Saturday, 23 August 2008

Finding Our Way Again - Review


Brian McLaren is the founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church. He is a prolific author and one of the most listened to voices in the Emerging Church movement. The Emerging Church aims to forge a Christianity that is consistent with the post-modern society of the West, and is sometimes at loggerheads with the essentially modern Evangelicalism out of which it grew. He is thus, sometimes controversial, but usually compelling in what he says and writes.

This book is the first of a series of eight books under the overall editorship of Phyllis Tickle. Finding Our Way Again acts as an introduction to the series, and the other seven, to be produced by various authors during 2009-2010, will each deal with one of the ancient practices of the church which the series is seeking to encourage: Regular daily prayer, sabbath keeping, fasting, the sacred meal, pilgrimage, observing the liturgical year and tithing. This introductory volume is 214 pages divided into 20 brief chapters, each ending in a number of spiritual practices: ie questions for reflection, prayer of discussion. This book would keep a home group happy for a good six months at least. The writing is lucid and accessible, with a good scholarly depth without being intimidating. It is a useful book.

Brian McLaren divides his book into three sections. After an introduction, eight chapters present an argument for the rediscovery of the seven spiritual practices common to all the Abrahamic faiths, that is, those covered in the subsequent books of the series. He argues that the West has become dominated by three religious paradigms: pushy fundamentalism, mushy amorphous spirituality and militaristic scientific secularism, none of which has delivered on its promises. He argues for recovery of faith as a way of life:
"Without a coherent and compelling way of life, formed in community and expressed in mission, some of us begin losing interest in the system of belief, or we begin holding it grimly, even meanly, driving more and more people away from our faith rather than attracting them toward it."
This first section ends with a plea to combine passive spirituality with Christian activism.

The second section is an outline in 5 chapters of spiritual disciplines which he classifies as arrival, engagement, listening and response practices. He suggests ways in which these can be incorporated into a lived Christianity. There is nothing here which will be new to anyone who has read widely in the field of contemplative spirituality, but McLaren's listing provides a concise and practical summary.

The third part of the book, the final 6 chapters tie everything back to the beginnings of Christianity, and the development of the faith through the early centuries of the church's history. his plea is to take the learnings of the past, and to live them.
" When our churches are schools of practice thay make -and change - history. Otherwise they simply write history and argue about it, and of course, in so doing, tend to repeat it."

This is an engaging, practical and helpful book. Well worth the purchase price, but for me it is something more. Our old Church is declining into something with which even many of us within it can no longer identify; but this is not the end of faith. A new church is emerging, like a phoenix not soaring but slowly blinking as it extricates itself from the ashes and looks about. This book is one of many that stakes out the territory that the emerging church will one day occupy. It is not only a helpful catalyst for contemporary practice but a sign of hope for what may yet be.

10 comments:

Tim Mathis said...

Glad to have found your blog, Kelvin. McClaren's good in a post-evangelical kind of way, although I find that some of the most interesting emerging church discussion is organically Anglican or Catholic. Mike Riddell, who taught/studied at Otago, was one of the original emerging church leaders and a sort of Catholic mystic. I don't know if you ever came across him--he left the year before I arrived, and hasn't written anything on spirituality in about 8 years--but he's got a wide following.

Tillerman said...

When I read about the Emerging Church movement and some of its ideas, the words “living waters” came to mind. There is much that is very good about this movement and it reaches a hand across the waters with great honestly and love. But there are problems.

Because it is an ‘emerging’ Church movement one can hope that attitudes and practises will change and evolve. One aspect that I think that must change is a sort of neocolonial, slightly patronising attitude to the other great world religions. The quote below in my opinion shows the tendency of Christians to cling to the belief that their faith / revelation / truth / world view is the overarching umbrella under which all else resides. Brian McLaren states:

“I don’t believe making disciples must equal making adherents to the Christian religion. It may be advisable in many (not all!) circumstances to help people become followers of Jesus and remain within their Buddhist, Hindu or Jewish contexts … rather than resolving the paradox via pronouncements on the eternal destiny of people more convinced by or loyal to other religions than ours, we simply move on … To help Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and everyone else experience life to the full in the way of Jesus (while learning it better myself), I would gladly become one of them (whoever they are), to whatever degree I can, to embrace them, to join them, to enter into their world without judgment but with saving love as mine has been entered by the Lord Brian McLaren (More Ready Than You Realise pp 80 - 81).

I wonder what Buddhists, Muslims and Christians (presumably Christians that hold views at odds with the emerging church movement) would think of these remarks. Why does he want to help people become followers of Jesus? and remain within their own religion? By entering into their world he is implying some sort of equivalence ?
It would be interesting to observe Brians reaction to a Muslim helping him to become a follower of the prophet Mohammad and approvingly encouraging Brian to remain within Christianity whilst following Mohammad at the same time. In my humble opinion if the emerging church movement wants to gain wings and fly, this sort of nonsense must be nipped in the bud right at the beginning.

