my interview with Brian McLaren (part 1)

my interview with Brian McLaren (part 1) September 16, 2014

McLarenToday is the first of three installments of my interview with Brian McLaren. He asked me three questions about my book The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It (which, I can’t remember, I may have mentioned once or twice over the last few weeks). In turn, we thought it would be fun if I asked Brian three questions of my own (and–NO–not about my book; you must think I’m self absorbed or something).

And since we were having so much fun, we thought we’d make this even funner (and more confusing) by posting the exact same post on each other’s blogs simultaneously. So, if you’d rather (hurt my feelings and) go over to Brian’s blog and read this, click here.

As I’m sure many of you know, Brian’s latest book is We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation52+ short chapters that give an overview of the biblical story and a fresh introduction or re-orientation to Christian faith. 

******

Brian’s 1st question :

Peter, I loved your book.  I don’t know many if any theologians who can make serious points with as much humor as you. You theologize like a stand-up comic, which, in light of the seriousness of your subject matter, is a good thing. Much humor, I think arises from pain and anger. I’m reminded that Soren Kierkegaard said, “The essence of all true preaching is malice,” by which he meant that unless the preacher is mad about something, he has no passion. So … is that true for you with this book? If so, what pain or anger is behind it?

Thanks, Brian. I loved my book, too.

I’ve actually thought a lot about your question, but I’m not sure I can come up with a final answer. All I know is that I’ve loved to joke and laugh ever since I can remember (and it landed me in trouble now and then as a kid in school). Of course, this begs the question why it is part of my personality. I don’t think, though, that anger or pain are necessarily behind it. I know that many comedians have suffered emotionally, and I would venture to guess that their comedy was a form of pain-management.

But for me, I just like seeing the absurd in things. Humor can disarm and put people in a position of seeing the same old thing in a different light. I’m reminded of something George Carlin said (paraphrasing), that comedy is what happens everyday, you just need someone to point it out to you. For me, humor is a very natural-feeling mode of catching people off guard to see something deeper or from a different angle than they might be accustomed to. Maybe that’s my schtick.

I like how you refer to preaching in your question. I used to tell my seminary students that preaching is like Carlin’s definition of comedy: God-moments are all around us, we just need to be reminded of them.

In The Bible Tells Me So, I describe some people’s perceptions of God as a drunken father you don’t want to disturb from his nap lest he become angry. I’m not describing God but trying to get at the absurdity of how some perceive God—as one who will lash out ate you with only the slightest provocation. Some say I’m “mocking” God but that is to miss the point entirely.

I hope, though, that preachers don’t have to be “mad” to be passionate, as Kierkegaard puts it (though I get his rhetorical overstatement in the context of the complacent church he was critiquing). Anger is fine when it is well placed, directed at things worthy of anger. But I’ve seen too many preachers who are angry about everything, as if the only way they know how to speak of God is to be majorly hacked off about something. That’s not good preaching or good pastoring.

Pete’s 1st question:

Brian, on my blog I’ve been running a series I call “aha moments”–that point where you began to see how the model of Scripture you had no longer makes sense to you and you know you have to move on. What is your “aha” moment with the Bible? What happened that started you on your journey, that made you realize “I need to find another way of thinking about how the Bible informs my faith”?

For me, there have been so many aha’s. One came when I was in elementary school. I’m just old enough to remember the days of segregation. We attended a white church that was proud to call itself fundamentalist because it stood for the fundamentals of the faith.

One Sunday, my Sunday School teachers (it was a husband and wife co-teaching) told us that we should never date a person of another race because we might fall in love, and if we fell in love, we might get married, and if we got married, it would be a terrible sin because God “created them according to their kind” and there was this thing called “the curse of Ham” (which was about race, not pork products, I realized).

I remember thinking this was bonkers and evil, even though I was only maybe in fifth grade at the time. My parents weren’t racists at all … but I realized that the Bible could easily be “an accessory to the crime” – if not wisely interpreted.

I encountered the same kind of racist attitudes, sad to say, in some missionaries I heard speak.

A couple years later, in middle school. I was super interested in science. One Sunday, my Sunday School teacher, a good-hearted and simple man, said, “You have to choose. You can either believe in God or evolution.” I remember thinking, “OK. I’m 13 years old. Five years from now and I’m outta here.”

