Leif Hansenâ€™s Interview with Brian Mclaren
Leif Hansen’s Interview with Brian Mclaren – Part 1 LH: Well thank you so much for taking time. If I were in your shoes I’d be pretty darn tired right now. Um… BM: Hahaha. No, I am a big fan of what you’re doing so I’m glad to spend this time with you. LH: Oh, thanks a lot. Well it’s funny cause I was thinking um before this interview uh, excited, nervous, hoping it’d work out and um, I was thinking about you and all the contact you have with a diversity of people, left and right, and about the title of my podcast Bleeding Purple and I was like if anyone is bleeding purple right now it’s probably Brian. BM: Hahaha. LH: Are you familiar with where I’ve gotten the title of that podcast from and what I mean by the purple? BM: Well, I think it has to do with red and blue but tell me what the bleeding part means. LH: Well, the bleeding part is what happens when you’re trying to hold on to both red and blue and you get kind of stretched and it’s awesome, an incredibly wonderful experience but it’s often, you know, painful, uh, as I know you’ve gotten opposition probably from both conservative and liberal, red and blue people. BM: Yeah. It’s um, although, so far the blue people don’t seem to be organized enough to be very clear about what they’re against so you don’t get so much opposition from them. LH: Hahaha. Well that’s a good thing. BM: But, uh, but yeah just the fact that every debate, whether it’s religious or political, for every dialogue, degenerates into a left right debate and it’s so fatiguing and it is so destructive because it just keeps you from being able to talk about important things. So, now I understand the bleeding. LH: Yeah. What, just on that not, what helped you to get beyond, you know, uh, even when you’re in intellectual circles where you think people would realize things are more complex then left-right, you know, right-wrong, red-blue, what helps you to get things to a level where people are thinking about specific ideas, um, and being open and humble and listening to each other? BM: I think uh, first of all I’m not sure I’m very successful at getting beyond it because every place I go it just feels like this gravity that pulls you down into this polarization, but I don’t think there’s any way around it except to do exactly what we’ve just been doing with these last couple minutes. Just kind of acknowledge it. Say, yeah, isn’t it a drag we live in this world and try to fight against it. LH: Yeah. And I would add what I think you did in Generous Orthodoxy where particularly my generation has tended to look at everything possible they could critique in other traditions and denominations and sets themselves apart. What I loved about that was that it seemed like you kind of weaved this thread between everything you could find that’s good. You tried to affirm everything and I think people feel safer when they know that you’re looking for what you can affirm in them. BM: You know, a couple of years ago I came across a line in one of N.T. Wright’s books where he talked about a hermeneutic of love. And I think there is so much to that. We have various hermeneutics of suspicion, but we need a hermeneutic where we approach the other, whoever it is, in an attitude of saying, I’m going to assume there’s brilliance and creativity and dignity here. You know you can get at it from either being a Calvinist or a non-Calvinist I suppose. If you were a Calvinist in a good mood I think what you could do is say, “We assume everybody is totally depraved so we won’t be surprised to find bad so we’ll instead look for some signs of grace and redemption.” LH: Yeah.
BM: Uh, for those of us who, you know, are less oriented towards Calvinism, I think what it means is we start by saying, “We think the image of God is out there. We think the Spirit of God is at work, so we expect to see a lot of great things wherever we look.” LH: Hmm. Well, connected to that, as far as, you know, finding the good in other people and other people critiquing, uh, I gave you a few questions to think about and, um, I’m going to, sort of follow that outline a little bit unless there’s something that we both just want to go elsewhere. Uh, so I wanted to start with the book on the Last Word and the Word after that. For those of you listening, I actually met Brian at, uh, first at a solarized conference in Seattle, uh, which is sort of an emergenty type conference. And I heard Brian, really liked what I heard uh, we touched base afterwards and I told him about a paper that I had written, uh, kind of about escotology and an alternative view to the traditional view of hell and he expressed interest in reading it and um, after touching base back and forth Brian read it and to my delight said that he liked it and then to my further surprise offered to let me read his manuscript for The Last Word and I really enjoyed that and got to offer some feedback and then was elated to find out that he was going to put me in the acknowledgement in the front and thank you so much for that Brian. BM: Well thank you for your encouragement and you know, I remember that conversation we had there in Seattle. That conversation just kind of went right to my heart because um, that’s really what gave birth to that book. That kind of conversation gave birth to that book so. LH: Thank you. And you definitely wrote it much better than I could have and I think we all really appreciate putting it in a narrative. It’s just so much easier to relate to. What kind of opposition have you received? I just before this went to Amazon and noticed there were a hundred and seven reviews of the book. BM: Yeah. LH: Um, and all that tells me is that it’s got to be a good book because there’s so much, you know, it ranges from one to five and anything that stirs people up has got them thinking. It averages out around a three. It’s kind of funny because there’s such extreme positions BM: Yeah LH: What have you gotten in forms of, I know you have had some persecution, so to call it. Um, what do you thinks’ going on