In the 21st century, context is everything. If you don’t believe me, try asking for a double cheeseburger at a furniture outlet. Those of us who live in the complex twentysomething world of culture, sub-culture and hyper-culture know that contexts are constantly changing: What works today probably won’t work tomorrow, and it will most likely get you laughed at next week. Understanding and applying the right context to any situation is one of the most basic skills a twentysomething can have in these days of super-globalization. Enter Brian McLaren, pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in the Baltimore-Washington region, and a man in pursuit of helping people find their eternal context.
A prolific author and speaker, McLaren began to find his eternal context by locating his life story in the larger story of Jesus Christ years ago. As the two stories began to fully intersect, Brian found himself as the leader of a very small group of twentysomething Christians in the early ’80s that met in his home for church. McLaren, though trained in English literature and writing, as well as having been an English instructor at the college level, took on the role of pastor in his small church. McLaren explained, “I never planned on leaving teaching to become a pastor, but the church outgrew our home, and I had to make a choice between teaching or pastoring.”
As the church grew, McLaren found himself increasingly uncomfortable with the church’s inability to connect with the larger culture, to work in the current context. As a result, both he and his church started over in an attempt to speak the language of those on the fringes of Christianity. McLaren, in an effort to be relevant, began to intuitively pick up on the cultural sea change known as postmodernism, realizing that, in the words of Leonard Sweet: “There was a whole new there, there.”
Years later, McLaren is still constantly exploring new ways to present the Gospel for the 21st century. His latest stab at connecting Christ with culture can be found in the recently released The Story We Find Ourselves In, which is, at its heart, a retelling of the Christian story for postmodern ears. Not exactly fiction, though very definitely not non-fiction, McLaren explained that he wrote the book in the ancient genre of the dialogue: “It goes all the way back to Plato and the philosophical dialogues. Plato and other ancient Greek philosophers, as well as renaissance thinkers like Gallileo, would write in a dialogical format so that they could get at deeper issues.”
Recently, RELEVANT caught up with Brian McLaren to discuss his latest book, the deeper issues and emerging 21st century narrative theology.
[RELEVANT magazine:] In The Story We Find Ourselves In, you used the more fictional format of the dialogue. By doing this, you placed your ideas in a larger story. Can you talk a bit about how you went about giving form to the book?
[Brian McLaren:] Well, I have this hunch that systematic theologies are a creation of modern Christianity that we’re going to jettison in their current form as we move into the postmodern world. And, I wondered what’s going to replace systematic theology … I think it will be a kind of narrative theology that focuses not on timeless truths presented in abstract outlines, but rather, theology that emerges through reflection on a story. So that’s what I wanted to explore in the book. I wanted to try to tell the biblical story, but interweave it with the story of these characters … even though it kind of ends up being a story about people telling and a hearing the biblical story.
[RM:] So the book was basically about trying to present theology in a new form for a culture that rejects the modern, very mechanistic interpretations of the Gospel?
[BM:]: Yes. Though for a lot of people, that idea is terribly frightening and threatening … especially for moderns who feel that we are dismantling Christianity. But we have run out of gas with modern Christianity. I think it’s pretty much done all it can do and said all it can say.
[RM:] Right, especially for a culture that now believes heartily in the supernatural and the miraculous but doesn’t really believe in God. It seems like the majority of church is exactly opposite of that.
[BM:]: Well … our language of natural and supernatural is really a modern construct in many ways. If we go back to pre-modern times, if they talk about miracles, it wasn’t supernatural versus natural because the whole natural world was seen as mysterious … in fact, everything was seen as mysterious and full of wonder. And I think in the postmodern world, we’ll probably begin to question dichotomies like that one. For example, in the modern world, you end up with people who say either you believe in medicine or you believe in prayer …
There are two fascinating things that are happening at the same time right now. One is that the old “God of the gaps” approach, where we can find God in the things that are not explained by science, is being edged out. There aren’t very many gaps left. And so what we have to do is stop resorting to that approach and start saying that the glory of God is shown in what’s known as well as what’s unknown. That’s tremendously important. The second thing is that what we think we know is so superficial. Even in what we know, there are so many layers of mystery. The new science is really showing us this. We thought we had the world explained by little protons, neutrons, and electrons. And now we find out that that’s just really oversimplified.
