I had a conversation with author and pastor Brian McLaren about his latest book, A Generous Orthodoxy (see our review). We dove headlong into some controversial issues (which is pretty easy for a site called Church Marketing Sucks) like politics, marketing and Islam. While we will be pulling out some bite-size quotes, it seemed especially helpful to see the conversation in its entirety:
Could you summarize the concept of Generous Orthodoxy for us?
I should get better at answering that question, huh? The title comes from a quote from a theologian named Hans Frei. Hans Frei envisioned a day when Christians would move beyond our current polarities of liberal/conservative, Protestant/Catholic, and seek for common ground in worship and mission. And he called that common ground a generous orthodoxy. I’ve been writing about what the church looks like beyond modernity and a post-modern context, and it struck me that that future is also beyond the same polarities that Hanz Frei was talking about.
It’s about seeing the wholeness of Christianity then, not just our narrow divisions?
Yes. It becomes even more important in a time in America when the political divisions have really affected the church. … where the evangelical church has really become the religious sector of the Republican party, and the mainline church has disappeared from the public sector. Whoever wins the election, the Christian community in America has some serious thinking to do. And some very probing questions to ask ourselves.
One would be, why do politicians set the agenda on what’s important? Why does the church seem to follow that agenda? A very narrow range of issues are described as religious: gay marriage, abortion. There are religious dimensions to every issue: The environment, war, care for the poor, the use of sex in advertising. These are all religious issues, it seems to me.
Another question would be for the Christian conservative, can they imagine our government going too far in the war on terror? And are they prepared to stand up to the government if the government goes too far? The same thing could be said about business. I think conservative Christians are pro business, but is there a point at which business goes too far, are we prepared to stand up and speak out?
On the mainline side, the liberal side, we could say, traditionally liberals have talked a lot about public morality, but they haven’t said a lot about private morality, or personal morality. How can we see those as integrated?
That sounds a lot like Sojourner’s God is Not a Republican… or a Democrat project. Is that something you were involved in?
I actually helped write that.
What’s the reaction been?
The reaction has been extremely positive. I don’t know how many are signed up. It was 75,000 the last I looked, I imagine it’s more now. It’s been showing up in papers all across the country. One sign of change that the petition has made clear is this: I get quite a bit of hate mail from conservative Christians, and hate mail is not too strong a word. But I’m amazed how many of them begin their letter with ‘I’m a conservative Christian, but I’m not part of the religious right.’ So I’m interested, even among conservative Christians, how many want to distance themselves from the main spokespeople of the religious right. Those are good signs. People aren’t just being herded along in a rut of tradition, liberal or conservative, but that we’re trying to say there’s a lot we miss when we get stuck in these ruts.
For someone like yourself, interested in marketing, some of my friends have been using marketing language, and asking what does the brand of Christianity stand for in America and what should it stand for? I think the religious right has captured the brand, so when a person hears the word ‘Christian’ they think anti-homosexuality, judgmental, angry, loves big business, feels the poor are to blame for their own problems, that sort of thing. This is such a gross parody or caricature of the image of what a Christian follower should be. So we all have some serious work to do when we think about the brand identity of Christianity in our world today.
Can you market God?
I think that’s a complicated question. I’m sure you have some good opinions on that. To some degree all that marketing means is communication. If we’re communicating in public, I suppose that could be called marketing. Is it being done intentionally, or accidentally, wisely or foolishly? The fact that when a non-Christian in America hears ‘Christian’ their first thought is anti-homosexual, that’s not a mistake. A very successful conservative Christian effort helped create that brand identity.
One of the things I’m interested in doing is saying those people don’t represent what I understand to be a follower of Jesus. Whatever you think about homosexuality, that shouldn’t be the first thing people think of when they think of Christians. Sadly, when the brand identity suggests Christians are judgmental, too often that’s accurate. That’s a consequence of our communication. We taught people to be judgmental.
In the book I talk about radio orthodoxy. Religious radio is really what creates that brand, and what I think informs the general Christian community in America an awful lot. Somebody might go to Willow Creek and listen to Bill Hybels on Sunday, but Monday through Friday they’re listening to James Dobson and Jerry Falwell, etc. and so their effect is very pervasive.
I don’t want to sound too negative, I think when James Dobson talks about being good parents and all the rest, raising children, he has a lot of expertise, it helps people. It helped us when we had little babies. But I don’t think a lot of these folks realize—radio preachers can give good leadership on parenting and misguided leadership in engaging in culture wars. So they’re willing to sacrifice our brand identity, to use marketing language, in the short run in order to win a culture war in the long run, or at least that’s how I perceive it.
