By Alister McGrath
Doubleday, 149 pp.
To have dinner with Alister McGrath is to talk to yourself for most of the meal. While being socially awkward is not unusual for an Oxford don, McGrath refuses to become a recluse in his ivory tower. Like his fellow Oxford scholar, C.S. Lewis, he seeks to popularize Christianity through writing and speaking.
McGrath is the most respected evangelical theologian, under 70 years of age, in the English-speaking world. As principal of Wycliffe Hall, he has authored dozens of highly regarded academic and more popular religious titles. He started his professional career as a scholar in the biological sciences but took a turn toward God and became a theologian.
Though he has, throughout it all, earned his bread as an ivory-tower prof, McGrath has had a persistent drive to connect with a mass audience. Like one of his mentors, theologian J.I. Packer, McGrath has a heart for the church. What's odd, though, about this socially challenged Oxford intellectual is that he has this persistent drive to connect with a mass audience. He simply refuses to stay in his Oxford office. "The Journey" is his latest attempt to connect with the outside world.
"The Journey" is a primer for lay people for how to understand the Christian life, especially those who are suspicious or have been burned by too easy answers and superficial piety. In an odd way, "Journey" can be compared to many successful business books today. They are usually either stiffly written or simply awful, but they sell well because people perceive that the bad writing has buried within it hard-won management experience. The art of the medium may be flawed but the wisdom shines through.
"The Journey" suffers from many flaws. For starters it is surprisingly cold and austere. In the introduction, McGrath writes that the book is for "people like me . . . who want to dig deeper . . . and are fed up with being fed trite and shallow answers to the big problems of Christian living by well-meaning pastors and friends." There is a story behind that sentence, but we never hear it. Even though the metaphor for this entire enterprise is how the life of faith is like a journey, we hear precious little about McGrath's particular trip.
This lack of personal information is camouflaged by a forced intimacy in the writing: for instance, "Let's think about images and themes." "Maybe others need those-but not you!" "Does that strike you as strange?" Yes, it sounds very strange.
But it is not merely because he wears tweed that McGrath teaches at Oxford. Despite the clumsiness in style and woodenness of the prose, wisdom does manage to shine through. For instance, McGrath encourages those of us on this road to "hitch a ride" with those masters who have gone before us. He compares these writings to the "rutters" of the great sixteenth-century explorers. "A rutter was basically a book in which the ship's pilot recorded every small detail of the voyage, so that his steps could be retraced in safety." Forget the fact that he said "basically a book"; he has unearthed a fresh, evocative metaphor for the wisdom literature of the church.
Many of those with whom we are to "hitch a ride" get capsule biographies and sample quotations. We hear from many of the usual suspects-John Bunyan, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Isaac Watts, C.S. Lewis--but a few were fresh voices to me. I laughed at the excerpt from the nineteenth-century Scottish preacher Alexander MacLaren, who sounds like he would be a good candidate for pastoring a church of boomers: "Do you remember the old story about the soldier that shouted out that he had caught a prisoner? And the officer said: 'Bring him along.' And the soldier answered: 'But he won't come.' 'Then come yourself.' And the answer was: 'He won't let me.' That is the kind of victory that many of our successful people have got; these are so hampered and held in its chains that early noble visions have passed away, and are smiled at now."
McGrath anchors the faith journey to the story of Israel's exodus from Egypt. He then divides our Exodus journey into four stages, which have their corresponding landmarks (creation, exile, redemption, consummation) and each of these also have their wilderness experiences and their oasis. All in all the structure makes little sense. Still, there are those nuggets of wisdom that keep popping up, such as having the chapter on the role of suffering being in the final stage of the journey. In other words, McGrath treats suffering as a mark of the Christian life (as does Jesus) and not as something to be cast off in the early stages.
He also treats Scripture as something more than a mere collection of doctrines, a refreshing and hopeful variance from what we usually get from evangelical theologians. He writes, "For the first period of my Christian life, I thought that Christian development was all about thinking harder about things I already knew. . . . I stalled. It was as if my faith was affecting only a tiny part of my life. It was then that I began to realize the importance of letting biblical ideas impact on my imagination and experience." He learned to meditate on Scripture, "to explore the theme of 'projecting oneself into the biblical narrative.'" This ultimately transformed his prayer life and his appreciation for the depth of God's Word.
McGrath lacks the verve and dash of his Oxford predecessor Lewis, but he remains a rich resource for the church nonetheless. We will still have to fall back to Lewis to attract those not on the journey to begin the trek up the holy mountain, but for those who have already started the ascent, McGrath serves as a helpful companion and guide. Read him slowly, ignore the awkward moments, savor the treasures that are there, and you may be richly rewarded.