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Book Reviews

Finding Our Way Again, the Return to the Ancient Practices by Brian McLaren

Brian McLaren, the most recognizable name in the emergent church movement, signals a shift, or at least a new emphasis within emergent, toward ancient practices of earlier periods of church history. As usual, McLaren believes the church has lost its way due to its refusal to follow God’s leading. The church has become “proud and unteachable” but fortunately a few “humble and teachable” people (guess who?) are pointing out the right path (pp. 150-151): “When the community of faith realizes it has lost its way, it begins looking forward by looking back…It looks to its ancient practices to help it reset its future course” (p. 160).

This means that the church, in order to find its way again, must look to and adopt the early church (not New Testament church) traditions and rituals especially the “seven ancient practices” of fasting, pilgrimage, common daily prayers, a weekly day of rest, annual holy days and seasons, tithing and sacred meal, as they find fulfillment in the ‘threefold way’ of purgation, illumination, and union with God” (p. 162). What seems to have precipitated this renewed interest in ancient practices and mysticism is the recognition the emergent movement is in need of roots. McLaren writes, “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” (p. 18). I assume by these harsh remarks McLaren means that the emergent church, having already rejected modern evangelicalism and fundamentalism, must now move beyond an “amorphous spirituality” and put down some anchors. These anchors are sinking into the soil of ancient spiritual practices (p. 19).

Finding Our Way Again is actually the introductory volume in a series of eight titles published by Thomas Nelson and edited by Phyllis Tickle. The other seven works will each develop one of the seven ancient practices deemed important for the emerging church. One of the important features of this series will be its relevancy for not only those in the Christian faith but also for those in Judaism and Islam, apparently because all three of these traditions share the same ancient practices (p. 19). At no point in this introductory volume does McLaren speak of any form of exclusivity within Christianity. Quite the opposite: “If we do not rediscover in our three religions the ancient way of spiritual practice, which is perhaps the best and truest thing about them, then we will contribute to the destruction of the world” (p. 215). At one point McLaren calls Islam “Christianity’s sibling” (p. 53) and he affirms his belief “that a person can be a follower of the way of Jesus without affiliating with the Christian religion” (p. 35).

Chapters 17 through 19 are devoted to the “threefold way” of purgation, illumination and union, which is common to all forms of mysticism, Christian or otherwise. However, McLaren does not describe the “threefold way” as his mentors and the ancient mystics (such as St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila) do. He either does not understand his subject (highly unlikely) or he is using his winsome pen to make these approaches much more attractive than they normally would be to many people. But he definitely promotes contemplation (a mystical form of prayer), lectio divina (a mystical form of Scripture reading), and the daily office (a ritualistic form of prayer) (pp. 179-180).

McLaren peppers this book with his usual talk of the kingdom of God, which is identical to postmillennial liberalism of the early 20th century. He also takes a hard swipe at anyone dumb enough not to believe in evolution (pp. 147, 189), assuring us that their grandchildren will grow up just like the Catholic Church did after Galileo.

Finding Our Way Again is McLaren’s and the emergent church’s formal marriage to the Ancient-Future Faith movement. These two have been seen flirting in various places but it seems the union has been consummated with the new ancient practices series.