Naked and Not Ashamed: A Conversation with Brian McLaren

Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and public theologian. Brian helped form and then pastored Cedar Ridge Community Church, an innovative, nondenominational church in the Baltimore-Washington region. During his time at Cedar Ridge, the church earned a reputation as a leader among emerging missional congregations. He has been active in networking and mentoring church planters and pastors since the mid 1980s, and has assisted in the development of several new churches. He is a popular conference speaker and a frequent guest lecturer for denominational and ecumenical leadership gatherings—across the US and Canada, Latin America, Europe, Africa, and Asia and was listed in Time as one of American’s 25 most influential evangelicals.

I met Brian in 2008 during a tour for his book Everything Must Change and we were able to connect again later that year at the Amahoro Africa Gathering in Rwanda and during a subsequent—and for me, quite life-altering—trip to Burundi. We have since run into each other at several global gatherings and share many good friends. I’ve had the privilege of  seeing Brian encourage and challenge both Christians (myself included) and the not-so-religious around the world with genuine grace and humility.

McLaren is primarily known as a thinker and writer. He has published several well-know and award winning books, beginning with The Church on the Other Side: Doing Ministry in the Postmodern Matrix, (Zondervan, 1998, rev. ed. 2000) up to his most recent 2011 HarperOne release, Naked Spirituality, which offers “simple, doable, and durable” practices to help people deepen their life with God. Brian and I corresponded by e-mail about his new book.

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It seems, in the past, that your primary audience has been the Evangelical church. Who was this book written for and why?

I think many Evangelicals have often thought that I was writing mostly for them. But I think many Mainliners have thought I was writing mainly for them. My hunch is that I’m writing for all of the above – Evangelicals, Mainliners, Catholics, the “spiritual but not religious” – who share one thing in common: a desire for a deeper, more honest, more vibrant faith and spirituality. So I try to make points of contact with each group and build a bridge from where they are. In the end, I think we human beings have more in common than our differing labels might suggest; the deeper we go, the more in common we share. So to the degree I can address those deeper human needs, while avoiding exclusive jargon and so on, I think it’s possible to connect to a broader audience than just one tribe.

What caused you to write such a deeply personal book and how does it address the often-dichotomized realms of Christian thought and spiritual practice?

One of the ironies of my life is that I’ve been known publicly as a thinker/writer on theology and contemporary issues, yet I spent 24 years of my life as a pastor in a suburban church, preaching, leading Bible studies, leading in the eucharist, planning worship services, performing baptisms and weddings and funerals, leading retreats, and so on. For me, the theological and philosophical issues I’ve written about emerged in the context of the local church … and my work in theology and contemporary issues has always been deeply spiritual for me, not just an intellectual exercise. So for me they’ve been deeply integrated.

Yet I realize that’s not the case for everyone. For a lot of people I meet on the road, when their theological system crumbles, there’s little left … little spiritual vitality apart from a belief system, little in the way of sustaining, doable, durable spiritual practices. So I wanted to address that vacuum. I think to talk about the spiritual life in a pastoral way, we have to be personal. We have to speak from “what we have seen, what we have heard,” as 1 John says. So it felt necessary and right to share in the book some of my own struggles and breakthroughs on a very personal level, even though it’s also a little scary to do so – scary in the sense that if someone mocks your idea or trashes a concept, it doesn’t hurt in quite the same way it does when someone disregards a story that comes from your gut, so to speak.

Can you talk about the relationship between religion and spirituality?

Religion, rightly understood, is spirituality. But too often, religion is misunderstood. The word probably derives from the root word “ligament,” which binds bones and muscles together. So religion is about rebinding fragmented and dislocated parts into a coherent, harmonious whole. And when people say they’re “spiritual,” I think this is what they mean. For them, religion has come to mean something that divides us, that sets some of us against others. I suggest we call that all-too-common phenomenon “de-ligion,” since it’s really about breaking ligaments, breaking connections, severing relationships.

You write that, “even if a particular style of religious clothing now feels stiff, tight and ill-fitting for you…the possibility of naked spirituality still remains a live option.” How were you able to engage in naked spirituality with God when the encounter was “dressed” in the theology of the conservative Evangelicalism of your youth? Do you think this possibility exists for followers of other religions?

