Brian McLaren: A New Kind of Ancient

Written by Michael Cline : June 30, 2008

After reading page 187 of Brian McLaren’s new book, the Jesus Manifesto community is even more blessed to have Brian sit down and accept my request for an interview. It is on that page that he reveals one area of his life where spiritual practices have helped him manage his anxiety and discomfort–answering emails day in and day out. Perhaps my email was a spiritual trial of sorts, meant for Mr. McLaren to be made complete and “lacking in nothing”. At any rate, I hope my email gave Brian the chance to practice some of that “everyday sacredness” that he plugs in Finding Our Way Again. For Brian’s complete bio, check out his website.

So what’s an author whose written about a “new kind of Christian” and who supposedly carries a banner for emerging forms of Christianity doing writing an introduction to a series on ancient ideas?

Yeah, I guess it’s kind of ironic. But then again … one of the characteristics of modernity is the claim that we – we modern, Western, Protestant, Evangelical-fundamentalist-charismatic, and otherwise modified Christians – finally have it right, unlike the backward unenlightened generations that preceded us. One of the postmodern critiques of modernity is that we moderns threw out some babies with the bathwater and that we banished one too many ghosts in our eradication of premodern superstition, namely, the Holy Ghost. So, for Protestants to say we need to learn from Catholics, or for Western Christians to say we need to learn from the East, or for post-Enlightenment folks to say we need to learn from pre-Enlightenment folks … that’s all very much in keeping with the kinds of things I and my friends have been writing about in recent years.

I noticed that Finding Our Way Again was dedicated to both local church pastors and those involved in New Monasticism. How do you see these two groups working together? Do you see this happening yet?

One of my hopes is that the New Monasticism will influence everybody, including those who aren’t officially a part of it. I believe that a radical few can influence the less-radical many in positive ways. This is one of the things we Protestants can learn from our Roman Catholic friends. Catholicism has by and large made room in the ecclesia for ecclesiolae – they have made room for distinct orders in the larger church, and those orders have enriched the whole. I believe this is beginning to happen among Protestants, although there’s always a more fundamentalist or sectarian wing among Evangelicals and some mainliners too that sees difference (whether in understanding or structure) as heresy and demands uniformity, which means conformity.

You write that spiritual practices are “habits by which we can close the gap between the character we want to possess and the character we currently have.” Could you give us a glimpse into an area of your life where you have seen this happen?

It would probably be better for you to ask my wife or neighbors about this, as I’m likely to exaggerate any progress in character development in my life. But I’ll offer this one small example, especially relevant since this interview will appear on the web. As you probably know, I have a group of extremely loyal and dedicated critics on the internet – and some in the world of hard copies as well - who use pretty colorful language to articulate their opinions of me and my work. I remember when I received my first hostile review – how I wrote and rewrote a strategic reply by which I hoped to save my reputation. Then another hostile review came, to which I had to respond, and then another.

Soon I began to feel that defending myself was becoming a kind of unhealthy spiritual practice, and by engaging in it, I was bound to a) become more defensive, and b) become even more self-concerned than I already was. So, I made it my general practice a) not to defend myself when critiqued, b) to pray for those who critique me and when possible to reach out to them in a kind and friendly way, and c) I also adopted the practice of not critiquing people by name in print. That doesn’t mean I don’t answer honest questions about my work, but it means I try to avoid doing to others as I feel they are doing to me. Now I know I’ve slipped up on some occasions, and again I’ll leave it to others to say whether this has improved my character. But I’m pretty sure my character would be even worse than it is if I had continued practicing self-defense.

How do you see the main thrust of your last book, Everything Must Change, connecting with the topic of ancient spiritual practices found in this book? What does social justice have to do with liturgy and taking pilgrimages?

This is a really important question. I truly believe that everything must change … beginning with me. So, when I begin with me, I’m going to need some spiritual practices which may include fixed-hour prayer or pilgrimage or fasting or feasting. And if I pursue spiritual practices, I need to understand the larger “why” beyond my own personal spiritual comfort or reward … which will lead me to ask what God is up to in the world, which will get me thinking about Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God, which will direct my energies towards peace-making, pursuing economic justice, and caring for the planet. They’re not just two sides of one coin: their two parts of one strand of DNA.

One of the most obvious themes in the new book is the focus on the bond and mutual understanding between the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. How does this mutuality play into what you are trying to accomplish with Finding Our Way Again?

