A Generous Orthodoxy (review by Craig Blomberg)

  • Brian Mclaren
  • Nov 1, 2004
  • Series: Volume 7 - 2004

Brian D. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy: 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, Unfinished Christian. Grand Rapids: Zondervan; El Cajón, CA: Youth Specialties, 2004. 297 pp. $19.99. ISBN 0-310-25747-6.

Not since the last Harry Potter novel have friends I respect so differed on their assessments of a book that I was interested in reading. But whereas everyone could summarize the plot of Harry's adventures, while differing on the value and effect of the novel overall, here I could hardly believe my friends were even reading the same book. "Whereas McLaren just pushed the envelope a little in A New Kind of Christian, here he abandons almost all the fundamental doctrines of the faith," warned one. "There is no unbiblical doctrine anywhere in the book; in fact, here lies one of the keys to restoring the unity of the church Jesus prayed for in John 17," intoned another. "Wow," I thought, "I'll be really curious to see what the book actually includes. I'll probably wind up concluding that the real truth lies about half way in between these extremes." I was surprised that this was not the case.

In his introduction, McLaren makes it clear that he is particularly interested in reaching non-Christians and disaffected Christians in an increasingly postmodern world. He also admits that he has gone out of his way "to be provocative, mischievous, and unclear" (p. 23) in order to stimulate more thought than more humdrum writing usually generates. He acknowledges his indebtedness to Stanley Grenz for the term "generous orthodoxy," which reflects a vision for renewing the "center" of the theological spectrum of historic Christianity.

Chapter 0 (!) entices the reader with the title, "For Mature Audiences Only." In it, McLaren warns his audience that parts of the book are overly simplistic, overly idealistic, and perhaps overly generous. But he hopes that the form of orthodoxy he commends will be more humble than arrogant, more unifying than divisive, more affirming of the good in other faiths than stressing the bad, and equally aware of the dangers of both absolutism and relativism.

The rest of the volume divides into two parts of unequal length: "Why I Am a Christian" (four chapters) and "The Kind of Christian I Am" (sixteen chapters). The first part begins with "The Seven Jesuses I Have Known" (Conservative Protestant, Pentecostal/Charismatic, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Liberal Protestant, Anabaptist and the Jesus of the oppressed—as seen in nonviolent forms of liberation theology). In essence, McLaren tells the story of his interaction with people of each of these Christian traditions and, in some cases, his prolonged participation in the given tradition at one stage of his life or another. In most cases he accurately assesses strengths and weaknesses and distinctive theological contributions, though one wonders how well he has understood Catholicism and Orthodoxy, since the Catholic Christ focuses far more on the baby in the cradle and the crucified Jesus on the cross than the resurrected Jesus (as he claims). Orthodoxy, on the other hand, celebrates the Resurrection on Easter as the crowning and most elaborate and joyous liturgical event of the entire church calendar, a point he omits altogether. At the end of his survey, he concludes that he is not promoting a liquefied blend of all these traditions but rather that each tradition should bring its "distinctive and wonderful gifts to the table, so we can all enjoy the feast of generous orthodoxy—and spread that same feast for the whole world" (p. 67).

In "Jesus and God B," McLaren contrasts an authoritarian, triumphalist God A (and his Son) with a humble, serving God B (and his Son). McLaren's lack of scholarly training (which he admits in several places) leads him more astray here than in most places of the book, because he misses the Daniel 7 background of "Son of Man" and the Messianic background of Son of God that require us to take a both-and rather than either-or approach to his schematic of God A and God B, but little in the book's overall argument hinges on this chapter.

"Would Jesus Be a Christian?" raises the provocative question of whether Jesus would identify with much that goes under the banner of Christianity today (and whether contemporary Christians would like Jesus all that much or seek to kill him as a heretic)! He is particularly concerned with how Jesus has been co-opted as an uncritical supporter of right-wing politics when in fact enemy-love was central to his ethic.

The most theologically frustrating chapter in the book rounds out Part One-- "Jesus: Savior of What?" McLaren rightly reacts to those who so emphasize rescue from hell in a world to come that they fail to come to grips with the Scriptural commands and promises that faith makes a difference in this life, and not just in personal "consumerist" fashion, but in the world--in creation, in social groups, in interpersonal and international relationships and with the environment. But here, and in the next chapter, he goes out of his way to refuse to tell the reader whether or not he is a universalist and whether or not he believes in any kind of hell, though if one reads the almost microscopically printed footnotes, one senses that the answers are no and yes, respectively, but in a nuanced way that in this context he really doesn't want to emphasize at all. Fair enough, but why would a more balanced presentation later in the book hurt that much? Does he really want those who read less meticulously to come away unnecessarily suspicious of him? That does not fit the anti-divisive, unifying spirit that characterizes so much else in the volume.

Part Two turns to the long list of adjectives that dominate McLaren's subtitle. One thinks one is reading Granville Sharp or Jonathan Edwards with their interminable eighteenth-century book titles at this juncture. Still, each chapter introduces a crucial component of Christian faith. He is missional, because his mission statement combines evangelism and social action in striving "to be and make disciples of Jesus Christ in authentic community for the good of the world" (p. 107). He is evangelical by taking a high view of Scripture, emphasizing personal conversion, believing God can be known intimately, and wanting to share his faith with others, but not in the sense that it has often come to mean in the secular world today as equivalent to the religious right-wing on social and political issues. He is post-Protestant in that he is no longer protesting what the Reformers were but he is pro-testifying to his faith. His liberal/conservative label also joins together polarities roughly equivalent to evangelism and social action. As a mystical poet, he wants to add the dimension of heart to head, of metaphor and narrative to propositional truth and systematizing theology, while clearly reaffirming the need for the latter element in each of these pairs. But because a majority of Scripture is narrative in form, he believes he is moving in more biblical directions by reclaiming the former element in each case.