there? I mean, I have my hunches but what do you thinks’ going on? BM: Well, uh, you know, probably persecution is too strong a word when you think of what that really would mean. This is all pretty mild. It basically, it boils down to name calling really. LH: Right. BM: Uh, I, so far have received less negative feedback on the book then I expected. Part of that is because my previous book, A Generous Orthodoxy, seemed to get a bunch of people so mad and they wrote, that received, that surprised me on how much negative response I received because as you said, it’s kind of a affirming book boy people got angry about that. LH: Why was that? BM: Uh, well the people who get angriest at me, and they seem to be some of the angriest people in general, are what I call, kind of the Westminster Confessionalist, the uh, hard core Calvinist who really feel that they have everything pretty much uh, sowed up and they’ve got the Bible figured out and they’ve got theology figured out and you can’t blame them if you believe that then you’re just irritated with all these people who won’t get with the program, so… LH: Yeah BM: You know, and I thought I was being playful and uh, good natured in Generous Orthodoxy but, my goodness, some of these people acts as if I was just personally attacking them which I certainly didn’t mean to be doing. As I said in the book I have a lot of respect for the Reformed church in general. Uh, I wish we could get a little more fun back into fundamentalist for some of these people, but anyhow. Uh, I think part of what happened is, some of the people who would have attacked The Last Word, sort of vented their fury on A Generous Orthodoxy, and maybe they just decided after that point I wasn’t even
worth paying attention to so. Maybe that actually saved The Last Word from a little more, uh, punishment, I don’t know. Or maybe it will start tomorrow. Hahaha. LH: Yeah. Have you, there was some rumor floating on the internet about an invitation being revoked to speak somewhere because of that. Is that true and what’s that about if that is true? BM: Well, it may have been because of that. It may have been because of some of my other books. I don’t know but, um, yeah, I receive invitations to speak all over the place and um, I never assume that anyone agrees with me when they invite me to speak. I just assume they thin I have something that would be stimulating and interesting. Uh, but yeah, so, uh, the Kentucky Southern Baptist had asked me to speak at an evangelism conference and then they disinvited me. It was a shame, it really made the news in a lot of places, but they handled it so well. They were so kind and so gracious in the whole thing. And in fact it had a really nice, uh, outcome because they said that they were going to pay me anyway even though I hadn’t had come, you know, whatever they agreed to pay me. And then I let them know that I would use that money to help a project for people in great need in central Africa. So, it kind of had a nice outcome. I was more happy with being able to send the money to the Africans then being there anyway. So that worked out well. LH: That’s great. That’s awesome. Um, well, I guess the hunch that I had underneath some of the reactions um, well you know first, I wonder if it would be a good idea to um, define a few terms. Because I know that you and I sometimes use terms a little differently and I actually have probably been influenced to change some of my definitions and so uh, for shorthand, if I used the term um, universalism or uh, a synonym similar to that, what I mean by that is uh, at minimum more of a, what I would call universal reconciliation. The hope that, the hope and maybe even the trust or belief that eventually all people will come into unity with God. Um, now I might be putting you on the spot in asking this, but um, I shared with you at some point that you know, I had a change in beliefs in this area and I really struggled a lot and was fearful that there was something, some part of me that was not that was always going to resist, I guess this gets to the human nature question, that was always going to resist God’s saving work, God’s healing inside of me. That I would always kind of be an ego magnet. And um, coming to that conclusion that God’s love and ability, to overcome and always stick with me, that I don’t have this time line called death, that if I haven’t gotten something fixed and changed by that time, really helped on an intellectual level to remove a lot of those fears. Um, so I guest the first question is have you encountered a lot of people like myself who emotionally maybe are reacting to the more hopeful message that you have in the last word uh, because of the same fears. That’s the first question. BM: Yeah. Ok, well let’s talk about that for a minute. Um, first of all you are, I remember when I met you what struck me is your angst and pain over this issue of hell and eternal condemnation was a reflection of your sensitive spirit. Uh, and I think anybody who would sit for five minutes and ponder the reality of hell uh, as it’s commonly understood, would either, I think they would actually lose their mind. If you actually faced it and what is really being said, I think you would, any person who faced it, really opened themselves up to it and the horror of it for five minutes would come out mentally damaged. LH: That must be what happened to me. BM: Hahaha. Um, and the result of that would either be that they, I think, would hate God, and I’ve met a lot of people who decided fundamentalists are right in their understanding of hell and so as a result hate God. Or, they become an atheist, they say it’s just better to not believe in God then have to believe in that kind of God. Or they become a raving fundamentalist who is grabbing people on the street and shaking them and saying, “You better repent. Do you understand what’s at stake?” You know what I’m saying Leif? LH: Yeah BM: One thing that would not be is this sort of easy believism that we see so common. And I think that’s one of the reasons why a lot of people defend the doctrine of hell is because on the positive side
