A Breath of Fresh Air
I recently read Brian McLaren’s “Finding Our Way Again,” the introductory book of the book series “The Return of the Ancient Practices” edited by Phyllis Tickle. I was asked to write a review of the book, and all I can think is that it has been a breath of fresh air.
Before starting, I read a few reviews of the book, and now that I’ve read the book, I want to address one criticism of the book and other books of Brian McLaren. That criticism is the issue of his “bad theology.” Comments like this always entertain me, partly because, in my educated experience, no one’s theology is all correct. If I look at everything that I understand and believe about all aspects of life, my religion, God, and people in general, it’s not only continually growing in size (new knowledge) but it is also continually changing (corrections to old knowledge). So I think McLaren would readily admit he doesn’t have it all together; neither do I. Additionally, there’s a second problem with the criticism. Besides the fact that I doubt any of us have a correct theology, it’s clear to me that criticisms on his theology are simply a matter of interpretational perspective.
In other words, conventional interpretations (of why Jesus came, the place of other religions, hell, etc.) make sense from the scripture if you understand the lens through which a conventional interpreter looks. The same is true for McLaren. If you understand the interpretational lens through which he views the scripture, then everything he says (or most things as he is quite comfortable wrestling through interpretation publicly) actually does make sense. So the understanding or view that he twists scripture or claims it says what it doesn’t is false; this is because what it says is interpretation. Understanding how he views words like “salvation” or “eternal life” explains that, through the interpretational lens he uses, the scriptures actually do say what is saying. The same is true for more traditional interpretations of scriptures. If you understand what a person understands when reading words like “hell” or “believe” or “salvation,” then you see, that the scripture does say what a traditional interpreter says. It’s the lens that’s important. If a reader uses a different lens than the writer of a book of biblical commentary, then of course the reader will say that the writer is lying and making things up or contradicting what the scripture says.
Besides that, the book is quite engaging, and sweet, like a song. He writes in a very personal, sometimes conversational style. But he mostly employs short story. And story is quite powerful when trying to make a point without forcing it. It’s through this medium that the book shines. And McLaren really quickly engages the reader through it.
I’ll be honest, though. While reading through the first section of the book (the first third), I kept thinking why did this book have to be written. In the series there is a separate book on each ancient practice—constant prayer, Sabbath, fasting, tithing, the sacred meal, the liturgical year, and the sacred journey (pilgrimage). Why did we need an entire book for an introduction? And I find often that what you get out of a book depends on where you are. So part one, which set the stage for the series, was familiar to me and contained material found in many of McLaren’s books, though not as deeply treated. He talks of the Jesus he understands and what Jesus’s kingdom means, and the way of love advocated by Paul. McLaren also talks about the many different denominational practices within Christianity (and Judaism and Islam) and how over the years he has been able to take the best of each one. I resonated with this thought which he roughly refers to as open-source spirituality. We have much to learn from each other and to give to each other.
So I didn’t expect anything new in Part II, but it was at this point that I began to be pulled in. After explaining in part one that spiritual practice help us develop character, become awake (truly alive), and finally experience God; he groups the spiritual practices in three categories: contemplative, communal, and missional practices. What I love about Brian is that he’s holistic and integrative in his philosophy and practice. So even though he has certain “unorthodox” thoughts (I believe we might all have such thoughts) and ways he still accepts and includes others who think differently and tries to learn from them. In this way, he doesn’t advocate one of the categories of practices over the other; rather, he shows how all types of practices—contemplative (solitary), communal (group), and missional (outreach)—all are intertwined.
By Part III, I was truly drawn in as he takes us into a short story where we meet an abbess and she invites us to stay at a convent while teaching us the the Way. It is broken into three parts: Katharsis (Via Purgativa) in which we try to rid ourselves of all pride and ego and greed and lust and all impurities; Fotosis (Via Illuminativa) in which our now emptied selves can be filled with the light of God as we thirst and hunger for new things through prayer, contemplation, reading, reflection, nature, and seeing the light of God in all our work; and Theosis (Via Unitiva) in which we become infected by God, become more like God, become one in nature with God, and begin to exude the characteristics of God such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This was my favorite part of the book.
Much more could be said, but I’ll stop here. McLaren does a great job of setting the stage for the rest of the series. He even opens wide the floor of ancient practices including practices which have no dedicated book in this series. There are contemplative practices like submission, gratitude, meditation, and journaling; communal practices like service gatherings, confession, stillness, listening, and interpretation; missional practices like such as giving, service, hospitality, and working for justice. And many practices fall into multiple categories. The book series focuses only on the 7 ancient practices shared by the 3 Abrahamic faiths, but McLaren’s book doesn’t end there.
No, McLaren invites you to remember not just to practice your faith but to faith your practices. This phrase especially touched me and reminded me that in everything I do, I do it unto the Lord with thankfulness, fusing the secular and the sacred, the physical and the spiritual. How can my walk or drive to work be practice infused with faith? How can answering email be a practice filled by God? I read this book during a season (ancient practice of the liturgical year) of lent in which I started each day (instead of ending each day) in prayer, meditation, stillness, contemplation, journaling, reading, and study. And McLaren’s book not only reminded me to slow down, but gave me a breath of fresh air while doing it. I’m becoming more alive each day and I was thankful for the reminder.