The Common Good
February 2005

Beyond 'Right Thinking'

by Ryan Beiler | February 2005

A review of A Generous Orthodoxy, by Brian McLaren.

When I read Jim Wallis'

When I read Jim Wallis’ The Soul of Politics during college, my worlds were exceedingly polarized - much like the U.S. is today - between my fundamentalist campus ministry community and my secular activist friends. Reading Wallis’ synthesis of faith and politics made it much easier to say to both communities, "see - this is the kind of Christian I am."

Since then, it’s proven harder to articulate my theology than it is to claim my politics. My Mennonite tradition resonates most deeply, but in conversation it often gets a blank stare or questions about buggies and the Amish. "Progressive evangelical" - another imperfect label - gets translated alternately as "liberal" by those who mistrust progressives and "fundamentalist" by those who mistrust evangelicals. I need better words.

Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy begins to articulate a faith that values the core of a Christ-centered faith without falling into the dogmatism often associated with definers of orthodoxy - literally, "right thinking." The title phrase was coined by Yale theologian Hans Frei, whom McLaren quotes in his introduction: "[W]e need a kind of generous orthodoxy which would have in it an element of liberalism…and an element of evangelicalism."

On litmus-test issues such as the authority of scripture, McLaren questions both the value of terms such as inerrancy and infallibility, as well as the scientific rationalism employed to debunk them. "[T]he problem isn’t the Bible," says McLaren, "but our modern assumptions about the Bible and our modern interpretive approaches to it." While ultra-conservatives make the Bible into a science textbook, and ultra-liberals rely on scientific assumptions to render it irrelevant, McLaren seeks to reclaim the Bible as narrative. "[J]ust because it recounts (by standards of accuracy acceptable to its original audience) what happened, that doesn’t mean it tells what should always happen or even what should have happened." Rather, writes McLaren, it is "the unfolding narrative of God at work in a violent, sinful world, calling people...into a new way of life."

Permeating McLaren’s quest for generous orthodoxy is the humility and self-deprecating humor with which he frames the book in Chapter 0 (yes, zero), where he cops to the irreconcilable paradox of his endeavor: "[T]his book suggests that relativists are right in their denunciation of absolutism. It also affirms that absolutists are right in their denunciation of relativism. And then it suggests that they are both wrong because the answer lies beyond both absolutism and relativism. I’ll bet that sounds like nonsense to nine out of 10 readers...."

Five of those nine are the conservatives who elected George W. Bush because they believe in absolute moral values. The other four are the relativistic liberals who voted for Kerry (I’m generalizing here). McLaren will not satisfy those on either side who’d prefer to have their assumptions confirmed. But he does offer reassurance to the remaining one in 10 who is glad someone is struggling to find a better way.

But this book can’t fully satisfy them either, since a central thesis is that this new orthodoxy is still "emergent" and unfinished. And the struggle is as much for better, more generous, and more loving means as it is for an orthodox end - a struggle that can prove rather frustrating. "[H]ere’s the tension," McLaren writes. "[W]e must always be discontented with our portraits of orthodoxy, but we must never, in frustration, throw the Subject of our portrait out the window."

Ryan Beiler is Web editor at Sojourners.

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