Book Review: “A Generous Orthodoxy” by Brian McLaren

This is my first book review.  I know that, technically, there is a certain way to write a book review starting with an introduction, general overview of the book, strong points, weak points, and finishing with a summary and conclusion (or something like that).  Instead of all that, I’m just going to tell you why I loved this book.  How’s that?  LOL!  You see, book reviews on the Christian Independent are going to be more like journal entries than technical book reviews, because I’m past the point of reading books simply for theological information.  I’m interested in transformation.  I did the whole “stuff my head with knowledge” thing and that ends in stale orthodoxy.  It’s ironic that those words flowed off of my fingers, because that is the opposite of what Brian McLaren is aiming at in this book.  He’s trying to get at something deeper than theological systems.  He’s trying to get at a way of life (one that includes beliefs) that is generous.  He contends that the dichotomy that exists in our thinking between orthodoxy (right beliefs) and orthopraxy (right practice or living) should not exist.  We should live out our beliefs in a generous way that transforms us, others, the community, and, ultimately, the whole world.  Believe me, I’m doing a grave injustice to Brian by writing this review, because I cannot capture the beauty of what he is proposing and directing us toward in any way that can fully articulate his thoughts.  You’re going to have to read the book yourself.

Okay, so it’s 1:30 in the morning when I’m writing this.  I’m still high on all the caffeine I drank at dinner, so I figured I’d get my thoughts down on paper after having just finishing reading the book.  Being so easily distracted it’s a miracle that I actually post anything on this website at all and it’s a double miracle when I ever actually finish a book that I start reading when it is no required as part of my school assignments.  So, you can imagine how amazing it is that I not only finished reading this entire 350 page book, but did so in a week!  When things like that happen, you know something’s happening in my heart.  When a piece of writing can overcome the malfunctioning of my prefrontal cortex, it is powerful, indeed.  I have posted this review the same day as I posted another article in which I describe, in what I call “a more mature manner”, my exodus from evangelicalism.  The reason I posted these two articles on the same day is that I want you to see the context of the term post-evangelical I used in that article.  I got it from McLaren.  This man, more than any person I’ve read in the past few years of what I described briefly in the other article as my journey out of a personal Great Depression, has brought together the scattered thoughts, ruminations, theories, and new perspectives I’ve gained in my contemplating, questioning, and reformulating.

I’m not going to sit here and give you a full summary of the book (look it up on Amazon here and read the summary for more info), but I want to give you the gist.  McLaren envisions the church on a developmental journey from the first century until now.  You don’t really get this whole thing tied together until the final chapters.  As a matter of fact, reading the final two chapters about why he considers himself unfinished gives a nice overview of his entire approach – one that is holistic and integrates the good from each of the traditions he mentions (while calling for repentance from the bad).  He gives the illustration of the rings of a tree.  Each year, a tree produces a ring out of the combination of the air, soil, and sunlight.  The rings however are not independent or linear.  They build on one another and the outer rings (the more recent ones) cannot ignore the earlier ones.  As a matter of fact, they are dependent on them and emerge from them – thus the idea of the emergent Christian or the emergent church (terms I used in the other blog I posted today).  We are emerging out of the past.  We take with us the good things from past generations, repent of the bad, and build on what we’ve learned to emerge into a new phase of growth in the story of God’s Kingdom coming to earth.  I’m currently taking a Holistic Psychology class (and should actually be using this sugar high to do reading for my final paper which is due this week) and I was so pleased to see McLaren integrate into his approach some of the teachings of Ken Wilber, who has some great thoughts about the development of the human race as it relates to psychology.  I’ve only read the one book we’ve been assigned in class, but Wilber attempts to construct a holistic psychology that is based on the idea of nature (we would say creation – Wilber is a Buddhist) as emerging – from energy to atoms to molecules to organisms to humans to spirit.  McLaren hits on this idea, describing our emergence from atoms and molecules all the way up to the Kingdom of God, which, differing from Wilber, he sees as the ultimate state of being and that which Jesus came to show us and lead us toward.

McLaren talks a lot about post-modernism and how western society is emerging from modernism into this new way of looking at things.  Modernism is the child of the Enlightenment that thought in black and white categories, was obsessed with the details, systematized everything, sought for absolutes in its epistemology, disregarded ideas that weren’t scientific, and was materialistically reductionist.  Like I said, it’s late and I might be synthesizing some more of Wilber in with McLaren, but don’t worry, they say the same thing.  Anyway, there was a lot of good that came from modernism, including the technological and scientific revolutions that have been a great blessing to us.  However, it had its weaknesses in that it divided us into “us” verses “them” camps and tempted us to foreclose on our search for the truth and think we had figured it all out (thus, the popularity of systematic theologies).  It also rejected the idea of a spiritual world because of its reductionism.

Post-modernism (in its non-extreme, constructive form) questions some of the assumptions of modernism.  It does not look at the world as “either/or,” but as a “both/and.”  In other words, it’s not Predestination or Free Will, but both, to use a theological example.  It takes the elements that it sees as true from the different systems and tries to “emerge” from those systems with a new collective synthesis of ideas, but not one that is complete (like in modernism), but one that is constantly in dialogue with past ideas (on which it is built like the rings of the tree) and the future of new ideas and discoveries (the air, sunlight, and soil around the tree), all for the purpose of creating another ring from which we will then emerge into an even newer, fuller, more holistic understanding of our world and our relation to it and God and His Kingdom.

