McLaren: The Final Word. (Maybe)

Just finished Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy.

We kicked off this conversational review here, and then dropped in for a quick update a couple days ago. You might want to read those first. 

After finishing his initial exposition chapters, I expected to skim the bulk of McLaren’s Generous Orthodoxy, but I found his later chapters to be provocative and insightful.

I think at this point in my life, I am more interested in reading/listening to people who think differently than I do rather than soaking myself in works that reflect my own viewpoint. McLaren offered a surprising mix of agreement and disagreement with my perspective on the Church and her mission. I can’t really quantify what exactly I agree with and what I would reject. I think his thoughts need to marinate in me for a while . . .

Overall, I think McLaren is essentially on the mark with his critique of what my friend Sam calls “churchianity.” The religion of Christianity is not equivalent to the Kingdom which the Triune God is hard at work creating on this earth.  Our Christian “religion” continues to alienate folks, including many of our young people.

The Church in our 21st century, Evangelical expression has grown fat and comfortable in her neighborhood of (fading) Modernism. Yes, yes, there have been cosmic battles between liberal and conservative theology, vast disagreements over methodology, and a spectacular opening salvo known as the Reformation.  But our emergent understanding of the world is now postmodern, not Modern. We are too steeped in our own modernist context to be able to critique its faults. Somehow McLaren mustered the necessary objectivity to stand apart from the Church Modern to envision the Church Future. (Some of you will find the word “objectivity” ironic in that sentence about a man who is attempting to encourage a postmodern incarnation of the Body.)

I am tired of doom and gloom preaching; me-centered theology and mission (“Come to Jesus! He’ll make you feel better!”); narrow-minded judgmentalism; and a refusal to work now for the world that will exist 500 years from now (because deep-down, even the Reformed seem to live a Left Behind theology of Christian vocation and mission).  (Was that a narrow-minded judgment? LOL)

Is McLaren right?

I don’t know. But one thing is certain: postmodern Christianity (the good kind) will be as markedly different from what we see now as the Protestant Church was to Medieval Catholicism.

It’s going to be a wild ride….

thinking about The Table

Awhile back Coart and I were acquainted with a guy who studied at the Reformed Episcopal seminary in Texas. He was an interesting fellow, brimming with ideas about music, art, theology, philosophy which shook the little pillars of my worldview. I haven’t heard from him in quite a while; we need to track him down.

Anyway, since meeting Mark, we’ve been curious about the REC. I don’t know much about the denomination other than it’s been around more than 100 years. They’re Calvinist Episcopalians. (If you remember your Anglican history, you’ll recall that the Church of England adopted Arminius’s view of salvation and theology in the 1600s, offering yet another reason for the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell to view the Anglican church with disfavor.)

Being the curious folks that we are, we tracked down a congregation while on vacation in Phoenix and visited their Eucharist service last evening.

There’s not a whole lot to tell about the service itself; we worked our way through a long liturgy that included candles, vestments, and many Scripture readings (which are chanted instead of read). The rector’s sermon was what one expects from an evangelical pastor, with perhaps a bit more historical theology thrown in (a brief discussion of Trinitarian heresies). The small group of believers were very friendly.

But what stood out to me most was the Eucharist itself.

EucharistAfter so many years in conservative Protestant circles, I find myself longing for something “more” in worship practice, especially at the Lord’s Table.

Our fear of Catholic transubstantiation has led us to evacuate Communion from any real meaning in our lives …. other than, perhaps, an excuse for a guilt trip once a month for our inherent sinfulness. If your mom welcomed you to Christmas Dinner each year with a review of your recent failures, I doubt you’d get much pleasure out of the meal. No wonder many Christians stay home on Communion Sunday. 

NCC is the first church I’ve ever attended that treats the Lord’s Supper as a celebration instead of a judgment. Even Mt Calvary, whose silent meal followed by soulful singing, was far more focused on judging yourself for sin instead of on the Grace of Christ which frees us from that sin.

