An Old Kind of Christian

I have recently begun paternity leave, and I’ve decided that, besides not formally doing work for ten weeks, I’ll also take a moment away from reading ancient, mediaeval, and Orthodox books for a little bit, to sort of, um, freshen the brain. Read books ‘normal’ people read. So I’ve put my ‘fun’ reading of Statius’ Thebaid on hold and have started Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, and my Christian-y reading of St Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations has been switched for Brian D. McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian.

I realise I’m 18 years late to this party (and was 18 when the book came out), so any meditations I have on a book that thought it was cutting-edge in 2001 may be a little inappropriate. I will not be able to recapture what it must have been like to have been 36 reading this book back then.

Also, I have read two of McLaren’s books already, one in 2004 (More Ready Than You Realize) the other in 2006 (A Generous Orthodoxy), and I have to admit that I liked them, but neither was revolutionary or game-changing. Finally, for my own 2001-02 context, I did read, in 2002, Walsh and Middleton’s Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be, my introduction to postmodernism.

Anyway, having laid out a bit of my own modern context (I use that word on purpose), I also assume any regular reader knows that I am a Classicist and ecclesiastical historian who specialises in Patristics with research interests that stretch into the High Middle Ages and an eclectic, East-leaning Anglican devotional life, having been raised in a charismatic Anglican parish.

Before beginning this book, my thoughts were largely as follows. My sister-in-law once observed that Brian McLaren was not that revolutionary in these early books; he was mostly just explaining postmodernism to middle-aged people. In the end, however, the emerging church as a movement has proven itself largely spent. McLaren’s book A New Kind of Christianity set him not merely outside the bounds of evangelicalism but of any orthodoxy, however generous (for some solid critique, I direct you to Bill Kinnon, since I know and trust Bill). He demonstrated himself simply another liberal; he was running so fast to find something new that he ended up in the 1990s in 2010.

The only other two names ever associated with the emerging church that I can think of are Rob Bell and Mark Driscoll, and I’m sure I’ll get in trouble for daring to mention Driscoll’s name with such illustrious company — for Driscoll has proven himself simply another Reformed megachurch pastor who happens to be edgy. Bell decided to catch up with the Episcopal Church in affirming universal salvation and gay marriage. Oh, yes, Peter Rollins; he seems not really to be a liberal simply because he is so very different. But he’s by no means anywhere within the boundaries of historic orthodoxy — he may be the only one to have succeeded in becoming a new kind of Christian.

When I first asked a couple of years ago the question, ‘What happened to the emerging/emergent church?’, I found a video on YouTube of one less-famous member chatting with a slightly more famous guy. The less famous emergent guy had emerged into Roman Catholicism, and the other had turned out a Pelagian who rejected the Nicene Creed not on any logical grounds but on the highly individualist notion that the men who wrote it had to place telling him what to believe. It was a strange conversation to watch.

So it seems that in trying to embrace postmodernism, many associated with emergent have ended up modern(ist) in one way or another — the individualistic Pelagian who also rejects Nicaea; the guy who bailed out and became Catholic; the Reformed pastor; the guys who are really not so different from the liberal mainline, itself a product of modernity.

This, of course, is no surprise. Contrary to all the exciting things being said in the first 46 pages of A New Kind of Christian (this is as far as I have got), postmodernism was simply a self-critique of modernism, which is what modernism has been doing for most of its existence. The idea that postmodernism may actually simply be an outgrowth of the modern mindset, that it may actually be modernism dressed up in fancy, new jargon, first came to my attention in a 2009 or 2010 issue of Adbusters. Since then, I’ve seen or heard of a growing critique of postmodernism.

So McLaren, et al., for all that I know their books helped a lot of Christians work through important issues and critique the modern church, failed at becoming a new kind of Christian.

I realise this post is already long-ish, but my other thought, a thought that also inspired the title, and one which I hope to explore further, is that perhaps an old kind of Christian is what we need, but neither a modern(ist) one nor, indeed, an irrecoverable pre-modern one. Brian Walsh and others have dug into those of us who think that we should hunt down pre-modern Christianity to find moorage in the sea of postmodernity. (Brian Walsh has also succeeded in slowly drifting in liberalism in his embrace of the postmodern; where are the orthodox postmoderns?) Rather, I think of a spirit-infused prophet of old who has drunk deeply of the Fathers and can body forth for us in our current context, be in post- or not, the ancient, medieval, Byzantine and even (gasp!) modern wisdom the Spirit has poured into the Church.

