Book Review of Brian McLaren’s “Do I Stay Christian?”
by Martin Thielen
June 28, 2022
A revised version of this book review was originally published in The Christian Century
As the author and “pastor” of DoubtersParish.com, I constantly interact with people who are asking big questions about faith. For example: Is God personal? Does God intervene in the world? Was Jesus divine? Do miracles occur? Is the Bible still relevant? And—more than any other question—Is it time to give up on institutional religion?
I’ve discovered that behind such questions often lurks a bigger and even more frightening one: Can I remain a Christian believer? So I was eager to read Brian McLaren’s new book, Do I Stay Christian? Whatever you may think of his latest effort, you can’t help but admire his courage. Brian openly asks the question many Christians are asking themselves in private but are afraid to ask in public.
Reasons to Leave
In part one, McLaren lays out ten reasons for abandoning Christianity. Arguments include historic (and current) antisemitism; the church’s habit of crushing dissenters; a history of “Christian colonialism” including support of slavery, white supremacy and white Christian nationalism; toxic institutionalism; financial greed; white patriarchy, rigid theology; the inability of Christianity to transform lives; an anti-intellectual streak that rejects science and encourages poisonous politics; and an aging demographic that trends toward regressive views. Other arguments could be added, including traditional theistic theology which no longer rings true for a growing number of people in the twenty-first century.
Upon completing part one, many readers will likely say, “Case closed, I’m done with Christianity.” And it would be difficult to fault them. As McLaren clearly spells out, there are many good reasons for giving up on the Christian faith and the institutional church. However, he is not yet finished.
Reasons to Stay
In part two, McLaren lays out ten reasons for remaining Christian. For example, he argues that leaving hurts the people who are trying to transform Christianity into something better, and they need our help, not our abandonment. And if we stay, we can fight for a better faith from the inside, providing critique and energy for reformation. Also, rather than going it alone, we need the help of a global network of like-minded people to make the world better. He also notes that Christianity is still young, historically speaking, and needs more time to mature and improve.
Brian also encourages us to stay Christian because of our love for Jesus and because all religions (like all humans) are imperfect. And while traditional theistic theology (“that old Big White Guy on a Throne in the Sky”) has to go, he believes Christianity can evolve into something far more beautiful. If we stay, we can participate in that evolutionary movement toward a more enlightened faith. Several other reasons to stay Christian are also included. And more could have been added, especially the deeply felt human need for the friendship, support, and belonging of Christian community.
Part two will receive mixed reviews. Some will find Brian’s arguments for remaining Christian (and staying in church) compelling; others will not. A good number of readers will likely conclude that Brian’s arguments for staying are more aspirational than realistic, that the kind of Christianity he envisions is not likely to happen, at least in our lifetime. Those who do resonate with Brian’s arguments for staying would have appreciated pragmatic strategies for implementing the kind of faith communities he aspires to, although the appendix section provides a modest (if incomplete) start.
As a clergyperson who communicates with religious skeptics on a regular basis, my instinct is that most people struggling with faith will find part one (leave) more convincing than part two (stay). However, for those on the fence looking for more reasons to stay than to go, part two will prove helpful.
How Shall We Live?
After laying out reasons to leave and stay, Brian shifts to the third and final section of his book. He begins by asking, “Will we stay Christian? and Will Christianity survive? are less important questions than these: How shall we humans survive and thrive? What good future shall we strive for? How can we align our energies with the divine energy at work in our universe?”
Although space doesn’t permit a synopsis of section three, Brian basically lays out a humanist agenda that both Christian and secular humanists can likely agree on. While I mostly affirm his conclusions, this section tends to be more abstract and academic than parts one and two.
A New Kind of Christianity
In his conclusion, Brian calls for a radical redefinition of Christianity. He says, “I could not stay a Christian if my only option was the old way, the old way of white Christianity, the old way of patriarchal Christianity, the old way of theo-Capitalistic Christianity; the old way of violent, exclusive, and authoritarian Christianity with its suppressed but real history of cruelty.”
He then moves to vintage “new kind of Christian” Brian McLaren fare. “I have found the permission and freedom to be a new kind of Christian, a progressive Christian, a contemplative-activist Christian, a Christian humanist, or whatever you want to call me. I am learning to be content whatever I am called, as long as I remain passionately eager to embody a way of being human that is pro-justice, pro-kindness, and pro-humility. You have that permission too, if you would like it.”
As you may know, Brian once served as an evangelical preacher. So it’s only fitting that the final paragraphs of his book have the feel of a revival meeting altar call. He invites his readers “to become the most just, kind, and humble version of ourselves that we can, day by day . . . to practice a faith that expresses itself in love . . . to lean with others into a new kind of humanity, open to every good resource that can help us, explicitly Christian or not.” His closing words are, “A new humanity—humble, just and kind—can be born. Can you imagine that, fellow human?”
It almost made me want to walk down the aisle and get saved all over again. But as a “new kind of Christian,” not the old kind.