A Review of a Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am pretty sure McLaren is an evangelical + protestant + should be ok with it(Sorry this is too long. Deal with it. Read it.)
I have adapted a certain strategy when entering into new relationships with people (especially girls) in the last couple of years. Instead of being a mystery to the other person, a mystery that is ultimately a disappointment, I try to put all my junk on the table in the first 15 or 20 minutes of a good conversation. I have a lot of emotional baggage. I am not particularly well versed in loving other people. I have hurt many, and don’t know why or how to not do it again. I am selfish and unable to understand or empathize with others. Surprisingly, many times people hang around through this and still become friends with me. At some point, later in the friendship, I end up being a tool bag and hurting them or something about me becomes a problem. The beauty of the first 15 or 20 minutes of the friendship is that they were warned ahead of time and can’t hold it against me. I told them this would happen and they still entered into the relationship so what else did they expect?
Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy made me rethink the moral accountability that comes with this practice in whatever form. The question, in general, is whether or not someone can be held morally accountable (in my case) or criticized (in McLaren’s) for something they told you they were going to do. Can those people consider me an jerk when I told them that I would probably be a jerk? Can I criticize McLaren for being naïve and over sympathetic to other Christian traditions (35-36), not dealing seriously with scholarship openly and seriously on these issues (34), not having a historical focus that deals with how orthodoxy has come about (29), and ultimately coming off as arrogant, defensive, tortured, complex, and anxious (38) when in chapter 0 he warned us of all of these things and told us not to read the book?
The answer, ultimately, has to be yes. And so I do so here, briefly but seriously. Brian, you would have done us all a favor by being more engaged with the Christian traditions you seek to understand or perhaps allowing a critical voice in each tradition a few paragraphs in each chapter as you do in some. You would have also done us a favor by situating your orthodoxy within the historical neighbors that you speak of in your catholic chapter. And you would have done yourself a favor by having a critical reader point out where you are arrogant, defensive, tortured, complex, and anxious and changing the parts that are pointed out to you. Sometimes not doing this makes for a better book but if often does not. But you knew all that anyway.
When it comes to a constructive response to McLaren I would start with a brief explanation of my own perspective and then attempt a response to McLaren’s work that is hopefully helpful to McLaren and all the Emergent folk. I am coming to this text as a Protestant theologian/student. Specifically, I am Anabaptist. I am a part of an urban Mennonite community consisting of my neighbors who have either lived in the neighborhood for most of their lives or who felt being faithful to the call of Jesus Christ meant allowing Jesus to decide where you live and that this often means living with the poor and unloved. In this sense, I guess I am missional, incarnational, and biblical. I read this text (as well as McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian) primarily because my brother is a pastor sorting through the Emergent stuff and seeing how it gets played out in mainline Evangelical churches. Also, I refuse to dismiss McLaren or anyone else who seek to do theology because they have not had as much theological education as myself or those who I normally read (although often they probably should).
For those who seek to engage this text, there is a warning that I would give as a preface to McLaren’s warnings. Just keep reading past the first two chapters (introduction and chapter 0). McLaren appears to have accepted the common "post-modern" strategy of being as obtuse as possible when it comes to identifying your presuppositions. Also, he employs an annoying presentation style that puts the word post-before just about every word and unnecessarily footnotes every paragraph in the introduction to show that the text is conscious of itself and in dialogue with itself. This style, which often sacrifices clarity for style, is thankfully left off for most of the book and it allows the content to be the issue up for discussion.
This response will not be a summary of the book, for this you will have to read it yourself. McLaren identifies his audience as the Christian, regardless of their type, that is thinking about leaving the church for the issues raised in this book or for the seeker who wants to know who Jesus is but doesn’t want the church that they see (39). Reading between the lines, this book is by and for frustrated Evangelicals (or evangelicals). Although McLaren seeks to go beyond this, I believe that ultimately it is an evangelical voice, a much needed one at that. McLaren seems to want to be more than evangelical, as the book lists this as only alongside many other types of Christianity in describing who McLaren is. And yet he is honest about his evangelical roots. Because I am coming out of an evangelical context myself, I can relate to and accept most of McLaren’s content. Ultimately, Evangelicalism needs to loosen up its orthodoxy and orthopraxy, learn from the rest of Christianity, and seek to be truly evangelical in its acceptance of those outside the group.
If McLaren would have stated that as the intention of the book, and the Emergent movement, than I would support the movement whole-heartedly, albeit as one outside the movement. But instead, McLaren appears to be suggesting a sort of Christianity that is beyond all of the parts. A Generous Orthodoxy, for McLaren, would be a synthesis of the good in the traditions of Christianity, the catholic church, that learns from each other and presents itself to a desperately needy post-modern world that wants the real church and not the Churches that are in their cities and towns. It is this type of church, the Synthesis Church, that appears to be McLaren’s vision for the Emergent movement.