I’m not saying this is easy, but I think many of us are doing this all the time. We know there are people in our church or denomination or religion spewing hate or prejudice or fear, and we know they would like us to join them. But we find ways to desist and resist and persist in another way of relating. Doing so makes us vulnerable to inquisitors – people who come asking us litmus-test questions, seeking to expose us and marginalize us. But that vulnerability isn’t a bad thing … It’s far better, I think, to be a victim of inquisition than a perpetrator of it. And if having courage to stand for our convictions is a precious thing, then what better environment could we ask for than an environment that requires courage? And along with that, if having tolerance and grace for people who disagree is a good thing, than what better environment could there be for us than one which demands tolerance and grace?

In your discussion of “Sorry” you write about our tendency to be blind to either corporate or personal sin. Why do you think, in churches, we tend to lean heavily toward recognition of one or the other? What do you think are the implications of this imbalance and what spiritual practices can we employ to regain equilibrium?

In either category, personal or corporate sin, it’s always easier to confess “their” sins than my own. The real challenge, in either category, is to want to confront my own sins, the plank in my own eye, as Jesus said. I’ve been in a wide variety of churches lately – Evangelical, Pentecostal, Mainline Protestant, and Roman Catholic, and I’d have to say that in 100% of them, the emphasis has been on personal sins. Aside from a passing reference to social sins, our tradition in Western Christianity is highly tilted towards the individual and personal side of things. So to achieve balance – and to maintain integrity – I think we have a lot of work to do in this area. First we have to discover all the things that are simply missing – the areas of social sin that we simply haven’t awakened to yet. Then we have the ongoing monitoring to deal with. For example, anti-Muslim and anti-Latino/a bigotry wasn’t big on our screen fifty years ago when anti-Semitism and white privilege were the huge, obvious planks in the eyes of the white American church. Now, perhaps we’ve made small progress there, but these new planks are jutting out of our eye sockets and we have to address them.

At our church in Hollywood, we talk a lot about our vocabulary. Many of us have baggage with “churchy” words and we struggle between redefining old religious terms and creating new ones to signify our change of mindset or practice. Does the language you use in the book reflect this kind of struggle?

I try hard to find fresh language in the book. So, for example, the old term “petition” certainly has a lot of meaning – referring to praying on my own behalf. But I try to translate that into the term “expansion,” suggesting that through asking God for help, strength, guidance, and so on, I am seeking to expand my capacities beyond their current boundaries. Or “intercession” – praying for others – I call “practicing compassion,” or “joining God in caring for others.” That makes it sound less like a laundry list and more like an experience of growth and transformation, which is what I believe we really need. I don’t think I ever use the word “prayer” in the book, or if I do, it occurs very seldom, although a case could be made that this is a book about kinds of prayer. Again, I think for many of us, the word “prayer” brings to mind a set of shoulds and rules and pressures and so on that derail us from doing what prayer really is supposed to be about, which is aligning and harmonizing our inner being with God’s character.

I’m certainly not against the old words, and I’m not naive about the complexities of nuance and connotation. But I think that many of our most important words have been so abused for so long that we can only get back to their essential meaning by means of other words – for a time at least. One example is the word “sin.” I’m not for downplaying sin at all. This whole book is, in a way, about various forms of sin and practices to pre-empt or booby-trap sin. But for many people, “sin” evokes a kind of petty score-keeping … which reinforces an image of God as a fastidious referee or hyperactive critic, always seeking to find our tiniest mistakes so we can be shamed and condemned. Perhaps we can use some other words for a while … evils, injustices, wrongs, smallness, bitterness, sickness, pride, addiction, ingratitude, and so on … that will help us get to the real issue with sin, which is not about God scoring us or us earning God’s favor through perfect behavior. It’s about God loving us and wanting the best for us, wanting us to avoid destructive behaviors and vicious or careless attitudes which harm, deface, break, and disgrace precious parts of God’s beautiful creation, including ourselves. In the end, what matters in grappling with sin is being able to stand before God nakedly – just as we are, in all our sin and in all God’s lavish grace, knowing that where human wrong, injustice, greed, ingratitude, and so on abound … God’s grace abounds all the more.

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