To me, evolution was one of the most beautiful and elegant things I’d ever come across, and to put it in opposition to God made no sense. I probably would have been “outta here” if I hadn’t had a very powerful spiritual experience a couple years later, accompanied by some spiritual mentors who didn’t have such closed-minded approaches to Scripture and faith.

Those early conflicts were like a wound that kept getting opened again … when I realized that my church considered women as subordinate to men (in church, anyway), or when I found myself caught in the cross-fire between charismatics and non-charismatics, or caught in the cross-fire between traditional and contemporary worship, or caught in the cross-fire between Calvinists and Arminians – or – here was a huge theological debate in my setting: between jeans, beards, and long hair in church versus anti-jeans, beards, and long hair.

More aha moments came when I went to college and then graduate school, where I studied English. Studying literature involves studying the ways we read literature – which means studying theories of interpretation.

What was almost always implicit and unacknowledged in church because explicit and open to critique in lit classes – that we all have theories and assumptions and perspectives and biases we bring to the text. That’s one of the reasons I wish that your book had been available to me back when I was in high school and college. I would have eaten it up.

ALSO:

A reminder to join me in a Reddit AMA this Wednesday, September 17th at 3pm EST in the Christianity subreddit.


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  • Christi Masso Byerly

    Brian’s blog was WAY more interesting, funny and confusing. Glad you two are friends!

  • LorenHaas

    My 13 year old “aha” moment was when my Sunday school teacher told us that men had one less rib than women because God used one of Adam’s ribs to make Eve. I can remember thinking I just have to keep my head down until my parents cannot make me go to church any longer. When I graduated High School I found a job where I had to work Sundays. Did not go back to church for almost 30 years.

    • Steve Knudsen

      how did you go about counting ribs. I always wondered about whether that was what we now call an “urban legend.”

  • Kim Fabricius

    More aha moments came when I went to college and then graduate school, where I studied English.

    Yep, I reckon a good English 101-102 course is as good an inoculation against toxic literalist Christianity as you’ll find. The only downside is that it will dent the sale of books like Peter’s, doing their work both preemptively and surreptitiously. Not only with the Bible but with all cultural artifacts, it’s all about learning how to read with intelligence and discernment. A related point: it’s hardly puzzling, is it, that the contribution of conservative evangelicalism to the library of good literature, fiction and poetry, is, at a generous estimate, about zilch.

    • Daniel Merriman

      While I wouldn’t say it was an “aha” moment, an eye opener to me came in a second year cours in Early American Literature around 1970. In the late 18th century, there was a huge movement in New England in opposition to the dominant Puritan strain of Calvinism. Both sides took to the print media, and we read a number of tracts on both sides of the argument. I learned that the Unitarian/Universalists were just as good at proof texting as the Trinitarian Calvinists– indeed they had been raised as Calvinists and they would no doubt have agreed that Scripture was inerrant, though they certainly argued over translation. (Both sides were well versed in Greek and Hebrew). What’s important is its interpretation.

      BTW, a good summary of the outcome of this New England split is: The Trinitarians kept the faith, the Unitarians kept the buildings.

    • Benj

      I share an “aha” moment where literature is involved. But Kim! How can you make such a sweeping and empty statement about conservative evangelicalism’s contribution to literature? A paucity of good conservative, evangelical literature is “hardly puzzling”? On the contrary, what is oppressively puzzling is how you come to that conclusion. Out of respect to a million aha moments, I need to offer a counter-proposal. CS Lewis is hardly zilch, nor are any number of some deeply humble Puritans such as Walter Marshall, John Bunyan, William Gurnall. Maybe you have actually read Calvin – if you did not like him, to each her own, but I will question your ability to recognize beauty :-). One could even cite Solzhenitysn, Milton, Auden, and my favorite, Marilynne Robinson. True, these writers aren’t evangelical, per se. But their worldviews were conservative. I admit I’m an amateur on these matters, and I agree with some of what you said, like good literature being an antidote to foul manifestations of nominally Christian texts. I hope you’ll reconsider your final comment though.