Why would one try and help in the way that he implies? Why not stand as an equal in awe and wonder at the splendid, majestic mystery and wonder of this cosmos and of the great mystery that is love? - Stand alongside and accept / include / watch / listen / learn / and pray together as equals in relationship and in community.

It is the problems of the exclusivity of Christianity that are going to be tested in all this. If God was incarnate in Christ the implication is that the Christian Church is the Church that God founded and by implication only approves of – how will this idea be resolved – I guess it’s still emerging.

VenDr said...

I take Brian McLaren to mean that the way of Jesus is not to be equated with membership of one religious group or another. It is a way of relating to the world - a way of life that can be lived within a Buddhist/Hindu/whatever context. Jesus didn't come to found a new faith but to invite people to walk a particular path. I don't see this as patronising or neo-colonial.

Tillerman said...

I think that when Jesus said, “And I also say unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church ….” (Mt 16: 18) he was founding a new faith. Membership of this faith implies a particular path which Jesus taught.

I think unless the offers of the path of Jesus to other religions also involves acceptance of the truth of other paths then it risks being seen by those other religions as nothing more than a Trojan Horse or a by product of a dying orthodoxy reluctantly trying to make itself palatable to a disinterested Post Modernist world.

VenDr said...

Well indeed, Matthew16:13-23 is a telling passage, but if it is indeed a directive to begin a new organisation, why did Peter and those others who heard it not act on it? It was some decades before the process of Christianity separating itself from the synagogue began - a process not in fact completed in Peter's lifetime - and a process that owes more to the synagogue's rejection of the Christians than the Christians seeking to establish themselves as a separate faith. It's noteworthy also that the earlier version of this story, (Mk8:27-33)- the version which scholars believe came from the "Peter" segment of the early church - doesn't mention the bit about Peter's naming, and his pre-eminence. Neither does Luke's version.

I think this passage is deeper and more complex than many think. It is about naming - it begins with Jesus asking about how the crowd is naming him (Jesus). Then it moves to how the disciples are naming Jesus. Then it moves to Jesus naming Peter three times: first 'Simon Bar Jona', then 'Peter' and then 'Satan'. Peter's responses show that although he has come to some understanding of who Jesus is, he still doesn't really get it. Jesus names him 'Peter' the foundation rock, because he recognises Jesus as Messiah. He names him Satan because Peter seems to cling to ideas about organisation, political strength and hierarchical power.

The book of Acts shows that Peter was a somewhat reluctant conversion to the principle of a church separate from the synagogue (remember how keen he was on the thrones of the twelve tribes of Israel, with one, of course, reserved for himself). The issue which really forced the establishment of the church as a separate organisation, the inclusion of Gentiles, seems to have been spearheaded by Paul.

All that aside, look how many times the word Christian is used in the New Testament (3) compared to the word disciple (250+). Look how many times the verb "to follow" is used (90+) almost always in relation to following Jesus. As Brian McLaren puts it,

"Jesus never makes "Christians" or "converts" but he calls disciples and sends them out to continue the process: learn the way so you can model and teach the way to others who will do the same."

Tillerman said...

You say, “It was some decades before the process of Christianity separating itself from the synagogue began - a process not in fact completed in Peter's lifetime” and you ask "why didn't Peter act on this command?".

My understanding is that ‘Peter was one of the first to meet the risen Jesus, who specifically restored him to his position as leader. After Jesus ascended, Peter took the initiative in the appointment of a successor to Judas among the twelve and was the chief preacher when the Holy Spirit came on the Day of Pentecost. Peter and John took the lead in the early days of the church, disciplining Ananias and Sapphira after they deceived the believers, healing and preaching, and taking a special interest in the mission to Samaria.
Later, Peter had a vision which launched the mission to take the gospel to the Gentiles. Although he was wary of this new venture, and later wavered under the criticism of strict Jewish Christians at Antioch, Peter welcomed Paul’s work among the Gentiles and gave his full support at the Council of Jerusalem (which welcomed Gentile converts without imposing on them all the rigours of the Jewish law)’

Although Peter and other Jews would have had to struggle with a transition from their Jewish backgrounds, and converted Gentiles may have had similiar problems converting from their particular world views the presence of Gentiles and Jews working closely together at this early stage would make a case for a very early establishment of the church.
Stephen and the “Hellenists” seemed to grasp very early the full meaning of Jesus’ final commands and were very keen to break free from Judaism which they finally did.

Putting all that aside I can see the significance of your last paragraph (where I think the implication is a de emphasising of the continuous debate about whos truth is the real truth and the hammering of these ideas into creeds that people have to 'believe' to be able to participate and be supported on the spiritual path) and in that lies some hope I guess.

VenDr said...

There's a couple of issues that are confused here. There is no doubt about Peter's position of leadership in the early church -perhaps not completely pre-eminent, but certainly, along with James and Paul, (and the other apostles - how much leadership did Peter offer to Thomas in India, for example?) among the leaders of significant geographical sections of the church.

The question though, is leadership of what? A separate faith system? An independent body? Or a movement that was never supposed to supplant or compete with the faith of Israel but rather to restore and renew it? I think the latter.

