something that we now realize is terribly broken, and sometimes fixing can only be done in steps and stages; these pages are, I hope they will agree, at least small and faltering steps in the right direction.
Early in his book McLaren begins to reasonably dismantle the traditional story line that many Christians get from their Bible: Eden, the Fall, Condemnation, Salvation and Heaven (or) No Salvation and Hell. A New Kind of Christianity is a powerful breath of needed-for-centuries fresh air.
— Clyde Edgerton
1: PROPHETIC CONFRONTATION
Clyde: From a list in your book referring to needed Christian behaviors, I read “prophetic confrontation.” Could you talk about that first?
Brian: There’s a big debate going on in the Christian faith in America right now. Well, there are an awful lot of debates, but one of them has on one side the Church as a sort of model, a withdrawn, somewhat isolated community. The idea there is that the world is going to get worse and worse but the Church should be this model of something better. The other side is that no, the Church exists to try to make a difference in society. And as in just about any classic dualism, I’m sure there’s truth on both sides, and both sides are against something worth being against or for something worth being for.
But having grown up fundamentalist like you, I see the problems in this isolated community idea on the one side. And then when you look at the religious right and all the rest, you see all the terrible problems in the Christian community trying to impose what it thinks is God’s set of priorities on the world. So you’re left with this tension.
But it seems to me that there is something about faith that… the progressive creative productive leading edge of faith is always challenging itself and its culture — because I don’t think you can make a watertight distinction between the two — it’s always challenging itself and its culture to take the next step forward in justice and in compassion. And the prophetic confrontation has to do is identifying what that next step forward is and finding the ways to get that first on the agenda and then in a sense to become a subject of debate and eventually, hopefully, to see it become embodied with social change.
So you can think about the institution of slavery. You can think about the rights of women today. You’ve got these huge issues about energy and the environment, this whole thing of what’s going on in Gaza in the last 24 hours. So there’s this desire to say here’s where we are, here’s the next step where we need to go. And the confrontation I’m thinking about is helping people see the gap between those two.
You mentioned, how does that relate to dealing with critics? And I think one of our problems in this is that we always are tempted to personalize that gap. We want to demonize somebody as being the epitome of the problem and I think, in my own personal life, I’ve tried to avoid that. I want to try to avoid getting into… can I say theological pissing contests, and moral demonization. I just think that’s all counter productive.
So to me there’s no better example of this than Dr. King. When you think about how many people have personal vendettas against King, but at least in public, he’s not remembered as somebody who was out to get Herbert Hoover. Or somebody who was out to insult Lyndon Johnson. He was able to try and keep the focus on that gap between where we were and where we needed to be.
Clyde: Eric has reminded me of the Martin Luther King quote that I heard from him first and then you — what is it? History — the arc of history — tends to bend towards justice but —
Brian: It moves exceedingly slow.
Eric: I like what you said about the prophetic confrontation. You’ve got the gap but you’ve also got the next step. What’s the next step? And I wonder if there’s a temptation — I guess it’s a dual temptation, one to try to… the next step being all the way up to here, the other temptation is to not take that little step at all.
Brian: That’s exactly it, and I mean those are the battles that are being fought. So, for example, and I’m not a purist in the sense that, you know there’s some people who think that you have to have the highest — and you go for that ultimate step and anything in between that is compromise. But I think you need the people who give you the high vision and say, you know this is where we need to be, but you also need the people to help you with steps. In the book, I think I’ve been trying to articulate this lately, I have about a page and a half about this in the book — is to talk about movements and institutions. And it seems to me, what movements do is they raise the vision of what’s possible. This is the big thing — you have to help people realize that something else is possible. The first response — it seem to me — to prophetic confrontation is to say it’s impossible. So you go to the anti slavery movement in England proposes to the English government and the British society that we’ve got to abolish the Slave Trade, in the late 1700s/early 1800s, and they say, it’s impossible; our entire economy depends on it. And you think about confronting people about a petroleum based economy — it’s impossible. And so there’s this very encouraging dimension of this prophetic confrontation of, no it’s not impossible, it really is possible.
Eric: And I’m thinking, the slave trade — it was thirty years later… it wasn’t that long.. I mean I can’t remember exactly when it was abolished. I’m thinking for people in their twenties and thirties now to have a vision of here and then thirty years to get there.
Brian: Yeah, and you take that number, thirty, forty, this idea of a generation — it’s amazing, I mean you think from Dr. King to Barack Obama. I often quote Max Plank who said something like this — he was thinking about science, you know, and he was thinking about Einstein — ” a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing it’s opponents and they see the light, but rather because its opponents die and a new generation rises that’s familiar with it — “
And there’s just something about having been formed in an oppositional age, as opposed to having been formed where this is an option, and the older generation is opposition, but another generation, because it got on the table as an opposition, it’s an option.
Clyde: We’re confronting a re-segregation of schools in Wilmington and Raleigh, North Carolina, Charlotte, and probably in many other places it’s already happened convincingly and totally — Jackson, Mississippi, I was there recently — so that we confront a backsliding to that effect that you’re talking about, and in many cases it’s a matter of starting over, a decision that you reluctantly make and you feel a little bit defeated, but it’s what you have to do. And I’m sure those arcs have — we can historically say that many times we’re starting over, but we’re in the middle of that now.
Brian: That’s so true and this is where those terms conservative and liberal become so problematic because in a sense, the people who want to maintain civil rights legislation are now conservatives. They want to conserve the gains that we’ve made and this it to me one of the conflicts between institutions and movements. Institutions are inherently conservative, and that’s a good thing because they’re trying to conserve the gains made by past movements. And they’re right that those past gains are always under assault. But what we have now I think is a backlash and a counter sort of insurgency, to go back to the old way which is scary, and I think we’re facing that on so many levels. It’s very scary.
Now if we were to take what we were just talking about and apply it to the Church, this is where it gets very tricky for people like Eric, and I was in this boat for ten years, because to be simultaneously pastoral and prophetic is a recipe for crucifixion.
Clyde: Eric, aren’t you glad we drove yesterday and today to hear this?
Brian: But it’s true. It’s a really big challenge. In fact, what I try to do when I talk to people about this is I say, let’s imagine it’s 1963 and you’re a white Baptist pastor in Wilmington or Selma or wherever, and you were just hired by an unconsciously racist white church, and you could preach a sermon this Sunday that would be prophetic and tell the truth and get you fired — and you would lose any chance to have an influence, and very likely you would increase the opposition to the changes you’re proposing.
On the other hand, you could just sit back and never deal with race, and wait for forty years to pass till other people did all the work and then you could come along when it’s easy. In between those two extremes it seems to me is the challenge of being pastoral and prophetic. It’s a thankless job and it’s a hard job, and to me this is where the more pastoral people have to appreciate the prophetic people, and vice versa, because everybody’s got a job to do.
Clyde: How about Jesus in that prophetic confrontation role? It strikes me… I’m just thinking. He was obviously prophetic but he didn’t have a congregation… in a sense.
Brian: Jesus is such an interesting example of this because he was — when I said it’s a recipe for crucifixion, crucifixion is one of the ways… the irony is that one of the ways that you win is by losing… or suffering, however you want to say it. And it’s why, in a sense, Jesus’ selection of disciples, and even, in that last scene in the Gospel of John telling Peter to feed the sheep… in a sense he’s saying look I’m doing my prophetic work here, but there is this important pastoral job. You know what I mean? He won’t set those up as enemies — he really sees them as integrated. And it seems to me in that light that Paul becomes a much more attractive figure. For many people Paul is such an angular, reactive figure but I think what Paul is really trying to do is get communities to embody this radical message of the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed, and part of the pain of Paul is that is not easy to get Jews and Gentiles to get along with each other. And Paul is seen by Peter as the radical and maybe a little vice versa in their conflict. This to me is just the drama of change. I was just thinking about this this morning and actually having some email conversations back and forth with some friends because I think the Jewish community is facing an identical challenge right now with the Palestinian issue. And the prophetic voice — it seems to me — in the Jewish community has to be prophetic against some of the positions of the Israeli government. And as soon as they do that they are portrayed as “betrayers” of the community. So it seems to me it’s not just in the Christian faith — and it’s in politics as well as everything else, so this is part of the challenge of moving forward.
And as you get a little bit older — you see that this is the kind of thing that you need a few decades under your belt in order to be able to hold those two tensions together.
It’s very easy to be the “young prophet” and condemn everybody who doesn’t see it your way, because you haven’t lived long enough to see how all of these currents and countercurrents are part of one larger system of change.
Clyde: I was — during a cursory reading of the New Testament — I was kind of down on Paul until Eric started talking to me and pointed out that Paul’s recognition of slaves and women as moral agents was a big step, but from my perspective he just mentioned them, but from what Eric… I’m curious, in your training in your field of English criticism, I think I read you mentioned you started in on reading Paul and I can’t help but think it came from some of your training
Brian: Yes, absolutely.
Clyde: And as you started “deconstructing,” that led to some insights which I’m assuming you hadn’t had. The way you wrote about Paul made me see Paul in a new light.
Brian: Yeah, you know from a literary background it’s fascinating to read the epistles as an epistolary novel, and you come up with a very different plotline in that story than the systematic theologians that are just reading Paul — of course what they don’t realize is that they’re reading Paul as part of a narrative too, and they’re reading Paul as part of a Protestant/Catholic conflict that then they read back all of those themes into Paul. But I think it’s a very different set of narratives.
Eric: Yeah, the idea of story telling. I love the way you just talked about the epistolary story.
Brian: The epistolary novel.
Eric: Novel! That’s really very helpful.