they are worried about this kind of easy going, American Christianity uh, that is somewhat nonchalant about people going to hell, you know. They want to sort of rile people up one way or the other. LH: They want to know that there’s going to be some kind of, you know, so to speak, hell to pay. Some sort of justice. BM: Yeah LH: I think part of the problem that both you and I react to, is that an infinite amount of punishment for a finite being and a finite amount of sin um, there’s something that seems to question God’s just and loving nature. BM: Yeah, it’s very true. And um, I think that creates a rational problem. Is that rationally sensible? Would it be, does it make sense for a good being to create creatures who will experience infinite torture, infinite time, infinitely, you know, never being numbed in their consciousness. Uh, I mean, how would you even create a universe where that sort of thing could happen I, you know, it just sounds, it really raises questions about the goodness of God LH: Uhhuh. BM: And that to me is the deepest issue. You know John said in 1st John, “God is light and in God there is no darkness at all.” And what I’ve come to believe is that very few of us actually believe that. . LH: Hmm. BM: We all have this suspicion that there’s a dark side to God and that God isn’t truly, truly good. Uh, and, I’m sure there’s all kinds of psychopathology in that and everything else for all of us but, I think this is in large part why, what is so wonderful and magnetic about Jesus is that Jesus I think, reveals to us a God who is all light and there’s no darkness at all within Him. LH: I see that to Brian but I, and, I can’t remember if I mentioned this in the letter that I sent you, but there’s some places where either I need that hermeneutic of love as I’m reading Him, uh, or, His editors screwed up what He said, or something. There’s a few places where, the one that always comes to my mind as an example is where He uses imagery that feels, and sounds, sort of violent and dark. Um, and to me sort, of threatening you know. Even though it’s a parable, the example would be the servants that get cut up into tiny pieces. BM: Yeah, that’s right, that’s right LH: I’m like, “What the hell is with that Jesus?!” Why, you know, if you want me to have a sense of uh, that you and that God can be trusted and ultimately care for me I know that it can hurt following you also, but why would you use an image like that? BM: Yeah, and Leif, let’s use that example. Can we talk about that for several minutes? LH: Sure, yeah. BM: Because um first of all, wouldn’t that be great for a biblical literalist to be as literal about that as they want to be about some of the other parables Jesus tells. LH: That’s a good point. BM: So that we have the picture, now, not only are you in literal plain, but you’re cut up into pieces so there’s however many pieces of you. LH: Shish-ca-bob BM: Yeah, I guess it’s sort of a Shish-ca-bob exactly. So, and again we’re laughing and these things shouldn’t be laughed about, but I think that’s a great example of how we have this selective literalism. Uh, that’s just so stunning. LH: Uh, I mean, well, to be honest though that parable wasn’t about hell He was talking about a servant who comes back. I mean, yeah, a literalist could say that was talking about hell but I guess it was… BM: If what we talk about is judgment, and this is one of the things I tried to do in The Last Word. And it’s interesting to me that the people for example, and I was on, who claimed to be so biblically centered, what their general response is, to me, is one of two things. The negative response is uh, He’s going against Christian tradition. Well, isn’t it ironic that these are mostly people who claim the primacy of the Bible? Um, or they quote other Bible verses, but they don’t deal with the Bible verses I brought up. And
there’s that chart in the middle of the book that I hope some people will take seriously and really go through and seriously deal with those Scriptures because uh, you know, one of my complaints is that we have found this way of weaving certain verses together, ignoring other verses and, we’re not just being, you know, the traditional approach, and the traditional way of weaving those verses together, just is not a very good reading of the Bible. This is an awful lot and all the rest. But, um, one of the things I tried to do in the book and if I were writing it again now I would even go farther on is talk about the fact that Jesus is in a historical context where that kind of language already has a history. He’s not inventing the language. What He is doing is entering into a context where that language is already being thrown around. And what He does, what is so clear to me, uh, after done all this research and just you know, living in those verses in a deep way, is what stunning is the way He turns that language on its head. And so in that example you were using, He’s using the kind of language that the Scribes and Pharisees used but now, they’re the people who are in danger. To me that is classic deconstruction. And so, what we do though is we don’t understand the historical setting. We act as if Jesus was inventing this language, or that the Bible should be read with no reference to its historical setting and the genres. Anyhow, to me it’s just bad reading of the Bible. Uh, and one other piece that I would also emphasize more if I were writing the book now, a wonderful new book has just come out and I just got my copy yesterday by a friend of mine in England named Andrew Perriman, it’s called “The Coming of the Son of Man”. And he is doing some things that N.T. Wright has hinted at and delved into a bit, but he’s going even farther to show, uh, how we ought to understand so much of that Biblical language of destruction. And one way to summarize what Andrew Perriman is saying is to say that either the primary or maybe the only eschatological horizon that Jesus is talking about, and the apostles are talking about, it’s not the end of the world, it’s the end of the world as they knew it, which meant the end of Judaism as they knew it, which meant the end of the temple system and the priestly system as they knew it. And, uh, I think Andrew makes a very strong case for this in his book ‘The Coming of the Son of Man.’ Um, and there are some other writers like Tim King, and Max King, and others who also make a very strong case for this in some of their writings. LH: Do they, do they talk at all about the question of the how many and, you know, whether some are left out eternally factor? BM: But, see, what their basically saying is Jesus isn’t talking about, that’s not, you know, what He’s talking about. He’s telling the Jewish leaders of His day that judgment is coming and that if they chose a path of violence, if they reject His path of peace, if they choose to stay on the path their on, that there’s going to be a horrible consequence to it. And what they would say is it happened A.D. 67. The Jewish people rejected Jesus, or, the Jewish leaders rejected Jesus message of peace and reconciliation, they chose the path of the Zealots, which was the path of violent revolution. When they engaged with violence, the Romans responded with violence and crushed them. And so, in the great Jewish war A.D. 67-70, uh, Jerusalem was destroyed, not one stone was left on another. You know, all of those things that Jesus said would happen, happened and His language of hellfire and language of Gehenna, and all that language, was fulfilled in what happened at that time A.D. 67-70. And I think theirs a very strong case to be made for that. LH: It does, uh, I’ve read a little of that and there were a few classes that I went to while I was at Regent College that I wish I had taken that were starting to touch on that more. Uh, I guess, while that makes sense, and in experience and history that seems to make sense, violence begets violence you know, and if Jesus were to say, “Hey!” you know, kind of you reap what you sow, in the short way of saying it. Um but, th--, ugh, do you think there are some places where it sounds like Jesus is not just saying humanity will bring violence, but God will bring violence, as a result of your violence? And that is the part where I struggle with. BM: Yeah. Um, I think um, first of all, I think it makes a huge difference whether you believe that that violence is waiting for everybody, or whether you think that violence was focused on A.D. 67-70, you know. Uh, I mean, and I would just encourage people who are listening to this, uh, for the next couple
years as you’re reading the Gospels, to be open to the possibility that that might be what Jesus is talking about. Uh, it’s really interesting, and this is what Andrew Perriman does really well in his brand new book, he took, he really engages with Paul and uh, like 2nd Thessalonians and the other places in the New Testament that are pretty fiery, you know. And he makes a very strong case that uh, that the eschatological horizon for them, you know, all of these are written before A.D. 67. And so when Paul says, it’s coming very soon, or Jesus says this generation will not pass, in this reading, it turns out that they’re right. Uh, the generation didn’t pass and it was very soon. It was literally a couple of years from when Paul was writing when this had happened. So when you do, when that happens, suddenly those Scriptures, it’s almost like an explosion that’s already happened, and it doesn’t makes sense for us to keep talking about that explosion happening. LH: But again, and I don’t mean to be a pain in the ass, but does the explosion come from God, or does it come from God’s knowing how humanity, you know, we’ll reap what we sow? BM: Yeah, uh, see, this also comes from uh, I think a very uh, un-helpful way of reading the Bible where, uh, where we’re going to parse every sentence and say, ‘oh, that means God’s doing it.’ I don’t think Jesus, or any of the other Biblical writers, uh, and you’ve got to remember, Jesus was a speaker, He wasn’t a writer, but you know, the speakers and writers of the Bible, I don’t think that they’re working in this technical, theological way that we very often push them into. I think they’re speaking the way we would speak, the way we’re having a conversation right now. Somebody could go and parse one of your sentences or parse one of my sentences and you know, 500 years from now be, you know, making really bizarre conclusions. Hahaha. Uh, you know, you said a couple of minutes ago something about being a pain in the ass. Well, if 500 years from now people don’t know that that is a uh, an idiom that’s used today, LH: They’ll say what’s wrong with his butt! BM: Yeah, you could imagine a whole theological school developing from something like that. And that’s kind of what we’re saying actually happens with the biblical language. But, uh, and this is a huge problem in all biblical interpretation: to what degree, when things happen in the world, is it safe to say God made this happen. LH: Right. BM: And to what degree is it safe to say, God wants us to interpret this happening in a certain way. And so, uh, and this is one of the huge problems with the traditional understanding of hell. Because if the cross is in line with Jesus teaching, then, and I won’t say the only, and I certainly won’t say the primary, but a primary meaning of the cross is that the Kingdom of God doesn’t come like the kingdoms of this world by inflicting violence and coercing people. But that the Kingdom of God comes through suffering and willing voluntary sacrifice right? LH: Mmhm. BM: But in an ironic way, the doctrine of hell basically says, ‘no, but that’s not really true.’ LH: Yeah! BM: That in the end God gets His way through coercion and violence and intimidation and domination, just like every other kingdom does. The cross isn’t the center then. The cross is almost a distraction and false advertising for God. Part 2 LH: Oh Brian, that was just so beautifully said. I was tempted to get on my soap box there and, you know, because as you and I know there are so many illustrations and examples you could give that show why the traditional view of hell completely falls in the face of uh, it goes, it’s just antithetical to the cross. Um, but the way you put it there uh, I love that. I mean, it’s false advertising um, and here Jesus is saying uh, turn the other cheek, love your enemy, forgive seven times seventy, um, return violence with
