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Friday, May 04, 2007

A Generous Orthodoxy

A review of: A Generous Orthodoxy (2004)
by Brian McLaren
My Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

This review starts right off with a confession. I was bored for the first 215 pages.

McLaren begins his book by expressing his desire to cultivate an appreciation for all perspectives on the Christian faith. A postcritical approach: “The approach you’ll find here, which might be called postcritical, seeks to find a way to embrace the good in many traditions and historic streams of Christian faith, and to integrate them, yielding a new, generous, emergent approach that is greater than the sum of its parts.” (22) Throughout the first 215 pages, and indeed for the remainder of the book, McLaren examines various aspects of various traditions of the Christian faith and expresses appreciation for their contribution to his own, personal spiritual journey. This, of course, begs the question as to why I or anyone else should appreciate them, but nonetheless his autobiographical approach is lively and engaging and kept me moving through the first 215.

As one moves through the book, however, there are obvious issues that emerge from trying to find the best in all things. For example, in speaking of the liberal/evangelical dichotomy McLaren says the following about generous orthodoxy: “This generous orthodoxy does not mean a simple merging, mixing, conflating, or reconciling of the two schools of thought, though. Rather it disagrees with both regarding the ‘view of certainty and knowledge which liberals and evangelicals hold in common,’ a view Grenz describes as ‘produced…by modernist assumptions.’” (28) Yet after reading through A Generous Orthodoxy it is hard to see how he is not simply suggesting a “simple merging, mixing, conflating, or reconciling” of doctrines or worldviews that might stand in opposition to one another. The question is obvious: By seeking to legitimize all perspectives have we lost the significance of any? This is a point that many traditionalist Evangelicals will seize on to declare McLaren a good-time, hippy-tree-hugging relativist with no respect for reason, doctrine or the “substantial” things of the faith. (crf. 283) Yet this would be a hasty and regrettable categorization, for there is real genius in Brian McLaren’s writing and thought. I first spotted it at page 215. I quote him at length here:

Each of these new challenges and opportunities requires Christian leaders to create new forms, new methods, new structures – and it requires them to find new content, new ideas, new truths, new meaning to bring to bear on the new challenges. These new messages are not incompatible with the gospel of the kingdom Jesus taught. No, they are inherent in it, but previously undiscovered, unexpressed, perhaps unimagined. Jesus’ original message was pregnant with all that they would need, but there was much, Jesus said, that they could not yet bear to hear, and so Jesus would send the Spirit of truth to guide them into all truth as they needed it and were ready to bear it. (215)

What McLaren recognizes, which so few of those of us in conservatives circles are understanding, is that faith must be faith in this generation or it is no longer our faith. If the coming generations simply repeat the formulas of faith passed down to them then they are merely acting as historical chroniclers, documenting and preserving creedal affirmations as a tribute to God’s work in the past. In essence, the Christian faith must be meaningful if it to be truly faith.

Many of us who consider ourselves conservative watch dogs would certainly agree with the above, but there is much more – and this is where the controversy arises. If the context changes, then new formulations of the faith must be made in order for the faith to be meaningful. The expressions of faith handed down to this generation must be questioned and explored in light of the current context. This is a move involving great risk, because it necessitates putting the Christian faith in the dock and leveling fundamental and even heretical questions against it. It means asking whether or not the Christian faith, the holy scriptures, and even God himself is relevant to the current context.

When I take a few days for hiking in the cold mountains I have footwear appropriate for the terrain, I wear layers to conserve my body heat, and I pack supplies appropriate for the lengthy hike. I must be prepared for the challenges that I will face unique for this journey. I do not run, rather I hike at a brisk but deliberate pace. I must conserve my energy. Yet when I enter a marathon race on the flat, paved roads in northern Indiana on a warm summer day I merely wear a pair of shorts and a tee shirt. I do not care for heavy hiking boots, rather, I wear light shoes designed for speed, but also appropriate and cushioned. I carry no supplies, except perhaps a watch and an ipod. My challenges have changed. The terrain if drastically different.

To our conservative ears McLaren sounds like a radical, even a heretic, to suggest that we need “new truths.” Or that we need “new ideas.” We often believe that the burden of proof is on McLaren to defend this perspective. I say that the burden of proof is on those of us who suggest that the church should be wearing hiking boots when she is lining up at the starting line of a marathon. The challenges have changed and it is simply na├»ve to suggest that we can merely recite the previous formulations of the past. This generation faces a crisis of meaning. Will the ancient Scriptures be proved meaningful in this day, for this challenge, and for this life? Or will they merely be “handed down” as a queer curiosity?

Chapter 17, “Why I am Incarnational” is perhaps the most provocative of all. McLaren directly addresses the issue of interacting with other religions. What he says is intriguing: “Because I follow Jesus I am bound to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, atheists, New Agers, everyone…Not only am I bound to them in love, but I am also actually called to, in some real sense, become one of them, to enter their world and be with them in it.” (282)

Firstly, the vision that McLaren casts is lofty, and it is high. McLaren speaks of learning from the religious distinctives of others, such as meditation from Zen Buddhists. (287-88) He suggests that other religious perspectives might serve as a corrective to our tendency to distort the purity of our own faith. (286-87) There must be a genuine dialogue, then, with other religious perspectives that is not merely a pretense, but an authentic outreach to give and to take. (283) It is, then, a risky venture, and for McLaren this will likely mean that many faults with our understanding of faith will be exposed, such that Jesus will not only be saving the Buddhist religion, but will also save the Christian religion. (297) The vision I see McLaren cast is not one of competition, but cooperation. (299) This involves a high degree of risk. I make two observations.