Brian: Yeah, and this to me is one of the big challenges for preachers and anybody involved with interpreting. Whatever plotline you derive from the 66 different books, it’s and interpretive plotline. No where is the plotline of the big story made explicit because nobody’s writing the big story.
Eric: Right. It’s the library as opposed to the constitution. Putting two things together that you’ve mentioned — this beautiful idea that you have to have several decades of experience before you really understand the big picture, the plotline, the story. And then you also have a vision of where we need to be right here, and you do that one step at a time. How does somebody fresh out of college start that journey, recognizing the limitations of very limited experience, also the positives of youthful energy and idealism and yet also perhaps not — because of the less experience — not having the patience to say: it’s going to take a while to get where we need to be.
Brian: Well, that’s a great question.
The first thing that comes to my mind is this really helpful work that my friend Richard Rore is doing — a Franciscan priest — and he didn’t create the term, but he’s popularizing this term “non-dual thinking,” and one of the things I would hope a college student — someone in their twenties — would be able to do, is to know that there’s something called non-dual thinking. I think a minority will actually be capable of it, or it will feel natural to them because this is of the things if you’re think in terms of human development — whether individual or a societies — you realize that the later stages depend on doing the early stages well.
So if non-dual thinking is a later stage it in some ways depends on dual thinking being well developed in children, in adolescents, and young adults. What I think would be good — what I wish we could help embed in people just coming of age — is this awareness that there are many stages of life. And that there are ways of thinking that are going to come a long way, but that are going to require reversals of an awful lot of the things that seem very, very important. So, everybody can remember being in second or third grade and being told by their math teacher you can’t subtract a larger number from a smaller number. And then three or four years later, the teacher tells them how to subtract larger numbers and tells them there’s this new category called negative numbers. Well a second grader can’t handle that — you can’t burden them with that. They’ll never learn to deal with positive numbers if you overcomplicate it. So that’s one of the things I want to do–help people experience the virtue of humility. But at the same time I think there’s a place for a twenty year old to be passionately committed to something as long as they’re going to be humble enough to keep adjusting. I’m 54 and I’m still doing that. I think we never outgrow that process.
Clyde: There’s this room for mentorship, I think. That whole business of a young person having the older person.
The young person striking out alone could cause more problems.
Brian: And the challenge of that is we can put all the burden on the younger people, but a huge challenge of that is that enough of us who are over… to me the juncture comes when your children come of age, and when you reach the point where you’re children are adults, it seems to me that you — as an adult — have to go through a transition from a parent generation to an elder generation. And we don’t have — we’ve minimized that role of the elder generation.
A friend of mine has a great way of describing it. He actually gets this from a book I think from the early 1900s, but he describes a scene of an extended family, and the adults are sitting around a table having a big political argument, and the grandfather is sitting over on a rocking chair away from the table, and the grandchildren — the children — are watching the parents argue and are intrigued by the political arguments of the parent generation, but eventually they gravitate toward the grandfather… because in a sense he’s not participating — he’s been there, he’s done that — and there’s something about realizing there’s this quiet role sitting on the side that has this higher perspective.
Clyde: You probably know that Walker Percy kept a sign on his desk that said “Wait.”
Brian: And again here’s where you realize the incredible wisdom of that little phrase, do not judge lest you be judged. Because I can imagine being 27 and seeing someone waiting because it’s not the right time, they’re not ready yet. And I would just think, they’re being a coward! They’re not speaking up! I can imagine judging them. And there’s some wisdom there that there’s a right time.
Eric: Mike Yaconelli gave this phrase that stuck with me — I heard this twenty years ago — he said that there are lessons that you can’t learn until you’re 30, and there are lessons that you can’t learn until you’re forty and that you can’t learn until you’re 50, and I was probably 28 when I heard that, and my job at the point was to learn the lessons that I needed to learn at 28, and I’m 42 now, my job is not to learn the lessons that I need to learn at 50, but job is to learn the lessons that I need to learn at 42.
Brian: If that message would get through to people, that that’s how life works, we would be doing them a huge favor. And we have to get through that message exactly — wait, be patient… .every stage has it’s own — and you know that’s just all over the New Testament, you know, we’re transformed from glory to glory. When I was a child I thought like a child. He doesn’t say, when I was a child I was an idiot. That language is all there in the Christian tradition but we have a predisposition against it. At least in the current temper of mind, maybe that’s been different in the past. Maybe it will be different in the future.
Clyde: This priest friend of mine — he was head of social ministries for a diocese — and he was a very iconoclastic kind of character — he was very odd. And one time we were driving somewhere and he said, you know, there are four seasons, and if you lived one well, the one prior to the one you’re about to live, then you’ll make the next one successful. If you have a good summer you’ll have a good fall, if you have a good fall you’ll have a good winter.
Brian: Oh that’s a great way to say it.
2: GOD OVER TIME
Brian: Let’s talk about the God over time issue, because to me this is one of the ones — it’s interesting to me, having written a book–and watched people debating it. In my best moments I realize that anything I say about God is wrong. However God is, I’m sure every articulation I make is an insult to the true wonder and depth and glory of God’s being.
But what I am trying to say in the book is that our concepts of God definitely go through change and evolution. There’s just no question that our concepts go through that. That’s not the same as saying that God is evolving.
There are ways I think we can talk about God evolving if… it seems to me this is one of the underappreciated elements of Trinitarian theology. Trinitarian theology suggests that within the divine being there is oneness and otherness. And in that one and otherness there’s dynamism. And this is why some of the early Church fathers used this image of paraclaresis — of a circle of Father, Son, and Spirit. As well, the whole idea of creation suggests that until somebody named Moses is born, God has never had the experience of somebody named Moses. So now the experience of God and Moses becomes transformative for both. Transformative might be an exaggeration, but it introduces dynamism into both.
So there was a time when God wasn’t the creator of this universe. And everything that unfolds in a sense adds, could we say, to the memories of God. I think there’s a way to talk about that that doesn’t in any way reduce God’s glory. But it’s very hard to talk about it that way, so what I’ve noticed people arguing about, immediately getting into arguments is: Are you saying God’s character has changed?–that God wasn’t that smart before and now is smarter? That God wasn’t that compassionate before and now is compassionate? And that’s not what I’m saying at all.
But I am saying that certainly our concepts of God have to evolve over time. It relates to what we were just talking about. You can’t deal with negative numbers until you’ve got the positive numbers down really well. This is really a big deal when it come sot this whole issue of violence, and that’s why I feel it’s worth getting this issue on the table. Even though it causes a good deal of pyrotechnics.
Clyde: I agree a hundred percent. Once you start talking about definitions of God, you’re not going to satisfy anybody. But that’s why it’s attractive to me to think about God existing in different ways for different people. And that interaction — when you talk about interaction between God and history… you have an interaction between an individual psyche, and individual precious soul, body, psyche… once we kind of believe that we can talk about it. And since talking to Eric, I now have a definition of sorts, my personal definition which works for me real well, and, and that is God is the source of life, the mysterious source of life. Beyond that, I feel sort of like Wittgenstein talking about remaining silent about what we don’t know. That’s a paraphrase. So, what I can talk about is concepts of God and if I had to put my life on the line, I would say that God exists very much as a concept. But it’s hard for me to get beyond that.
And you just raised an interesting point that I’ve not thought through before–if we have an entity, a source of life, whatever it is, we can posit is God . . we certainly know we can’t understand God and all that… but then we each have our concept that is a piece — like the blind man and the elephant. That’s an interesting way of talking about it. I get tied up in all this. But it is important in one way, and the other way doesn’t really have anything to do with how we live our lives, other than influence us individually. But I just think it’s a fascinating topic and people can talk about it as long as they can talk about anything.
Brian: This to me is one of the big things — you mentioned Wittgenstein — one of the things that’s happened in the last hundred years is that we’ve become more aware I think as a human race, at least on the popular level, than we have been in the past, about the ways that language both imprisons us and empowers us. And that awareness is now having a big effect on the way we do theology.
I think a 20 year old or a 24 year old who gets a college degree today, and especially if he gets a masters or doctorate, he or she is just embedded in this awareness of how much we inhabit a world of language, and that the word is not the same thing as the thing. That we all live in these imaginaries — these worlds of images.
Whether or not God exists, the concepts of God exist. And whatever God really is, concepts of God do influence human behavior. So if my concept of God is that God loves white people and hates non white people, or that God made white people and that non white people are abnormal, that belief is going to affect a thousand things in the way I behave, and it has over the last several centuries.
If I believe that God is with the western civilization and against indigenous peoples and eastern civilizations… millions of people die out of those beliefs. And this is why in many ways religion becomes this terribly ambivalent… I’m sorry, we have such deep ambivalence toward this word religion. And I think this is part of the tension you feel when you ask someone what religion are you, and they say I’m not religious I’m spiritual. Part of what they mean by that is I’ve lost my naivety about religion, and now I realize this dangerous dimension of religion that encodes ideas of God that are destructive.
Of course the problem is what do we do about that. This is where, ironically, in a university a student will be sitting under the tutelage of professors who are in some ways not the liberal vanguard, but in some ways the conservative rearguard who are still holding on to the idea of modernity and secularism… that the best antidote to religion is to eradicate it and to have this world in objectivity and all the rest . This is part of our loss of naivety. We’ve lost our naivety about secularism as well as about religion. And now we’re trying to grapple with moving into this new context of the loss of innocence about language and objectivity and religion and secularism all together.
And this is why at the end of the day, although this depresses the daylights out of me sometimes, I think the only antidote to bad religion is good religion.
Clyde: Say that once again.
