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Monday, May 22, 2006 

Mondays With McLaren: "Introduction" to A Generous Orthodoxy

McLaren, Brian. A Generous Orthodoxy. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 2004. pp. 304.

You may not be a Christian and wondering why anyone would want to be. The religion that inspired the Crusades, launched witch trials, perpetuates religious broadcasting, presents too-often boring and irrelevant church services with schmaltzy music – or else presents manic and overly aggressive church services with a different kind of schmaltzy music – baptizes wars and other questionable political programs, promotes judgmentalism, and ordains preachers with puffy haircuts (and others who are so superficial as to complain about puffy haircuts or whose baldness makes the complaint seem suspiciously tinged with envy) . . . it doesn’t make sense to you why anyone would want “in” on that.

…And so begins Brian McLaren’s controversial book, A Generous Orthodoxy. Provocative as usual, McLaren often sounds more like an opponent of Christianity (or at least some strains of it, particularly those of the Fundamentalist or Evangelical kind) than an adherent of it. Still his description is marginally accurate and likely at least some what reflective of those to whom he says he is writing. But this group is but one among five that he addresses in his introduction and believes might be reading his book. Along with non-Christian seekers, struggling Christians, Christian leaders looking for information on the Emergent movement (uh…I mean, conversation), those “looking for dirt so [they] can write a hostile review,” and new Christians are those who McLaren believes will be most drawn to his book.

The most striking thing about McLaren’s categories, looking at them from a perspective of having read the book in its entirety, as well as quite a few reviews of the book, is that the only group he appears to have been correct about appealing to is those “looking for dirt.” In fact, McLaren’s main audience seems to be his most ardent fans, those who are already well-versed in the Emergent conversation and who are fluent in the “post-“ language (as in post-modern, post-Christian, post-Evangelical, post-foundationalism, etc.). Most of the reviews I read came from either these sorts of folks or those who called McLaren everything from a liberal to a pagan in systematically trashing the book. I doubt, given the title and subject matter of the book, that McLaren was able to reach new Christians, struggling Christians, and especially non-Christian seekers.

The book revolves around a key principle that is McLaren’s rather oxymoronic title, "Generous Orthodoxy." Springboarding off of C.K Chesterson’s classic, Orthodoxy, and borrowing the term from Hans Frei (via Stanley Grenz) who says, “My own vision of what might be propitious for our day, split as we are, not so much into denominations as into [liberal/mainline and conservative/evangelical] schools of thought, is that we need a kind of orthodoxy which would have in it an element of liberalism . . . and an element of evangelicalism,” McLaren explains that:

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.” Grenz adds that this generous orthodoxy must “take seriously the postmodern problematic” and suggest “the way forward is for evangelicals to take the lead in renewing a theological ‘center’ that can meet the challenges of the postmodern…situation in which the church now finds itself.”
I find this concept rather interesting, but somewhat naïve. McLaren undoubtedly understands the fraction between liberalism and evangelicalism, yet he often chooses to ignore the divide and instead focus on what each can bring to the table -- a noble gesture for sure. But, unfortunately while liberals can learn a great deal from evangelicals, and vice-versa, there remains a theological gap that cannot be filled merely by coming together underneath the name of Jesus Christ, especially given the fact that the two sides cannot agree on what Christ did on earth, let alone what He does in the lives of Christians today. The centrality of the Gospel is the foundation upon which any "generous orthodoxy" must be built, not upon the idea that both strands of Christianity are simultaneously both right and both wrong and that acknowledging this fact and learning from one another alone will bring fellowship and camaraderie under Christ. It is not "generous" to allow one to die in their rejection of the deity or bodily resurrection of Christ, nor is it orthodox to believe such is an appropriate expression of the Christian faith. The Gospel, when tainted by an acceptance of willful sin and a rejection of the Bible as the sole authority for the believer in matters of faith and life, ceases to be the Gospel of Jesus Christ and could just as well be the Gospel of Buddha or the Gospel of Mohammed or even the Gospel of Scientology.

But yet within greater Evangelicalism, this concept can and should be employed for the furtherance of the Gospel. A great example of this is the recent “Together for the Gospel” Conference held here in Louisville a little less than a month ago. The speakers and conference-goers ranged in tradition from Anglican to Presbyterian to Southern Baptist and even to Charismatic, yet they all enjoyed fellowship under the banner of the Gospel message. They did not, however, pretend that they had no differences, even often celebrating them through jokes and jabs aimed at one another’s theological nuances. But after reading McLaren’s book, it seems apparent that this sort of "generous orthodoxy" is not what he has in mind, but rather the kind that has to ignore glaringly different perspectives on salvation, eternal life, Hell, Trinitarian (or non-Trinitarian) theology, sin, and even the events of the life of Christ. Fellowship that exists in such an environment is not true fellowship, but rather simply a denial that true fellowship is necessary for unity.

