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A generous orthodoxy

23 December 2008

A number of people, several of them Orthodox, have asked me what I thought of Brian McLaren’s book A generous orthodoxy. I’ve now, at last, managed to get hold of a copy of the book, and I’m busy reading it so I thought I would write some preliminary impressions. Though it is possible that I may change my mind about it when I’ve finished reading it, I doubt that I will.

I’ve been trying to get hold of a copy of the book since before hearing Brian McLaren speak in Pretoria last year, looking for it in every bookshop I’ve gone into, and eventually had to get it by mail-order.

One person who asked me about it said

I thought you might be one of the best people to ask about the book named above, written by Brian McLaren (Zondervan 2004). It is making it’s rounds like wildfire in some church communities in Xxxxx (no Orthodox ones that I am aware of – thank goodness!) I just hate it when the word ‘Orthodox’ is used so generally – ie small ‘o’ orthodoxy. I am not a theologian, but would like to know if you have seen or heard of this book and how I might respond to someone supporting the very wishy-washy ‘all-inclusive’ tone. I have yet to get the book myself, just talked to some friends who are reading it – and they can justify just about anything as a result!…

And my initial response is that I think the book might be quite useful for some Protestants, to shake some of their presuppositions about what the Christian faith is.

There’s a lot in McLaren’s book that I agree with, and I reached many of McLaren’s conclusions some 40 years ago. And that was when I read Fr Alexander Schmemann’s book For the life of the world, and realised that the answers to many of the questions and problems I found in Western Christianity were in Orthodox Christianity all along.

For example, in the book McLaren describes seven different kinds of Jesus, four Protestant, one Roman Catholic, one Orthodox, and one a bit of a mixture of the others (Liberation Theology).

But in fact Orthodoxy encompasses all of them. Like other Western theological writers (such as David Bosch), the view McLaren ascribes to Orthodoxy is perhaps that part of Orthodoxy that is most noticeably missing in Western theology, but the others are not necessarily missing from Orthodoxy.

Western Christians have often latched on to one or other aspect of the Christian faith, and ignored or denied others. McLaren takes some of these, in the order in which he found them in his own spiritual pilgrimage, and describes their strengths and weaknesses.

And my own pilgrimage was similar.

My parents were what McLaren would probably call post-Christian — dropped out of church in their teens, my father was an atheist, my mother an agnostic, and I never went to a church service until I went to a Christmas service with a friend at the age of 11, and a few weeks later went to high school at a church school (St Stithian’s College, Methodist) that was just starting. Since it was a church school it had to have a scripture period, which was taken by the maths teacher, who didn’t have any discernible Christian faith, so he simply got us to take it in turns to read the Bible aloud, starting at Genesis 1. It was the first I’d heard of it, found it interesting and began reading ahead, and asked my parents for a Bible of my own on my birthday.

The following year we got some additional teachers, some of whom were Evangelical with a capital E, and so I became an Evangelical with a capital E, with a little bit of input from Zionists whom I’d met baptising people in the Jukskei River.

In my last year at school I got the idea that I ought to be an Anglican priest, without knowing anything about it. At the same time, however, the local Anglican parish had a mission, and my mother went along and and got converted, and passed along to me the books she had read as a result, Main line by A.W.G. Duffield and The King’s highway by George D. Carleton (sometime Archdeacon of Modderpoort, O.F.S.). The missioner who converted my mother was High Church Anglican, and the books (as the titles alone make clear) took the line that Mainline Christianity was Anglican, Roman Catholic and Orthodox, which were the three “branches” of the Catholic Church, and the rest were detours and by-ways. And so I became an Anglo-Catholic (a “spike” as opposed to a “prot”), and went to university where the chaplain, Tom Comber, was an Anglo-Catholic with a strong social conscience (he was a card-carrying Liberal at a time when it was very dangerous to be such a thing in South Africa).

