Progressive theological road has potholes
We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation and Activation
Brian D. McLaren
“The road of faith is not finished. There is beautiful land ahead…waiting to be explored. It will take a lot of us, journeying together to make the road.” Thus begins the latest work of literature and liturgy from sometimes controversial author and public theologian Brian D. McLaren. The vision that informs the structure and content of this book is that of a weekly community which gathers for discussion, worship, prayer and service. McLaren leads the reader through 52 themed chapters – organized around the traditional church year – that also follow the flow of the Bible from start to finish.
Commendable emphasis on spiritual formation
On the positive side of the equation, there are many things to affirm. The Christocentric approach to the whole of Scripture and a strong emphasis on justice, love and nonresistance will resonate with many Mennonite Brethren.
McLaren also addresses contemporary topics that many in our society are asking as he mines themes of economic injustice, how loving your neighbour is connected to caring for creation and how leadership can be used positively but can also be coercive. McLaren’s writing is ever poignant and at times beautifully poetic and moving.
The skillfully phrased questions for group discussion at the end of each chapter are extremely thoughtful and designed to move toward action and not just contemplation. There are also family-inclusive elements in each chapter, including questions focused uniquely for children. Small groups or neighbourhood house churches would find sufficient material to sustain robust conversational engagement for at least a full year.
Concerning reorientation toward the Bible
What will likely create some tension, however, is the elasticity with which McLaren treats the Bible itself. For him, Scripture seems to be an allegory of possibilities where factual truth and actual truth become interchangeable and sometimes intermingled.
McLaren has a tendency to denigrate biblical authority to make a contemporary point. For example, when discussing violence in the Old Testament, he indicates that “in the minds of the originators of these stories, God as they understood God did indeed command these things.” He goes on to suggest that what is truly important is how we understand God, not necessarily how the original writers or hearers heard or understood him.
The trend that emerges on the whole is that McLaren uses the Bible as a set of stylized morality tales to teach us important truths about God, ourselves and the world in which we live.
As Mennonite Brethren, we have a very different outlook, as expressed in Article 2 of our CCMBC Confession of Faith: “We accept the Bible as the infallible Word of God and the authoritative guide for faith and practice.”
Community emphasis on activation
For those with an already firm view of biblical authority, the book holds wonderful benefit for personal contemplative reading. In many ways, however, We Make the Road by Walking is really designed for use in a communal setting.
McLaren is open in his extension of hospitality, and as such, the book can be read with people of various backgrounds including those who don’t share a presumed cultural Christian history. I could see the material being used as a post-Alpha learning circle that meets weekly to journey deeper into the themes of Scripture.
The emphasis is on lived faith and how a person is growing and walking it out is commendable. McLaren notes that “faith communities at their best are Spirit-schools of love, engaging everyone, from little children to great-grandparents, in life-long learning. In the school of the Spirit, everyone majors in love.”
The author shines when he is calling us to a spirit of unity that includes diversity. This can sometimes feel like taking a non-position, but on the whole, the book is pithy and full of vitality and worthwhile topics for conversation along the road.
After all, discipleship is not just about the destination we seek, but about the joy we take and the growth we make in the journey along the way.
Brad Sumner is a fellow traveller who helps to lead the community at Jericho Ridge Church, Langley, B.C.