Heres a little email chat I had with Brian McLaren recently. He agreed to let me post it on my blog. I reviewed Brian’s book “Everything Must Change” but my mixed review was a little harsh and I had a few questions unanswered. I thought it would be worthwhile to post the conversation here in case you had the same questions as I did. Anyway, thanks Brian for your responses. Here is a shortened piece of the conversation, right after I was complimenting Brian on his book:
Brian, I have 3 concerns from your book that linger:
1. the apparent absence of the CHURCH as God’s primary instrument in accomplishing his mission on earth – and the gaping hole in your book where the example of equality and justice in the early church of Acts 2-4 should have been, in my humble opinion. [i read recently that the love feast happened daily in homes and the poor could always find a meal with the believers – a justice element in the lords supper that has gone by the wayside]
Great point. Because I decided to limit my focus to Jesus, I didn’t bring in a lot of stuff from Acts and the Epistles that I could have (except one chapter to show that Paul is part of the revolution, so to speak, not a traitor to it as so many think) … Limiting my focus to Jesus kept me from bringing in much about the church per se, or from church history – or from the Old Testament, for that matter – each of which could be a book in itself. A church history written from this perspective would be powerful – kind of a 21st century re-write of Broadbent’s “The Pilgrim Church” (which I’ll bet you’ve read, but if not, it’s worth finding in a used book shop or seminary library).
One of the things that I hope the book does (by understatement, perhaps?) is help people think of “church” in broader ways. For example, I don’t think that the church per se is going to intentionally solve economic problems in Africa. But churches will inspire entrepreneurs and activists and politicians and health care workers and community organizers and film-makers, etc., to work together in ways that will bring more and more healing. In this way, “church work” is building up the church, but “the work of the church” is doing kingdom work in our daily lives and jobs, from business to art to government to education to agriculture to whatever.
. . . however, you have already written a great book (the church on the other side) where you affirm your faith in the body of Christ and you also are choosing to speak to the church in your Deep Shift tour which tells me you actually DO see the primacy of the church . . .
Yes. I was deeply impacted a few years ago by Alan Roxburgh at one of our events (you may have been there?) when he said, the church is like a person who gets invited to a party and only talks about himself. I’ve been thinking that we get into a syndrome of trying to save our lives denominationally, etc, which makes us lose them … when instead, our churches need to lose our lives, pour ourselves out for the sake of the world, become more interested in joining God in caring for the world than in getting God to join us in caring for ourselves, that sort of thing. But of course, at heart I’ll always be a pastor, and in the end, none of this matters unless it’s embedded in local churches of whatever form. My next book will lean back in that direction – it’s on spiritual formation and disciplines, etc.
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2. The apparent absence of HOPE in your view of future things. Maybe i missed it but you don’t seem to acknowledge hope in the afterlife, resurrection of the dead, etc in your book and i had to guess whether you had walked away from these foundational orthodox doctrines or you were focusing exclusively on the immanence of the gospel in today’s world for effect.
Again, I set a pretty specific goal for myself in this book: to explore global crises and what the message of Jesus says to those crises. I did address life after death in Secret Message of Jesus, chapter 20. So I haven’t walked away from hope in the afterlife, etc. If anything, I see more than ever how hope in the afterlife is necessary to keep us going when progress in this life seems slow or nonexistent.
BTW – have you read Andrew Perriman’s books “The Coming of the Son of Man” or “Re:Mission”? He’s opened up a lot of new questions for me regarding eschatology. I’d love to know what you think of his work if you’ve had time to look at it. He takes NT Wright’s stuff and extends it a step farther, I think. Jay Gary’s work (he has a great website) also has been forcing me to rethink my eschatology along similar lines.
Yeah – I was with Andrew Perriman a few months ago in Amsterdam and I really like his books AND the questions he brings to the text. Similar questions as Wright, ie, “What were the disciples THINKING when Jesus said that?
Hey Brian, in your book you seem to embrace a non-spiritual understanding of structures and powers. The Africans would generally hold to the presence of angels and demons behind things, a supernatural view of structures as well as natural. Philip Jenkins seems to land on the western side also on this issue. I don’t think one could claim to represent African theology without addressing that issue.
I’ve talked with lots of Africans about this. It’s really complex. I’ve had a couple of personal experiences with “dark powers,” so I certainly don’t write them off. But I also think that the language used in Africa (and in a lot of Pentecostalism elsewhere) thinks it grasps these unseen realities more than it really does. So I probably lean more toward Walter Wink than either John Spong or Benny Hinn … these forces are real, deadly real. But I think that the language of devils, etc., which I think may have been borrowed by the Jews from the Zoroastrians during the exile, is no more precise than our language of waves and particles in trying to grasp light … which is truly real but which eludes our ability to define very well. So I wouldn’t call my understanding “non-spiritual.” It’s just that I think the spirituality of evil is non-dualistic, meaning it gets embodied in people and organizations etc., in their “spirit” … but I would be the first to say I have a lot to learn on this. Sometime when we’re together, I’ll tell you about some of the fascinating conversations I’ve had with Africans … from common people to theologians – on the subject of demons and tribal cosmology in general.