I saw no reason to discard what I had learnt in my earlier Evangelical phase (personal commitment to following Christ). I just discovered that there was more to being a Christian than that — that the Christian faith was also expressed in ritual worship, and that it entailed seeking justice in the world.

I went ot the University of Natal and majored in Biblical Studies and Theology and learnt about Atonement Theories and Principalities and Powers, which led me to see that the political struggle in South Africa had roots that went down to the depths where angels and demons are locked in mortal combat. So in the mid-1960s I entered a Liberation Theology phase, at a time when the only book available on the topic was G.B. Caird’s Principalities and powers. A few years later my thoughts were more adequately articulated by writers like Walter Wink, though by the time his books came out, I’d moved on a bit.

Then I went to England for post-graduate study, and was appalled by the boss-nation theology of the Church of England, and found the liberal Protestantism of Bultmann and John “Honest to God” Robinson and the conservative reaction to it equally rebarbative, and reacted rather strongly against them, and wanted to shout “a plague on both your houses”, and became an African nationalist. I believed that British Christianity (and Western Christianity generally) were in fatal decline, and that the future of Christianity lay in Africa and Latin-America, where God spoke to and though oppressed and down-trodden people, and not in the materialist idolatry of the boss-nations of the West.

Then in 1968, shortly before returning to South Africa, I went to a seminar on Orthodox theology for non-Orthodox theological students — a week of lectures at the World Council of Churches study centre in Bossey, Switzerland, followed by Holy Week in St Sergius in Paris. It culminated in the Paschal Vigil, and seeing the entire congregation give each other the Easter Kiss (it lasted 45 minutes), followed by the Paschal Homily of St John Chrysostom just blew me away.

I returned to South Africa just in time for the Message to the people of South Africa to be released, which pointed out that apartheid was worse than a heresy, it was a pseudogospel. There was much talk of a confessing church, and “Obedience to God” groups were formed. But a few years later Bishop Bill Burnett, who had been general secretary of the South African Council of Churches at the time the “Message” was published, became disillusioned with the powerlessness of ecumenical and ecclesiastical bureaucracy. He said that after experiencing the baptism of the Holy Spirit  he realised that the one who does God’s work is God, and that too often bureaucratic structures and committees simply got in the way of the revolution of the Holy Spirit.

And so I became charismatic, which many Anglicans seemed to regard as a new brand of “churchmanship” — there had previously been “Anglo-Catholics” and “Evangelicals” and now there were “Charismatics” as well. I don’t think it was meant to be that way, and I  went to work in the Anglican diocese of Zululand, where the charismatic renewal had started in the 1940s and 1950s, earlier than in most other places in South Africa, and had come to permeate the whole life of the church and was not seen as something separate from it. I wrote a book about that called Black charismatic Anglicans (Unisa, 1991 — now out of print).

Back when I had been studying in England a sociological researcher  was doing a study of theological students in different institutions, and asked me to state my “churchmanship”. He offered the following choices.

  1. Anglo-Catholic
  2. Prayer-Book Catholic
  3. Modern Churchman
  4. Liberal Evangelical
  5. Conservative Evangelical

I said “none of the above” or “all except 3”, but those weren’t acceptable so he said he would put me down as “Prayer-book Catholic” because I came from South Africa, and that was what he thought other people who came from South Africa were. That led me to think about how I would describe my “churchmanship”, and at the end of my two years in college, when he came for the next round of interviews, I told him I was “revolutionary orthodox”.

And that brings me back to Brian McLaren, because back in 1968 I was using the term “orthodox” with a small “o” in much the same way as McLaren uses it in his book. Though my spiritual journey had followed a slightly different order to that of McLaren, I think we’ve touched most of the same bases.

McLaren likes to talk of being post-evangelical, post-Protestant, post-
liberal, post-conservative, post-modern and post- a few other things. But when I read his book as an Orthodox Christian I see it as primarily pre-Orthodox, because that is more or less where I was when I realised that whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the various Western visions of Christianity they simply weren’t going to get it together, and were going to carry on squabbling about them for the rest of my life time and for a long time beyond that. And even if two or three of the factions did get together, it would only be in order to gang up against the others. And meanwhile, the fulness of all I had been looking for, and partly found, was there all along in Orthodoxy with a capital O.

