Thursday, January 27, 2005

A Generous Orthodoxy -- A Review

"A Generous Orthodoxy" by Brian D. McLaren (Zondervan, 2004) US$19.99($13.59 on

Review by Richard Kew

Brian McLaren, a church planter and pastor from Maryland, has become one of the gurus of the emerging church movement during the last few years. A former college English teacher, McLaren communicates eirenically,writes engagingly, and in a beguiling manner gives his readers plenty to chew upon. This book was a Christmas present to me from a member ofmy congregation who has become quite enamored by the whole emerging church phenomenon. I appreciated it.

In a way, the agenda that McLaren spells out in this book is not very different from that which drove David Tomlinson, a British pastor,to write the book "The Post-Evangelical" in the last 1990s. The point Tomlinson was making was that evangelical Christianity is so much achild of the Enlightenment-spawned modern culture that it shares many of that culture's shortcomings, and because of this is often blind to what it means to speak a genuine biblical orthodoxy into that culture. McLaren is saying much the same thing here, although in a much more American way.

A point he makes early on is that one of the problem with what passes for Christian orthodoxy today is that it is anything but generous. Indeed, both liberal and conservative Christianity are so wedded to undergirding presuppositions concerning understanding rationality and knowledge that they flounder in the sea of postmodernity. They have not only lost their way, but in the confusion they have also lost any sense of charity.

This book glories in making the case that the Christian of today has to be both/and rather than either/or, so it has a rather unwieldy subtitle which reads, "Why I am a missional/evangelical, post/protestant,liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical,charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/calvinist,anabaptist/anglican, methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent, unfininshed Christian!"In an effort to clarify this title he says, "This generous orthodoxy does not mean a simple merging, mixing, conflating, or reconciling of...schools of thought... Rather... generous orthodoxy must take seriously the postmodern problematic.... the way forward is for evangelicals to take the lead in renewing the theological center thatcan meet the challenges of the postmodern situation in which the church now finds itself" (page 24).

However, McLaren goes on, to speak of generous orthodoxy is to a lot oxymoronic since "many if not most orthodoxies of the past have not displayed much generosity toward others outside their tribe" (Page 27). I would concur, and would further suggest that in my Episcopal Church experience we don't show much generosity to those inside our tribe either! This leads both McLaren and me to conclude that what therefore passes as orthodoxy lacks a completeness because it has been stripped of orthopraxy.

"This book sees orthopraxy as the point of orthodoxy -- again, a concept so unorthodox as to encourage a good many good readers to abandon this book right now" (page 31). The orthodoxy that many of us practice is adept at drawing lines in the sand, but this author would suggest thatwe are to eager to absolutize what ought not to be absolutized. He tells us that relativists are right in their denunciation of absolutism,and absolutists are right in their denunciation of relativism for "the answer lies beyond both absolutism and relativism" (page 38).

Here, you can see McLaren gets uncomfortable to be around. I write these words five days before our diocesan convention starts. The various parties involved in what is becoming an annual pitched battle are getting their troops lined up, their arguments sharpened, their candidates readied, and their strategies honed. We know we have to do this to defend ourselves against our detractors because the unfaithfulness of the last General Convention has guaranteed the need for this, yet at the same time I hate it for it is hardly very generous, and as far as I am concerned genuine orthodoxy gets lost in all the politic-ing.

Perhaps this is conclusive evidence that the work of the Gospel cannot be undertaken by a church which still possesses an ecclesial structure that is so much a product of the Enlightenment and modernity, that the only way we can think of making decisions is by casting endless votes that are mutually exclusive of one another, and demonize "the other side. "McLaren is attempting to make the point throughout this book that the Jesus we serve is bigger than our tiny perceptions of his nature and identity, and that he reaches far beyond our petty distinctives and polarities. Chapters bear titles like "The Seven Jesuses I Have Known "and "Would Jesus be a Christian?" -- the sort of headings to tempt you further into the text, but also to get you to sit back and ask some substantial questions that you might not have wanted to consider before.