Brian: The only antidote to bad religion is good religion. And you can say the same thing in every field. The only antidote to bad architecture is good architecture the only antidote to bad engineering is good engineering. So I think there’s this — this is one of the watersheds it seems to be between whatever we mean by this modern culture and this postmodern culture. In the modern culture, among intellectuals, was this idea that we could get rid of religion. And we could come to this clean pristine objective, secular, scientific space where we would be rid of all of the ugliness of religion. I think we’ve lost that.
3: ON JESUS
Clyde: When we’re talking to people of other religions — us as Christians — we can’t afford to think about how they should talk to us, we don’t have time to do that, but when we think about how we should talk to them, it seems that there are things that I could say to a Jewish person, before I start talking about Jesus, that would enable us to make a contact that we’re not going to make if I come in with Jesus talk.
Brian: Especially with you come in with the assumption that you know Jesus and you’ve got Jesus figured out. That is problematic. This relates to a couple of your later questions, it seems to me, that are important. You know, one way to describe what I’m trying to do in this book is I’m trying to help Christians accept Jesus as a Jew and not as a Christian.
So when I talk about reading the bible forwards, understanding Jesus in light of his ancestors, not exclusively in light of his ideological descendents, I’m trying to in a sense help Christians accept Jesus as a Jew. And I have found that when I want to understand Jesus as a Jew and I talk to my Jewish friends, I go to them as a learner. It’s a completely different attitude. And it’s interesting to… you know if I go with that attitude and I talk to a Muslim, and I go with sensitivity to the story of Mohammed and the story of the rising sun, and the Arabian peninsula — how that related to the fusion of the Christianity and the Roman empire, how that related to not just theology but also politics and economics and military exploits and all the rest. When I go with that awareness and I want to talk about Jesus, it’s a different discussion.
But if I go saying Jesus is in my pocket, he belongs to me, your claim on him is bogus, of course there’s not going to be any big outcome. And you know the people who taught me the most about this ironically are my Buddhist friends who I’ve had through the years. Because the way that they’ve held the teachings of the Buddha was never exclusive. It was like, hey let me tell you this cool story, and it was as if they were coming with these stories as a gift to me rather than you can’t have these unless you join my group. And I think this is one of the challenges of all religions, to come with their treasures with an open hand. And it just changes the discussion.
Clyde: The use of the word Christ — the Christ — trumps that in some ways. It seems that that’s some of my unease with the term Christianity, not because of the present day, but the assumption of divinity…
Brian: Let me say one other thing about that. So much of this has to do with what is our assumption about what the word Christ means.
This is where I think the Christian faith is at an exciting but terrifying crossroads because I think we have to question a bunch of our very primary definitions. The word salvation. Every Christian in the south knows what saved means, but one of the things I love to do is take people through a reading of Acts chapter 16, where a slave girl in the city of Philippi uses the words salvation and saved, and a jailer in the city of Philippi uses the word saved. And I think anybody with a couple of brain cells rubbing together will know that what they would mean by saved would not be what a contemporary Christian would mean. We owe the text, we owe this to the text that we try to go back in and say what would that word have meant to a slave girl in Philippi. What would that word have meant to a jailer at that moment in Philippi. They’re not thinking with the definition of saved that comes through the filter of Augustine and Aquinas and Martin Luther and John Wesley and Charles Finney and Benny Ham and Billy Graham. And when you start adding up the number of words that we owe the text in a sense to look at in a fresh way, it’s very exciting but…
Like that word Christ for example. I think we have to do some rethinking. If I were to have to give a short definition of the word Christ, I think it means liberating king, because the actual Greek word christos means “the one who has been smeared”… anointed, and it comes from the Jewish idea, the word messiah, which means someone who has been anointed to be King. And what kind of a king? You’re looking for a King to liberate you from your oppressors so that’s why I think this phrase can be used. But if you go and stick the word “liberating king” in there everywhere you see the word Christ, without all these other assumptions, the texts look very different.
Same thing with the word Lord. When we see L-o-r-d in English, we bring all of these theological assumptions. But when that word is applied to Jesus, if you understand that that is also the word that was applied to Caesar… . ah . . in fact, I was just mentioning Acts 16 but it’s so interesting, that jailer says to Paul, what must I do to be saved? And he says, believe in Korios Iesu. Well if you’re a jailer in Phillippe which is a Roman colony, you’re loyal to corios Caesar, Lord Caesar. And I think what’s happening in that text isn’t about theological postulates about the divinity of Christ. I think he’s saying there are different ways to organize your life, and if you have confidence in Lord Caesar, you’re going to organize your life and live your life in one way; if you believe in Korios Iesu, it’ll be very different.
And the irony for us, people like you and me, pastors, and not only for Protestants, but Catholics and Eastern Orthodox as well, is we’re supposed to take the text seriously. This is where I’m glad for — I’ mean I have a lot of neuroses from a Fundamentalist upbringing — but you know what they told me to pay attention to the text, and I think I’m trying to be faithful to that.
Clyde: They didn’t mean to keep going. They meant that there’s a stopping point. When you feel good you stop, you don’t go beyond what makes you feel good and you can sentimentalize.
Eric: And that’s the gift of the pulpit. You’re given a time where people — it’s set aside for you– to take the text seriously and to talk about it and it seems to me that as long as we’re staying with the text it’s not that it makes us immune from criticism, it really doesn’t do that, but it keeps us within the story, it keeps us within the conversation.
Brian: Yeah, I think it was Søren Kierkegaard that said something to this effect — that we’re all a bunch of liars and no good charlatans and schemers and all the rest, but there’s something about the text that keeps us honest.
But of course having said that you also can’t minimize our ability to extract from Scripture an alternative script. So growing up fundamentalist, I bet you would remember this. What I memorized as a boy in Sunday school, the verse “Come let us reason together says the Lord” from Isaiah “though your sins be as scarlet they’ll be as white as snow- though they are as crimson they will be as wool.” Memorized that verse of course without any awareness of how whiteness was seen as good and non-whiteness was seen as bad. Put that aside, all those issues. But all that that verse was used for was to tell me that I was a sinner and that I needed to be forgiven. And it wasn’t until I was probably in my thirties that I noticed the next verse — that’s not what it says in context. What it says in context is you better start caring for the orphan and the widow among you, you know? This specific sin that’s so bad is lack of compassion toward the poor and vulnerable. The actual thrust of that text is a thrust toward social justice. But we took the Scripture and turned it into this script about atonement and we subverted the text. This is the paradox, and it’s why we say then the moral… I mean this really is a matter of virtue and morality–to what degree will our pastors and theologians and spiritual leaders be willing to let the text make us uncomfortable. If they fail at that, everybody suffers.
Eric: One of the things you bring out in the book — this was very convicting for me — part of the pastor/theologian’s job is to explain away all those parts of scripture that make us uncomfortable. And that’s the very thing that we shouldn’t run away from as pastors. We should say, no, this is what the text says and you have to wrestle with this.
Brian: And that cuts in different directions, but what it requires of us, it seems, is a whole new set of skills about how we deal with the Bible. So we’ve got to look at that verse in the Psalm that says, “Blessed are those who take the infants of our enemies and dash them against a stone.” I mean that is a pornographic level of violence. So, you know, we have to look at that and say: we have to deal with all of the ugliness of the text as well. In the book I talk about the Noah’s ark story which gets told as this cute story of floating around. But it’s a terrifying story, and we’ve got to grow up to deal with those texts now in a more adult, mature way.
Clyde: I have a character who’s a young man reading the Bible for the first time, all the way through — straight through. And he sees himself as a preacher — just in the mirror. He starts preaching sermons, and he preaches about Noah and the ark, and what he preaches about is a man and his child and the top branches of a tree as the water is coming up, because it is horrible, yet it’s normally told as a story of animals and the arc. And if we had that picture of people gasping for breath at the last minute, rather than two elephants walking off the ark… it would be a different story.
Brian: And this is where the text is so interesting, when we grapple with it, because if this is supposed to be a way of dealing with evil… well first of all you have all of this ambivalence in a character named God in the text. As soon as it happens he’s going, well I’ll never do that again. I promise you guys I’ll never do that again.
And then within a few verses, Noah’s getting drunk, and something shady’s happening with one of his sons, and right away you’re to the tower of Babel and equal levels of violence and oppression within a few chapters, so you just realize, the text itself doesn’t suggest that genocide works.
4: CHILDREN AND BIBLE STORIES
Brian: One of your questions was, how do we deal with children? How are we going to introduce children to the text to faith and all the rest. And one of our… I’ve had the chance just in the past couple of weeks to talk to two of the important figures in the American Christian world dealing with this. One is a guy named John Boomershine who founded an organization called Network of Biblical Storytelling. And then another is Joan Berryman who started a wonderful organization called Godly Play. And we’ve been talking about once we’re honest about these complexities in the text, how in a sense we are unfair to the text, and we’re unfair to children and teenagers when we give them this sort of Sunday school version of the text. We were talking about how do we deal with this.
I believe it was Tom Boomershine that said to me, maybe what we have to learn to do is stop telling a single story, but we have to start telling the story and the story after the story.
So David comes to the kinship through this strange mixture of violence and nonviolence On the one hand he kills Goliath and cuts his head off, and on another hand he refuses to have a violent coup d’état and kill King Saul. So there’s this strange mixture of violence and nonviolence. If you only tell the story of David killing Goliath, you in a sense validate violence. You’ve also got to tell the story of the nonviolence. And then you have to tell the story of Absalom and Absalom’s violence. So David in a sense sees the bitter consequences of violence and how the drama plays out, and you have to see that David isn’t allowed to go to Temple because he’s a man of bloodshed. But if all you do is tell the story of David and Goliath, all you do is glorify violence.
