This Changes Everything: An Interview with Brian McLaren

Posted by Melvin Bray on February 6th, 2008 filed in Useful Perhaps

A statement like “this changes everything” or “everything must change” is what one might call idiomatic hyperbole: rhetorical exaggeration for the effect of conveying an overall meaning that is larger than the sum of its parts. Thus, when I came to the book Everything Must Change, I didn’t expect it to be a literal “theory of everything.” That would be too much expectation for any treatise to bear. However, I was hoping for a way forward out of the gridlock of integrity that occurs when people of faith no longer expect of themselves that “words of wisdom would be ways of wisdom” (Arrested Development, 1992).

However, I do understand why some might take exception to Brian McLaren‘s most recent book , released October 2007. One major reason for consternation may be that Everything Must Change offers a hearing of the Jesus message that takes the gospel out of the battle for primacy in the global theater of self-aggrandizement. McLaren deconstructs the age-old debate of whose religion deserves top billing by conspicuously not participating in it. As opposed to hearing in the message of Jesus an exclusive call for Christians and the Christian church to be central in world affairs, he implores any (Christian or otherwise) who finds the way of Jesus inspiring to become integral in seeking justice, truth, peace and beauty in dealing with the biggest problems facing the world. Such a subtle yet profound shift undoubtedly unsettles many.

John Wilson, Editor of Books and Culture for Christianity Today, was certainly among those unsettled by Everything Must Change—in ways that he apparently did not appreciate.

I attended the launch of McLaren’s Deep Shift Tour in Charlotte, NC. We gathered in a most beautiful urban arts commune, Area 15, embedded in the reconstituted NoDa neighborhood of Charlotte. The artists’ home is an old warehouse that has been converted into gallery, gathering and prayer space and has had such an affect on the community that the City of Charlotte has asked the creatives of Area 15 to open a second studio in another distressed portion of the city. While there, I took the opportunity to invite McLaren’s clarification of any of the issues raised by Wilson’s article.

You may ask who am I to seek to challenge the collective wisdom of the Evangelical world’s foremost public marketplace of ideas. To be honest, no one of much significance. Publicly, I am a simple storyteller, writer, activist and friend. Nonetheless, in a brave new wiki world, post-modernity, we are finally coming to recognize everyone’s stake and the value of everyone’s voice. And it just didn’t seem right for Wilson’s review to be the final word in Christian circles for what I and many others have found to be a most unsettling yet also inspiring declaration of revolt.

Q: Were you surprised to hear about the Christianity Today review?

A: In early or mid-January, a friend called me to express his condolences about a negative review in CT and to tell me not to let it get me down. I said, “What review?” It was a couple weeks before I actually saw the review, so over those weeks I imagined the worst. The review ended up being less negative than I had imagined it would be. John Wilson is arguably the best-read Evangelical in America and editor of a premier Evangelical publication in America, so I’m pleasantly surprised that someone of John’s stature would take the book seriously enough to engage with it.

CONTINUE READING This Changes Everything>>>

Q: The review compares your book to George Lakoff’s Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. He says that Everything Must Change is even more ambitious than Moral Politics, in that you are trying to reframe Jesus. How do you respond to the comparison?

A: I think John overestimates my ambition here. In the book, I integrate the work of a number of respected theologians and biblical scholars to do the reframing of Jesus, to which I add comparatively little that could be called original. And on the global crisis side, I integrate the work of a number of economists, sociologists, and other scholars, adding even less if anything original. My more modest goal was to try to assimilate and synthesize their scholarly work in relation to two questions that I have not been able to stop thinking about for many years: what are our top global crises, and what does the message of Jesus have to say to these crises.

