No one knows how to prod and provoke American evangelicals quite like Brian McLaren.
I first met Brian years ago when he’d been freshly anointed one the Top 25 Most Influential American Evangelicals by Time Magazine. At that point, Brian was leading a church plant, was a central voice (some say “The Godfather”) of what was then called the Emergent Church, and had penned a few helpful, but restrained books.
I say restrained, because Brian,
has had a way of nibbling around the edges of big questions by asking provocative questions. Oftentimes, his books and talks felt like Guerilla-Theology – he’d distract readers with widely agreed upon Christian categories then attack those sensibilities in the best and most kind ways.
Since leaving the pastorate, Brian is no longer nibbling. He is no longer content to ask provocative questions. Brian’s new book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World, is offering solutions – and if not solutions, he is attempting to chart a positive path for Christian praxis in a multi-faith world. Brian’s central questions is this: In a multi-faith world, how can Christians form a religious identity that is both strong and kind?
This is a precious pursuit for those of us who want to extend Christ’s love for all humanity; to witness to them what we know as the full grace of God while allowing their story to develop with God without artificial pressure and along God’s timetable.
It is also for those of us who see and hear fellow Christians on television and radio who claim Christianity, but – at least in our estimation – carry neither the spirit of Christ nor our assent to speak on our behalf. We want a path forward that neither abandons our commitments nor abuses our neighbor in the name of those commitments.
As Brian sees it, Christians have been good at forming strong identities that are hostile or weak identities which are benign. By this he means, we can stand of for Jesus but only to the domination of others or we can have a weak faith in Jesus that lacks power, significance, and meaning. Brian writes…
“My pursuit,…is a Christian identity that moves me toward people of other faiths in whole-hearted love, not in spite of their non-Christian identity and not in spite of my own Christian identity, but because of my identity as a follower of God in the way of Jesus.”
Brian’s endeavor is rooted in kindness: “We are increasingly faced with a choice, I believe, not between kindness and hostility, but between kindness and nonexistence.” Yet Brian is not arguing for a mealy-mouthed interfaith dialogue wherein we sit in circles and hear the beliefs of the religious other, share our stories, and have cookies and punch. McLaren wants to help the church re-imagine cherished – and distinctly Christian – practices in light of the teaching and Jesus and Paul. This, Brian argues, runs counter to the narratives of domination and colonialism inherited from Constantinian Christianity.
The answer for hostility, McLaren posits, isn’t loosening hold of or losing faith in Christ, but engaging more deeply in the centuries old practices which have enlivened the church. Brian divides the text into 4 large sections: (1) The Crises of Christian Identity, (2) The Doctrinal Challenge, (3) The Liturgical Challenge, and (4) The Missional Challenge. Each of these share a locus of uniquely Christian practice.
It is these Christian practices which will either inspire or enrage readers.
I suspect no reader will agree with Brian’s entire proposal, but they will be thoughtfully challenged by Brian’s new, fresh approach. The simple truth is that something about the way American Evangelicalism is practiced has and is producing or contributing to some of the hostility we witness around the world.
In response, there must be resources among the people of Jesus to heal and solve the problem. Accepting the fact that Evangelicals have more influence over themselves than they do adherents of other religions, our core beliefs and practices seem an obvious place to start this healing – even if we haven’t thus far. What if Soteriology, atonement theory, Christology, the Eucharist, and our sermons, songs, and prayers were actually the antidote to the forces which create and sustain religious hostility?
In appropriating Christian uniqueness for multi-faith engagement, Brian charts new territory. It is neither okay to beat others with Christianity or trash our treasured beliefs. Brian offers means of using Christian beliefs to draw us toward others (particularly Anabaptists approaches to Christology, pg. 139-140).
Ultimately, Brian realizes what many fail to understand: Christians live in a world with people of other faiths. This is the way it is and the way it has always been. No! They will not all convert to Christianity, yet we have to live together, work together, and strive for general human flourishing. Brian offers a creative (if at sometimes theologically speculative) and faith-oriented path to engage the world on distinctly Christian terms.
However, if Brian were sitting across the table from me, as we have in varied places from Houston and Abilene, TX to Menlo Park, CA, I’d have serious questions about evangelism, which seem elusive and vague in this most recent work. Perhaps, Brian is leaving space there. Space for truly interpersonal engagement, the kind that can only be filled with friendship.
If you long for a better, more peaceful, less hostile world, click now and buy this book.
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