From Brian McLaren's Commentary on WMTRBW, Part 1

Part 1: Alive in the Story of Creation


Brian McLaren writes:

This seems like a good point to describe the approach to the Bible taken in We Make the Road by Walking. Many people think there are only two ways to read the Bible: their way and the wrong way. But there are many approaches to the Bible, as this matrix shows.


Of course, many of us move back and forth from one category to another, depending on our mood or context.

While some people read the Bible as an academic, political, or intellectual exercise only, many of us - as indicated by the shaded circular space that overlaps all four quadrants - read it with personal investment, seeking guidance and wisdom for how we live our lives. We aren’t simply seeking information from the Bible: we’re seeking inner formation. We may even dare to hope for an encounter with God. So the shaded circle represents a formational approach, as opposed to merely an academic, doctrinal, or analytic approach.

Our primary aim in this book is to help people in any of these four quadrants seek aliveness together. It will be helpful in different ways to people inside and outside the shaded circle too, especially if they are willing to approach the Bible with an open mind and heart.

While this book can be helpful for people in any quadrant, it has its own center of gravity in the shaded section of the upper right-hand quadrant. Because we will take a formational/critical/ literary approach, we will read the Bible with complete freedom to ask questions about its sources, development, internal tensions, biases, accuracy, cultural context and genre. And we will read the Bible as a library containing poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and other genres. We won’t presume agreement among writers; we will allow them to make statements and counterstatements, both to agree and to argue. Nor will we assume that the ancient composers held to modern standards of historical or scientific accuracy; we will allow them to speak from within their own contexts with their own literary protocols which clearly favor deep meaning over factual accuracy.


For that reason, we will give the Bible the benefit of the doubt when it comes to meaning. We will work with the hypothesis that where the Bible does not convey accurate or objective history, it still can facilitate the greater goal of helping us seek meaning. If we engage it with vigor, intelligence, honesty, humility, and imagination, with our hearts open wide to the Spirit of God, we can be inwardly formed into better people, and we can be equipped to do more and greater good in our world.

Our formational/critical/literary approach sets the stage for how we will deal with the miracle stories that are common in certain parts of the Bible (and surprisingly rare in others). Some people believe that all the miracles happened just as they are described in the Bible. Others would say that miracles are impossible, so none of them happened; the Bible is just plan dishonest or wrong when it speaks of miracles. The truth is, everybody has opinions and convictions on the matter, but nobody knows for sure.

That’s why in We Make the Road by Walking we will leave room for our fellow students both to question miracle stories and to believe they record factual history. We will remember that miracles in the Bible are called signs - meaning they signify. And they are called wonders - meaning they are intended to fill us with awe and wonder. We will assume that one of the meanings of a miracle story, whether or not it describes an actual event, is to challenge us to believe that what seems or feels impossible could actually, with God, be possible. We will allow our faith to be challenged and our imagination stretched by these stories, taking them seriously whether or not we take them literally, seeking the actuality of their larger purpose even if some of us question the factuality of their details.

In regard to the violence attributed to God in the Bible, our formational/critical/literary approach frees us from the need to defend this violence in any way. It also frees us from the opposite extreme: the need to throw out the Bible because it contains this violence. It allows us to trace how violence and the idea of God are in tension in the Bible. And it allows us to see how God and violence are gradually disentangled through the course of the biblical narrative, leading to a gracious, loving, and radically nonviolent vision of God. In a formational/critical/literary approach, we can allow the latter vision to critique the former.


In regard to differences or tensions within the Bible, we won’t try to avoid them, nor will we try to explain them away or figure out which version was right. Instead, we’ll take them all seriously and see what meaning might be conveyed by each version. We can do so because a formational/critical/literary approach assumes that the greatest literature was never intended to produce universal certainty or even unquestionable clarity. Instead, great works of literature - including our holy texts - raise questions that need to be pondered, point in directions that need to be explored, surface tensions that need to be grappled with, and inspire the imagination to help us experience true aliveness from one generation to the next.


Readers of the Bible often don’t realize that when preachers and authors say, “The Bible says,” they actually mean, “Our community and its authority figures interpret the Bible to mean....” Often, those preachers and authors themselves aren’t aware that they are part of an interpretive community. To them, their way of reading the Bible is the obvious way or the only legit way - whether it is the way of Dispensationalism, Calvinism, Thomistic Catholicism, Franciscan Catholicism, Liberation Theology, German Higher Criticism, the Jesus Seminar, or whatever.

People hold their views about the Bible passionately. Sometimes people get angry at those who read it differently. In We Make the Road by Walking, we will try to create an atmosphere of respect where we can all hold our opinions with an open mind and heart. We’ll make room for one another to be honest about where we are, what we think, what we question, what we don’t question, and why. We will make this table a safe place to differ graciously, and we will place achieving mutual understanding above achieving agreement. We will work to create and sustain this kind of conversation space because respect, honesty, and learning go hand in hand. And even when we disagree about details, we will gladly agree about one thing: with sincerity, with passion, and with faith, we are seeking aliveness. Together.

This first section sets the audacious goal of giving an overview of the whole Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures in just 13 chapters. Obviously, deciding what to include and emphasize and what to leave out was a monumental challenge. Those who would want to criticize my choices, of course, are free to do so, but it’s important to remember that whoever designs a curriculum is making choices.

Because this is an explicitly Christian telling of the Biblical story, it is heavily Christ-centered. But Christ-centered tellings run the risk of abusing Jesus’ Jewish heritage. Some tellings are supersessionist, replacing Jews with Christians as God’s chosen or elite people. Tellings may also be typological, seeing value in the Hebrew Scriptures only to the extent that they elucidate Christian doctrines. In obvious and subtle ways, Christians are made out to be good guys, and Jews, not so good.

The results of these approaches have ranged from destructive to tragic. That’s why I’m advocating a different approach that might be called “integral.” I emphasize the value of the Hebrew Scriptures in introducing themes that point to aliveness and matter to us all. These themes Jesus will himself embody and proclaim. In this way, I would hope that readers/hearers would in these chapters see Christianity and Judaism as colleagues, not rivals, as a daughter and mother who love one another rather than resent one another’s existence, as has too often been the case in the past.

In short, I try to tell the story of the Hebrew Scriptures in a way that many Jews and Christians (and I hope Muslims too) can appreciate and affirm.

For the whole commentary: