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 fourth and last excerpt from their conversation, Edgerton and Rev. Porterfield talk with McLaren about some of the problems Christianity faces in dealing with sex, sexual politics and contemporary sexuality. The entire interview can be found here.
Part 4: Sex and Sexuality
Clyde: Sexuality. Our interview is for 20- and 30-year-olds, and I think your chapter [in A New Kind of Christianity] 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 to 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 Ph.D. 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 in America is 17 or 18 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, 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&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 were, but it was an evangelical context and someone said, What do you think about gay marriage?” and… 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.
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).