George Luke catches up with Brian McLaren speaker, pastor, and networker among innovative Christian leaders, thinkers, and activists
What have you been talking about here at Greenbelt this year?
Well, for my first presentation, I was a guest of Christian Aid – who, as you may know, have launched a brilliant and courageous campaign on tax justice.
I gave a talk called You're selling your soul for a pair of flip-flops, based on a passage in the book of Amos. I think that's tremendously important, and I'm so honoured to be able to speak on that subject.
I was invited to speak on the issue of Israel and Palestine, and how our failure to be outspoken advocates for healthy and wise solutions in the Middle East could contribute to terrible, terrible consequences down the road.
And so I talked about our need to advocate for solutions that are pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, pro-peace and pro-justice, and for us to offer something other than choosing one side against the other in a harmful way.
Later on I'll be speaking about my new book, and then tomorrow I'm going to speak about my current writing project. I'm working on a book now that's called Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohamed Walk Into a Bar.
The subtitle is “Christian identity in a multi-faith world”. It's about how to have a strong and benevolent Christian identity in a multi-faith world.
What is your new book, Naked Spirituality, about?
The subtitle is “A life with God in twelve simple words.” I try to do two things in this book. I try to give an understanding off the spiritual life as a journey in four stages.
And then I try to offer some simple ways of connecting with God in each of those four stages. That's what the 12 simple words are about.
A lot of Christians would say they've overdosed on books with numbers in their titles – 40 days of purpose, etc – and some of us might just run to the hills at the mention of 12 stages in your new book. How do you avoid that?
There's no way to do that if people haven't read the book! But I think that anyone who does read the book soon finds out that it's the very opposite of that.
In fact, when I talk about these four stages, the first stage is Simplicity. People in simplicity love to hear about the “three easy steps to this” or the “five easy steps to that.” Complexity is the second stage; people in this stage tend to like all those number things too.
But the third stage is Perplexity – and that's when people become suspicious. That's the stage where actually cynicism, suspicion and doubt are important skills.
One of the things I try to explain in the book is that perplexity's not something to feel ashamed about; it's actually an important part of the spiritual life.
That then leads – hopefully – to a stage beyond it which I call Harmony, where in some way we learn to see that there's some good in each of those stages, but also that there's something beyond them.
Are you still as engaged in the arts – especially music – as you used to be?
It's a lifelong passion. I still write music; I still try to make contributions to liturgical music; I'm still an avid listener to music, and pay a lot of attention to film and poetry and so on – and I try to incorporate that into the writing and speaking that I do.
But I think that in the next couple of years, I'm going to be even more involved, because I think we're now at a point where enough people have seen that we've got a lot of problems; we've had a lot of these arguments between contemporary and traditional worship.
We have problems in terms of content – both contemporary and traditional – so now we're going to have to deal with the content issues.
And I hope to do everything I can to encourage songwriters, poets and liturgists to contribute in fresh ways in the years ahead.
What's your take on the growing number of satirical books and blogs that poke fun at Christian culture – such as Matthew Paul Turner's books, or the Jesus Needs New PR, Stuff Christians Like and Stuff Christian Culture Likes blogs? Are they just us having a laugh at ourselves, or something much more cynical?
To me, you're identifying two very real problems in that question. The first is the stupid, destructive, cruel and hostile things Christians say and do – and those aren't a laughing matter!
We have to be heartbroken about them, but one of the ways to draw attention to them is through humour – mocking ourselves.
But the primary problem of course, is that we keep saying and doing these stupid, harmful, destructive things. And so many of these things are exported from my country!
But then cynicism is a big problem. There's a saying, “Cynicism is the opiate of intellectuals.” And that's why I think we have to move beyond cynicism to an appropriate activism, where – to quote another saying – “the best revenge is living well.”
So what we have to do is acknowledge all the problems in these stupid, crazy things that people do, but we have to be careful that if we only react against those things, we aren't doing anything constructive.
So we've got to find and articulate the constructive things. Which, by the way, is another reason why I'm so impressed with what Christian Aid has done by emphasizing working for justice in the area of taxation – or even Greenbelt in general, in raising the profile of the need to work for a just peace in the Middle East.
Those are constructive, positive things to get involved with.
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