A Brotherly Critique & Response

There is no excess of civility in our public discourse these days, and sadly, that’s too often the case in the world of the church too. This note from a respected theologian shows a very different tone, one that I think is much more in line with our message and mission. My responses are inserted
— like this. – Brian

Just completed reading A Generous Orthodoxy. A good book. Good mix of thoughtful and provocative material laced with powerful illustrations and a nice touch of humor (especially the first chapter). I also like the way you reframe, or out-frame, a number of traditional positions or questions–this has always been one of your great strengths.
I particularly appreciated the chapters 5,6, 9, and 14. The chapter on Missional will be excellent for introducing people to the missional discussion–the two diagrams are great. Your distinction between Evangelical and evangelical is a useful way to affirm a valuable term while trimming off some baggage–I liked it. And the mystical/poetic theme gives voice to something that many of us have felt but not articulated very well. Thanks. The chapter on Methodism is helpful—I used your diagrams with a young believer at our church who I am discipling and encouraging to start helping someone else–he got the idea immediately.
I have been chewing on a couple of other points in your discussion and thought I would mention these to see if I am reading you correctly, and if I am, to raise a question or two, or perhaps to suggest an alternate perspective.
1. Exclusivism, etc.
I am wondering about a couple things in this part of your discussion (pp. 112-14):
a. It seems to me that you have not worked up to your usual standard of charity here–it has the feel of “my best against your worst” which elsewhere you have encouraged us (appropriately) to avoid. I am thinking particularly of your assessment of exclusivism: “I should just rejoice that I am one of the blessed–meaning I can retire in Naples, etc.” This is a pretty strong ad hominem which I am sure did not apply to your grandparents in Angola, although I suspect that they would have lined up on the exclusivist side. No doubt there are some exclusivists (and universalists, and inclusivists) who are playing out their days on the links, but that probably has a lot more to do with cultural influences than theology.
— I think this is a really legitimate critique. I wish I had done a better job of being charitable in that section. I guess I tried to soften condemning or finger-pointing tendencies by putting it in the first person (maybe the reason Paul uses first person in Romans 7?), but still, I think this is one of the places where people could take offense, and I wish I had avoided it better. Thanks for pointing it out to me.
b. I am not sure that a moderate exclusivist position can’t point you to Los Angeles (again, it didn’t seem to confuse your grandparents). How about something like this for a proposal (using your basic language):
One signpost tells me that some people aren’t ever going to be blessed [ultimately, at least, because Jesus really seems to believe in hell]. Does this mean that I should just rejoice that I am one of the blessed–meaning . . .? Of course not, for I realize that the story of God’s people has always been that they are blessed in order that they might be a blessing to all nations. So this signpost points me toward mission, not away from it.
–Yes, that’s well put.
c. If you feel the need to distance yourself from certain formulations of exclusivism, as I think I would myself, couldn’t this be done by employing an upper case/lower case distinction as you did with E/evangelical?
–Great idea.
2. Why I am Biblical
Basically I liked this chapter. I agree that we have for too long “flattened” the Bible by a kind of “scientific” approach to exegesis that treated its various genres like technical prose. This kind of reductionism needs to be critiqued, and I find your discussion helpful in emphasizing the narrative and poetic aspects of Scripture.
But I would also say that just here I have some concern. It feels to me that in avoiding the reductionism of the past you bring in your own reductionism, which could be just as harmful. When you say ” . . . the Bible itself contains precious little expository prose” I wonder how that applies to some pretty lengthy sections of the Pentateuch or particularly to the epistles. Granted (as you point out) there are some poetic elements in the letters, but that is not the bulk of the material.
— Sorry I wasn’t clear enough here. “Expository prose” for me meant prose intending to explain – like essays or textbooks. So I’m not including history or law in the Old Testament as expository – they’d be narrative and law. And I’d put the epistles in the category of … epistles. Letters aren’t the same as expository prose, although I suppose the lines get blurry. What I was trying to say (not well enough) was that there isn’t much in the way of “First and Second Sexual Morality” in the Bible, or “A Treatise on Free Will,” or “The Book of the Trinity,” or that sort of thing. Again, I could have been a lot clearer.
I think the emphasis on narrative and poetry is important because it opens up the way for imagination. By being less specific, it is (in some ways) more mind-expanding. By opening up more possibilities, it leads to less certainty in interpretation and hopefully more humility on our part. All this is good and I am on board with you. But if we minimize the sections that are more expository, don’t we risk the loss of some pretty important data that shaped the basics of the Christian tradition. … I am just trying to think through what we are going to give the next generation to work with.
So those are my current thoughts/questions. I know you are busy, so no need to reply.