“Whither the Community?”
A review of
A Life with God in 12 Simple Words.
By Brian McLaren.
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
A Life with God in 12 Simple Words.
By Brian McLaren.
Hardback: HarperOne, 2011.
RELEASE DATE: March 15.
Pre-order Now [ Amazon ]
For many years now, I have had a deep respect for Brian McLaren’s work. Over the last decade, I have read the vast majority of his books and found him to be one of the clearest interpreters of Christianity in this postmodern era. Even when his previous book, A New Kind of Christianity, stirred up a storm of controversy by asking some pointed questions about the nature of the church, I thought the questions he asked were sorely needed and on the right track. With this bit of history in mind, I found myself rather perplexed by Brian’s new book Naked Spirituality: A Life With God in 12 Simple Words.
I should be clear here that I am sympathetic to the premise of the book. There is a growing population of young adults in North America who have been wounded by Christianity and who want nothing at all to do with the church (this demographic has been described in recent years in books such as They Like Jesus but not the Church and UnChristian); Brian has a keen sense of their pain and wants to extend an olive branch of sorts to these young people, re-engaging them in a conversation about faith. In the early parts of the book, Brian describes the task he is undertaking:
This is a book about getting naked – not physically, but spiritually. It’s about stripping away the symbols and status of public religion – the Sunday-dress version people often call “organized religion.” And it’s about attending to the well-being of the soul clothed only in naked human skin (ix).
And several pages later:
You may be rebuilding after a faith collapse, or you may be embarking on your virgin voyage into faith and a spiritual life. Either way, you have no interest in fake spirituality, forced spirituality, hyped spirituality, inflated spirituality. You want to strip away all the layers of pretense and get down to naked reality. … 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 (2-3).
Tapping into the prevailing sentiment of this generation: “I’m not religious myself, but I’m spiritual,” McLaren attempts to define a common spirituality that this younger generation can share with traditional Christianity. McLaren defines twelve facets of this spirituality – each of which is named by a single word – and organizes them into four “seasons” that in his observation tend to cyclically follow after each other:
- Simplicity: The Season of Spiritual Awakening
- Complexity: The Season of Spiritual Strengthening
- Perplexity: The Season of Spiritual Surviving
- Harmony: The Season of Spiritual Deepening
There is much to commend in the way that McLaren’s narrates the spiritual experience here. Drawing upon the richness of his own experiences as a follower of Christ and a long-time pastor, he speaks frankly, yet gently, about the pains and blessings of each of these twelve facets. In many ways, this account resonates with my own experiences, and I appreciate that there is a deep, rich honesty here about the nature of an individual’s relationship with God. McLaren summarizes the book in his afterword, and I think rightly so, in the word love:
Through love, all is re-ligamented, reread, reinterpreted, rejoined, reconnected. Through love, at-one-ment triumphs, not in simple oneness where many beings are conquered by or assimilated into one being, but in the joyful one-anotherness of interbeing, the joyful relation that the language of the trinity soars to celebrate. In that loving community of creation there is both unity and diversity, both melody and harmony, difference within division (240).
I wanted to emphasize that there is much truth here, and perhaps even more compassion, in seeking to engage those who have been wounded by the Christian faith, but as I said at the outset of this review, Naked Spirituality is, regardless, a book that is perplexing in its rhetoric and that raises a number of significant theological concerns.
First, on the issue of rhetoric, I am deeply confused by why McLaren – who to date has been one of the clearest popular interpreters of Christianity in this postmodern era – takes up a form of argument that is strikingly modernist. Indeed, McLaren’s approach here, bears an eerie resemblance to the work of the father of modern philosophy Rene Descartes, who in his Meditations, endeavors to set aside all the history and tradition (particularly that of the Church) that has gone before him and to develop a system of knowledge rooted in what he can know and experience as an individual. Granted, McLaren’s objective is not as bold or as all-encompassing as that of Descartes, but the form of his argument is analogous in its setting aside religious tradition (e.g., “Doctrinal correctness, institutional participation, and religious conformity”) and seeking to build a common, universal spirituality out of the building blocks of individual spiritual experience. This is the nature of modernism – abandon tradition, elevate the individual and seek that which is universal – and from McLaren’s previous works, I thought he had a clear sense of the extraordinary social, psychological and ecological damage that this sort of rhetorical approach had wreaked, so I am perplexed by why he would revert to this sort of tactic here. Following the work of Alasdair Macintyre, I am skeptical about the possibility of a “naked spirituality,” as McLaren defines it here. I certainly understand the emotional appeal of such a thing, but I don’t think we can have a spirituality, in the way McLaren narrates it, that is apart from the particularities of community, place and tradition.
