taking the words of Jesus seriously

No one enjoys being told bluntly, “you’re wrong.” It’s a statement that, even when surrounded by certainty, must be conveyed and expressed with grace, tranquility and, sometimes, a little humor. And in a season of heightened political tension over Presidential debates, polls, fundraising and name-calling, we need a little humor to navigate our way. That’s where Brian McLaren’s latest work, The Word of the Lord to Democrats, comes into play.

This little e-book conveys the story of Ruth Schwartz as she fights to convey God’s word to Democrats. In a twisting turn of events you follow Ruth as she finds her voice and proclaims a message to a deeply familiar set of characters from the White House to news radio and even the FBI. It is a book that has its roots deeply imbedded in today’s political landscape and prophesizes a message that all need to hear.

This is a book for those desperate to see their neighbor and act. This is a book for those fraught about the cries of the poor and the oppressed being lost in media circus of partisan politics. In the words of Ruth Schwartz, “How many times can we in the American public turn our heads and pretend that we just don’t see? How many ears do we have to have before we can hear our neighbors crying?”

Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and public theologian whose latest book The Word of the Lord to Democrats is the subject of our interview. I’m grateful to Brian for taking the time to answer a few questions:

RLC: Brian, You’ve been known for twenty-plus years as a pastor and for your books on faith and spirituality, but now you’ve written three e-books on “the word of the Lord” — to Democrats, Republicans, and Evangelicals. So you’re getting political?

BM: These are the first books I’ve written with the words Democrat or Republican in the title, if that’s what you mean by political. But the truth is, I think faith is always political. I grew up in the Civil Rights era, and the churches I grew up in — almost 100 percent white and conservative Evangelical — claimed to be non-political by never saying anything about race. But when you’re silent on issues of injustice, your silence tacitly supports the status quo. So even silence ends up being political. I came across a quote from Evangelical theologian Scot McKnight recently (in a comment posted to the Jesus Creed Blog, Politics and the Pulpit, June 25, 2011) that I think captures the truth very powerfully: “The single-most powerful political action Christians ‘do’ is baptism and Eucharist, for in those actions we enter into an alien politics.”

RLC: This book contains characters that represent strong modern day stereotypes, especially political and economic . Why did you shape your characters this way and what is your hope in doing so?

BM: The pivotal stereotype in the book, I suppose, is Ash Lembruck. He embodies the larger-than-life characteristics we’ve all come to love and hate in the 24/7 cable news/talk radio world. He’s confident, fascinating, predictable, unpredictable, human, and demi-god-like. It made sense to create this character – and render him a comic monster – because he represents one of our greatest dangers: the danger of predigested thought. The media commentariat can help us think – but if we aren’t careful, we can subcontract out to them our own personal responsibility to think, discern, reflect. When that happens, it’s not simply “their” fault, it’s all of our fault.

RLC: The personas of your characters and their dialogue opens the way for some deeply rooted humor and insight. What is it about humor that helped unearth many of the difficult issues debated in the book?

BM: A lot of us have said during this election cycle that no fiction writer could have created the comedy and tragedy we’ve witnessed – Herman Cain’s rise and fall, complete with songs and 9-9-9’s, Rick Perry’s third watch-a-ma-call-it, Sarah Palin hanging in the background waiting for a call to jump in, and Chris Christie hanging in the background resisting every call to jump in. Who could have staged more drama and humor and pathos? The key, I think, is to laugh at what should be laughed at and to cry about what should be cried about. You don’t want to mix up those two. Sometimes, it’s the laughter that can prepare us for the tears, and vice versa.

RLC: How can humor be used to bring up some of the difficult issues in the Christian church today? Especially issues around the church’s relation with other religions and the world at large.

BM: Jesus – unsurprisingly! – leads the way in this. When it came to the absurd wealth of the prosperity gospellers of his day, he created the absurd and laughable image of a camel crawling through a needle’s eye. When it came to the ridiculous image management of the religious broadcasters of his day, he spoke about a dishwasher who only washes the outside of the bowl. He used absurdity to point out absurdity. I end up trying to do something similar in the title of my upcoming print release this fall. By evoking the old joke – Why did the chicken cross the road? – which is, by the way, an example of anti-humor – I raise the question of which is more absurd: imagining our religious founders getting along and walking and working together, or imagining them engaged in petty disputes and competition as is so often the case with us, their followers.

RLC: What do you hope people will take away from this book? How can they take this historical fiction piece of literature and use it to impact/engage those in their own backyard?

BM: Sometimes, just getting a chance to laugh can help us keep our sanity, which is – usually at least? – a good thing. But on a more serious note, I hope the book helps people see the world from a different angle – and in that way, I hope it will break down some of the good-guy/bad-guy/us/them thinking that we so often get stuck in. We’re really in trouble if we assume God is as dualistic and simplistic and partisan and overly serious as we often are – I hope the character known as the Lord in this novel, and its sequels, will help break that divine stereotype as well. I’m pretty sure that a good sense of humor is one of the most exalted dimensions of the image of God that the Lord has graciously shared with us.

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