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Sunday, January 9, 2011

Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices by Brian McLaren

Not What I Hoped It Was

I hate to fault a book for what it isn't - you cannot condemn a recipe book for lack of character development or a romance novel for it's lack of discussion about thermodynamics. But, in the case of this book, I was really hoping for an in-depth discussion of ancient Christian practices that have fallen by the wayside but are deserving or a re-assessment.

The title and the blurb on the back cover led me to believe that this is a thorough discussion of certain practices. Instead, this book is an introduction to an entire series of books about specific practices. This book frustrated me for three reasons:

#1) I'm starting out with a very petty reason, but it bothered me throughout. McLaren makes extensive use of charts to demonstrate his points, but his first chart (pg. 7) was so much like the one about rating the value of a poem in the Robin Williams movie Dead Poets Society that I almost laughed out loud. For those who are unfamiliar with the reference, or that have forgetten it, here is the quote from a book about poetry that the Robin Williams character later dismisses:

If the poem's score for perfection is plotted along the horizontal of a graph, and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness.  A sonnet by Byron may score high on the vertical, but only average on the horizontal. A Shakespearean sonnet, on the other hand, would score high both horizontally and vertically, yielding a massive total area, thereby revealing the poem to be truly great. As you proceed through the poetry in this book, practice this rating method. As your ability to evaluate poems in this matter grows, so will - so will your enjoyment and understanding of poetry.

To all of this nonsense Williams' character comments: "We're not laying pipe, we're talking about poetry."

"St. Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy"
by Caravaggio
McLaren's graph is not about poetry, but attempts to makes a point about "Faith as a System of Belief" and "Faith as a Way of Life."  However, his graphs and charts come no closer to making the point than the passage in the book from Dead Poets Society does about great poetry.  McLaren's prescription, when he finally gets around to it is that certain ancient practices may be helpful in making your system of belief grow stronger and make it more of a way of life. Nice idea but he fails to make the point by providing little more than personal anecdotes and several unrelated stories about St. Francis (if you don't know much about him before you read this book, this will be little changed).

#2) McLaren spends a long time talking about this concept in vague terms. He names the practices but does little more to tell us anything in any detail until the very end of the book and even then he comes up with this simple concept - in times of stress in our Christian walk these practices are solid routines and practices to fall back on (and you can learn about them in more detail in the other books in this series). Sure, I get this as a concept, but I was not impressed by McLaren's roundabout way of getting there. I felt like the book was all buildup and little payoff.

#3) McLaren makes the point over and over again about the inter-relatedness of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. This is not news, these 3 faiths are commonly called the Abrahamic faiths for that reason. At times, McLaren sounds like he is making an appeal to Islam and Judaism to rejuvenate themselves by following these practices as well - making this a book designed for three faiths, which just seemed odd to me in a book designed for Christians.

So, to sum up, I was mostly irritated because the book took a long time to get to its point and when it finally got there I am told that I need to get yet another book to find the information I was hoping was contained in this book.

I reviewed this book in conjunction with Thomas Nelson's BookSneeze program. I was not compensated for this review. The opinions expressed are mine.

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices

Reviewed on January 9, 2011.

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