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Brian McLaren on Identity and the Importance of Liturgy


Chattanooga, Tennessee, Sabbath morning — Brian McLaren continued the talk he began last night about the challenges facing Christianity if we are to define our identity through kindness and benevolent towards others rather than a hostile identity that divides the world into “us” and “them.”

He focused on liturgy, which Adventists, with a very low-church tradition, often don’t think applies to them. He defines liturgy simply as “standard operating procedures.” When do we stand, sit, speak, bow our heads, say “Amen,” interact with others? What do we sing, read, preach, pray?  Who do we allow to participate in the Eucharist? Who and how do we baptize? We all have rituals and traditions, and, unexamined, they can actually contribute to a hostile space in how we view others.

For example, the popular hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” which McLaren says is a favorite of his, has a final verse that is almost never printed anymore. Most of us love the joyful verses that exalt nature and creation, and, sentimental as it is, it’s an uplifting song (and easy to accompany with stunning nature photography slides on the PowerPoint). But the final verse, written in Victorian England in 1848, is deeply problematic:

     The rich man in his castle
     The poor man at his gate
     He made them, high and low
     And ordered their estate

Or think of the implications of “Onward Christian Soldiers.” This point was also made by Dr. William Johnsson the night before who said that once he thought about the words several years ago, he hasn’t been able to sing that hymn. Often our doctrines and attitudes are embedded in these words we sing.

And then he began to talk about his favorite hymn, “O Holy Night.” (I’ll admit that I started to worry that McLaren might ruin my favorite Christmas hymn.) But the final verse that was a surprise to him is actually incredibly affirming of a God who is aligned with those who suffer:

     Chains shall He break for the slave
     is our brother. And in His name all
     oppression shall cease.

McLaren rightly pointed out that in 1847, when “O Holy Night” was written, it’s likely that verse wasn’t sung in the United States, at least in slave states.

We all have sat through sermons and been aware of both the overt and subtle texts. Who is being scapegoated? Who is being exalted? Does the pastor take cheat potshots at an other and thereby introduce just a little more hostility in the world? Does the pastor hold back and play it safe, not saying what should be said? “That’s how oppression and injustice get perpetuated,” McLaren said.

A big ritual for Adventists is baptism, and McLaren gave a more complete historical picture about what baptism meant in the time of John the Baptist and Jesus. Baptism wasn’t invented by John the Baptist. Jews practiced ritual baths in the temple for people traveling for religious ceremonies from far off — it was a way to cleanse oneself of the impurities of the gentiles they had been with. Many scholars think the John the Baptist’s time in the wilderness was with the Essenes, who were protestors of the temple system and hyper-clean, often practicing up to seven ritual baptisms daily. Of course, at times baptism can be about who is now clean and “in” versus those who are not.

But John’s public baptisms of common people were a different statement altogether. These baptisms were not in a temple. They were not a message of being “clean.” They were about repenting of how one treated others. As McLaren said, “It’s staggering the implications of Jesus choosing this baptism.” What would happen, McLaren asked, if we baptized people into Christ where there is no hierarchy.

One of the central practices in Christian churches is the Eucharist. Often the way we celebrate the Eucharist has deeply harmful paradigms. Is this an alter to appease a hostile God? Or is it a table of friendship that “affirms out identity in and with Jesus at the table of God’s kingdom where God has sat down with humanity?” How we view God has huge implications for how we view others.

Finally, he touched briefly on how children are taught about faith. He quoted Maria Cavalletti (who founded Montessori education) about how children need a religious liberty. Children, according to Cavalletti, need specificity in the same way that to learn language they need to learn a specific language. This was a topic that clearly resonated in the room and could have been discussed at length. And it’s crucial to examine. As McLaren said, “Children in Adventist churches today are either learning a more loving and Christlike attitude towards others and their neighbor, or they’re learning other attitudes. How do they learn ways to affirm their faith without excluding others?”

Vikki Leon-Salas, an assistant professor of biochemistry at Purdue University, Dr. Gordon Bietz, president of Southern Adventist University, and Amin Issa, a local Muslim and health non-profit director, responded. Overall the respondents affirmed the importance of this conversation.

Leon-Salas emphasized the primacy of the Adventist ritual of Sabbath and how leaning into what we do to on Sabbath (rather than what we don’t do) can help us keep Sabbath from becoming an exclusionary practice.

Bietz  pushed back on several of McLaren’s characterizations of how hostile Christianity can be, although he admitted that there are very dark things that Christians have done in the name of religion. Overall, his experience is more aligned with the good of his faith and doctrines, which, faults and all, has much good to offer.

Issa expressed thanks for being invited as “the token outsider” in the room and spoke about his experience as Muslim, particularly in his health work in India. “You just do good for the sake of good in public. Maybe you know you are doing it for God, but you have to relate to people just as people.”

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