Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Review: Brian McLaren's "Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words:..

For those who heard the news that two of the most controversial writers (on Christianity and church issues) of our time--Brian McLaren and Rob Bell (just Google their names with the word "heretic" attached!)-- both had new books coming out this month; and figured these latest would both set the internet abuzz and heresy hunters on fire........

..that will only happen with one of these new books.

This is not that book.

Bell's book has already--pre-release--caused such a stir and stink, and accusations of heresy, that Scot McKnight and Collin Hansen both said "I've never seen anything like this."

I hope McLaren's book --Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words-- sells well anyway.

He is really not pushing envelopes (or buttons) this time.

He is pushing forms and norms, but only in between the lines, and for those with emerging ears to hear.

Any serious controversy about the book would miss the fact that this time McLaren (very unlike last time) is targeting "seekers and would-be seekers," even "skeptics.” He actually makes it very clear that "I am a Christian, and all that I write flows my experience in that rich tradition." It's just that on this volume he is hoping to help those "who may be of another tradition entirely or of no known tradition at all. Instead of seeking theological agreement, this book invites you to experiment with the naked experience of God…”
“Doctrinal correctness, institutional participation, and religious conformity won’t suffice anymore. You need a life centered on simple, doable, durable practices that will help you begin and sustain a naked encounter with the holy mystery and pure loving presence that people commonly call God.” (p.. 3)

Something within me wants desperately to turn the clauses in that last sentence around:

“You need a life centered on a naked encounter with the holy mystery and pure loving presence that people commonly call God that will help you begin and sustain simple, doable, durable practices.”

But I need to receive the challenge that cart might lead to horse, wineskins may lead to wine, disciplines often lead to Jesus.

It worked for me. And it worked for me as I read another generation’s version of this book, C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity.” I worked the disciplines until I found myself a mere Christian. I would dare to say McLaren’s book could and should do the same for many, as another classic that it brings to mind has done, Richard Foster’s “Celebration of Discipline.”

It’s that good at its best, even though it is not always at its best..

Here is the basic idea, and outline:

A life of “naked spirituality” can be viewed and experienced as having four seasons, each with three corresponding words that keyword for corresponding disciplines:
• Simplicity: The Springlike Season of Spritual Awakening: “Here,” Thanks” and “O
• Complexity: The Summerlike Season of Spiritual Strengthening: “Sorry, “Help” and “Please”
• Perplexity: The Autumnlike Season of Spiritual Suriving: “When” “No” and “Why”
• Harrnony: The Winterlike Season of Spiritual Deepening: “Behold,” “Yes,” and ‘[…]”

This outline affords McLaren the grid through which to write an excellent and engaging and introduction to the experienced Christian life. It’s a “simple, doable, and durable” grid he has used for teaching, and his own growth for many years, but never committed to print.

It’s a creative approach, and it works well.

Amazingly, the book reads in many sections almost like a conservative evangelical apologetic volume, and introduction to Christian spirituality, quoting staples like Lewis (pp. 33, 89, 160) and Phillip Yancey (130, 143). Of course, his references can be a bit more ecumenical: Thomas Merton, Evelyn Underhill and Richard Rohr, but seekers won't know (or care!) that some of these are (gasp) Catholic. One could read large swaths of this book to the heresy hunters, and they might nod and amen (Hmm, that would be fun!)

McLaren talks a lot about Jesus, and quotes a lot of Bible here. In a very winsome and pastoral (as opposed to preachy) way, his Jesus and Bible stories are compelling and invitational.

What's different from standard evangelism/apologetics is there is no big push for readers to "pray the sinner’s prayer,” though his comparison of the altar call to entering marriage is helpful …and evangelistic (p. 210).
Instead he is approaching apologetics in an "act as if were true" format…a friendly challenge to sincere seekers to preview and experience a Jesus-centered spirituality and formation, without focusing on intellectual assent to doctrine.

