A Generous Orthodoxy (by Brian McLaren)

Brian McLaren has - probably rather to his dismay - become a highly controversial figure in some Christian circles. I first heard of him mentioned some years ago, not always positively, as one of the leaders of the ‘emerging church’ in the US. From time to time since then, I have heard people say that he was off the rails, a liberal (said in disparaging tones), that he didn’t believe in the Bible, and that he supported gay marriage.

I prefer to find out what people believe by reading some of their books, before offering any kind of opinion. I was given a link to McLaren’s blog - which I enjoyed - and recently read his pseudo-fictional trilogy beginning with 'A New Kind of Christian' in which an imaginary pastor and teacher (and others) discuss life, the world and the universe. I liked many things about these books, once I became used to the style, but the author was careful to state that while the conversations and anecdotes were based on real ones, the main character was not intended to be representative of his own opinions or beliefs.

So I finally picked up ‘A Generous Orthodoxy’, a book which had been on our shelves for a while but struck me as looking decidedly over-heavy. The subtitle alone was enough to put me off: ‘Why I Am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, ... Emergent, Unfinished Christian’. Before reading this I decided I would read GK Chesterton’s classic ‘Orthodoxy’, which in some respects was an inspiration for McLaren’s book, and found that very thought-provoking.

I still resisted reading 'A Generous Orthodoxy' for a while, then decided to read a chapter or two every day. It took me about three weeks, and was well worth reading, in my view.

It starts with a lengthy light-hearted disclaimer, and begins properly with an overview of the author's journey in faith. He begins with the flannelgraph pictures at Sunday School, goes through typical teenage doubts, then finds the 'Jesus movement' which enables him to retain his faith. He then finds what he calls different views of Jesus reflected in different Christian traditions. He begins with the Conservative Evangelical one, and moves outward, to embrace more and more viewpoints, before considering the idea of a 'generous' orthodoxy, open to all, encompassing much. He is careful to be as positive as he can about each picture of Jesus he comes across, and to emphasise that each one is just a part of the whole truth which no individual or church body can ever fully grasp.

After outlining his impressions and experiences with different flavours of Christianity, McLaren then explains why he considers himself to be missional, Biblical, Contemplative, and so on, including his understanding of more controversial terms such as Calvinist, Charismatic, and even Liberal/Conservative. It all made a lot of sense, and I found myself nodding inwardly many times. It's good stuff, based on solid Biblical foundations, infused with the wisdom of tradition - he has read widely and references extensively - and a great deal of rational thinking.

Wisely, the author does not talk about his position on current 'issues' over which the church is sadly divided, but emphasises instead the message of Jesus. He particularly talks about the importance of demonstrating God's love to the world, seeing the Kingdom of Heaven as here and now, rather than simply trying to focus on eternity as so many seem to.

There's a lot of wisdom in this book, and a great deal to think about. I would definitely recommend it, particularly for those who have already written off McLaren due to his sometimes controversial actions (albeit based on love). The style is intellectual but not as heavy as I expected, and some of the church history very interesting, alongside the author's opinions and beliefs.

Available in paperback, and also in Kindle form.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 23rd February 2013

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