So far I am very much enjoying Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy. “Chapter Zero” was playful and self-effacing, if a bit defensive (though no more than is warranted, given the bitter condemnation he has received in some quarters). Chapter One has been far better still. Part spiritual autobiography, part summary of the various ways Jesus has been understood in different strands of Christianity–from conservative to liberal Protestant, Pentecostal to Catholic and Orthodox, pacifist and liberation–it is conversational, appreciative, even if occasionally critical, and above all ecumenical.
What I think this chapter shows more than anything is that McLaren’s idea of “a new kind of Christianity” is not about rejecting the past, but about learning from the full richness and diversity of the Christian tradition without being a slave to any one interpretation of what Christianity must be. