A Feature Review of
The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion Is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian
Reviewed by Leslie Klingensmith
For several years, I was a Brian McLaren skeptic. It wasn’t personal. I’ve never met him, and have not seen him speak in person (although I would like that to change). My skepticism was based on what felt like a universal wave of adulation for him that, in my opinion, was easily turned into dismissal of everything about the church and our history. While I agree that much about the church needs to (indeed MUST) change, I bristle at the suggestion that the church by which I was nurtured and to whom I have dedicated my vocational life is as hopelessly misguided and selfish as many McLaren devotees say it is. After all, there are millions of people across denominations who are doing such wonderful work in the world and who make me hopeful for the future of God’s people. If the church produced them, can it be all bad? Skeptics in the McLaren universe don’t get very far – if you raise questions about the “Everything Must Change” mind set, you are dismissed as defensive and too invested in the old order of things. If you point out ways that the current church is already moving in many of the directions McLaren advocates, especially missional communities and emphasis on serving the wider world instead of maintaining institutions, you are in denial about how bad things really are in the mainline church. Brian McLaren’s cult-like status got on my nerves.
Frankly, the other reason I was leery was his evangelical background. As someone who falls squarely in the liberal/progressive camp, I am wary of any theology that presumes to know the mind of God, particularly regarding who is “in” and who is “out.” My concern was that the emergent church movement was a cover for an evangelical takeover of mainline liberal Protestantism. Although I have friends and colleagues in the evangelical movement whom I know to be faithful people of tremendous integrity, during the height of some of the culture wars in Protestantism (specifically gay ordination), both evangelicals and liberals have used questionable tactics in their efforts to gain power and hold onto it. I’m not proud of it, but I worried that the inviting language of the emergent church movement was couching a much more sinister agenda and that those of us of a more liberal bent would eventually be pushed out of the churches we have loved and served all our adult lives.
I understand now that I was unfair to Brian McLaren. I will own the shameful truth that I made those assumptions without ever having read a word that he had written. My stance softened several years ago when I read his earlier book A Generous Orthodoxy. I loved that book and was moved by the humility with which McLaren writes. I have since given that book to several people who are looking for a way to articulate their faith in a way that is clear but still leaves room for diversity and mystery. I’ve recommended it to countless more.
The Great Spiritual Migration is an even better book than A Generous Orthodoxy. Contrary to my former conjecture, McLaren is not trying to undo or dismiss the faithful witness of the church for the past 2,000 years. However, he does point out the ways we got off track, committed grave sins, and caused suffering for God’s children the world over. His chapter “The Genocide Card in Our Back Pocket” alone is worth the time invested in reading the book. His exposition of Christian exploitation of non-Christians and (in far too many cases) killing them to satisfy our own greed is by no means exhaustive, but it is honest and clear. As much as any faith group in the history of the world, Christians need to repent if we are to transform the world. Brick by brick, McLaren builds a strong case for an inclusive theology that acknowledges our corporate sin and shows us a path forward. As brutally honest as the book it, I also found it refreshingly hopeful. No one likes to look historical or current sin in the face and contemplate our complicity in it, but when we are able to do it, we also start to see alternatives to the way we have always done things. Once we perceive other options, we see that change really is possible.
As I was reading Migration, several times I thought to myself “If this is truly evangelical theology, I can get on board with it. Could it be that evangelicals and liberals will find a way to meet and work together?” I am cautiously optimistic, but not convinced that it will happen (at least not right now). My understanding is that at least some in the evangelical community have dismissed McLaren, saying he is not “one of them” because of his theology – the same generous and open theology that leads me to embrace him as a kindred spirit.
One of my frustrations with Christianity (and I say this as a committed follower of Christ who is not going anywhere) is that so many of my sisters and brothers believe that for us to be “right” everyone else (Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc.) has to be “wrong.” We spend so much time trying to prove that we are the ones with the (only) truth that we forget to love our neighbors and sometimes even actively harm them. That has got to stop. Too many people in the world already associate the word “Christian” with monikers like “homophobic,” “self-righteous,” and “exclusive.” We must commit, as a people, to changing that if we are to be people who perpetuate the reign of Christ in the here and now. For too many people (and for too many years) our self-serving version of the gospel has been anything but good news for huge swathes of the human family. In The Great Spiritual Migration, McLaren shows himself to be committed to moving past the outdated and dangerous notion of Christian superiority and living into a vision of love and unity for all of creation. McLaren has helped me move past my own notions of “liberal” and “conservative,” and I am resolved to live and act in solidarity with anyone who embraces these ideas. I’m encouraged by my own growing ability to think in terms of common values instead of what camp someone identifies with, and pray that others across the theological spectrum will evolve in the same way.
In the introduction to his chapter titled “God 5.0,” McLaren writes the following: “We are realizing that our ancestors didn’t merely misinterpret a few Scriptures in their day; rather, they consistently practiced a dangerous form of interpretation that deserves to be discredited, rejected, and replaced by a morally wiser form of interpretation today. And we are coming to see that this repentance and conversion do not express infidelity to Christ, but fidelity, because we are coming to see the life and teachings of Christ, and especially in the cross and resurrection of Christ, a radical rejection of dominating supremacy in all its forms (90).” I’m grateful to Brian McLaren for having the courage to speak his truth so plainly. Admittedly, his ideas resonate with thoughts I have had for years, so reading him feels like a homecoming of sorts. I realize that his theological evolution is still considered far out there for many on the Christian spectrum, but I hope people will give him a fair hearing. I don’t know whether his migration will save the church as we know it, but it might save us from ourselves.