In a way is this moving back to the Constantine Empire, another topic you cover in the book?
I think there is a move backward in history toward a kind of religious empire. I think in many people’s minds that is so far preferable to the secular mess that our world is in. I just wish we would think of a better, more creative future than going back or staying where we are.
Do you think that’s because it’s easier to have a religious empire?
I think so. Right at the heart of Jesus’ teaching is this radical idea that the kingdom of God doesn’t come through human force. We’re always tempted to use human force. In order to see the kingdom of God come without human force, we have to be willing to suffer. But with force we have to see others suffer.
It’s taking a long time for followers of Jesus to believe he’s right about the kingdom of God. I’m not saying there’s no place for armies and weapons, I suppose there is in our world. I think I might have said in the book, Psalm 20 says that some trust in horses, some trust in chariots, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. But when you have a lot of horses and chariots as we do, it’s easy to trust in them.
That sounds like something David had a problem with.
I think you’re right—David forgot to trust the Lord on a couple major occasions. But really, the Jews were never the ones with the big weapons. The Assyrians and Babylonians and Persians were the superpowers. They had the horses and chariots. But David felt he was better off without horses and chariots as long as he was trusting God. It’s ironic—we Christians in America don’t realize we may be more like Goliath than David, more like the Assyrians than the Jews. Even Christians who are completely confident about our country’s decision right now should at least remember that it’s possible for us to go too far, to go wrong, to trust our weapons and strength rather than the Lord … and we need to be ready to address that.
So what’s a Christian to do with an election coming up and it se
ems like we have to choose between the lesser of two evils?
I think we have no choice in every decision, we’re always dealing with a mixed bag of good and evil. So that’s exactly where we live, and we would be wiser if we faced that. If we found the two best candidates in the world, in the whole country, they would have a mix of good and evil.
What that means, here’s a good way to say it: If we take the liberal and conservative, or Democrat and Republican position, each position has strengths and weaknesses. Almost all conversations in political debate involve contrasting our strengths and their weaknesses. We get to a lot more interesting and productive conversations when we’re also able to talk about our weaknesses and their strengths. Christians who have a greater allegiance to truth and love and justice and peace than they do to a political party would want to affirm strength and wisdom where ever it’s found.
So that means I hope we have committed Christians who are Democrats and committed Christians who are Republicans, and I hope they’ll be salt and light in their own party. They’ll try to pull their party towards wiser and better policy. And could we say marketing and rhetoric as well? And they won’t be tolerant of their party’s failures. And rather than be furious about the other party’s failures, they’ll be more furious about their own party’s failures. They will want their own party to be as good as possible so they won’t excuse failings in their own party. Whoever wins the election, the Christian community better sit up and do some serious thinking in the next couple years—thinking about our identity, our role as salt and light in the world.
It seems like that’s the problem, that so many people can’t imagine a Christian being a Democrat, or being a Republican.
It’s interesting, I travel a lot in both circles, among evangelical Christians and mainline Christians, and of course when you’re around liberal Christians they can’t believe how a Christian could vote Republican, and when you’re around conservative Christians they cannot believe a Christian would vote Democrat. But they’re both seeing strengths of one party and weaknesses of another. We step above being just human when we can see the other side.
Essentially that’s a generous orthodoxy, right?
That’s how I should have started. That’s generous orthodoxy.
Your approach to other religions seems like the most compassionate and realistic response I’ve heard, especially compared to what some have said about Islam after 9/11. Could you talk about how a generous orthodoxy relates to other religions?
I think it’s more difficult, but I think it’s really important. I mean common sense just says that if one nation that’s not used to being attacked is attacked, it will be at risk of overreacting. You aren’t tempted to revenge unless you’ve been hurt. So we’re facing temptation we haven’t faced before. There’s no reason to believe we’ll be purely virtuous.
You mentioned Islam, this is one of our critical challenges, how do we act as Christians toward members of other religions? We know how to persecute, we know how to ignore, we know how to convert. But what about people who don’t want to be converted, and can’t be ignored, and we say we shouldn’t persecute—how should we relate to them? That’s such an obvious and important question. Jesus says so much about that, loving our neighbors, our enemies, I don’t think other religions need to be seen as our enemies, but anything that applies to enemies, would apply to neighbors who are different even more. So much about Jesus’ life was crossing barriers and boundaries to treat people who are considered outsiders with respect.
And it seems like that respect is definitely missing in a lot of the rhetoric you hear, especially from some of the extreme conservatives.
