This summer, EpiC students are blogging, chapter by chapter, about the book A New Kind of Christian by Brian McLaren.
First I just want to say that I’m very conflicted about having two sets of colons in the title, but I’m trying to follow the format and the chapter title has a colon. Moving on.
When Neo is called away to Seattle to care for his mother after his father’s death, Dan and Neo begin to communicate via email. For a few months, their correspondences stick to the topics of personal life, how Neo’s mother is, and the business of forwarding Neo’s mail. They briefly discuss Neo’s financial generosity. Neo, a high school teacher, gives away a full 25% of his salary to his church as well as other charities. Dan asks Neo how he can afford it. Instead of listing tips for frugal living, Neo explains that as a boy he’d vowed to tithe, and “through the years he would find himself pulled toward supporting additional charitable endeavors… He said that giving was one of his greatest joys in life.”
Neo can afford to give so much because he makes it a priority. I find that often when people say they don’t have enough time or money for something, they really mean they don’t want to make it a priority. If people make tithing or volunteering priorities, they’ll work around them. Neo says that “if the new kind of Christianity we had been dreaming about wasn’t radically generous, it was a waste of time.”
After a few months, Neo wants to resume the conversation, and he asks Dan what theological mountains he is “climbing up (or skiing down) these days.” Dan asks about what being a Christian will look like in the future, “What changes, what remains same?” Neo summarizes their previous talks on change in our understanding of the Bible, “our understanding of Jesus not IN the way, keeping other people away from God, but AS the way, bringing people to God,” and un-meshing Christianity from modernity’s constrictions and individualization of the gospel. The only change left to discuss, according to Neo, is spirituality.
The word “spirituality” makes me uneasy. I grew up in a conservative independent Baptist church, and I can’t recall ever hearing the word used positively. “Spiritual” holds the somewhat conflicting connotations of A. unreligious people who pray to angels who are actually demons for some reason and B. Christians who take Instagram pictures of coffee and their Bible and make me feel bad for not being as awesome as they probably are. Neither of these makes for a good definition and both are way more judgmental than I often claim to be.
Neo reflects on his conservative evangelical upbringing and sorts between what “worked” spiritually and what didn’t. He finds that the things that made him more markedly religious did nothing, while the things that made him connect with God helped him. “Journaling and all other spiritual practices done ‘in secret’ seem to me to be essential.” I’m tempted here to condemn those Instagram sharers I commented on before, but I think we all suffer from sounding a metaphorical trumpet before ourselves when we give alms, as Jesus warned against in Matthew 6. Neo also predicts that the new kind of Christian spirituality and spiritual formation “will be more like the ancient and medieval church and less like the modern church.”
One area of spirituality many modern Christians have lost is creation spirituality. Neo describes how religion is all about reconnection between humankind and God, humankind with itself, etc. A reconnection between humankind and the rest of creation is now necessary. The natural world is a gift, but is often treated as an inconvenience to be avoided. “Learning to live as caretakers of creation and friends to our fellow creatures must be at the core of a new kind of Christianity.”
Dan then reflects on his own background. The first area he addresses is how spirituality is so often oriented around guilt in our culture. “Staple of evangelical spirituality in my experience was ‘the quiet time’: get up each morning to read the Bible and pray.” He explains how, while these are good things, it seems to be all about quantity. He’d finish every quiet time feeling guilty about how he should do it more. The flip side of modern spirituality is public worship: singing songs together. Often the lyrics of these modern songs are “all about ‘me.’ How Jesus makes me feel, what he does for me, how he loves and forgives me.” I experienced the same revelation regarding music last year when singing a song begging Jesus to dance with me and romance me. While these songs aren’t necessarily harmful on their own, Dan asks, “Does this represent a kind of narcissistic and over-individualized spirituality?”
Finally, they discuss what spiritual practices are working and how they’ve been working for centuries. Youth retreats work, as they’re really just “short-term monastic experiences.” Short-term mission trips reflect the missions of Paul as well as pilgrimages. Small groups and one-on-one relationships are “echoes of ancient training methods.” Getting involved in leading and serving is found in Bible stories of God throwing Moses and the disciples into ministry before they thought they were ready.
Overall, spirituality in a new kind of Christianity involves practices done in private, reconnecting with creation, tossing aside over-individualization, and embracing ancient practices, many of which are still done in different ways.