And so, like Brian McLaren, I can quote G.K. Chesterton, who wrote:

I am the man who with utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before… I did try to found a heresy of my own, and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered it was orthodoxy.

And when I reached in my own life the stage that Brian McLaren describes in his book, I joined the Orthodox Church.

A generous orthodoxy is not a book that Orthodox Christians need to read, unless they want to discuss it with people who have read it, and have questions about it.

But if I knew people who found it very interesting, eye-opening and exciting, I would recommend that their next step should be to read Alexander Schmemann’s For the life of the world. It was fifteen years after I first read it that I actually joined the Orthodox Church, and God alone knows if it was only my own obstinacy that made it take so long, or because God had some more things to show me along the way.

But there is also a warning. If you do consider joining the Orthodox Church, you will not find perfection. The Orthodox Church is both a school for saints and a hospital for sinners. There is a full range, from the best to the worst. The Orthodox Church is full of very bad people, including bad bishops, bad priests and bad deacons. But, as we pray when we are about to receive the holy communion, the Lord Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 December 2008 4:07 pm

    What a great story. Thanks for taking the time to “put it down on paper.” Also, thanks for your generous spirit toward McLaren. He’s asking great questions.

  2. Fr John D'Alton permalink
    24 December 2008 5:05 am

    Hi Steve,
    yes i can agree with your comments on what is good and “pre-Orthodox” in McLaren’s book. But for many young evangelicals, it does not move them to Orthodoxy but totally demolishes their faith 😦 Its like a plague over here. Because despite the good points, much of his book is stridently aggressive to any concept of tradition or objective truth- its mostly about accepting any possible non-orthodox view. It deconstructs but leads nowhere. Its so post-modern its a bomb for many people’s faith. And I’m talking lots of wrecked people here in Oz 😦 Like feeding arsenic to people to cure their warts. Its neither generous nor orthodox. And this is my kindest comments!

  3. 24 December 2008 5:36 am

    Fr John,

    I haven’t met anyone (to my knowledge) who has been wrecked as a result of reading the book. That might be something to discuss in the Thandanani Conference, where there is more space for back and forth discussion than in blog comments. So I hope you will post your comments there as well.

  4. 24 December 2008 1:33 pm

    Interestingly, I also only found Generous Orthodoxy yesterday at CUM books, as well as “Everything must change’. I’m not a big Amazone consumer ( well actually I’m not an Amazone consumer at all- so being very behind, I am reading it now- will show and tell afterwards. Your stiory is relevant though, in terms of highlighting our Southern African hybridity..

  5. 25 December 2008 6:27 am


    I eventually got my copy of A generous orthodoxy at, though even they didn’t have it in stock and had to order it specially, which took some time. The advantage is that one avoids the bank charges for paying in foreign currency to the likes of Amazon.

    I’ll be interested in your take on it. I’ve noticed that a lot of the criticism of McLaren seems to come from Calvinists, yet the NGK seemed to be sponsoring, or at least endorsing, his and Alan Hirsch’s speaking tours in South Africa.

    And speaking of South African hybridity, when i read Samuel Huntington’s The clash of civilizations I found I was a clash of civilizations all on my own, since I identified with at least three of his civilizations: African by birth and environment, Western by education, and Orthodox by choice.

  6. 25 December 2008 9:19 am

    I don’t bother to read all this stuff. I think the emerging/ent church is a bunch of more or less white males shifting the deck chairs on the Titanic one more time until the next thing comes along.

    You see, as you have heard me say before Steve, I am a woman and the woman’s voice in the emerging/ent church is not very much to the fore at all. Not do I, from distant Australia, here the voices of Asian and African people.

    Why the invention of new dogmas and new rationales? Jesus made it so simple a six year old could understand – until the supposedly grown ups decided to complicate it and add rules and musts. Love God, Love your neighbour. Be part of the community of faith until He comes back again.

