For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness. (Rom 10:3 NRSV)
As I read this book, this verse kept coming into remembrance. While I respect many of the things that McLaren has stood for, especially in the realm of social justice and generous orthodoxy, upon reading a complete work by him, I have to wonder if that respect was not misguided. I do not intend to step upon the personal piety of those who have thoroughly enjoyed his work, but I found it lacking in real substance and often times, seems to be still searching for what I only assume is his own redefinition of θέωσις, as his understanding of it doesn’t match the understanding which I have seen from Eastern theologians. But, this is not the first of his series of ‘reunderstandings’ that McLaren offers, most notably, his redefinition of liturgy (p101) or his entire notion of what the early church used as memorization. I would think that McLaren should spend some considerable amount of time reading Mike Aquilina, but I suspect that he would simply reevaluate those works to suit himself.
I fully sympathize with his notion that for many, especially in the West, even among Weslyans, Christianity has become more of a system of beliefs, rather than a way of life (p3). He is right that Christians have given up the walk with God mentality of our ancient forbearers and replaced it with a codified legal system which has only served to separate us from the Kingdom of God. Again, I enjoyed his take on the Imperialization of the Church with Constantine where soon afterwards, being born a Roman citizen counted as being born a Christian. Finally, I empathize with his feelings that had he been forced to remain in his previous denomination, he would have left Christianity (p58). Yet, McLaren notes these problems and offers solutions meant only to mimic what he believes is a return to ancient practices, as he calls them. There is no depth to his solutions, no substance to his call to return. He offers meditative prayers and the belief, sound as method but completely unfounded as a practice, of preparing yourself for the indwelling of the Spirit of God and to be made ready to share the divine nature (1st Peter 1.5), although, again, he attempts to redefine this doctrine to suit his attempt at charisma.
What he calls ancient practices is a hold-over from monasticism interpreted through the eyes of the New Monastics. There is no real history presented for these practices and what he does give history to, I would question. I try to keep in my mind the fact that this book is a primer to the serious which will entail the call to ancient practices, but to be honest, after reading this book, I have no real desire to read the other ones. Further, while I count myself a Christian Liberal, I reached the limit of it with his constant elevation of Islam to Christianity. The limit to my liberality is the exclusivity of Christ. While he may have meant other things, his constant appeal to an application of what he assumes are Christian precepts to the allowance of other religions is beyond my level of tolerance. Had he meant something else, which I don’t think he did (p6; p21, et al), he should have explained what he meant. As he noted, our ancient practices are meant to draw us to Christ and to a closer relationship to God in Christ; yet, he notes that the same practices draw other religions closer to their religious figures. His regulation of Christ to that of Moses and Mohammed didn’t help the matter either (p22). I make note again, that while this book is intended to be an introduction to the series, it doesn’t make me want to read the rest of them.
Could a book like this be used in local church ministry? Perhaps. With all of its negatives, McLaren focuses on Community, although generally without Scripture in said Community. He is not one for an individualistic faith which often helps to create that system of belief lifestyle and pushes us further away from the ancient practices. The first ancient practice to be recovered should be community and here, McLaren drives home the point continuously. Further, he makes room for divergent practices among believing Christians, such as the high church of Rome and the East, the low church of Baptist and Brethren, and the loud church of Charismatics and Pentecostals. He understands the appeal, across the board, and encourages believers to unite with others for fellowship. But, this is the limit of the usefulness of this book for local church ministry.