I was interested in John’s decision to use Lakoff’s term “frames” to describe my work instead of my own term “framing stories.” One of the major themes of my book is the way that our social lives are guided—not just by ideological systems or “world views,” but by stories or narratives… or perhaps even metanarratives, depending on how one defines that contentious term. Then over several chapters I explore the way that Jesus’ good news of the kingdom of God functions as an alternative story to the dominant narratives of Jesus’ day. So by “reframing” my article in terms of Lakoff, this important theme of the book gets downplayed a bit. Maybe I can quote one passage where I talk a bit about the importance of stories:

Maybe you’ve never considered yourself this way, but you are a complex society of sixty trillion cells. In fact, there are about ten thousand times the number of cells in your body as there are people on earth. These cells are organized into ten organ systems: skeletal, muscular, circulatory, nervous, respiratory, digestive, excretory, reproductive, endocrine, and immune. All of these systems are integrated and unified into one person—you—in a completely unique way, through what we could call the framing story of you. Your story may unify your cells and systems to become an Olympic gymnast and father of three children, while someone else uses her cells and systems to become a drug dealer or astronaut or kindergarten teacher. The unique framing story of you describes how you have unified your ten systems so far, and the story then frames how you will do so in the future. Similarly… our societies are unified, integrated, motivated, and driven by the framing stories we tell ourselves as groups. (66)

Q: Having read Everything Must Change, when I saw Wilson’s substitution of the term “frames” for “framing stories,” I made the misguided assumption that you and Lakoff were expressing the same concept. How might this same assumption create misunderstanding for those who’ve done the opposite, read Lakoff and not Everything Must Change?

People might assume my message is, like Lakoff’s, largely for liberals and against conservatives. But what I’m actually saying in the book challenges both liberals and conservatives, although in different ways.

Wilson says, “McLaren intends to correct an overemphasis on Last Things in the ‘conventional’ view of salvation.” What are you saying about eschatology in Everything Must Change?

Strictly speaking, my concern isn’t an overemphasis on Last Things. If anything, I affirm in the book how important eschatology is (e.g. pp. 143-147). Rather than reduce emphasis on Last Things, I’m trying to correct what I think are popular and dangerous misreadings and misapplications of the Biblical texts on Last Things. Perhaps in some circles (maybe John’s?), the prevalence of “left-behind” eschatology isn’t very evident and so is easy to dismiss and consider passe. But in my neighborhood (and this is also clearly seen in some of the comments posted in response to John’s review on the CT website), I can’t avoid noticing the ongoing influence of what some of us call the eschatology of evacuation on domestic and foreign policy… relating to the environment, the Middle East, warfare, and so on. Although I think this kind of determinist eschatology of evacuation is past its prime, I would say its continuing influence is still pretty strong this year in our presidential elections, where it is often associated with the term “Evangelical,” to which John and I both claim some humble relation. Rather than a determinist understanding of the future which leads to an evacuation gospel, I’m advocating a participatory eschatology of warning and hope.

Q: Twice in the review, Wilson uses the term apocalyptic. In what sense is this book apocalyptic?

I’m curious about that myself. The word has a number of colloquial connotations—from extremist to hopeless to crazed. The word can also mean catastrophic, and so in a sense, to speak of global crises is to speak about potential or actual catastrophes. In its etymology, the word means “unveiling” or “uncovering” or “revealing,” and I certainly hope that my book exposes some things that are hidden to a lot of people.

Q: Some might say that heretofore environmentalism, conservationism and other such movements have been very much focused on staving off the catastrophe that is our inevitable future. In this perhaps they find some small common ground with the predominant trends in eschatology. In what ways do you believe the way of Jesus speaks into these convergent themes of inevitable doom, transforming them into meaningful efforts of hope and sustainability?

A: Many Christians seem to believe that God’s relationship with the universe is deterministic, that God has already filmed the future in his mind, and what we’re seeing unfold in history is the showing of a movie that’s already “in the can” so to speak. I don’t believe that. I believe God’s relationship with creation—including us—is interactive. God gives us warnings, which are an invitation to change our ways. God gives us promises, which are an invitation to persevere when the going gets tough. A great example is the prophet Jonah. He was sent to Nineveh to prophesy doom, in hopes that the people would repent so the prophecy wouldn’t come true!

