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A Generous Orthodoxy in Retrospect

A Generous OrthodoxyI can’t tell you the exact date when I began to read A Generous Orthodoxy. I think it was shortly after the book was released, a little less than ten years ago. I have a distinct memory of riding on a train from O’Hare to downtown Chicago on a business trip, the book in my hands as the train rocked back and forth.

The experience felt as if I had just found something that I had been missing for years – that thought that was right on the brink of my fundamentalist-raised consciousness that had never quite crystallized. I remember soaking up Brian McLaren’s early chapters on “God B” (a way of describing a God who is revealed first and foremost through Jesus) and “Jesus – savior of what?” with a spiritual/emotional hunger that I had never before experienced. A new world seemed to be opening.

My guess is that, when McLaren goes back and reads this book, he probably does what most authors do: he sees its flaws. He wishes he hadn’t said something here, or that he had better elaborated on a point there. He sees the book as a moment in his life from the past, like he might look at pictures of his children. Things have changed since then. But for me, the book has taken on a sort-of timeless quality. There is something about the idea of generosity in the way I relate to and understand Christians who are different that has never let go of me.

In Chapter 1, McLaren talks about his experience of Jesus. He begins by talking about the simple love that he gained for Jesus as a child – a love that soon became lost as he was introduced to other types of “Jesuses.” Over time, he says, he was eventually introduced to seven different versions of Jesus: the conservative protestant Jesus (who saves by dying), the pentecostal/charismatic Jesus (who is powerfully present in the here and now), the Roman Catholic Jesus (who defeats death through resurrection), the Eastern Orthodox Jesus (who is first and foremost God-in-flesh), the liberal protestant Jesus (who is more human, less “miraculous”), the Anabaptist Jesus (who pursues nonviolence and love of neighbor), and the Jesus of the oppressed (who liberates the marginalized from injustice).  The end of Chapter 1 is the springboard for the rest of the book:

…after many years of following Jesus and learning from many different communities of his followers, I’m just beginning to arrive at a view of Jesus that approaches the simple, integrated richness I knew of him as a little boy – picture Bible on my father’s lap, flannel graph characters on my mother’s easel, and a pure, childlike love welling up within me…. I am a Christian because I believe the real Jesus is all that these sketches reveal and more. Saying that, a question comes to mind…

Why not celebrate them all? … What if…we saw these various emphases as partial projections that together can create a hologram: a richer, multidimensional vision of Jesus?

What if we enjoy them all, the way we enjoy foods from different cultures?

This does not mean, however, that we are looking for some homogeneous blending of everything that everyone says about Jesus:

No, I am not recommending that we throw each offering in a blender, press the “liquefy” button, and try to create a gray porridge of all cuisines. That doesn’t sound appetizing at all. Neither would it be helpful. Rather, I’m recommending that we acknowledge that Christians of each tradition bring their distinctive and wonderful gifts to the table, so that we can all enjoy the feast of generous orthodoxy – and spread that same feast for the whole world.

And the rest of the book explored just that thought. It described how McLaren identified with a dizzying variety of Christians, from Evangelicals to Catholics to Calvinists to Anglicans and Methodists. I put the book away resolved to begin practicing a generous orthodoxy myself. I wanted to listen to other believers, learn from them, and enrich my own understanding of Jesus from as many different traditions as I could find.

What I have discovered during the last decade or so, however, is that practicing a generous orthodoxy can be very difficult. And, honestly, after years of trying, I am not sure I am that much better at it than when I began.

In the years since the book was published, a lot has changed. The “culture wars,” of which the book already clearly aware, have heated up. The Christian Left and Right seem to have lined up on separate sides of a divide in a larger political and philosophical arena. The battle lines are strictly and carefully drawn. Everything that happens in our culture and in connection with dialog between Christians of different faiths seems to be deeply affected by this divide. My Facebook and Twitter feeds make me painfully aware of this divide, on an almost daily basis.

Today, many believers are convinced there is a “War on Christmas” and – as I write this – the same group of believers are jumping to the defense of a reality TV star who made some outspoken statements regarding the sinfulness of homosexuality and the “pre-entitlement” culture of African Americans. Others are equally inclined to advance agendas that seem aligned with the progressive side of the culture wars.

I used to try and position myself in the middle, thinking that there must be some reasonable ground in the center. But what I found, over time, is that the things that people were saying on the conservative side of the dispute just seemed more and more disconnected from reality. I honestly can’t say if it was because they were changing or because I was. I think it was maybe a little of both.

But the bottom line of it all is that I now find myself sympathizing, if not speaking out, in connection with issues that are mostly voiced by Christians on the “left” side of the culture wars. It is not that I think of myself as a classical American progressive (I’m not). It is rather that I think that most of the beliefs and values that are creating the ties between conservative politics and conservative Christianity are deeply misplaced, and I can’t identify with them.

So it feels like someone has walked into the room and forced me to make a choice to stand on one side of a line or the other, and I’ve (reluctantly) made a choice that feels more like the lesser of two evils than some firm conviction. That is not the place I want to be. Grouping myself in with all of the people who are yelling at people on the right side of the line doesn’t feel like a generous orthodoxy. But the often-discussed “third way” seems more elusive now than it was in my early forties.

