Brian McLaren, who once taught college English, served 20 years as a pastor, and has written over a dozen books, cannot resist the age-old question about why the chicken crossed the road.
In his latest book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? (Jericho Books, 2012) he makes some suggestions:
• Einstein: Did the chicken really cross the road, or did the road move beneath the chicken?
• Hamlet: That is not the question.
• A nun: It was a habit.
Joking aside, McLaren asks that we imagine Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed walking together across a road or even gathering as friends for a meal and conversation. That, he says, could just be “one of the most important conversations possible in today’s world.”
Across 276 pages of lively, if rhetorical, questions (sometimes three or four on a page), McLaren engages us in that conversation, writing for a general audience of thoughtful Christians rather than a specialized audience of scholars. And he never fails to offer more healing solutions than questions.
Everyone is crossing roads, McLaren writes. “But some, like the good Samaritan, cross the road in compassion and solidarity, moving toward the other to touch, to heal, to affirm human-kindness. In that spirit, we have begun crossing the road, and on the other side, we are discovering the other as neighbor, and God as the loving Creator of all. This crossing forever changes our identity.” And it’s that Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World, as the book’s subtitle puts it, that is McLaren’s main focus.
Having set the scene in his opening chapters on the crises, ancient and modern, embedded in Christian identity, McLaren goes on to deal with some of the doctrinal and liturgical challenges involved. He readily admits that he has increasingly found himself trapped between a strong Christian identity that is hostile toward outsiders and a weak Christian identity that is benign (or harmless) toward outsiders. Yet there is a third option, he says, in which we are “strongly benevolent toward people of other faiths, accepting them not in spite of the religion they love, but with the religion they love.”
Drawing upon preaching and public-speaking engagements that have taken him across the globe, McLaren shares heart-wrenching stories and rich intercultural experiences. He doesn’t offer critical explanation or interpretation of religious texts, but he doesn’t hesitate to root his arguments in Bible teaching, especially Jesus’ stories. For example, he sees both brothers in the story of the prodigal son suffering from an identity crisis (see Luke 15:11–32). The lost son, it turns out, is actually the older son, and McLaren urges Christians to examine their hearts for traces of the older brother there. God wants them to join Him in loving “the other” as part of one family.
In the process, he says, we are free to remain true to our own deepest Christian convictions. We might find that our core doctrines are even more wonderful and challenging than we had previously imagined. And we could try practicing them in relationships with those who don’t hold them, sharing them as gifts.
In such ways, says McLaren, we move toward people of other faiths in wholehearted love, not in spite of their non-Christian identity, “but because of [our] identity as a follower of God in the way of Jesus.”