Brian McLaren’s book A Generous Orthodoxy (Zondervan, 2004) has been called a manifesto of the “emerging church” — a movement that is rethinking Christianity against the backdrop of postmodernism. McLaren is the founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Md.
What’s the book about?
McLaren hopes to convince readers that evangelicalism needs an overhaul because it has lost touch with the culture and has confused the preservation of theological orthodoxy (in the sense of “correct doctrine”) with the central mission of the church. He thinks that what Christians believe is less important than how they behave. So, his book calls for a shift to a new kind of orthodoxy — a “generous orthodoxy” — that emphasizes right behavior over right belief and, therefore, can encompass a wide spectrum of theological beliefs, even contradictory ones. However, to disassemble an entire faith tradition and then reassemble it according to a completely new blueprint — as McLaren urges — is not a new kind of orthodoxy, but is an affront to orthodoxy.
How strong is McLaren’s argument?
There’s no question that Scripture stresses holiness of life, personal integrity, humility toward others, and cooperation in a spirit of grace rather than selfish preoccupation with our own ego-driven projects. Like McLaren says, chances are that much of what we believe is mistaken, and often our methods of persuasion are prompted by our own insecurities. He rightfully encourages believers to engage in serious self-examination about how they behave. But McLaren’s brand of theology is overly sensitive to the pressures of postmodern hipness.
How does the book promote postmodernism?
In using the term “orthodoxy” for his position, McLaren is making a political move to subvert traditional evangelical theology. “Orthodoxy,” as he uses it, is whatever happens to be in vogue and culturally dominant. Also, an important theme among postmodernists has to do with the nature of belief — they doubt that people have, or need, good reasons to believe as they do, so they emphasize behavior over belief. (This probably explains why McLaren’s book relies less on evidence and argumentation and more on rhetoric.) However, in de-emphasizing the importance of belief, McLaren and other postmodernists overlook three things. First, belief is the engine that drives behavior. The best way to cure wrong action is to identify false beliefs. Second, all people — even postmodernists — have definite beliefs about the things that matter most. They can’t help it. While McLaren resists the invitation to state clearly what he believes — for example, about the eternal destiny of nonbelievers — surely he has some view of the matter and that view influences his approach to the proclamation of the gospel. (As a pastor, he should have good ideas about this and a host of other issues of theological significance.) Third — though postmodernists sneer at the idea of evidence — evidence matters because it’s how we determine what’s true and is crucial to ordering our lives according to truth. In this respect, the postmodernist is out of step with the culture because human beings are by nature evidence-gatherers. For more about this, see my chapters in Christianity and the Postmodern Turn: Six Views (BrazosPress, 2005).
Why does this book resonate with so many Christians?
McLaren writes in an engaging and provocative manner about matters of intrinsic interest. He is definitely “bucking the system,” and that appeals to many members of a generation weaned on sound bytes, sensationalist news stories, and the clash of opinionated talking heads. It’s as if the only way to get people to pay attention anymore is to broadcast your message with a shrill pugnacity.
How should Christians respond to this book?
Like anything else (including this interview), Christians should read McLaren’s book with care and critical discernment. If they’re inclined to accept McLaren’s posture of suspicion toward traditional evangelicalism, then they should be no less cautious in their evaluation of his ideas. And they should ask: Am I comfortable having my tradition represented by a spokesman like McLaren? McLaren is an iconoclast — he apparently enjoys attacking the cherished convictions and institutions of mature evangelicalism. This, it seems to me, reflects a dangerous new conception of the role of the minister among God’s people.