Interview with Brian McLaren (and pomo fiction)

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So how’s the search for postmodern Christian literary fiction in CBA coming?

True, there’s so little because people aren’t buying it. But also, categorizing fiction as postmodern sends up red flags for many Christians.

Here’s what Brian McLaren, held to be one of the original postmodern Christian writers has to say.

Sara Long, CBA Publicist: “What kind of backlash or opposition to a postmodern shift do you see in Christian publishing? What authors are prominent in rejecting the concept of having to use different communication styles to reach postmoderns?”

Brian McLaren:– So far, I think that the backlash has been very gentle and restrained. (If you’d like to see some of it, do a search on my name at Christianitytoday.com.) I don’t think that too many critics would reject the idea of using different communication styles, but there are quite a few that seem quite allied to modernity and feel that postmodernity is a departure from orthodox faith. Douglas Groothius, D. A. Carson, George Barna, Josh MacDowell, and to some degree Os Guiness come to mind. It’s generally folk from what many call “the Calvinist Establishment” who are most vociferous in their critique. Some of these people are very knowledgeable of the issues (like Os Guiness) and their critics and questions are quite helpful, but others seem less engaged and more reactionary. Often, these less nuanced critics take the most extreme postmodern writers and use them as a kind of straw man. (Of course, many postmodern writers do the same with modern straw men!) At any rate, I feel sometimes in reading their critiques that they’re largely unaware of how distinctively modern their own understanding of Christian faith is, so when I read them, I think, “Well of course. That’s exactly what any modern person would say.” But again, I think most critics have been quite open to new ideas – much more so than I expected. I think many people sense that something’s wrong, something’s not working in the modern Christian subculture – our young people are drifting away, we’re aging, etc. So I think they’re hoping that some of us who are more hopeful about postmodernity can come up with something helpful and constructive, and they’re restraining their critiques as a result. I think many of them are praying for us, actually, which is a beautiful thing to think about.

Check out the whole interview.

There is opposition. A lot of it comes from the traditionalists, the establishments of conservatism and Evangelical Christian culture. And I think significant opposition comes from the folks we were talking about a few posts ago.

But this is sort of a new world for me. I’m an old school Evangelical, raised by Campus Crusade-saved Jesus hippies from Southern California. I guess there are a lot of us now, but I don’t really see them writing the kind of books I’d like to read. You know, Fight Club or Catcher in the Rye for conflicted Christians.

And I know of so many others who have a dream of more than simple, watered down stuff, pious stuff, the stuff that can come off as unreal, unenlightened, and “religious.” This time, I’d really be remiss if I didn’t mention the discussion< over at the Faith in Fiction chat board Mark Bertrand introduced. Way to go Mark.

And last, I read today about K.L. Cook, a Texan literary fiction writer with some Christian underpinnings. He publishes with Morrow. That’s a start. It certainly makes sense that ABA would have more ability and interest in publishing good postmodern Christian literature than CBA. There’s not a single, clear place for this stuff, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to consider other options if we’re committed to changing the long-standing assumptions of what Christian fiction looks like.

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12 thoughts on “Interview with Brian McLaren (and pomo fiction)”

  1. Of course, even in McLaren’s comments, he refers mostly to writers of non-fiction for his examples of writers who get it and those who don’t. Even his own A New Kind of Christian is more of a fictionalized version of his beliefs, from what I’ve heard from the kids I know, than it is a novel without an “agenda.” (I haven’t read it, so this isn’t a personal criticism–I’m just repeating what my “emergent” friends have said.)
    What will be truly fascinating–I think–is when this new generation of Christians starts producing their own works of fiction. Right now, the emergent kids I know will barely read fiction and wouldn’t go into a CBA store to save their souls. My DIL read and LOVED Peace Like a River, but admitted she hadn’t read a novel in several years. They see a LOT of movies and visit a LOT of art galleries, but evidently the books they would enjoy just aren’t being written. And not even McLaren’s fiction is filling the bill for them, though they embrace his non-fiction.
    So the question is WWEW? (What Would Emergents Write?) And the answer may not be fully known until they themselves start writing it.

  2. I guess I’m still a little sketchy on who/what defines “emergent” or “postmodern” fiction. My kids are 19 and 21, both in college, both artistic and intellectual. They read broadly and voraciously, from T.S. Eliot to Potok to Dostoyevsky to Tolkien to Lewis to Lamott to L’Engle, and on and on. They read for pleasure; they read to enter the literary conversation; they read to challenge themselves philosophically.
    Are they emergents? Are they postmoderns? Are these positions generational or ideological or both?
    I can’t quite wrap my mind around it all — like it doesn’t have a clear enough to border to be fenced. But I know what I want to write: honest, artistic, realistic, and redemptive truth that makes people think. Am I missing something?

  3. When my 25-year old son and his wife do read fiction, it’s usually the classics. (They do read Lamott and L’Engle, of the living writers Jeanne mentions, but I don’t think they read their fiction. My DIL asked for “Walking on Water” for Christmas so I know she appreciates L’Engle.) They read TONS of non-fiction, though.
    My husband’s theory is that they (seeing themselves as postmoderns) don’t trust anything being written by those who are most likely moderns. They’d rather read the works that have stood the test of time. That’s why I’m anxious for more writers of their age and persuasion to begin writing themselves. Show us what you’ve got, people! My son is one of the most gifted writers I’ve ever read, but his output is negligible–he seems afraid to put himself out there, and I’m not sure why.
    My understanding of the emerging church is that while it has largely attracted young people up until this point, efforts are being made to reach out to people of every age with an interest in their approach.

