ordinary… mostly

"We have nothing to offer each other, except a haven." — K. Nafziger


Brian McLaren

Review: “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?” by Brian McLaren

Three and a half years ago, I picked up A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren with the idea that I might find out what all the fuss surrounding the emerging church was about. Brian starts that book (in Chapter 0) by explaining why you might not want to read any further – all the objections you might raise. And indeed – I almost didn’t make it through Chapter 0 to get to the rest of the book, not because I had objections to his subject matter, but because I was getting impatient waiting for him to get around to it. But eventually he got the rest of the book underway, and I was glad to have persevered. His writing has been a great encouragement since then.

Fast forward to the Wild Goose Festival earlier this year in North Carolina… I had the chance to briefly share this story with Brian as I received an advanced copy of his latest book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? (Christian Identity in a Multifaith World). It turns out that connection between these two books is appropriate and quite a bit deeper than my little story of frustration.

In AGO, Brian suggests that there is more than one faithful way for Christians to think about orthodoxy. A better approach to orthodoxy (“right-belief”) might value orthopraxy (“right-practice”) and generous relationships among Christ’s followers. And in WDJMBMCR, Brian suggests the time has come for Christians to reconsider our concept of evangelism, of “preaching the gospel”. And we are overdue for a new approach to relating to people of other religions (and indeed – people of no religion).

This is a breath of fresh air. Brian succinctly describes what I’m sure many of us have been feeling. We have been presented with two approaches to faith: maintain a robust faith and an antagonistic stance toward “the other” (i.e. ultimately I must convert you), or effectively render our faith meaningless in order to respect the other. Against both of these alternatives, Brian proposes a “strong, benevolent” Christian identity.

As with previous books, Brian will be accused of throwing orthodox Christianity to the wind. But he devotes much of the book to showing how our orthodox beliefs (as well as our liturgy and mission) can be both strong and benevolent. His detractors will try to discredit this work, but he is very intentional about working within traditional Christianity. The only thing that isn’t traditional is his conclusion. And that’s sort of the point, I think.

Here’s what I like most about the book:

  • Brian’s succinct statement of our quandary. Either “we love them (or say that we do) in spite of their religious identity” or “we… say that we love them in spite of our own religious identity”.
  • The chapter on evangelism. Isn’t that where a lot of people get hung up?
  • The ideas for re-shaping the liturgy. We need worship to reflect our theology.
  • Brian’s devastating string of questions regarding penal substitutionary atonement. Interestingly, these questions are in one long footnote and not the main text.*
  • The definitive lesson on sharing the good news of Jesus… from a Hindu. (Curious? Read it for yourself!)

* Questions about penal substitutionary atonement are often questions about the nature of God – specifically, “Is God violent?” I began asking those questions a few years ago, and Brian asks a whole string of them here. It is high time to answer with a resounding, “No!” I believe that doing so will set off a chain reaction of many changes in Christianity… for the better.

Here’s what I don’t like:

  • I’m afraid Brian will be preaching to the choir. Folks like me will be glad for the contribution this book makes toward a conversation that is desperately needed. But I didn’t need any convincing, and Brian has a reputation that will chase off a lot of people who would benefit.
  • He writes too many books. Don’t get me wrong. I love them. But I haven’t even had time to read Naked Spirituality yet. Slow down, man!

Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? comes out, not coincidentally, on September 11th. I recommend you read it. This is a conversation the Church needs to have.


  1. If you haven’t read one of Brian’s books before, I’d also recommend A New Kind of Christianity.
  2. On Facebook today, Carrie Newcomer announced that she’ll be working with Brian in the spring. Her album Everything is Everywhere reflects her faith and the kind of Christianity that Brian is writing about.
Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? by Brian McLaren
Plotting harmony!

On the nightstand… 18 February 2012

Well – it’s been fun seeing how I’ve picked up a bunch of new readers/followers in the last few months as I wrote the story of my family’s trip to Cambodia. It seemed that anything that I tagged with ‘travel’, ‘Cambodia’, or ‘photos’ brought in new people. Alas, I’m turning my attention to the more routine things in my life now, which I’m afraid will bore many of you — long-time and recent followers alike.

