Q & R: Wow! That was fast …

A reader writes:

Wow – I noticed that the first amazon.com review of your new book was pretty negative, and it came up within hours of the book’s release. I’ve heard you usually don’t read reviews, but I wondered if you had a response to that first one that came up?

Here’s the R:

Thanks for your inquiry. I just spent a little while reading and pondering the review. The reviewer said he was sympathetic to the book’s premise and had a number of positive things to say:

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…

But the reviewer finds the book perplexing and concerning. As I read his review, his first concern is that he finds the book “modernist” in the tradition of Rene Descartes. Of course, this may be a gentle way of saying I’m a hypocrite too, or at least inconsistent, since I have a reputation as “a postmodernist.” I always try to explain to people that my goal is not to be modernist or postmodernist: I’m seeking to be a faithful follower of God in the way of Jesus, and that quest will, I imagine, put me at odds with and in synch with certain dimensions of any philosophy or ideology – modernist, postmodernist, liberal, conservative, and so on. Although a few of my loyal critics have claimed that I am guilty of “syncretism” (unwise or unholy mixing) with postmodern thought and culture, I actually think it’s more accurate to say that I’m concerned about the degree to which all of us have already fallen prey to syncretism with modernist, colonialist, imperialist, militarist, consumerist thought and culture. If the postmodern critique of modernity can help us see our complicity with these various -isms, that’s helpful. But it doesn’t mean we should now uncritically accept anything and everything called “postmodern.” That’s just basic common sense, right?
Nor does it mean that we demonize everything modernist. I fear the reviewer is doing something of this sort when he describes Rene Descartes in these absolute terms: Descartes “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.” Whether or not this is true of Descartes (I imagine he would say he is trying to buttress and support the best of tradition rather than set it aside), I’m sure this isn’t my goal, and I’m certain (not invoking Cartesian certainty!) that I never say anything to this effect in the book. Instead, I point out, for example,

“Our ancient traditions and contemporary theories are agree that there are personal and social dimensions to practices.” (22)

Speaking of ancient traditions, I think the reviewer then makes an additional mistake by equating what he calls tradition with what I call “Doctrinal correctness, institutional participation, and religious conformity.” I don’t equate the two. I refer critically to the latter as “religiosity” or “deligion.” The former I treat with respect and appreciation. Similarly, while I would be critical of traditionalism and ritualism and denominationalism, I’m positive about tradition and ritual and denominations.
The reviewer claims I am “seeking to build a common, universal spirituality out of the building blocks of individual spiritual experience … [and] abandon tradition, elevate the individual and seek that which is universal.” No, my goal is neither that ambitious nor that ideological, so let me state it clearly: This is a book about the personal spiritual life, what we might call personal or private spiritual disciplines and practices.
If you want to read what I’ve written about the more public and social spiritual life in relation to ancient tradition and ancient practices, Naked Spirituality is the wrong book. The right book for that subject is Finding Our Way Again. Similarly, if you want to read about my take on Jesus and his message, The Secret Message of Jesus would be for you, and if you were interested in the connection between Jesus’ core message and contemporary global crises, you’d want to read Everything Must Change. I try to write about one thing at a time, so if you are seeking to develop personal spiritual practices to increase your awareness of God, your strength as a disciple, your endurance in hard times, and your connection with God from moment to moment, I believe Naked Spirituality could be of real help to you.

When the reviewer says, “… from McLaren’s previous works, I thought he had a clear sense of the extraordinary social, psychological and ecological damage that this sort of [modernist] rhetorical approach had wreaked,” he is right, but when he says, that I have “reverted” to a modernist “tactic,” I think he’s simply read something into my book that isn’t there. Modernists may tend towards individualism, but they also have a collectivist tendency … and postmodernists may favor communalism, but they don’t deny the existence of the individual. For my part, again, it’s both/and … we exist as individuals-in-personal relationship-to-God, and as persons-in-communal-relationship-to-God. I see the two dimensions as interdependent.
To imagine the reviewers mistake (as I see it) in reverse, suppose I took this sentence from the review:

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.

