Generous Orthodoxy  

The word ortho-doxy (Greek for "right doctrine") has both positive and negative connotations. In a culture that prizes what is iconoclastic and transgressive, orthodoxy has come to sound constricted and unimaginative at best, oppressive and tyrannical at worst.

The position taken on this website is that we cannot do without orthodoxy, for everything else must be tested against it, but that orthodox (traditional, classical) Christian faith should by definition always be generous as our God is generous; lavish in his creation, binding himself in an unconditional covenant, revealing himself in the calling of a people, self-sacrificing in the death of his Son, prodigal in the gifts of the Spirit, justifying the ungodly and indeed, offending the "righteous" by the indiscriminate nature of his favor. True Christian orthodoxy therefore cannot be narrow, pinched, or defensive but always spacious, adventurous and unafraid.
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Latest News

Fleming's book has gone to the publisher

Posted: Thursday, July 31, 2014

The completed manuscript of Fleming's book The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ has gone to Eerdmans Publishing and will be published in 2015. This book, the product of 20 years of work, is designed for pastors and preachers, inquiring lay people, and perhaps seminary students. It is not an academic book, despite its academic pretensions! As the time of publication approaches, I will offer information as to how it might be used in congregations.

Recent Ruminations

Cosmetic surgery
Thursday, October 23, 2014

This is pretty embarrassing, but a lot of people seem to have found it helpful, so...

I virtually never "comment" on anything I read online and rarely do I even read comments, let alone write them. Today was an exception. I read a featured testimonial, if that is the word, by a young female cosmetic surgeon (named Victoria Karlinsky) about how the procedures she has already had (she's only in her late 30s!) have made her feel good about herself, etc etc. (You can look this up in the New York Times under the heading of Renee Zellweger's recent, startling surgical makeover.) This self-promoting post by the surgeon made me so mad that I typed out a response. Later today I was amazed and pleased that my post got way more "recommends" than any other, and several people seemed to really appreciate it. So here it is (blush):

Like a previous writer I address these thoughts to readers, not to Victoria Karlinsky.
I am in my late 70s and for at least 30 years have almost daily conversations with my mirror about "having work done"--especially since I am a good candidate for "work" with good facial bone structure. I resist giving in to the temptation, however, although I do try to look as good as I can at my age. Here are some reasons that I don't plan to have any surgery:
1) It is very expensive and I want to continue to make contributions to charitable agencies and human rights with that money instead of spending it on my looks.
2) Investing that much money and time in looking younger sends a message that I don't want to send...overemphasis on appearance and not enough emphasis on spiritual values.
3) I personally think that much cosmetic surgery is very obvious and actually calls attention to one's age.
4) I certainly don't want to be the subject of speculation: "Has she or hasn't she?" I would rather have people concentrate on what I am saying or doing, if it is worthwhile.
5) I would like my decision to be of encouragement to other older people who can't afford cosmetic surgery, or don't have time for it, or wonder if they should have it, or worry about not having had it. I would rather be on the "no" side of that line.
I hope this is helpful. It has been helpful to me to write it out.

(On a more important subject, the Ebola virus, see Tips from the Times on this website.)

The identity of Jesus Christ
Saturday, October 4, 2014

Recently I was saddened to be asked what I thought of Zealot, the best-selling book about the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan. I was saddened because the man who was asking me is a lifelong churchman, certainly a believer of sorts, and a fine person. He was enthralled by Zealot and had no clue that there had been any criticisms of it. When I tried to explain that Aslan was not a biblical scholar and did not understand the issues, he protested that Aslan had a PhD (it's in sociology).

Particularly discouraging is the fact that these sorts of books are often recommended by clergy, read in church book clubs, and held up as the latest piece of "new" thinking about Jesus. Actually, these books have been coming out since 1778, with Hermann Samuel Reimarus' initial foray into the "historical Jesus." From the standpoint of anyone who loves the Bible and believes in the gospel, it is tiresome to have to deal with these books again and again, rehearsing the same arguments again and again.

To give Aslan his due, he is apparently a lively writer and has given a highly readable account of first-century Palestine; such books do not hit the best-seller list and the airport bookstores unless they are accessible and engaging. I don't intend to read the book (I figure I have about ten years of reading left, God willing, so I choose carefully these days!) but a review by New Testament scholar Greg Carey in Christian Century (September 30, 2013) outlines some of the "misleading information" and "outworn misconceptions" in Zealot.  (I can't give a link because you have to subscribe to read the review.)

The wife of the man who asked me about Zealot later told me that she also had read it. She made one comment: "It diminishes Jesus."

That's it exactly. That is the point that needs to be made about Zealot to all who really seek to learn, understand, and follow the man who is called "my Lord and my God" by Christians (as the disciple Thomas does in John 20:28).

Of course anyone is free to write anything they want about Jesus. Christianity does not issue fatwas against, let alone decapitate, people who diminish or dismiss our Master and Redeemer.  But it seems to me that it is part of our Christian duty to stand up and explain why these books which purport to tell us about the "real" Jesus are bogus.

Let's say it again: we have no access to the "historical Jesus." Such reconstructions are guesswork, shaded by the personal biases of the writers. We know nothing whatever of the historical Jesus--though it can safely be assumed that he did indeed live "under Pontius Pilate" and was crucified. The four Gospels are not history. They are testimonies to the Messiah of Israel and Son of God. These are claims that can be made only by faith. The various writers of the New Testament are testifying "by faith, for faith."  That's why reading "the Bible as history" or "the Bible as literature" is doomed to failure (although I will admit that The Great Code, by the distinguished literary critic Northrup Frye, comes close to success...but then Frye was a believer of sorts). The Bible is not a scholar's book;  it is the church's book, by which the church lives.