It has been a while since I updated the list of books on the nightstand (or scattered thereabouts). Of the seven books that I listed last year and the three that I added this past summer, I’ve finished five (and still need to report on one) and am still reading five. Some never get finished.

Nevertheless, I continue to add more books. Without further ado, here’s the reading list as it now stands, with books from last February (*) or July (^) marked…

And here are the books that are just waiting for a chance to make it onto the list above. Some have already made it to the nightstand, but I’ve only looked at the first chapter. Some haven’t been opened at all. Some are arriving in the mail today. Some – thankfully – haven’t entered the house (yet…).

I think I must resist adding to this list unless I either finish or remove books already on it.

Thoughts on Faith, May 2011: Part VII (Theology and real life)

It’s the end of May, so I better bring this series of random thoughts on faith to an end.

What is the point of all this musing? I’ve come up with this: Theology is worthless if it doesn’t motivate me to act on what I believe. Brian McLaren discusses this and equates orthodoxy with practice in his book, A Generous Orthodoxy:

This book can rightly be accused of blurring that distinction between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Absurdly (to some at least) this book seems to approach orthodoxy as a tool or means to achieve orthopraxy…

In sum, this book sees ortopraxy as the point of orthodoxy.

Interestingly, I recently read that early Christians would have done things in an order opposite that of what we usually do. Tony Jones writes:

One thing that’s intriguing to note, and easy to lose sight of two millennia later, is that in the very earliest church, practice begat doctrine.  That is, the early church didn’t convene theological conferences to debate the nature of the godhead and then spin out a practice of prayer.

Instead, it’s clear in the earliest Christian documents that the people prayed, and out of their experience of God’s nearness did they develop doctrinal beliefs regarding who God is and how God acts.

So what do I believe, and how should I act? About a year ago, I blogged about my creed:

I believe in love, lived out in the context of community.

And what does this have to do with all of these thoughts? I’ve been writing about atonement, Rob Bell’s book (Love Wins), and universalism, among other things. Sometimes, I seriously consider (or even embrace) ideas that are unorthodox (at least within some streams of Christianity). But it all comes down to this: I’m finding that the love of God, demonstrated in the life of Jesus, is bigger than I could possibly imagine. I’m tired of subtly being motivated by fear – fear of hell, fear of my own failure, fear that the kingdom of God is irrelevant to today’s world. I’m ready to embrace something bigger. To re-quote Bell…

What you discover in the Bible is so surprising and unexpected and beautiful that whatever we’ve been told or taught, the Good News is actually better than that – better than we can ever imagine.

The Good News is that love wins.

P.S. Greg Boyd provides a summary of all of this: “The Heresy of Failing to Love

Thoughts on Faith:

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V
Part VI
Part VII

Thoughts on Faith, May 2011: Part I (Rethinking the cross)

(I think I’ve rambled on this before, so I apologize. I didn’t go back to check my archives. But these things are still going through my head…)

Why did Jesus die on the cross? Did Jesus have to die on the cross?

A common answer (and the one that I carried with me until recently) goes something like this:

Humans have sinned. The penalty for sin is death, otherwise known as punishment in hell. This is because sin offends God’s holiness. Even though God loves us immensely, God cannot tolerate the presence of our sin. The only alternative is for a sacrifice to be made on our behalf – a sacrifice of a spotless lamb. Therefore Jesus, God’s son, stepped into history (thereby demonstrating God’s love), took on the role of spotless lamb, and died in the place of humanity. Those who accept his sacrifice are reconciled to God. Otherwise, punishment remains – an eternity in hell.

This view is often called penal substitutionary atonement. But about two years ago, I started rethinking my assumptions about God, and I’ve needed to revise my beliefs.

