It has been a while since I read a Brian McLaren book. I first discovered his writing in the heyday of Theooze( before it all cracked up and became the Hatchery). I read articles by McLaren and I soon got hold of his books, consuming them when I was More Ready Than [I] Realized. I dreamed of Finding Faith in the Church on the Other Side. And I devoured his A New Kind of Christian trilogy. Sure, it was contrived and stilted (like most didactic fiction), but it helped me think through some stuff. I was bothered, even then, that the only prominent person of color in the Emergent Church Canon, was McLaren’s fictionalized Jamaican High School teacher, Neo, though it would be years before I recognized this as the”Magical Negro” motif (i.e. Neo existed in the story to guide the white protagonist, Pastor Dan Poole, toward his Emergent self-actualization). And I read McLaren and Tony Campolo’s Adventures in Missing the Point: How the Culture-Controlled Church Neutered the Gospel with a church small group. Each week, one of our small group members would give us her feminist critique of Campolo and McLaren’s androcentric metaphors (e.g. the Culture-Controlled church was neutered, bastardized, and lacking virility).
There were always things in his writing that I rolled my eyes at, but I learned a lot from McLaren (and I don’t think he’d write any of these books quite the same way today). He named issues I had with the church, gave me a conceptual vocabulary to understand stuff, and got me asking good questions. He wasn’t a perfect author, but I am grateful for what I learned from him.
But at some point, I O.D.ed on his brand of Generous Orthodoxy and quit reading his books altogether. I didn’t have a major reaction against him or anything. I just lost interest. Sometimes I would see his latest new release at the library, and bring it home, intent on digging in, only to return it weeks later unread (with maybe an 80¢ late fee). I still enjoyed reading an occasional online article by him or hearing his voice on some theology guy’s podcast, but I only following his spiritual journey from afar.
So I picked up Seeking Aliveness with both a sense of nostalgia and curiosity. Based on his book We Make the Road By Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation (Jericho Books, 2014), Seeking Aliveness breaks that book’s 52 chapters into daily readings—5 to 7 readings per week.
So, this is a Christian devotional, but with slightly less Bible. McLaren lists 3-4 short passages at the start of each week, the daily entries are McLaren riffing on the weekly theme—our daily Brian, so to speak. Which isn’t to say there is not some meaty stuff here and some solid biblical reflection. McLaren’s musings cover the grand sweep of biblical narrative from Creation to New Creation, the liturgical calendar, theology and suggestions for living out our faith. Most of these reflections are rooted, one way or another, in the gospels and the life of Jesus. And McLaren invites readers to commit the key verses for each week to memory (ix). Each of the daily entries closes with an aphorism to ponder, a question, a prayer to pray or something to practice in daily life.
The 52 chapters are divided into four sections. Part I is on being “alive in the story of Creation. Part II is about being “alive in the Adventure of Jesus.” Part 3 is “alive in a global uprising” and Part 4 is “alive in the Spirit of God.” The unifying metaphor of these reflections is ‘aliveness,’ which McLaren roots in the Christian story and the style of life Christ recommends:
Aliveness, [Jesus] will teach, is a gift available to all by God’s grace. It flows not from taking but from giving, not from fear but from faith, not from conflict but from reconciliation, not from domination but from service. It isn’t found in the outward trappings of religion—rules, and rituals, controversies and scruples, temples and traditions. No, it springs up from our innermost being like a fountain of living water. It intoxicates us like the best win ever and so turns life from a disappointment into a banquet. This new life of aliveness and love opens us up to rethink everything—to go back and become like little children again. Then we can rediscover the world with a fresh, childlike wonder—seeing the world in a new light, the light of Christ (126).
McLaren doesn’t talk about how Jesus came to save us from eternal conscious torment once we die. Instead, he discusses Jesus’ reversal of the road we are already on, and our expectations, “Jesus used fire-and-brimstone language to warn his countrymen about the catastrophe they faced if they followed their current path—a wide and smooth highway leading to another violent uprising against the Romans. Violence won’t produce peace, he warned, it will only lead to more destruction” (171). Jesus’ non-violence and love stood in stark contrast to the violent tendencies in his, and our country. Salvation is not just about what happens at the end of space and time; it is in turning from destructive patterns and becoming fully alive. At times, this takes the narrow, rough path of ‘non-violent social change.’ Picking up on the values and activity of Jesus, God’s purposes for Creation and the Spirit’s movement, McLaren’s retelling of the biblical story suggests ways to act justly—caring for Creation, solidarity with the poor, and being a peacemaker.
McLaren can be somewhat of a polarizing figure. When I was preparing this review, I came across a couple of other reviews of the book. One person loved it, the next person thought that this was too New Age-y and liberal. My conservative friends don’t appreciate how much McLaren (and the progressive evangelicalism he inspired) are willing to deconstruct ( Lifeway stopped selling McLaren’s books before Lifeway not selling your books was cool). Other friends think McLaren’s impact has been largely positive even if he doesn’t quite go far enough.
Personally, I enjoyed this book. I probably wouldn’t use it as a devotional—I’m not a really great devotional reader—but the chapter titles and daily entries makes this a searchable collection of bite-size Brian McLaren reflections on various topics. There are no footnotes (this is a devotional, not a textbook) or extraneous quotations from other authors. Just Brian and Bible talking about what it means to truly be alive. I give this four stars. ★★★★
Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from FaithWords in exchange for my honest review.