McLaren: Stymied? Try Asking Different Questions

Post a Comment » Written on April 14th, 2008     
Filed under: News
By Stan Friedman

CHICAGO, IL (April 14, 2008) – Brian McLaren is like that pestering kid in the classroom who keeps asking questions and won’t let the teacher move on to the next lesson.

But McLaren says his penchant for asking questions actually shares a connection with his days as an English teacher. “When a student would get stuck, I would tell them to step back and look at the big picture and ask different questions,” he said during a recent interview with Covenant News Service.

In his latest book, Everything Must Change, McLaren steps back to get a macro view of the world and focus on two “big picture” questions: What are the biggest problems in the world? What does Jesus have to say about these global problems?

McLarenMcLaren, who is one of the leading thinkers in what he likes to refer to as the “emergent conversation,” believes that when people confront problems by asking different questions, they may find better solutions.

Asking different questions requires different approaches and language if Christians are to influence a culture that is increasingly skeptical and less knowledgeable of religious tradition, McLaren said. “I’m raising questions about a lot of standard definitions.”

For example, McLaren suggests in his book that in place of kingdom of God, Jesus today might use images such as “a divine peace insurgency,” “God’s un-terror movement,” “new global love economy,” or “God’s sacred ecosystem.”

He also is questioning and suggesting alternatives to the conventional “framing stories” by which we make sense of the world and our lives. For example, he says the gospel is more than telling people they are sinners who are going to burn eternally in hell unless they repent and believe in Jesus before they die or he returns.

Some critics have accused McLaren of soft-selling the gospel, but he claims to be doing the exact opposite, calling for a life of radical commitment to Jesus that extends to all of life and not just an individual’s salvation. Part of the problem, McLaren suggests, is that Christianity has been presented as something that doesn’t require discipleship.

“The kingdom of God is not simply a new belief or doctrine that can be patched into an old way of life; it is, rather, a new way of life that changes everything,” McLaren writes.

Scot McKnight, the Karl A. Olsson professor in religious studies at North Park University and a leading commentator on the emerging movement, wrote on his Jesus Creed blog that Everything Must Change is “Brian’s most important book,” noting that “this book needs to be seen as a definitive book for emergent and from now on no one can speak responsibly about emergent without knowing this book.”

McKnight is sometimes a friendly critic of McLaren and takes issues with some of his conclusions, but states that “Brian is facing big, big issues. This book is a proposal for Christians to take up the challenge of Jesus and turn toward those issues. There are no books quite like this and for that reason alone it deserves to be read by all of us.”

McLaren wants the book to be more than read.

Authors routinely travel the country on book tours, but McLaren has eschewed the traditional approach, choosing instead to hold several training and worship events that run from Friday nights through Saturday afternoons. “I really wanted to be with people who wanted to go deeper with it,” he said. “I thought it would be rewarding for me as well as them.”

Although McLaren speaks several times, the worship times incorporate new music and the creative use of art in liturgy. “A key element to mobilizing people in our churches is liturgy,” he explains.

McLaren is surprised at the number of non-Christians who have attended the events. “I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘I’m not a Christian, but I’m really searching,” he said. A former Baptist pastor who had turned from his faith told McLaren, “This is another step in finding my way back.”

He praised the Evangelical Covenant Church for being out front in asking questions while maintaining its strong commitment to scripture and making disciples. “I think the Evangelical Covenant Church has a lot of pastors and teachers who are a lot further along than many other evangelicals.”

McLaren sees himself within the evangelical tradition, but some have said he has been unduly harsh to those in the tradition. “I don’t think I mention evangelicals very much,” he says.

McLaren explains he is concerned about fundamentalists of all persuasions who deny the opportunity for conversation. “Some people in the mainline churches act like they have the justice thing all wrapped up,” he said.

“Atheists can be just as vitriolic as anyone else,” he added. Some of the invectives have been hurled in a spate of recent best-selling books promoting atheism and denigrating religious faith.

The success of such books has been driven partially by people’s reaction to seeing religious violence and hearing the harsh words of different religious groups’ proponents.  “I think it’s very relevant for what I am talking about,” McLaren maintained. “I’m talking about a way of dealing with differences.”

McLaren differs with critics who say he believes the world’s ills can be solved through an economics that redistributes wealth and then trusts in an ever-evolving growth of humanity’s goodness. Rather, he said, “I think that is where people are not paying enough attention to the reality of sin. We have to have a very sober estimation of human evil.”

“That is one advantage that we have in the church – we can talk about sin,” McLaren says. The church is also the place from which to call for discipleship rooted in the power, love and grace of God. And to keep asking questions.

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