This summer Jericho Books released Brian McLaren’s newest book, We Make the Road by Walking. We got to catch up with Brian during his book tour to hear more about the project and how it’s been received.
I haven’t read your new book, but I hear it’s really ambitious in its scope.
I’m really trying to do just one simple thing in the book – but I guess it is a pretty ambitious goal: to give people an overview of the Christian faith through an overview of the whole Bible. I tried to do this through a year’s worth of weekly Bible readings, syncing up with the church year of pre-Advent, Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost, and post-Pentecost.
Why would you take on a project like that?
A lot of people were brought up as I was, thinking we were getting “a biblical worldview” when really we were getting an ideology propped up with Bible verses. Sadly, you can prove just about anything by pulling Bible verses out of their historical and literary context, especially if you aren’t very reflective or critical in your thinking. So I wanted to engage with the whole Biblical library – after over 30 years as a preacher and Bible teacher. I wanted to help people situate their understanding of being followers of Jesus in the larger flow of the biblical narrative.
How does your narrative vision of Christian faith differ from the version that comes from proof-texting?
That’s where the title fits in. A lot of us – Protestants, Catholics, and others – were introduced to the Christian faith as a warehouse or parking lot. It was this timeless doctrinal system or timeless institutional hierarchy that would be our holding tank until we were shipped off to heaven at death. But when you situation Jesus and his message in the larger biblical narrative, you see the faith as a path or road, not a warehouse or parking lot. And we aren’t just observers or bystanders. We’re actually called to extend the road into the future.
So, to answer your question, everything changes when we put it in motion. Very familiar words take on radically different meanings.
What’s an example?
“Salvation” for many people is the good news of how souls can escape the curse of original sin and go to heaven after death. But that definition would never flow from the Hebrew Scriptures. There, salvation means liberation. It’s meaning comes from God saving – or liberating – the slaves of Egypt.
To say “Jesus died for our sins” in the static model similarly derives its meaning from concepts of total depravity and original sin – concepts that have a history in Christian theology, but are nowhere to be found in the Bible. So in the static model, the word “for” evokes ideas like penal substitution, with God punishing an innocent victim to appease God’s wrath that was aimed on us.
In a larger narrative framework, the word “for” in “Jesus died for our sins” can work like “for” in the statement, “I got a ticket for speeding, ” or “I took an aspirin for my headache.” Jesus’ death isn’t part of an equation of appeasing a furious God; it’s a consequence of human sin, and it’s the amazing way God exposes our sin so we can repent of it and be healed.
Some would say you’re tampering with fundamentals of the faith.
I would say that the fundamentals as articulated by Jesus have already been tampered with, and I’m trying to help us return to Jesus’ fundamentals – loving God, loving neighbors, reconciling with enemies, seeking first God’s kingdom and restorative justice.
Were there any big ‘aha’ moments for you in writing the book?
So many. You can imagine what it’s like to create a core reading list of fifty-two (plus a few) Bible passages, and then developing chapters that can be read aloud as sermons in about ten minutes each. In that struggle to be brief and hit essentials, so much becomes clear. I remember when I was writing the chapter on Jacob and Esau, suddenly it hit me that Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son is in conversation with that earlier story of two brothers. And God – this is really scandalous – shows up most clearly in the “other brother” – the one who is seen by many as rejected rather than selected, hated rather than loved, disfavored rather than favored, and unblessed rather than blessed. It’s breathtaking when you really ponder it.
Another of those moments came when I was working on the Sermon on the Mount, which takes up the whole season of Lent. Jesus’ repeated pattern, “You have heard it said … but I say, ” came alive to me as an expression of “I have not come to abolish the Law and Prophets but to fulfill them.” Again, the Law and Prophets weren’t meant to be a parking lot. They were simply the next steps on a long road out of slavery and sin and selfishness and social injustice … which leads into freedom and justice, joy, and peace. When you extend a road farther in the direction it was heading, you aren’t abolishing it. You are fulfilling its intention, its direction, it’s trajectory.
What has response to the book been so far?
Churches are using it to take a year away from the traditional lectionary to do some level-setting and renewal work. I’m thrilled about that. And loads of small groups, youth groups, and classes are using it – in homes, churches, colleges, assisted living facilities, even prisons. Families are using it to re-ignite the old tradition of family devotions. And of course, lots of individuals are reading it on their own. I put up a lot of resources at my website, including links to a special Facebook community and lots of free downloads and other resources. (www.brianmclaren.net)
What is your hope for the book?
In the introduction, I suggest that a lot of people are sitting around waiting for somebody to fix the problems in the church – somebody in denominational headquarters somewhere, somebody in Rome or Chicago or Nashville or Colorado Springs or Springfield or wherever. They’re looking for top-down solutions. But I know a lot of the people in powerful positions in our denominational world, and they’re doing their level best to bail and patch leaks and keep their ships from sinking. What they want or need most is for “the rest of us” – normal people, not religious professionals – to see ourselves not as consumers or bystanders, but as partners. We have to stop waiting for somebody else to fix things and to instead roll up our sleeves and take responsibility for what the faith will become. We can each dig in and begin to seek, understand, and live the faith from the grassroots up. The possibility that people would be gathering to engage in a fresh, creative way with the Biblical story and the good news of Jesus … that could in its own small way unleash a lot of good things. That’s what I’m hoping for.