First, this approach to evangelism requires a great deal of security in one’s own beliefs. Otherwise, it no longer becomes evangelism and the Christian is simply enjoying an interesting dialogue. There is nothing wrong with this, but dialogue is not discipleship. And if the Christian faith is not in the business of discipleship then it is not in the business of its founder and commissioner.

Secondly, to engage in an evangelism that is cooperative rather than competitive I would think must involve a rigorous intellectual climate and community within the church. Where do believers go to sort out the meaning of faith and truth and life after having fundamental beliefs challenged in dialogue with a member of another faith? To be perfectly frank and completely honest the current church in America has no structure to support this kind of probing and exploration. This is true on all levels, even for those churches that pride themselves in their depth of doctrine. Perhaps it is especially true in these more intellectual wings of the church because there are so many “untouchable” questions – so many doctrines and beliefs that would existentially freeze us to question. In short, the church simply does not have the forums to open up real questions and then take the time to meaningfully explore them in a deep and relevant way.

This last point goes to the weakness of A Generous Orthodoxy, for although it gives us a vision for a generous orthodoxy, it fails to move towards a meaningful orthodoxy. Again, to restate, this generation faces a crisis of meaning, and to find something meaningful requires not only to question and explore it in a deep and way, but it also requires defining how it is distinctive in relationship to other competing views and life perspectives.

Most conservatives fail to recognize that the crisis exists and are too reserved to engage the issues and take the risks to explore the challenges and to put the ancient faith in the dock. McLaren sees the crisis and understands the direction the church should move, but he seems to me to fail to appreciate that for the faith to be made meaningful it must be distinctive. I repeat my question stated at the beginning of this review: By seeking to legitimize all perspectives have we lost the significance of any?

Unlike my fellow conservatives, I do not discount McLaren’s vision for dialogue and cooperation with other religions. I am just skeptical whether the church has the ability to handle such a bold advance. The majority of my fellow thinkers and theologians who are in the best position to advance such a vision are unwilling to do so, thinking that such a view is a retreat from the start. A vision for cooperation and conversation seems to them to trivialize the truth. Only combative dialogue seems like the appropriate tone for an intellectual battle field.

McLaren is not a theologian, and the deeper he goes into theology the more I cringe. But give or take a few fumbles here and a few over generalizations there McLaren has it right. McLaren has it too right. At this point we simply do not have the resources for a vision of engaging the world through cooperation, or for deep doctrinal discussions that actually explore some of the genuine contributions of various viewpoints. Either we have people willing to seek meaning but content to never find it, or we have those who find meaning but never seek it.

9 comments:

Melody said...

I'm so confused. Were you bored up until page 215 or was it "lively and engaging"?

If you're going to make public confessions you should make them as clear as possible. Your therapist might be content to muddle through what you're thinking, but the reading public likes their observations short, snappy, and not so very contradictory.

Dawn said...

I enjoy Brian McLaren and his thoughts on the church. I don't agree with everything he says, but I do agree with the emergent church's openness to dialog.

One of the things that turns me off about conservative Christians (generally speaking, of course) is that they're opposed to questions...and if you do question, then perhaps you're a Hell-bound heathen.

samlcarr said...

Fear is something that acts as a conservative driving force. Long, long ago, when I was leaving the U.S., i knew that Christianity in India was very different. I was going to be spending some time with my brother at a seminary that was notoriously liberal (or so i thought) and i sought out the great R.C. Sproul for some advice. His response... "don't go there, if you do go, don't talk to anyone."

Jonathan Erdman said...

Fair Question: Yes, McLaren was lively and engaging up through pages 215, but I was still rather bored with the content because it struck me as the typical can't-we-all-just-get-along mantra.

I appreciated A New Kind of Christian far more than A Generous Orthodoxy.

Jonathan Erdman said...

I agree with the above comments on the isolationism of many, many circles of conservative Christianity in the States. The idea that one should barricade themselves within Christian institutions from the cradle to the grave needs to be challenged. If nothing else comes from McLaren (and others similar to him) and his writings I think that a challenge to truly engage the culture will be a much needed corrective for the U.S. church.

After spending much time shouting at the world from a distance it is time to do a bit of listening.

samlcarr said...

one can expect McLaren's thoughts to be received eagerly by the EC but evangelicals must be wondering. Writing a book may have a slow influence with the few conservatives who dare to read it.

But, if there really is to be some proper conversation, much more has to be done on both sides. The emergers will have to remember that they once were satisfied to be conservative and from that standpoint i think conversation can ensue. The baby should not be tossed with the bathwater...

Jonathan Erdman said...

Very true, Sam, but with the EC there is such diversity of thought and perspective. I think one reason McLaren has emerged as a primary spokesperson for EC is that he has the ability to write provocative and stimulating ideas while at the same time being very conscious about what lines to cross and what lines not to cross. He seems to have an acute awareness of how his writings will be received by conservatives. Conservatives who are somewhat open and receptive by and large seem to appreciate McLaren, even if they don't necessary agree with him on all issues.

McLaren also seems to know that some of the more staunch conservatives will never be persuaded and he doesn't even seem to bother with them. It may seem odd to hear this, but I do get the impression that McLaren has a gift for nuance. My thought is that he has a extraordinary understanding of which audience he wants to reach out to - who he should write to and who he shouldn't.

samlcarr said...

Yes, publishing successfully is a strange thing. there are those who go hunting controversy (as an excellent driver of sales) and there are those who tease and just skate the edges of being provocative. Given the relative sizes of the EC and Ev i guess McLaren has chosen well. I just wonder how many committed evangelicals (as opposed to the already disatisfied ones) would pick up a book that was in any way 'tainted'.

Dawn said...

If you haven't read it, I'd suggest "Adventures In Missing The Point" by McLaren and Tony Campolo. It's a book I read about every six months or so to remember that there are things that I believe that need to be challenged.