Finding Our Way Again: Review
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.
I received a copy of Finding Our Way Again courtesy of Booksneeze’s review program.
Purgativa, illuminativa, and unitiva are not proper Latin adjectives. (Might be Spanish…)
I read his ‘The Secret Message of Jesus’ a few years ago and discovered it was the Sermon on the Mount. So not exactly a secret.
You’ve nudged me to try McLaren again at some point. Thanks.
Considering my Latin is, well, nonexistent, I’ll take your word for it :).
I have The Secret Message of Jesus on my shelf, as well. I had to set aside considerable annoyance at the title to even begin the book, and once I began it didn’t take long to discover that there was nothing very “secret” or new about this message. Anabaptists (among others) have been saying some of the things McLaren considers “new” for centuries.
I think Bell and McLaren enjoy being called heretics. Their lightning-rod characteristics have as much to do with their condemnatory rhetoric aimed against other evangelicals as much as with their heretical beliefs.
Today, many of us are heretics. Surely I am.
McLaren himself considers many others in Christianity to be heretics. He throws as many as he can into the “pushy religious fundamentalism” category. I imagine McLaren would place me in either the “militaristic scientific secularism” or “mushy amorphous spirituality” heretical category, unless he could think of a greater pejorative for me – he just needs to find a negative adjective or two to precede pantheist or panentheist, like “tree-hugging pantheist.”
I imagine McLaren’s focus on practice rather than belief comes from MacIntyre and Hauerwas. MacIntyre is an example of one who puts forward something like this view without condemnatory rhetoric. Hauerwas does not avoid condemnatory rhetoric, although his condemnatory rhetoric strikes me as somewhat milder than McLaren and is aimed more at what he considers cancerous individualism rather than belief. Still, I did hear Hauerwas ridicule his own mother for believing that he became a theologian because his mother, who wanted to have a son, promised to dedicate her son to God like Hannah did.
They may enjoy being called heretics… I don’t know… It’s never fun to be in near-constant defend mode. Of course, the wealth and celebrity that come along with heresy suspicions in the American evangelical world certainly might be enjoyable in some ways…
I’ve never heard McLaren refer to anyone he disagrees with as a heretic, although as I’ve said I’ve not read everything he has written. Perhaps you could direct me to where he says the things you attribute to him.
I don’t remember him using the word heretic. I just mean he slams others in ways that disparage their faith or confession. I think expressions like you quoted are examples of this: pushy religious fundamentalism, mushy amorphous spirituality, militaristic scientific secularism.
Language like that polarizes.
Such language is unnecessary to advocate the kind of openness associated with postmodernism or liberalism. Richard Rorty is a great example of a postmodern or liberal writer who advocates openness and does not use such language. But then, he is not a religious writer. It is hard to think of a religious writer who does not condemn others.
And yet… Some views really are pushy, mushy, militaristic, amorphous. Are we never permitted to make judgments? Is describing various views and one’s (negative) experience of them condemnatory by definition?
Wow. That’s an interesting statement. I would like to think I have a few on my shelf, but I suspect that you would hear condemnation where I do not.
Yes, all writers make judgments. They need not be pejorative or condemning.
I think we have noticed in our correspondence here at your blog that I am quite sensitive to condemnatory language, to negative language.
My editor (publisher) removes such language from anything I write. Perhaps that is how I came to hear the negative language myself. In addition, I taught writing at the University for a while. Avoiding such language was part of what we taught students. I also did some writing for a very large professional firm and for a large corporation. We always had to be very careful to not use such language. McLaren’s language would have resulted in loud alarms.
Yes, I have noticed this. I have also noticed that your assessments of many of the authors that I quote/discuss or books that I review on this blog are often negative in tone and content. I’m not always sure what to make of this.
I would make this of it:
As I wrote above, honestly, “It is hard to think of a religious writer who does not condemn others.”
Consider Luther and Calvin and Zwingli. So important to Christian history, and all are condemning. Consider the writings of the prophets themselves.
Denominations, and even Christianity itself, all were born in conflict, all born condemning others. Condemnation is at least better than war, as long as it does not lead to war or accompany war. As we know, it often does and has in Christian history.
Yes, there is certainly no shortage of condemnation throughout Christian history. “All born condemning others”—how true. Something about learning from the sins of history so we don’t need to repeat them comes to mind. But we’re not good learners, as Harold Camping and his followers are showing us today.
Thanks for this one, Ryan.
I’m more familiar with Mr. McLaren’s notoriety than I am his work. I did spend an afternoon at Chapters free reading excerpts of Generous Orthodoxy once, just to get a sense of what all the fuss was about. I remember interpreting most of what I read as being pretty consistent with liberal catholic sentiment. I also remember that like Mr. Bell, Mr. McLaren’s thesis was interwoven with his complaint against other factions within the evangelical community. I don’t t remember his rhetoric being overly polarizing or excessive.
With regard to the specifics, and acknowledging up front that I haven’t read the book I am personally grateful for this kind of dialogue. Though I think it fair to point out that catholic tradition in it’s entirety (not just it’s first four centuries) has sought to maintain this type of posture before the world. “Opus Dei” would be the modern day example of a lay apostolate engaging in discipleship.
Articulating a living discipleship just might be the way for a truer and lasting ecumenism to take hold. Common experiences and practices may be an essential prerequisite before tackling the inevitable firestorm of confessional differences.
In any case, if it is true that we are what we do, I for one remain convinced we all need to “do” a lot more Christianity.
With regard Latin language allergies 🙂 I can only say this. When I was a young boy our Mass was only presented in Latin. Post Vatican II the prevailing sentiment became that the Mass needed to be expressed in the language of the particular vernacular; to each in her own tongue. Two years or so ago I had my first opportunity to re experience the Latin Rite. I did not understand a word. It was the holiest church experience of my life. I and several others wept openly for much of the Mass. There is a movement within our community to re establish the Latin Mass, I support this effort.
Well said, Paul. There’s something even a non-sacramental Mennonite and a Latin-embracing Catholic can wholeheartedly agree upon :).
I wasn’t criticizing your Latin, Ryan. I was criticizing what appears to be McLaren’s faux Latin. And I am being a bit of a Latin snob about it. My wife would no doubt sound the Snob Alert right now.
A little point… on whether writers value being criticized for provocative views. Several of us went up to hear Philip Gulley speak at a church. He wrote ‘If Grace Is True,’ a book advocating the belief that all are saved by God’s love. (So no hell.) Anyway, he told us he regretted writing the book, not because of criticism he received, but for the way his children were singled out and criticized by their schoolmates. Must have been a fundamentalist community. He says he wished he had waited till his children were older before writing a book that would be criticized.
The most irenic theological writer I have encountered is the Quaker John Woolman. There is a love and a gentleness that suffuses his writings, and when he disagrees with others, he does so very gently.
Oh, I certainly didn’t hear criticism, much less snobbery :). I was just indicating how poorly equipped I am to evaluate McLaren’s (apparently faux) Latin!
Interesting story about Gulley… It’s one thing to deal with abuse for your own words, quite another when your kids are facing it on your behalf. It never ceases to amaze me how ungracious some people who claim the name of Jesus can be.
I’ve never read John Woolman, but you’ve certainly piqued my curiosity.