Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Brian McLaren: a generous Orthodoxy

A few weeks ago I wrote Notes from underground: Brian McLaren to speak in Pretoria and asked people who knew about him and his writings to tell me whether it would be worth paying to go an hear him speak.

There were various answers, some positive, some negative.

Now I’ve just got back from hearing him speak, and I can say unequivocally that yes, it was worth hearing him, and my wife and I are both glad that we went. It was very interesting, and it clarified a lot of things for me about the “emerging church” movement. Yes, I know he is just one bloke, and others are saying different things, but it resolved a lot of confusion for me.

In many ways there was nothing very special or startling about what he said. At one level it was New Testament 101: Introduction to the gospels. It was very Orthodox, and at some points he used Orthodox ikons to illustrate it. It was the basics of the gospel, the good news of the kingdom of God. When Jesus came proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, what did it mean in the contemporary setting, and what does it mean today? For me it was familiar ground, biblically, theologically and culturally. There was nothing new, nothing I hadn’t heard before.

So what was it worth going to hear him?

I think it was his presentation, the way he drew things together, the way he got the message across.

Someone asked at one point how one does evangelism with this view of the gospel, but I think in many ways it was evangelism; he presented the basics of the gospel in a clear, succinct and ordered way, and that is evangelism.

So it answered some questions for me. Over the past few months I have got the feeling that a lot of what “emerging church” people are looking for is to be found in Orthodox Christianity, and has been in the Orthodox Church all along. Many of these things disappeared in Western Christianity with the onset of modernity, and in a sense Western Christianity and modernity are almost synonymous. And Brian McLaren’s lecture tended to confirm this. I was unable to get hold of his book A generous orthodoxy to read beforehand, and I wondered how “orthodox” he was, and what I can say now that what I heard him say tonight was very Orthodox, many Orthodox speakers I have heard have said similar things. Any differences were mostly in style, not substance.

There is more I could say, but now I’m tired and want to go to bed. Maybe I’ll pick up some particular themes from what he said in later posts.

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13 thoughts on “Brian McLaren: a generous Orthodoxy

  1. Nathan on said:

    I would like to think that’s hopeful. Last week I took a bit of a field trip and visited the church he founded in rural Maryland.

    I was not pleased. The sermon, such as it was, had only a tenuous grasp on biblical truth, and the pastor steadfastly refused to say the word “Christianity,” using “religion” in its place whenever he referred to belief. He read Matthew 7:13-16 as his text, and then proceeded to insist that we did not need to effect change in our lives “overnight, this week, or even this year.” He seemed to have no grasp of the gospel whatsoever. This message took about 5 minutes, at which time he opened the floor for questions, before which he insisted that they need not be about the sermon, and he encouraged questions on “the environment, and how we can stop global warming.” That’s a fine topic, but not related, and not very pastoral.

    Closing the service was a 15 minute “free time” in which people wandered about to light candles, give offering, or take communion at any of several stations scattered about the room.

    I was not surprised that the church was very small, and that there seemed to be no sense of Christian community there. It was greatly saddening overall. I was listening to some comments from John Piper on the emergent church while driving away and he hit the nail on the head, I think. He said they are willing to sacrifice any truth for the sake of relationships. Unfortunately, this essentially nihilist epistemology will not support a movement of any real strength, and though, as Piper said “the movement is creating pundits,” it is not creating churches.

  2. Steve Hayes on said:


    That sounds as different from what I heard last night as chalk from cheese.

  3. Matt Stone on said:


    In my original comments I said, “…I think of Brian as a good storyteller and communicator, but not the deepest thinker or innovator…”

    I gather now you see what I meant. Much of what Brian McLaren has to say is 101 for anyone with any background in missiology. He is not introducing anything that hasn’t arisen somewhere in Christianity sometime before. But he communicates well and brings a freshness to much of what he speaks about. He is introducing many westerners to the concept of mission in post-modernity and for that he should be applauded. I only wish he’d go deeper.

    The people who object most to him are the ones who only know the gospel of guilt management and no other model. It all depends how narrow your understanding of orthodoxy is as to how orthodox people see him.

  4. Steve Hayes on said:


    Yes, I agree. A 101 coursde is not a good place for innovative thinking, but there are good and bad 101 courses, and I’m familiar with both, and I think Brian McLaren’s was one of the best. Not much missiology, not much ecclesiology, not much christology either.