I think the Lord’s Supper does impart grace to the taker. Now I’m not talking about “saving grace (ie: I don’t think taking communion saves you). But in another sense, the grace is salvific — if we recognize that salvation is a process and not a point in time. The Gospel which translates me from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of His dear Son (Colossians 1) is the same Gospel which works itself out over a lifetime of sanctification and miraculous transformation from sinner to “new creation.”

I think that kind of Grace is imparted to us at the Table. This sacrament of the Church (it seems to me) must be more than a simple memorial of past events.

An illustration: Protestant views of Communion seem to treat the event like a visit to see the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier: A really meaningful opportunity to increase my appreciation for America’s veterans who sacrificed themselves for Freedom.

But let’s be honest. I might miss something by never seeing the changing of the guard at Arlington (I haven’t), but that doesn’t mean I can’t come to a deep and real appreciation for the military’s sacrifice. Basically, I can take it or leave it. Should I never pass by Arlington again, I will die a complete and “total” American.

I have a hard time treating the Lord’s Supper like a mere memorial with no real affect on the believer who partakes of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.  …. There’s something wrong with that picture….There must be something more.

so, are Reformed too Modernist? (McLaren, part II)

I’m about 2/3 through McLaren’s book A Generous Orthodoxy and still find myself agreeing (or tolerantly nodding my head) to the vast majority of his ideas. Maybe I’m finally old enough to yearn for people who think differently than I do, instead of wanting to read people who think just like me.

[If you missed my first post, you might want to start there….]

My biggest gripe with McLaren so far comes from his chapter on the Bible. Overall, I appreciate his pull toward recognizing the purpose of the Scriptures: to thoroughly equip Christians to do good in this world. He’s right that we ought not use the Bible as a moral proof-text source or weapon for pounding over the heads of people who disagree. Point well taken. But his understanding of the value and perspective of the OT is atrociously lacking… especially his tendency to fall into the old liberal sand trap of setting up the OT (with its “violent, angry God”) against the Jesus of the Gospels (who is “loving and nice to all His enemies”).  That’s just really bad theology, folks.

In his chapter on Fundamentalism and Reformed theology, McLaren suggests that the Reformed churches might lose out the worst as the planet shifts from Modernism (Enlightenment thinking — rationalism and empiricism) to Postmodernism. Of all the “streams” of Christianity, Reformed thinking has adapted the most to the Modernist world of evidence and argumentation (just take a look at apologetics over the past 50 years).

According to McLaren, Reformed thinkers tend to forget one of the basic Reformation battle cries: semper reformandi– “always reforming.” If Reformed theologians do not recognize the shift in epistemological thinking and adapt, they will be left behind.

I think McLaren here displays one of his primary weaknesses. It’s not a damnable one, but it’s a serious weakness.
He’s right that Christianity must and should adapt to the times, reflecting a deep understanding of the postmodern worldview that unconsciously affects everyone born since the 1960s.  But he’s wrong to forget that the Scriptures stand outside and above all human movements and worldviews.  The Truth is not changed by postmodernism any more than it was altered by the movements before this one.

Now, McLaren would respond, “How can you possibly know anything like ‘truth’ apart from your historical context? Even if the Bible is timeless and above philosophical movements, how would you possibly know that?”

And I’d have to agree that he’s right in his criticism … but I’m not budging from my epistemological belief that Truth — to be “Truth” — must live above human movements.

Adjusting our understanding to accomodate developments in human thought does not change our core beliefs … it means that we must wrestle to find new “clothes” for Truth to wear.

the emergent conversation (food for thought)

Currently reading: A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren

As I was packing for our current vacation, I nabbed McLaren’s controversial book from Jack’s pile of recent reading acquisitions. (I tell you, if another bibliophile were to move into our household, the walls would probably collapse under the weight of the paper. LOL)

The “emergent church” movement is stirring up quite a stink in evangelicalism these days. I ran into a Facebook forum discussion (bj survivors) recently in a tornado of turmoil over the fact that one of the BJ faithful — a pretty well-known composer, no less — has “jumped ship” to attend a large seeker church and investigate the emergent church movement.  McLaren’s at the center of the movement, so I figured I’d tackle his book.

