This Pastor Has Good News: Christianity’s Changing
By Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush
Brian McLaren is on the move. A former pastor and author of fifteen books, McLaren travels across the country and around the globe, engaging people from all backgrounds on core questions of faith and life. In his new book, The Great Spiritual Migration, McLaren makes the compelling case that Christianity itself must be on the move as well.
McLaren’s book poignantly chronicles his own spiritual migration from fundamentalist to evangelical to a leading voice in the emergent church movement. These stories offer a backdrop to his thoughtful and devastating exploration of how the church has, and has not, continued to grow with the evolving needs of the world. The book is unflinching in its assessment of the Church’s former and continued complicity in systems of oppression and is an altar call, of sorts, to the Church to be made new.
The book’s publication happened the same week that Auburn released the results of a two-year research project called Bright Spots in Theological Education. Brian’s book and Auburn’s Bright Spots show that the church and the world are ready for a faith that is truly responding to the needs of this time.
At its heart, The Great Spiritual Migration is a hopeful book and a powerful testimony to the power of the Spirit to draw us forward on the path of justice and love for all of God’s creation.
Paul Brandeis Raushenbush: Congratulations on the book. It reads like a real labor of the heart and reflects a personal journey that hasn’t always been so pretty – I’m thinking about the racism that your grandfather displayed as a pastor in Africa.
Brian McLaren: It was the hardest book I’ve written. I’ve never told the story about my grandfather in writing before. It just felt too close and too painful. A generation ago, there was a certain kind of racism that was so common among white people. We have made enough progress that those kinds of stories are painful and it seems like that should be two centuries ago, not just within my lifetime. Although lately it is clear that we have so much further to go on racial justice.
PR: It is also a clear example of the implications of a belief system that explicitly supported and gave cover to the death giving system of racism rather than life-giving Good News. How can Christianity continue to transform itself to better represent Jesus’ call in the world today?
BM: The Christian faith has always been on the move. What’s happening right now is that a lot of us are looking around and saying, “Our faith needs to do better. Our faith needs to grow. Our faith needs to take its next steps in maturing morally.” The good news is we don’t have to wait for permission for someone else. More and more of us are just making those changes, moving ahead, opening our own minds and hearts.
PR: For some people, this idea of going forward or migrating as you say, it’s actually almost antithetical to the kind of faith that demands certainty.
BM: If you go back to the Bible, it’s constant movement. The story of Abraham is the story of someone following a call into the unknown. Moses is a great leader because he leads people out into the wilderness on a journey to freedom. The primary command or call of Jesus, is “Follow me” which implies movement. At the end of Jesus’ life, he says, “I’m not going to be here physically now but I’m sending my spirit, who will continue to guide you.” The whole thrust is toward ongoing movement.
PR: How can someone who wants to be a good Christian begin to understand the role of justice within the faith.
BM: In the Hebrew Scriptures, there are the prophets who are always getting into arguments with the more traditional religious establishment, who were often associated with the priests. The priests are interested in rules and the prophets come along and say, “Your rules miss the point. God doesn’t give a rip about your trivial pursuits in all of these rituals. What does God really require of humanity? To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.” The prophets sound the alarm bell to say, “We’re getting confused. We’re losing our way. Let’s center on what really matters.”
Jesus is standing in that prophetic tradition. One of the places where he issues this kind of alarm bell is in the Sermon on the Mount, he says, “What you should seek first, what your top priority should be is this: God’s kingdom and God’s justice.” The surprise isn’t that Christians would care about justice. What is truly shocking is that we would succeed in missing this very obvious message in the Bible. It’s my hope that if enough of us raise our voices while we’re alive here on earth right now, our children and grandchildren – when they hear the word Christian, they’ll think about something far more oriented toward justice and compassion than most people think of today.
PR: You mentioned the priest versus the prophets, but sometimes rituals are incredibly important for people to mark their lives and to also mark transformation. I’m wondering to what degree you have thought about transforming the rituals that we do and the prayers that we offer.
BM: Rituals and rights of passage and holiday celebrations are what teach us our theology. They have a huge formative influence on us. If the kinds of changes I’m talking about in The Great Spiritual Migration are valid, they will have huge impact on our liturgical lives.
PR: What does it look like for Christianity to be truly born again, and again?
BM: It would involve change at all levels at the same time. A top down change is highly unlikely. Even a kind of grassroots up change is highly unlikely. We need people at all levels to be working for change at the same time. For example, we need people who start new congregations because congregation life is important. We need people who have existing congregations to experiment and innovate with new understandings and approaches. Meanwhile, we need people to write new curriculum for children in things like Sunday school and children summer camps and so on because I believe that children are the most neglected revolutionaries of all. The good news is in almost every sector, we already see the seeds of positive change being planted. Each of us has to feel that we have a role to play in this and our voices matter. If enough of us speak up, there really can be a change.