In 2007 I wrote an open letter/review of Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy which has long since disappeared off the column I used to write for the Free Church website. I came across it the other day and I thought I would republish here – because McLaren’s Emergent church has now emerged – and what it has emerged into, although predictable, is neither generous nor orthodox. In fact it is wrecking havoc, particularly in the US church. Although Steve Chalke, Jayne Ozanne and others are doing a good job of doing the same thing in the UK – with the same ideology. At the time I recall being condemned for being too negative and yet I think time has justified and fulfilled the predictions made in this review below. I have not edited the original article (warts and all)
A Generous Orthodoxy?
A Review of Brian McLaren’s Book.
The following is an open letter to a friend who gave me a copy of Brian McLaren’s Generous Orthodoxy. I am making it open because I believe the issues raised in the book are vital to the health of the Church to which I belong and to some extent are issues relevant to the Church throughout the world. I write not as an academic theologian from a seminary assessing latest trends but as a pastor whose concern is for the flock of which God has called him to be an undershepherd. Please feel free to comment, disagree or raise any issues and questions that you think are relevant to this.
Thanks for the book. I am glad you gave it to me. I know you felt very uncomfortable with it – and boy, I can understand why. I read it over the weekend and my pen was hardly out of my hand – I hope you don’t want the book back – if so it will a very marked copy!
I’m not sure how much you know about the background the book comes from so perhaps I will start there and then move on to the specifics of the book itself. McClaren writes from the perspective of a relatively new movement in the Christian Church known as the Emergent (or Emerging) Church. There is a great deal of literature on this new trend in the Church – most of it coming from the US – although it is also proving attractive to a significant number of Christians in the UK. I guess McClaren’s books (including the one you asked me about earlier, A New Kind of Christian) are as representative of the movement as anything. If you really wanted to do any further reading I would suggest that the best thing I have read on the whole subject so far is Don Carson’s Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church.
Before going on to the book in some more detail let me also say what I consider to be good about the Emergent movement and some of the things it is saying. I am not doing this to be polite or to set them up before knocking them down. When I read Emergent authors in so many ways they speak my language, address my culture and share some of the major concerns I have. I too chill to the bone at much of the TV evangelism and find the Mega Church concept overwhelming and indeed unbiblical in it’s practice and theology. They are also very good at pointing out the inconsistencies and foolishness of much of modern evangelicalism, including the branch to which I belong, the Reformed. But… and it is a big but – if McClaren’s book is indicative of the movement (and I believe it is) then it is one of the most dangerous attacks on biblical Christianity to have occurred in over 100 years. It certainly has potential to play havoc with many churches and to mess with many minds. You were right to be concerned.
Now on to the book itself. I am not going to make an overall analysis, comparing notes and dealing with other authors or books. I want to deal with this book itself and intend to do so systematically, going through it chapter by chapter. I will add the page number so that you can check if I am quoting out of context or being unfair. Obviously I will not be able to comment on everything and there may be other issues that you want to pick up. Feel free.
The alarm bells began to ring even before I got to McClaren’s own words. Phyllis Tickle’s introduction contains some interesting statements (p.11) – It is not the case that the governance of human affairs had moved from manor and fiefdom to nation state at the time of Luther. Nor is it the case that the unit of social organisation had from the tribe or village to the family. The concept of family was as essential in the 15th century as it was in the 19th. Now these may appear small matters of detail to you, but they are in actual fact indicative of how people who live in 21st century America feel free to make sweeping generalisations about 16th century Europe which they could only get away with in an historically illiterate society like our own. It sounds good. It sounds like profound analysis but the truth (although out there) is much more complex than sociological soundbites such as these.
In a similar vein John R. Franke’s introduction (p15) includes the quite incredible assertion that ‘liberals constructed theology upon the foundation of an unassailable religious experience while conservatives looked to an error-free Bible as the incontrovertible foundation of their theology’. There is more error packed into that one statement than in most books! Conservatives (and I assume he means by that what you and I would call biblical Christians, as opposed to politically right-wing) lay a phenomenal emphasis on religious experience and I have yet to meet a liberal who bases their theology on ‘an unassailable religious experience’. The dichotomy is not only false – it is nonsensical.
