Do I Stay Christian?
A guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed, and the Disillusioned
By Brian D. McLaren
A Review by Dwight A Moody
A few months ago, my son and I picked up a strip of peel—off plastic letters, drove to the small building that houses the very small congregation I pastor, and affixed these mild green letters to the wood trim on the back wall of the sanctuary. They display the words of the ancient Hebrew prophet Micah that have become ubiquitous in some branches of contemporary Christian culture: Do Justice, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly with God.
Which predisposed me to smile warmly when the popular Christian author ended this thick, thoughtful book with a call to “stay human.” And how did he define “human”? With this same phrase—the call to justice, mercy, and humility. “Micah turns a religious question,” referring to “What does God require of you?” into a human question” (217).
But before the reader reaches this simple and appealing conclusion, she must navigate through an unfamiliar forest of ideas, authors, and possible answers to the question posed by this book. This comes mainly in Part III, in which McLaren lays out some of his answer. One needs to read some of his impressive list of books to get a more complete answer, and that surely is worth the time. For regardless of how you or I answer his question, reading this book (and other McLaren books) spins the head in new directions. I admit: I have read a lot of books, but few of the reading resources quoted or recommended in Part III of this book are familiar to me. McLaren makes his living reading the words of others, listening to the words of others, and meditating upon the words of others as prelude to his own work of interpretation and integration such as is found in this book.
It is a big vision McLaren has, of renouncing some things, announcing other things, and embracing many things old and new. What comes out may or may not be Christian—he does not care, insofar as it pertains to you and me. We must search for our own truth, find our own way, follow our own path. “I’d like to give you permission to make a shift in your own thinking,” he writes on page 167.
In Part I, McLaren reviews all the reasons people give for saying No to the question Do I Stay Christian? He considers ten of these, including: “Because Of Christianity’s Suppression of Dissent” (chapter 2) and “Because Christianity is a Sinking, Shrinking Ship of Wrinkling People” (chapter 10). All of these are powerful, and all of these are things many of us contend with. By the end of the ten, I was ready to quit the gig altogether.
But then McLaren comes back with ten, equally compelling reasons to say Yes, to remain Christian. These include “Because Leaving Defiantly or Staying Compliantly Are Not My Own Options” (chapter 12) and “Because of Our Legendary Founder” (chapter 15). After reading these ten, I was ready to re-enlist!
By the time I reached the end of this walk in the woods with my friend and fellow traveler, I had my own three-part manuscript ready to write, driven by questions his book incited in me. First, his eloquent and learned call for the transformation of our religion left me wondering: can the religious faith and practice at the core of our culture move in new directions while surrounded by the other six and fairly immoveable “mountains of cultural influence” (to co-opt a phrase that embraces government, media, education, business, art, and family). Can one change without the others? Aren’t they all so interlocked that it is impossible to change one without changing them all? Which brings this question: are their parallel movements of transformation in these other realities of modern, western civilization?
Then there is Jesus. Yes, McLaren has a chapter on Jesus, but it is not the sort of treatment that is sufficient to this task. Jesus, it appears, is just one of twenty moving pieces in the jigsaw puzzle of religion. To deal with Jesus, he tells one of the stories in the gospel writings, of the man possessed of demons who encounters Jesus. One of his conclusions is this: “I hope you can see at least the possibility of what seems so clear to me at this moment: Jesus was the kind of extraordinary person who inspired people so profoundly that they told stories about him” (119). But what seems clear to me is that this summary statement is far too weak, too narrow, too shallow to account for all the things that have flowed from the life and teachings of Jesus. I don’t recall a chapter, a paragraph, even a sentence that treated the death and resurrection as possible answers to the fundamental question McLaren poses.
Which flows into this observation: this may be the most Arminian book I have ever read! Asking the basic question—Do I Stay Christian?—is the end-of-the-line dialogue whose earlier contours were shaped by a radio program (The Hour of Decision), a chorus (“I Have Decided to Follow Jesus”), and the worship practice known as The Invitation. All of these, and a hundred more, emphasize the freewill side of our religion, a welcomed pushback against the predestinarian form of so much of Christianity. But the overarching importance of individual choice ends up with a question like this: Do I Stay Christian? Which sounds so much like, Am I renewing my AARP membership? Or, Do I want to join the new pickleball league? All seem so much like ordinary people weighing the pros and cons of something in light of schedules, finances, and family commitments.
McLaren gives an opening to discuss these sorts of questions, in his chapter called “Re-Consecrate Everything” (25). He warns the searching soul: “You can leave Christianity, but Christianity won’t leave you.” And he is 100% right about this: just as Christianity seeped into our souls from every corner of our culture (even if it was embraced by our decision to walk the aisle or go all the way under the water), so Christianity will resist every effort we make to walk it back or dry it off. It is not that easy, and not just for cultural reasons.
But in the end, McLaren has given me and you a lot to think about, a way to move forward, a vision to embrace. And for me, an every-Sunday preacher, it has provided a fresh way to approach my homiletic work that is coming in the new year: how to present in a fresh and compelling way the way to live, think, and pray shaped by the most famous words Jesus ever uttered: “Our Father in heaven, hollowed be your name….”
Thank you, Brian. Keep reading. Keep thinking. Keep writing. And keep that kayak in the water!