Sunday, July 02, 2006

Review: A Generous Orthodoxy

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

A couple weeks ago, Ernie suggested that I read three books. The first one I read was "The Pilgrim's Regress", by C.S. Lewis, which I reported on earlier. I am still waiting for G.K. Chesterton's "Orthodoxy" from our library, which somebody has checked out and which is now ten days overdue. But I did get "A Generous Orthodoxy" by Brian McLaren a week ago Friday and finally finished it last night.

After reading only a few pages, I could see why Ernie would recommend this book, and in fact I recommended it to my wife (a Christian). This is not because I was suddenly convinced that Christianity was true, but rather because I appreciated McLaren's approach to the topics he would be addressing. I have been considering what I would consider the most defensible sort of Christianity, and an important facet of that would be a recognition that our understanding of God (assuming for the moment that he exists) has been exceedingly poor in the past and is still very uncertain. A Christian of the sort I have in mind may hold and act on his beliefs as they currently exist while still holding them tentatively and acting in recognition of their potential inaccuracy, and while continuing to test and refine those beliefs.

McLaren appears to do that. In his introduction, for instance, he says:

If I seem to show too little respect for your opinions or thought, be assured I have equal doubts about my own, and I don't mind if you think I'm wrong. I'm sure I am wrong about many things, although I'm not sure exactly which things I'm wrong about. I'm even sure I'm wrong about what I think I'm right about in at least some cases. So wherever you think I'm wrong, you could be right. If, in the process of determining that I'm wrong, you are stimulated to think more deeply and broadly, I hope that I will have somehow served you anyway. See Chapter 0 for details.

And in Chapter 0, titled "For Mature Audiences Only",he writes:

Scandalously, the generous orthodoxy you will explore (if you proceed) goes too far, many will say, in the direction of identifying orthodoxy with a consistent practice of humility, charity, courage and diligence: humility that allows us to admit that our past and current formulations may have been limited or distorted. Charity toward those of other traditions who may understand some things better than our group -- even though we are more conscious of what we think we understand better. Courage to be faithful to the true path of our faith as we understand it even when it is unpopular, dangerous, and difficult to do so. Diligence to seek again and again the true path of our fatih whenever we feel we have lost our way, which seems to be pretty often. While I see this practice as a way of seeking and chrishing truth, some will interpret this approach as an abandomnent of truth, doctrine, theology, etc. You are free to be among them.

I appreciate the attitude that underlies these words.

The book is subtitled "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." The bulk of the book is devoted to describing these various branches of Christian thought, how McLaren finds something good in all of them, even when there are problems that have been associated with them as well. McLaren appears to be attempting (in his own life) to appreciate and integrate the good while leaving out the bad, surely a noble goal. In fact, in the chapter "Why I am Incarnational" McLaren advocates dialog with members of other religions wherein a Christian should be open to learning what good those other religions have to offer. It is in that context that he writes:

In other words, we must be open to the perpetual possibility that our received understandings of the gospel may be faulty, imbalanced, poorly nuanced, or downright warped and twisted... In this sense Christians in missional dialogue must continually expect to rediscover the gospel.

In fact, this is one of the great benefits of missional interreligious dialogue for the Christian community: it puts un in situations where we may discover misconceptions and distortions we never would have seen if we were only talking to ourselves in self-affirming, self-congratulating conversation.

There is something to be admired and emulated in this approach to our beliefs, and its applicability is certainly not limited to Christians.

Still, I have some criticisms that I hope I can offer in a generous way. While McLaren advocates willingness to refining beliefs, this is not without limit. Again, back in Chapter 0, McLaren writes:

Many hold a minimalist concept of orthodoxy, seeking "the least common denominator," which limits the list of requirements for orthodoxy to a few core essentials. The generous orthodoxy of this book never seeks to dispute those lists, but rather, it consistently, unequivocally, and unapologetically upholds and affirms the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds... It also affirms (this is so Protestant) that Scripture itself remains above creeds... [hyperlinks mine]

After (or actually before, as presented in the book) going to such lengths to describe how open he is to , this struck me. It was as if he said, "I'll go whereever the journey for truth takes me, as long as it does not cross these lines." This may not be what he meant. Strictly speaking, this was a statement about the orthodoxy described by this book, not about where he would allow himself to go at some future time. But throughout the book, except for the briefest hints (as I quoted above), there is no substantial acknowledgement that those creeds may also be mistaken or that scripture may be nothing more than a purely human endeavor.