And in the interplay of story and story, you get the downside of violence as well as the upside. So I’m thinking about —
Eric: That’s fascinating in that — there’s that part of me that wants to sanitize the violence in the David and Goliath story. It sounds like rather than doing that we tell that story and then we tell all these stories. And we don’t protect children from the reality of violence and the reality of violence in the text, but we give them a larger… is that part of what you’re saying?
Part of what we have to do is refrain from drawing a moral of a story. Because that story is going to flow into other stories, and there’s going to be a moral to those other stories too.
For me as Christian, this is where I think Jesus becomes tremendously important. Because if we believe that in some way, Jesus is the logos — I mean that to me is the striking thing about that first paragraph of John’s Gospel — Jesus is the logos, Jesus, the claim is, is the inherent logic of the universe. So now, at that point then, Jesus’ non-violence has to help me go back and interpret David’s violence. To me this is something we Christians haven’t grappled with.
Now, if we were three Jews having this conversation, I think we could arrive at the same conclusion by talking about the relationship between the priestly and the prophetic, because the prophets give a vision that I think Jesus reinforces as well, and that’s the vision that swords will be beaten into ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks. So I’m not saying you can’t reach that conclusion of non-violence if you’re a Jew, but as Christians I just wish that we would see Jesus in a sense as the logos… becomes the logic by which we interpret those narratives. Martin Luther said the same thing.
I wish I put this in the book, but I didn’t think of it till afterwards. Martin Luther said, “The Bible is the manger in which Jesus is presented to the world” and this is one of the more controversial proposals of this book which is that there is an evolution in the text and that, for us as Christians, we have to stop demoting Jesus to just this flat level of the Biblical text.
Eric: Just a comment: Southern Baptist life — in the 1963 Baptist faith and message statement, I’m not quoting it exactly but paraphrasing it, there’s this line that we interpret all of the Bible through Jesus. And then when the fundamentalists took over and revised the faith and message, they took that line out. Not that Southern Baptists in 1963 were anywhere near where they needed to be, but there was this sense of, we look at all of Scripture through the lens of Jesus. And now in this fundamentalist-modernist mindset — modern mindset — every part of the text is equal, it interprets itself; you don’t have to interpret it through Jesus.
Brian: In the language of my book, they reverted to the Bible as constitution at that moment and then encoded the Bible as constitution. In my opinion, if I can be a little inflammatory, they became less Christian and they became more fundamentalist.
Clyde: It seems to me that once you — for children — decide that any story has a context which is enlightening, and you deliver, it seems to me you’re fifty percent through because not only do you then look at Jesus, but you apply the story to today’s world. If you don’t do that, then you’re wasting your time in a sense. And that was one of my struggles as a teenager hearing Bible stories, asking what does it mean for us today? And there are so many answers and of course you can set up the context but then you can apply it in a way that is not Christian. I think that’s part of the reason coming with — what does Jesus have to say about this. Jesus’ view can be the bridge into today’s… to tell the stories about how we… And then it must follow, how do we act about that? Else you are just doing what we’re doing — sitting around talking. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Eric: I’m thinking out loud in terms of — I ‘m thinking of my kids where we tell the David story, and then in that context I wonder how Jesus… somehow bringing it around to Jesus in the conversation in stead of again sanitizing the violence so the children don’t have to see that in the text until their ready. They’re already connecting to the stories of Jesus at the same time as they’re reacting to the stories of David. So to begin to bring those two together and have them start thinking about that.
Brian: That to me is… Will we have the moral courage to do that? It’s a whole new set of skills for preachers, it seems to me, and Bible readers and Bible interpreters. It’s just a new set of skills that we don’t have. And as you said regarding context, it invites us then to say, the human story is a story full of violence; what do we want the future to be? The human story is a story full of empire and domination; what do we want the future to be? The human story is a story full of exploitation of creation; what do we want the future to be? Jesus ends up subverting so much. The question is do we have the courage to let Jesus be that subversive. It suddenly it matters a lot, doesn’t it?
You know, as a Christian I think it’s my responsibility to be most crucial of my own — you know, we Christians have to take the stick out of our own eye, but the fact is, every religion has this. This is part of the human story, and I think this is one of our other big challenges in dealing with the Bible as we move forward. You could say it this way: Is the Bible a door into a closed room? Or is the Bible the window into the whole world of humanity, and I think it becomes our window into humanity, wisely read, rather than the doorway into this one little room or this one little group of people. Anyway, again, it’s a different set of skills — it’s reading the Bible in a different way.
There were vested interests in having us read the Bible the way we read it. And there are interests in reading it other ways as well.
One of our greatest natural resources today is Walter Brueggemann, and Breuggemann has done a great job of reminding us — as the postmodern philosophers and literary theorists have done — every reading has vested interest.
This to me is where the prophetic tradition in the Hebrew Scriptures — and where Jesus — has an amazing subversion of vested interest because the interest of the poor, the marginalized, the least, the children, the women, suddenly those interests are given a voice.
To me, the most radical thing I try to get at in this book — I wish I could have said it even more strongly–is that the primary Biblical narrative of Exodus, is that God is not on the side of Pharoah, God is on the side of the slaves. That overturns history. It overturns the way we told all of our stories. This to me is where… when I was in college, there was a book that came out called Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Finally somebody tried to tell this story of American History from the perspective of the people who got screwed — by how it unfolded. And that’s in a way what the Bible is — it’s trying to tell the story from the perspective of the people who were the horse’s hoof prints instead of the horse hooves.
Clyde: A practical shortcut — in what could be dreamed of — is that all the people who write the little Sunday school quarterlies just have this point of view of just building the context, connect it to something today, throw in Jesus, have questions about something that’s going on, current events sort of thing. And kids would grow with that, they would get a habit of reading Scripture and the habit would be so different than memorizing in the sword drill kind of thing — did you do sword drills?
Brian: I sure did!
Eric: They’re making a comeback in my church. But there are some great things in…
Brian:— in getting people in the text. And again, this is where I think our problem isn’t Scripture, our problem is in the scripts that we’ve extracted from Scripture. So we extract the scripts of domination narrative, we extract the scripts of superiority and elitism, and in that way — it’s the worst kind of self deception because we think we’re being faithful to the Bible, and we’re betraying so much of the Bible itself.
You know a great story relating to novels — I don’t know if you’ve heard of this, he’s a novelist and a phenomenal poet, Chris Abani — he grew up in Nigeria, and now lives in LA. Chris tells a story — in Nigeria when he was growing up was the Biafra crisis — I don’t know if you remember, it was in the 60s. Anyway, it was one of the early expressions of Christian-Muslim tension in Africa and a whole lot other things as well. It was illegal to talk about the Biafran crisis — it was illegal to talk about it. So Chris had a teacher who was a Muslim, who knew he couldn’t talk about what was happening to Muslims in northern Nigeria, so he did a unit on the Holocaust and talked about the Nazis and the Jews. And then all he did was, at the end, he said, who are the Nazis today in Nigeria, and who are the Jews? Well that resulted in Chris’s political awakening.
Clyde: Yeah, that’s powerful.
5: ON DIFFICULTIES OF BRINGING A NEW MESSAGE
Eric: At the end of your book you talk about — and it was so powerful to me I’d like you to just speak more — about doing the book tour and the speaking tour for Everything Must Change and I had read that book and I think I’d even seen some of that — I think I saw you in person — but I knew some of what was going on: your going back to the hotel room night after night being depressed because you’re talking about the global crises, and everyone wants to talk about, “Oh you’ve challenged my cherished vision of atonement.” Say more about that, because that to me — what kept you going? what did you learn from that experience that influenced perhaps the birth of this book.
Brian: Well again one of the things I’ve realized is there’s so much work to do, and there’s good work to do in many different areas. What I realized is, here I’m trying to help Christians get a vision of in many ways the simple vision of Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God. Another way to say it is the prophetic vision — the vision of the prophets — of a world transformed.
But what I realized is you have to go back and do some of the very difficult spade work and deconstructive work of dealing with our scripts and so I had hoped that I could do an end run around a lot of the theological spade work.
I realized it was a good try, but you have to go back and do some of that other work as well. But the fact is I tried to do that work in this book. But what I’ve seen, especially from my Evangelical peers, is all they do is they say, oh we don’t believe it, we don’t accept it.
So if people don’t want to deal with stuff, you can’t force them to deal with it. And it’s disappointing to see people look for ways to discredit something so they don’t have to deal with it and they can get back to business as usual. I mean there’s no foolproof way to deal with these things. You give it your best shot and see —
Eric: It’s almost as if… it’s translating to kind of preaching week after week first. You’re turning the spade one shovel, one motion at a time, week after week, and over time you’re trusting that this six line Greco-roman narrative is subverted. And yet there’s such a temptation to want to come in there and, here’s the crisis, we have to do this right now.
Brian: It seems to me this is what keeps us all working. You try, you do your best and maybe — I like how Bono said it once — he said, speaking of U2, you know we’re just a rock band. It’s trying to tear a little corner off the darkness. You know? You just try to tear a little bit off and hope a little bit of light comes through. But once you do it, maybe a little light comes through, but there’s still a whole lot more darkness — you’ve got to tear another piece off. And so, I think we try to do it in a hundred different ways. But in Everything Must Change I was trying to do it in a sense by lifting up our vision of what could be. And in a sense, helping us see where we really are.
Eric: Would you have reversed the order of the books if you had a chance to do it over again?
Brian: I don’t think. Because in some way it isn’t sequential. I mean the way I told that story at the end of the book is the sequential way that I’ve sort of had to deal with this, but you know what, I don’t think I would have had the courage to try to deal with that six line narrative and make it overt if I hadn’t gone through some of this other stuff. And so right now I’m writing a book on spirituality and prayer. And somebody might say, well hold it — did you forget about all those global crises? No, I talked about those global crises, and then I talked about some theology, but now I want to talk about sort of the spiritual practices that actually are another way to get to these same issues. So actually there are just a lot of different angles in the same set of problems.
