Tension in Tolerence: A Review of Brian McLaren’s “A Generous Orthodoxy” – Part IV

While I do value the dynamic nature of McLaren’s system, I am concerned with how it is conceived. McLaren’s grounding is not clear. Are we to start with scripture? If so, how are we to interpret it? Or are we supposed to start with our own intuition? Or do we abandon established belief in favour of a new mash-up that includes socially acceptable rules while doing away with the more unpopular ideas?

I do support the idea of cross-denominational collaboration. And by extension, I also support the idea of inter-faith dialogue as well. McLaren’s approach lends itself well to generating the kind of humility that is required to open up a positive dialogue between competing denominations. The current decentralized model of Christian ministry and mission are valuable in terms of covering a wide variety of causes and needs, but I often wonder how much more effective some Christian ministries would be had they aligned or pooled their resources with other Christian denominations to accomplish the same goals. The impact of these “coalitions” would be tremendous.

And while I do appreciate McLaren’s attempt to adapt Christian thought with contemporary issues like postmodernism and secularization, I do find myself drawn to the “Radical Reformation” approach of the Anabaptists, whereby they forgo many of the progressive technological advancements in favour of a simpler way of life as a conscious decision to focus more on community than on “speed, style, technology, convenience, efficiency and mechanization” (McLaren, 230). To me, the Anabaptist approach of making Jesus Christ central and keeping uncluttered lives makes a great deal of sense. And, that ideal seems to be unchanged over time, which suggests that theological adaptations to contemporary issues are not required.

The urgency of discerning an appropriate worldview has recently been on the front burner for me. My father has been struggling with a blood disorder for the last year and it has just recently manifested itself in acute leukemia. This affliction is terminal and it will soon result in my father’s death. Thus, the need for “an accurate orthodoxy” in my life is quite pressing. Ultimately, we cannot be certain of any of our beliefs. McLaren offers a hopeful enterprise by suggesting that we simplify our approach to theology by focusing not on the divisive aspects, but instead focusing on the similarities of different denominational attitudes. I like this approach, as it suggests an inclusiveness that we can all participate in. I find this particularly settling for me as I contemplate my father’s destiny as he negotiates his peace with God.

I believe that McLaren’s strategy is viable, helpful and constructive. It provides an inclusive nature in which anyone can recognize their own denominational strengths, while also marginalizing their weaknesses. One can only hope that the strengths continue to be accentuated while the weaknesses are actually suppressed. As a whole, I enjoyed the book. It does present a tension that cannot be easily settled, but I believe that this tension is part of the beauty of the book. Without addressing the tension between denominations, the hope for interfaith fellowship cannot be attained. And without a central discussion, the kingdom of God cannot be fully realized nor can Jesus’ directive to live in love be fully experienced.

Todd Dow


Tension in Tolerence: A Review of Brian McLaren’s “A Generous Orthodoxy” – Part III

McLaren’s response to these critiques is contained in the closing paragraphs of his final chapter, entitled “Why I Am Unfinished.” (McLaren, 339):

So here’s the tension: we must always be discontented with our portraits of orthodoxy, but we must never, in frustration, throw the Subject of our portrait out the window. Otherwise, the revolution fails and falls, sprawling facedown in the dirt, and the whole whirling adventure is over. Until God’s kingdom comes in fullness, the revolution of generous orthodoxy must continue: “In the upper world, hell once rebelled against heaven. But in this world heaven is rebelling against hell. For the orthodox there can always be a revolution; for a revolution is a restoration”. And so for this reason also, the adventure of generous orthodoxy is always unfinished (McLaren, 339)

Thus, McLaren avoids condemnation by claiming that his theology is always unfinished, a veritable moving target that pursues Jesus Christ and God’s kingdom without abandon. This makes McLaren quite slippery because it leaves him unable to be pinned down or typecast. But is this really a bad thing?