    I saw similar stuff in a book called Jesus before Christianity by Albert Nolan, a Dominican. Neither came up with innovative theology, but both show how Jesus’ theology was innovative in the contemporary context, which is good to see when approaching the New Testament.

  5. Roger Saner on said:

    Hey, I’ve got that Albert Nolan book on my shelf – I guess it’s time to read it! I’ll be posting the audio of some of Brian’s talks in South Africa on the FutureChurch Podcast site as well as Emergent Africa. I heard him speak this morning on “Postmodernism and postcolonialism” and it was a fantastic thought – puts what he is saying in a bigger context. He also responds to a question on criticism about himself near the end of the talk.

    Sorry I didn’t get to Pretoria to meet you Steve – there are a bunch of Pretoria-based people it would’ve been great to connect with and you’re one of them. Hopefully we’ll meet up tomorrow night at the monasticism lecture – as long as my packing for Uganda is done in time!

  6. Steve Hayes on said:


    I’m glad to have the information about the podcasts, though I’m not sure if I can use them — I suppose I really should connect speakers to my computer some time, but I also keep running out of bandwidth.

    I did meet Cobus van Wyngaard at Brian McLaren’s lecture, and Annemie Bosch (widow of David Bosch, who wrote about the “emerging mission paradigm”). I also had a good chat with Brian McLaren in the tea break, which I felt a bit guilty about, since I was familiar with and in agreement with most of what he was saying, and I think there were others who had lots of questions they wanted to ask him. But, as i said, I thionk it did help me to get this “emerging” think more into perspective.

    One couple who were sitting with us left after the tea break. I think they really didn’t like what they heard, but they didn’t stay long enough for us to find out what it was they didn’t like. I think that’s one of the things about postmodernity — there’s a greater awareness of the need to explain where one is coming from, because there are so many different cultures and worldviews out there., as opposed to the modernist assumption that the truth is objective and I know what it is, and can assume that everyone else knows, and if they don’t they are simply being perverse.

  7. Sally on said:

    Thanks for this Syeve- I agree with you when you say:
    “Over the past few months I have got the feeling that a lot of what “emerging church” people are looking for is to be found in Orthodox Christianity, and has been in the Orthodox Church all along.”
    I guess that the Western church needs to grasp this fully, to recognise that the spiritual thirst it has encountered through a modernistic approach can be quenched by learning from the Orthodox Church….
    I found an interesting link to an Orthodox/ Anglican initiative in London and have posted it on my blog- I’d love to hear your reaction.

  8. fruitfulideas on said:

    Steven, I really appreciated both of his talks (Thursday and Friday). I posted on my blog about Friday, but I will comment here on Thursday’s.

    I do find McLaren’s message simple—yet I don’t hear many others saying it—so because of this I find it refreshing, too, and extremely challenging. It’s easy to agree with but hard to put in to practice. But, as McLaren said, by nature this Postmodern thing needs to be more of a social movement then a theological one.

    I’m glad you decided to come, please say hi to Anname for us too. We really enjoyed chatting with her.

  9. Steve Hayes on said:


    I also posted my second thoughts on my other blog at Khanya.

    I know that’s a bit complicated!

  10. Steve Hayes on said:


    Your blog is not accessible, because I can’t read your profile.

  11. Anonymous on said:

    “My Orthodox friends sometimes criticize me, thinking that I’m like the guy who goes into a candy shop and licks a lot of the lollipops – because I’m too cheap to buy just one and stick to it. They suggest that I shouldn’t borrow anything from Orthodoxy unless I embrace it all. But what if Orthodoxy helps me see resources that have been there in the Bible all along – and so I’m actually rooting my discoveries in the Bible?

    “That’s not to deny that it’s possible that I and others might be dilettantes or “grazers” – that’s always a danger. But even then, we may be engaging with the meaning behind Orthodox practices more deeply than many Orthodox folk themselves…”

    – Brian McLaren

    This, Father Deacon is what is known in Orthodox circles as “plani” or “prelest”.

  12. nic paton on said:

    What is the connection between McLarens use of the word “Orthodoxy” and yours, Steve?

  13. Steve Hayes on said:


    If I was able to read his book I might be able to tell you.

    When I heard him speak, much of what he said sounded familiar, so I think there is some connection, as I’ve notyed in my other post on the topic.

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