Thursday, April 3, 2008

Pleasantly Surprised

A Generous Orthodoxy
by Brian D. McClaren

I had put off reading this for a couple of reasons. One, Brian McClaren has gotten so much attention (both positive and negative) on the national church scene that I thought he might think he's "all that and a half" (as the kids in my youth group used to say) and that his writing would reflect that. Secondly, I usually recoil from books with the word "orthodoxy" in the title - too often in our ecclesiastical culture the concept of orthodoxy is used as a fence to designate who is "in" and who is "out." I was afraid this would be a thinly veiled version of fence building, or a proposed way to feel good about our fence building. I'm delighted to say that I was wrong on both counts.

McLaren writes with humility and a gentle humor, and he seems sincere in his love and forbearance for all people. His version of orthodoxy is not the traditional etymological definition of "right thinking." ("If we believe ourselves to be orthodox, thinking right, then it must follow that everyone else is wrong." This is the kind of thinking that makes me crazy and in my opinion is destructive to the church and to all people of God.) In his introduction, McClaren states that in his book a more accurate definition of orthodoxy would translate something like "what God knows, some of which we believe a little, some of which they believe a little, and about which we all have a whole lot to learn (p. 32)."

McClaren then proceeds to give brief histories and backgrounds for numerous strains that can be found in the Christian faith (fundamentalist, calvinist, anabaptist, anglican, mystical, poetic, liberal, conservative, biblical, missional, evangelical, methodist, catholic, green, and several others) and what EACH of those factions has to offer to the spiritual life and the genuine attempt to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Instead of putting everyone else down, he raises everyone up, helping all of us to see ourselves at our highest potential. He points out ways that the original intent of some of these movements got corrupted and twisted by human sinfulness, but that those corruptions do not invalidate the original hope of the intent. Moreover, he reminds us that we are all God's children, trying to find our way as best we can. If we open ourselves to learning from one another rather than demonizing each other, perhaps we will all see a little more of the truth that is God.

McClaren's chapter "Why I am Incarnational" is a moving articulation of how we can be unapologetic for our Christian beliefs, claim our identity as followers of Christ, and yet still acknowledge the truth to be found in other faith traditions. I highly recommend that chapter for people who are asking the question "What about them?" As our world gets smaller and more and more of us know, care for, and live alongside Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, etc. more questions get raised about God's purposes for all of us, Christology, and salvation. McClaren beautifully expresses some of the same thoughts I have been fumbling through for several years - that we can still claim Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life and at the same time acknowledge that the love God has shown us in Christ can extend to people and traditions that we do not fully understand. This seems like a much better presumption to me than the one that so many Christians have operated on for so long, which goes something like "We have the Truth. God loves us the best. Everyone else is just out of luck." I can't go there.

Something else I liked is that McClaren fully acknowledges his own mistakes and innate sinfulness, as well as the truth that, like all of us, he sees only through a glass darkly. He is one cog in the timeless machine of theology, doctrine, and practice. He freely admits that he is not a systematic theologian, but that works to his advantage in this book, because his writing is accessible for everyone, not just Ph.Ds. Even though A Generous Orthodoxy undoubtedly is not the whole picture, McClaren calls us to an openness and sense of wonder that surely will be healthy for all of us.

Reverent Reader


At 4/4/08, 8:19 PM , Blogger Lisa said...

I can't believe how many books you read. What a wonderful review and description. Thanks for sharing your insight.

At 4/8/08, 12:03 PM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

Hey Lisa - I am not getting as much reading done lately, as our oldest is still sick, poor little thing. Ordinarily I am a pretty fast reader and am able to work reading into daily routines. Helps keep me thinking. Hope your boys are well.

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