Brian McLaren and David Gushee have collaborated with a number of other authors to write a new book, The New Evangelical Manifesto: A Kingdom Vision for the Common Good. Gregory Metzger interviewed Gushee in Part One of this series, and here interviews McLaren about The New Evangelical Manifesto and his own new book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, Mohammed Cross the Road?
Brian, thanks for taking time to discuss these two books. I want to start with The New Evangelical Manifesto, to which you contribute the opening chapter. The book is part of the work of The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good (NEP), where you serve as an Advisory Board member. Why are you enthusiastic about the NEP?
Greg, I know that for many people, the term "Evangelical" is synonymous with "Religious Right." But the fact is, there is a significant movement within Evangelicalism that doesn't fit that stereotype at all. People like me come from a sincere Evangelical heritage that taught us to love and follow Jesus, to take the Bible seriously, and to share the Good News with others. The Jesus we have come to love and follow cares deeply about the poor, the marginalized, the outcasts, and the outsiders. He never tortured anyone, but rather identified with those who were imprisoned, tortured, and killed by those in power. The Bible shows us a God who sides with the slaves rather than the slave owners, who created the earth and cares about every sparrow and every wildflower. It's a book about social transformation through the power of love—not social control through the love of power. And the Good News we believe and share is all about reconciliation—not win-lose, us-them, partisan politics. That's why we feel we are being more faithful as Evangelicals when we work together for the kinds of goals and dreams celebrated in this book.
The book is divided into three sections, and you contribute the opening chapter to the first section of the book, the section called "A New Kind of Evangelical Christianity." I would describe your chapter as part reporting, part analyzing and part prescribing. In terms of the "reporting" you say the following:
More recent and more accurate assessment reveals that decades of evangelical growth derived largely from two sources: a clearer sense of message and mission and a more entrepreneurial "need-meeting" approach to ministry. Ministry was facilitated by less denominational bureaucracy and more local autonomy, yielding more freedom to innovate. Innovation resulted in large numbers of Catholic and mainline Christians being won over to evangelicalism . . .
I wonder if you could explain that a bit more.
The standard explanation among Evangelicals for "Conservative Growth" and "Mainline Decline" drew from an important but often mis-applied book from the 1970s by Dean Kelley, called Why Conservative Churches Are Growing. The conventional interpretation has been that conservative theology is superior and true, and therefore contributes to growth, and that mainline liberal theology is false and weak, and leads to decline. A lot of new research has shown that the situation isn't that simple.
For example, mainline Protestants attended college at much higher rates than Evangelicals, whose college attendance rates have risen steadily until by 2000, they were what mainline Protestant rates where in the 1970s. Evangelicals have traditionally had more kids than mainline Protestants, and so on. There have been many factors contributing to Evangelical growth and mainline decline. Among them, I think the two I mentioned are especially important. If you know what your mission is and you organize everything leanly and cleanly around that mission, you'll go farther than if you are mission-fuzzy and organizationally flabby. And if you're stuck in institutional maintenance—keeping traditions and systems going whether or not they're actually helping people—you'll falter before those who are driven by actually making a contribution to people's lives.
As you analyze evangelicalism in America you come to the conclusion that right wing politicization of the Church has in some cases reduced Christian identity to nostalgia, nativism, and negativity. In writing about nostalgia you say that it is "is remarkably similar in feel whether it occurs in evangelical, mainline, or Catholic settings." What are examples of "nostalgia" in those three settings?