Brian McLaren: Why I Wrote 'We Make the Road by Walking'


Since I was a teenager, I've been searching for a new kind of Christianity.

The confident fundamentalism of my childhood, the Jesus Movement with its vigorous piety in my late-adolescent years, the charismatic movement with its joyful celebration after that, the moderate Evangelicalism of my early adulthood (before the religious right stole the brand) ... each gave me precious gifts.

And each made me long and pray for something more.

The same could be said for my exposure to more "liberal" Christianity. It was a delight to be free to ask any question and pursue all evidence wherever it might lead. But too often, it seemed like that pursuit led out of Christian faith altogether.

I've chronicled my quest in a range of books, from The Church on the Other Side to A Generous Orthodoxy to Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? My books have attracted some loyal supporters and some highly-dedicated critics.

Some of those critics have said, "McLaren and friends like to ask questions but they never provide answers." They didn't notice that all along the way, the questions I and others were asking kept leading us to new discoveries. Those discoveries opened up a kind of answer ... not in the conventional, dogmatic, conversation-stopping sense, but in the sense of a satisfying, meaningful, coherent, and comprehensive narrative.

That's what my current writing project is about. We Make the Road by Walkingis an attempt to present that coherent, comprehensive narrative in an accessible and constructive way.

To be accessible, I needed to avoid religious jargon and write with a simple, direct style. I decided to write the chapters as short sermons that could be read aloud in about ten minutes each.

To be constructive, I needed to stop leveraging off unhelpful formulations in order to articulate better ones. Instead, I aimed simply to present those better understandings so they could stand or fall on their own merits.

The idea for the book's form was actually inspired by John Wesley, King Edward VI, and Queen Elizabeth. Wesley published sermons to help the early Methodist movement - and especially its preachers - to learn a new pathway, or method, of Christian formation.

Before Wesley, King Edward VI and Queen Elizabeth I oversaw the publication two volumes of sermons (called The Book of Homilies) in the 16th Century. There were many reasons for doing so, but among them was their concern that Puritan-leaning and Catholic-leaning preachers would inflame hostility toward their counterparts that could easily result in bloodshed. So they offered sermons that embodied a "via media" and could perhaps bring the church and nation closer together in "a generous orthodoxy."

Now it's liberals and conservatives who can quickly be at each other's figurative throats instead of Protestants and Catholics. I hope We Make the Road by Walking can model a way of transcending that kind of polarizing, hostile polemics ... and in so doing, provide a coherent introduction to Christian faith for people for whom traditional framings aren't working.

At the core of what's not working for many is the way that Christians typically read the Bible. In my commentary on the new book (available online for free), I describe four common approaches to the Bible: innocent/literal (the traditional fundamentalist way), critical/literal (the way the New Atheists tend to read the Bible - critiquing their fundamentalist counterparts), the innocent/literary way (a softer approach that tries to find inspirational sayings in the Bible, leaving the rest for others to grapple with), and critical/literary (the approach I take in the book).

In the critical/literary approach, we're free to ask any questions about the Bible - to "kick its tires," so to speak, applying critical thinking to the Biblical texts as we would any other documents. And we bring a literary mindset which is interested less in factuality and more in actuality: the goal is not historical, scientific, or objective information - but inner formation: meaning, wisdom, insight that will help us live well today.

Conventional fundamentalism (in Pentecostal, Evangelical, or Catholic forms) and institutional liberalism still work well for a lot of people. They aren't searching for a new kind of Christianity. For them, the old road is already built and they are faithfully maintaining it ... filling a few potholes, improving signage, that sort of thing.

But many of us have walked the road of our tradition to where it currently ends, and we've come to believe that the road isn't finished yet. We seek neither a denial of the past nor an enslavement to the past. Instead, we seek to faithfully extend the road of Christian tradition from the past, through the present, and into the future.

So we make the road by walking ... and our quest continues.

We know what Christian faith has been, but what can it become?

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