Friday, September 21, 2012

A Gentle Force: Brian McLaren's Case for the Book

I've just started reading Brian McLaren's new book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road, graciously sent me by his editor/publisher, Wendy Grisham. It's good so far--big shocker, as McLaren is a very good writer and has a real command of how a book flows and moves. I was converted almost immediately from my initial skepticism about what I thought was a pretty weird title to enthusiasm for it--simply by how McLaren riffed on and ultimately subverted the contemporary suspicion that religion is a joke. I love that sort of thing.

McLaren is making the case for a strong, benevolent approach to faith: adherents who wholeheartedly embrace their distinct religious identity while giving honor and kindness to adherents of other faiths, even wishing them well and working toward their well-being. Scandalous, I know. Jesus said it in five words: "Love your neighbor as yourself"; for even as effective a writer as McLaren, such a thesis takes 273 pages (plus two pages of acknowledgments).

Now, some of that length is simply wordiness; forty-five pages in and I find myself thinking Yeah, yeah, you've already made that point. But what a caffeinated and impatient reader like me takes as redundancy is, in McLaren's mind (I suspect) a careful ellipticism, leading the reader slowly and carefully along a spiraled path, with plenty of secure touchpoints along the way, toward a confident embrace of his thesis: that we really should love our neighbor as ourselves. Such is the nature of persuasion in an age of tribalized conflict: any provocative premise must be handled slowly, with great care.

Today I read the following little bit, which is encouraging to me as a book publishing professional (though my colleagues may beg to differ): in McLaren's view, books are particularly useful tools in forming, informing and reforming people's core convictions and fundamental self-understanding. In a world of blaring headlines, in a world where everyone can point to the teeth-marks of at least one sound bite, a book can be as gentle as it is forceful, as careful as it is controversial.

Identity formation--and reformation--takes time and can't be forced or pushed. It involves many dangers, toils, and snares--threats and setbacks, wrong turns and recoveries. Even under the best of conditions, there are limits to the speed by which a religious identity can come of age and face the challenges before it. Perhaps that's why a book like this can be important: it can provide privacy, time, and space for people to consider the unsettling and dangerous proposal of an identity change. . . . [A] book makes no demands. It remains easy to put down and easy to ignore. That very gentleness can be its greatest power. It is hard to defend against something that is not aggressive.
Nice, huh? I may share it with some authors or should-be authors I know. Lest we overemphasize the unique value of a book, however, let me also draw your attention to the potential power of a tweet, as demonstrated in the same passage:

It is hard to defend against something that is not aggressive.

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