The theological concerns that Naked Spirituality raises are related to the rhetorical concern that I have expressed above. First of all, despite his occasional plugs for practicing the sort of spirituality that he describes here in community with others and despite his sense (as stated, for instance, in the above passage from the book’s afterword) that God is at work reconnecting and re-unifying all creation, this account is narrated solely through the spiritual experience of the individual. In rejecting tradition, McLaren rejects – or at least omits – the key role of shared practices. Although our modernist readings have often obscured it (e.g., Greek plural yous interpreted as individual ones), scripture is primarily narrated from beginning to end – as Gerhard Lohfink and others have argued – through the lens of the people of God. The kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed is manifested in a renewed social order that begins in the people of God and reverberates outward through all humanity. I would like to think that Brian, on the basis of his previous works, gets this, but in reading this book we do not get a sense of the Church as the body (i.e., corporate embodiment) of Christ or of local congregations as placed, contextual manifestations of the people of God. Yes, there are individual practices to which we commit ourselves, but we do so – as Henri Nouwen and others have so poignantly argued – within the scriptural drama of God calling and forming a people that point, in admittedly imperfect ways, to the kingdom of God, a renewed and redeemed social order, that is coming on earth and has been inaugurated in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. We don’t get much of a sense of this in Naked Spirituality, and I’m concerned that if we are eventually seeking reconciliation between the church and those who have been wounded by it, that we are going to have to do a lot of backpedaling in the way our spirituality is narrated.
Speaking of the death and resurrection of Jesus, another related theological concern that I have about this book is that there is not much of a sense of cruciformity in the spirituality that McLaren narrates. It seems that the objective he is driving for here is the spiritual maturation – dare I say enlightenment? – of the individual and not that of kenosis, of emptying oneself as Christ did, of dying daily to ourselves, taking up the cross, following Jesus, and being consumed into the social reality of the coming kingdom – of preferring others to ourselves and to putting their needs and concerns before our own. The beauty of the Gospel, of course, as J.R. Woodward, Scot McKnight and others have recently argued, is that in dying to ourselves in this way, we are resurrected with Christ into our the awakening of our deepest and truest dreams. Again, I’d like to think that McLaren understands this, but it is at best a vestige of the spirituality that McLaren describes here, and furthermore it is a difficult reality for anyone in our individualistic society to stomach, let alone those who have been wounded by bad church experiences. Submitting ourselves to the cross of Christ, as Paul preaches in I Corinthians 1, is foolishness to the movers and shakers of society – it does not play well in the marketplace – and yet in the words of John Howard Yoder, it is “working with the grain of the universe,” as God created it.
I am deeply sympathetic, as McLaren is, to the lives and concerns of those who have been wounded by the church. I also recognize that McLaren as an internationally-recognized writer and representative of the Christian faith wants to use his gifts, talents and position to extend some hope and comfort to this wounded generation and to re-engage them in conversations about Christianity. I just am deeply skeptical about the transformative power of this sort of rhetorical approach, of broadcasting the narrative of a common spirituality that is apart from community, place and tradition. I am much more hopeful, however, in the transformative power of local church communities demonstrating the love of Christ and their conviction in the Gospel story by the practices they share in their particular places. Let’s do engage those wounded by the church, but let’s do so as communities deeply embedded in the tradition of the Church, confessing our – individual and social – sins and seeking to let the light of Christ shine through us in our places, bearing witness not only to those wounded ones but to all our neighbors. Let us not pretend, as Descartes did, that we can suppress all the history and tradition that has preceded us, an act of violence that can itself potentially ignite a maelstrom of damage. Rather, let us, as churches, seek to engage those specific wounded ones who are our neighbors in our places, seeking patiently over time to understand the particular wounds they bear and examining ourselves for the ways in which our life together may have contributed in any way to these wounds or similar ones, repenting as we go, and seeking the reconciliation of Christ. This work is messy, challenging, and requiring of our long-suffering, but it is the way of Christ’s reconciliation to which we have been called.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
Reading for the Common Good
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