It’s terrible. I won’t mention names, but there’s a well-known apocalyptic novel out right now that describes Jesus returning in judgment and describes non-Christians being burned up and blown to bits. And I thought to myself how would we feel if we knew there was a very popular book in Saudi Arabia where Muslims imagine Allah coming and slicing Christians and blowing them to bits? I think that’d make us very uneasy, especially if they imagined that as good thing.
It’s almost a simple matter of seeing it from their perspective, walking a mile in another man’s shoes kind of thing
There’s deep theology involved in this. Because first of all, a Muslim or Buddhist or an atheist, is part of our Christian story. They belong here. They’re part of creation, it’s not a mistake that they’re here. They’re our neighbors. From creation, from the biblical doctrine of creation, we understand that we have neighbors who are different from us. Who ever we are. Then from the message of the Old Testament, the Old Testament has so much to say about treating the alien, the stranger, the person that’s different. The Jewish people were told again and again you were once aliens and strangers in Egypt, so you better treat people well. Even though the neighbors of the Jewish people were always trying to conquer them, the Jewish people were never told to expand and conquer everybody else. So then when Jesus comes on the scene, he has so much to say about how we treat the least, the last, and the lost.
Our faith gives us great resources at a time like this, we just need to hear more Christians have the courage to apply those resources, to make use of them.
If I’m Joe Pastor at the corner church, what can I do to foster a generous orthodoxy?
The preaching part of it is not easy. Because our congregations are so trained by radio orthodoxy, if they hear anything that sounds different, it sounds heretical. So it calls for great patience and wisdom on behalf of pastors. That’s one reason why I hope that books like mine and others can help get discussions going that will make it easier for pastors to have those discussions.
Then I think what has to happen is that it can’t be up to pastors, church members have to speak up and say, ‘I see things differently than you, and I hope you can love and respect me and I’ll treat you with love and respect.’ We need to create space for dialogue. When there’s only monologue nothing changes.
It starts with some loving diversity. This is one of our great problems in the conservative Protestant churches. We have little practice in diversity. We have long doctrinal statements about every little thing that people agree with—otherwise they can’t belong—but then as a result we don’t have much practice in diversity. It was really necessary in the early church: with Jews and gentiles, people of all cultures coming together, they had to deal with eating meat sacrificed to idols, circumcision, they were dealing with diversity. That’s what 1 Corinthians 13 is about, not marriages, it’s about Christians getting along with diversity. This is a chance to grow up and mature in our faith. For starters it might be good for us all to start reading 1 Corinthians 13, but say let’s actually take this seriously in the way we treat one another.
It seems like a big part of our problem that we’re a broken people, but we refuse to admit it.
Well said. It’s like a family in denial. We just need to tell the truth about some things. That’s one of the advantages to written communication, it allows people to process something in private and think about it before they react.
How should a generous orthodoxy affect church marketing/communication?
It really raises questions about whether we are we happy with our current branding, and if we believe it is pathetic, and wrong, then we have to ask two questions. The first question is to what degree is the brand ide
ntity accurate? And in that case the problem is with the product, the problem is with us, and maybe our theology and ways of understanding what the gospel means and how it applies. I don’t think we should try to improve our marketing until we first go back and look at our message, our content and our people.
This is again one of those things we’re in denial about. We keep acting as if there’s nothing wrong in that department. My friend Dallas Willard says your current system is perfectly designed to yield the results you’re now getting. So if we’re unhappy with results, we have to see that there are some problems in the system. And I think after we’ve paid attention to these deeper matters, then we have to say, well some of us, and the younger people like yourself and the many people who will read this interview, then they have to say, if some of these other people don’t speak for us, then we have to start speaking for ourselves, and find people who do speak for us. That’s one of our challenges right now.
This is where I’m thinking about your web site and what you’re trying to do and related to bringing some dignity back to the word marketing. I think this means we have to roll up our sleeves and say there are some other people who have less than great ideas who have really learned how to use the media of marketing. And I think there’s going to have to be a new generation who learn how to work with it. It’s dangerous and difficult, but I think it’s necessary.
I think it’s going to take some courage for people to say, the kind of courage it takes to have a site that says Church Marketing Sucks, there’s a similar kind of courage. I love what you say on your web site. We’ve got to frustrate people and say the brand identity of Christianity that you are presenting is a terrible portrayal of who Jesus is and what Jesus is about. So that will cause some frustration. That will then require education and some motivation. Those are three good words from your web site—frustration, education and motivation. I very much agree that’s what we need.