    • Steve Knudsen

      I tested out of English 101-102. Where does that leave me?
      😉

  • Kim Fabricius

    @ Benj

    Conservative is one thing, conservative evangelical quite another — and it’s the latter, specifically inerrantists, who are quite explicitly in the sights of Peter and Brian, and who entertain a whole raft of theological positions quite alien to the writers you mention, none of whom are inerrantists in the Chicago Statement sense of the word. And NB: I quite specifically subtitle literature as fiction and poetry.

    To attend to the writers you mention …

    The wonderful Calvin, humanist, elegant stylist, father of modern French, yes, but of course he did not write fiction or poetry, nor did Marshall and Gurnall, so they’re simply not relevant to my point — or yours. To call the two Protestants, Milton and Bunyan, inerrantists would be hopelessly anachronistic and inaccurate. As for the rest: Auden was an Anglo-Catholic; Solzhenitsyn was Russian Orthodox; and Robinson is a “liberal” Protestant in the best sense of the term, a term she is trying to rehabilitate precisely against an aesthetically stunted conservative evangelicalism. Finally, C.S. Lewis, that icon of American evangelicals — he is miles from his fan club doctrinally on, e.g., penal substitution and hell, while on inerrancy, p-lease … (and his life-style I won’t mention!).

    My main point stands: if you want good art — and not only literature, but also visual art and music — you will not find it among conservative evangelicals, you must go to Catholics, Anglo-Catholics, and the Orthodox, with some notable Protestant exceptions (in modern American poetry, e.g., Richard Wilbur and Wendell Berry). As I have recently suggested in a comment at another blog, this artistic barrenness among conservative evangelicals has to do, inter alia with their historical iconoclasm, their thin doctrines of creation, their fear of worldly contamination, their anti-somatics, their literalist mindsets, and the flattening influence of their rationalist apologetics. Mind, they make a prolific contribution to Praise Music [sic]!

    • Benj

      I see it from your point of view now. I admit I am less than erudite on the subject, and that I confounded “evangelical” with … generally Christian, I guess. I also accept your designation of literature as fiction and poetry, which I usually do, but was being hasty and sloppy yesterday. Can I just add, your reply was one of the most friendly, knowledgeable, and teacher-ly as ever I have seen on boards like this, which you know can descend to cyberbattery and blind aggression. So I doff my cap and say thank you! I think yesterday I knew you were right, which made me sad, because I think conservative evangelicals ought to be producing great art. (Frederich Buechner may be another exception, along with Berry whom you mentioned. I haven’t read Wilbur.) So yesterday I think I was trying to convince myself, more than you, that these writers I’ve been enjoying fit the description of conservative evangelical. If it is not obvious at this point, inasmuch as terms can evoke a worldview, the label probably does describe at least a portion of my thinking – otherwise I would not be so upset that my tradition is either (a) as aesthetically anemic as you’ve stated, or (b) not quite so bleak, but hard to find the exceptions – or rather, hard for the exceptions to gain enough traction or relevance for their names to become recognizable.

      If you point me in the direction of the post you mentioned which explains the artistic barrenness, I’d be interested in reading more on the subject.

    • Benj

      I’m embarrassed to have forgotten Wendell Berry. Jayber Crow is a masterpiece.

  • Phil Mitchell

    My “aha” moment on race was quite different. I grew up in a Fundamentalist Baptist church and was taught that Genesis was literally true. When I was told–in college–that God made the different races to dwell in different places and that intermarriage was unbiblical I went back to my literalist upbringing, arguing that Adam and Even were the parents of all human beings so segregation could not be true. My biblical literalism turned me against racism.

    In the 1930s my grandfather preached that Adam and Eve were the parents of all thus making all members of the human family of equal worth in the sight of God. Many academicians of the day taught a vulgar Social Darwinism–that there were three trees of evolution and that the “white tree” had evolved to the highest level. No wonder my college Western Civ text called Hitler the “purest of the Social Darwinists.” I was delivered by biblical literalism from the nightmare ideologies of the past 100 years. I guess “aha” moments come in quite a few varieties.

    • Steve Knudsen

      go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_the_Origin_of_Species and look carefully at the picture of Darwin’s book “Origin of Species” or if you have two hours, watch the movie “Expelled.” In my understanding, modern genetics aligns with the Bible in saying that there are two parents of all mankind. Note that genetics implies that there are less significant genetic differences across cultures, e.g. Kenyans win most marathons both because of their genetics and because they have to run everywhere as kids. More extreme genetic variants, for instance Neanderthal, have died out, leaving all humans about 99.99% similarly genetically or something like that.