Eric: I appreciated your honesty in sharing that in the book.
Brian: I still feel it. I still feel it. But you know what was interesting, speaking to a Baptist, I was just in Louisville couple of weeks ago.
Eric: Did you get picketed by the Southern Seminary?
Brian: First of all, what was interesting is that it was completely coincidental that I was there. This speaking engagement came about not in response to the Southern Seminary thing, but the timing was fortuitous. A number of Southern Seminary students came to my lecture.
Eric: I read that on your blog. And I remember you saying they were cordial, they were constructive — that’s great.
Brian: And so, this is where all those things have to play out over time. In some ways, having Southern Seminary do this sort of — I mean it’s hard to even call it a critique of the book, but whatever it was, the discrediting of the book, however you want to call it — having them do that, and then having me hopefully not respond in a counterproductive way. Well, guess what? That created the opportunity for some of those students to come and be part of a very positive discussion. It all plays out.
6: TIME — MEMORY — GOD
Clyde: It seems to me, that’s really what people can be thinking about given their aspirations or talents or insights or energy. One of the quotes from my older daughter who’s 27 is “The world needs not for people to do their duty — the world needs people to do what makes them feel alive, because what the world needs is people doing what makes them feel alive — something like that.
So when I think about the future — Eric talks about his vision for things coming together, much like you talk about a vision of things working out eventually, and when I think about the absence of the present, because it’s already the past, and the absence of the future because it will never be here, I think about the absence of all that, it seems to me that that emerging conversations idea, that must lead to the action. That’s what it’s all about.
Brian: I love what you said about story too, because the amazing thing about a story is that it tells you that an event has meaning in relation to other events — some that came before, some that will come after. And the act of reading novels and stories and telling stories reminds us that we’re in the middle of something. And that past, present, and future are interwoven in some way. It changes everything when you see that an it connects an awful lot of things that we’ve already talked about — it lets you put the “Wait” on your desk. You remember it’s not over yet.
It also tells you not to judge.
It also tells you not to despair.
And I think it also, in one sense, you know, you were a little while ago giving your definition of God as the source of life. And another sort of primal definition of God — I don’t want to talk about proposing this as an alternative to yours, it’s just another one — is God is the one who witnesses the story. Because if there’s nobody to remember, then in a sense the past disappears. If everyone who ever witnesses a story dies and is gone, you might say there isn’t any story as soon as the last memory dies. So the witness to the story is a pretty important role. I think that’s the positive sense of when we talk about this image of God as judge — for someone who has an accurate witness to the story. And in some sense, for us human beings, it’s the sense of accountability that our vested interest doesn’t get to tell the whole story and have the last word. There’s a higher witness to the story.
Eric: And there is some redemptiveness just in the simple presence of there being one who observes and remembers the story.
Clyde: It seems to me you could make this little argument that I have fun with storywriters — I tap on the blackboard and say, Do you hear that tap? That tap is in the past. It was only in the present during the time it became recognizable, if that long, and then it was gone. And so a story allows us to stretch out that present and manipulate. If we think about God as the one who witnesses stories for the first time — any story we talk about is old, but all stories are new for God, but we can’t duplicate that because we can’t be in the present, then that sanctifies the word and the story I think, unlike our confidence which tells us not only are we living in the present, but the stories are ours somehow, regardless of what the story is. I don’t know how that fits… it’s funny to think about Einstein coming up with this business about an illusion: The past, present, and future is an illusion, but a convincing one — and I think that kind of helps you throw your head into the mystery of what God may be about.
Brian: I often quote one of my favorite musicians — Bruce Cockburn has this great line: “All these years of thinking ended up like this. In front of all this beauty, understanding nothing.” Augustine said the same thing — when I don’t think about time, I know what it is. But as soon as I think about it, it just blows my mind.
This is one of the important theological breakthroughs for me when I was going through all this grappling because you know here I come from this very modernist, fundamentalist mindset that there are these absolute truths that we have captured in our systematic theologies, and all of our assumptions go with them. And then I’m forced to face some real questions of the assumptions — not just the data of the doctrines, but the assumptions of a timeless, context-less objective doctrinal scheme. And so in the early 90s I was reading all this philosophy and hermeneutics and epistemology and all this stuff and I remember one day when I thought, what if our philosophy is actually a subset of our narrative and that actually philosophies are things that occur within a narrative, but the narrative is shaping the philosophy. When I realized that, somehow I felt like I graduated to a new stage of thinking because my naivety was “No, philosophy precedes narrative.”
Clyde: I think Wittgenstein is all over that with philosophy doesn’t exist, what exists is solving problems. And philosophy is made in different language games that you must understand the rules of — in a sense that gets really exciting.
7: A QUESTION ABOUT BRIAN’S READING
Clyde: One of the good things about your book is that for many of us who have gone through the same stages you have, we’ve not had the underpinning of careful thought. We get an insight but then we go back to living our lives. We don’t have the underpinning of thought which you’ve provided — which is comforting — to know that someone’s done it. But then included in what you do is a lot of reading. So I’m just curious — how do you read?
Brian: Well I should first say that it’s — you’re very well aware of this but so many people aren’t — that there are many layers of scholarship. So there’s a scholar who spends her whole life, and the outcome is a different interpretation of one verse of the book of Galatians. And that’s important work. But the only person who ever read that maybe is her dissertation advisor. But that plays a part in a rereading in the book of Galatians which plays a part in the rereading of the vision of Paul, you know? So there’s so many layers of this. And I feel like the place where I’ve kind of occupied it is this middle zone between the serious professional scholars and the pastors who are working inside the trenches. The fact that I was a pastor for 24 years — I’m sort of in the middle position there.
But two big things influence my reading. One is that I get asked to read a whole lot of manuscripts and I can’t read them all but the fact that I get the manuscripts maybe a year before they get published — that’s a gift for me, and that helps me a lot. It’s a little bit like a glimpse of the future in that you get to see what’s coming out. But the other thing I’m really lucky about is that through the years you accumulate some people who you trust and then they make a recommendation — you really trust it, and I’ve got a good number of people like that. So for example right now I’m reading a horrible book — I mean I don’t want to be seen in public holding this book — horrible in the sense that the title is, “On Killing” — I don’t know if you’ve heard of this book, it’s been out for quite a while. But this army guy had studied the psychological impact of war, and it’s chilling, absolutely chilling, telling about the history of how we’ve overcome our natural inclination to preserve life. Well I never would have read that except a friend of mine who I really trust said this is one have to read. So that helps a lot. And one of the nice things about my life is that I travel a lot to speak and so I can read on planes and that’s where I do most of my reading. I mean if I didn’t get forced to sit in a long tube flying through the air, I’d read a lot less than I do.
Clyde: Sexuality. Our interview is for 20 and 30 year olds, and I think your chapter on sexuality is profound. It begins with what do we do — or a statement that we’ve got to do something — and so that’s a topic that I think of course is interesting to everyone, but to 20 and 30 year olds especially — those who are interested in how to think about it and talk about it.
Brian: Well let me say a couple things about that. I was just in Africa and I had such a — it just brought this to the surface. I was talking to a guy from eastern Congo, which, as you know, is one of the hardest places in the world… something I think 4 million people have died there in the last 15-20 years. It’s this terrible holocaust that’s relating to every one of our cell phones because of these mined substances in all of our electronics. I mean it’s huge, heartbreaking issue.
This is a guy who grew up there and ended up getting a PhD in theology in South Africa. What he has spanned in his life is incredible — he’s Pentecostal. And he was telling me in the 80s the policy at the Pentecostal church with polygamy was, if you want to become a Christian, a man had to put away all but one wife, he would choose one wife. I think it was supposed to be the first, but I doubt it worked out that way. But this guy’s name was Lazar — he was telling me how he remembers watching the church make this happen. The father would get all the children. So what this meant is, you would be sending a bunch of women away — they would lose their children and their children would lose them. And he remembers watching the children cry watching their mothers be sent away. And this wasn’t that long ago, this was all through the 1980s. And then he said since then because of all the violence in the region he comes from, there are two women for every male, because so many men have been killed in violence, and of course so many women have been raped — that’s a whole other story, this sort of political act of rape. But the women have come to the church leaders begging them to reinstitute polygamy because if you’re a woman and you don’t have children, you have nobody to take care of you when you’re old. So there’s this self- preservation need for children.
So your choice is either get pregnant by some guy you’re not married to, look forward to destitution, or beg the church to reinstitute polygamy. And how many Americans who make all the pronouncements about sex have ever had to deal with those kinds of complexities? So this issue is fraught with all kinds of complexities.
That’s why I think the issue of homosexuality is like the tip of the iceberg on a whole set of issues.
A big one is the reality that by the time a human being is a human being in America is seventeen or eighteen years old — it doesn’t matter whether he or she was brought up a fundamentalist, atheist, whatever — their sexual habits are about the same. Sex outside of marriage is so much the norm and we’re going to have to deal with this. I mean, I’m not happy that we have to deal with it, I wish we didn’t have to deal with it. We’ve got to deal with it. There was just an article in the Huffington Post the other day about a guy who just concluded a study of the sexual habits of college students — did you read it?
Brian: And he basically said, his fear now is that so many young people in his study are not talking about love. And I don’t know if you want to use this term, but he says what every body has is a “fuck buddy” and so the idea is that love– this deep idea of love and commitment has been so marginalized… for someone to deal with your sexual release with… and how are we going to reconnect sex and love?