First, there was a general discomfort with “sharing the Good News” (with the assumption that “Good News” equaled the story above). Maybe it was just the Anabaptist in me, but if news was to be good, it needed to have some effect on the here and now. “Thy kingdom come… on earth as it is in heaven” and all that. Throw in a dash of James (“faith without works is dead”) and I had a problem seeing how that story of salvation represented Good News.

Then, I got to thinking about the nature of God. Did God really send Jesus to earth for the sole purpose of dying? Does God require death as payment for sin? Isn’t this akin to divine child abuse? Is God violent?

Furthermore, if Jesus is the image of the invisible God, isn’t that contradictory to the story above? In that story, there seem to be two Gods: one who requires death to cancel the debt of sin and whose holiness cannot be in the presence of sin, and another who had just spent his whole life walking around in the midst of sin and who freely forgave those who crucified him. In the story above, it’s hard to say that God forgives us at all. Rather than forgiveness of debt, there is payment of debt.

Many of these questions were inspired by J. Denny Weaver’s book, The Nonviolent Atonement. (Atonement is that which reconciles us to God.) I’m not sure why I picked up the book, because I tend to not read things that challenge my beliefs (to my shame). Nevertheless, I borrowed it about two years ago from a friend at church.

Through reading that book and others (e.g. A New Kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren; A Jesus-Driven Life by Michael Hardin) and through reflecting on my Anabaptist beliefs regarding God (understood through Jesus), I’ve come to see the death of Christ as the ultimate act of human evil, not something demanded by his Abba. As McLaren puts it…

Where do you primarily find God on Good Friday?

If God is primarily identified with the Romans, torturing and killing Jesus, then, yes, the case is closed: God must be seen as violent on Good Friday. The cross is an instrument of God’s violence.

But if God is located first and foremost with the crucified one, identifying with humanity and bearing and forgiving people’s sin, then a very different picture of God and the cross emerges.

God demonstrates love for us by living among us; by seeking us out; by not repaying our act of evil with more evil. God has always been in the business of atonement, inviting us to be reconciled and to enter the kingdom. Jesus has shown us how to do that by taking up his cross and returning love for hate. He invites us to do the same.

Tomorrow: Love wins…

Justice served?

Like many others around the world, I’m distracted by the death today of Osama bin Laden. These are some random (and some not-so random) thoughts going through my mind…

  • There is a part of me that is relieved. Clearly, bin Laden was capable of inspiring great evil. However…
  • These feelings of relief trouble me. To be clear, I’m not celebrating, but there’s some sense of “he got what was coming to him” in my thinking. But…
  • Isn’t the tragic message of Good Friday that we are each capable of evil? But Christ calls us to live in Easter…
  • Bless those who curse; forgive; seek reconciliation; renounce hate and embrace love.

There are plenty of people who are calling this death “good news”. We are told that “justice has been served”. But we conveniently forget that our government has inflicted 40× the civilian deaths experienced in the United States on September 11th. We have spent over a $1 trillion destroying and tearing down. I cringe when I imagine what other uses there are for that money. Has justice really been served? I don’t think so.

I’ll conclude with some wise words from Brian McLaren this morning:

Joyfully celebrating the killing of a killer who joyfully celebrated killing carries an irony that I hope will not be lost on us. Are we learning anything, or simply spinning harder in the cycle of violence?

As you talk about this news, I hope you will consider how your response can counter rather than reinforce the cycles of violence that spin around us. And please God, help us bring healing beauty to the ugliness of violence in whatever small way we can. Today.

More on ANKoC – Q#2

A couple of weeks ago, I reflected on the second question in Brian McLaren’s book, A New Kind of Christianity.  Brian suggests that Christians usually read the Bible in a “constitutional” manner, when in fact a better approach would be to see the Bible as a community library.  It turns out that some of our Supreme Court justices don’t think that we should even read the Constitution in a “constitutional” way…

Souter v. Scalia at Harvard Yard Souter v. Scalia at Harvard Yard
By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

Score one for David Souter. In the fisticuffs that is the Supreme Court, the recently retired justice often found himself on the losing side of 5-4 decisions. But in delivering Harvard’s 2010 commencement address last week, he gave the co … Read More

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