Fair enough. And I know that you appreciated “Colossians Remixed”. And finally . . . Number 3. An uncritical appraisal of the liberation theology movement from Latin America – there are libraries full of writings on this. I am sure you have read the criticisms (David Bosch in ‘Transforming Mission’ is good) and have your own but your book appears almost giddy and accepting without reservation –
Wow, this is really interesting … I honestly can’t imagine why you’d say this. I quote Leonardo Boff several times – but I don’t think I quote any other liberation theologians (maybe Jon Sobrino, whom I’ve tried to read in Spanish, but didn’t succeed very well!), and I think I agree with David Bosch 100% – on just about everything! (BTW – I got to know his beautiful widow in Praetoria. She’s planning to join us in Rwanda in May – maybe you could come? Let me know if you think you could swing it – it’s May 20-27)
Boff is neither marxist nor violent by any stretch of the imagination … I think you could say he got into trouble with the pope not for his economics but for being too Protestant in advocating the priesthood of all believers! Maybe you saw something I don’t remember writing. Can you give me a specific where you think I am giddy about liberation theologians? Also, which are you critical of, and what ideas of theirs? It’s commonly said in Evangelical settings in the US that liberation theologians are marxists, advocating violent revolution, etc., but it’s interesting: in Latin America or Africa, I’ve never heard anyone say anything like this – I think they abandoned that thinking in the 80’s or maybe even the 70’s. Everyone I met in Latin America would consider anyone advocating violence as crazy … I did quote Rene Padilla’s good insight about marxism. He said that in Latin America, people say Capitalism is very good at production but bad at distribution. Marxism is good at distribution but terrible at production – which means the best they can do is distribute poverty evenly! The hope, clearly, is with finding ways to make capitalism more humane, compassionate, collaborative and sustainable – at least, that’s how I see it.
Ahhhh. Forgive me for misjudging. I really like Padilla’s thinking. I must have just reacted badly and assumed things that were not accurate.
Brian, your view on the last things has a few of us guessing. How does your eschatological position compare with . . say . . an evangelical post-millenial view? And do you believe in life after death?
Just to be super clear … YES! I believe in life after death! I find it hard to line up my views with conventional pre, post, or amillenial views because I think they are all based on an assumption I don’t share, i.e. that the book of Revelation is intended to tell us how the world will end. This view presupposes a deterministic view of history, which I don’t share. I suppose I’m more Wesleyan and Anabaptist in this regard than Calvinist. Anyway, I talk about this in detail in SMJ, and refer to it briefly in EMC – I believe the Book of Revelation is an example of Jewish Apocalyptic which, although it may be concerned with the end of the age, is not really talking about the end of the world at all. In this, I follow NT Wright’s general line of thought, so if I’m off the ranch, so is he. I see Biblical prophecy in terms of warnings and promises, which are different from prognostications. If I had to put a name on my eschatology, I suppose I would call it “Participatory” – meaning that God invites us to participate in God’s ongoing work in the world, leading to the ultimate victory of all that is good and the ultimate defeat of evil. Beyond that, there are a lot of eschatological details I was much surer about twenty years ago when I read the Bible less and popular end-times books more!
You seem to be calling the American church to a new level of repentance, one that is deeper and more connected with structures. How has the response been?
My loyal critics are by and large ignoring this book (so far), or if they pay attention to it – this is very sad to me – they generally ignore everything about poverty, war, and environmental destruction, and focus on doctrinal issues they disagree with me about. Sheesh. I can only hope that someone they agree with theologically will get them thinking more seriously about global crises. Apart from these loyal critics, though, response is really encouraging. People are telling me they are coming to faith or back to faith through the book … and they are feeling more confident to call themselves followers of Jesus when Jesus is presented not just as a fire escape and savior from the world, but as a liberating king and savior of the world. I am also hearing privately from some “big names” who can’t afford to associate with me publicly because of all the nastiness in the American religious world, but who are thankful for the book and affirming of its message.
I’m really grateful that you wrote, Andrew, and I hope we can go go-carting or something equally fun and good together before too long. I always meet people for whom you and your website are an oasis in the desert and a source of hope … I really appreciate your friendship. Warmly, in Christ – Brian
Go-carting again would be great. I am posting the photo of us and our wives at the 2002 Go-cart race in Prague. Thanks for your helpful responses to my crass questions. Look forward to our next chat. Glad to be your friend, Andrew.