self-sacrificial love. But if we believe a traditional view of hell it’s like, well, do that for a short amount of time, cause eventually God’s gonna get’em. BM: Yeah. And I heard one well known Christian leader who, I won’t mention his name just to protect his reputation because some people would use this against him, but, I heard him say it like this, “The traditional understanding says that God asks of us something that God isn’t capable of doing Himself. God asks us to forgive people, but God is incapable of forgiving. Uh, God can’t forgive unless He punishes somebody else in place of the person He was going to forgive. God doesn’t say to you um, forgive your wife and then go kick the dog to vent your anger, you know. God asks you to actually forgive. Uh, and there’s a certain sense that uh, the common understanding of the atonement presents a God who is incapable of forgiving unless He kicks somebody else. LH: Now, is that going to be, I remember one of our e-mails I had asked if you were going to bring that up in The Last Word and it looks like you, as far as an alternative view of the cross, it got brought up a little bit . Uh, my hunch is, I’m wondering, is your new book about Jesus going to uh, get into that alternative view of the cross, or, I might say, and earlier, historical view of the cross? BM: Hahaha. Well, yes, um, it does but not through sort of direct attack. The books called ‘The Secret Message of Jesus’ and it’s about the message of the Kingdom. I really liked uh, Marcus Borg and John Crossen have a new book coming out called ‘The Last Week’ and it follows the week of what we call passion week or holy week. It is really a great book. LH: Huh. BM: Uh, and, you know, evangelicals tend to think their the only people who take the Bible seriously, I am so impressed with how seriously these guys take the Gospel of Mark reading the last week of Jesus. It’s really stunning. But one of the things they point out is that Mel Gibson’s film, you know, calls the crucifixion the passion of the Christ, but Jesus passion, the thing He was most passionate about, was the Kingdom, heh, and the message of the Kingdom, so, is what I really try to explore in this book. And, um, and, that’s why if we look at the cross as something that becomes almost the ultimate demonstration, or the ultimate exclamation point about the message of the Kingdom, it looks very different then if we throw the message of the Kingdom away, or make the message of the Kingdom about something in the future, and marginalize it from Jesus whole life, uh, boy, everything looks different. LH: Now, I agree with you and I’m starting to come to an understanding of the cross, and I have a hunch it’s probably pretty similar to your understanding of the cross and the Kingdom, but one of the places where we might differ, I mean, I don’t even really want to say that because I’m just really exploring right now, is, weren’t there people before Jesus and since Jesus, some inspired by Him, some Christians, some Martyrs, um, and wasn’t God in a sense demonstrating self-sacrificial love um, since the beginning of time, since God created beings other than Himself. Uh, and, so, the reason I ask that question is twofold. One, it has to do with this question of religions and Christian exclusivism, some might say, ‘Well yes, we also believe that at the heart and center of God and of reality is self-sacrificial love. Um, but we don’t think that Jesus was the only one to teach about that and demonstrate that in His life. Now uh, a more uh, what’s the word to use, conservative Christian, whatever, someone who believes in the literal, ontological, divinity of Christ would have an argument and say, ‘Yes, but this was, this was more central because it’s actually God, literally, demonstrating that kind of love.’ However someone, a more liberal Christian who might think that Jesus was perfectly imaging God’s love, or totally inspired by God’s love, but not literally God, and to be honest that’s a direction I’m leaning more myself these days, we would have a hard time saying what makes Jesus’ life and example and living love to the death more unique than any other. BM: Right, kind of, if I understand what you’re saying, LH: Sorry, I was all over the place. BM: No, no, these are important subjects. But you know, I understand your saying, ‘Look, we could at Ghandi’s life as an example of self sacrificial love, or Martin Luther King Jr.’s life,
LH: And we should. BM: There would be a lot of people we could look at. And so, wouldn’t it be better to just talk about Jesus as one among many rather than lift Him up as some extraordinary example? Because by doing that we create, we perpetuate this Christian elitism and exclusivism, etc., etc., Is that what you’re saying? LH: Bingo, that’s right on. BM: Yeah. Well this is a subject that I’m really interested in and in fact it’s going to be part of the book I am going to write this year that is, that would kind of be a sequel to this book on the Kingdom, ‘The Secret Message of Jesus.’ Uh, it’s tentatively going to be titled ‘Jesus and the Suicide Machine.’ LH: Hahaha. BM: And, what it’s going to be is talking about how the message of the Kingdom uh, would, speaks to our contemporary situation. LH: Ok. BM: And, um, and to cut to the chase, I think what you’re reacting to is not ultimately the uniqueness of Jesus, but it is how the uniqueness of Jesus gets used by a Colonial, Roman, Christianity. LH: I definitely am reacting to that on an emotional level, but on an intellectual level I guess I’m also saying that there are some questions that got brought up when I was studying um, you know, ranging from ‘if we do say this, how can we not be elitists’, vs. you know, to also things…to be honest one of the biggest stumbling blocks to me to Jesus’ uh, being in a literal sense the Son of God was finding out that Paul never once mentions the idea. BM: Yeah. LH: And his writings are the earliest. And when I found that out, I was like, wait a second here. BM: See, I think, I can feel your pain Leif, and part of what I feel is this, there’s a whole package, and the package ultimately is this hell package. Um, and, here’s what I would say, I think the deeper problem here is a problem of the larger narrative. And, when, I think there’s another way of seeing the narrative where a lot of these problems disappear. In other words, I would say, you think you see the right problems in the narrative, but I think there are different understandings of the narrative that are very, very hard to get to because we’ve got so much of the old narrative so deeply rooted and so deeply influencing the way we read the Bible. LH: Ok. Yeah. BM: And, I feel like I can say this, I think I got to a little rise and, on the journey, where I got a different view of the landscape. And I want to tell you I think it’s going to be ok. Hehehe. LH: That’s very hopeful. BM: But in the mean time, I don’t think I can, I’ve struggled, I’ve been struggling with this for, you know, fifteen years I’ve really been struggling with this stuff. And, um, and so I feel like piece by piece you get a different vision, but you can’t rush it and, the other narrative is so deeply ingrained. So, one of the questions I could raise that might be helpful for you and other people thinking about this, is to say, ‘What is the problem with sin? What’s so bad about sin?’ Now, I can just imagine some people quoting, ‘See, Mclaren doesn’t think sin is serious.’ LH: Hahaha. BM: No, I take sin really seriously. But here’s the problem, if I were to make this sort of analogy or parable. If, when I had little children, if one of my children, let’s say my son Brett was beating up on his little brother Trevor, now Trevor is bigger, but back then. If, what was the problem? Was the problem that I don’t want my younger son to get hurt, and I don’t want my older son to be a bully, I want my older son to be a good person and I want my younger son to be a good person. I want them to have a great relationship. The problem is sin is what it does to my family and what it does to my boys, you know. It, uh, that’s the problem with sin. But, what we’ve created is, the problem of sin is that I am so angry at my son Brett for beating up his younger brother I’m gonna kill him. So now the problem we’ve got to solve is how to keep me from killing my son. Does that make sense? LH: Yeah, it’s like a step back, yeah, the reaction. Uhhuh.
BM: Yeah, and so now it seems to me the entire Christian theology has shifted so now the problems is how can we keep me from killing Brett. LH: Hmm. BM: Uh, and, I don’t think that’s the kind of God that we serve. I think the problem is God wants His children to get along with each other. He wants them to be good people because He’s good, see. And uh, His vision for creation is that they’ll love each other and be good to each other and enjoy each other and have a lot of fun together. And uh, so, sin is incredibly serious, but I think we’ve shifted why it’s so important. LH: Why it’s serious. BM: Yeah. LH: That’s good. Well, BM: Can I say it one more way to say the same thing is, LH: Yeah. BM: That the problem is, why does sin matter to God? And I think what has happened is through the influence of Anselm, and maybe not even really Anselm, but the way Anselm was interpreted by later people, um, we have a vision that the real problem is God wants to kill us all, and we’ve got to somehow solve that problem. And what that does, Leif, to me that is so significant, is that it then minimizes the concern about injustice between human beings. That becomes a peripheral concern. But what if that’s God’s real concern from beginning to end, see? LH: Yeah. BM: And uh, LH: Oh gosh that’s so good. BM: So, and by the way that kind of theology just wants to placate God. And again, I know I’m overstating it and I’m aware of everything I say now, now that I have these people listening to me looking to find fault and quote anything I say. But, I, and I don’t care if they misquote me on this to some degree because at least maybe they’ll think about it, LH: Yeah. BM: But, um, I think that that theology was the perfect theology to enfranchise a part-time, colonialism, uh, segregation of the United States. It enfranchises carelessness toward the poor, disregard for the rights of homosexuals, carelessness towards people with aids. It shifts all the attention from God’s will being done on earth, to what happens to us after we die. And I think that, I think that is the kind of thing that would make God furious, if I can use that kind of language. LH: Yeah. BM: So, and I think that’s exactly why Jesus uses such strong language toward the Pharisees. LH: I agree with you. I still, I don’t want to get into it, I still kind of wish there was almost some way that He could have used, BM: Yeah. LH: Cause it seems to be like, ‘Don’t be violent cause’, you know, ‘God’s gonna get you sometimes.’ It just sort of… Anyways, I hear you. What I’m hearing you say is that this original message of reconciliation, of uh, ‘Hey guys God is no longer mad at you,’ um, God forgives you, uh, we need to get back to the original focus of caring for each other and for this planet and social justice issues, has some how, well, not just somehow, you and I would agree it seems to come from this idea of the fear and misunderstanding sin and how God responds to it, and getting us focused on the afterlife. And it’s just gotten completely turned upside down. BM: Yeah. LH: I hear you. BM: And if the other guys are right, then you and I are wrong. But if we’re even partially right, um, the other guys have some thinking to do to. LH: Yeah. Hehehe. Well can I shift to a couple personal questions?
