2004-09-01

A Book to be Read and Reread

So I finished the book. It's definitely a book to be read and reread. Here are my initial thoughts, which I've put together in a review of the book. More thoughts to come. Look forward to reading others' reactions to the book. Thanks Jen and DJ for putting this together!!

Ken's Little Review

Dallas Willard wrote in The Divine Conspiracy that a discipline is "any activity within our power that we engage in to enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort". Orthodoxy, for Brian McLaren in his book A Generous Orthodoxy, seems to play a similar role. Just as McLaren's Neo said in A New Kind of Christian that "Christianity does not own God", so no orthodoxy can ever "own God". Rather, a la Willard, orthodoxy seems to be something within our power that we engage in to enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort.

From this perspective, McLaren engages, one chapter at a time, each of several traditions of reflection on God (e.g. mystical/poetic, anabaptist/anglican, catholic, etc). His approach to the orthodox claims of each tradition will frustrate some, as McLaren evaluates these claims on levels other than their validity. For one, McLaren is interested in the salutary benefits of various orthodox positions, such as the esteem with which adherents to Biblical inerrancy hold the Bible. A second consideration McLaren brings to each orthodox claim is the intentions of its adherents. Orthodoxy that is constructed from a sincere desire for God is, for McLaren, always to be respected and taken seriously. Both of these considerations are generous ones, as opposed to the lack of generosity found in modern apologetic discourse that really believes we will, in our lifetimes, capture God in a creed.

McLaren's approach to orthodoxy is similar to Willard's approach to evaluating claims to revelation in his book "Hearing God". Willard once described this book as a phenomenological approach - that by evaluating the way revelation seems to manifest itself in people's lives, the ways God seems to disclose himself and the effect such disclosure has on people, we learn about God. This concern for the role that knowledge claims play in our lives, beyond the logical validity of the claims, is a premodern concern that was reintroduced by Nietzsche, and sustained by successive phenomenologists, including, at times, Willard.

Nietzsche wrote about two Greek gods in his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, in which he described Greek tragedy as "that art [which] owes its continuous evolution to the Apollonian-Dionysiac duality". Apollo, the god of sculpture, is for Nietzsche the symbol of order, form and restraint, whereas Dionysius, the god of music and wine, is the symbol of the frenzy of passion and unpredictable life forces. Nietzsche admired Greek tragedy for this reason, and he admired the composer Richard Wagner for the same reasons - until Wagner converted to Christianity, at which point Wagner became a central target of Nietzsche's criticism. You see, for Nietzsche, 19th century culture denied the Dionysian creative force, smothering everything with life-denying Christian, Apollonian orthodoxies. Progress for Nietzsche depends on the perpetual dialectic between these two forces.

McLaren, in my opinion, is animated by this Nietzschean concern that orthodoxy be respected and engaged, but that it not become a force of static, Apollonian plasticity. Unlike Nietzsche, though, McLaren is also animated by a premodern teleological conviction that these structures of belief aren't empty sophistry, but actually point to, or witness to, a telos, which for McLaren is God. Reading A Generous Orthodoxy is akin to reading the diary of a lifelong seeker after God (not just knowledge about God, but God Himself) whose desperation for God is greater than his desire to be right. That this book masterfully invites us to share this desperation makes it a generous gift of McLaren to his readers.

(If you're feeling generous, you can read this review at Amazon here and vote for it.)

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