St. Martin’s Essentials, 272 pages | Published May 24, 2022
Brian McLaren’s latest book, Do I Stay Christian?, is a breath of fresh air. The tone is honest and gracious. The content is provocative and creative. The organization is clear and generative. While the alliterative subtitle of the book rolls nicely off the tongue, it is, however, misleading: I’m a pastor and try every day to follow Jesus (however fitfully), and this book is a “guide” for me and other believers as well.
McLaren is clear that the title’s question is not theoretical, and that he hasn’t written to convince us one way or the other. Instead, he writes to help us wrestle with how to live. He first lays out the ten best reasons to answer, “Do I stay Christian?” with a decisive “no.” He then lays out ten reasons to respond with a sincere “yes!” Finally, he turns to a related question, which turns out to be the most compelling: “how do we become more human (whether we stay Christian or not)?”
In part one, the most damning chapters address anti-Semitism, violence, colonialism, money and patriarchy, but all make you want to weep. I learned something new with each one, through the cogent history and accessible theology. And kudos to McLaren for not minimizing the evil that is tragically part of our past (and present). He deepened my compassion for people who want nothing to do with Christianity. In the U.S., where we seem addicted to denial and optimism, there’s a countercultural edge to this truth-telling. The only chapter I was not compelled by was the one on demographics (though “shrinkling” is a clever neologism).
I felt unsettled, but pressed on, and found inspiration through discussion of freeing God, being human, “our legendary founder” (i.e. Jesus) and Christianity still being in its “infancy.” However, one of the most moving stories comes when two Catholic sisters invite McLaren to visit with them over some fine whiskey. They confide that their order is being investigated by church authorities, and they may be excommunicated. McLaren is blown away by the sisters’ gracious resolve in the face of a power play; they refuse to “stay compliantly or leave defiantly,” but instead maintain their integrity and speak truth as long as they can, “on the edge of the inside.”
McLaren’s response to the final question is filled with rich insights. “Transcend and include,” “start with the heart,” “re-wild” and “stay human” resonated powerfully. I am struck by how grounded each practice is — as well as blissfully free of Christian jargon. They do not require an advanced degree or years of practice; they simply invite us to be in our body, to pay attention, and to give and receive love.
The late Maya Angelou once said, “I’m always amazed when people walk up to me and say, ‘I’m a Christian.’ I think, ‘Already? You already got it?’ I’m working at it, which means that I try to be as kind and fair and generous … to every human being.” McLaren’s book helps me – and you – to keep “working at it.”
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