Instead, while discussing the separate problems of conservative and liberal Christianity, McLaren says:

Meanwhile, liberals had another set of problems. Just as conservative biblical interpretations could "prove" almost anything, liberal free inquiry could question anything. Their questioning and research could arrive at conclusions that left the Christian faith severely -- some would say fatally -- wounded, depleted, and drained of content. When the Bible's trustworthiness was questioned, then the divinity, resurrection and existence of Jesus were questioned; even the existence of God was suspect. What was left to believe in? Had liberal Christianity self-destructed? Had Christianity become a wrapper with no contents, an excuse to gather and hear exhortations to be nice folks, good citizens, and safe drivers? What happens when the methodology of free inquiry that unleashed your movement now turns on your movement and threatens to suck the life out of it?

What happens? McLaren's unstated answer does not allow that perhaps Christianity is a wrapper with no (divine) contents. Must there then be a problem with free inquiry? McLaren does not answer the question, but it certainly appears that there are answers he is not prepared to accept. Is that surprising? Not really. But it does temper my appreciation of what he is trying to do.

It will not be surprising, in light of my comments so far, that I found McLaren's chapter "Why I am Biblical" lacking. He spends half the chapter trying to explain how the Bible can be inspired while also being the product of personality, community, culture and historical context. In this attempt, he uses several analogies, including an analogy with how God creates individuals through "a complex synergy of biology and community and history", thus explaining one mystery with another. He also rejects emphasis of the terms "authority, inerrancy, infallibility, revelation, objective, absolute, and literal" even while maintaining "that they are important within certain contexts" (emphasis his) but without saying anything about what those contexts are. I came away from that section without any good idea of what point he was trying to make.

He does advance this statement: "The purpose of Scripture is to equip God's people for good works." This is in contrast to its role (according to others) "as a weapon to threaten others, as a tool to intimidate others and prove them wrong, as a shortcut to being know-it-alls who believe the Bible gives us all the answers, as a defense of the status quo...".

The last part of the chapter McLaren devotes to a defense of the problems that the Bible causes for him. When he talks about this to people outside the church, he says:

I try to explain that the problem isn't the Bible, but our modern assumptions about the Bible and our modern interpretive approaches to it. I try to explain that there is a better way to understand and apply the Bible, a largely new and unexplored way that can be summarized like this: We need to reclaim the Bible as narrative.

We must begin with a recognition of how violent the world of the ancient Middle East was. The violence of the Jews entering Canaan in 1400 B.C. was not extraordinary; it was typical of their day. And so we ask: in that context was God commanding the people to do, not what was ideal or ethically desirable for all time, but what was necessary to survive in that world at that point.? Was there a viable alternative at the time for a group of wandering, homeless, liberated slaves seeking a homeland?

And later,

According to the Torah, while God is commanding the destruction of Canaan, God simultaneously commands that once it was subdued, the Jews should treat their neighbors and aliens with respect and kindness. God never commands them to build a divinely sanctioned empire that will conquer all their neighbors and destroy or assimilate them; after all, they had been the victims of empire themselves in Egypt. Instead God strictly limits the violence and leads the Jews to create a society that was a step above that of their neighbors ethically.

I believe this defense fails for a number of reasons. First, it only addresses one class of biblical atrocity, the manner in which the Promised Land was (supposedly) occupied. While important to this discussion, there are a number of other problems that this defense does not address, problems like slavery and treatment of women, or the killing of forty-two children who mocked Elisha (as just a few examples). Second, to say that God "strictly limits the violence" is misleading at best. While the violence and conquest did not extend across the entire world, the destruction within Canaan was extreme. Group after group are "utterly destroyed". Israelites are punished for failing to be complete in their destruction on some occasions. On other occasions, the Israelites are commanded to kill everyone except for the young virgin women, who can be, uh, kept. This is not limited violence, and it would take more than mere assertion to convince me that this level of violence was both typical and necessary. Third, while McLaren seems to try to deflect responsibility from God by claiming that God was simply working with people who were violent, and by asking whether God should have withheld is blessing to a people of such a nature, when that nature was entirely typical. But God did not merely associate with such violent people, he actually commanded the violence and sometimes inflicted it himself.

In addition to these failures, McLaren does not address or even acknowledge other substantial problems with the biblical text, some of those very problems that led liberal Christianity to ask those questions that he so quickly dismissed earlier. Now it was not his purpose in this book to explain or defend all of those problems, but there is a sense in which the Bible and the history of the Jewish nation and of the early church is a foundation for all that follows, and because McLaren fails to address my concerns about those topics, I am left with a rather mixed opinion of the book.

To a Christian, this book presents a valuable message about the importance of humility, of generosity, in one's interactions with other branches of Christianity and with other religions. In fact, that general message (if not most of the details) is useful in other contexts of our divisive culture. Judging from the reviews at Amazon, this message is not universally welcome, however. Not really too surprising, that.

Again, I'll ask Ernie to bring up anything about the book that he found to be particularly significant to our discussion, if I failed to mention it.

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