McLaren often relies on an image of a great feast where every part of the Christian tradition brings the best it has to offer to the table and everyone enjoys the feast together. This is what a Generous Orthodoxy looks like. Because a Generous Orthodoxy is the goal of the Emergent Movement, apparently this is the vision for where it is going. Further, when describing the term Emergent, McLaren relies on a number of analogies that are insightful. One, coined by Steven Johnson, suggests that a higher intelligence can emerge from a well functioning community where each part of the community is doing their part and their interaction gives birth to something greater than the parts (276).
McLaren’s narrative of Emergent goes on to describe it as an almost irresistible force that pulls us out of one stagnant form of Christianity and into another form (perhaps a theologically difficult concept that borders on determinism). Although McLaren says the emergent form is no better than the previous, it is understood throughout the text that to remain in the previous form would be a lack of development and a deformity. Although the Emergent church is not the ultimate form of Christianity, it is what is necessary, the only/best answer to the current context of Christians (globally or only in NA? This is never examined).
McLaren’s narrative of another form of church emerging from the great feast of the traditions is the basis of my response to McLaren and the Emergence movement. Although rejecting the static dream of an abstract moment when humanity makes the world perfect (286), McLaren has offered a way of church that is indeed an abstract concept. There is no church that is the Generous Orthodoxy promoted here. The contradiction between the Church as ideal and the actual churches that are around us all has been an issue in theology at least since Augustine. The best work that has been done has been helping the particular churches that are still flawed move along toward the ideal of the body of Christ. Ultimately, this would be an eschatological act of God (eschatology is separate issue that I wish McLaren would work on, it would perhaps better ground his work).
How, then, can the vision of the great banquet of the Christian tradition be made a reality so this higher intelligence of Christianity can be actualized? I think the path to such an end is not found in starting new churches, finding ways to be more post-modern in our worship, or ransacking the houses of Christianity for their treasures, taking them off to our new housing development and then leaving them to rot. If a community that is the truly catholic Church is going to be beautified to something that people would actually be interested in moving into, it can only happen by everyone working on fixing up their own house, painting the siding, mowing the lawn, fixing the plumbing, and making over the interiors.
Brian, I appreciate your vision for where Christianity can go. I think there is a lot to learn from such optimism and a desire to interact with and learn from all Christians. This is the process for the church to undergo. But I think what you have to offer the conversation is not the synthesis itself. Instead, the conversation needs thoughtful Evangelicals. Your book is mostly a conversation with those who are evangelical but don’t like Evangelicals. You are protestant and evangelical before you are catholic and anabaptist. And that is just fine. Instead of trying to be more than what you are, focus in on this tradition and make it what it could be, then bring that family to the table to eat with everyone else and allow whatever is going to emerge from that to happen on its own. We, unfortunately, cannot create the Emergent church, it can only happen when all of the parts of the church are dining together. The city doesn’t need another housing development, what it needs is for the Evangelical mansion and the Catholic duplex and the Anabaptist apartments to fix themselves up and create a nice neighborhood that everyone will want to move into.
For those out there who consider themselves Emergent or postmodern, I suggest you pursue one of three options. The first is to reclaim your particular tradition. Probably this is evangelicalism in some form. What have you grown up in, how have you known God? Take a hold of this tradition, criticize the tradition, and work it out. Fight for decent music in the church or a better missions program. Point out the planks and pry them out, replacing them with fine timbers.
The second option is join up with the Catholics or Orthodox. They will survive the end of modernity because they came before it and aren’t, at the core, modernized. If what you’re looking for is the historical tradition or a mystical form of worship, this is where it is happening. Sign up, get in the middle of it, enjoy it, and then realize the remodeling needed here. Help sweep up the porch to start but be ready to refinish the basement.
Finally, the third option is to join the Anabaptists (Mennonites or Church of Brethren or something along these lines). They, like the Catholics and Orthodox, were non-modern, taking a critical stance against most of the cultural norms while seeking to bear witness to the truth of the Gospel. The negative here is that they will, or should, be non-post-modern as well, all the while embracing the good that is going on in culture but not assimilating. If you are seeking a truly missional, incarnational church then join up here. Because they are newer than most of the rest there is plenty of construction to be done, something that Anabaptists do well but take a long time at.
At my church we have amazing potlucks because many in the church are coming from different backgrounds. What makes the potluck a success is that the Cambodians make their food and bring it, the Italians do the same, as do the Vegetarians. The dishes are all brought from these homes and placed together at a table, then we all benefit from the synthesis of a meal that is formed. If everyone from my church all crammed into one kitchen and tried to create a dish that was the synthesis of all of these dishes it would be terrible and disgusting. A relative generous orthodoxy must be developed within each part of the Christian family and the greater General Orthodoxy will be the synthesis of these, that sort of just happens, but cannot be crafted or manipulated.