Part II: ‘The Theological Migration’

From ‘The Great Spiritual Migration’ by Brian McLaren

Read Part 2 (chapters 4–6) of ‘The Great Spiritual Migration’ by Brian McLaren. Read the short reflection below, then comment about the reading or the reflection!

4. The Genocide Card in Your Back Pocket

“It’s been said that the truth will set you free, but first it will probably make you mad. That’s the case for this chapter. If it doesn’t make you angry, if it doesn’t break your heart, then it hasn’t done its job.” (71)

McLaren begins with an idea that challenges our beliefs about ourselves with language that might disturb us. Then He goes about proving it.

“Christianity, we might say, is driving around with a loaded gun in its glove compartment, and that loaded gun is its violent image of God.”

McLaren then tells two brief stories. One is a trip to a seminary after 9/11 in 2001 when he ad-libbed a profound thought about the dangerousness of theological support for killing based in scripture and how that is perceived by outsiders. His even naming such a thing is treated by some in the audience (and many in the years since) as pretext for outrage, perhaps even a justification for violence, to defend some bastardized exclusive view of tradition.

The other was a piece he was asked to write in response to a Dakota woman’s strong critique of Christianity, that given its support for ecological destruction and eagerness to side with the powerful, it may be unsalvageable as a religion. To which McLaren has to agree. Not that it doesn’t contain a good center, this is how it as a religion has done so much harm, that we, given its present form, may be unable to save it.

“The only way Christianity can become salvageable is by admitting that it is unsalvageable in its present form, as Waziyatawin said.” (75)

Exploring the genocide card white European Christians carry in their back pockets, McLaren settles in to talk about Columbus and the Doctrine of Discovery, the papal endorsement of the enslavement, murder, and pillaging of other persons, cultures, and places in the world. A doctrine which Bartolome de las Casas believed, according to his 1552 account, encouraged Christians to murder some 15 million people.

These roots in murder and pillaging also are the history of the slave trade, as the people enslaved and sold shifted from the Americas to Africa.

The slave trade, and its roots in the Doctrine of Discovery have long fueled and continue to fuel the scourge of white supremacy under more sanitary names like Manifest Destiny and American exceptionalism.

“If more Christians today summon the courage to take seriously the dark sides of our history, we will wake up to the degree to which our religion still interprets the Bible exactly as our misguided ancestors did.” (85)

McLaren concludes the chapter with a Doctrine of Domination: as our people used “the curse of Ham” to justify white supremacy of other races, particularly those with darker skin, we have long used Genesis 1:28 as a “doctrine of dominion” to justify human supremacy.

5. God 5.0

Now we’re left to deal with a god of supremacy in a post-Jesus overturning of these old tables. To believe in a “weak” God is not to downgrade God, but to upgrade us. For the omnis serve as a limiting character for God, limited to our understanding of perfection, power, and purpose.

“Maybe only now, as we acknowledge Christianity to be, in light of our history, what the novelist Walker Percy called a “failed religion,” are we becoming ready to let Jesus’s radical new vision replace the old vision instead of being accommodated within it. Could wood sectors of Christian faith finally be ready to worship and follow the God that Jesus was trying to show them?” (93)

McLaren outlines five Gods (1.0–5.0) to deal not just with stages of faith, but depictions of God. Depictions which not only limit our understanding of God, but threaten the very way we deal with other people. For even when we get to a more mature vision of an inclusive and welcoming God 4.0, where we have this great inclusive “we,” we still are building the in-group and we are still carrying that genocide card in our back pocket. Just in case.

We’re still making it be Us and Them.

“Yesterday’s Survival Strategy Is Today’s Suicide Strategy”

God 5.0 goes beyond the “exclusive we” into a wider and broader sense of humanity and God, beyond tribalism and threats. For we are in a time in which our survival strategy has become a suicide strategy. Thanks to nuclear arms, our ability to defend ourselves with God 4.0 becomes mutually assured destruction. To maintain the old self-protective violence is to invoke and hasten our own destruction. We need a better God than that.

But there are signs of rejecting the old gods and connecting with others in a new God 5.0. In what Phyllis Tickle would have described as examples of emergence, McLaren names that collaborative spirit and rejection of the genocide card in the back pocket found in those groups rejected or oppressed in previous generations, in foreign places, other religious traditions, in feminism and titans of theology. People are already migrating to a new place.

6. The Bible in Labor

Wrestling with scripture, we are discovering its complexity and the complexity in our different ways of reading it. Beyond our usual dualisms: liberal/conservative and literal/metaphorical, none of which fit the rich vitality of our scripture or the challenge of being honest to it.

McLaren shares two other options which seem more helpful: literal to literary makes far more sense, for it is not merely true vs. untrue or fact vs. fiction, but in our attunement to expression. As in literal vs. literary.

The other, which may be harder to wrap the head around is innocent-to-critical-to-integral. This describes the commitment, not just to whether or not we examine the text with a critical eye or not, but also to whether or not we wrestle with its personal impact.

Little of our conversation in church, be it fundamentalist or mainline, is based in an integral approach: in a place of going beyond the hows and whys and certainties of understanding and believing and into the space of creativity and life, in which the balance of meaning is not teetering on fact or fiction, but in the heuristic dynamic of the two in tandem. To see emerge from scripture, not the image of a loving God or a murdering God exclusively, but almost to see past the specific stories and examples to see an image much larger of a God revealed throughout. A God who is far more compassionate than any one story could allow.

The fear many have around losing the literal (and the critical) is that these would set us adrift and leave us ill-defined. Or perhaps, as we struggle with naming for ourselves what our belief is, we struggle to share who Jesus is to us. A fear which may be legitimate or half-true. Like the death of God 1.0 or the cutting up of the genocide card and moving away from the “exclusive we”, all of these lead to what we might call the death of God, but it does not make the real God dead. It is the false god of our own making, the one we preserve and protect.

But what greater beauty is found by the likes of C.S. Lewis, Frederick Buechner, or Lucy, the 10 year-old preacher at the beginning of the chapter, who see the tension of truth as revealing a greater truth. Revealing, perhaps, God.


How does the history of our tradition effect you? How do we wrestle with our role in pain caused to others? What role can we have today for past evils?

What do you make of God 5.0? Can we be without our “exclusive we”? What does that do to both our personal experience of church and to how our church functions in the world? How can we move past God 4.0 as a people together?

Where do you see yourself in this matrix as McLaren has drawn it? When might you be in another place on the matrix?