Friday, April 17, 2009

Generous Orthodoxy 1-4: Why a Christian?

Let me slip in here a Friday book review. Last week I started reading Brian McLaren's Generous Orthodoxy: 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."

Last week I reviewed John Franke's Foreward, McLaren's Introduction, and his Chapter 0: For Mature Audiences Only.

This week I want to look at chapters 1-4, which form Part I: "Why I Am a Christian."

Chapter 1: "The Seven Jesuses I Have Known
This chapter continues the playful introduction and the fun tone of what has come before. The controversy for me does not come quite yet. The seven are semi-autobiographical and are:

1. The Conservative Protestant Jesus
McLaren grew up with this one. Emphasis on the cross, he says, by which he means penal substitution and an emphasis on God's punishing justice. He accepts this theology as a piece of the puzzle, but you can tell his enthusiasm has dulled for it.

He mentions Joel Green and Mark Baker's book, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, in a footnote. This is a book that should be read. My sense is that the emphasis he mentions is more true of Calvinist conservatism than my own.

2. The Pentecostal/Charismatic Jesus
Here an emphasis on the dying Jesus, but on the Jesus whose real presence is with us still today through the Holy Spirit.

3. The Roman Catholic Jesus
He pictures Roman Catholicism emphasizing the resurrection, the fact that "Jesus changes forever the whole equation of existence" (53). He mentions the "Christus Victor" approach to atonement, Christ as victor over evil.

Not sure I would have pegged RC as emphasizing the resurrection. After all, the RCC keeps Jesus on the crucifix and my impression is that in third world catholicism, Good Friday is a far more important day than Easter. I see RC emphasizing the life of Jesus more.

4. The Eastern Orthodox Jesus
He sees EO emphasizing the incarnation. God taking up humanity into himself and bringing divinity into humanity.

5. The Liberal Protestant Jesus
He sees the good in liberal Christianity an emphasis on Jesus as a good moral example in his life (minus the miracles). An interesting quote: "Scratch the paint of a liberal and you'll find an alienated fundamentalist underneath" (59).

6. The Anabaptist Jesus
The thing that McLaren likes about the Anabaptists is their pacifism. It is a focus on the life of Jesus, but not like the liberal Protestant. It takes Jesus' ethic (understood in a pacifist way) as the way we should live today. He mentions the influence of John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus, again, a book that should be read.

7. The Jesus of the Oppressed
One small step from the Anabaptist is the (non-violent) liberationist. "Jesus works for liberation of all oppressed people" (63).

"I tell the story of my encounters with Jesus to say that now, after many years of following Jesus and learning from many different communities of his followers. I'm just beginning to arrive at a view of Jesus that approaches the simple, integrated richness I knew of him as a little body--picture Bible on my father's lap" (66).

Chapter 2: "Jesus and God B"
The "God B" thing was puzzling to me and McClaren doesn't tell us what it means until the end of the chapter. "... the experience of God in Jesus was so powerful that it forever transformed what followers of Jesus meant when they said the word God... Eventually, after a few centuries of reflecting on God as revealed and experienced through Jesus..., the church began to describe God as Father-Son-Spirit in Tri-unity or the Trinity. For them, God could no longer be conceived of merely as "God A," a single, solitary, dominant Power, Mind, or Will, but as "God B," a unified, eternal, mysterious, relational community/family/society/entity of saving Love" (76).

This was the first chapter where McClaren left me less than enthusiastic. I don't know where he's headed. He takes the titles, "Son of man" and "Son of God" to mean "carrying the essence of humanity" and "carrying the essence of God." These statements are quite possibly true (orthodox) but they could also be something quite different. Of course these phrases more naturally referred originally to Christ's kingship (Son of God) and in some places his role as God's end time king (Son of Man).

However, I was not disturbed by McClaren's observation that "God is not a male" (74). God has no sexual organs. He has revealed himself in history primarily in male categories, but this is only to be expected given the patriarchal orientation of most cultures. "God is not a male or female, whatever pronouns we use" (75). And this is certainly the case.

Chapter 3: "Would Jesus Be a Christian?"
I was somewhat underwhelmed by this chapter as well. It's a great question. I hope McClaren actually addresses it somewhere. He's right that it is a question an aweful lot of people are answering "No" to today.

He gives three nuances of the word Lord in Jesus' day: 1) authority and kingship (but a good king in contrast to the more usual very bad ones). McClaren certainly has no room for Calvinistic determinism. "His kingdom, then, is a kingdom not of oppressive control but of dreamed of freedom, not of coercive dominance but of liberating love" (83).

2) a master in relation to a servant or slave. He has some good things to say here. There's no neutral ground. Not to serve Jesus as Lord "one can actually be serving darkness" (85).

3) a master teacher or rabbi.

One other statement caught my eye, "We retained Jesus as Savior but promoted the apostle Paul (or someone else) to Lord and Teacher" (86).

I guess McClaren's point in this chapter is that many Christians to not have a proper sense of God's Lordship.

Chapter 4: "Jesus: Savior of What"
I liked this chapter better than the previous two.

So if McClaren doesn't think a lot of Christians are properly thinking of Jesus as Lord, McClaren doesn't think they're thinking of him properly as Savior either. Save basically means "rescue" or "heal" (93). OK, he's right here.

1. God saves by judging--that is, he stops people doing injustice to us from doing injustice. That's a nice spin on judging.

2. God saves by judging because He then forgives. So judgment helps us correct course, which is good.

3. God saves by teaching and revealing.

"Jesus enters into the center of the thunderstorm of human evil and takes its full shock on the cross" (97).

There are some great thoughts in this chapter about saving. He has a great story about a turtle that wasn't growing correctly because of something someone had put around its shell when it was little. As it grew, the plastic kept the shell from growing out. When someone snapped the plastic, McClaren notes, the turtle's shell didn't change at all in that moment. But those people had saved the turtle... years later in that moment.

McClaren convincingly argues that to think of salvation mostly in terms of avoiding hell will have a tendency to skew our focus.

I close with one further thing he discusses. At the beginning of the chapter, and I'm not sure it fits in this chapter, he gives an argument that theology should grow "out of the experience" of Christians in a particular culture. "Praxis must be prior to theology" (92). I wouldn't say that this claim is completely false, but it is probably only half of the story. In theory, however, all a culture needs is for the Holy Spirit to fill Christians in it genuinely, and they would be able to say how the gospel plays out there. In practice, however, it is hard to know exactly which people are filled with the Spirit and which aren't.


Mike Koke said...

Thanks for this helpful review - this book has been sitting on my shelf but I have not yet been able to read it. But I did read McClaren's "Secret Message of Jesus" and while at times he seemed to present just a popular version of NT Wright and the term "postmodernism" can become so abused, I find I am drawn to McClaren's kind of compassionate Christianity. McClaren is a guy I can watch on Larry King and feel comfortable as an evangelical. I have found all your reviews on McClaren, Wright, Hurtado, Bauckham, Dunn and others very helpful.

Ken Schenck said...


Keith Drury said...

Thanks again for revisiting my visit with GO... I need to read it again... but I'll probably just read your review. ;-)