A Generous Orthodoxy
A generous orthodoxy : why I am a missional, evangelical, post/Protestant,
liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative,
fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, green,
incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian / Brian
Originally published: El Cajon, CA : Emergent YS ; Grand Rapids, MI :
Zondervan, c2004. With epilogue.
ISBN-10: 0-310-25803-0 (pbk.)
ISBN-13: 978-0-310-25803-2 (pbk.)
1. Christianity--Essence, genius, nature. I. Title.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible:
New International Version (North American Edition). Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 by
International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan.
Some of the anecdotal illustrations in this book are true to life and are included with the permission of the persons involved. All other illustrations are composites of real situations, and any resemblance to people living or dead is coincidental.
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Creative Team: Dave Urbanski, Jay Howver, David Sanford, Kristi Robison,
Janie Wilkerson, Laura Gross, Holly Sharp, & Ryan Sharp
Cover design by Mark Arnold
Cover photography by Blair Anderson
Printed in the United States of America
I am a Christian because I have a sustained and sustaining confidence in Jesus Christ. I've lost and rediscovered that confidence a few times, which is a long and messy story worth simplifying and boiling down to manageable length in these first chapters.
I know my original attraction to Jesus came as a young child. In my home and at Sunday school, I heard stories about Jesus. I remember a children's picture Bible that had a simple but beautiful picture of Jesus, seated, in a blue and white robe, with children of all races gathered around his knees. Some were leaning on him. Some were seated at his feet. Some had their arms around him. His arms were opened in an embrace that took them all in, and his bearded face carried a gentle smile a boy could trust.
Looking back, I realize the illustration wasn't historically accurate. It was influenced more by a popular Sunday school song that I also loved ('red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world') than by ancient Middle Eastern realities. But in a way, the picture was even truer than a historically accurate picture would have been; it probably would have had no red, yellow, black, or white children at all, but only brown Middle Eastern ones.
The picture Bible was augmented in my imagination by flannel graph stories about Jesus. Flannel graph was a kind of 1950s high-tech precursor of overhead projectors,
laptop video projectors, videos, and DVDs. The teachers were always kind women, sometimes even my own mother.
Each would tell stories with an easel behind her. On the easel would be a piece of flannel cloth with a scene drawn on it with markers---a countryside, a storm at sea, a courtyard with marble columns, a home, a roadside with big boulders beside it. As the story unfolded, cut-out figures backed with felt would be stuck on the flannel background
(felt and flannel being a gentle precursor of Velcro)---blind
Bartimaeus, Zacchaeus, a woman near a well, a nameless leper and his nine friends, a Roman centurion, or a Syrophonecian woman with a sick child. Through these stories,
Jesus won my heart.
When I reached my teenage years, though, I lost that Jesus as one loses a friend in a crushing, noisy, rushing crowd. The crowd included arguments about evolution
(which seemed elegant, patient, logical, and actually quite wonderful to me, more wonderful even than a literal six-day creation blitz), arguments about the Vietnam War
(which made no sense to me---even if communism was as bad as everyone said, were people better off bombed and napalmed to death?), arguments about ethical issues like civil rights and desegregation and a hundred other things.
I wondered if women were really supposed to be submissive to men and if rock 'n' roll was really of the devil. Were
Catholics really going to burn in hell forever unless they revised their beliefs and practices to be biblical like us?
After a short foray into doubt and a rather mild (all things considered) youthful rebellion, my faith in Jesus was revitalized, largely through the Jesus Movement. For those who were part of it, especially in its early days, the
Jesus Movement was a truly wonderful thing. There was a simplicity, a childlikeness, a naivete, and a corresponding purity of motive that I have seldom seen since. In fact, this book may simply be an attempt to articulate what many of us felt and 'knew' during those years.
But all too soon the Jesus Movement was co-opted.
It was to a different Jesus that I was gradually converted.
The first new Jesus I met had a different face, a different tone, a different function. 'Jesus was born to die,'
I was told again and again, which meant his entire life---
including the red, yellow, black, and white children around his knees...Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree (which gave me a lifelong love for sycamores)...Bartimaeus by the road...the one grateful leper returning...the woman by the well...the caring parents who begged him to heal their children---was quite marginalized. Everything between his birth and death was icing at most, assuredly not cake. This marginalization was unintentional, but in my experience it was very real. I
was losing something but gaining something, too: the conservative
Protestant (or Evangelical) Jesus.
The Conservative Protestant Jesus
For conservative Protestants, the good news centers on the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus saves us by dying on the
Several forces, I think, cooperated in the co-opting of the Jesus Movement, including
Classic Pentecostalism, the Religious Right, parachurch Christianity, the contemporary
Christian music industry, and the religious marketing machine.
Have you noticed that our great creeds tend to do this, too---to affirm Jesus' birth and then skip to his death? What does that say about us? What unintended consequences come from this focus on the beginning and end of Jesus' life and neglect or avoidance of the middle?
'Jesus was born to die,' I heard again and again. By dying, Jesus mysteriously absorbs the penalty of all human wrongdoing through all of history. The cross becomes the focal point where human injustice---past, present,
and future---meets the unconquerable compassion and forgiveness of God. Jesus, hanging in agony, says, 'Father,
forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.' We are given confidence that at our worst moment, the moment at which we humans behave as badly as is possible in this universe by torturing and killing God's ultimate messenger and representative to us, his prayer is answered. His innocent self-sacrifice somehow cancels out human guilt.
At the cross, the powerful horror of human evil and the more powerful glory of God's mercy meet, and human evil is exhausted, but not God's mercy. Exactly how this happens is understood through various metaphors, with the following four perhaps being most popular.
A legal metaphor: God is judge and humanity is guilty, deserving the death penalty.