Q: Wilson says that he found resonance between a lot in your book and conversations he has had with colleagues over the last decade, and he says he shares your dissatisfaction on some points with the conventional presentations of the gospel. But he criticizes you for not including the work of Robert Fogel or dealing with the subject of rising expectations, and he says, “the actual picture is considerably more complicated than McLaren presents.” Could you respond?

A: John is spot on here, at least in part: there was no way I could—in a reasonably short and (I hope) accessible book—deal with all the complexity I am aware of, not to mention the far greater complexity that John is aware of… and not to mention the even greater complexity neither he nor I can possibly be aware of. Of course, this is true of anything we write, isn’t it. For example, I imagine that the actual picture I present in my book is considerably more complicated than the one John presents in his review. Whenever one writes anything, one becomes vulnerable to the accusation that he should have included this, referenced that, or otherwise accounted for something else.

I also agree with John about the importance of Robert Fogel. I didn’t mention Fogel in the book, although I am aware of his work and admire it. Fogel summarizes fascinating research about how human well-being has improved in the modern era. For example, life expectancy in pre-modern Europe was around 40 years; now in the post-Industrial West it’s nearly doubled. He details other dramatic changes as well: our body size has increased by 50%, our caloric intake by 250%, we’ve grown inches taller and much healthier by almost any conceivable measure. Fogel not only summarizes these changes, but he reflects on what they will mean as trends of increased well-being continue through the twenty-first century. Another work of his deals with what he calls the fourth great awakening, and it is widely regarded as a masterpiece.

So I agree with the point I think John is making by referring to Fogel: whatever we say about things that need changing now, we must remember that conditions were much worse in many ways centuries ago. Middle class people today take for granted comforts that pre-modern kings never imagined. But this is part of the tragedy I am trying to address in my book when I talk about the equity crisis: a child born in Eastern Congo today has a life expectancy closer to that of a Medieval European than a contemporary one. That’s one of the things that—nodding toward my title—must change. As Bono says—admittedly, no Fogel, but not chicken scratch either—whether you live shouldn’t depend on where you live.

But in spite of the good news of progress John rightly wants to emphasize, the bad news is that the gap between the most well-off and the least well-off is growing wider, and everyone’s long-term well-being is being mortgaged for the short-term rise in prosperity that some of us currently enjoy. Nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, dependency on fossil fuels, and global climate change pose new threats that could, if we don’t wake up, erase the gains which Fogel celebrates.

Also, I do address the issue of rising expectations, though I focus more on recent decades than recent centuries. For example, I explain how “…over the last fifty years in the United States… we have doubled household incomes largely through the addition of wives and mothers to the paid workplace. We have also doubled the ratio of cars to people and we have doubled the frequency of eating out…” (211). But then I explore some findings that are somewhat counter-intuitive: the ways in which consumerism paradoxically creates increasing discontent with increasing prosperity. In other words, once we have passed a certain level of basic comfort, we don’t feel better off as we become better off. I quote David Korten, who concludes, “Over the last half of the twentieth century, inflation-adjusted U.S. gross domestic product per capita tripled, yet surveys indicate self-reports of satisfaction with life remained virtually flat.”

So, although I don’t quote Fogel, like John I certainly do admire his work, and I do actually address the issue of rising expectations in a number of places.

Q: Wilson and other’s use of the phrase “rising expectations” sounds very much like the way many Christians misuse Jesus’ words: “The poor you will have with you always.” It often seems as if they want to absolve themselves from seeking the good of others. How do you see your responsibility to others differently?

I address that issue in the book. So often when I talk about poverty, well-meaning Christians come up to me and quote those words from Jesus about the poor being with us always. They seem to be saying, “If we eliminate poverty, we’ll make Jesus a liar” —as if the elimination of poverty is a clear and present danger!

I love to refer people to Deuteronomy 15, which Jesus is actually quoting. Right before saying, “There will always be poor among you,” Moses says, “Give generously,” and right after, he says, “Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.” Even more interesting, at the beginning of the same passage (15:4), he says, “There should be no poor among you” —because God is giving them a land capable of producing enough for everyone.

