The Great Spiritual Migration
How The world’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to be Christian
Brian D. McLaren
A Review by Dwight A. Moody
This is an eloquent essay by the globe trotting author, advocate, and preacher calling for Christianity to give up its effort to hold on to its prerogatives as the world’s largest, wealthiest organization and lead the movement of all people toward a less violent, more hospitable human community on planet earth.
The key biblical text guiding this vision is the famous Christian hymn embedded in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, wherein Jesus is described as not clutching to his divine status but surrendering that position in order to be a human person and, more than that, be a servant of the human community. The One before whom all people will eventually bow and confess is none other than this humble servant, this non-violent, people-loving, movement-leading person named Jesus.
McLaren was once the successful pastor of a congregation in the Baltimore metro area. When his writings and speakings won him the opportunity to forego the ecclesial paycheck, he moved to south Florida and entered into the rarified world of public theologian and citizen of the world.
His string of books is impressive as is his vision for a new movement of Christian people—and not just Christian people: but Muslim, and Jewish, and Sikh, and secularists—all people who desire a healthier, more prosperous, and more just society stretching around the world. “I believe evangelism means inviting people into heart-to-heart communion and collaboration with God and neighbors in the great work of healing the earth, of building the beloved community, of seeking first the kingdom of God and God’s justice for all” (175).
This “collaboration with God and neighbors” means relinquishing the God of violence at the center of the three great monotheistic religions: the God who sent the angel of death to kill the firstborn of Egypt and later sent the floods of the Red Sea to swallow up the armies of Egypt; the God who sent Jesus to the cross to died a painful and lonely death for the sins of the world; the God who inspired Mohammed and his followers to pick up the sword and conquer the known world—that God, the One we are all familiar with. It is hard to imagine our God stripped of that history; and thus McLaren issues what is certainly a radical demand for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
McLaren himself has found his own place in this great migration, as have many of us; and McLaren names Martin Luther King, Jr. Desmond Tutu, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Shane Claiborne as fellow travelers listening to the voice of what he calls God 5.0—see pages 104-108 for many other names. “At this very moment, inspired by all this foment and theological creativity, a grassroots movement of Christians is springing up around the world” (108). Our leader, he says, is Jesus (who eschewed the institutions and regulations of his own day in favor of a wide-ranging love of people), and our model is Saul-turned-Paul (whose own spiritual migration is recounted three times in The Acts of the Apostles).
This is an attractive book with a compelling appeal. I liked it and embraced much of it. But I wished he had compared and contrasted the migration or movement he has in mind with that which has dominated Christianity for a full century—the Pentecostal movement (which is at the core of the resurgent Evangelical support of Donald J. Trump). And I wish he had analyzed the real impact of Francis, surely a fellow migrant, within the Roman Catholic Church (which is the most intransient institution in the whole world).
Yes, there is a coalition of progressive thinkers and doers in the world, including in our own Christian community; but in what sense does the future belong to us and what realistic prospects do we have of reshaping religion and culture along the lines McLaren so passionately describes? I want him to be right, and I am following along behind him somewhere back in the pack.
But I wonder, even as I walk, and read, and write: is the movement McLaren describes the one that will carry Christianity into the next millennium?
(Martin Luther King Day, 2020)