Brian D. McLaren
Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World
New York: Jericho Books, 2012
Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America
Boston: Beacon Press, 2012
Two authors working in the area of interfaith relations need to be read by Evangelicals: Brian McLaren writing as a Progressive Evangelical, and Eboo Patel as a Muslim. Both men contribute important pieces of the puzzle that should be discussed and incorporated into an Evangelical response to religious pluralism and interreligious engagement.
This combined review begins with McLaren's book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? McLaren self-identifies as a Progressive Evangelical, and his ideas as developed throughout his many books, as well as his actions, particularly those in regard to the issue of homosexuality, have led some Evangelicals to classify him variously as liberal, heterodox, and outside the Evangelical fold. In my estimation as someone who has worked in Evangelicalism in theology, missiology, and dialogue, there is much of value for consideration in this volume. Therefore, I urge conservative Evangelicals not to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, and to give McLaren a fair hearing in this book.
This volume is not about interreligious dialogue, but instead, is a pre-dialogue book that advances McLaren's thesis about Christian identity, which he sees as often defined by way of hostility toward those in other religions. McLaren labels this "Conflicted Religious Identity Syndrome," and he identifies what he sees as the main element of the problem:
Our root problem is neither religious difference nor religious identity nor even strong religious identity. Our root problem is the hostility that we often employ to make and keep our religious identities strong—whether those identities are political, economic, philosophical, scientific, or religious. (63) (emphasis in original)
Although Evangelicals may balk at McLaren's perspective, it is confirmed by Pew Forum surveys revealing our attitudes to various religions, and also in my work among Evangelicals in new religious movements and world religions in churches throughout the United States. New religions are described with the pejorative label "cults" and understood through an apologetic strategy of refutation that functions as evangelism. World religions do not fare much better, with many, particularly Islam, viewed with suspicion and seen as worthy of only a marginal place in "Judeo-Christian America."
Many popular treatments of new and world religions by Evangelicals reflect McLaren's idea of a hostile relationship, which seems to function by way of identity construction. The logic here is one whereby, just as America tends to define itself by way of opposition (Communism in the past and now by way of Islam through the "War on Terror"), so too Evangelicalism defines itself by the religions it opposes. This is supported by application of the work of Jason Bivins in his book Religion of Fear, which describes Evangelicalism as a movement having a preoccupation with boundaries and a strong sense of combativeness, which constructs its sense of self by way of opposition and embattlement.
In order to consider the possibility of reshaping faith identity by way of benevolence toward other religions, McLaren has an ambitious agenda that involves theology and praxis, through which he asks Christians "to critically revisit various doctrines" (100), and "to rediscover, re-envision, and reformulate them in a post-imperial, postcolonial, post-Christendom way" (101). This involves a process of critical historical reflection on Christianity as it relates to imperialism and colonialism and how this has contributed to our hostile identity, as well as a possible reformulation of doctrine, liturgy, and missions to reflect our multi-faith, post-Christendom environment.
Some of the major helpful elements in McLaren's proposal include a discussion of Christological hermeneutics of the Bible, pneumatological considerations that contribute to a robust trinitarian framework, liturgical practices such as the emphasis on Resurrection as well as cross and atonement, and friendship and hospitality practices as they relate to missions and the Kingdom or Commonwealth of God. There are areas where ongoing conversation and possible critique presents itself, with one major area being the idea of competitive superiority and religious supremacy. In this area I find myself in agreement and also disagreement with McLaren, and I hope for the opportunity to dialogue with him and other Evangelicals on this and other topics in the book. For further discussion see my more extensive review on this volume (precluded by space limitations in this dual review) at The Englewood Review of Books.