In examining how this plays out, notice how two vastly different groups handle the idea of a confessional statement. On the one hand, the Emergent conversation, most of whom would be ardent supporters of McLaren and his concept of “Generous Orthodoxy,” has recently had some discussions regarding devising a doctrinal statement. Tony Jones, considering the possibility, issued a statement on the Emergent-Us website from LeRon Shults on why affirming any doctrinal statement “would be unnecessary, inappropriate and disastrous.” Contrast that with a statement issued by those involved in the “Together for the Gospel” Conference spoken of above. It is a list of 18 Articles on which all involved can agree upon. The statement builds upon the solid foundation of the Gospel, yet includes ample freedom for disagreement between traditions and denominations of the Christian faith. Call me crazy, but the term “Generous Orthodoxy” seems be embodied much more by the TG4 folks who are able to honestly examine their differences and celebrate their similarities than by those of the Emergent stripe who feel such an undertaking would be “disastrous,” despite the Early Church's numerous confessional statements (which later came together as creeds). In the end, I think McLaren’s concept is a noble one, but without the right foundation, fails to meet up to its standards of being BOTH generous and orthodox.

Next week, we examine McLaren’s own critiques of his book set forth in “Chapter 0” and discuss why he wrote this chapter and if he is right about the book’s shortcomings.

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This morning I started reading the book and I am looking forward to this "conversation." Thanks for shedding light on the ECM's discussion on a confessional statement. The questions they are raising actually goes well with my next "Fuller Friday" quote. Old Andrew had some definite ideas about those who felt they didn't need a creed.

Anyhow, this is Monday so back to McLaren. Chapter Zero has me asking, why is it (according to McLaren) that it's the conservatives that always "taint" Christianity? Why is it that the zealous Reformation-minded Christian is the one who they (EMC-folk) feel that they have to apologize for?

I've read McLaren's line on being from the most wacked out fundamentalist branch of the conservative tree before. If I may venture to read between the lines, it seems he's been hurt out on that branch and is now lashing out because of that pain, but is baptizing it in the waters of group therapy/constructive criticism. At some point he ventured off that branch and has emerged as something very different. He has some valid points along the way so I will read with interest, but overall he seems very far from the true biblical center. We should certainly remember to pray for him as we interact with what he has to say about the growing? movement that he is apart as many of the people who are attracted to the ECM have similar grievances against biblical Christianity. We have a responsibility to speak the truth in love.

I agree that we must strive to see orthopraxy with our orthodoxy. Yet I disagree with what seems to be McLaren's solution: ease up on the boundaries of what's orthodox and then we'll all get together and do stuff that's orthopraxic. If anything this has been the demise of the mainline/liberal denominations, and this is what he wants the rest of us to do?!?

Certainly there have been conservatives who have seen this demise and have over-reacted by burning Beatles albums and Harry Potter books and have disavowed any social/humanitarian work for fear of being part of the social gospel, but since we're offering apologies for the past errors of Christendom from the Crusades to TBN, why not an apology on behalf of those who may have a lot of "praxy" in their lives but have distorted the true gospel?


Wait a minute Sean...we haven't gotten to chapter 0 yet. I can't discuss that!

I agree that McLaren is reacting against his fundamentalist background. In fact, a lot of people have said that and he has even responded to that criticism by not responding (*typical*).

As for his melding together of orthopraxy and orthodoxy, he acts as if he is the first to do this or something - like it is so radical that only a few people have ever thought of it. I imagine he is being hyperbolic, but he just keeps saying it to the point that you wonder what went on in his past that he thinks such a concept is totally foreign to Christianity today.

And this thought is very true Sean:

"Yet I disagree with what seems to be McLaren's solution: ease up on the boundaries of what's orthodox and then we'll all get together and do stuff that's orthopraxic. If anything this has been the demise of the mainline/liberal denominations, and this is what he wants the rest of us to do?!?

I couldn't have said it better myself and I may quote you on that in an upcoming Monday post.

I have been dabbling with the idea of buying this book. I recently read Franke's 'The Character of Theology' which is similar I think, but dyer. Thanks!

I recommend it for no other reason than it clearly articulates what I believe the Emergent Church sees in Evangelicalism and in my opinion the weaknesses of the EC movement...ur, conversation.

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Paul was not interested merely in the ethical principles of religion or of ethics. On the contrary, he was interested in the redeeming work of Christ and its effect upon us. His primary interest was in Christian doctrine, and Christian doctrine not merely in its presuppositions but at its centre. -- J. Greshem Machen.

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