Peter indeed forwarded the work of The Way which he had learned from Jesus. After initial reluctance he forwarded the spread of The Way amongst Gentiles. But hew never seemed in much hurry to set up a new faith much less a new organisation.

As to your reference to my favourite chapter of the New Testament, John 21, again the passage is more subtle and complex than it might first appear. The story of Peter and Jesus on the beach turns on the subtle use of the words agape and philos.It is about the necessity of self knowledge for leadership. It is certain that Jesus was commissioning Peter as a leader -but THE leader? Jesus specifically tells Peter to keep his nose out of the business of another leader (John) who may well have had his own painful private interview with Jesus and his own commissioning -and ditto the other 9.

Tillerman said...

The position that I have outlined of Jesus’ intent would I guess be considered the orthodox position which has been developed by various personages over approx 1700 years and held to be true by various churches.

The position you outline is the position that has been arrived at through the window of approx 3 hundred years of modern biblical criticism i.e. at least 16 interrelated interpretive approaches to the Bible ; these 16 approaches being under the 3 headings of Form Criticism (meaning with the text), Source Criticism (meaning with the author) and Redaction Criticism (meaning with the reader). It is the use of these approaches that has meant that “The idea that Jesus wished to establish the Church is beset with at least four prominent difficulties generated by modern historical research” – P Kennedy.

Is it not possible that this evolution of thinking regarding the New Testament is raising or reducing (depending on ones point of view) the person of Christ to a sort of Accidental Fortuitous? Metaphor?

As many people do, I realize that metaphor and myth contain truth - but are there not many metaphors we could use? Why should we consider Christ somehow unique (Gods Metaphor) or divine? Which metaphor has the divinity in it? Who decides? Perhaps the emerging church movement is at this moment creating a new metaphor?
Is it all subjective (Kant) ? or objective (Hegel)?

While I await your musings on these important issues I shall take the time to chat with Pontius Pilate who is sitting next to me and asking the same question as me, “What is Truth?”

Tillerman said...

“I don’t want to become a grumpy old curmudgeon about this Tillerman but we have been sitting here chatting for a while and I’m now hungry and my bums sore.”

“Patience Pontius Rome wasn’t built in a day you know.”

“He’s probably jawing on again about that bloody movie he didn’t like”

“Shhhhhh, for Gods sake Pontius, don’t’ mention the M M words here”

“Do you think he is on the back foot Tillerman?”

“Well maybe, I did fire a fairly large thermonuclear linguistic salvo at him, he’s probably still reeling from it and fine tuning his reply”

“Well be that as it may Tillerman as I was saying, I do the world a good turn and I get no respect. I ask the big Cosmic question - what is truth? -- Its only people like the Rolling Stones who understand”

“Is this you, or your sore bum talking Pontius? What exactly do you mean?”

“Well the Rolling Stones understood, they put out an album called Sympathy for the Devil”

“I don’t understand why the Devil should be given any sympathy Pontius”

“Well Tillerman he played his part, how could there be free will if the Devil wasn’t there to be one of the choices, you know a choice between good and evil? He gets the bum rap all the time”

“You do jaw on a lot about bums Pontius”

“Well it’s getting sore sitting here and I don’t get any gratitude”

“Why should you be given any gratitude?”

“Well I had Christ crucified, and if I hadn’t done that, how would God have redeemed the world? I was part of his big plan, didn’t even get thirty pieces of silver. The whole three of us get tarred with the same brush”

“Whole three? I hope you’re not including me in all this Pontius?”

“No Tillerman, Me, the Devil, and Judas”

“Judas?”

“Yes Judas, Jesus prophesied that he would be betrayed. Jesus is supposed to be the incarnation of God, what chance did poor Judas have against that?”

“Pontius he could have used his free will and said ‘no’”

“Yes Tillerman he could have, but at some point someone would have had to have helped with the betrayal to fulfil the prophecy and plan – doesn’t seem fair really”

“Hmmm, well Pontius its all grist for the historical, philosophical and metaphorical mill really and here he comes, bruised from his last encounter but well armed I see with a new set of smoke and mirrors, almost as much fun as watching that film Mamma Mia again – Gaaaawd did I say that!!!!!!!!”

VenDr said...

I don't think the view I was suggesting is necessarily dependent on modern Biblical criticism, although as you so helpfully point out, Tillerman, it is well supported by late discoveries. Neither do I think it requires the reduction of Jesus to a metaphor - far from it; it requires the presence of a very real and very powerful Jesus to model and teach The Way to his disciples so that they in turn could model and teach it to others. It also requires the constant presence of the resurrected Jesus to enable the difficult task of walking The Way. I'm not suggesting a new Christianity but the old one, that's right there in our earliest records, a bright burning coal under the several feet of ash dumped on top of it by the church.

It's a truth Pilate could never see, by the way, because he was looking in the wrong place. He thought truth was propositional - ideas to be held and possessed. It stood before him in the form of a man living a very particular life in a very particular way.