Three and a half years ago, I picked up A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren with the idea that I might find out what all the fuss surrounding the emerging church was about. Brian starts that book (in Chapter 0) by explaining why you might not want to read any further – all the objections you might raise. And indeed – I almost didn’t make it through Chapter 0 to get to the rest of the book, not because I had objections to his subject matter, but because I was getting impatient waiting for him to get around to it. But eventually he got the rest of the book underway, and I was glad to have persevered. His writing has been a great encouragement since then.
Fast forward to the Wild Goose Festival earlier this year in North Carolina… I had the chance to briefly share this story with Brian as I received an advanced copy of his latest book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? (Christian Identity in a Multifaith World). It turns out that connection between these two books is appropriate and quite a bit deeper than my little story of frustration.
In AGO, Brian suggests that there is more than one faithful way for Christians to think about orthodoxy. A better approach to orthodoxy (“right-belief”) might value orthopraxy (“right-practice”) and generous relationships among Christ’s followers. And in WDJMBMCR, Brian suggests the time has come for Christians to reconsider our concept of evangelism, of “preaching the gospel”. And we are overdue for a new approach to relating to people of other religions (and indeed – people of no religion).
This is a breath of fresh air. Brian succinctly describes what I’m sure many of us have been feeling. We have been presented with two approaches to faith: maintain a robust faith and an antagonistic stance toward “the other” (i.e. ultimately I must convert you), or effectively render our faith meaningless in order to respect the other. Against both of these alternatives, Brian proposes a “strong, benevolent” Christian identity.
As with previous books, Brian will be accused of throwing orthodox Christianity to the wind. But he devotes much of the book to showing how our orthodox beliefs (as well as our liturgy and mission) can be both strong and benevolent. His detractors will try to discredit this work, but he is very intentional about working within traditional Christianity. The only thing that isn’t traditional is his conclusion. And that’s sort of the point, I think.
Here’s what I like most about the book:
- Brian’s succinct statement of our quandary. Either “we love them (or say that we do) in spite of their religious identity” or “we… say that we love them in spite of our own religious identity”.
- The chapter on evangelism. Isn’t that where a lot of people get hung up?
- The ideas for re-shaping the liturgy. We need worship to reflect our theology.
- Brian’s devastating string of questions regarding penal substitutionary atonement. Interestingly, these questions are in one long footnote and not the main text.*
- The definitive lesson on sharing the good news of Jesus… from a Hindu. (Curious? Read it for yourself!)
* Questions about penal substitutionary atonement are often questions about the nature of God – specifically, “Is God violent?” I began asking those questions a few years ago, and Brian asks a whole string of them here. It is high time to answer with a resounding, “No!” I believe that doing so will set off a chain reaction of many changes in Christianity… for the better.
Here’s what I don’t like:
- I’m afraid Brian will be preaching to the choir. Folks like me will be glad for the contribution this book makes toward a conversation that is desperately needed. But I didn’t need any convincing, and Brian has a reputation that will chase off a lot of people who would benefit.
- He writes too many books. Don’t get me wrong. I love them. But I haven’t even had time to read Naked Spirituality yet. Slow down, man!
Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? comes out, not coincidentally, on September 11th. I recommend you read it. This is a conversation the Church needs to have.
- If you haven’t read one of Brian’s books before, I’d also recommend A New Kind of Christianity.
- On Facebook today, Carrie Newcomer announced that she’ll be working with Brian in the spring. Her album Everything is Everywhere reflects her faith and the kind of Christianity that Brian is writing about.