Having interacted with him indirectly through other books I have read, and because he is the keynote at a conference I am going to in October, I thought it was about time I read some Brian McLaren. Apparently A Generous Orthodoxy is as close as definitive of him as it gets.
I think that many reviewers of McClaren have not been able to get past the form and style of his writing. He has a strange style of provocation mixed with self-effacement.
I must admit that the style bugs me at times. The buzzword compliance is one of these annoynaces – I need a non-inline quote to fit the subtitle for instance:
“Why I am 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.”
And the self-effacement always reduces the weight of his argument. For instance, after quite a resonable chapter against dead religion entitled “Would Jesus be a Christian?” he writes
“Now I’ve gone and depressed myself. I’m wondering what right we – and especially I – have to even talk about a generous orthodoxy. I feel completely lost and stupid and pathetic. Lord, have mercy.”
All it does is undermine a chapter that does have some prophetic value. The self-effacement, ironically, has the effect of increasing the readers focus on him – as does his annoying use of footnotes to insert parenthetical self-reflections.
And so many commentators argue his style. The provocative words lead to arguments about semantics. The self-effacement leads to ad hominem. But is what he says actually that bad?
Broadly, my answer is “no.” It isn’t that bad. He is not theological precise, or indeed accurate at times. I believe he is on the right side of the line. Jesus is his saviour, I have no doubt. It is not helpful or valid to come at him, as some have, with the “Brian Mclaren is not really a Christian and is just a promoter of liberal fluff” line.
If you’re looking for an exposition of theological precision or accuracy, you won’t find it (despite the word “orthodoxy” being in the title). What you will find is a healthy challenge to face your own doctrine and beliefs and practices. I’m thinking about the sort of lecturer on evangelism who gets up at the front of class and poses the question “Why on earth would you believe in Jesus?” He is not suggesting that believing in Jesus is stupid or wrong, but he wants you to think about it, confront it in yourself, and articulate your reasons.
McLaren’s approach is what he calls “postcritical” – “a way to embrace the good in many traditions and historic streams of Christian faith, and to integrate them, yielding a new, generous, emergent approach that is greater than the sum of its parts” (Page 22). This is at the heart of the word “generous” in the title. It is not necessarily a bad approach – there has always been that form of adage such as “Preach like a Presbyterian, pray like a Pentecostal, serve like a Catholic, etc.” McLaren ends up summarising his own equivalent of this in a table on pages 72 and 73.
The problem with this approach is that it’s very hard to cherry-pick the bits you like from various traditions and still manage to obtain the true heart of that tradition. The so-called synergy can so often come across as being oxymoronic – like a “feminist pluralist” you can’t be 100% both. This is the key issue – even if the building blocks are not of himself, but gained from a myriad of traditions – the eventual arrangement of them is the shape of… Brian McLaren. It’s at the problem of virtually all post-x dialogue. If you haven’t got something absolute to proclaim you end up proclaiming yourself.
But I still find the content broadly acceptable. Because the Brian McLaren that Brian McLaren preaches isn’t all bad.
I like how he keeps a strong tie between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Hard unemotional, unmoveable, objective academic abstract study of the things of Jesus has always bugged me as futile at best, pride-filled at worst.
I like his chapter on being poetic! It is this encountering of the not-just-purely-rational that puts life into theology. It is where I find the most value in interacting with postmodernity. The quotes from Brueggemann around page 162 are good ones (“Poetic speech is the only proclamation, I submit, that is worthy of the name preaching”).
There are times when he goes to places that are touchstones of liberalism and manages to walk away reasonably intact.
“Although I believe in Jesus as my personal savior, I am not a Christian for that reason. I am a Christian because I believe that Jesus is the Savior of the whole world.“
The reason he gets away with this, in my view, is because he couches such words missiologically. Salvation is personal for sure, but it is towards something that is eschatologically broader than one person – it is towards “Go, baptising”, towards “your kingdom come your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It is towards right-living, and doing, and speaking – it is towards mission. Good works are not simply personal assurances of personal salvation, they are the things to which we have been saved to and for. There is strength in this that cuts down the secular-sacred divide.