(Incidentally, he’s the grandson of the famous Scottish missionary to Africa, Robert McLaren.)

His central premise seems to be that the shift to postmodernism after 500 years of modernism demands a shift in theological thinking. Right practice (orthopraxy) is just as important as orthodoxy (right doctrine) in an age focused less on rationalist argumentation and more on community. Instead of a focus on delineating right doctrine (a very modernist approach to the world), the Church ought to recognize a more “additive” theology, one that doesn’t necessarily agree with all streams in the Christian tradition, but is at least willing to accept the good from them and see a bigger picture in theology.

Thus far (I’m about halfway through the book), I think McLaren has a number of valuable insights to offer the evangelical church. Like anything I read, I don’t agree with every idea. But he’s made some great points:

  • The Evangelical Church is too focused on a “me” view of salvation. Like all good modernists, we’re still thinking about salvation in terms of what it can do for me. Individualists to the core, we look for churches that “meet our needs,” talk about our personal relationship with Jesus, and focus more on the eternal than the here & now
  • McLaren suggests that proper theology (contained more in the non-evangelical traditions, but I think he needs to meet some more Dutch Reformed folks) recognizes that salvation is for the cosmos, not just individuals. Thus, our individual salvation is a small step in God’s over-arching plan to save the WORLD.
  • Evangelical theology tends to emphasize Jesus’ atonement and minimize His life and work. Thus we ignore many of the social/political truths which other streams in Christendom emphasize, to our own detriment (and diminishing the world-wide and social impact of the Gospel).
  • Thus, McClaren argues for an “additive” orthodoxy — not that a Christian will accept all streams of tradition equally, but he/she will certainly be willing to acknowledge their positive contributions to a richer, fuller understanding of Christ and His work.
  • The Reformation was a Modernist movement, focusing on individual freedom of thought and a rational emphasis in theology. Martin Luther’s famous statement, “Here I stand!” is the classic statement of the past 500 years of Church history. McLaren argues that, in a Postmodern world, the Church’s battle cry needs to be “There we go!”, with “there” referencing the Church’s worldwide mission of redemption and blessing. It is a statement of communal action rather than a statement of individual belief.

I am not as comfortable as McLaren with the RCC or Orthodox churches, or with liberation theology. But even my Church History prof at BJU emphasized the fact that Christendom is defined by an allegiance to the basics of Christian theology as stated in the historic creeds…. not to the growing list of “things which must be believed in order to be ‘right.'”   I also think McLaren’s view of the RCC is naive. But he makes an excellent point that even the RCC has in recent years recognized its own need for reforms in doctrine and practice…. and the Protestant world ought to applaud that.

I think McLaren’s emphasis on the Church’s mission as worldwide and pervasive (extending beyond individuals to families, nations, and institutions) is a much-needed correction in evangelical theology.  We have grown too narrow, too happy to criticize each other and quibble over denominational differences.

(To get to the same conclusion from a Reformed worldview, read Al Wolters’ awesome little book Creation Regained.)

I plan to just skim the remainder of the book  — I can tell I’ve hit most of the “meat” already — and see if his conclusion follows from his premises. Overall, I like much of what he says. He argues that thoughtless, irrelevant orthodoxy is no virtue — and he’s right. I see in young people a deep, unquenchable thirst for something MORE than dry orthodoxy in the Church … and a sincere desire for a life with purpose, a life that matters to more than just themselves.

Individualistic, consumer-driven evangelicalism needs to give way to a broader, deeper understanding of the Church’s mission.  If McLaren’s movement pushes us there, then the Spirit is at work.