  7. 25 December 2008 9:56 am

    A Generous Orthodoxy is a tour de force: one of the most life affirming, loving, informed, and ecumenical works I have read for decades. It has bolstered my faith and brought me to a place of accepting, like Chesterton, my place in the “orthodox” story.

    The rather dismissive, condescending tone of aspects of this discussion is disappointing. I would think that maturity would bring generosity, not fear, superiority and vitriol.

    It may be a matter of semantics, but I do not think the Eastern traditions have copyright on the word orthodoxy. Since reading and coming to understand Steves journey, I have been more careful not to dismiss orthodoxy without regard to his adopted traditions. And since reading Chesterton and now McLaren, I feel that God has done a sort of completing work in my own heart.

    As for female leaders in the Emergent movement, what about Phylis Tickle?

  8. 26 December 2008 12:00 pm

    Miss Eagle,

    Yes, in what I have seen of the emerging church phenomenon in South Africa, the interest certainly seems to be highest among pale males, and young Afrikaans-speaking pale males at that. And I’ve wondered what the concerns have to do with our congregation in Mamelodi (a predominantly black township) in which only one member of the several families who belong to the church is in anything close to full-time employment.

    But I disagree that this is the invention of new dogmas and new rationales. It seems to me, both from hearing Brian McLaren speak, and reading his book, that a lot of it has to do with the rediscovery of some very old ones.

    And I find it quite significant that a fairly high proportion of those interested are members of the NGK, the biggest of the three Dutch Reformed Churches. That was the group that appeared to sponsor the recent visits of Brian McLaren and Alan Hirsch. The previous prevailing theology of those groups led not only themselves, but the whole country into an extremely destructive ideological cul-de-sac (apartheid), from which we have been more-or-less painfully emerging over the last 20 years, and a lot of the damage seems to have been irreversible, or possibly will be healed only over several generations. The effects of migrant labour on family values, family life and worldview, for example, have been incalculable, and persist today.

    So to me it is understandable that people whose predecessors had led them into an ideological cul-de-sac should be looking for something that will get them out of the mess.

  9. birangui jean pierre permalink
    26 December 2008 2:53 pm

    I want going to the durban town to work in the mission orthodoxy. please answer my

  10. 29 December 2008 1:09 pm

    Sir, I just today discovered your blog. I am Orthodox from Greece. I am so happy when I see brothers of other countries, religions, colors, nationalities, joinining Orthodoxy. I go every Sunday to the church of St. George in an ecclesiastical school, where Orthodox people come and learn Greek, how to be priests, theology and byzantine music. So every Sunday we have priests from Madagascar, Phillipines, Indonesia, Romania, Moldavia, Serbia, Ukraine and Russia. It is wonderfull.
    God bless you.

  11. Joe permalink
    31 December 2008 1:17 am

    I’ve noticed that a lot of people are most generous with the wealth that they don’t possess. McLaren included.

  12. 2 January 2009 8:45 pm

    Like Reggie, I was fascinated to find that Cum has suddenly started stocking McLaren’s books – I also had to order it by mail in order to read it. (I wonder what happened.) And also, like Reggie, I think that our South African hybrid context has led many of us on McLaren’s journey ‘automatically’. Or it may be that our Joburg context provides that. I am now in Grahamstown and am surprised to find that the Methodist Church seems to be more racially divided here than I am used to. I think McLaren’s book is a real eye-opener for those who only been exposed to one tradition – especially if that one has been billed as the one and only true way!

  13. 3 January 2009 8:16 am


    My son works in a secular bookshop, and says that the religious books that sell best are the ones that shade into the “self-help” area, by people like T.D. Jakes. Perhaps that’s true of the religious bookshops as well.

  14. 17 January 2009 7:32 pm

    I am happy to have found your blog. It’s interesting to me to follow your journey there in South Africa.

    – Greg in Mexico

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