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A Generous Orthodoxy

Before the review, three caveats. I offer these caveats for good reason: not only can I excuse some of my own faults and inconsistencies as a reader, but also in revealing them, I may be excused from charges of undisclosed bias and unusual thinking. Mind, it’s not that I have managed to wrench myself free of undisclosed bias, but if I can reveal my own situation more fully and generously than you, then perhaps I can encourage you to read on before jumping to hasty conclusions. With that in mind, proceed.

  • Libraries charge money for overdue books. This may seem like a little thing, and indeed it would be moot if I had bothered to open A Generous Orthodoxy two weeks ago rather than last weekend, but it does matter: I didn’t finish the book. Halfway through McLaren’s catalogue of faith traditions I began skimming because I was already three days overdue, and I couldn’t renew the book because someone else had already reserved it. However, I read enough to get a good feel for McLaren’s project, and an early version of the chapter on which had to quit, “Why I am Green,” is available (although a registration may be required), so what follows is a summary of my impressions.
  • Because I had to turn the book in, I do not have a copy from which to quote. That should be obvious, but it bears saying anyway. It is true that my memory fails me on occasion, especially if the occasion is related to laundry or other chores, and while I believe I get the gist, I may be wrong. So it is indeed possible that what I say McLaren says is not, in fact, what he says, a fact that’s most evident when I quote “him.” It’s probably much safer to read his book yourself than to trust me. I’m sure you have a library, too?
  • I am sympathetic to McLaren’s thesis. To whit, his thesis: Christianity’s many traditions have offered the world a number of important insights into God, the Trinity, and the world itself. To rely upon Christian tradition to show the way forward is to be orthodox; to place each tradition in a flat plane so that none reaches above or burrows beneath another, and to learn equally from each what works, is to be generous. That, indeed, is the book. I am sympathetic because it represents a project that moves in a direction counter to that of the Reformation. If the Reformation said unto churches, “Learn thyself, and divide,” the generously orthodox says, “Learn together, and join.” The language of McLaren’s project (which includes, but is not limited to him; others may be found at Emergent Village) is a language of self-effacement, community, and togetherness. It’s a legitimate question whether one can take what’s good from a tradition and not also take the bad from it—and I realize that to say so is to indulge in a bit of linguistic determinism (i.e., what we say determines who we are)—but that, I think, is a risk worth taking.

Now, for those of you who are left reading to here, you are brave souls. So I commend you for your courage, and I say thank you. Fortunately, there’s not much more: much of what you’ve already read is in fact a review. McLaren’s argument in A Generous Orthodoxy works very hard to get him out of the way not by way of shoving himself aside, but by claiming his perspective as central to his book. It’s not a problem, however, because perspective is the real mode of all writing. There are two chapters worth of disclaimers and nearly a hundred footnotes that serve the purpose of self-effacement. (The footnotes, especially, get tiresome; often I couldn’t understand why something was footnoted rather than left as part of the text. I think he needs a more forceful editor [note to Zondervan: I’m available].) McLaren writes better disclaimers than I do.

You don’t get to Jesus, he says, by studying the Gospels more carefully; you get to Jesus by taking the Gospels into yourself and making yourself available to others. Much of Modern Christian history has been to subserviate Mission to Theology, when in fact history ought to proceed the other way: Theology comes after, in response to, in dialogue with Mission. All other claims McLaren makes radiate from that one. Doctrines of Sola Scriptura, or of sectarianism in general he has no patience for because they don’t yield truth: “Isn’t truth better approached through dialectic or dialogue?” he asks, and then continues through nearly two dozen chapters to show he means it.

I liked what I read of A Generous Orthodoxy. I regret that I don’t have anything more substantive to say about it. I promise if I come up with anything, you’ll be the first to know.



i bought this for my sister, but i haven’t read it…

i’ve read a few other books by him.

uber-approachable writing style, at least in his earlier stuff. short chapters, one idea per chapter…but good

Yes, he’s very engaging. I actually think that he’s a good writer is why I got irritated by the footnotes, because they rarely were of any help. His strength as a writer is in explanation. That comes I’m sure from being a pulpit pastor.