One may argue that that kind of Christian sounds like a postmodern Christian as imagined 18 years ago. The difference is that, unlike a Peter Rollins who provides a long-running critique of the whole Christian project, or McLaren who doesn’t really seem to understand the medieval world (or didn’t, back in 2001 when he wrote this book, based on how he uses Lewis’ The Discarded Image), this is someone from within the tradition who embraces it, is infused with it, and loves it to bursting, because the tradition is the manifestation of the Kingdom of God on earth, because the tradition is the Holy Spirit at work in the world of men, because the tradition is the life story of the Body of Christ.

Postmodernism, that is, late stage modernity in its current manifestation, has a liking for story and song. Is tradition not simply the story of the church? Is it not the song sung by the Spirit in His people over these long years? Let us go deep into the Christian tradition, East and West, and prayerfully seek the wisdom of the mystics and liturgists and saints and poets and theologians who have brought us here, and use them as guides to bring us to Christ.

It is Christ who will lead us onward.

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What is ‘orthodox’?

Fra Angelico’s fresco of St Dominic adoring Christ on the Cross, San Antonino cloister, Museo di San Marco, Firenze

Yesterday morning, with only City of God and a largely-unreadable-due-to-uncut-pages copy of Dante’s De Vulgaris Eloquentia to keep me company, I did a little websurfing over/after breakfast before hitting the mean streets of Firenze and visiting San Marco Priory (aka Museo di San Marco) where I saw Fra Angelico‘s work in situ and was stirred to worship of that Person of the Holy Trinity Who was crucified and died for us.

Fra Angelico’s art takes us to the heart of orthodoxy with his numerous crucifixion scenes depicted in the cells of the Dominican friars housed in the Renaissance priory.

And the question of what orthodoxy is came up before my departure. I wandered through the Internet Monk, but find the site a bit lacklustre since the falling asleep of the iMonk himself, so then I popped over to Bill Kinnon, and reread this post about Brian McLaren’s departure from orthodoxy. I was then ultimately led to this good post by Jeremy Bouma about his journey into, through, and ultimately beyond Emergent Christianity.

Which, after almost 200 words, brings me to the starting point of this post. One of the commenters on Bouma’s blog said this:

Something is only orthodox after a larger body holds it for long periods of time. But that doesn’t make it true.

This statement is a common thought amongst tradition-averse evangelicals and progressive liberals alike: Orthodoxy is a construct made by the majority opinion or the victors of the Church councils. It is not, therefore, true.

Well, it is not necessarily true.

First, then, what is orthodoxy? This sort of question is the sort of thing that Emergent stuff was good at when evangelicals were still willing to listen and be unsettled by the conversations McLaren et al. started/fuelled.

Here is a moment when etymology is not a fallacy (unlike some PoMo/Emergent attempts to make church = called out because of the etymology of ekklesia). Orthodoxia is right belief or right worship. Both are important — one is the worldview, the other how we live in light of the worldview. Do we worship rightly? Do we worship the right God? Do we believe the right, or true, things?

In his book A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren affirmed that at the heart of orthodoxy lies the Apostles’ Creed. I spoke on this in Cyprus; the Apostles’ Creed encapsulates the Gospel and the Canon of the Faith which were also elaborated in the so-called Nicene Creed in 381. This Canon of the Faith existed as the oral tradition of the Church at a time when the New Testament canon was still loose and somewhat in flux; it helped the Church set the boundaries of what was and was not Scripture, in the end.

We have evidence of it in use in the early 100s and in various forms throughout that century.

The Canon of the Faith is, then, the central core of orthodoxy, the heart of the tradition.

If this is what we mean by orthodoxy, then, yes, a lot of people have believed it for a long time. While that does not make it necessarily true that makes any of the other contenders not necessarily, properly speaking, Christianity. If the people who chose our Scriptures and evangelised the world believe something to be central to their religious identity, and we deviate from that, we are no longer actually part of the same religious group as they were.

We have become something other.

Now, there are lots of other bits of orthodoxy that Emergent people have questioned. Some of them are in Scripture, others are logical outworkings of Scripture but not the only possible results, some of them are the majority opinion for most of history, some of them are the widespread beliefs of modern evangelicalism. These, like theological hymnody and the cult of the saints, should be evaluated individually. Of these parts of what is called ‘orthodoxy’ all truly orthodox?

And if we do this in humility and with prayer, perhaps we’ll have a different vision of faith. So long as it ever drives us upward to the Crucified God, questioning things beyond the core of orthodoxy is a helpful habit.

But remember, weary travellers must find at least an inn, if not a home. Let us not endless deconstruct with never resting in God’s Truth.