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Book Reviews

Brian McLaren's New Paradigm: "A Generous Orthodoxy"

Tragically, for veterans of the myriad theological disputes roiling the evangelical waters, the very term "generous orthodoxy" strikes one as an oxymoron. Not only in our own day, but also throughout history, orthodoxy in the hands of "true believers," certain of the infallibility of their judgment, has been anything but generous.

In the name of orthodoxy:

  • Christians and Moslems have massacred each other for an entire millennium, right through to this week.
  • Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox divided the once united and universal Christian Church in 1054.
  • Roman Catholics and Protestants killed each other, literally by the hundreds of thousands in wars that raged throughout Medieval Europe.
  • In service of the Kingdom of God, the medieval church tortured anyone suspected of deviating from Catholic dogma. Not to be left behind, the Puritans later took a page out of Rome's book and burned up a few dissenters in Salem, Massachusetts.

During our more "enlightened" modern times, the quest for pure orthodoxy (or orthopraxy) has split the once unified body of Christ into over 25,000 denominations - each convinced of its own Biblical warrant.

Roman Catholics began the 20 th century by excommunicating everyone. Fundamentalists excommunicated Roman Catholics, mainline denominations, Billy Graham, as well as Charismatics. Liberals retaliated by excommunicating the Fundamentalists. The century closed with the "truly Reformed" excommunicating everyone else. The church of the new millennium is off to an ominous start with hundreds of "Holy Spirit directed" vigilante posses roaming the theological landscape, ropes in hand, seeking out heretics or dissenters. Mostly, though, these bands of Holy Warriors, accountable to no one but themselves (and God, of course) and representing every conceivable world view - fundamentalist, liberal, Roman Catholic, Reformed, Anabaptist, Evangelical, mainline, Anglican, Neo-Orthodox, dispensationalist, charismatic, Pentecostal, primitivist, prosperity, pietist, pre- and post-millennialist, universalist, exclusivist, inclusivist, pre- and post-tribulationist (and too many more to mention here), are fully employed casting polemical grenades at the camps they consider the most egregious offenders of God's truth.

The crucial thing to note here is that, in most cases, these sins of judgementalism, pride, exclusivism and unforgiveness were executed with the best intentions. At the time, they were surely perceived to be holy actions in service to a Holy God. This is what it means to take God's name in vain. This is what happens when fallible man, inculcated with the enlightenment's (and evangelicalism's) Cartesian epistemological model, believes he is capable of interpreting the will of God with objective certainty. Who can stand in the way of a person so convinced? Who can stand in the way without being mowed over by a juggernaut of "objective certainty?" Not many, if the brief history just noted above is any indicator. Clearly it's time for a paradigm shift, which brings us to A Generous Orthodoxy.

Every great once in awhile, a book comes along that is so seminal it signals a paradigm shift. Such a shift occurs when enough subscribers to the reigning "worldview" begin to question its efficacy and simultaneously put forth the elements of a new framework, which offers workable alternatives to the perceived systemic breakdown in the old system. To capture the imagination of those contemplating transferring allegiance from one paradigm to another, a new vision must resonate with their concerns, while articulating a viable path forward - out of the old, collapsing worldview and into a more efficacious potential. In my opinion, McLaren brilliantly captures the myriad concerns, questions, grievances, regrets, fears, and yes, even hopes harbored by so many who are trapped in the undeniably dysfunctional 18 th and19 th century Enlightenment/Evangelical paradigm.

McLaren's clearly inspired work is just in time to act as a catalyst of transformation from the current Evangelical model, rooted in a bizarre concoction of early American hyper-individualism, modern American consumerism, ancient neo-platonic gnosticism and dualism, 17 th century pietistic inwardness, 18 h century enlightenment/foundationalism, 19 th century dispensational escapism, and, of course, 20 th century judgementalism, irrelevancy, and general weirdness.

Having just completed a 15-year quest researching the genesis, permutations and augmentations of Evangelicalism's most glaring theological aberrations, it was a delight to note McLaren touched on many of them, albeit with a great deal more "generosity" than I was able to muster. Some of McLaren's insights are so pithy, I actually revised my manuscript on the way to the publisher to include a half score of his observations. After poring over 500 works on theology, philosophy, church history and related topics (as part of my research for The Late Great Evangelical Church, ) I have yet to encounter an author with McLaren's seemingly unique ability to concisely catalogue the strengths and weaknesses of virtually every major tradition (from Eastern Orthodox to Reformed; from Pietist/Anabaptist to liberal), in a fashion that is at once accurate, generous and loving. McLaren demonstrates a rare ability to step out of the box and view each squabbling sibling of God's family with a loving empathy, while maintaining enough distance to note their deficiencies.

Informed by cutting-edge, out of the box thinkers like Leonard Sweet and Ken Wilbur, McLaren offers an optimistic vision for the future, (complete with a post-millennial flavor) that will delight readers unhappy with the current Evangelical option of focusing on the family or getting left behind.

In addition, McLaren, a former college English instructor, is a joy to read. Simultaneously humorous and self-effacing, McLaren's prose is some of the best I've read. This is the book I wish I'd written. As it is, I'll have to settle for recommending it as a companion study to The Late Great Evangelical Church.

A Generous Orthodoxy will feed your spirit. It provides an oasis for pastors and leaders wobbling on their last legs through the vast stretches of Evangelicalism's parched wasteland. Fill your water bags up and get refreshed for the arduous trek ahead.

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