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, 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.

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Prophetic Confrontation within A New Kind of Christianity

First in a series of conversations with influential author Brian McLaren


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 its 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 resegregation 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 is 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.

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 its opponents and they see the light, but rather because its opponents die and a new generation rises that’s familiar with it.

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 it 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.

Coming Next: Busted McLaren, Part 2: God Over Time

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 (