McLaren tells us that he is not by nature a fighter or firebrand. I get the impression he would probably get more pleasure sitting quietly for a few hours with a piece of world-class literature, than engaging in the rawkous, unreflective, antagonistic, and extroverted free-for-all that so much church life is today. Yet while this is ingrained in his personality, there is also good reason for this approach, and that is that he critiques today's consumer-driven church (liberal, conservative, or otherwise) as being in business for its own mutual self-interest rather than being about creating an authentic community of disciples of Jesus Christ that is there for the good of the world.

He is clearly a great fan of Lesslie Newbigin, who pointed out quite succinctly that the greatest heresy in monotheism results from taking the first half of God's call to Abraham that he will bless us and make a great nation of us, and separating it from the second part of the call,which is to be a blessing to all nations. "Any form of Christianity that takes the first part of God's call to Abraham more seriously than the second is not missional... neither is it generous or truly orthodox"(Page 110). You might find it helpful to stop and chew on that one for a few minutes!In the later chapters of the Book Brian McLaren is getting across to his reader that things that might appear mutually exclusive are not necessarily so, and for the audience of this review, his chapter "Why I am an (Ana)baptist/Anglican" is worth reading.

McLaren finds the radical churches of the Reformation very enticing, as, I confess, do I. "Anabaptists saw the same scholastic dryness in late Medieval Catholicism that other Protestants saw. But while some other Protestants, in a kind of lateral conversion, replaced Catholic scholasticism with a new Protestant scholasticism of their own,Anabaptists steered a more radical route, seeing the whole scholastic approach itself as the problem. Anabaptists wanted a forward conversion into a different approach to Christian faith entirely: faith as a way of life in community" (page 205).

Wilbert Schenk, the leading Mennonite missiologist has been writing and speaking in this way for many years, suggesting that the old line and the conservative churches have a lot to learn from the Anabaptist rejection of the Christendom status quo,in favor of being a voice on the fringes that lives and proclaims in uncomfortable ways the Word of the Lord. The Anabaptists were prepared to be marginalized in the old modern world, and we will all need to be prepared to be marginalized in the postmodern world. "Rather than lamenting that 'Christendom' is over, Anabaptists have always felt, 'Good riddance!'(page 206), and we too should be willing to consider joining them in this expostulation.

But then McLaren goes on to applaud the strengths of Anglicanism, about as far as you can get from the Anabaptists among the churches of the Reformation. McLaren spent a number of very happy years in an Episcopal congregation a generation or so ago, and there is much about the Anglican way that he appreciates. The classic Protestant formulary, he notes, is a reductionist tendency to set one thing against another, butthat need not be the case -- learn from the Anglicans.

While they may not be doing it very well at the moment, Anglicans seek to live with tensions: Scripture always in dialogue with tradition, believing within the context of beautiful worship undertaken as a community around a table, and he approvingly quotes Thomas McConnell. "Perhaps the most important thing about Hooker is that he wrote no Summaand composed no Institutes, for what he did was to outline method. What is distinctly Anglican is then not a theology but a theological method"(Page 212). The problems we have right now is that the theologicalmethod has, by many of us, been abandoned and ignored.

This is the sort of stuff that is coming out of the Emerging Church tradition, and we need to chew on it wisely and well for I hazard it is a lot closer to what the future is going to look like than the pitched battles of these dying days of the present incarnation of American Anglicanism. I thoroughly agree with our colleague, Phil Harrold, from Weinbrenner Seminary in Findley, Ohio. Phil works with young emerging church pastors and keeps telling us how ravished they are by the genius of Anglicanism, but how revolted they are by the primary representative of Anglicanism in the USA (and who can blame them).

Phil believes that however the churches reconfigure themselves, those young leaders belong somewhere in our future. I agree with him. Let's find ways to make friends of them, discover their secrets, share our treasures with them, become colleagues and blood brothers and sisters. Let's pick their brains, and let us offer to them some of the lessons we have accumulated in an act of filial generosity. The outcome of such actions might lead to the miracle we need -- and could trigger a genuine generous orthodoxy among us.

Oh, and read Brian McLaren's book....

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