As a charismatic contemplative, McLaren is open to supernatural works of the Spirit but prefers the quieter Catholic experiences to the classic Pentecostal ones and enjoys meditating on the beauty of God in creation. As a fundamentalist/Calvinist, he realizes there are non-negotiables worth fighting for, but, ironically, these most central tenets of Scripture are the double love-command, not the more peripheral issues over which Christians have too often divided. With the true, original spirit of Reformed Christianity, he stresses the semper reformanda dimension of the faith, pointing to Richard Mouw's writings as an excellent contemporary model of what he admires. To that end, he proposes that a revised TULIP could represent "Triune Love," "Unselfish Election," "Limitless Reconciliation," "Inspiring Grace," and "Passionate, Persistent Saints" (pp. 195-97)!

From the Anabaptist movement, he appropriates emphases on peace and justice, simplicity and community; from the Anglicans, dynamic tension, (positive) compromise and (liturgical) beauty. He can call himself Methodist because of Wesley's original commitment to the outcast of the world and Catholic because of its universality, appreciation of tradition and balancing self-denial with knowing "how to party" (p. 229). He is "green" because of the Christian's mandate to be a good steward of creation; incarnation, because he highlights 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 in becoming all things to all people so that by all means he might win some. With respect to people of other faiths, "gentle and respectful dialogue" reflects the way to move forward (p. 257). As many church planters in Muslim lands are increasingly discovering and as Jews for Jesus learned a long time ago, "It may be advisable in many (not all!) circumstances to help people become followers of Jesus and remain within their Buddhist, Hindu, or Jewish contexts" (p. 260). The same may be true of Mormons as well, I might add.

Not surprisingly, this wonderful yet idealistic dream of combining in one authentic witness some of the very best insights and practices of each of the major Christian traditions, while avoiding their pitfalls and the sectarian in-fighting that has accompanied so many of their distinctive concerns, leaves McLaren "depressed-yet-hopeful." In his next chapter, so-entitled, McLaren tells the story of a conversation between Nez Perces Chief Joseph and a commissioner sent by President Ulysses Grant in 1873 to try to convince the tribe to accept government schools. The chief did not want the schools because they would teach the tribe to have churches which would teach it to quarrel about God, something he claimed they never did themselves! McLaren rightly calls on anyone who refuses to repent of similar misdeeds to put down the book and not read any more until allowing the Spirit to work on them in this arena.

In his penultiamte chapter, McLaren explains why he is "emergent," a label usually used these days for ministers and congregations considerably younger than the age of 47 that he turned some time in 2004. Today "generous orthodoxy" too often resembles "a butterfly halfway in and halfway out of its cocoon" (p. 284). The product currently looks ugly; if the process stalls, the insect will die. But if allowed to reach full maturation, the result could be beautiful. So also, the pendulum may have to swing from exclusivism/absolutism to pluralistic/relativism before settling down in the middle where McLaren envisions it.

Finally, McLaren explains why he is "unfinished." A generous orthodoxy means not just reaching correct conclusions about issues but requires "right processes to keep on reaching new and better conclusions" (p. 294), a process that never ends. To drive home his point graphically, the book finishes with the incomplete sentence, "And so for this reason also, the adventure of generous orthodoxy is always unfinished and" (p. 297)!

Expecting to want to harmonize my two friends' highly divergent views on this volume, I was surprised to conclude my reading of it by aligning myself far more with McLaren than against him. Perhaps it was my upbringing in mainline Lutheranism. Perhaps it was the broad international travel and positive experiences (as well as some negative ones) with almost every major branch of Christianity that I have had. Undoubtedly a lot of my reaction stems from the full weight of sub-Christian attacks I felt from supposed fellow evangelicals after co-authoring a volume comparing and contrasting historic Christianity and Mormonism with an LDS professor-friend from Brigham Young University.

Oh, to be sure, McLaren frustrates the reader who resonates with his desire to love one another more and defuse unnecessary tensions when he in fact introduces them by one-sided and incautious statements (which he even admits) that have to be clarified by careful reading, sometimes restricted to footnotes, in other parts of the volume, and which unfortunately those quicker to criticize than to understand will often ignore—or never notice. Paradoxically, for a representative of a movement made up primarily of people half McLaren's age, he occasionally dates himself, such as his reference to Bob Gibson's fastball (do today's young adults immediately recognize a reference to a St. Louis Cardinal star from the 1960s?). A few factual errors intrude here and there, too, such as the claim that "post" as a prefix (as in post-evangelical) means "coming from." No, it simply means "after;" ek- or ex- or apo- would be the prefixes to be used to refer to origin.

But overall, I am far more enthusiastic about this volume than worried over it. What worries me are the growing numbers of people who are worried about it. What does this portend if not an ungenerous orthodoxy that draws ever-narrowing boundaries around what counts as authentic Christianity, thereby alienating even more onlookers from the very faith they already see as too judgmental and divisive? I recommend McLaren's work highly to anyone who cares about evangelizing postmoderns and about developing the kind of community in the church of Jesus Christ that our Lord himself seems to have desired.

Craig L. Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary
November 2004

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