Brian McLaren, Protestant pastor, author and theological gadfly is one of the most influential figures associated with the Emerging Church movement, a loosely defined network made up in large part of younger evangelical Christians seeking to reinterpret traditional beliefs and practices for the 21st century. Movement participants, stressing their intellectual and spiritual diversity, think of themselves as engaged in an open-ended “dialogue” or “conversation,” much of which takes place on the internet at sites such as emergentvillage.com, where McLaren’s podcasts help set the tone.
In more than a dozen highly influential books, McLaren has championed a progressive approach to evangelicism, stressing social justice and rejecting the traditionally conservative politics of the mainstream evangelical movement. McLaren told an interviewer in 2006, “When we present Jesus as a pro-war, anti-poor, anti-homosexual, anti-environment, pro-nuclear weapons authority figure draped in an American flag, I think we are making a travesty of the portrait of Jesus we find in the Gospels.” He has worked closely with the evangelical anti-poverty activist Jim Wallis, whose Busted Halo interview can be read here.
McLaren’s politics are best understood as an outgrowth of his religious thinking. His most recent book, A New Kind of Christianity, published in early 2010, sets out to reread the Bible from a 21st-century perspective, deconstructing the book’s Greco-Roman narrative, emphasizing the Jewish context of early Christian belief, and proposing a more open-ended view of Christianity’s sacred text as “an inspired library” rather than a “constitution.”
Novelist Clyde Edgerton and Reverend Eric Porterfield, pastor of Winter Park Baptist Church in Wilmington, North Carolina, went to speak with McLaren at his home in Maryland. This is the first of a series of excerpts from their conversation; it focuses on McLaren’s idea of “prophetic confrontation” and the difficulty of promoting social change. The entire interview can be found here.
Part 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 Well, there are an awful lot of debates, but one of them has on one side the Church as a sort of model, a withdrawn, somewhat isolated community.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 with 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. 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 counterproductive.
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. It 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.