This is how McLaren does his work.  He goes through the differing theological traditions within Christianity including evangelical, protestant, liberal, catholic, orthodox, mystical, charismatic, fundamentalist/Calvinist, Methodist and several others.  He points out their strong points with which he identifies while also highlighting their weaknesses.  Like a good post-modern, McLaren doesn’t systematize his observations, but notes in the epilogue that these are more like thoughts and ponderings than a systematic theology.  Systematic theologies are, by nature, complete, tightly argued, logical structures that seek to provide a comprehensive answer to everything.  McLaren doesn’t believe we’re ever going to arrive at such a place of complete, absolute answers and so he keeps to a rough sketch and is very open about the possibility of his thoughts being wrong.  He is interested in contributing to the dialogue that is perpetual in the search for truth.

I was especially moved by the chapters on mission, (Eastern) Orthodoxy, emergence, and environmentalism (I just lost half of you with that one – but wait! – McLaren offers in that chapter the best practical approach to the creation I have ever read, emerging, of course, beyond the creation vs. evolution wars).  Of course, there was the chapter on evangelicalism from which I was inspired to write the other post I put up today on post-evangelicalism.  I hope this book review gives you more insight into what I mean by emerging from evangelicalism.  That’s what I meant when I talked about not rejecting my heritage, but taking the good things and moving into a new phase, another ring of the tree, so-to-speak.

Well, I guess right there I did actually give a summary of the book, but still, it’s not as technical as one might demand.  Now, let me explain to you how this book has affected me and why I believe that God is starting to tie together some loose ideas and themes with me into the development of an emergent, growing perspective on the world.  You have to understand that five years ago, without having even read any of their writings, I was highly critical of the emergent church as those who were rejecting God’s truth and developing something that was akin to eastern satanic mysticism (as I understood that terminology).  I could not have been further from the truth.  I’m glad that I went through that Great Depression of questioning and have emerged from my evangelical heritage, because now I feel like I am growing again and moving on to a deeper, fuller understanding of my faith that is transforming me on the inside (but, yet, an understanding of my faith that is not as deep as it will be ten years from now).

Christianity in the West is too left-brained.  It needs more balance with the right side.  Western and Eastern Christianity need to re-combine and emerge out of that very dichotomy and forge a newer, more holistic understanding of our faith that is applicable to the 21st century.  This is the type of idea I was suggesting in this post on the use of language.  The dryness and barrenness that I felt in typical evangelical discipleship programs that I felt did not transform me at deeper levels was a result of this left-brained focus in western Christian culture.  The mystical, experiential, and emotional elements (a very brief scan of western Christian writings will sadly reveal their inordinate bias and mistrust of emotion and experience – one of the reasons why western Christian culture is dying) were missing to make it a more holistic (holy?) package.  I feel like with the chapters on poetic mysticism, responsible creationism, and the contemplative tradition, McLaren was giving me permission to go into these traditionally more Eastern areas of my faith (and before you western Christians have a hissy fit about Eastern Christianity, I’ll tell you that I’m willing to bet all the money I have – admittedly not much – that you completely misunderstand it like I did.  Before you criticize and critique it, take the time to read it and understand it, first).  This holism is what I like about McLaren’s approach and his book just brings together so much of my own thinking in a semi-organized, loosely structured way.  This is why the book was able to temporarily subdue my ADD – it captured elements of my soul that have been dis-integrated over the past few years and the scattered thoughts, ideas and emotions I’ve experienced have started to emerge into a general form that makes some sense for me.

No doubt the journey will continue.  I can’t wait to use my free two-day shipping as part of my Amazon Prime Membership to relocate some more of Brian’s writings to a permanent home on one of my bookshelves (or boxes of books since there are too many to shelve).  I have another book I’m going to start tomorrow (after working on the paper, of course LOL).  I finally feel like there is some structure to my thinking and some direction for my thoughts.  I never thought God would have used a Holistic Psychology class and a Brian McLaren book to merge together my random thoughts.  If God had revealed that to me five years ago, I probably would have been demoralized by what I would have thought was a precognition of apostasy.  Which is why He didn’t, LOL!  I never would have thought it was the beginning of a liberating emergence (obviously, my new favorite word!) into a healing, satisfying understanding of my faith that is drawing me ever stronger and closer to the heart of the Lord Jesus!

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: “A Generous Orthodoxy” by Brian McLaren

  1. I just read this book for the first time like three months ago and am rereading it now…I agree its very helpful 🙂

    You didn’t mention the part about the Methodists which is where I’m currently going to church (when I go) and I thought of all the stories he told they were the ones who may have come closest to finally getting it right for good at one point.

    Anybody else read the book?

  2. OMG..I totally read it too Hayen…actually my mom bought it for me cuz a friend of hers told her about it and I got it for Christmas last year but didn’t read it until I saw this review. It was totally awesome!! I get sick and tired of the judgementalism of Christians towards other denominations so I really liked how he took the good out of all of them-even fundamentalists, which I’m sure shocked Jordan. LOL! 😉 I consder myself an emerging Christian like he talked about. Like you I think I can find a home in this stuff….do you know of any churches this is taught in???

  3. Stephanie, emergent churches aren’t a denomination, but an approach to the Christian faith. You can find emergent churches in pretty much any denomination. The churches can be liberal or conservative. The best thing to do is look around at churches in your area and check out their websites or send an email to the church pastor and ask what he thinks of the emergent church movement. That’d be a good place to start.

  4. Thanks Jordan 🙂 I did a google search and it seems like a lot of these emergent churches are glorified evangelical churches, but its a good place to start I guess.

    • That’s very true and some are nominally emergent. They just add some candles and quote a few church fathers, but keep the rest of the modernist theological structure intact. Be discerning with that…

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