© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Lee lecture: Challenging Christians to affirm other religions

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 11, 2012 - On the evening of Sept. 17, Evangelical Christian author Brian McLaren will challenge his St. Louis audience to “stop creating barriers in the name of God and learn how affirming other religions can strengthen our commitment to our own.” McLaren proposes what he calls “a new faith alternative,” one built on "benevolence and solidarity rather than rivalry and hostility."

In 2005 Time magazine named the then-Maryland pastor McLaren one of the nation’s 25 most influential evangelicals.

For 18 years, St. Louisans interested in ecumenical development have looked forward to the Lee Institute lectures by nationally known speakers at Ladue Chapel Presbyterian Church. The late St. Louis closet improvement czar and philanthropist E. Desmond Lee established the foundation, which organizes and presents the lectures at the church where Lee was a long time member.

McLaren’s talk is entitled “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? - Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World.” That’s also the title of McLaren’s most recent book.

The idea behind the title, McLaren says, is that if four religious leaders walk across the road it could be the beginning of one of the most important conversations in today's world. His new book confronts a challenging question for many of the most devout evangelical Christians when he asks his audience if they can be “a committed Christian without having to condemn or convert people of other faiths.”

His books challenge Christians to think outside the box, and that separates them from scores of evangelical books. Recently he challenged Protestants and Eastern Orthodox Christians to heed Pope Benedict XVI’s call for church self-examination and their way of “configuring the Christian being.”

In McLaren’s “A New Kind of Christianity,” he pleaded that Christians needed to change their incivility, resistance to environmental stewardship, tolerance of torture, prejudice toward Muslims, Jews, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people, and those of other political parties. He upbraided them for hawkishness for war, marital infidelity, consumerism, financial indebtedness, nationalism, alienation of younger generations, “carelessness” toward the poor, injustice toward indigenous peoples.

McLaren was a college English literature instructor in Maryland when he and his wife, Grace, started a church  with another Maryland couple, They gathered a dozen Christians of several denominations to form a non-denominational “community” church, eventually called Cedar Ridge Community Church, now in Spencerville, Md. He left college teaching to lead the church full time. On the side, he wrote articles for Christian magazines such as the social justice-oriented Evangelical “Sojourners” and eventually books. After 20 years as Cedar Ridge’s senior pastor he resigned to write full time. This St. Louis visit is part of a national book tour.

About the Lee Institute

The late Des Lee’s name is better known today for UMSL’s black box theater and for endowed professorships at University of Missouri-St. Louis, Washington and Webster universities, as well as his gifts to the St. Louis Symphony, Art Museum and Missouri Botanical Garden. Fewer know that his generosity was driven by his faith. He gave back the vast majority of the fortune he made, over $70 million, to help St. Louisans and his hometown.

In 1994 over lunch with this reporter, Lee shared his hope that by endowing the Lee Institute its lectures could bring together St. Louisans of all faiths to work on mutual concerns in helping this community and the wider world. He was concerned that many faith leaders didn’t even understand that their peers in other faiths shared mutual concerns. The Lee Institute mission statement echoes Lee’s founding hopes that it would “provide stimulus and education” and “foster spiritual and religious growth; create public awareness of critical issues; and inspire further action, study, and service that can make a difference in the world.”

Over the years, the Lee Institute’s lecture series speakers have featured a diverse group of speakers. They included Morris Dees, Southern Poverty Law Center civil rights lawyer; E.J. Dionne Jr., Washington Post columnist, senior fellow at The Brookings Institute and former New York Times Vatican correspondent; Greg Epstein, humanist chaplain at Harvard University; David Gergen, former White House adviser to four presidents and Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government professor; the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, Harvard University preacher, lecturer and author; former First Lady Rosalynn Carter; and last year television anchor and journalist Bob Abernethy of PBS’s Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.

January will mark the 3rd anniversary of Lee’s death at the age of 92.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.