Clyde: It’s kind of a formal and informal institutionalizing of pornography. Because that’s what it is — the absence of love in relationships…
Brian: Yeah. And so we have a big job to do on this and I hope we’ll have religious leaders who can… what we need is safe space for honest dialogue about this and there aren’t many places where we have safe space for how we talk about it. Another good example — just like we were talking about a sort of regression on race, the taboos in talking about HIV are reasserting themselves.
Uganda for a while was seen as a leader because they instituted the ABC program — Abstinence, or if not that, B, Be Faithful, or if you’re not going to be faithful, C, use a Condom. So the ABC represented a policy that enabled people to talk about HIV. But what’s happening is the churches are now saying you can’t talk about condoms, you only can talk about abstinence, so there’s sort of a resurgence of this. And you just realize that by doing that you’re killing people. By saying it’s abstinence or nothing, then you can predict how many people are going to get HIV who wouldn’t otherwise.
Clyde: In the schools, at least in the south — the public schools — the same kind of thing.
Brian: So we’ve got a big, big mess to deal with. I mentioned this book “On Killing.” In the beginning of the book the author says that traditional societies had coming of age rituals for boys, and part of the coming of age in many, many countries is: okay, you know how you’re going to deal with your sexuality, and you know how you’re going to deal with violence. There is our world, and if our faith communities don’t help us have some honest grappling with our sexuality and our violence, that we say to be not just a man, but a mature man or woman, means that we have given you the best that our tradition has to offer on sex and violence. We’re so far away from that.
Eric: So where do we start?
Brian: With our pastors just telling our stories. Let’s tell the story of David and Bathsheba. Let’s just tell that story and let people feel the story and that becomes a vehicle to talk about the power of sex and where it leads. I think our struggles about sexuality are one part of an entirely unsustainable way of living that’s mandated by economics. And so now our economic system says don’t grow up until you’re 28 or 30 or 32. You know, there are reasons why our economic system says don’t grow up until a later age. So what that means is for most people, if marriage is related to growing up, then men are going to spend their entire period of peak sexual drive single, which is not in sync with human biology. And the economic system becomes a given. It’s sort of interesting to say what if we rebuilt society around people’s biology, which isn’t going to change as fast as a lot of other things. Anyway, to me this is one of those gaps — we’re dealing with a big gap.
I think at the very least what we’ve got to start doing as faith communities is we have to talk honestly about the power of sex and the power of violence, and, if you go deeper, the power of the sex drive, and the power of aggression. I mean it’s Freud, it’s all this stuff that Freud tried to lead us on to. We have to now bring our spiritual life into this. I mean, here’s the crisis a pastor faces today: Darwin, Freud, and Marx told us that we’ve got to deal with the reality of a story–an unfolding evolutionary story; we’ve got to deal with the violence and conflict between rich and poor and we’ve got to deal with our sexual drives that are in some ways at odds with other things that we really want; and we have to ask what does the biblical vision and the message of Jesus have to say to us about these issues.
And it’s right there, there’s great material to deal with in the text, but our theological activities and systems become what I called in Everything Must Change a weapon of mass distraction to keep us from talking about it or order us not to talk about it. So we have endless arguments about whether we have guitars or organs in the church service.
Clyde: Several things pop into my head. I read an interview earlier, I don’t know how long ago this was and you may or may not want to talk about this, but I noticed at that point you were — the question was asking you about gay marriage, and you said I prefer not to take a stand on that. Do you feel that way?
Brian: I don’t think that’s — I think what you’re referring to is it was actually a Q and A session and it got quoted in Time Magazine, and I was at an Evangelical gathering. Because I speak in all these different settings, one of my commitments is if they have documented statement, I want to be respectful of it. In other words if they invite me, I don’t want to contradict what they say, and I try not to do that on purpose. I want to be helpful within their parameters. And in this case, I didn’t know what the parameters, but it was an Evangelical context and someone said, What do you think about gay marriage? And all I said, the problem is, however I answer that question I’m going to hurt a lot of people. But I have never taken the conservative position. I tacitly let the conservative position be unchallenged for a lot of years, but I never bought it.
And so what I try to make clear in this book is, I don’t think you should have a stigmatization against homosexual orientation. So , if gay people — I think it would be a step in the right direction to have a way of validating gay commitments. But I’m also aware that in some settings to drop that bombshell is counterproductive because it gets everybody arguing about the wrong thing. Maybe not the wrong thing, but it gets them arguing in their context about something they’re not ready for yet.
Clyde: Right. The I do want to ask you for my cousin, who is an inspiration to me — he’s a philosopher and is a fascinating character but he asked about that. And he also talked about different bombshell, survival of death — the whole business of survival death, it seems to me it’s a bombshell, and again the point you make gently is we don’t need to spend time being distracting. On the other hand some times these conversations can lead to action. But I need to ask you for him about Tillich. Have you read Tillich?
Brian: I read Tillich back in college and I don’t even remember what I read of Tillich. I’m 54 so I was sort of coming of age by around 1970 — early 70s and at that point Tillich represented the establishment. Ironically Tillich and Moltmann represented sort of the liberal mainline pro-establishment. And what I think in some ways I represent is a second generation or maybe third generation coming at those issues on the other side of the modern-postmodern divide. So I don’t mean this in any — I’m about to say something that sounds dismissive but when I read Tillich, when I read Tillich and Moltmann, I felt like they were working within a very circumscribed modernist box and they were grappling with exactly these questions… within that box. In some ways I think the sides of that box have been blown out. So many of us are grappling with exactly the same questions, but we’ve got a lot more space to work in then they have. The more interesting example for me is — for example, whatever I write — did Tillich write The Ground of Being?
Eric: The Courage to Be was kind of his…
Brian: Okay. That must be what I read. But one of the things he was trying to do was to find a new word to refer to God. When you feel like the term God evokes the guy with a long white beard and patriarchal and male… you’re trying to find language that helps you subvert those assumptions. We’re still struggling with that. We haven’t solved that one yet. And I don’t think we ever will, but for Tillich to come up with a term like ground of being, it was a movement to abstraction as a way to get away from anthropomorphization. But I think in this postmodern era, you realize that that abstraction creates a whole set of other problems as well. The one who’s really interesting to me on this isTeilhard de Chardin who is in my mind working within a really modernist framework. But he was the one who really blows the box open by having a theology of evolution. I think we’re still grappling with issues that those 20th century theologians raised but maybe we have a little more space to deal with them.
Clyde: Flannery O’Connor was a very big fan of Chardin, and I haven’t followed up, I just…
Brian: Yeah, he was a Jesuit paleontologist — you know, he was a serious scientist; I guess the Jesuits have produced a lot of those.
10: THE GRECO-ROMAN NARRATIVE, HEAVEN, HELL
Eric: Your friend in the Congo who’s Pentecostal, talks about the polygamy… my sense is that many Christians in Congo or many African Americans in Wilmington who are followers of Jesus embrace the justice piece — the call to justice — out of an experience of being oppressed — a history of oppression. But in terms of the six line Greco-roman narrative, are very much often going to have that narrative’s vision of heaven and hell of sin and judgment and salvation, etcetera, etcetera. How is the conversation going around this book with those that fit that exodus narrative, and the peaceable kingdom narrative, but who also have a lot — are invested in–and live in the Greco-Roman narrative that they have inherited from those who have colonized them or who have enslaved them.
Brian: And also, that narrative has just been normative for everybody in the west. Ah, what was your question?
Eric: Have you had any conversations… how is this book — how is the movement from that narrative in the work you’re doing there — how has that been received by your friends in the Congo, for example?
Brian: In Africa… it’s the same around the world because European and American Christianity has been exploited around the world. And right now the biggest thing that’s being exploited around the world is the prosperity gospel. And the irony of this is that for all the negative things you can say about the prosperity gospel, there is some good news in the prosperity gospel that wasn’t there in the traditional articulation of the gospel. Again, I have all kinds of critique of it, but the fact is, the prosperity gospel says if you’re poor God cares about it and wants to help you. It also says if you’re rich God cares and wants you to be even richer, you know there’s all that insanity. In my Evangelical context, it’s fascinating to watch this play out. Scot McKnight wrote a very critical review of the book in Christianity Today and it’s fascinating to watch Scot grapple with this.
Eric: I mean you know him — y’all are colleagues…
Brian: Yeah, we’re friends. We’re friends. I think it was a very bad review. I think there’s a lot of politics behind it. But I also think Scot believes that that narrative is the biblical narrative. But I think Scot would like to see us tweak our traditional narrative now. So as I said in the book, here’s where I’m proposing a pretty giant leap. My giant leap is I want to deconstruct that whole six line narrative. I think it’s outlived its usefulness. It’s time for some of us to imagine a different narrative space. But if what Scot represents is somebody who’s going to take two baby steps in that direction, I’m glad for him to do that — it’s a step in the right direction. I think what Scot will do is Scot will oppose… . see, the problem is, the term ‘universalism’ doesn’t make sense once you step out of that six line narrative. Because the term universalism, like the term exclusivism, or inclusivism all deal with what percentage of people are going to end up on the heaven line or what percentage of people are going to end up on the hell line, but when that’s not your framework, that categorization just doesn’t make sense. We should come back and talk about afterlife in a minute, but… so what I think will happen is… a respectable Evangelical position would be inclusivism which is sort of midway between exclusive and universal, and I think that’s what Scot and others will stake out as… and you know what, that will be a better center of gravity than the exclusivism that has been the center of evangelicalism.
Clyde: Can you give me a one line definition of universalism?
