December 11, 2012

Max McLean and Screwtape

by Jesse Johnson

Max McLean has the spiritual gift of reading. He has the voice of an angel, and he uses it for the glory of God and the good of the church. His readings of Scripture have been used to make audio Bibles in the ESV, KJV, and three versions of the NIV. Beyond that, he often records sermons from famous Christian dead people (my personal favorite is George Whitefield’s “The Method of Grace”), as well as scores of books.

Max McLean

I recently was able to interview him. I took questions on my Facebook page, and here is our conversation:  

What is the deal with your accent? Is it real?

I was born in Panama, but spent much of my childhood internationally, in London and in Europe. That diversity means I never really developed an accent unique to one location. But I am a professional actor, so I do train my voice.

How do you make your reading of the Bible so memorable? I mean, it is so different from everyone else who does an audio Bible. How do you do it?

Well, I have a studio in my home, and when I record, I usually do an hour at a time. I approach the text like an actor; I look for how each sentence breaks into clauses, and then how those clauses fit together. Each of those clauses is really an idea, and once you connect those ideas, the whole sentence becomes “WOW.” I do think the key to almost all my work is asking the question “what can I do to engage the imagination?” But I don’t want too go to far. The very first audio Bible I did (my first recording of the NIV), I went too far, and some of it was distracting to the text, and only disengaged the imagination.

Why is it that your readings of the Gospels are so powerful?

(laughing) They are really well written books. In all the books of the Bible you have to ask, “What is the intent of the author? Why does the author have this person saying what he is saying?” Then I find slight juxtapositions between the narrator and the characters. Once you do that, you realize all the characters are really whirling around Jesus, and he moves the story. Everyone else is wanting something from him. This is a narrative approach that really draws the reader in.

You have large portions of the Bible memorized. What have you memorized, and how do you do it?

I have memorized Mark, Genesis, Philippians, and the Sermon on the Mount. I am an actor, so this is really my skill set. The way I memorize is a meditation process. I go through a line six or eight times, and I meditate on it, engaging my imagination. That helps the memory because we easily memorize things that engage us. I focus on the clauses, which become thoughts, and link those together.

What is your favorite version? What do you use in your own devotional life?

My favorite artistically is the King James. I love saying those words. It uses a heightened language that reaches very deeply into people. But in my own life, I use the NIV. My church (Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City) uses the NIV, so that is what I use.

Is there a spiritual component of your reading? In other words, do you read differently than James Earl Jones?

The Holy Spirit gives insight to the Scripture, and the Holy Spirit brings conviction and gives insight while you read the word. The Holy Spirit works in and through the Word, so the relationship with the text is interacting with the Holy Spirit as I read the word.

I must say, I feel ashamed listening to Whitefield and Spurgeon sermons that you do. They make my own preaching feel woefully inadequate. In light of how many excellent sermons you have read, what advice to you have for preachers to make their preaching better?

First, Whitefield was a one-in-a-century preacher. You can’t replicate him. He was a gift from the Lord to the church, and thankfully we still have some of his sermons. But you just can’t do what he did.

But you can ask yourself “what can I do to engage the imagination in my sermon?” Sometimes I get the impression that seminary must be teaching a methodology that is different than what people in the pews need. The gospel is the facts of Jesus’ life, death, birth, resurrection. Theology is translation of those facts into concepts. But in a lot of preaching it seems like what has happened is in the concepts/theology have overtaken the story. The downside of that is for a lot of people, preaching does not engage their imagination with the person of Jesus.

I must say that I am very interested in preaching. I have a regular devotional life—but sermons are the best way I learn truth. The objective is always meaning and meaning reaches the heart. Bible readings encourage people to ask “what was that about?” And sermons take the truth in the text and explain it, and bring it to bear on life. I love my church, and feel like I get a graduate education in the Bible every Sunday.

What are you working on now?

Right now I’m taking my production of The Screwtape Letters on the road. This is theater form a Christian worldview. It is a faithful adaptation of the book (97% of the words are straight form Lewis). The set shows the morally inverse universe that Lewis described. I love this show because it is evangelistic. The point is to have people invite friends, and it is designed to create a dialogue about spiritual topics.

I started this show in 2006—when we got the rights from the Lewis estate—and this is our third production. Each one is better and more expensive than the one before.

What makes the Screwtape letters so powerful?

Language today has become flattened, and it does not engage the imagination. Screwtape is so compelling because Lewis engages the imagination, and people can follow it easily while still being challenged by it.

Beyond that, Screwtape is diabolical. He is smart, really good at job, and loves ruining people’s lives. We all know people like him. He is “Your affectionate uncle, Screwtape.” He is an affectionate old man, but he is cursed and will lead to hell. The more diabolical he is on stage, the more real he is, and the more Lewis’ objective comes through. He masquerades as an angel of light.

There are two errors when thinking about Satan: viewing him through the eyes of the magician, or ignoring him through the eyes of materialism.

Both errors are fine with the devil, and that is why the whole idea of spiritual warfare is absent in Western Christianity. Lewis exposes that. I love this show because I want to awake people to the reality of spiritual warfare. It has helped me in my own spiritual growth in seeing the seriousness of it. Not in an exorcism kind of way…Satan works on the small everyday choices that you make. Almost every moment of every day, you have the option to follow Satan or the Spirit, and your affectionate uncle is easy to follow.

The Screwtape Letters will be in dozens of cities this year, listed here. Max’s sermons and books are sold here, but most of them can also be streamed for free (if not in their entirety, very large samples). I strongly recommend that you listen to his introduction on Whitfield’s life, which is the intro to the third sermon on this page.



Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Thanks Jesse, engaging article. Max McLean and The Screwtape Letters are personal favorites of mine as well.

  • GinaRD

    He’s a remarkable man and a remarkable performer. Love his thoughts on imagination and language.

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