I am at a loss as to how to counter the enthusiasm for Jesus-diminishing books. Luke Timothy Johnson's The Real Jesus (1996) is still an excellent takedown of the historical Jesus movement by a New Testament scholar writing for a popular audience. For those interested in undertaking a more rigorous scholarly approach, there is How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? (2005) by Larry Hurtado, another New Testament professor, who writes from a more historical perspective, but with theological convictions.

The way to meet the real Jesus has always been the same: listen to someone who knows him. Read the sermons of the great preachers who knew him (I have all of Spurgeon in my laptop). I sent a copy of Theodore Parker Ferris' sermons, What Jesus Did, to the man who asked me about Zealot.

Will Willimon, the celebrated preacher of our day, wrote somewhere that the Jesus-diminishers all have one underlying assumption: Jesus is dead. That's the difference, right there. The "real Jesus" is not a figure of the past to be studied like other historical persons. He is the Saviour who through the Spirit is alive in our present, and he is the reigning Lord of the future of the created order.


As a postscript I am adding this little piece on the same subject, both astute and delightful, by The Rev. Adam Linton of the Church of the Holy Spirit (Episcopal) on Cape Cod (Orleans):


“Of making many books there is no end.” 

So we read in Ecclesiastes (12:12).  However, being a bibliophile, I appropriate these words rather differently than in the cautionary spirit that the writer intended! On the other hand, given what often gets published these days, I can see the original point.

This is especially the case with books having to do with the New Testament.  Many of the more popular writers on the topic are significantly less helpful than they are marketed to be—in particular those writers that I might characterize as popularizing skeptics.  Much dated scholarship presented as the latest thing; many questionable theories presented, simply, as up-to-date facts.  As I see it, authors in this class are frequently only a couple of notches higher than what we read in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.   While no writers can claim perfect objectivity, these are highlyagenda-laden.  I believe that what they offer is often seriously misleading.  And it’s not simply that I disagree with these writers’ conclusions (although I do).  Just that—in my estimation—they are the kind of authors (especially when read too exclusively) who tend to leave their readers thinking that they know much more than they actually do.  I find that a serious problem.

The difficult truth is that we can go in for this kind of stuff precisely because it appeals to the part in us that does not want to be drawn closer to Christ.  This is the unhealthy secret, I believe, often at the heart of these writings. The “know-it-all, heard-it-all” de-bunking attitude of superiority functions spiritually as a distancing mechanism.  All too effectively.  But no faith tradition can be “used”—or better, enacted—in the lives of its practitioners from a place of sophisticated cynicism. 

I sometimes feel—to use an illustration—it’s as though folks get caught in between the Sugar Smacks and the Honey Nut Cheerios, in the “breakfast” aisle at the grocery store—and hope that it’s not too paternalistic to say that it reminds me of the classic shopping trip scene of parents trying to get their pleading children past the brightly packaged—and very well marketed—junk food.

There’s another direction, entirely, to which I might be inclined to indicate:  Perhaps something more along the lines of Old Fashioned Rolled Oats.  I’d rather lead people to better basic ingredients so they can do their own work of preparing meals that actually nourish. 


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Latest Tips From the Times

Ebola and the churches
Saturday, October 18, 2014

There are many perspectives from which Christians may and should view the terrible Ebola virus. As is well known, much of Africa's population, including the countries most affected, is strongly Christian. A recent article by the highly respected journalist and writer Helene Cooper, a native-born Liberian, tears at the heart of the reader as it describes what the disease has done to church life in her native country. She describes how West Africans have had to stop showing physical affection in their church meetings. This tells us so much about the character of African Christians which have meant so much to American visitors.

Here is a short capsule of Helene's background and accomplishments:

and here is her heart-wrenching story, which everyone should read in order to understand something of the depth of human connectedness in sub-Saharan African communities, and Christian communities in particular:

A search of Helene Cooper's recent articles on Ebola in West Africa feature not only her literary skills but also the way that she is able to make us see how this virus is shredding a rich human fabric, but also what a threat to the fragile peace of African democracies it may become.

A second article, which also appeared on the Times front page with a photo, tells the story of a heroic American doctor (among those many heroic medical workers) who has gone to Liberia to help. Read his story here, but don't fail to read to the end, where the most powerful detail about African Christianity is related. 

Then yesterday, the cover of the Times showed a photo of a man dressed in a haz-mat costume complete with moon-suit, mask and goggles, standing in front of a Washington government building and holding up a sign, "Stop the Flights!" He is a tourist attraction. People are taking his picture. Next to him stands a perky young woman with a beaming smile, cocking her head and flashing a V-sign while her friend snaps the photo. Thus the misery and isolation of suffering West Africa becomes an object of another sort of isolationism, the American sort. There is also an undeniable tinge of racism involved. Thousands of black African lives pass out of sight while the very low risk of Ebola in America is causing a panicky response.

The American churches should be doing something about this, but judging from my visits to various churches these past weeks, not much. It's been very disappointing to note the perfunctory nature of the prayers for West Africa, if indeed it is mentioned at all. Listing "victims of Ebola" in a long, undifferentiated prayer list is not enough. Prayers need to be more detailed, more heartfelt. We need to ask for God's specific intervention--more volunteers, more contributions, more awareness of the suffering, more strength for the African churches, more hope for the survivors, more comfort for bewildered children. News articles like the two cited above can inform our preaching and our appeals to our congregations.


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