Why we should listen to Brian McLaren

by Rachel Deigh


Brian McLaren is one of the speakers booked for ECG 2011. Whenever I mention this I usually get one of 2 responses: 1. ‘In that case I’m not going’ or 2. ‘Great! I can’t wait’. My confession is that I fall into the 2nd camp. And what follows is an intensely personal confession as to my reasons why. And I hope that you will read this as such….


Confession #1: I had itches!


Itch no. 1 was my struggle to admit to going to churchL~


I have grown up in the Methodist Church. And yet I have often found myself asking ‘what’s it all for? Why is belonging to the church so important?’ This questioning started at school when trying to ‘defend’ why I went to church and found I could not. My experience of God was very real and yet, when I put my experience of God and what I was reading, especially in the New Testament, alongside my experiences in the local churches, I belonged to it didn’t seem to make much sense to me. How did it all fit together? What did going to Church have to do with what happened the rest of the week or in the rest of life? I felt this tension the greatest around the issue of sharing the Gospel. Often being told that what the church does is for the benefit of those who are not yet Christians and are outside of the church just didn’t fit with what I was seeing and experiencing. The church, from what I observed, was full of people who claimed to be Christians and seemed to do things for ‘ourselves’. The impression I got while growing up was that the church was for those who are older (in my mind as a child that meant at least 40!) and I remember at one point deciding that maybe I would stop going to church and being a Christian until I was older when things would (or so I hoped) make more sense. (By my childish reckoning I’m still not quite there yet!) However, as I said, my experience of God was very real. And somehow I could not escape from the belief that the church was in some way important. And so the church and I held on each other, as God held onto me.


Itch no. 2 was my struggle to admit to being an EvangelicalL~


Not only have I grown up in the Methodist Church but I have also grown up within the Evangelical tradition of the Church and I attended a conservative evangelical bible college in London after leaving school. I have never really known why I had this itch – I think it started with my search for my own identity and the refusal as a teenager/young adult to be put in a ‘box’ by others. In particular, I didn’t want to be put in this box labelled ‘evangelical’ because it was something that in many ways I didn’t really relate to. It wasn’t about what I did or did not believe but I suppose more to do with what I felt was expected. What I saw in others and in their attitudes towards others - it didn’t sit comfortably with me.


It might have had something to do with feeling called to be a teacher in the life of the church which is hard in the evangelical world as a woman (as are a lot of things – not helped by there being a shortage of credible role models). But I have just got on with it. I think it also had something to do with not liking things being ‘black and white’. The world as I see it is full of colour, and shading, of light and darkness and that brings shadows with it, and not everything is as clear cut as we’d like it to be. It is perhaps why I answer a lot of questions beginning with ‘It depends…’ which I know frustrates at least one member of my family! But that is the world as I see it and that is the nature of faith as I see it. Seeing the world as ‘black and white’ often separates us from those we wish to reach out to and engage with. It shuts down open dialogue before we open our mouths because others think they know what we think or believe and don’t see the point of discussing it with us.


Itch no.3 was my struggle with evangelismL~


I think this itch was the inevitable result of my other itches. I think that sometimes the church has not been very creative in evangelism. The only models of evangelism I was aware of growing up were very ‘male’ models: the ‘Billy Graham model’ of a preacher making an appeal for people ‘to get out of their seats and come to the front’ and the street preaching/door knocking model of talking to strangers. I am not dismissing either model – they have their place and I have a huge admiration for those called and gifted for these kinds of ministry - I am reflecting that when growing up they seemed to be held up as the only models of evangelism. And whereas I also felt a call to some form of evangelistic ministry, I struggled with that call because of the models of models of evangelism I had seen and experienced, as I didn’t really relate to any of them. So God couldn’t possibly be calling me to that kind of ministry, could he??


So how do these itches relate to Brian McLaren? My first encounter with him was about 10 years ago with the book The Church on the Other Side . I don’t remember much about it now other than getting excited about what I was reading. I then read More Ready than you Realize – Evangelism as Dance in the Postmodern Matrix. It wasn’t until 2 years ago, after I’d read A New Kind of Christian which I couldn’t put down that I began to realize that not everyone was getting as excited with what they were reading as I was.


But from my perspective, I was excited because AT LAST someone was writing something about the things I struggled with and was scratching where I had been itching for a long time - and who, even more than that, seemed to understand why I was itching in the first place.


It’s not that I’ve now worked everything out, but rather I have reached a place of peace and understanding with myself and my experiences, and with where I am in my faith journey and I’ve stopped itching. And, if anything, my commitment to the church, the evangelical tradition and evangelism has grown stronger as a result of the struggle.


Confession #2 I have always loved Jesus more than Paul (see note 1 below)


When I was 17 years old I spent the best part of my summer holiday in France on a Love Europe mission with the organisation Operation Mobilisation. I still remember a discussion at the back of an old bus crossing Europe on our way home, when I made what was probably a very naïve comment (remember I was only 17 at the time!) along the lines of ‘Surely what Jesus says is more important than what Paul says?’ I seem to remember the whole group taking exception to this and telling me so in the discussion and so I went back to gazing out of the window.


