I’ve been digging into some books by Christian thinkers who have generally been frowned upon in the stream of Evangelicalism that I’ve grown up in. I’ve found it to be a very enlightening and convicting experience on many levels. That’s certainly that case again with A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren. Unlike Rob Bell, whose book Love Wins I also read this year, Brian was always a no-no author. Rob was #farewelled from my old evangelical circles, but McLaren was never even welcome. I expected that I would find him relativistic and full of fun, but ultimately thin platitudes, but was I pleasantly surprised.
I think Brian is definitely one of the most forward thinking Christians I’ve encountered and one who will not be pigeonholed with one label — which the subtitle of this book (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) expresses very well.
The book is separated into two broad sections including an introduction/warning called Chapter 0.
You can tell that the introduction was probably written last and (I think) reveals Brian’s introverted nature and also a great deal of his discomfort/uncertainty in sharing the ideas he expresses in the book. It warns the reader multiple times that they must be open minded and not looking for a list of rules or a closed case on orthodoxy. I think he was acutely aware of how this book would upset and challenge those with a black and white, “small view” of God and McLaren uses “Chapter 0” to give them ample opportunity to return the book. There is also with a humility that permeates this chapter (as with all of this book) that reminds them that he is not offering up any new ideas of his own. Quoting G.K. Chesterton, McLaren says
“I am the man who with utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before…I did try to found a heresy of my own and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered it was orthodoxy.”
The first section of the book begins by chronicling the movements of Brian’s spiritual life from fundamentalism, through the Jesus movement, to the charismatic church, into evangelicalism, and finally to where he was at the time of writing the book (2004). He let’s the reader in on the good things he has learned at each stop and also what things were stifling, uncomfortable, or troubling. He spends a good deal discussing the “Seven Jesuses” that he encountered through those spiritual rest stops and how each one revealed an important truth about Christ. Brian is clearly thankful and gracious towards each vision of Jesus he received stating that without each of the different revelations, his view of God would be incomplete. He then guides the reader into some more spiritual questioning based on the “Seven Jesus” he just described. Some questions focus on the nature of God as revealed in Jesus v.s. the nature many of us have been presented by the church. He also asks questions about what the church is, what salvation means, what atonement stories exist, etc…, letting the reader come to their own conclusions about how “full” their view of God is.
The second section of the book digs into each label listed in the book’s subtitle (Why I am a …) and takes the reader through the good, bad, and ugly of each one, encouraging them to see it from a new perspective and integrate it into their own spirituality. This section is the real meat of the book and the section I found the most healing, soothing, and challenge. I won’t go into detail about each section here as I plan on writing more in depth about each one in future posts, but suffice to say they were excellent.
I found Brian to be full of grace, generosity, and thoughtfulness. He never attacked any person or was flippant towards any theological stance or belief system. His perspective on many of the labels challenged the straw men that readers may consciously or unconsciously hold against them and encourages them to humbly reconsider their biases and false pretenses.
There was a quote from Roman Catholic missiologist Vincent Donovan that was used multiple times in the book and it truly captures the heart of Brain’s Message in A Generous Orthodoxy.
“Never accept and be content with unanalyzed assumptions, assumptions about work, about the people, about the church or Christianity. Never be afraid to ask questions about the work we have inherited or the work we are doing. There is no question that should not be asked or that is outlawed. The day we are completely satisfied with what we have been doing; that day we have found the perfect, unchangeable system of work, the perfect answer, never in need of being corrected again, on that day we will know that we are wrong, that we have made the greatest mistake of all”
This book came at a wonderful time for me. I am struggling with my spiritual past and future. Wondering if I’m questioning certain things too much or moving too far from the beliefs I used to hold. I often alternate between anger at the past “me” and the institutions I was involved in and fear at the new me and new “me” I’m moving towards. The words and ideas of this book calmed the storm in many ways and let me know that this path has been walked before. It didn’t blithely confirm or smooth over my current attitudes, but challenged me to face up to my own failures and often hateful, unfair attitudes. It didn’t didn’t stand in firm condemnation of me either, but reminded me that my spiritual life is a journey and unfinished one….this is just a moment in time. I look forward to sharing some more of about those things in my future posts about this book, but I hope that you will be encouraged to pick a copy of A Generous Orthodoxy, read it, and experience the good things Brian McLaren has to offer those seeking better ways of following Jesus.