March 11, 2006

A Generous Orthodoxy 2

Category: Theology :: Permalink

The first chapter of Brian McLaren‘s A Generous Orthodoxy is entitled “The Seven Jesuses I Have Known.” In it, McLaren traces the developments in his understanding of Jesus from childhood to the present.

McLaren first encountered Jesus in children’s picture Bibles and in Sunday School flannel graph stories. (Come to think of it, I probably did too, which, I suppose, probably dates me: I’m old enough to remember flannel graphs!)

But as he grew older, he encountered what he calls “the conservative Protestant Jesus.” I doubt that’s a completely adequate label, but what McLaren describe is genuine enough. This approach to Jesus focuses almost completely on Jesus’ death for our sins, leaving aside, for the most part, the rest of His life.

McLaren rightly points out that the historic creeds of the Christian church also tend to do this: The Apostles’ Creed jumps from “born of the virgin Mary” to “suffered under Pontius Pilate” without so much as a glance at anything in between, which could easily give people the impression that what happened in between doesn’t matter.

Furthermore, as McLaren notes, this approach, with its focus on our (individual) sins, may tend toward an individualization of the gospel, as if the gospel has to do only or primarily with my own personal forgiveness for my own sins or, worse, as if the gospel is simply concerned with keeping me out of hell.

Was the gospel intended to give hope for human cultures and the created order in history, or was history a lost cause, so that the gospel only could give hope to individual souls beyond death, beyond history — like a small lifeboat in which a few lucky souls escape a huge sinking cruise ship? (p. 48) 

Later on, though, McLaren encountered what he calls “the Pentecostal/Charismatic Jesus,” which is to say that from the charismatics McLaren learned about the importance of the Spirit and of Jesus’ life and power at work in us in the present, though he also points out that the “full gospel” terminology often employed by charismatics can lead to pride, unteachability, and disappointment when miracles don’t happen as one expects.

From Roman Catholics, McLaren learned about the importance of the church and in particular about Jesus’ resurrection:

Through the resurrection, God has defeated death and all that comes with it — fear (when will death come?), hurry (how much time do I have in this short, terminal life?), greed (you only go around once in life, so you have to grab for all the gusto you can get), envy (why does her short life go better than mine?), injustice (the evil often prosper and live long while the good often suffer and die young), materialism (the one who dies with the most toys wins), despair (life is full of pain and then you die), and selfishness (in the end all you have is you) (p. 53). 

Then, from the Orthodox, McLaren learned that Jesus is the saviour, not only of individuals but of the cosmos. I appreciate McLaren’s delight in what he learned about what theologians call perichoresis:

The Trinity was an eternal dance of Father, Son, and Spirit sharing mutual love, honor, happiness, joy and respect. Against this backdrop, God’s act of creation means that God is inviting more and more beings into the eternal dance of joy. Since means that people are stepping out of the dance, corrupting its beauty and rhythm, crashing and tackling and stomping on feet instead of moving with grace, rhythm, and reverence. Then, in Jesus, God enters creation to restore the rhythm and beauty again (p. 56). 

On the other hand, I’m not persuaded that it’s correct to say, McLaren does, that “Jesus saves simply by being born, by showing up, by coming among us” (p. 56) or that

God takes the human life of Jesus into God’s own eternal life, and in so doing, Jesus’ people (the Jews), species (the human race), and history (the history of our planet and our whole universe) enter into — are taken up into — God’s own life (p. 56). 

From liberal Protestants and later from Anabaptists, McLaren says that he learned to follow Jesus’ example and, in particular, that the stories about Jesus’ life in the Bible impact our lives and our societies. And then from liberation theologians, he learned more about following Jesus in terms of social justice.

On the whole, I liked this chaper, in spite of my differences with some of the groups from which McLaren says he learned. At the end of the chapter, when McLaren talks about celebrating all of our different Christian traditions, it could sound as if he’s describing the church (and churches) as a smorgasbord from which you can choose (a Roman Catholic salad, a liberal chicken leg, a scoop of Anabaptist potatoes) or, to use his imagery, as if you can have one type of food one day and another the next. That imagery, I submit, isn’t helpful. But it is helpful to emphasize that various traditions — and, in particular, traditions other than our own — can have something good, something biblical, to teach us.

I think it was probably Jim Jordan from whom I first learned the importance of regarding other traditions as superior to your own. We who are Reformed ought to be able to admit that we aren’t the best at everything, that Mennonites often do community better than we do, that Baptists do evangelism and missions better, that Lutherans and Anglicans do liturgy better, that Roman Catholics are better at good works and compassion for the poor. Here in Grande Prairie, I have to admit that Victory Church does far better than any church I’ve ever served at reaching out to the poor and caring for their needs. (That may raise the question: What do Reformed churches do well? And if we struggle to answer that question — or if we have a hard time pointing to much besides “theology” or “polemics” — all the better.)

Of course, we have to make sure that what we’re learning from other traditions (need I add: from our own traditions, too?) is truly biblical. If we start to think in terms of a smorgasbord, we may be tempted to pick and choose whatever catches our eye or whatever we like instead of what we ought to take. But at the same time, I’m glad that I learned to read widely and, like McLaren, I’m glad for what I’ve learned and what I am still learning from other traditions.

Posted by John Barach @ 12:44 pm | Discuss (0)

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