Note: I am hoping that this review essay of Brian McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy will show up soon in print. Until then, I thought it might be good to post it here. The first two parts will probably say little that hasn't already been said--they are overviews of strong and weak points in the book. For me, the pay-off is the third part, where I raise questions about what embracing the Emerging/Emergent Church Movement will do for/to Presbyterian identity.
Observers of the American religion scene know that the hottest trend for the past five years has been the growing “emergent church” movement. Promoted through books, conferences, and especially websites, it has begun to draw the attention of mainstream theological educators as well as denominational officials in the Southern Baptist Convention. Younger pastors and leaders increasingly have identified themselves as “emergent,” by which they may refer to a number of intellectual and practical commitments: non-foundational epistemology; narrative theology; communion/communal ecclesiology; sacramentalism; and/or renewed respect for tradition. Even local media outlets have recognized this “new way of being Christian” and thought it newsworthy. And though there are several key pastors and intellectual leaders for this movement, probably none was as prolific or important as Brian McLaren, founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church, Spencerville, Maryland.
Raised Plymouth Brethren, McLaren wandered away from the faith during his teen years. He was eventually caught up by the fervor of the Jesus Movement in the 1970s and recommitted himself to Christ. From there, he made his way through college at the University of Maryland, equipping himself to teach English literature by studying Walker Percy. After teaching for several years at a University of Maryland branch campus, he felt called to plant a church, which after fits and a restart, eventually became Cedar Ridge in 1988. Since he published his first book in 1998, he has written ten books, several of which have drawn wide recognition. Recently, McLaren stepped down as senior pastor and assumed a place on the pastoral staff in order to focus more on writing and speaking at conferences around the country. In recognition of his importance, in 2005 Time magazine recognized him as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America.
The reactions from the Presbyterian and Reformed community to McLaren and the emergent movement have ranged from curt dismissal to intense concern. Mark Dever, member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals council, sounded alarmed when he observed that McLaren’s work is “less helpful than I would have hoped and more dangerous than I would have thought.” Others, such as Westminster Seminary California’s Michael Horton dismissed the emergent church’s postmodern paradigm as nothing more than “most-modernism,” the latest fad come down the pike for twenty-first century American consumers. However, concern or dismissal has not stopped a number of younger Presbyterian and Reformed ministers from identifying themselves with the style, ethos, and methods of the emergent movement.
Perhaps the closest thing that the emergent church movement has to a “confession of faith” is McLaren’s 2004 book, A Generous Orthodoxy. Part evangelistic tract and part identity statement, the book touched on most of the emergent movement’s concerns and answered a number of the criticisms that have been raised about McLaren’s own theological perspective as well as the intellectual, social, and cultural underpinnings of the movement itself. I would suggest that a careful examination of this book reveals a number of common places where Presbyterian pastors can rejoice in and be generous toward the ministry of the emergent church. At the same time, there are several questions that rightly can be raised about the theological commitments of emergent church leaders. Through a careful engagement of one of their key leaders, I believe that the emergent church movement offered several important answers to the problem of religious identity, ones that may not be the best that Presbyterian church leaders can find for the problems of religious pluralism and meaningful dialogue with others.
On the surface, there were a number of areas where I found profound agreement with McLaren.
First, I thought his emphasis upon the church as a community journeying into the joy of God was a helpful corrective to the individualism of American evangelicalism (208). Many of us have profited from thinking about the Anabaptist contribution to issues related to community, particularly as mediated by John Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas. Although I wondered about how this emphasis upon community related to the need for individual commitment to Jesus (204), and I have concerns that many of the emergent leaders fail to reckon thoroughly with the costs of community, still I applaud the emphasis.
Also, McLaren rightly stressed that “orthopraxy [is] the point of orthodoxy” (31). On the surface this was nothing more than James’ wise instruction not to be merely hearers of the Word, but doers of it as well (James 1:22-25). Far too many of our people fail to translate the theological truths taught Sunday by Sunday into action; his stress once again the importance of Christian living as the fruit of the Gospel cohered nicely biblical imperatives.
McLaren further was deeply concerned to point women and men toward a relationship with Jesus. Indeed, he claimed to “cherish an evangelical identity,” by which he means “an attitude—an attitude toward God and our neighbor and our mission that is passionate” (117-8). Particularly in the first section, in which he was writing directly to those who were seeking truth about Jesus, McLaren was genuinely winsome in his presentation of the Gospel. And though he raised a number of theological questions, his concern to point people to Jesus was admirable.
In addition, I could affirm McLaren’s desire to reclaim Scripture as narrative (166) and his desire to read Scripture redemptive-historically. Again, this related well to the recent emphasis in Presbyterian circles, taught by Geerhardus Vos, John Murray, and Edmund Clowney, on seeing Scripture as the “unfolding mystery,” presenting God’s ultimate revelation of God, Jesus, and his fulfillment of all God’s promises and purposes in his living, dying, and rising again.
While I would not want to affirm this in his context he suggested (namely, the positive contributions of Roman Catholicism), I do believe that his emphasis upon the sacramental nature of life was salutary (225-6). There has been a renewed focus in Presbyterian and Reformed circles particularly on the sacraments and their importance for the Christian life. Part of this appeared to be motivated by the mysterious nature of the sacraments’ efficacy, which was seen as a rebellion against the rationalized, over-determined nature of contemporary life; part of this the way the sacraments help to overcome the body-soul dualism to which human beings are prone. In the tangible and physical means of water, bread, and wine, Jesus promises to confirm and assure our faith in his Gospel promises of full and final redemption.
This emphasis upon human bodily existence—on our humanness—also came through in his stand for creation care. Sounding most like Wendell Berry, McLaren helpfully pointed his readers to recognize their place within God’s good creation and their responsibility to tend this cosmic garden for God’s glory (231-44). Certainly this is a wonderful reminder of the responsibilities Christians have to serve God by doing good work in a good world.
In all of these ways, I believe, Presbyterian and Reformed readers can be generous towards McLaren and the emergent church movement. We have a number of shared interests and hopes; and certainly, we can look at those participating in this movement, stressing these themes, and find in them sisters and brothers in Christ. We can also affirm their heart-felt commitment to Jesus, even when we may have to raise questions or even to dissent from their perspectives.