I don’t claim to have read everything that Brian has written or understand all the controversies surrounding what he has or hasn’t said. But I do know that what I have read so far takes me back, time after time, to the gospels and to the Jesus I find there. And that, it seems to me, is a good place to be. So often we start with the later writings of Paul, the other New Testament writers and all those who have come since and read and interpret the Gospels back through their lenses rather than starting with Jesus and read and interpret everyone else though his lens.


One of the debates around what Brian has or hasn’t said seems to be in relation to theories of the atonement. (As it has been in recent years in relation to some things Steve Chalke did or didn’t say/write about). I don’t begin to understand what Brian’s actual views are. My issues are over how we engage with them – or those of anyone else for that matter. In an article I found very helpful Bishop N.T. Wright writes: ‘I am one of those who think it good that the church has never formally defined ‘the atonement’, partly because I firmly believe that when Jesus himself wanted to explain to his disciples what his forthcoming death was all about, he didn’t give them a theory, he gave them a meal. Of course, the earliest exponent of that meal (Paul, in 1 Corinthians) insists that it matters quite a lot that you understand what you are about as you come to share in it; but still it is the meal, not the understanding, that is the primary vehicle of meaning. What is more, I happen to believe, as a reader of the New Testament, that all the great ‘theories’ about atonement do indeed have roots there, and that the better we understand the apostolic testimony the better we see how they fit together.’ (see note 2 below)


Confession #3 I have a preference for the horse’s mouth!


The same summer that I first read A New Kind of Christian I was involved in a project to develop an ecumenical Fresh Expression of church in the town centre where I was working, aimed at the 20’s-30’s age group. I was working with an Anglican colleague who was, as an evangelical, coming from essentially the same theological perspective as me and with whom I had developed a good working relationship. When we met on one occasion I suddenly became aware that I was ‘raving on’ about this book I was reading (A New Kind of Christian) and how relevant it was to what we were doing at the time. He became all serious and concerned about my reading (and probably my theology, and my soul!) and thrust into my hand a book that he felt I needed to read critiquing the emerging church movement and in particular Brian’s writings. Although he had never actually read anything by Brian McLaren, he told me of a discussion in a recent meeting of local evangelical church leaders (a group which I had never been invited to because of their views on women in leadership) that came out against Brian. I took the book he leant me. He borrowed A New Kind of Christian from me and started similarly ‘raving on’ about it - quoting from it positively in many later conversations and in reports he wrote about our project.


He is typical of many who are often most critical of Brian, that response of protesting about something without actually engaging with it. Think about some of the shows/films in recent years that the church has protested about (I am remembering especially The Last Temptation of Christ; Jerry Springer the musical; The Da Vinci Code). Those protests often turned into free publicity to the extent that more people probably went along to see what all the fuss was about than would have done otherwise, and my hunch is that many of those protesting hadn’t actually seen the films/shows/read the book themselves. So often we protest more about what we think these things say rather than what they actually do say and therefore from a position of weakness, or we misunderstand the genre of the work altogether. For example: Dan Brown declared that the Da Vinci Code was a work of fiction – others have treated it as a work of non-fiction! Brian’s trilogy beginning with A New Kind of Christian , is written in the form of a novel – using the vehicle of fiction to enable truths to be explored more freely without us really knowing what exactly the author himself believes.


We need to read what Brian writes and be open to be challenged by him and when I say ‘read’ I mean really read for ourselves his books and articles and not just bits taken out of context or reported by others. Do we not get frustrated with the ‘proof texting’ game people play with scripture – taking a quote out of context to justify any and every action or theological position? Why then do we do the same with someone like Brian? We need to hear him speak and debate with him and the issues he is raising. I don’t agree with everything he writes – just as there are very few other authors that I agree with everything they write, just as there are very few people that I agree 100% with everything they say, including friends and family but we explore them together, and we don’t feel threatened by the other. We need to admit that we start from a place where we don’t have all the answers to everything- theological or otherwise- and begin genuinely to listen to one another, including those we think we may not agree with for they, too, may have something to teach us – as we may have something to teach them.


We need to get past a sense self-righteousness which wants to stop other people reading things or hearing people that we don’t agree with and begin to engage with the debate from an informed place – a position of strength. We can only do this when we read for ourselves what others are reading, listen to what others are actually saying and allow the truths that emerge to shape our own limited understanding. Without fear.


And that is why I am excited at the prospect of hearing Brian speak at ECG this year.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Note 1 :  Please note the ‘more than’ - I am NOT saying ‘I don’t like St. Paul!’


Note 2 : The Cross and the Caricatures and a new volume entitled Pierced for Our Transgressions; by N.T. Wright; Eastertide, 2007; 

Rev Rachel Deigh is Superintendent of the Wigan Circuit and a member of the MET Executive.