Chattanooga, Tennessee, Friday evening — Brian McLaren began with a story of disappointment.
Some time ago the novelist Anne Rice returned from years of atheism to renewed fellowship with the Catholic Church. But it wasn’t long until she realized, in a deeply disheartening way, that Jesus’ followers are too often known for their hostility—their hostility to Jews and Muslims and gay and many others. They too often find their identity in terms of the people or ideas they oppose, or even hate.
So, “in the name of Christ,” she left what she’d come back to; “following Christ,” she wrote, “does not mean following his followers.”
The 2013 Adventist Forum Conference, which started Friday night in Chattanooga, TN, is exploring the question of how to be Christian in a world where the many kinds and colors of God’s children bump up against one another in ways more vivid and frequent than ever before. It’s a problem that many of these encounters have a negative impact.
Brian McLaren, the first presenter at the conference and the author of many books, including Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? and A Generous Orthodoxy, started off by addressing what he called “The Crisis of Christian Identity.” Some believers have a “strong-hostile” religious identity; others, careful not to offend, have a “weak-benign” identity. Neither of these is satisfactory. According to McLaren, the ideal that best reflects the vision of Christ is a strong religious identity based not on hostility to others but on benevolence toward them.
Much of the Christian story is about the dishonoring of this ideal. McLaren told the little-known but harrowing tale of how, in the name of Christian religion, Columbus threw himself into the slave trade, including the provision of girls as young as 10 for the “use” of members of his crew. The account underscored the profound distortions that disfigure Christian tradition and require, McLaren argued, new attention to the basic meaning of the Gospel.
Ralph Neall, a now retired Adventist missionary and college religion teacher, offered a sympathetic response. McLaren, he said, reminds us of “our better side.”
McLaren returned to the platform for remarks on “The Doctrinal Challenge.” Doctrine is wrongly used as a “loyalty test,” he said, and should be seen instead (the word is related to the old French for “doctor”) as teaching that heals.
Then he offered a simple strategy for interpretation of the Jesus story. Why read it, first of all, through the eyes of his descendants, such as Augustine and Luther? Instead, interpret Jesus forward from the experience of the Exodus, which teaches that God sides with people at the bottom. Or from the story of Creation, where the variety of created beings all belong to God, and differentness is seen as good.
Invoking the story of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, McLaren suggested that sin is making God-like claims to knowing who’s in and who’s out. With a view to further refreshment of the church’s doctrinal heritage, he said that election, or “chosenness,” is a blessing by which we bless others. He read the doctrine of Incarnation as a reminder that God is embodied in humanity that suffers on behalf of others. The Scripture is full of arguments; different voices make different points (on marriage to foreigners, compare Ezra and the story of Ruth) and thus prompt appreciating for differences in point of view.
Two responders followed. William Johnsson, the former editor of the Adventist Review, expressed appreciation and advanced the thesis that a key preventer of apocalyptic flame-out for Adventism was the medical work, the part of church identity centered on benevolence to others. Deborah Levine, a guest from the Jewish community, invoked the Jewish ideal of tikkun olam: repairing the world, doing honor to God’s creation, is what matters most, she said. She added that many more of us need to equip ourselves for the work of inter-faith communication.
Conference participants sit at tables at the downtown Chattanooga hotel where the event is taking place, and have the opportunity to pose questions in person, or by texting them to moderator Brenton Reading.