      • AHH

        modern genetics aligns with the Bible in saying that there are two parents of all mankind
        You are correct that modern genetics agrees about the unity of the human species, but this bit is incorrect (at least if you are thinking of “two parents” in anything resembling the traditional Biblical interpretation). The population of emerging modern humans was never as small as two; the minimum was on the order of thousands. A moderately technical summary by a Christian geneticist is here:
        http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/2010/PSCF9-10Venema.pdf

        If you are thinking about things like “mitochondrial Eve”, it is explained for example here
        http://biologos.org/blog/evolution-basics-becoming-human-part-1-mitochondrial-eve-and-y-chromosome-a
        why that doesn’t mean what you might think from the name.

        • Steve Knudsen

          good points, and thanks for the education. Note that if we assume other mammals as human ancestors, there still should be two parents somewhere. I suppose many parents could emerge at once, but it seems unlikely

          • AHH

            Actually that is a common misconception. Populations evolve and speciate — and in most cases the size of the population never gets down as low as “two”. As far as I know (and I’m not an expert in this subfield — those interested in expertise should read the work by Venema) the population of “parents” in our lineage doesn’t ever get to a small number like two except perhaps at the inception of the very first life (which did not reproduce sexually. so it could have even been one)..

    • Steve Knudsen

      upon closer reading, here is another excerpt of the Wikipedia article on Darwin’s Origin of Species: ” it was eventually changed to the snappier title: On the Origin of Species, with the title page adding by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.[2] Here the term “races” is used as an alternative for “varieties” and does not carry the modern connotation of human races—the first use in the book refers to “the several races, for instance, of the cabbage” and proceeds to a discussion of “the hereditary varieties or races of our domestic animals and plants”.[58]”

  • “Of course, this begs the question why it is part of my personality.”

    Actually, it doesn’t “beg the question” (a logical fallacy of assuming the conclusion in an argument); it “raises the question.” It amazes me how many otherwise very smart people get this wrong. Just a pet peeve I thought I’d share.

    • peteenns

      Good point–though what I really meant was more like avoid or delay, not raise. But still…

      • Pete, I’m sure you wouldn’t remember, but we (my wife and I) attended Westminster with you! We even had you in some classes. I think I remember you so much because you are tall, strangely enough. We haven’t written any books and we’re not very tall, so likely you wouldn’t remember us. But the last name is kind of unique for a Protestant seminary. Sorry about the peeve . . . Take care.

  • Kim Fabricius

    @ Benj,

    Thanks your for your kind comment. And how right you are about Jayber Crow, a masterpiece for sure.

    As for books to send your way on the subject of artistic evangelical barrenness, I can’t think of any offhand, though I’m quite sure that my ideas are hardly original or exceptional. The fact of evangelical artisticbarrenness is simply an empirical observation of one with an immense interest in literature and art; my explanation — it comes from places I can’t remember, but also from studying Christian intellectual/theological history. In its evangelical dimension, the place to start on the latter is surely Mark Noll’s seminal The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994).

    Best,
    Kim

    • Benj

      Thank you Kim, and I just checked online to see if the library had it. They didn’t. Onwards to Amazon. Thank you!

  • Kim Fabricius

    Sorry for the typos — I was rushing off to dinner!

  • Just Sayin’

    Am currently reading TBTMS. In your bibliography you list a book by Kenton Sparks entitled ‘The Mystery of Israel’s Origins’, OUP, 2014. I can’t find a trace of this book anywhere, either as published or forthcoming.

    • peteenns

      I wasa led to believe it will be coming out by the time my book was released. Soon though. Great book.

      • Just Sayin’

        Thanks, I’ll keep an eye out for it. If you hear any news about it, please post on your blog.

        • peteenns

          I will force him to do an interview.

  • Jason

    Pete, this might sound simple, but I loved your quote: “I need to find another way of thinking about how the Bible informs my faith”. That truly resonates with me.

  • John Stamps

    Just to clarify, where did Soren Kierkegaard say that the essence of all preaching is malice? I did a Google search and the only results that seem to come back are this blog!
    Thanks in advance.