So, the point of the passage Jesus quotes is not, “There will always be poor people, so don’t worry about it.” It’s the opposite: “There shouldn’t be poor people, because the land is bountiful. But because of human injustice, there will be poor people, so be sure to be generous.”

Q: Although Wilson seems to affirm your hope for a new dialogue between just-war folk and pacifists, he is highly critical of your discussion of the addictive nature of war. He suggests your analysis is “sophomoric,” “painfully naïve,” and “patronizing”—which I imagine you anticipated hearing from someone. Why did you choose such strong metaphors (e.g. addiction, suicide, the worship of money), knowing the resistance they might arouse?

A: Well… to understate it, war is a life and death matter, and life and death matters call for strong language, especially when—as George Orwell and others have taught us – the rhetoric of war is carefully calculated to numb us to what it entails. Perhaps my description of war as addictive is not quite as sophomoric, etc., as it seemed to John when he wrote the review. When I speak of the addictive nature of war, I’m pointing to the economic addiction President Eisenhower warned of in 1961 under the term “military-industrial complex.”

And I’m also referring to the kind of psycho-social addiction that Rich Cizik of the NAE has noted more recently. I believe it was in a New York Times interview that he said that many people who had been formed by the Cold War era had, in the aftermath of 9/11, substituted Islam as the new evil empire in place of the Soviet Union. With the Soviet Union gone, we needed a new global enemy on which to externalize our fear and aggression. What I’m saying is that it’s too easy for us to define ourselves in such a way that we need a war and a flesh-and-blood enemy in order to know who we are and why we’re here. I’m sure that a well-balanced thinker like John would agree: not acknowledging this danger could be deemed downright sophomoric and dangerously naïve too.

Q: Are you suggesting that terrorism isn’t a real threat?

A: Of course not. I’m just saying it’s not the only threat, and it may not be the biggest threat either. It certainly isn’t a new threat. As I explain in the book, terrorism has a long history. Even in the Gospels, the Zealots functioned as terrorists—so Jesus actually is addressing a society no less touched by terrorism than our own.

Along with the threat out there, there are a whole range of threats in here – in our own individual and national psyches. And one of those threats is forgetting what Paul said: that our real enemies are not “flesh and blood.” Or as Alexander Solzenheitzen said, we make a mistake if we think the line of evil runs between people and nations, with the bad guys over there and the good guys over here. The truth is, he said, that evil is a part of us as well as them, and there is good in them as well as us. One of the dangerously addictive chemicals in the war cocktail is its invitation to tell us we are pure good and they are pure evil.

That’s why, I suggest in the book, that in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, Jesus challenges us to see ourselves outside of the binary categories of us/them, friend/enemy. He invites us to repent from the warrior narrative. Instead, he calls us to live within a narrative of active peacemaking and reconciliation in the kingdom of God. My friend Jim Wallis, in The Great Awakening, and my friends Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, in Jesus for President, also explore this theme of active peacemaking—probably more effectively than I have.

Q: Wilson says your title is misleading. He takes some jabs at it a couple of times, and he makes “Everything Hasn’t Changed” the title for his review.

A: My theme, of course, isn’t “everything has changed.” My point—allowing for admitted hyperbole—is that a lot of things haven’t changed that need to. Early on in the text (page 1, paragraph 2), I acknowledge that the title is hyperbolic, and since John’s title is equally hyperbolic, I don’t think he is against that literary device in principle. In Chapter 3 of the book, I tell in some detail the story from which the title derives, and that story, I think, justifies the hyperbole and places the title in a context.

Q: Wilson acknowledges that you “occasionally” add nuances and qualifiers, but he says that you are “a-historical” and “misleading.” Let me quote him: “McLaren is particularly misleading when he’s suggesting, as he does quite emphatically at times, that somehow the church went off the rails early on, and that only now are (some) Christians beginning to understand what Jesus was really saying.”