  4. Katy, I’m not sure what you mean by “they don’t trust” the writings of moderns. Doesn’t that seem a bit paranoid? I mean, writers of the classics are going to differ in ideology from postmoderns as much as modern writers do. Readers don’t have to adopt or agree with an author’s worldview to appreciate his mastery of craft and story.
    I gravitate toward classics, too, but my reasons are mostly literary. I like books written above an elementary school level, filled with powerful imagery, and revealing of human nature. The best books portray reality and truth without preaching it, and many of the classics seem particularly adept at this. I turn to classics because I know what I’ll find. No guess work.
    I guess what I’m trying to pin down is this. What distinguishes postmodern readers from other readers? Is it an aversion to answers? Is it relativism? Skepticism?
    Every author writes from a worldview. No one is unbiased. The skeptic doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Will the postmodern novel be devoid of absolutes? Will all the characters be afloat in an answerless sea? Who decides which biases make the postmodern cut?
    I have lots more questions than answers here. Maybe I’m a postmodern, too. ;)

  5. Jeanne, you certainly aren’t alone in your confusion. It’s a tricky, slippery thing to try to define postmodern, emergent, Gen X, etc. Many, many articles have been written about this at places like Christianity Today, Relevant mag, CBA Marketplace, etc., including the one with Brian McLaren linked to above.
    But maybe the biggest problem is that they’re trying to define something that actively defies definition.
    A beloved and fellow pomo co-worker pointed me to an article at Youth Specialties about this very thing (at http://www.youthspecialties.com “Postmodern Liturgy for the Truly Emergent Church”), which attempts to define what a liturgical postmodern church service might look like. It’s pretty fun and informative (in a noninformative kind of way). You can also follow the link at the top to read many more enlightening articles attempting to wrap brains around postmodern thought.

  6. Jeanne–I’m probably not representing my postmodern, emergent kids accurately. But if I’m not, it’s not because I don’t want to–it’s because, as Mick indicates, the movement they’re involved with “actively defies definition.” I don’t think they’re paranoid. But it does seem to me they “don’t trust” the writings of moderns (unless they’ve stood the test of time) to be sufficiently lacking in absolutes to pass muster with them. Does that make sense at all? You are right that every artist has a worldview, but my understanding is that postmoderns tend to reject writers who project their worldviews onto the reader.
    Mick, I’ve only been trying to understand this for a few years now–and mainly through my son, his church, and the emergent bloggers. Jeanne asks what she’s missing–what am I missing? Thanks!

  7. Well, fine. If you really want to know, just look at me: Chaotic/paradoxic/ironic/sarcastic/mystic/poetic/pomo/ emergent/divergent, fumbling, bumbling, self-annihilating, clawing, bleeding, LarkNews-reading, “poly-Christian” malcontent.
    You can’t define it. We won’t let you.
    I suppose if you had a gun, I’d say the core belief of emergent church is that capital T truth doesn’t exist in one person, or even one “subculture.” It’s pieces, it’s connections, it’s chaotic and seemingly random. It’s in that central scene in American Beauty (that only pomos get) where he’s filmed 15 minutes of a plastic bag blowing in the wind.
    If you’re still wondering, email me and I’ll send you that scene.

  8. I love Lark News! And Strongbad’s e-mail. And Napoleon Dynamite. And Jack Handey. I’m all about irony and poetry.
    But I’m not self-annihilating, and I’m very content. I believe in a God who reigns. I trust His wisdom and power. I believe in absolutes — that some things cannot be shaken.
    I believe there are knowable answers.
    And I’m right.
    I hope you’re laughing at that last comment, because I am. I may not be cut out for a “pomo” audience. I wouldn’t be able to take them any more seriously than I take myself, and that probably wouldn’t be enough to suit their melodramatic angstiness.
    I’m curious. What does an emergent Christian do with the promises of God? I find answers all over the Bible. Maybe not easy, fun answers, but answers I can base my life on. And capital-t-Truth in One Person, too. “I am the Truth.” That’s pretty clear cut.
    It almost seems like postmodernism is too nebulous to endure. How can you build a Christian movement around chaos? Maybe God will send revival, all these fumbling bumblers will wake up and repent, and we won’t have to worry about writing books about plastic bags blowing in the wind.
    (Please don’t hate me for mocking your pomo homies, o thou bleeding, sarcastic one. Remember Lark News. Mockery rocks.)

  9. Jeanne–It’s early here, and I’m reading this without benefit of caffeine or angst, but I’m sorry. “Pomo Homies” sounds a lot like a new sexual orientation to me… :) I mean, absolutely.

  10. Yo, pomo homie. I read that one recently, laughing aloud through the whole thing. Very clever writing amongst those Larkies. I love that kind of humor. Of course, when you think about it, isn’t that article making fun of pomos? Traditionalists aren’t the ones tryin’ to get everyone to chill in the hiz-ouse, yo.
    Takin’ it easy in the ‘hood.
    Sista J.

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