by Brian McLaren
Jericho Books, 2012
288 pages, hardback.
Reviewed by Rebecca Kiser
It was the title that drew me to Brian McLaren’s 24th book. This obvious play on many old jokes introduces his purpose in the book:
“So to imagine Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed taking a walk across a road or even getting together with friends for a meal and conversation doesn’t have to introduce a joke: it could introduce one of the most important conversations possible in today’s world . . . but what approach should I take?. . .in the end I felt I should take. . . a practical, pastoral, and constructive one, focusing on how to develop a healthy, sane, and faithful Christian identity in a multifaith world like ours.” (pp.8-9)
The book is divided into four sections, beginning with a fascinating discussion of “The Crisis of Christian Identity,” followed by sections on a reinterpretation of traditional doctrines, a reexamination of liturgical practices, and a new look at the challenges of the missional church.
The concept of Christian identity was new to me, so I was especially intrigued by the lengthy first section, as McLaren discussed several ways in which Christians relate to people of other faiths in our country and world. Interestingly, other religions can have the same range of identity conflicts.
He begins with the more common identification of Christians against other faiths, in which the stronger one’s identity as a Christian, the more we respond with aversion to other religions and their adherents, emphasizing our differences. He names this stance, “Strong/Hostile.” Countering this stance will be a major theme of the whole book, using the following sections to roust out these roots that he traces back to Christianity becoming mixed with Constantine’s empire. Finding a strong Christian identity that doesn’t place us in this traditional position as “right” to their “wrong,” or “good” to their “evil,” is his goal. Since much of our Christian history is from this oppositional stance, the roots are long and deep. In some delightful word play, he makes much of the common etymological root between hostile and hostage—and then host and hospitality.
Often when we become uncomfortable with this hostility against other faiths in our practice of faith, we move to the other end of the scale which he names, “Weak/Benign.” We end up minimizing differences, maximizing commonalities, never proselytizing, and seek just tolerance, co-existence, and harmlessness. McLaren also criticizes this stance, as it weakens religious identity, plays it down, and makes it matter less which religion one is. In fact, many would toss together elements from many religions in what he calls a “religious salad.”
Thus, in this struggle, not satisfied with the hostility nor the undifferentiated niceness, we find ourselves with, “Conflicted Religious Identity Syndrome.” We can become cynical, quit associating ourselves with Christianity, or being what he calls “adjective Christians,” making sure we explain that we are “progressive” or “emergent” or “post-Protestant” to disconnect ourselves from the kind of Christianity that makes strident headlines.
So how do we disassociate from the hostility, yet hold on to what is good and real in our faith? Many have been unable to see an alternative, and so they live in a muddy middle that McLaren names “Moderately Strong/Moderately Benign.” (This ambivalence is probably where I’ve dwelt in the last years— which became ultimately unsatisfying and made me interested in this book!)
Discarding all of these approaches to Christian identity as not good enough for our world today, he then proposes a Christian identity that is both strong (vigorous, vital, durable, faithful) and kind (benevolent, hospitable, accepting, interesting and loving— not just tolerant). Finding and inhabiting that “gracious space” of solidarity and relationship is the goal, a call for us to be peacemakers. He names this one, “Strong/Benevolent.’” It recognizes that we can live strongly in our Christian tradition and still respect and honor other traditions.
I had to read the three other sections of the book a second time, because initially I was so blown away by the section on Christian identity that I couldn’t take it all in.
In the section on “The Doctrinal Challenge,” McLaren takes a page from Diana Butler Bass, who associates the words “doctrine” with “doctor,” and sees them as potentially “healing teachings.” He explores the doctrines of creation, original sin, election, the Trinity, Christology and the Holy Spirit, seeking to “debug” these of the empire and hostility “viruses.” He realizes this can be rather destabilizing to the whole system, as doctrines intersect with each other, but thinks it is worth it to renew doctrinal understandings for our “Strong/Benevolent” Christian identity.
He does the same in the section on our liturgical practices, such as our understandings of the church year, baptism, sermons and songs, Bible reading, and the Lord ’s Table.
In the final section of the book, “the Missional Challenge,” he returns to the idea of genuine friendship, based on Moltmann’s view of how Jesus exercised radical friendships that crossed all kinds of barriers. “A Christian moves towards the other in friendship,” he says. Charity leads to advocacy, a “with-ness” or solidarity with the other to work for the common good. Religion organizes for this purpose, he states. In a move that I particularly respond to, he sees this choice to live for the common good and not live for selfish or group-ish ends, as the sacred mission of salvation for the world (p.258).
I found a good balance between the discussion of ideas and first-hand stories of healing encounters. The book has a lot of footnotes on each page, which is less daunting than it sounds— many of the footnotes are anecdotes, illustrations, or helpful recommendations of other authors and books.
As to the title’s question, “ Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed cross the road?,” several answers are noted in various footnotes, for example, “to escape from a mob of their hypercritical followers (!)”; another is “to show solidarity with those on the other side“; and then, “to walk side by side and together sort out the theological issues that too often turn followers into enemies rather than friends.” But my simple favorite is, “to get to the Other.”
© 2013 by Christian Feminism Today