A: That was one of the most puzzling sentences in the review to me. I’m glad John noticed some of my nuances and qualifiers, although I think they are far more common than his word “occasionally” suggests. I actually was quite careful to avoid saying—emphatically or non-emphatically—what John says I suggest, because I grew up with the same kind of a-historical narrative that he described later in the review—with an idealized version of the early church, then a sense that the whole thing became a disaster, and then pride that “our denomination” or whatever has finally gotten it right and restored the church to its original pristine status—whether that was done in the 16th century or the 19th or the 21st or whatever. I share his distaste for that naïve approach and I can’t imagine where he would find anything like that in my book. He may have been mistaking what I actually wrote with what he assumed I was going to write.

Q: Wilson is particularly frustrated about something you say about sweatshop workers. He says,

Do we, as McLaren suggests, decide not to buy a cheaper shirt that has been made in a factory where the workers receive terribly low wages and instead pay more for a shirt that has been made in a factory where the workers are better compensated? Or—as a number of economist friends of mine would maintain—would McLaren’s well-intended gesture, insofar as it had any effect beyond producing a sense of virtuous conduct, actually tend to undermine the fortunes of those poor workers?

Nothing in this book will help you answer that question with greater confidence than you had before you started reading.

A: Here, I think, John dismisses a point I am considerably more nuanced about. I mention shirts once in the book. I say,

…a popular chain store sells brand-name shirts made by sweatshop workers, almost always women, in Honduras or China or Mexico. These corporations have minimized labor costs to perhaps .03 percent of retail price, which makes them, and American bargain hunters, very happy. But what about the women who sit at sewing machines for seventy hours a week and make a pittance: about thirteen cents per hour in Bangladesh, forty-nine cents per hour in Haiti, or $1.69 per hour in the Dominican Republic? Yes, even these wages are better than unemployment, but is there no sense of compassion or fairness among the sellers and wearers of clothes for their neighbors across town or the globe who make them? (197)

I then reference an article that raises the very debate of which John seems to suggest his economist friends are aware, but I am not.

Q: Well, how do you answer his question? Is it better to buy a sweatshop shirt or not?

A: When it comes to which shirt-purchasing strategy actually helps poor sweatshop workers more, top-drawer economists could line up on both sides of the issue, each side mounting vigorous arguments according to their ideology or economic school. I was less interested in taking sides on that argument than I was in encouraging my readers to see their economic life—including their wardrobe selection – as a succession of choices that connect us to a whole chain of people—from cotton growers to factory workers to corporate executives and truck drivers. As people seeking to follow Jesus, I am suggesting, we should see these people as our neighbors and be concerned about the ways our choices affect them. There are a lot of issues to be worked out as we pursue ethical buying or fair trade, but we at least need to begin by seeing our purchasing power as a real kind of power that must be stewarded for the good of our neighbor, not merely our personal interests. That’s a topic that I will continue to be engaged with in the future, I’m sure.

So regarding shirts: if I buy a cheap one produced in a sweatshop because I care a lot about my pocketbook and not much about the fortunes of the poor workers who produced the shirt, I think it’s pretty hard to say that I’m living out the values of Jesus in my daily life. If John buys a cheap sweatshop-produced shirt because he sincerely believes that doing so will actually help an underpaid sweatshop worker in China, I think his hypothetical motive is better than mine. But if John and I can both work together to mobilize growing numbers of buyers to demand shirts that are produced on farms and in factories that treat workers justly, and if we can inspire shareholders to nudge the corporations in which they have a stake to increase their corporate social responsibility, I think we can make a positive difference for everybody. Admittedly, it’s hard to find ways to make these changes, but stopping slavery and ending child labor and passing civil rights legislation in the US weren’t easy either. Unless we care, we won’t try, and unless we try, we won’t find the ways. So I’m focusing on the caring part, trusting that if we can build momentum for fair trade and ethical buying, with God’s help we can work out the details in time.

