What McLaren is Not Saying in this Book

Karen makes a great point in her rant at her blog, Raw Faith. She describes the common practise of cobbling together elements of different religious traditions for aesthetic purposes. It's really good to have this point in mind while reading McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy, because Karen describes a practise that many readers will mistakenly believe McLaren to be engaged in with this book. A different chapter on each tradition and McLaren takes what he likes and throws out what he doesn't, right? Wrong. That is not what McLaren is saying. Karen writes,

Stop using things like the Book of Common Prayer and candles and incense because you think they’re cool. At least go to an Episcopal service, or an Orthodox service, or a Roman Catholic service and actually learn a little bit about their liturgy before you start saying things like, “and now for an old Anglican prayer.” It’s not just an old prayer! It’s the liturgy practiced by thousands of people all over the world – right now! The candles and incense? They mean something. It’s not just an aesthetic.

Learn what the Eucharist really is and then go find a priest who can teach you how to serve it properly. Better yet, go to mass. When you do, reflect on what your life would be like if you actually had the spiritual fortitude to just sit there in the pew every Sunday like all of the other nameless schmoes in the sanctuary.

I think McLaren, based on A Generous Orthodoxy, would wholeheartedly agree with Karen's frustration. The question is, if McLaren is not cobbling together elements of different traditions (which a superficial reading of his book may lead one to believe he is doing), then what is he doing?

I've tried to approach this question at my blog, Theological Thought, in reference to this and other books by McLaren. However, as McLaren says in A Generous Orthodoxy, "clarity is overrated". So what do you think he's saying in A Generous Orthodoxy? Is he just taking the good and leaving the bad with different traditions? If not, then what is he doing?


jen lemen said...

one of the things i'm looking forward to in this discussion is the chance to be really honest about the points that make us uncomfortable as well as the ideas that stretch us or give us hope.

i can't wait to read the book because i want to hear exactly what brian is saying and i want to see how/where/when he draws lines to bring his vision into sharper focus. clarity may be overrated, but there is no end to the power you gain by being strategically vague, too. the road to true harmony & reconciliation often comes by being extremely clear about where we differ, yet choosing to love and embrace one another in spite of those differences. and sometimes the truest friendships are formed when we delay harmony for honesty, something the church in its many practiced forms would rather skip--we are so afraid to tell the truth and discover all the places we need to grow in tolerance and humility.

this is why i can't wait to read the book. i'm so hopeful that the generous orthodoxy proposed is rich in this kind of maturity and love.

Bill Arnold said...

I think this book is going to be a great discussion starter, but from what I've read so far (about half) it's not going to give us any ground-breaking, in depth insight.

Of course, that's from my point of view and I've been involved with some of this stuff for a little while. As a matter of fact, a good bit of it is simply repeating things he's already written.

The nice thing about it is that I think it will provide a great intro for people of all walks. He seems to be trying really hard not to go over anybody's head, which should be appreciated.

I don't know if Brian would truly agree with Karen's rant or not. I certainly didn't [;-) to Karen]. I think there is some good to be said about taking the good from various traditions and leaving the bad. As an artist, I'm sort of the arranger type. I like to see things put together in an artistic way. Just slapping various things together certainly does not make something aesthetic, though.

It's easy to say, "You don't truly understand us, so you can't use our stuff." But that's just more separatism, which I'm personally against. It seems to me that "a Generous Orthodoxy" is against that, too.

jen lemen said...

bill, one of the sticky points is that it's easy for the spiritual mutts (like myself) to think a faith quilted together from a little bit of this and little bit of that is just fine. and not only that but it's easy for me to wonder wassup with anyone else who has a problem with that.

what can get lost in my little quilting project is respect for the pieces i put together as well as those who have preserved and nurtured the space that let those traditions take root and flower. i end up being some kind of scavenger or pirate, stealing what looks good to me, and every potential bridge that might be built (& every potential relationship with someone other than myself from that tradition) is damaged.

we can dismiss karen's words as a rant or a case of separatism gone mad, but i think she's getting at something very important worth considering. is a generous orthodoxy just a collection of practices that we honor from various traditions or is it a collection of friends that we love--people we include and learn from in a shared circle of respect and care? if the latter is the case, we won't take on those practices too lightly. we will learn with deference the history, the stories and the struggles that give that practice its beauty and shape.

too many times we fail to do this, and people (like karen) get used and consumed for whatever ancient practice they can give us next. and there's nothing generous about that.

Bill Arnold said...

Point well taken. You're reminding of the chapter I'm reading right now--"Why I Am Incarnational." Whether we are talking about other traditions within Christianity or without, we need to have that sense of "being all things to all people" that Paul wrote about. McLaren is quite right in reminding us of the "almost heretical potency" of those words. I can't just latch on to a few stereotypical things and then think I'm ready to love or minister to someone. I need to really care about where they've been, where they are, and where they're going. That goes for individuals and for cultures as a whole.

Anonymous said...

bill (et al) -- mark oestreicher here, the publisher of the book. hope it's OK that i chime in (i have read the entire book four times, in various versions).

i thought you might find a little back-story on the "why i am incarnational" chapter interesting: in the original outline, brian had this chapter titled "why i am Muslim/Buddhist/Hindu/Jewish" -- which i absolutely loved. it certainly freaked out a good number of others involved in the project at one publishing level or another. But i wrongly assumed (without seeing the chapter at that point) that Brian was going to do -- on a larger ecclesiological scale -- exactly what Karen refers to (though, what i thought could be helpful); which is to talk about what we can learn (and even borrow?) from these other faiths. Of course, this was even part of the subtitle of the book at that point (since the sub is really a list of most of the chapters).

once the first draft came in, brian clarified that he was being intentionally provocative with that title (which i still liked, but others were growing increasingly vocal about their nervousness). Eventually, Brian decided HE wanted to change the chapter title (and there were significant changes to the content of the chapter also). It was a good process, and i think the chapter is better as a result.

but i still like that original provocative title!

Rick said...

I think Brian is attempting to embrace the Mystery we call God. Clarity is overraretd. The fact that we think we must have clarity is one reason the Church is attempting to "emerge". That perhaps our concepts of God are formed in and by the particular religious culture in which we live. We have an "experience" of God and immediately we begin to define the expereince. We attempt to put words to our experience.

I would agree with Karen in many ways. Let's not just light candles because we think candles are cool, let's enter into the mystery of how people have used candles to worship God.

Thanks for hosting this!
Rick, new to this blog.

jen lemen said...

marko, you can chime in any time--we'd love to hear your unique perspective! and welcome rick!

Rick said...

Hi again. It seems that one "reviewer" from Amazon was a bit uptight about Chapter 13. (I sit and shake my head.)

I am glad for this blog. Again, thanks for the effort.