The word “missional” is ugly and an empty vessel into which meaning is squeezed from every quarter. McLaren fills it with that concept engaged with by the worn-out expression. “The church of God does not have a misson in the world, the God of Mission has a church in the world.” It’s reflected in his mission statement, which I like. It is very similar to that of Connections:
“To be and make disciples of Jesus Christ in authentic community for the good of the world.”(Page 117).
He doesn’t always apply this “missional” framework properly however. For instance, when interacting with the universalist/exclusivist dichotomy he tries to cut across the gap between the two by appealing to mission – “my mission isn’t to figure out who is already blessed, or not blessed, or unblessable. My calling is to be blessed so I can bless everyone.” (Page 124). In other words he is trying to say “Missionally speaking, universalism/exclusivism is redundant.” I would argue that a missional regard of universalism/exclusivism may not change that I bless – it certainly changes how I bless and how I see myself as blessed.
I had the most difficulty with his views on Scripture in chapter 10. Even though he begins well by applying missionality by engaging with the purpose of Scripture from 2 Tim 3:16-17. And even though I don’t mind the framework of considering the Bible as narrative – after all Goldsworthy and biblical theologians have done that. And even though I will not even baulk at comments that the Bible is a “timely document” not a “timeless one” – after all that’s what historico-critical exegesis is all about. There is something of the lefty liberal squeamishness about things he doesnt’ like.
His main example in the section on the Bible is about what to do with the genocides committed by the Hebrews in the light of the apparently more pacifistic teachings of Jesus. His argument bottles down to “we know better now, the revelation has deepened, it was description not prescription.” This means, however, he is not even being true to the narrative which includes themes of judgement and divine wrath – a topic he rarely if ever touches on throughout the book.
Sometimes his buzzwords are almost lip service. The best he can say about the Reformed tradition is that it is the “highest expression of Christianity” in terms of it’s “intellectual rigour” (page 210) He attempts to redefine the well-known TULIP acrostic missionally but fails to see the missional aspects of the original. His own version is shallower – Total depravity is replaced with Triune love showing, once again, his squeamishness about sin and judgement and ignoring the myriad of ways in which concepts of Original Sin can and should find expression missionally.
His take on Anglicanism, unsurprisingly, is an embrace of via media. He advances the “practice of dynamic tension” and the “practice of compromise” (pages 234-235). I can now see why he was invited to Lambeth! In many ways I wish the revisionists within Anglicanism would take it to heart. The footnote on page 235 describes something of the present circumstance
“Rather than living with the difficult dynamic tension among Scripture, reason, tradition, or experience, various factions have chosen at times to abandon one or two or three of the four, or have indulged in old-fashioned power politics to get beyond both/and to either/or.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean Anglicanism is always helpful. I would argue that Lambeth 1.10 is an expression of both/and and that the revisionists have by and large “abandoned” the Scripture pillar. I’m sure there are many who would disagree.
And I could go on. Each step of the way McLaren leans over the edge to see what can be seen. Occasionally he points out what others have failed to notice. Sometimes he leans too far or describes what he can see poorly.
But I will be generous with him. He is an enquirer, he is broad, but it seems his centre is Jesus. I will not deny him that.
My concern, however, is for those who come after him and who follow him now. Those who aren’t standing on Jesus but standing on McLaren – who rest not in the gospel being explored but in the exploration itself. In fact we are catching glimpses of this becoming explicit – that the journey and the gospel are the same thing. McLaren would do well to distance himself from that at some point.
The self-effacement ends up being a disservice. He wants us to explore and discover for ourselves. He will not be so bold or as arrogant as to point the way. It’s like someone who finds a treasure in a field, he goes and sells all he has and buys the field. And when he shares the story with his friends, they end up going out in his foot steps, and they all buy fields even if there is no treasure.
I was challenged by this book. Maybe I’ll get to talk to him at this conference. I’d like that.