This is the transcript of an interview I did with Brian McLaren to advance his Oklahoma City appearance on October 12 at Mayflower UCC for the Oklahoma Gazette. We started off talking about his new book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Eventually, we got to the issue of people's response to his involvement in his son's same-sex blessing ceremony. As always, questions are in italics, and his answers are in regular type. If I make a comment or editorialize, I'll note it.
How did you come to write this book?
I've been thinking about writing is for a long time, probably since A New Kind of Christian. As I was writing it, I was aware that a new kind of Christian entails a new Christian identity, especially related to people of other faiths. In NKOC, I was trying to deal with Christian identity inside Christianity, but with the new book I look at the different problems that result as Christianity relates to other faiths.
We (ed: by which he seems to mean American Christianity, but I suspect we could extend it to Anglican Communion, etc.) do two things well. We either have a strong Christian identity and a corresponding hostility to other faiths, or we have a weak Christian identity that is tolerant of other faiths. What we need to consider is a strong Christian identity that is benevolent toward other faiths.
How is this different than the old ecumenical movement or the Lausanne Covenant?
I think the ecumenical movement has been very good in treating other faiths charitably. The Lausanne Covenant itself is charitable and not hostile toward other faiths. The ecumenical movement didn't always show a strong Christian identity, so I want to frame the discussion with the ideas of strong Christian identity and that charity toward other faiths.
For many people, the telos of evangelism is that the whole world must agree with us--and that's true of people who aren't Christian. There are pluralists who want everyone to be a pluralist. This isn't just about evangelism, though. This new Christian identity has to take into account this question: what does love for my neighbor look like if my neighbor doesn't want to convert?
How do you answer it?
We have actually had Christians mobilizing to prevent the building of mosques in the United States, like the group in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Do you think Muslims in those cities feel like they have loving Christian neighbors? A strong Christian identity means that we speak up with them and in their defense.
We are facing monumental global crises — the environment, the divide between rich and poor, proliferation of nuclear weapons, the threat of catastrophic war. Governments and religions cannot tackle these problems alone. I like what Rick Warren says about this. He said he's interested in interfaith dialogs as much as he's interested in interfaith projects. If we can do that, it can open up a new chapter in Christian mission.
The book's release is timely given the recent film about the Prophet Muhammad. What do you say to those sorts of knuckleheads who believe provocation is the best way to address another faith?
People are going to be knuckleheads. In those instances, we have to speak up from an alternative religious position. The alternative to bad religion isn't no religion; it's good religion. When Christians say and do harmful, prejudicial and violent things, we must speak up. When they moblize against mosques, we must speak up with and in defense of our Muslim neighbors. In the dispute between Israel and Palestine, if either side engages in inhumane or unjust behavior, we must speak up. We must speak up to our own tradition, someteimes siding with other traditions against our own.
Do you think words like Islamist and Christianist are useful in these moments?
Andrew Sullivan uses the word Christianist to make a helpful distinction between a political ideology and Christian practice. It's a useful name, and there is a value in naming things. However, there are also unintended consequences.
I grew up in a fundamentalist setting. Fundamentalists of every kind almost never seee themselves as oppressors, only as victims. They see no harm in their words and names directed at homosexuals or Muslims. In fact, they believe they are speaking the truth. However, any perceived insult directed at them, a term like Christianist, for example, only serves to stir up more victimization on the part of fundamentalists. Recently, I was speaking at an event and I took the opportunity to describe certain people as Islamophobic. Only afterwards did I realize that the people who most needed to hear what I was saying took offense to the term.
You recently took some criticism for presiding over your son's same-sex blessing ceremony. How did you react to that?
As a parent, you always feel protective of your kids. You don't want them to be hurt. I felt that way about my son as the ceremony gained attention. These things make it apparent that issues related to hostility and identity also apply within the faith. I know Christianity Today had it on their blog, but I didn't read it or the comments. My wife did, though, and she was very upset. We did receive all sorts of texts and voicemails from people who supported our decision and who disagreed respectfully.
I keep hearing the war is won on the LGBT issue, and we're just fighting mop-up battles. Thoughts?
I think this issue will follow a similar path as racism and equality for women. That's good news and bad. There still are pockets of resistance on those two issues. We still have segregated worship in American churches. Women are prevented from being in ministry or being ordained, and they are in some places viewed as less equal. We will have the same pockets of resistance on the LGBT issue, too. The good news is that younger people view it as more normative. They see people for who they are. And I think in the U.S., even for those who are opposed, it's still a better environment than elsewhere.
I've spent a great deal of time in Africa and Asia over the past several years. Gay people's lives are still in danger in some of those countries. Globally ,we have a long way to go. The most conservative American Christian I can imagine wouldn't call for the death of a gay person for being gay.
It's been 11 years since NKOC. Anything you would change in that book looking back?
No. I don't think so. I was really lucky. I started writing that book when I was 40. I'd been through the issues in the book by then. At that age, writing left me with less regrets, so there was nothing really to change. I did open up areas that I didn't fully work through, but I've done that in subsequent books.
I'm not certain on the next project. It will be some sort of catechesis. What would an introduction to the faith look like with this new Christian identity? What would it look like to re-introduce someone to the faith? That's what I'm thinking about. I'm not ready to write it yet.