So I have a hard time with the marriage between conservative evangelicals and the Obama-bashing, anti-immigration “family values” culture that gets perpetuated by FoxNews. I can find very little with which I can identify in that union. Likewise, the recent explosionof neo-Calvinism, with its emphasis on female submissiveness and what impresses me as a vision of God’s character that is very harsh and unforgiving, is miles away from anything I can embrace. I struggle to find generosity in the way I think of and describe these groups, though I know I should.

But I also don’t want to support the “political” left in that same way the people on the right are doing. While I sometimes identify with politically progressive values, I want to distance myself from the rhetoric enough to make people understand that my ultimate convictions transcend the often petty dividing lines between American right and left. I may support, for example, the progressive values of universal healthcare and gender equality, but that doesn’t mean I agree with the left on every other point.

So…toward that end, I am resolving myself to make a concerted effort to do three things:

First, I want to understand and seek to identify with the fear and anxiety that drives much of social and religious conservatism. Change is difficult, and frightening to people. Many of us are accustomed to a culture in which evangelical Christianity, and a culture in which white privilege is taken for granted, is the dominant force, and in which everyone else is along for the ride. It can be frightening to think about what a different culture might look like. I am convinced that this fear – legitimate or not – is what drives a lot of people so strongly over to the right side of the debate. It is also difficult to embrace the idea that some of our most cherished values (free markets, unlimited growth, even sexual ethics) may not be as positive or as universal as we thought. Change is happening. It is going to happen. Maybe not exactly the way any of us think, but there is no question about it. The clock isn’t going back. And I want to genuinely understand and live alongside people who are struggling to let go of something that they believe is good.

Second, I want to resist the urge to constantly differentiate between myself and those on the other side of the line, and instead to find as much common ground as possible. I may not be able to use the exact same language, for example, to describe the role of scripture in the Christian faith, but I want to emphasize that I still find it to be deeply sacred and important in my understanding of God. And while I may not agree with all of the political implications they are drawing, I do agree that we need to find ways to support strong, stable families, whatever they may look like.

Third, I want to avoid the temptation to buy in to the caricatures of the political “enemy” that are constantly being created in the media culture. It is unbelievably tempting to do that. Embracing a misrepresented, shallow depiction of someone I disagree with makes it easier to see the issue in black-and-white. But there are real, complex people on the other side. People who hurt and love their families. People whose next doctor visit may bring the gravest (or best) news. People who love some of the same things and people that I do, even though they vote in the completely opposite way.

I have not been good at this – not always. But I want to be better at it. And I hope that some of you, even if you can’t agree with me on the issues that keep the Facebook and Twitter feeds full of angry, silly memes, will be willing to join me. Perhaps the first step in helping our culture to emerge out of this ridiculous divide is for believers in Jesus to abandon the rules of engagement that are dictated by the political powers.

Lets keep the idea of a generous orthodoxy alive.


  1. Paula Perry Sayers's Gravatar Paula Perry Sayers
    January 1, 2014    

    I read A Generous Orthodxy years ago and loved it!!

  2. January 1, 2014    

    Paula – It really is a great book – hope it has inspired you the same way it has me.

  3. January 1, 2014    

    Thanks, Paula – hope it has inspired you the same way it has me… and maybe you don’t share some of my hang-ups!

  4. TimothyL's Gravatar TimothyL
    January 2, 2014    

    Wow! I loved this Matt! Couldn’t say this any better. It’s interesting you started down your journey away from fundamental evangelicalism ten years, mine started this year. My first real eye-opening experience came from reading Brian McLaren’s “New Kind of Christianity.” I very much identify with your action points especially the desire to resist the urge to constantly differentiate between yourself and those on the other side of the line. This is truly difficult for me and I feel like I find myself constantly making people “the other.” I know I do it because for so long I thought it was always the right thing to do, the upstanding thing to do, the Christian thing to do. I was thinking about it the other day and I would have to say that 2013 was the year I found out that I have so many fewer enemies than I thought I did. And it is so refreshing to be able to say that!!

  5. Rod Wallace's Gravatar Rod Wallace
    January 2, 2014    

    Brilliant – and perfectly captures where my heart is at these days. My unexpected journey began with two major “aha! – OMG” moments – reading Frank Viola’s Pagan Christianity followed by Brian McLaren’s New Kind of Christianity. The whirlwind that followed was unsettling to say the least, but as the dust has begun to settle, I am seeing much of what you have written… you just managed to put it more succinctly and clearly. ( And a total ditto to TimothyL’s comments below too). Thank you…

  6. January 2, 2014    

    Hi, Tim. A New Kind of Christianity is a great way to get started, too. I did a review of the book several years ago. It begins here:

    You can pull up the rest of the posts by searching “A New Kind of Christianity” from my header bar.

  7. January 2, 2014    

    Thanks, Rod. And thanks for commenting. ANKOC was also an important book for me, though it came along a few years after I felt like I had made the transition.

  8. January 3, 2014    

    Great post Matt. The life changer for me was McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian. Read it in Nov 2003 while, like you, on a business trip, in my case I was down in Miami. Funny how some of the most interesting and meaningful reading happens when away on travel. There must be a reason for that. It resolved issues I’d struggled with since leaving college thirty years earlier.

  9. January 3, 2014    

    Steve- I’ve been impressed with how many people have responded here by indicating that they had a shift in their thinking because of what Brian has written. Really amazing to hear so many stories that are similar to my own.

    On the business trip issue – I think some of it has to do with getting away from the clutter of day-to-day life at work and home into a more distraction-free environment. It gives you a chance to reflect on things that you don’t have the time/inclination to reflect on when you’re at home.

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