A Generous Orthdoxy - Brian McLaren
I’ve only just got round to reading ‘A Generous Orthodoxy’, which makes this review at least three years late, and possibly more: McLaren’s material was made copyright in 2004. I always was a late developer.
Once I’d started the book, I was hungry to read on, as I found McLaren saying many things with which I identified, and clarifying things which I already believed, bringing them to light in a more thought-through way. The book also challenged me, as I’d come to the rather judgmental conclusion from bits and pieces that I’d read of McLaren’s that his thinking was shallow and sloppy, reflecting a background without theological training. But like McLaren, I am an English teacher who came to ‘full-time’ pastoral work later in life. I am also without formal theological training or qualifications (though I did try – ask Andrew), and am unordained into any ministry or priesthood by any branch of the church. So maybe it’s the speck and the plank.
Maybe too I was still reflecting on a recent discovery that the ‘bus campaign’ in the UK (‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’) was started in reaction to an advertising campaign directing readers to a Christian website – www.JesusSaid.org. When I visited the website, my first reaction was that it said no more than what I already believed, though in rather a stark, unappealing way. On further reflection, I began to wonder whether the website’s style of presenting the gospel, and the proclaimed content of that gospel, was part of a less than generous problem rather than a generous solution. Which brings me back to McLaren.
The book cover has a cosy orange/brown background with a picture of McLaren in thoughtful/pastoral mode. Nothing antagonizing or threatening at all. McLaren is at pains, throughout the book, to accommodate the reactions of his critics, and accept his own fallibility – which he is disarmingly prepared to admit. The book does not adopt anything like a theological style, but is more confessional, aiming to simplify things for the theologically or ecclesiastically uninitiated, and peppered with personal anecdote. Yet it is far from lightweight.
Set against the backcloth of all kinds of religious debate and reaction, especially in the US, McLaren paints a big picture of the religious landscape, in particular showing an acute grasp of the fading influence of modernism in the religious sphere, to which both liberal and conservative wings of the Christian faith are, in their own ways, held hostage. The old debating grounds have changed, and the time has come for a fresh adaptation of the faith to contemporary culture. This is not to say that McLaren is making a case for a faith compromised by culture. McLaren urges that the need of today is for an expression of faith which contextualizes itself in today’s culture - perhaps in ways with which the evangelist or church planter may not be familiar.
All of this is done in the style of a tour guide, interspersed with personal experience, in which we are neither threatened nor lost in an intellectual or theological labyrinth. McLaren is consistently genial, and by turns self-deprecatingly apologetic and amusing.
The first three chapters lay a foundation by the end of which I feel I have been gently led in an objective yet sympathetic look at much that is familiar in the church landscape, including my own faith and church commitments. Vincent Donovan (‘Christianity Rediscovered’) is enlisted as a key ally, as are G. K. Chesterton, Lesslie Newbiggin, Walter Brueggeman, Juergen Moltmann and many others. A key principle which McLaren emphasizes, as a pillar of the ‘generous orthodoxy’ which he commends, is that the Abrahamic mandate was not just to be blessed, but also to be a blessing to all nations. When the gospel is presented as a threat to non-believers, or demonises ‘outsiders’, or focuses on the individual and his/her needs to the extent of encouraging a spiritual narcissism, then we are in danger of losing its entire purpose. McLaren suggests that this may be where modernism, with its liberal/conservative dichotomy in politics as in the faith sphere, has taken us.
The remaining chapters continue in the confessional style, with McLaren surveying, in inclusive manner, his wide-ranging experiences of the varied expressions of the Christian faith, affirming each in what he takes to be their positive contribution, but nevertheless leading to the point, ‘Why I am Emergent’, where he emphasizes that we need more than the sum total of their (the varied expressions) parts.
Like McLaren, I too am dissatisfied with merely sectarian Christian truth, and am on a journey to embrace Christian spiritualities outside those with which I am familiar. Also like McLaren, I believe this journey to be part of a bigger picture, in which cultural landscape is shifting, and the expression of faith as contextualized within cultural landscape also needs to shift. I am comfortable with what McLaren criticizes, as well as what he affirms, which is not a new relativism, but different questions and new starting points in how we understand faith and relate to the world around us. With new perspectives, the faith emerges refreshed, resilient, and we may become better equipped to live convincing, attractive and authentic lives in a changed culture and world, with a better sense of what it means to be part of God’s mission, which is the mission of Jesus. It’s a book to which I shall return, to read more slowly, carefully and reflectively.