[RM:] In the move to find the “Theory of Everything,” they find out that there could be six extra dimensions to this whole reality, and we could only guess as to how this whole thing works ….
[BM:] Right, exactly.
[RM:] And because of this new unfamiliarity, presumably we need to retell our old stories in a way that make them new again? Is that what you’re getting at?
[BM:] Well … one of the things that first we need to pause and reflect on is the fact that we have four gospels in the New Testament and not just one. And the fact that we have four gospels tells us that we’re better off having four different perspectives because there is no one authorized version of the story. There are multiple authorized versions, and really, you read the book of Acts, and you see the story told in many more ways. So, in the biblical world, multiple perspectives are a huge advantage. I think the goal as we move into the postmodern world is to get multiple tellings of the story, and we’ll be better off for it.
See, in the modern era, the story almost disappeared, and we ended up with just these propositions. Four spiritual laws, four steps to peace with God, and it was a formulaic or recipe approach, and that’s what we need to get beyond.
[RM:] In your book, you have a character that resists this type of retelling. She feels that the modern version of the story is the only version of this story, and the retelling upsets her. How do you approach that type of resistance in real life?
[BM:] This is the great challenge that we have. If people love the Lord, they want to be cooperative with their church. But, the fact is that virtually 100 percent of American churches are practicing modern Christianity and are reinforcing modern Christian theology. So, for people who want to think in these ways, they have to go against the tide.
[RM:] Yeah, but my experience was that when I came to Christ initially, I had these wonderful experiences with God, but as I went along, I tried to fit myself into these weird, modern boxes … and it just didn’t work. So, for me, at least, the modern version of Christianity cluttered up the story. The life I knew never moved in straight lines.
[BM:] … And that’s exactly the type of people I’m writing for … but, we have to understand that there are whole lot of people who are never going to make the transition. And the kind thing to do is not to criticize them or force them to change. But, of course, there’s a world of people out there who are saying, “I want to stay faithful to Christ, I just can’t be squeezed into those boxes.” And we have to find ways to minister to these people.
There was some research done in the ’90s that said that 83 percent of church-going high-school seniors drop out within one year of high school graduation. I think that they have been given a story of the universe that they have tolerated, but when they got out on their own, they said, “This is too small for the world I live in … and too fragile.” So, I think that a more narrative approach to the Scripture will help address some of this.
The deeper issue here is how we approach the Bible. And I think that there are assumptions that we developed in the modern world that are very understandable, but they can be very destructive.
[RM:] Okay, let’s say I have a friend who’s an atheist, who’s looked at maybe the Gilgamesh epics, and maybe he’s read the Sumerian or Babylonian versions of the Genesis creation account, or he’s been studying Zoroastorianism, and because of these things, he totally discounts Christianity. What would be the narrative theology type of response to this?
[BM:] I would say that one of the amazing things about the Bible is that it does not try to say, “Either choose our story or choose the other guys story.” What the Bible does again and again is it outflanks the competing stories and in some ways tries to redeem them. A great example is the character of Leviathan in the Old Testament. It comes up many times. Leviathan refers to a whole Middle Eastern mythology. And whenever you see Leviathan referred to, you’re seeing the Jewish people take this mythology and embrace it and sort of incorporate it into the Jewish faith.
In church history, our greatest Christian leaders did the same thing. For example, Augustine’s City of God is an attempt to grapple with the Roman skeptical intellectuals of his day and their understanding of human history. Thomas Aquinas did the same thing with his work that we know as Summa Contragentile, which really was an attempt to speak, in very respectful terms, to the Muslim intellectuals of his day who were actually a lot more learned then the Christian intellectuals of his day. But he takes their story and places it in a larger story that’s even better.
So this is our challenge for today: How can we find value in the stories that exist and let them not just be wiped out by the biblical story, but redeemed by the biblical story? The word “redeem” is a beautiful word. It means to be given new value. Of course, people might reject it. Of course, then their problem is … which story are they going to choose instead? And, to me this is the great crisis that we face, because there are three or four alternative stories out there, and they’re pretty scary. One is the story of consumerism, and it says that the purpose of life is to own and consume more stuff. It’s not hard to see where that one will lead us. Another is militaristic U.S. or fundamentalist Islam. So which story are we going to choose, which context?
[Eric Hurtgen’s last name is pronounced "her-chin."]
BUY IT: THE STORY WE FIND OURSELVES IN
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