There are advantages to this approach. McLaren speaks of a tension between different views of orthodoxy. This tension is present with all claims of knowledge. How can one discern whether or not the claim is in fact truthful? Perhaps the answer is to live in tension. Rather than striving for black and white answers, why not live in shades of grey? The tension experienced when one gives up any claims to absolute truth can be discomforting at first, but over time, it can become a comfortable place to exist. Without the chains of absolute claims of divine truth, the individual is free to explore various experiences of God using various different methods of worship and revelation.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that some people cling to their denominational beliefs out of a sense of fear or insecurity about giving up their particular grounding in faith. McLaren suggests that some Christians carry on the Protestant ideal of protesting in an effort to “prove themselves right and others wrong” (McLaren, 138). Regardless of the motivations, many people cling to their denominational affiliations in order to remain validated in their Christian walk. Leaving the comforting confines of a congregational confession of faith suggests leaving behind the protection, purpose and destiny that is offered by that particular worldview. Should denominational change be viewed as a step backwards, or is denominational drift an acceptable part of the Christian faith?

Up next: “Personal Reflection and Final Wrap Up”


Tension in Tolerence: A Review of Brian McLaren’s “A Generous Orthodoxy” – Part II

The main problem with McLaren’s approach is that it fails to provide a concrete vision or set of beliefs that believers can attach themselves to. This “generous orthodoxy” turns into a “personal denomination” that is determined by individual preferences. McLaren does a great job of grabbing the good stuff from each of his denominational or thematic flavours of Christianity, while failing to address the shortcomings or contradictions that are bound to present themselves in such a model.

For example, McLaren offers competing stances on childhood baptism. In chapter 13, McLaren discusses adult baptism as a form of religious expression from the Anabaptist movement. He downplays the importance of the “how and when” of baptism in favour of the more important “why and whether you live the meaning of your baptism” (McLaren, 228). In this section, McLaren provides an encouraging place for Anabaptist beliefs to reside. And yet, in chapter 15, McLaren provides support for a catholic belief that subscribes to a sacramental faith and a respect for tradition that clearly, from a catholic perspective, supports infant baptism. McLaren clearly articulates the Anabaptist position pertaining to personal commitment, yet reinforcement of the catholic sacraments and traditions (without supporting each sacrament by name) does little to quell the uneasy cohabitation that this particular issue is bound to introduce.

Several other examples could be gleaned from the text, but for what point? It is sufficient to agree that Christianity has become segmented because of the sharp denominational lines that have resulted from the numerous protests that have brought us to this “Protestant soup” that we find ourselves swimming in today.

A second, and equally troubling problem for McLaren, is how to reconcile the postmodern bent that asserts, almost ironically, that absolute knowledge is unattainable. Early in the book, McLaren argues that “certainty and knowledge” are problematic in a postmodern worldview (McLaren, 28) and thus, one cannot be absolutely certain that they know right from wrong. This epistemological puzzle forces one to wonder how McLaren can be so sure that his solution is the right one. While McLaren does overstate his “completely unqualified” (McLaren, 38) status in the realm of theology, this does not excuse him from responsibility for his claims. At the very least, McLaren has provided the reader with a contradictory argument, first suggesting that we can know nothing with certainty and then offering a way forward that expects fellowship. Shouldn’t McLaren’s postmodern epistemological argument invalidate his suggestions entirely? How can his claims be discerned under this cloud of skepticism?

Thirdly, how would McLaren discern the conflicts and contradictions that present themselves in his “cherry-picking” of denominational best fruits. How can one be certain that McLaren was accurate in choosing certain denominational traits over others? And further, doesn’t this collection of denominational best practices contradict McLaren’s earlier suggestion to marginalize denominational distinctions (McLaren, 36)? Why does McLaren focus so much on those denominational best practices if his ultimate goal is to flatten the Christian experience into something that can be palatable to everyone?