Futhermore the attempt to identify those who believe in an error free Bible with 20th century Anglo-American conservatives only is absurd. I have read many of the early church fathers and I have yet to come across one who believes that the Bible has errors. Furthermore when I read the whole sweep of church history it seems to me that the only people who deny the truth of the Bible are post enlightenment European liberals or this new strange breed of ‘emerging evangelicals’ who somehow think it is cool, trendy and just what our society needs. Their pick ‘n’ mix version of theology is applied to the Bible and with the same devastating effect that any movement away from Scripture has been. Augustine had it sussed a long time ago – “if you believe in the Bible what you like, and leave out what you don’t like. It is not the Bible you believe, but yourself”. Of course it is not just about church history but rather what the Scripture says about itself – and what Jesus, Peter, Paul and Mary believed. Does anyone seriously think that they believed that Scripture was in error? Even to ask the question is to realise the absurdity of it. And yet some of our ‘emergent’ brethren talk about ‘getting closer to the real Jesus’. How can you do that if you deny his Word?
Now this denial is not trivial. It involves issues of life and death. Actually way more than that – it involves heaven and eternity. Thus on p.17 Frank tells us “The biblical witness to Jesus Christ as the unique Saviour and hope of the world does not demand a restrictive posture concerning salvation for those who have never heard the gospel or those in other religious traditions”. Read that again. So what does Acts ch. 4 v. 12 mean? “Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name given to men by which we must be saved”. Well we can play with words. And post moderns are very good at playing with words. But these words say plainly to me that salvation is not found in Islam, or Buddhism, or Hinduism, or Paganism, or the Jedi Knights. It is only found in Jesus Christ. The answer that Frank et al would give would be along the lines of – we know that other religions are not salvific (they do not save) but we do not believe it is necessary for someone to become a Christian in order to be saved. Of course all this is done in the context of an implicit (and sometimes explicit) universalism – of which more later.
McClaren’s own introduction falls into the same trap of equating ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ Christianity as two sides of the same coin. If he means that legalism and liberalism are both denials of the Gospel then he would be right – but that is not what he is saying. It is clear that by conservative he means bible believing evangelicals. And they are not two sides of the same coin. Liberals and Biblical Christians are not just two groups of people who happen to disagree about a few points of doctrine and if only we got together then we would get the proper balance. Can you imagine the apostle Paul telling the elders of the Ephesian Church as he met with them on the beach – ‘savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw disciples after them…but let them be. We are all struggling towards the light. We need to preserve unity and perhaps the Spirit will guide us into pastures new?’ (see Acts 20 v. 25-32). Of course not. He wept at the thought of false teaching arising. And he committed them to the word of Gods grace. He certainly did not hand them over to the wolves!
A Generous Refund –
And so to the first chapter. A couple of observations.
Firstly McClaren uses a truism that is not true – “Those who win the battles, write the history” – (p.33) (much history has actually been written from different perspectives) in order to warn against defining orthodoxy by looking ‘in the rearview mirror’. This is a neat trick to avoid having to face anything in the Church’s past which McClaren does not like. Just as there is a pick ‘n’ mix approach to the Bible, we also have a similar approach to history.
Secondly he repeats a continual error in the book – the attempt to equate Christianity as a religion, along with the other religions. He advocates a non critical approach to other religions seeking them, “not as enemies but as beloved neighbours, and whenever possible, as dialogue partners and even collaborators”.(p.39) That sounds so nice. And so Christian. But it is, in a good Scots word, ‘mince’. Of course all human beings are made in the image of God. Of course there is truth in other religions. But I hate religion. It oppresses, destroys, causes wars and is indeed the ‘opiate of the people’. I hate all false religion, and who would seek to destroy my faith are my enemies. And I will treat them as the Lord tells me to treat my enemies – by loving them.
Thirdly this chapter profoundly disturbs me because of its ‘humility’ and its self-deprecating humour. It is well written and witty. The attitude comes across as generous and open. But at the same time ii also comes across as pompous and judgemental. For example on p.35 he writes “this book seees orthopraxy as the point of orthodoxy – again a concept so unorthodox as to encourage a good many good readers to abandon this book right now”. Where has Mr McClaren been living? I have yet to come across any evangelical leader who does not believe or teach that correct practice is essential to the Christian life and that having doctrine on its own is pointless. So why does McClaren state this? It is a kind of self-defence technique – if you don’t like what he is saying then it must be because you are not as concerned about right practice. It is that same defence technique which is used in the self-deprecating humour. It sounds humble – but I’m afraid it comes across to me as being more in the Uriah Heep mould, rather than the humility that is the fruit of the Spirit. I found this chapter one of the most self-centred and ‘me’ obcessed in the whole book. In a book that is meant to be about Christianity, I want to hear about Jesus and not about Brian McClaren or even the American/British Church. And yes, I know in saying that I am being judgemental and yes I realise that I am open to the same criticisms as well. Indeed the only reason I recognise the technique is that I have used it myself!
