Before Rob Bell went and wrote a book about heaven and hell, thereby ensuring his status as “lightning rod for criticism and heresy charges for the foreseeable future,” Brian McLaren was often the most frequent target of abuse for angry Christians. Ever since A New Kind of Christian was published in 2001, McLaren has been a polarizing figure in parts of the Christian world. Sometimes, the criticism he receives is warranted, more often it is not. I have not read everything McLaren has written, but have almost always found myself challenged and stimulated by his writing, even if I don’t always agree with everything he says.
This is certainly true of Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices. In this book, McLaren persuasively argues for a recovery of Christian faith as a way or a set of practices rather than a system of true belief. It is this approach that he feels will prove most faithful and most useful in the confused and confusing spiritual/intellectual mélange of postmodern west. McLaren looks to the practices of the ancient Christian tradition as a “fourth alternative, something beyond militaristic scientific secularism, pushy religious fundamentalism, and mushy amorphous spirituality.” For the most part, I think McLaren is successful in this endeavour.
A central theme running throughout the book is that Christian way is about producing a certain kind of person, namely, a disciple. We do not become the kind of people we were made to be by accident or by giving mental assent to the correct list of propositions about the nature of reality. Rather, we must be trained and tended and nurtured into mature discipleship. Whether this involves contemplation, paying attention to the sacred in everyday life, the active pursuit of justice, fixed-hour prayer, fasting, considering the practices of Christians from other streams, or thoughtful, intentional, and creative observance of the Sabbath, the church has long understood the necessity of this kind of training. In recent times, some parts of the church have, perhaps, eschewed some of these practices due to their “legalistic” nature, but many are coming to recognize that there is much to be learned from people who followed Christ in times and places very different from our own.
I appreciated this book, for a number of reasons. It is always good to be reminded of the comprehensive nature of discipleship. In emphasizing the importance of habitual practices in shaping us as followers of Jesus, McLaren offers a necessary corrective to the popular conception of Christianity as a system of correct belief. I also appreciated his reaching back into the resources and example of the historical church for models about how to live and follow Jesus faithfully. Too often, we fall into the trap of thinking that recent = better, and McLaren rightly reminds us that people have been doing this Jesus-following thing for quite some time now, and some of their insights just might be useful for us to consider.
McLaren pays particular attention to one set of ancient practices—the “threefold way” of via purgativa, via illuminativa, and via unitiva. Leaving aside my rather petty annoyance at the terminology (doesn’t using Latin make us seem sophisticated?), I appreciated these emphases upon self-examination, purification, opening ourselves up to receive God’s light and life through the events of our lives, and coming to increasingly have our wills aligned with God’s intentions. To Anabaptist ears, these sound like very appropriate and necessary components of comprehensive and consistent discipleship. I fear that some of these practices are seen as optional or somehow extraordinary for regular Christians, but McLaren helpfully reminds us that they are crucial parts of being formed and re-formed into the image and pattern of Christ.
In these practices and others, we see one of the themes that runs throughout the book: the distinction between “practicing our faith” and “faithing our practices.” McLaren says that rather than coming up with a list of things that we ought to do to demonstrate that our faith is real, we ought to infuse everything that we are already doing—going for a walk, caring for our neighbour’s children, preparing a meal, playing a game with our kids, sharing our faith stories, exercising, listening to a piece of music, etc—with faith, and celebrating how these things can shape us and teach us about the character of God and the nature of our world. The life of faith becomes less about “what am I going to do for God?” than “how can I be alive to and participate with God at every moment in my life?” This doesn’t preclude asking questions about what we ought to do, but it does liberate us from a compartmentalized approach to life which separates faith from the ordinary events and experiences of everyday life.
In sum, I appreciated the insights and challenges that this book had to offer, and recommend it to anyone who is wanting to learn more about following Jesus as an all-encompassing way of life, and about what a whole life surrendered to the grace and will of God might look like.