He quotes a pastor friend he calls Carlos:
"A secret to the spiritual life is desiring to actually be more spiritual than you appear to be. The secret to hypocrisy is desiring to appear more spiritual than you actually are.” (p.88)

McLaren does (but only incidentally) manage a few gracious digs at the spirituality of evangelicalism/modernity…for example, dualism, (p. 83), the delightfully- termed “de-ligion” (p, 36) and “magical religion” (44) ..but these are never the subject or target, and discussed only as they arise naturally . Systemic theology, as opposed to systematic. And he could be saving a whole generation of new believers from ever falling for/in those traps to start with .

When he offers, in illustration a few areas of common ground with Islam, for example, he goes nowhere near endorsing or adopting Islamic doctrine or universalism, he only makes statements that are true such as "leaders as diverse as Moses, the Buddha, the desert fathers and Muhammed all recounted powerful spiritual experiences during times of withdrawal and solitude" (35) But he’s also very naturally, and in non-manipulative fashion, leading up to a distinctively Christian discipline.

A few beefs about style:

One annoying feature of his writing style is his inclusive language for God. He never calls attention to it, does not even hint of doing it to be politically correct, and some seekers will not even notice it. But after years of pasturing in a mainline denomination where this was often required, I cannot not be annoyed with cumbersome repetitions of the gender-neutral “God” just to avoid mail pronouns or images (example: “open yourself to God, and realize God’s embrace, God’s front door, God’s presence..” This can be done just as effectively by “God’s embrace, front door and presence.”). To his credit, on page 36, McLaren is not ashamed to call God “Father” (a good thing, as Jesus wasn’t either.

Also odd, is his spelling of God as “G_d” at random times (pp. 48, 67. 165) in the narrative. Of course, this could be for sensitivity to Jews, who often spell the Name like that out of reverence. But it could also be in the spirit of his previous book, where “God” become the name of a false god, “Theos.”

Both these grammatical shifts may be well-meaning, but are misplaced. His target audience is not going to trip over an occasional male pronoun for God, or the word “God.”

Also..and ironically, the flow of the book is very modern, power-point and linear. Four strategies, Twelve steps…is this really the McLaren who blasted linearity and the “ Greco- Roman narrative” last time out? To his credit, he does add a “full circle” chapter that stresses that the 12 words are just that.

Finally, the table of contents is confusing and overwhelming at first glance. Too much information, and with two chapters each for each of the twelve words, too many numbers and taxonomies. It would look brilliant it consisted of chapter titles that were just the one word they were addressing, broken into the four seasonal suggestions..

Having said all that, I love that the whole apologetic is laced with honesty. Most evangelical books would not leave enough room for actual questions and feelings that come up when the disciplines are entered into. McLaren’s treatment of the Psalms of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation (based on Brueggeman) is an awesome and honest way of dealing the “Why” word and reality. As Bono sang, “They put Jesus in show business, now it’s hard to get in the door.” If the “de-ligioned” or seeking reader has any experience or image of evangelical Christians, it likely has something to do with perceived hypocrisy or the pressure to “Smile! Jesus loves you,” even when the Psalmist (and Jesus) had dealings with disorientation and doubt.

At the end of the tour through  words and seasons, McLaren concludes with an afterword, “The Sea Toward Which All Rivers Run.” And we think, ‘Ahh, now he’s going to say, ‘Of course, if you do all this and never officially accept Jesus, it may have blessed you, but it’s pretty useless.”
Instead, he offers (can’t wait to see the reviewers quote this out of context , "Jesus was right. Paul was right. John was right. The Buddha was right. Even the Beatles were right. It all comes down to love.” (p.240)
But in its context (Jesus and Scripture), and in the contour of the book, it’s true….as cheap an cheesy and “sloppy agape” as it may sound. I am a clanging gong and nothing without it.

Don’t hear what he’s not saying: that Buddhism and Christianity are interchangeable.

He is speaking to folks who are “centering their sets” toward Jesus, and who know intuitively that God is love, even if they haven’t yet come to experience Jesus as God.

Give this book to your seeking friends, and follow up with them relationally with the “becoming a Christian part.”

But you may find that such has already happened as a byproduct of them working the disciplines (implementing the practical suggestions in the appendices) tasting the twelve words, and sojourning through the seasons.
They got naked and found Jesus.
And the joke is on the heresy hunters:
God used Brian McLaren to get them naked and found.

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