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Theologian Brian McLaren takes on the future of Christianity at First Baptist Church of Madison
McLaren: 'The Christian religion has been amazingly adaptable.'

What is the future of Christianity?

Few have thought harder about that question than Brian McLaren -- a former evangelical pastor and a prolific and popular author on the topic of Christianity's past, present and future.

"We are in a time when some people are rethinking the whole system of the Christian faith, from soup to nuts," McLaren told about 150 people gathered for his presentation at First Baptist Church on Madison's west side on Saturday. "For some of us, that comes to rethinking the entire system from scratch."

And religion is not alone, he observed; the church is simply facing the same cultural realities that are reshaping longstanding institutions, from the post office to big business to the media.

McLaren's Saturday evening lecture, sponsored by the Doris Weidemann Memorial Peace Fund at First Baptist, capped a day-long session that included talks on the future of the Christian church and of Christian worship.

Through an extraordinary journey from the fundamentalist faith of his childhood, McLaren continues to embrace Christianity. Yet his faith today is, to take the title of one of his best-selling books, A New Kind of Christianity. It is, he has said, an approach to Christianity for the post-modern world in which globalization and technology have splintered cultural consensus and shattered traditional sources of authority.

"I was born in hard-core fundamentalist Christianity," McLaren told his audience Saturday. "I've been on a journey."

He recounts this journey in several of his books. After teaching college English (his own major) early in his career, McLaren served for a couple of decades as the pastor of a non-denominational, evangelical church in suburban Washington, D.C. Toward the end of his tenure in that post, and in his work as a writer and speaker since, he has been among the representatives of "Emergent Christianity" (or "emerging church") -- a loosely knit movement of Christians who are moved to deeply rethink their faith instead of simply following longstanding traditions or walking away.

McLaren's message isn't about the form of church. It's not about welcoming people in jeans and t-shirts instead of the old notion of "Sunday best," or about serving lattes that people can take into the service, or having a band playing pop-style praise music instead of traditional hymns to the accompaniment of a full-throated organ.

Rather, it's about responding to much deeper shifts and dislocations in society. The world economy built on rapidly depleting fossil fuels is confronting its own long-term unsustainability. And the future of social organization itself is up for grabs.

"In the last couple of centuries we've gone form a world of monarchies to a world of democracies," McLaren said. "Now we're wondering if democracy is turning into 'corpocracy'? We're wondering if democracy can be reborn."

People of faith often seem to assume that the religion they practice is as it's always been from its founding, he said. Yet, that is far from true, from the earliest days of Judaism through the history of Christianity that sprang from it.

"This movement, which goes back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, has had many times when it seemed that it was collapsing, and it was reborn again," McLaren said. Those times of near-collapse become opportunities for sweeping reexamination: of the faith's history, doctrine, spirituality, mission, and approaches to worship.

On the question of history, McLaren is as unsparing as any critic of Christianity. "One of the things that we're coming to terms with is, our religion has a long history of being complicit with injustice," he said.

Today, Christians may recall with pride the role of forebears like William Wilberforce, who rooted his campaign to end slavery in Britain in his own reading of the Bible.

"But for every William Wilberforce, there were 20 or 30 Christian leaders who were defending slavery," McLaren said. "The ugly voices of our past stopped being published, and we forget they exist."

Christianity's history of promoting anti-Semitism, colonization, and the mistreatment of indigenous people also must be confronted, he suggested. But the story doesn't end there.

"There has been an awful lot of change over 2,000 years in what is orthodox Christianity," McLaren said, putting air quotes around the term. "The Christian religion has been amazingly adaptable." And knowing the past “liberates us," he continued. "It's not a time to be afraid and despair. If we suppress our history, we suppress our options for change."

Nothing is immune from examination, not even -- especially not -- doctrine.

While he remains deeply engaged with the Bible, McLaren has written that it must be understood as a cultural library, not as a literal science or history text. (Like millions of other Christians, for example, he has no dispute with the theory of evolution -- nor does he see in it any contradiction with his understanding of God as the ultimate author of the universe and creation.)

McLaren has been among Christians questioning the faith's historic emphasis on individual salvation that focuses on whether people are going to heaven or hell when they die. In his writing and speaking, he turns the spotlight instead on Gospel messages of Jesus as a supreme example of selfless service in this world, especially to the marginalized and outcast.

He’s also been an increasingly sharp critic of exclusivism that Christians, especially conservative Christians, have justified through various Biblical verses. His latest book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, addresses that subject in the context of interfaith work and was the focus of his Weidemann lecture Saturday evening.

McLaren suggested that the leaders of the world religions would treat one another better than their followers have historically done. Christians have usually chosen from two contrasting stances. One is a strong Christian identity combined with hostility toward other religions. "We are used to defining our religious identity by who we hate: who is us, who is them," he said.

The alternative, he said, is typically to show tolerance of other religions combined with a weak Christian identity.

He believes a third way is possible: maintaining a strong Christian identity while approaching other faiths and their adherents with what he calls in the book "benevolence and solidarity."

McLaren told of a conversation in which he shared the topic of Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? with someone from one of the other faith traditions referred to in the title. That person, he recalled, replied: "Oh, it's nice to see Christians dealing with their issues."

The story drew knowing laughter from the Madison audience.

Doctrines do not have to be used as weapons against one another. "Doctrine can instead be a healing teaching," he said. Indeed, healing was an important theme running throughout his presentations.

Earlier Saturday, the former pastor responded to and affirmed an audience member who had spoken of the need for human connection.

The word "religion," McLaren said, is rooted in the Latin word for "tying together." Fostering connection is the role that religion can play, he added.

"Has there even been a time when we had a greater need?" he asked.

"We're all connected. That is really great, good news. We're connected in God's love, and we're connected in God's creation."

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