Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Finding Our Way Again -- Review


FINDING OUR WAY AGAIN: The Return of the Ancient Practices. By Brian McLaren. Foreword by Phyllis Tickle. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008. vii + 216 pp.

I sent a request to the publicist at Thomas Nelson after seeing notice that Nora Gallagher had written a book called The Sacred Meal. I requested a review copy of it, and the publicist graciously sent me the entire series (at least as published to this point). As I looked through the series, which includes books on fasting, the liturgical year, common prayer, and more, I noticed that this book written by Brian McLaren introduced the series. Being a logical person, I decided to start with it, before moving on to Nora’s book (I think I’ll postpone reading Scot McKnight’s book on fasting – maybe a Lenten read!)

The Ancient Practices Series, of which this is one of eight planned volumes, reintroduces us to seven central spiritual practices that have been part of the Christian experience from the very beginning. This particular book expresses Brian McLaren’s idea of a generous orthodoxy, and his belief that the way forward involves bringing certain practices from the past into the present. For him, as for many who join him in the Emergent Church Movement, Christian faith is not about propositions and doctrines but a way of life. Near the end of the book, having laid out a path, he confesses his hope that the reader does not see this as a burden – one more thing added to our spiritual “to do” list. I appreciate this acknowledgment of our tendency to receive guidance such as this in a guilt producing manner.

Brian always writes with a certain personalness and winsomeness. The book is full of stories, some personal, some historical. We’re introduced to characters such as St. Francis, people who have lived these specific practices: Common Prayer, Sabbath, Fasting, Sacred Meal, Pilgrimage, the Liturgical Year, and Tithing. He also provides context, so that we can incorporate these practices into our lives. In this book there is a recognition of a deep hunger for spirituality – but much of our spirituality today is unfocused. A recent poll suggests that we’re very eclectic in our spiritual practices. Indeed a majority of Christians also embrace astrology. We dabble in this and that, hoping to find some sort of spiritual high.

The series then, as laid out in this book, seeks to offer us a spiritual path that avoids three unattractive alternatives – reductionist secularism, reactive fundamentalism, and a “vague, consumerist spirituality.” In Brian’s book, each chapter ends with a set of “spiritual exercises,” questions and experiences for further reflection.

The book is broken into three parts, the first of which out lines the “Way.” In a series of seven chapters, we’re introduced to the idea that Christian spirituality is one of practice. The importance of these practices, is that they build character, giving us the ability to deal with life’s experiences. They help bridge the gap between what we want to be and where we’re currently at. Brian writes: “As such, spiritual practices are pretty earthy, and not strictly about spirituality as it is often defined; they’re about humanity” (p. 14). Further, even as these practices concern themselves with daily living they enliven us and awaken us to God’s presence in the midst of our daily lives.

Having set out the idea of Christian faith being a way of life – as defined by Jesus, by Paul, and the church at large, McLaren lays out the various practices, which can be experienced contemplatively, communally, and missionally. They are practices, because they help train our bodies and spirits for Christian life. They are contemplative, because they invite us to consider God’s presence, they’re communal because we share in them together, and they’re missional because they prepare us to engage the world with God’s grace. Brian notes that he ran his first marathon in middle age – after practice. He didn’t just go out and run the marathon, he worked up to it. It required physical training – and if we’re to go on the Christian way, these practices help train our spirits. On this, he writes:
They say that practice makes perfect, but I wouldn’t know about that. What I do know is that practice makes possible some things that would otherwise have been impossible (p. 87).

The goal in this is to become a person of faith who not only walks humbly before God, but also shows kindness and does justice – “meaning we must address the sick societal structures that keep plunging people into conditions where they will die without the kindness and compassion of others” (p. 120).

These practices, which allow us to take the path of faith, are ancient. They’re not necessarily new or faddish. They’re time-tested. And when we’ve lost our way, we rediscover path forward, by looking back so we can reconnect to the path and reset our path. In exploring this past, Brian finds three important ways of spiritual life that go back to before the break between east and west – the via purgativa (katharsis), the via illuminativa (fotosis) and the via unitiva (theosis). In the first set of practices, we seek to purge ourselves of the things that keep us from experiencing God’s presence – fasting is a good example. In the second, we open ourselves up to the light of God’s presence; Brian equates this with spiritual sunbathing, and finally, having gone through the previous two ways, we find union with God (theosis).
In this process, our will becomes increasingly one with God’s will, our emotions with God’s emotions, our thoughts with God’s thoughts, and our words and actions with God’s words and actions. Our individuality isn’t obliterated through this union, but rather made sacred and in this way enhanced. By being harmonized with God, we also become harmonized with everything else that is harmonized with God (p. 147).
As Brian explores these practices and sets their context, he makes it clear that the end is not becoming more religious, but more alive to God and to our “spouses, parents, children, neighbors, strangers, and yes, even our enemies” (p. 182).

This book, of course, is designed to serve as an introduction to a spiritual pathway. The practices that are developed in the books that follow are not meant to be burdens, but aids to our spiritual training so we might join God in the work of the kingdom. They help us see the world as God sees the world. But, once again, I return to the warning – this pathway isn’t meant to be seen as another “to-do list.” This is, therefore, an excellent introduction that promises us a fruitful journey as we pick the remaining volumes of this series.



4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great review of a fantastic book! Brian is a very important voice for many of us today.

Danny Bradfield said...

I've read the whole series to date (well, almost--I'm halfway through The Sacred Meal right now), and the series as a whole is great. The book on prayer is especially good.

I'm currently considering doing a sermon series based on the "Ancient Practices" of this book series sometime next year.

Anonymous said...

Here's a new song to help you go way back. Enjoy- David Mc

http://billyjonas.com/index.php?page=cds

LET THERE BE LIGHT
by Billy Jonas December 2009

From the vastness of outer space issued a plan
To separate sea, and sky, and sand
But how to give form to the night?
Take a breath, make a wish and say
LET THERE BE LIGHT!
LET THERE BE LIGHT, TONIGHT TONIGHT TONIGHT

In the depth of the forest we fashioned our drums
To echo the heart-beating heat of the sun
Call it back from its dark winter flight
'Round a torch in a cave we sang
LET THERE BE LIGHT!
LET THERE BE LIGHT! TONIGHT TONIGHT TONIGHT
LET THERE BE LIGHT! LET THERE BE LIGHT!
TONIGHT TONIGHT TONIGHT; TONIGHT TONIGHT TONIGHT

In the scorch of the desert the Maccabees strained
Their faith, it was fixed in a flickering flame
When one day's worth of oil burned eight nights
Every day they would pray crying
LET THERE BE LIGHT!
LET THERE BE LIGHT! TONIGHT TONIGHT TONIGHT
LET THERE BE LIGHT! LET THERE BE LIGHT!
TONIGHT TONIGHT TONIGHT; TONIGHT TONIGHT TONIGHT


In the wick of the candle, the light in your heart
Is an ember remembering back to the start
So if nothing is working out right
Take a breath, make a wish and say
LET THERE BE LIGHT!
LET THERE BE LIGHT! TONIGHT TONIGHT TONIGHT
LET THERE BE LIGHT! LET THERE BE LIGHT!
TONIGHT TONIGHT TONIGHT; TONIGHT TONIGHT TONIGHT

Anonymous said...

this goes with the song-

http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/chandra/multimedia/photo09-025.html