BM: You sure can. LH: Personal in a sense probably more myself. Um, BM: Yeah. LH: I don’t know how many of my listeners are in this similar place um, but, or how many people you’ve talked to are, or if you talk to mostly people who have no problem calling themselves Christian and think, you know, feel God’s presence and all. But, I, honest with you, I am in an incredibly dry, uh particularly I was involved in a charismatic church, a vineyard, and I loved it and I still actually hold that those experiences were largely valid and good and, there’s a lot of poop in the middle of it all, BM: Yeah. LH: Humanity, but, but, you know that’s ok, that’s always going to happen. But, right now, I don’t, I don’t think it’s intellectual. I think largely, you know, through my thinking and school and your writings, you know, there’s sort of this, emerging view of how I can re-embrace um, my faith on an intellectual level. There’s still a few little struggles, but there always will be. On an emotional level though, I just am really struggling trusting even God exists at all. And, um, I can’t talk, mental talk myself into that I don’t think. BM: Yeah. LH: Um, I don’t, you know I think I said this to you in the letter, I think part of it is I’m scared, things have changed so many times, I’m scared that if I start saying I believe certain things and trusting and standing on things that I’m going to be humbled again and let down and disappointed and, BM: Yeah. LH: Um, have you, or, do you know other people struggling, or do you have any other advice for those of us in that place of how to rebuild some really basic trust again? BM: Yeah, yeah. Well, first of all, I think your honesty about that will resonate with an awful lot of people who listen to this because, I just heard a very well known pastor, and again I won’t out him on this, but a very well known pastor said exactly the same thing recently. He said, “You know, half the Monday’s I get up and I just think, ‘You know, I’m not sure I believe anything I preached yesterday. I’m not sure I believe any of this, you know.” That, he just said his struggle was uh, keeps coming back again and again. So, you know, this is a terrible, a terrible problem, especially a problem for reflective people. I like, I don’t know if you’ve heard that song by Jill Phillips. She has a song called ‘God believes in you.’ And, uh, there’s some line in the song goes something like, ‘on those days when you don’t believe in yourself, ha-ha, God believes in you.’ And, there’s a certain sense that, reflective people, we’re capable of disbelieving anything, including ourselves, you know. So uh, part of this I think, for those of us who are highly reflective, and if you don’t know this Leif, you are one of the most highly reflective of the highly reflective. Uh, you know, I think it is hard, probably it’s one of the curses and blessings of your, of the kind of personality that you are and I think I have this to, is that we’re capable of doubting and disbelieving all kinds of things. Now, the question is, how do people like us, what does it mean for us to have faith? Um and I’ll tell you another great book that will be so worth reading when it comes out, uh, it’s by a young Irish theologian. And, imagine being an Irish theologian in these last twenty or thirty years where you’ve seen religion used, not just religion, but Christianity used in some of it’s ugliest ways. Uh, anyhow this book is called ‘How not to speak of God’ and uh, it is so, I found that book so helpful. Uh, in fact I was asked to write a forward for the book and I just was completely gushing about the book and I thought, nobody’s gonna believe I’m this, their just going to think I’m marketing the thing. But I’m really enthusiastic. Anyhow, Pete Rollins is the author. Uh, he’s part of a community in Belfast called Icon and I think you and other people find that book helpful when it comes out. But one of the things I love about that book, is that it, I think it correctly identifies so much of the problem as the way we speak of God. And if we allow ourselves to realize that God is all, that the God who would really exist has to always be greater than the language we use when speaking about God it gives us permission to doubt the way we speak about God as an act of faith in saying that the real God
would have to better than the way we speak about God. Now that’s the kind of thing that the Mystics always were saying. LH: Could you, I’m sorry Brian, could you say that one more time? BM: Yeah. That, that, God always must be greater than however we speak about God. LH: Ok. Right. BM: Right? I think it was Meister Eckhart who said, ‘God save me from God.’ LH: Hahaha. BM: You know, in other words, the God who really exists, must be better than the concepts of God that I have. LH: Right. BM: And so I have to continually call on the God who is greater than my best concept of God. Um, Gregory of Nyssa, you know, who lived at a time when there was so much debate about the Trinity, people were ready to kill each other about this. And obviously he was involved in those debates himself. But he said, ‘Only wonder understands, concepts create idols.’ And where someone like yourself and like me and so many of us who’ve grown up in evangelical context where we argue about God in ways that would make you think that we have great confidence in our words to capture God, so we’re ready to pillory somebody who doesn’t use words just the same way we do. You know, I think we are especially prone to this idolatry of ideology, and idolatry of words. And, I think there’s a certain sense that our atheism is a desire to disbelieve the words we keep saying about God. Because we know God has to be better than those words. LH: Hmm. I think that resonates in me. What, what, ok, well if you need to go beyond words then, what kind of experiences have you had Brian that have given you the hope to, to continue on? What, I mean, there’s got to be experiences or practices or uh, living social justice out. What is it that has helped you and could help us to go beyond the words and to have that, you know? BM: Yeah. Well first of all, I need to say that it is so, I hesitate to say anything because I know I have another phone call coming in a couple minutes that I promised somebody I would take. Um, so, and I feel like that in itself should be a three day conversation you know. LH: Ok, yeah. Maybe we’ll get to that another time then. BM: But, what, I can say this. Um, I have gone through periods, two intense periods in my life that you might call a dark night of the soul, where God just didn’t seem real to me at all. And, so, I know what that’s like. One of those periods lasted about three years. And I did everything I could to bring it to an end, and it finally came to an end, and it had nothing to do, you know what I’m saying? I didn’t think I could last six months and it went on for three years. And, so I know what its like to feel that God doesn’t exist. LH: Mmhm. BM: And the feeling relates to, you know you can’t tell whether your thoughts come first or you feelings come first. So I feel that. I also need to say that for other periods in my life, the feeling of God’s reality has been so strong and so there, and I know other people who say, ‘I’ve never felt that once.’ And I don’t think I’m superior to anybody, I just think, I don’t know. I don’t know how to explain it. LH: Mmhm. BM: Um, but, I was just reading a book by Barbara Brown Taylor, a new manuscript of a book she has coming out that will be called ‘Leaving Church’. And a really wonderfully written book. And she described her kind of primal sense of the experience of God and the way she said it is this sense that I am being carried by invisible arms. And another way I would say it is this sense of being accompanied somehow. LH: And you have that right now? BM: Yeah. I do. But I, and I almost hesitate to say it because I know for people who don’t they could either say, ‘Oh well, that’s just some psychological thing.’ And, well I’m sure it is psychological, you know what I mean? I’m sure it has to do with brain waves and everything else.
LH: Yeah. BM: All experience does. LH: Right. BM: But there comes some point where, you know, I just have to acknowledge this is a true part of my experience. But so are those Monday mornings when I’ve woken up and felt that God, where I didn’t have that feeling and where all of those, you know, intellectual questions were there. So, I just feel like part of being a person of God is also experiencing a sense of abandonment by God. And, what I’m hearing from you is that you have had times when you’ve felt these powerful experience of God, and other times where you don’t. LH: Yeah. BM: And I guess I’m just, I identify. One of my good friends when I went through the first of these long dry periods, I remember he and I were sitting across the room from each other on two couches and I just got honest with him and I said, ‘I don’t believe any of it right now. None of it seems real.’ And he just looked at me and he said, ‘I know it doesn’t seem real to you right now. I want to tell you, it does seem real to me.’ And he said, ‘Maybe you need to go on my faith for a while.’ Hehe. LH: Yeah. BM: And I just remember feeling such a relief to be able to be honest about the experience and not have any pressure to have it be fixed, you know. And have him stay somewhat not anxious in the middle of it. And I don’t know, that’s what I, I just wish, that’s what I wish I could offer to people who are going through those times uh, right now. LH: But you do offer that and you have and I am able to lean at least somewhat on your, your faith there so. Sounds like your calls coming through. BM: It is unfortunately. LH: Brian thank you so much for taking this time. Um, I would love to do it again sometime and um, just really appreciate it and I hope that all of you listening out there enjoyed this to. . BM: Thank you for your questions. I just love talking to you Leif and, LH: Me to. BM: I look forward, let’s definitely try to do this again. LH: Ok. And for all your travels ahead, uh, God bless and wow, it sounds like you’ve got lots of adventures. BM: Well, this is one of the great experiences that, when you get to travel, you know we all see so much garbage, and the garbage is so, uh, it’s so promoted and the stupidest things get the most attention. But you know, like I was just in a little village uh, two mornings ago, and, or two afternoons ago, way up in the mountains of the Dominican Republic, where a little, a Pentecostal pastor of a little tiny church of this little village of four thousand people, was so bothered that nobody in the whole village had healthcare, that he has created a healthcare system where, uh, these poor people who have an annual average per capitol income of fifty dollars per person, per year. That’s their average income…per year. LH: Wow. BM: And, he has created an unbelievable thing. And you know, you see something like that and you just are very moved. LH: That does give me hope. BM: That’s right. LH: I wish I could say I cared more about the things that I know I should care more about. But uh, I guess until it enters my realm of experience and community, and until there’s some core things that get healed up, it’s just too hard to should myself into that stuff. BM: That’s right. Well, it is coming fine. These things work out. LH: Hahaha. BM: Thanks so much my friend. LH: Thank you Brian, look forward to talking later.