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Beyond Toleration

by Bruce Jones

     Bruce Jones worked for the Student Christian Movement of India and as a UCC pastor in Illinois. Then, he returned to graduate school for a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible and became a teacher. He was Professor of Religious Studies at California State University, Bakersfield, from 1973 until his retirement. He now lives at Pilgrim Place in Claremont.

     I have spent much of my career fighting against fundamentalism, but I also know that I would probably not be a Christian today if it were not for fundamentalist friends in high school, who invited me to church for the first time, where I became involved in a youth group with conservative advisors. How can I resolve that paradox?

     Books written by evangelicals are appearing more and more on the reading lists of progressives.  One of my favorites is called A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004).  The Council of Ministries at First Congregational Church, Bakersfield studied it shortly after it came out and found it very helpful. It gave them a stronger sense of the wide breadth in the church, and several members were surprised to find so much of value in traditions so different from their own. They moved beyond toleration to a genuine appreciation of some of those traditions.

     His subtitle gives away his thesis:  “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.”

     McLaren still respects the conservative fundamentalism of his youth, hoping that he can keep the “fun” in fundamentalism (p. 183).  However, he wants to add to that the liberal willingness to encourage free inquiry and challenge.  And he is, at the same time, critical of both perspectives. He also believes that we limit ourselves unnecessarily if we ignore or reject contributions from different kinds of Christians.

     McLaren writes in a provocative style.  He says “I’m sure I am wrong about many things, although I’m not sure exactly which things I’m wrong about (pp. 19f.). . . . A generous orthodoxy is like that.  It acknowledges that we’re all in a mess.  It sees in our worst failures the possibility of our deepest repentance and God’s opening for our most profound healing.  It remembers Jesus’ parable that wherever God sows good seed, ‘an enemy’ will sow weed seeds.  It realizes that you can’t pull up the bad without uprooting the good too, and so it refrains from judging.  It just rejoices wherever good seed grows” (p. 230).

     Let me entice you with some of his words which impressed me the most:

     Both conservatives and liberals had serious problems as the years went on.  Conservatives couldn’t agree on what the infallible, inerrant Bible meant and constantly labeled the interpretations of their fellow Protestants grossly errant (p. 134).

     Meanwhile, liberals had another set of problems. . . . “Liberal” — or “mainline” — Protestantism had become the civil religion of America in the first half of the twentieth century.  It was liberal Protestants who were invited to the White House, quoted by the press, asked to give invocations at public events, and so on.  Power proved tempting, however, and as a result, liberal Christianity seemed increasingly domesticated, tame and sycophantic (p. 135).

     By the 1980s the liberals were sent to the backseat, and the conservatives were soon riding shotgun, basking in their new role as the civil religion of America (p. 136). Liberals, it has been said, favored the poor, but the poor favored the conservatives (p. 137).

     And, finally, both run the risk of becoming “relics — stuck in the past rather than moving into the future” (p. 140).

     I found this to be a prophetic book. It has a message that both liberals and conservatives can benefit from. I will not stop objecting to many things that fundamentalists profess, but I also know that God can speak to me from traditions very different from my own.

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