Brian: Okay. So universalism is, everybody ends up in heaven. Exclusivism is, only the people who have been specifically qualified will end up in heaven, everybody else will end up in Hell. And inclusivism sort of says, Well the people who’ve been qualified plus some others will end up in Heaven.
Eric: So not everybody, but —
Eric: It’s a softening of exclusivism.
Brian: Exactly. So, in fact almost everybody is an inclusivist. Even the most strict fundamentalist will say well the baby under the age of accountability who dies goes to heaven. Augustine didn’t say that. So they’ve softened it — people are slow, but they soften over time. But for me, what I think is inherent to a belief in God — now this has to be understood in the right way, dealing with definitions — but I think judgment… the idea of judgment is inherent to the idea of a witness to history. But by judgment I don’t mean condemnation; by judgment I mean… something apart from a limited human vested interest. And to me the word judgment means setting things right; it doesn’t mean… the idea that judgment has been reduced to punishment of wrong is a travesty of the biblical narrative. I think that’s way to small a version of God — that justice just means punishing wrongs, criminal justice — punishment. This is why for example — I remember being a boy growing up in church and I read Psalm 98 and it said something like, ‘Shout to the Lord for joy, all the earth, break forth in celebration, God is coming to judge the earth.’
That made no sense because God’s coming to burn everybody in Hell! Be happy! But if you say, no, that word, God is coming to set things right, God is coming to bring justice to the earth, God is coming to stop the oppressors from oppressing, and liberate the captives, suddenly that’s good news. And I think there has to be a setting right. And the guy who writes about this most compellingly for me is the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann and he says, whatever we envision beyond this life it’s not big enough unless it involves the perpetrators of evil and injustice acknowledging what they’ve done in a way that is truly satisfying to the victims of evil and injustice. And could any outcome less than there being a reconciliation of all of these parties — could any outcome less than that be satisfying. I think that’s pretty compelling question.
Eric: That’s the hope that I’ve been — it’s almost apart from theological-pastor-scholar thinking kind of thinking. It’s almost this kind of gut level hope for me — that Moltmann has articulated better than anybody — of all of the oppression, all of the pain, all of the suffering I can’t deal with that without there being some sense that one day all of that will be reconciled, all of that will be redeemed — and if that’s not there, I just feel overwhelmed. I mean, I feel overwhelmed anyway, but… paralyzed almost.
Brian: Yeah I mean part of this is the sense of a good story — how a story would end. But if I could get — a very real analogy comes to mind, an anecdote, an experience comes to mind when you say that.
When my wife and I first got married, we took in a guy who had been a good friend, who was my age, and we were in our 20s, and 19 to 29 is when people typically manifest schizophrenia and so he was a guy we were friends with who then manifested schizophrenia and had no place to live, and we took him in. And it was not easy because he was paranoid — he was on medication but sometimes his medication worked better or worse, so he lived with us for so many years and then ended up, we actually had to ask him to leave for some reasons, and somebody else in our church took him in. And then in his 40s, I mean this poor guy, after everything he’d been through he got lung cancer — never smoked — got lung cancer and died, I don’t know it’s probably 8 or 9 years ago. In fact, I remember right where I as standing down in the basement.
And so as his pastor and a friend, and he lived with us, we were close you know, with all the complexities of schizophrenia added to it, but I would try to call him every week or so just to sort of stay in touch with him, because it was obvious to everyone he was dying. That hadn’t dawned on him too much yet. So we’re on the phone and he says, I’m dying, aren’t I, Brian? And I said, Jeff the fact that they stopped treatment tells me that they don’t think they can help you. And he said, you know I need to talk about this. I can’t talk to my mother. It upsets her too much. I said okay so we can talk. So that started this a few weeks — because he died very quickly — of us talking about him dying. And he asked me what I thought about death, and I said look Jeff — and you know, he was dealing with mental illness so you know, you can’t, and he’s dying, so this isn’t just an abstract philosophical discussion — this is a pastor and a friend. And I said, Jeff, here’s the thing I just want to ask you: after we’re all up with God, you’re going to be so far out at the front of the line, I hope you come back and pay a visit to me, I’ll be way, way back at the back of the line. He says what do you mean? I say Jeff it takes you more courage to make it through one day than it takes me to get through 10 years. I mean I know about those voices in your head, I know what they’re telling you to do, and you say no to the voices in your head a hundred times a day. I said Jeff, I had no idea how strong you are. You are so much stronger than I am, you’re so much of a better person than I am. And he says, Oh you’re just saying that to make me feel better. I say, Jeff I really, really believe that. And I really do. That to me is part of the last will be first and the first will be last and so forth.
And to me, the real purpose of believing in the after life in that way — I mean the practical impact is almost the opposite of what our religious communities have done. Our religious communities take the afterlife as creating the in group and the out group. And when you consign a majority of the human population to being in the out group eternally, that’s extremely convenient for making them the out group temporally.
If some groups are God’s favorites, and other groups are not, the social outcome of that is so horrible, and in fact we see what it is when we look back in history. So that people who want to hold on to that belief, all I’ll say to them is I don’t expect you to change it on my behalf, but I hope you will take the moral responsibility of saying in the next thousand years we better not have the social impacts of that belief that we’ve had in the first thousand years.
But to me the proper sort of moral impact of belief in the afterlife is, first, that I’m willing to end this life with a credit balance so to speak, that I would actually like to end this life having given more than I’ve taken. Now I don’t think that’s possible. I think we all take way more than we give, you know this desire to grab for all the gusto — get everything you can, you know what I mean? This is part I think of what I think Jesus means about laying up treasure in heaven. You aren’t trying to make sure you get as much as you give, which I think is willingness to die for what you believe. I think that is one of the purposes of the afterlife. Because if you don’t believe it’s worth it to suffer and sacrifice for what you believe, I just think that works itself out in your life.
But the other reason I think is because it gives us the sense of a much longer story than just can be — your equations can’t all be balanced in this life. And I suppose that could be used as a copout but if you believe that the primary focus of the gospel is God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven — the primary focus isn’t going to heaven — then it leaves the belief in the afterlife for all the equations to be balanced.
This is all supplemental to me to believing that God is the witness of the story. Oh, I know what I was going to say. . . This to me is what… . you see the dark side of Marxism. If you believe there’s nothing beyond this life to balance the equation, if you’re a Pol Pot in Cambodia, and you think, yeah it’s going to cost just 3.5 million lives, but it will be worth it because we will have achieved the egalitarian, proletariat state that untold millions will benefit from for centuries. You know what I mean? It… There’s a dangerous impact to that. So that’s the danger on the one side. The danger on the religious side is when you put all your eggs in the basket of “who cares about this world?”
Eric: Well yeah I mean it seems to me that the temptation would be — and I just love the image of everything balancing and everything working out. But the danger would be that I’m not as passionate to work now for that, for things to work out now.
Brian: That’s why to me the thrust is God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Which is why, so here’s where you just get in trouble. I’m trying to deconstruct the afterlife emphasis and then everybody assumes, oh you don’t believe in any afterlife at all.
We just go for these all or nothing things. I have tried — in fact, I won’t mention a name on this but — one of my mentors, someone who I’ve had some freedom to try out wild an crazy ideas on — I was telling him that so much of the belief about resurrection, afterlife, just makes no sense to me, I just can’t make sense of it. I said what does make sense to me is this: I don’t know either of you very well, but we’ve met today, and tonight I might fall asleep and I might have a dream, and in my dream the three of us could be talking, and it wouldn’t just be a tape recording of what happened today; somehow my little brain is able to take my impression of you and my impression of you and tonight my imagination could create a completely new conversation that never happened. But it would be in keeping with at least my understanding of each of you. And what I said to this guy is, if whatever the mind of God is, it knows me from every possible vantage point — whatever it means to be known by God, if my imagination can set out a new pattern for you tonight, and I’m happy to trust whatever my life has been to the mind of God for whatever happens beyond this life. So he said, that’s exactly what Alfred North Whitehead said, so I said oh good, I’m glad.
Clyde: The skeptic in me refutes an afterlife and I feel totally comfortable with that in part because I think I read a long time ago in some Jewish writings about you give to others and that lives on. And that’s your afterlife. Your afterlife is in that ever… and when I think about my kids and whomever I’ve come in contact with… and I think about people who’ve never had time to think about leaving anything, they’ve just had time to stay alive, and so when I think about somebody who had time only to stay alive a hundred years ago in some rural south some place, and died young, and I think about me having the option of thinking about the afterlife or not… or if I don’t, or whatever I leave behind, it’s to me… my cousin, in reading your book, made a statement to me that I never thought of before and there’s a certain sense to it and it’s what you were talking about in a way: If there’s an after life, moments are meaningless. If finitude is the way it is, every moment is precious. And that’s not an argument for or against, it’s just a way that I’m comfortable with… I just felt compelled in the freedom of this conversation to make that statement. That’s all.
Brian: I mean what you just articulated I think is very much the ancient Jewish perspective and to me it’s so interesting that if as a Christian I believe that there really was some revelation of God the Jewish people, isn’t in interesting that all of their neighbors believed in an afterlife and they resisted that belief for a long time?
And I think one of the reasons why they resisted it is because the political uses of the afterlife in the ancient world were basically that the elite has an afterlife and the masses don’t, so the only way you get meaning is by hitching yourself to the elite. So if you work for Pharaoh you’ll get buried — because your hope is that you’ll get hitched to his engine and get into the afterlife.
And that was such an elitist and oppressive believe that it was opposed. I’ll tell you where — if that’s the way it is, I’m happy, that’s fine. But the place where I sort of go to thinking about the mind of God in this is that, if the scientists are right, you go out — I forget what it is– another ten billion or twenty-eight billion something years, and we’re a supernova and, oh we can get in a spaceship and go somewhere else, but you know they’re a supernova too. At some point, if the story is forgotten, that beauty of finitude gets swallowed up in a kind of ultimate nothingness. That’s pretty much beyond any of our sphere of control — nothing we can do about it (laughs).
