In more than a dozen highly influential books, evangelical pastor Brian McLaren has championed a progressive approach to evangelical Christianity, stressing issues of social justice and rejecting the traditionally conservative politics of the mainstream evangelical movement. But 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 its 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 Rev. Eric Porterfield, pastor of Winter Park Baptist Church in Wilmington, North Carolina, went to speak with McLaren at his home in Maryland. In this, the third in a series of excerpts from their conversation, they talk with him about the difficulty of talking about Jesus; about Jesus’ Jewish roots; and about the difficulty of reading the Bible in terms of its historical and linguistic context. The entire interview can be found here.
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 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.
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 Philippi which is a Roman colony, you’re loyal to Korios 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 “isaiah” 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 convincing 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.
Coming Next: Busted McLaren, Part 4: Sex and Sexuality
For the complete interview with Brian McLaren, click here.
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).