“The purpose of the ancient way and the ancient practices is not to make us more religious. It is to make us more alive. Alive to God. Alive to our spouses, parents, children, neighbors, strangers, and yes, even our enemies” (182). This seems to be the central thesis of Brian McLaren’s latest book Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices. This is the first book in a new series published by Thomas Nelson called “The Ancient Practices Series.” The series consists of eight books dealing with ancient Christian practices. Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices, is the introductory volume in this series.
Recently, there has been quite a bit written about a third way that goes beyond the polarizing options between conservative and liberal or left and right. McLaren, however, writes that “more and more of us feel, more and more intensely, the need for a fresh, creative alternative – a fourth alternative, something beyond militarist scientific secularism, pushy religious fundamentalism, and mushy amorphous spirituality…. The challenge of the future will require, we realize, rediscovery and adaptive reuse of resources from the ancient past” (5-6)
As a result, McLaren’s book, and the series of book that he is introducing, seek to flesh out this “fourth way” by reaching “beyond a reductionistic secularism, beyond a reactive and intransigent fundamentalism, and beyond a vague, consumerist spirituality” (6).
I always enjoy reading McLaren’s work because he is a gifted writer. His conversational style and his ability to bring you into the story that he is telling make it easy to go along with him for the ride that he wants to take you on. He has the ability to make you feel as if he is actually speaking directly to you saying, “Hey, here are some things that I have been thinking about. Let me show you what I am seeing and see what you think about it.”
Finding Our Way Again is certainly no exception to McLaren’s ability to engage the reader and invite them into a conversation. McLaren is at his best in the chapters where he explains the ancient practices of katharsis, fotosis, and theosis. In these chapters he explains these concepts by asking the reader to imagine themselves to be “a young spiritual seeker who has just come into possession of a time machine… You come to a monastery and are given a hospitable welcome. You meet with the abbess, a short, wrinkled, slightly hunched-over woman who walks with a stick at a pace that exceeds the speed limit you would imagine for a wrinkled, slightly hunched-over woman” (148). I suspect that most authors would not be able to pull this off in a believable way. However, at least for me, I read this passage and never blinked. Before I knew it, I was fully absorbed in this new world with an abbess from the Middle Ages explaining these ancient practices through very ordinary stories and exercises.
In this volume, at least, McLaren also seems to occasionally overstate his case. I found his argument for “Why Spiritual Practices Matter” in the second chapter to be the least convincing of the book. The chapter begins with a focus on the role that I play in forming my character that seems to tend toward works righteousness. The notion of sin that is presented seems to be one where sin is the result of bad habits that come from my not tending the soil of my character closely enough, rather than something that is deeply ingrained within each one of us and cannot be uprooted by our own efforts, but only by the grace of God.
I also thought that McLaren was a little too anxious to make these Christian practices applicable to everyone, whether they are a Christian or not. He writes, “In these two ways, then, paying attention to ‘life practices’ is worthwhile for everybody, those who consider themselves spiritual and those who don’t: first, because nobody wants to become a tedious fart, and second, because nobody wants to miss Life because they’re short on legroom and sleep in economy class [a reference to a story he just told about being on a long flight in economy class]” (17). To be fair, McLaren does immediately qualify this by saying “I haven’t told the whole story though… Spiritual practices are ways of becoming awake and staying awake to God — that’s the third reason” (17-18). But still, the argument seems to be a bit of a reach. His argument seems to be analogous to saying that everyone should play basketball because nobody wants to become overweight and die of a heart attack. There is a difference between making the case for the importance of a good diet and exercise and universalizing the importance of one particular type of exercise. I may be misunderstanding McLaren’s argument, but it seems that in wanting to try to find something universally beneficial about the ancient practices, he would either fall into the trap of universalizing practices that are specifically Christian (Would non-Christians agree that there is a benefit to following the liturgical year?) on the one hand, or watering down the specifically Christian content of the Christian practices and making them nearly unrecognizable on the other hand.
Aside from the arguments I found to be distracting in that particular chapter, there were several statements that stuck with me and stirred up visions, thoughts, and dreams within me that remained long after I closed the cover of the book. Here are two of my favorites:
I think that’s part of what’s going on in this time of change and transition. Old sectarian turf wars are giving way to a sharing of resources — heroes, practices, flavors, and styles of practice. And this, in a way, is itself a new practice, namely, the sharing of previously proprietary practices. We might say that Christianity is beginning to go ‘open source'” (58).
I also really appreciated McLaren’s discussion of the way that God’s Spirit moves within institutions and how the work of God’s Spirit cannot be contained or hampered by bureaucracy. He discusses the work of William Wilberforce and others in England who worked to end slavery, despite the vigorous defense of slavery by the Anglican Church. “Their fledgling movement grew in the spaces between the institutional structures of their day, not within the structures themselves” (134). This conversation leads to the profound insight that “When any sector of the church stops learning, God simply overflows the structures that are in the way and works outside them with those willing to learn… God can’t be contained by the structures that claim to serve him but often try to manage and control him” (136-137). McLaren follows this up with the powerful question: “Are we a club for the elite who pretend to have arrived or a school for disciples who are still on the way” (137)?
All in all, I found this book to be worth the read because it is another important invitation to enter into a conversation about what it means to be a Christians and what it means to be a part of the Body of Christ. May this book and McLaren’s ministry help disciples who are still “on the way” find their way to God through the ancient practices that McLaren and the other author’s in this series seek to resuscitate.