11: JOHN PHILIP SOUSA and THELONIOUS MONK
Clyde: It’s just fascinating the things you talk about and find out about people have talked about, people who have spent a much longer time thinking about these things, like you coming across Whitehead… .
Our time is almost up. I want to be sure… I want to end on a kind of positive note. Something that came to me out of the coincidence from reading your book… I just saw a film called “In My Mind” which is about the music of Thelonious Monk. And I had the privilege of reading a book about Monk and getting interested in Monk’s improvisation which you talk about — improvisation —
Clyde: so I have a feeling… and this movie “In My Mind” is not so much about his music, not to say people aren’t excited about it, but it’s about playing his music, interviewing several African-American musicians who are playing his music in a concert, and then you hear the concert, you hear some audio tapes of Monk from the 50s or 60s…
But it occurs to me that much of what you’re talking about is the difference between John Phillip Souza’s music and Thelonious Monk’s music. And what is true about it is Souza’s inspirational and gets your blood beating. And surely his composition in creating that music is… and then Monk himself, you understand his courage to listen to the music in his head up against the traditional jazz forms even, which include improvisation, you get something that’s really exciting that has to do with living in music. And I think the way you’re dealing with “improvisation” can be exciting to somebody who’s — but I think it all has to be included in the new way we talk and the way you mention so many art forms — and you did leave out “novelists” which you will straighten out.
Brian: Especially with my debt to Walker Percy, I really have to… that’s something that we have to rectify before the final judgment, no question. You know in this book I’m working on right now, I actually have a couple of paragraphs where I talk about this, and it relates to the discussion we were having before about the past, present, and future. For non- musicians, the uttering of a sentence — when you begin a sentence, some part of your brain must know everything you’re going to say. But yet the act of creating a sentence happens in linear time. Every sentence you create in some way transcends time. And when the first word of a sentence comes out, there’s no coherence to that word until enough of that sentence comes out that somehow the meaning sort of flows together. And for musicians the same happens in a musical phrase. Every note has meaning in relation to the notes that come before and after it and it just keeps resonating into larger and larger spheres of meaning so one particular musical phrase in an improv in a jazz piece has meaning in the context of that piece, but that has meaning in the context of all the songs that musician ever plays, which has relation and meaning to the whole genre of jazz and the whole genre of modern music, and the whole genre of music, you know? It just keeps resonating outward. And this to me is part of what the religious impulse is about. It’s saying that there actually is a meaningful context for this whole thing. That meaning and beauty and all the rest — this is what it’s actually about. And jazz as you mention Monk, I just was speaking in Victoria last week and this weekend, and there was a musician there who is a good friend of mine who’s performing, named Steve Bell, and Steve shared the experience of, in a performance a while back, Steve’s playing guitar and a jazz piano student’s playing with him. And it came time for the jazz piano’s solo, and so Steve said he was just staring at the pianist, and trying to sort of make every bit of rhythmic nuance that he could on the guitar to support this soaring solo that the pianist was doing and then he said the pianist looked up at him, and their eyes meet, and he can tell that the pianist is trying to make everything he does support Steve’s guitar playing, and he said there was this moment of the complete self giving of your talent to the other person. But he said he felt like he sort of tore things open for just this timeless moment, that this is what it’s about. He said it’s purely a revelatory moment.
Eric: Can I use that in a sermon?
Brian: Yeah! In fact it would have been good for last Sunday, which was Trinity Sunday.
12: THE TRINITY
Brian: Because to me, when we talk in these terms, that’s when the language of Trinity becomes meaningful.
Clyde: My first impression again from a kind of non-academic perspective — this business of Trinity is an attempt to take care of divinity in Jesus, but with Eric’s recent sermon it was explained in a way — that we were just talking about — that was very helpful.
Brian: To me this is where we have to see the difference… if you take religion as this phenomenon, there are many poles, but one pole is the political pole that is about how religion gets used to control people and enforce things… it can be used for good or bad. But let’s just talk about the negative use of religion. And then at the other pole are the mystics.
In fact you could say at one pole is John Phillip Souza who’s getting people to march in order, and then at the other end is Thelonious Monk who’s setting people free to dance and imagine. You know what I mean? You have those poles everywhere.
When the mystics talk about Trinity, it’s very different than when Constantine uses Trinity as a reason to enforce, not only control — I mean this is an unprecedented level of control — not only control of people’s behavior but of their
Brian: Beliefs. It’s remarkable. So I’m just thinking about the primary audience for our conversation being young adults who are trying to come to terms with this phenomenally complex varied phenomenon called religion and spirituality and you just have to remember that it’s a whole lot of things. There’s a pole where it can be really dark and ugly and controlling, and there’s another pole where it can be liberating and fulfilling. I suppose you could say the same thing about literature. There’s the literature of propaganda and there’s the literature of oppression, and then the literature of trust.
So we’ve got the whole phenomenon, and every one of us comes into it and we try to leverage our lives into that mix somewhere where we hope we’ll feel good about it in the end.
Clyde: I think there’s a misconception about you and Monk and anyone on that extreme, that… there’s a feeling that there’s a looseness and a “lack” involved in improvisation, where, with people like Monk, there is an obsessive discipline behind what he ends up with that the improvisation must build on. Musicians know that — that it’s not a matter of being relative and relativity. It’s a matter of a whole new strength. It’s not that Monk is weak and Souza’s strong, necessarily, and that’s the problem with that whole, you know, integrating the empire thing that you talk about.
Eric: It seems to me that — not to bring in politics at the last minute — George W. Bush represents, embodies, the 6 line Greco-Roman narrative from the Christian perspective in his faith. And Barack Obama — and again this is speaking in general terms — his faith and the way he operates is much more in line with the creation, liberation, beloved community that you talk about. And there’s a tremendous backlash as President Obama governs from perhaps the narrative that you’re talking about. Can you say a hopeful word in the midst of that backlash for those who are discouraged because of that backlash?
Brian: I’m trying to think about how the transcript of this will go, so I don’t know — who ever edits this has a big job on their hands…
You know, I would actually tweak what you just said maybe to say Dick Cheney represents the 6 line Greco-Roman narrative and George Bush maybe represents the sort of normal American Joe, who has to choose between the two and easily gets sucked into playing out the script of Dick Cheney, and what’s been intriguing to me since Bush’s presidency is that he’s been silent.
And it will be interesting over the next 12 years to watch — I wouldn’t be surprised if, down the road, George Bush the man actually has more affinities to the Barack Obama pole than to the Dick Cheney pole — for what it’s worth.
I don’t know if any of that could be useful, but maybe what I could say that could be useful, this is one of the dramas of our time in history as Americans: we are the superpower. And we have to decide whether we believe that the only way to be safe is to maintain hegemony, to maintain advantage and control. But if the purpose of being given much power, in the words of Spiderman, is that with much power comes much responsibility and the purpose-
Eric: Spiderman’s uncle.
Brian: Spiderman’s uncle! That’s right. But the purpose of being given power is not to preserve it but to give it away. And this to me suddenly resonates — this it to me is where the message of Jesus becomes so — that becomes Gospel message, and maybe not a very theological one.
We were talking about the meaning of words and all that stuff — you know, one of the most important passages in the New Testament relating to Christology is Philippians Chapter 2, which has this picture of Jesus’ divestment, ending up dying as not just a slave but a crucified, suffering slave, and most English translations begin that little passage by saying, “Although Jesus was in the form of God he did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped. But that word ‘although’ is not in the text. That’s an interpolation. It’s always been there. The text itself could just as easily be translated: because he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, which represents two different views of God. One is, God likes having power, but Jesus in contrast to God gives it away. But the other view says that the very nature of God is the giving away of power. And this is where theology suddenly makes all the difference.
Is the nature of God, is the logic of the universe, is the deepest moral arc of the universe about the sharing of power or about the grasping of power?
A lot hangs in the balance on what might seem an arcane theological issue.
Eric: Last question — we haven’t talked about the mystery of prayer, which you’re writing about so that will be a really great book. But, how can I pray for you. When people pray for you, what do you want them to pray for?
Brian: I don’t want to just rush to an answer for that question. I think I have a couple of issues in my life that are really important. One is sustainability. So I’m just getting back from a crazy couple of months of travel, and I’m not complaining, but one of the downsides of being in demand is that that’s somewhat demanding and as, Bruce Coburn said, you can swipe your credit so many times that you wear out the magnetic strip. And so what I need in the next couple of months, because I’m on a bit of a respite from some travel for a couple of months is just for all that recharging. And then I think the second thing is — you mentioned that my next book is on prayer — I’ve been doing a lot of deconstructing for the last 13 years of my writing, and there comes a point where you start wanting to try to do more reconstructing. So to write about prayer is like trying to talk about — how do we positively begin to express the spirituality? And I have some other contributions I feel like, I hope I can make in my life. One of the great challenges — I don’t know if you’ve experienced this as a novelist but the publishing business starts to treat you as a brand and they only want you to do what you’ve done, because that’s your brand. And when you want to make a turn and do some things that are quite different, you’re going against a flow.
Clyde: We could go on for days, but we need to stop. We’re really thankful for your time.
Brian: It’s been so enjoyable. I’m so glad to meet you guys.
Clyde Edgerton is the author of the novel The Bible Thief and 9 other books. He teaches in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
Eric Porterfield is the pastor of Winter Park Baptist Church in Wilmington, North Carolina (winterparkbaptist.org).