Up next: “Responses to these objections”


Tension in Tolerence: A Review of Brian McLaren’s “A Generous Orthodoxy” – Part I

In this four part series, I’ll be providing a book review of Brian D. McLaren’s “A Generous Orthodoxy“. Today, I’ll provide an introduction and overview of the book. Next, I’ll provide some objections. From there, I’ll respond to some of those objections. And finally, I’ll wrap up with some personal reflection and a summary. So, stick around and be sure to provide comments and feedback!

In the book “A Generous Orthodoxy”, Brian McLaren presents an approach to Christianity that is both positively refreshing and troublingly devoid of a solid doctrinal foundation. While McLaren can be applauded for his inclusive approach to Christian practice, this also appears to be his biggest challenge. McLaren’s writing highlights the tension between dogmatism and the freedom and variety of Christian expression. Ultimately, the book is an inspiration to those that appreciate the loving inclusiveness celebrated and championed by Jesus.

McLaren has written a brilliant treatise that speaks to those who value the spiritual gifts of Christianity but who frown upon the doctrinal divisions that have split the church. McLaren speaks to the postmodern objection to certainty and knowledge by inviting a spectrum of religious worship in its many forms, perspectives and expressions of faith. McLaren argues that Christian orthodoxy, defined as “right thinking and opinion about the gospel” (McLaren, 35), is to be humble, charitable, courageous and diligent (McLaren, 34). The goal of this “generous” inclusiveness is to affirm “the importance of orthodox doctrine” (McLaren, 36), while placing doctrinal distinctives “in their marginal place.” (McLaren, 36) This “generous orthodoxy” not only encourages cross-denominational Christian discussion, but it also extends the olive branch to other faiths, allowing for interfaith dialogue and collaboration.

McLaren’s Christian vision centres itself on the understanding of Jesus as revealed in the Gospels. This view minimizes the doctrinal and theological extensions that have been generated through centuries of theological discourse and gospel-filtering. This vision demands that the practitioner appreciate the truth claims in competing religious experiences. McLaren, speaking of the “Seven Jesuses he has known”, asks:

Why not celebrate them all? Already, many people are using terms like post-Protestant, post-denominational, post-liberal, and post-conservative to express a desire to move beyond the polarization and sectarianism that have too often characterized Christians of the past (as we’ll discuss in Chapters 6 and 7). Up until recent decades, each tribe felt it had to uphold one image of Jesus and undermine some or all of the others. What if, instead, we saw these various emphases as partial projections that together can create a hologram: a richer, multidimensional vision of Jesus? (McLaren, 74)

Instead of focusing on the differences as divisive details, McLaren suggests that we embrace the differences, wrapping ourselves in a quilt of diverse and multifaceted perspectives. Ultimately, according to McLaren, we should “enjoy the feast of generous orthodoxy” (McLaren, 74) that such an all-encompassing perspective generates.

Up next: “Objections to McLaren’s Generous Orthodoxy”


Book Review: Night by Elie Wiesel

Book Review: Night by Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel’s gripping account of his time spent in a Nazi concentration camp is both deeply horrifying and also deeply insightful. Like Frankl’s “Man’s Search For Meaning”, Wiesel addresses existentialism in the most terrifying and soul-depleting circumstances possible.

And yet, Wiesel has managed to survive this trauma and to use his witness as a powerful challenge for peace. In 1986, Night was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I am struck by the strength of character in Wiesel’s acceptance speech. After the persecution that Wiesel has been through, he has managed to lift himself to a place of prominence in speaking out for those that cannot be heard. Consider Wiesel’s words in his Nobel acceptance speech:

“…I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
“This is what I say to the young Jewish boy wondering what I have done with his years. It is in his name that I speak to you and that I express to you my deepest gratitude as one who has emerged from the Kingdom of Night. We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering, not to share them would mean to betray them.”
“Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately.”

Wiesel’s sense of Lent Time is especially stirring, especially in light of the Night that he has shared with us.

May this powerful story be a witness to our collective humanity.

Todd Dow