It’s funny, or ironic or sad or something, that among all the positive reviews of the book, this feature has gotten more criticism than any other. I notice many of us who are committed Christians feel that we are being unfaithful to Jesus when we speak gently and respectfully of our neighbors of other faiths, and when we seek to work for peace and mutual understanding. I actually think the opposite is the case. I believe we’re being faithful to Jesus when we love our neighbors – even those whom we may have considered strangers, “the other,” or even enemies. I believe we’re being faithful when we seek to be peacemakers. The fact is that our three Abrahamic faiths have a lot in common. There are also important differences. In the book, I’m certainly not denying the differences, but I don’t want to minimize the commonalities either.

A big part of my desire in doing this – I guess this is so obvious that it probably doesn’t need to be said – is that in the aftermath of 9/11 and the Iraq War, I’d rather not see Christians in the United States vote for or otherwise support political leaders who are more likely to launch unjustified wars and drop nuclear bombs on Muslims or anybody else. And I’d rather not see extremists from other religions plot terrorist attacks against us. I’d rather my children and eventual grandchildren not live in a world where the three Abrahamic religions are the “class troublemakers” – the ones launching wars, sowing discord, and so on. That’s why I was honored to be invited to introduce this series and to write – as a sincere, committed, non-relativist Christian – in a peaceful, gentle, respectful way about Muslim and Jewish people, whom I love and see as my friends and neighbors, not my enemies.

You appeal to the appropriation of ancient practices as a way to steer clear of consumerist spirituality, but many are tempted to write off the ancient-future movement as just another choice to be consumed. “This is just cafeteria theology, St. Benedict a la carte,” they might say. How would you respond?

Yes, I’ve heard this too. One fellow humorously compared me to a kid who goes into a candy store and sneaks a lick of all the lollipops because he’s too cheap or indecisive to pick one and pay for it. Perhaps these folks would prefer that we all just stay in our little enclaves, refusing to learn from our fellow Christians who have practices and treasures we lack, and refusing to share our practices which we hold to with proprietary zeal? I don’t think so. I think we can avoid both of the extremes, and have a wise sharing of treasures in our shared desire to follow Jesus faithfully in our world.

What would a church as a “school of practice” (p. 145) look like? Are there any current example out there?

Thankfully, there are so many great examples … in fact, just about every church is doing this to some degree, whether intentionally or by accident. My hope is that this mindset would become more intentional and that we’d get a bit better at it. And I think it would be impossible to describe such a church in generalities – because they would each be unique and would take many forms. I’ve seen Anglican churches in Uganda, Pentecostal churches in El Salvador, Catholic Churches in New York, megachurches in the US, and Baptist churches in South Africa working beautifully as schools of practice.

The chapter entitled “The Cycle We Find Ourselves In” spoke of the need for us (theologians, bloggers, pastors, etc…) to move from diagnosing to writing prescriptions. Do you see others following suit or are we still busying ourselves with analyzing more than anything? Did you have a specific target audience in mind for this admonition?

My primary target was myself. I hate it when – as in the previous few answers – I expend a lot of effort in targeting, detailing, describing, and analyzing weaknesses. The patient is in the emergency room, and we need to move from diagnosis to triage fast, in my opinion. It’s way easier to talk than to actually do, and the people I respect the most spend less and less time critiquing and more and more time serving, loving, showing hospitality, listening, visiting, solving, caring, worshiping, praying, and so on. We really need to be careful about this – especially those of us who blog, write, speak, broadcast, and so on. Jesus didn’t say, “I was in prison and you wrote a book for me, I was naked and you complained on your blog about the church’s failure to clothe me, I was sick and you raised money for your salaries using a picture of me,” and so on.

Michael Cline is a former co-editor of Jesus Manifesto. He's currently the Pastor of Young Adults at a Wesleyan Church in Minneapolis. When not contributing at JM, he's doing even more reading and writing towards his MDIV from Bethel Seminary. His blog can be found at

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Viewing 4 Comments

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    Hey. I didn't know much about him. Thanks for the post.
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    Thanks for this, Brian and Michael! :)

    Your closing point, Brian, is solid gold. I hope many of your "he only questions, but never answers" critics stumble upon your words here.

    To continue that topic: I am reminded of the progression of function for the prophet as described in Walter Brueggemann's "The Prophetic Imagination". Gadflies and prophets are tasked first with exposing and lamenting and decrying the failures and shortfalls of the people of God, then with comfort and proclaim God's fresh way forward. I am elated to see the new monasticism and emergent church, and all other kingdom conspirators out there, humbly begin charting out that way forward under God's guidance.
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    I have to say, I preferred this interview to all of his books, and am greatly encouraged by it. Peace to you, Brian and to you, Michael.
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    Thank you for printing this, I have read much about his books but never an entire book. I fully agree that social justice and spiritual practices merge in such a unique way that allows God to weave and work through the other. And he is right, "everything must change....beginning with me."


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