Then suppose that I responded, “Clearly, the reviewer doesn’t have much regard for the Holy Spirit or to the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. He has reverted to a pre-Protestant clericalism, perhaps even sacerdotalism, asserting that apart from the traditional clergy and structures of institutional religion, people can’t have any direct experience of God whatsoever.”
That would be a terribly unfair reading into his statement on my part.
So I can focus (in this book) on the possibility and import of personal spiritual experience, and the reviewer can focus (in his review) on the importance of tradition, but it’s a mistake for either of us to assume the other denies the counterpart of what he focuses upon. As I see it – and I imagine that the reviewer and I would agree on this – there is a dimension of spirituality that involves a direct encounter with the Holy Spirit, and because the Holy Spirit is ubiquitous and free, that experience is not limited to the purview of any human authority structure. No group has an exclusive franchise on God. Nobody has a monopoly on the Holy Spirit.
But at the same time, the Holy Spirit works through the particularities of community, place, and tradition, so these are essential dimensions of a healthy, robust, and mature spiritual life. Again, it’s both/and, not either/or. I make that clear in the book in many places.
However, the review – unfairly, I think – dismisses my acknowledgment of communal spirituality as “occasional plugs for practicing the sort of spirituality that he describes here in community with others.” In dismissing every mention of communal spirituality as an “occasional plug,” the reviewer makes it hard, if not impossible, for me to overcome this dismissal, don’t you think? As a result, he can depict the as “rejecting tradition.”
The reviewer is right when he says, “I would like to think that Brian, on the basis of his previous works, gets this.” Then he says, “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.” Again, this is a book primarily about the personal spiritual life, not the church. I was a pastor for twenty-four years where I devoted myself to the integration of the church and the individual spiritual life, and I speak constantly on the subject to church leaders, and of course, I’ve written a lot of books about the church already (beginning with The Church on the Other Side). I haven’t written nearly as much on the individual spiritual life. So for a number of reasons, in response to needs expressed to me by church leaders, church members, and those seeking Christ but who have (yet) found a receptive welcome in the church, I felt it would be best to devote a whole book to the subject.
I just did a quick scan of the book, and found a place where I say something close to what the reviewer seems to wish I had said:

It’s interesting that two of the key metaphors in the New Testament seek to capture this connection. Jesus’ term Kingdom of God (which I explore at length in my book The Secret Message of Jesus [Thomas Nelson, 2007]) portrays a connection or community that includes God and creation. This beautiful whole, is, in this way, bigger than either God alone or creation alone, and comprises both. Similarly, Paul’s term body of Christ connects God-in-Christ and humanity-in-creation, bringing them into a larger communion – again not a simple union or fusion where one is absorbed in or reduced to the other, but where one and the other experience an at-one-ment, a one-anotherness, in which otherness remains but doesn’t divide.

The other major critique is a lack of “a sense of cruciformity in the spirituality that McLaren narrates.” I can’t help but think here that the entire third stage that I try to describe is framed in terms of death and resurrection (Chapters 21 -23, for example). And although I don’t use the term cruciformity, I think these words from p. 176 describe some sliver of the reality to which the term refers:

Jesus himself imaged that pain [of our when’s and no’s and why’s] as he wept in a garden, as he bled on a cross, as he prayed forgiveness for those who mocked and crucified him. And so the cry of God becomes our own. Can this mean that the practice of lament is not simply humans crying to God, but God crying through humans? Could it be that through our compounding, agonizing autumnal tragedies, we in our own small way connect and tap into the pain that lies in the heart of the Creator?

So, in sum, when the reviewer says things like this … “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,” somehow I think he is arguing with someone else, not me, since I agree with him. (But I do doubt that he is fairly representing Descartes.) And when he says something like this … “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,” I can’t help but think, “And that is in part why I wrote this book.”
It may be that underneath these criticisms, the reviewer wishes I had said something close to, “You’re going to hell if you’re not identified as a member of the Christian religion,” or “You can’t have a life with God unless you identify yourself with the Christian tradition.” If that’s his ultimate critique, I see his point: I don’t say those things. (I’m actually planning my next book project, which will build strongly on A New Kind of Christian and Naked Spirituality, to address the issue of Christian identity in a multi-faith context.”
The review is actually remarkably kind and open, and I appreciate the civility of its tone. It brings truly worthwhile issues to light, and I’m grateful to have the chance to offer these replies to it. In the end, I would hope the reviewer could see this book as a small, imperfect, heartfelt contribution from a member of the church, as a member of the church, seeking to help leaders and members and potential members of the church to more deeply enter into the realities of the spiritual life. Yes, it is addressed to individual readers, but that doesn’t mean it promotes “individualism.” Yes, it tries to find fresh language to describe the spiritual life, but rather than implying a rejection of tradition, fresh language can extend a tradition and welcome others into it. Living traditions, after all, maintain the both-and: they draw from the past, they grow in the present, and they help create a better future. I’m sure with this the reviewer would also agree.