Book Review: “A Generous Orthodoxy” by Brian McLaren

Brian McLaren A Generous OrthodoxyIn the late 1990’s, Brian McLaren invited to join the Leadership Network’s Young Leader Network (YLN) lead by Doug Pagitt. Other notable members of the YLN include Mark Driscoll, Tony Jones, Dan Kimball, and Andrew Jones. One of the main conversations discussed at the YLN was how to share the good news of Jesus with a growing post-modern population. The result was the birth of the emerging church movement in the United States, influenced by similar movements in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. As the movement spread, McLaren quickly became one of the top proponents and speakers, drawing both praise and criticism from across the Christian faith.

McLaren’s book “A Generous Orthodoxy” was published in 2004 during the height of the emerging church movement. It was written as a type of confession in which McLaren shares his personal journey through the different movements and groups of Christianity. The books’ subtitle summarizes the theme of the book in that McLaren promotes holding in tension beliefs normally considered in opposition to each other: “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.”

To help hold together the tension of all these various Christians tradition, McLaren suggests approaching things with a “consistent practice of humility, charity, courage, and diligence” (page 34). Humility in that we are to admit that our personal and corporate pasts have been “limited or distorted” (page 34). Charity for those who belief and/or practice a different tradition then ourselves within Christianity. Courage is needed to faithfully walk the path that the Lord Jesus as placed us on even with others disagree with our journey. Diligence is the last practice suggested in that we are to continually seek the “true path of our faith whenever we feel we have lost our way” (page 34).

After this setup, McLaren spends four chapters talking about why he is a Christian. This may sound like an odd place for a Christian leader to start, but at the time McLaren was under attack from Christian leaders of all types while being asked by folks who have left the church why he was still embracing Christianity. As such, I believe that he felt the need to clarify why he still calls himself a Christian. These chapters also help set the tone of the rest of the book in that McLaren briefly sketches out the seven “different” Jesus promoted within the Christian faith (e.g. the Conservative Protestant Jesus, Pentecostal/Charismatic Jesus, Roman Catholic Jesus, Eastern Orthodox Jesus, Liberal Protestant Jesus, Anabaptist Jesus, and the Jesus of the Oppressed). He also spends some time confirming the need of humanity for a Savior while redefining the need itself to hold in tension beliefs from all seven groups previously mentioned:

“To say that Jesus is Savior is to say that in Jesus, God is intervening as Savior in all these ways, judging (naming evil as evil), forgiving (breaking the vicious cycle of cause and effect, making reconciliation possible), and teaching (showing how to set chain reactions of good in motion). Jesus comes then not to condemn (to bring the consequences we deserve) but to save by shining the light on our evil, by naming our evil as evil so that we can repent and escape the chain of bad actions and bad consequences through forgiveness, and so we can learn from Jesus the master-teacher to live more wisely in the future.”

Following this declaration of faith in Jesus, McLaren spends the following fifteen chapters flushing out the book’s subtitle in why he holds the various briefs in Christianity in tension. These chapters are the jewel of the book in that they sketch out the history behind the formation of the different subgroups within Christianity. In knowing history, the reader can then understand why the Christianity faith (especially in the United States) is split into so many subgroups. McLaren also shows how each subgroup has something they can give to the other groups, if only they would listen to each other. Intentionally or unintentionally, the need for an inter-Christian subgroup dialogue comes across as one of biggest themes within McLaren’s book.

The last chapter, entitled “Why I Am Unfinished”, wraps up the entire book in declaring that each of us are on journey towards Jesus and are “unfinished.” As he writes on page 333, “to be a Christian in a generously orthodox way is not to claim to have the truth captured, stuffed, and mounted on a wall. It is rather to be in a loving (ethical) community of people who are seeking the truth (doctrine) on the road of mission (witness as McClendon said) and who have been launched on the quest by Jesus, who, with us, guides us still.” This view of following Jesus strikes me as closer to the view given to us by the four Gospels writers. To me, as to McLaren, Christianity is more about a personal relationship with the Creator of Heaven and Earth than about believing the right doctrines. This is not to say that doctrine and theology is not unimportant, it is just that the relationship and journey towards Jesus is the primary vision and focus on the Scriptures.

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