The Seven Jesuses
McClaren has met seven Jesuses. The Conservative Protestant one taught him that Jesus’ death pays the full penalty for human sin. The Pentecostal Jesus taught him how to receive miracles and healings from God through faith in God’s promises. The Roman Catholic Jesus taught him that Jesus’s resurrection defeats death and liberates humanity. The Eastern Orthodox that the incarnation brings God’s healing to the human race and all of creation. The Liberal Protestant that Jesus’ example and teaching inspires us to work compassionately for social justice; the Anabaptist that Jesus convenes a learning community of disciples who seek to model lives of love and peace. Finally the Liberation Theology (non-violent) that Jesus commissions and leads bands of activitist to confront unjust regimes and make room for the shalom of God. This treatment may come across to some as insightful, profound and helpful. It is in actual fact inaccurate, shallow, trite and destructive. It is almost impossible to know where to begin (and I realise that this is going to turn into a book rather than an article!) but let me give a couple of examples.
Firstly he states that the Conservative Protestant view ‘focus’s directly, and nearly exclusively, on the problem of individual moral guilt’. (p. 54). That is just not true. Biblical Christianity is concerned about the application of the whole of the Bible to the whole of life. This not only includes individual moral guilt but a much wider application – it is about the renewal of all things, the reconciliation of the cosmos and above all the glorification of God. The Westminster Shorter Catechism states that man’s chief end is to glorify God, not to get rid of one’s own moral guilt. Of course McClaren is writing from the background of American fundamentalism and from a culture which has a strong emphasis on individualism and so to some degree he can be excused this analysis. But ignorance is really no defence. If he was stating that there are some people I know who are American Protestant fundamentalists who have laid too much emphasis on individual moral guilt then he might be right. But that is not what he says. He makes a sweeping generalisation about the whole of Conservative Protestantism which is just not real or true. It’s neat. It fits his theory. But it ain’t no where near the truth.
Secondly on p.67 he states that Liberal Protestants teach us that “our mission then is to bring the teaching and example of Jesus to bear on our whole world – not only on our personal relationships, but also on the political structures and cultural systems of our world”. Thus implying that Liberal Protestants want to do this wheras Conservative (ie. Bible believing) Protestants do not do this. This is demonstrable rubbish. Conservative Christians have always sought to affect the political and cultural systems of our world whether the Puritans in England, the Covenanters in Scotland or the Moral Majority in the 20th Century US. How can anyone who lives in the current US think that Conservative Christians have nothing to do with politics? McClaren could have a legitimate criticism of how right wing politics and conservative Christianity have become synonymous in the eyes of some. But the view that conservative Christians do not try to bring the teaching and example of Jesus to bear on the political and cultural systems of the world is absurd.
Even worse is the notion that Liberals seek to bring ‘the teaching and example of Jesus to bear on our world”. Which Jesus? The Jesus who spoke of Hell and judgement? The Jesus who was born of a virgin, who died and rose again? The Jesus who challenged the religious status quo and the moralism of the establishment of his day? If people do not accept the basics of the Gospels (I would use the word ‘fundamentals’ if it was not so open to misunderstanding) aka 1 Corinthians ch.15, then in what possible sense can they be bringing the teaching and example of Jesus to bear on our world? And if they do accept the basics of the Gospel, in what sense are they Liberal? I think McClaren is confusing his terms, if by liberal he means someone who is kind, open, generous, left wing politically etc then I’m there. If he means Liberal in the sense of theology, then it has nothing to do with Biblical Christianity. Rather than encourage us to join together with Liberals ‘who are only trying to fill in the deficiencies they see in the Protestant conservative Jesus’ , he should follow the example of the apostle Paul and warn the Lord’s people with tears of the danger such teaching places them under.