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Naked Spirituality by Brian McLaren (book review)

A few years back, Brian McLaren wrote Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices, a primer on spiritual disciplines and practices. Related, though perhaps more refined and reflective, is McLaren’s Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words, published several months ago, a bit under the radar, amidst the noise of Rob Bell’s Love Wins. Both Finding Our Way Again and Naked Spirituality, I have found, fill in some of the gaps left by McLaren’s “macro-level” works addressing the system of Christianity in the West. A bit narrower (though not shallower) in focus, these books address spirituality on the ground amidst the questions, excitement, joys, and struggles of faith.

In Naked Spirituality, McLaren explores four seasons of Christian faith. Not unlike Fowler’s “stages of faith,” these seasons – Simplicity, Complexity, Perplexity, and Harmony – recognize the diversity present in human experiences of faith and the divine. Brash confidence, silent struggles, timid hope, utter confusion, and calm assurance could each describe a different season of a person’s faith as it ebbs and flows through the changing tides of life.

McLaren asserts that these stages are not linear, but cyclical – seasonal.  A season of Harmony might follow Perplexity, but Harmony will ultimately transition into a new period of Simplicity. The goal is not to achieve or maintain a high “faith stage,” but to pursue God with honesty and authenticity – metaphorically unclothed – in the season one currently finds oneself in, recognizing that, in this life, just as the seasons will continue to change, so will one’s faith on the journey towards sanctification and transformation.

Each of these seasons, McLaren posits, is conducive to certain disciplines or practices. In this book, three “simple words” are used to connect practices or postures to each season. For Simplicity, Here, Thanks, and O; for Complexity, Sorry, Help, and Please; Perplexity, When, No, and Why; and for Harmony, Behold, Yes, and […]. These three words, and their corresponding practices or disciplines, each are described as “doable habits or rhythms that transform us, rewiring our brains, restoring our inner ecology, renovating our inner architecture, expanding our capacities” (23).

With this focus on transformation – or “rewiring” – Naked Spirituality fits within the broader camp of spiritual transformation literature (think Foster, Willard, etc.), perhaps with a bit more postmodern approach. Like his earlier Finding Our Way Again, Naked Spirituality draws upon parallels, imagery, and resources from diverse faith experiences, not limited to the Christian experience. In this way, McLaren’s leanings as an evangelist, for the Christian faith but also for humility, civility, and dialogue, come through clearly. As could be imagined, for some this will be a selling point and for others, a “selling out” point.

Reading Naked Spirituality was something of a spiritual experience for me. I have found it easier and easier to “breeze through” books, reading only at an informational level, but I found myself slowing down as I moved through the pages of this book. McLaren writes with honesty about his own journey, opening up about the stories and struggles of faith in a way that his “macro-level” writing does not always allow. This book, like many others written in the arena of spirituality and formation, begs the reader to take pause in the midst of life’s busyness and actually consider the words on the page an opportunity for change and growth.

One of the hallmarks of McLaren’s style is to provide more questions than answers, and I will do the same here – ending with an open-ended and honest question that lingers in my mind after having read the book. Whether you find yourself in agreement with McLaren’s macro-level diagnoses and prescriptions for twenty-first century Christianity or not, I wonder what would happen if Naked Spirituality’s call to self-examination, discipline, reflection, and engagement with faith on a deeply personal (and, inevitably, communal and social) level was taken to heart (or, if McLaren’s writing is not for you, the similar call of others writing on disciplines and transformation).

How would perceptions of faith and spirituality change if a common thread among the faithful was a deep and humble practice of examination and reflection – a “naked spirituality”?

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book (#vb-NS) for review from TheOOZE Viral Bloggers program.

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