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Author and activist Brian McLaren weaves stories and prescriptions during an online conversation offered by New York Avenue Presbyterian Church

The author of more than 20 books, McLaren will return for a May 8 webinar

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Brian McLaren, the author of more than 20 books, is part of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church’s McClendon Scholar Program. (Photo by Wendy Davis/Wild Artist Photography)

LOUISVILLE — Brian McLaren, an in-demand speaker who’s written more than 20 books with one more, “Life After Doom,” coming out next month, spent 90 minutes on Wednesday participating in a webinar with the people who run New York Avenue Presbyterian Church’s McClendon Scholar Program. View McLaren’s conversation with the Washington, D.C., church’s Theo Brown, titled “A New Kind of Christianity,” by going here.

McLaren told Brown he grew up in the same Plymouth Brethren tradition that produced humorist and writer Garrison Keillor, environmental scientist Katharine Hayhoe and Jim Wallis, the theologian and writer. “My parents kept a little fun in fundamentalism,” McLaren said, adding, “The rapture was invented and promulgated by the Plymouth Brethren, one of the less helpful ideas ever to enter Christian thought.”

Brown pointed out that in his book “Faith After Doubt,” McLaren talks about four stages of faith, which McLaren labels Simplicity, Complexity, Perplexity, and Harmony/Solidarity. Along the way, “I remember having this thought ping into my mind: Maybe my problem isn’t with the essence of the Christian faith, but with the modern version of the Christian faith and its link with colonialism and white male dominance. That was liberating for me,” McLaren said.

A “ground-breaking” moment of discovery was when he learned that throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, there’s no “firm belief in heaven and hell.”

“If it isn’t about heaven and hell, what is it about? Maybe the story going on in the Bible is different than what I was taught,” said McLaren, who previously served as an English professor and then a pastor. “That’s a better plotline than we were taught.”

Brian McLaren’s most recent book, “Life After Doom,” will be published next month.

Brown asked McLaren about his vision for what’s needed of faith communities: “Big on action, big on love, small on beliefs and small on bureaucracy.”

Many people would say some beliefs are unessential, “but which are essential? I could tell you what I think they are, but I don’t think that’s the point,” McLaren said. Jesus said people will know us by our fruits and his disciples by the way they love one another. “If we think Jesus was right, smart, wise and on the right track, it seems to me that would make us care what Jesus cared about,” McLaren said.

He called the Book of Galatians “the real deal for getting Pauline theology.”

“Neither circumcised nor uncircumcised counts for anything with Paul,” McLaren said. “The primary boundary marker of my religion doesn’t mean anything,” Paul says. “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love.”

As McLaren travels, he says it’s now a common occurrence for a pastor to introduce him to someone in attendance. “Mary here is one of our most committed members,” the pastor might tell McLaren. “She is Buddhist, but she felt a lot of love here and has been a vital member of our congregation.”

“Churches very often have people who move there and say, ‘Beliefs don’t make sense to me, but I want to be part of a community of love,’” McLaren said.

Theo Brown

Brown said he appreciated McLaren’s description of many of today’s churches: “a shrinking, sinking ship of wrinkling people.”

A rapidly changing world — McLaren cited the pandemic and invasions around the world specifically — has “put the younger generations in a real bind,” he said. When faith communities are insistent on, say, the roles men and women play or how LGBTQIA+ people “should be understood and treated,” it “puts young people in an untenable situation.” They can choose to be “out of sync with my generation,” they can leave the church, “or they can pretend while they’re in church and live [outside of church] in a different way, which creates cognitive dissonance.”

“I don’t think congregations have faced the emergency that represents,” McLaren said.

During a question-and-answer session following the conversation, McLaren was asked about believing the words often included in liturgy. “‘Triune God’ isn’t something I can wrap my head around,” the questioner said. “What’s a better way to think about that disconnect?”

“That person is very articulate and very honest,” McLaren said. “There are many people — many clergy — who feel that way and don’t have the courage or freedom to admit it.”

When the questioner mentioned tearing up when saying portions of the liturgy, that got McLaren to thinking about nostalgia. “As I get older, I value nostalgia,” he said. “Unfortunately, we have equated nostalgia with spirituality. … Nostalgia is nice, but it’s no way to run a religion.”

“We can’t be what we’ve always been about,” McLaren said. “The good news is called that because it’s something new.”

If he could wave a magic wand and make one wish come about, McLaren would bring together Pope Francis and leaders from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Methodist Church and The Episcopal Church “to declare an emergency and say our liturgies are not saying what people need to say. We call liturgy ‘the work of the people,’ but it’s really the workout of the people. It’s exercising your soul, which we need to be good people.”

It’d also be nice if faith communities issued a warning when Scripture is read during worship, he said: “Every time we have a Scripture reading, we should say, ‘Some take the Bible literally here and some don’t. What we agree on is we should look for the meaning and not just for the information.’”

McLaren quoted the Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, pastor of Middle Church in New York City: “What we need is a grownup God, a grownup faith and a grownup way of reading the Bible.”

“What I would add is, we need a way to teach it to children,” McLaren said. Worship resources such as Godly Play “help children tell a story and then question and interact with the story,” he said. That way, “We’re allowing children to be vital members of the interpretive community.” Most children will have a lot to say about a Bible story, he said — “as long as they’re told they don’t have to take it literally.”

Asked about which personal practices can be important to faith development, McLaren answered a slightly different question: “What practices do I need to become the kind of person I want to be? If deep inside me I want to be a person who seeks truth and is guided by love, what are the practices that would help me?”

Years ago, a mentor told McLaren that “Learning is not the consequence of teaching; it’s the consequence of thinking.”

“It’s clear you are thinking people. You’re curious and thinking and asking questions.” He suggested those gathered discuss some of the topics with their friends and others in their faith community in the coming days.

“That’s why Jesus spoke in parables. He knew he needed to give us something that would change our way of thinking,” McLaren said.

Brian McLaren will appear again as part of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church’s McClendon Scholar Program at 7 p.m. Eastern Time on May 8. Learn more here.

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