Greg Garrett: Naked Spirituality by Brian McLaren--A Review




Sometimes in the course of your life you hear a voice that has the ring of truth to it. Maybe that voice is speaking about things you don't understand-or things you don't believe. But when that voice seems to speak out of lived experience, to say I've earned these thoughts and I'm offering them to you-not because I know I'm right, but because they carried me through a sunny day or a dark night-I know I'm more prone to listen.

Brian McLaren has always been such a voice to me, from the first time I heard his voice speaking in the manuscript for [A New Kind of Christian](, the book that launched him into prominence as the leading spokesperson for emerging Christianity. Maybe some folks want religious language that suggests it has all the answers, but I am suspicious of it, because I know that, as Brian says in his new book [Naked Spirituality](, the answers we commit ourselves to for all time don't always hold up for all time. Sometimes our simple faith, our awareness of complexity don't have useful answers for other phases of life.

This book suggests that most of us will move through four seasons of the spirit-a spring of simplicity, when joy and thankfulness are our primary modes of being; a summer of complexity when our spiritual lives are strengthened and deepened as we take honest stock of ourselves and extend our hearts in compassion to others; an autumn of perplexity, when suffering challenges us to hold onto faith and may require us to let go of some of our previous certainties; and a winter of harmony, when we see that God has been at work all along, a God who is both more beautiful and more ineffable than we had imagined.

We may go through this cycle once, or more than once. Some few lucky people will never leave springtime-or will refuse to acknowledge that they have. In these seasons, Brian acknowledges, there are times we feel closer to or farther from God. But that doesn't mean that God isn't present and working. Naked Spiritualityreminds us that God is always present and working, regardless of the season or circumstance.

But it does mean that often our understanding of God grows and our spiritual practice changes as we realize that God doesn't fit into the current box where we had tried to cram God. Brian offers both stories to help us recognize and begin to understand each of these seasons, and a series of simple words to describe and shape some possible spiritual responses to them: Here, Thanks, Sorry, Help, When, Why, Behold, Yes.


Thus the book feels to me true, and useful, and it taught me a lot about subjects I already imagined I knew pretty well: faith, prayer, compassion, wonder. This last-that I learned and felt what it had to show me-may be what I most admire about this book, which in keeping with Brian's last five or six, simultaneously filled me with joy and jealousy as I read it.

Joy because I was reading something life giving, that seemed to be speaking the truth without claiming to be the only useful truth.

Jealousy because, as I've told Brian before, sometimes when I finish his books I'm mad at him for writing on a subject so well that there's probably no need for me to write about it.

Both of those reactions, ultimately, speak to the usefulness and the beauty of Naked Spirituality, which Brian describes as a "book about getting naked" written not in an aggressive tone, but a tentative one, offered up like "shy experience stepping into the light" (ix).

And shy experience is a powerful way to imagine what he is giving us. Big pieces of Brian's story appear here as he offers up elements of his own journey, but never in ways that feel oppressive or draw attention to Brian instead of to the points he wants to illustrate. Yet, knowing these and other things about Brian, I can report that he has lived through much, and offers us a personal example of spiritual groundedness through this book-and in his own life. 

Brian tells the story of his son's cancer, his own struggle to find a usable faith in the midst of dark nights, his travels around the world seeing how people suffer.

And how God is present in all of this.

Brian's own experience also shows us that these spiritual practices can work, because I know that they work for him. Just as in the story of Desmond Tutu he tells in the book (intentionally flattened in an airport by a burly white South African in the bad old days of apartheid, Tutu looked up from his sprawled position on the floor and blessed his attacker), Brian's life for the past decade is also a story of being knocked to the ground. Over the last ten years, his prominence in the emerging conversation about where Christianity might be going has alarmed enough more traditional Christians that he's been continuously harassed and called names. See the Rob Bell controversy this week for a bit of what Brian has endured a whole lot longer.

If you Google "Brian McLaren heretical," you'll pull up 173,000 results in about a tenth of a second. Each of these are judgments on Brian as a person, on Brian's faith, on Brian's teaching. How would it feel if they were about you? Multiply them by other attacks from pulpits, at conferences, in new media. He has been a lightning rod for controversy-all for trying to offer what his life, reading of scripture and Christian wisdom, conversations, and prayer were telling him might be life-giving teachings about how to follow Jesus in a new and ancient way.

I know from my own minor-league experience with critics that their words can keep me up at night, harden my heart, make me less Christian than I long to be. So perhaps the most persuasive advertisement for this book is Brian himself. When we've talked about those critics who have denied his Christianity, declared that he has been duped by the devil, or called him Satanic, I imagine that Brian is channeling Tutu's calm generosity.

He smiles, a bald Buddha, shakes his head: What can you do? Even those who hate you are children of God.

Which makes me think: Wow. This stuff really works.

Naked Spirituality showed me things in scripture and in life I had not seen-or had not felt in so deep a way. His reading of Jesus's prayer from the cross, for example, made me weep in an inconveniently public place, and his evocation of each of the seasons of life made me grateful even for the truly hard times.

Naked Spirituality will be a great book for individual practice, but I think it would also be a terrific book for small group conversations, all-church discussion, Lenten discipline. I know I have a new passion for my spiritual practice having read it, and a new passion for my Creator, and so I thank Brian for once again being the voice inviting me deeper into the life of faith.

[Taken with permission from "The Other Jesus," Greg Garrett's blog. Originally posted 3/5/1011.]