Q: In spite of his critical comments, Wilson seems to conclude the review on a more positive note. He says,

But this is not a counsel of despair, or an excuse for apathy. I share McLaren’s wonder and delight at the power of new life in Christ, which should inform our thinking and our actions in every sphere. With God’s help, there’s plenty of work for us to do.

This type of “nonetheless-God-bless-you” or, as we say in the South, “bless-your-heart” closing—whether genuine or not—seems customary of Christians. But where do you think it leaves us in terms of making meaningful strides?

A: I really appreciated John’s magnanimity here. I don’t know John’s political leanings or economic philosophy, but my guess is that there would be some small differences from my own. Rather than ending on those differences, though, John is trying to focus on what we share in common in Christ, and this, to me, is truly important and exemplary on his part.

In Rwanda in 1994, Christians let their common identity in Christ become less decisive than their tribal identity as Hutu or Tutsi. And here in the United States, especially this year, we can let our unity in Christ be eclipsed by various tribal identities—as Americans, as Democrats or Republicans, as “neocons” or progressives or libertarians, as “trickle-downers” or populists, as hawks or doves, or as left-wing liberals or right-wing conservatives, whatever we might mean by these labels.

I like what Jim Wallis has been saying for many years now: we can’t allow ourselves to be polarized and paralyzed in old ruts of discourse. Instead, we need to find common ground by seeking higher ground. That’s what more and more of us, I believe, are seeking. If we keep seeking common ground and the common good in the light of Christ, everything might not change, but some things, with God’s help, surely will.

Q: The subtitle of Everything Must Change is Jesus, Global Crises, and A Revolution of Hope. Many believe hope is too flighty and indefinite, but I love what Barack Obama reminds us about hope. As it relates to the unlikely dream that is the kingdom of God, “there has never been anything false about hope.”

A: Yes, hope truly is downright audacious! It’s much easier to be a cynical observer or distanced nay-sayer than to throw one’s hat in the ring and act in love, faith, and hope. I’m certainly no stranger to the downsides of hope—as Proverbs says, when hope is deferred, your heart gets sick. But as Paul says of Abraham, there’s a time to “hope against hope”—to contemplate how impossible change seems, but to believe God anyway, trusting that the impossible is possible with God.

My friend Jim Wallis says that hope is believing against the evidence, and watching the evidence change. In 1956—the year I was born—Dr. King could have felt that ending segregation in the US was impossible—like some may feel tackling global crises is—but he acted in “hope against hope.” And here we are, a generation later, and an African-American has a great chance of being President. We’re seeing the audacity of hope in front of our eyes.

6 Responses to “This Changes Everything: An Interview with Brian McLaren”

  1. Heidi Renee Says:

    Thank you!

  2. tallskinnykiwi Says:

    superb. much thanks for this interview.

    [and hi to heidi above me]

  3. Brian Houghtaling Says:


    Thanks for the excellent interview.

    I found Everything Must Change to be a foundation shaker. I think that’s what Brian intended and it is why it disturbs us. In my mind, the act of changing our framing stories is synonymous with truly living as part of an alternative community. Our foundation is shaken and we are disturbed because we are so conformed to this world. Our consumer culture, our market economics, our patriotism, and our security are what we too firmly pledge allegiance to. We are very disturbed when someone clearly points out that our allegiance (framing stories) bear little resemblance to the Kingdom of God.

    Thanks to Brian McLaren for stirring us up.

    Brian Houghtaling

  4. David Says:

    Thanks very much for this interview. I’m about halfway through “Everything Must Change” and it’s helpful to hear Wilson’s and McLaren’s thoughts as I read.

  5. Jeff Kursonis Says:

    Hey Melvin,

    Awesome interview, great questions (and good answers). It was great hanging with you in Charlotte – keep up the good march forward – I’m going to link my blog to yours because I think your voice needs to be heard.

    Blessings, Jeff

  6. So Says Stevo Says:

    One philosophy can’t help but disagree and diminish others. The other affirms and seeks “higher ground,” as Jim Wallis put it. Thanks, Brian for helping us understand the difference–and living it.
    Steve Rogers

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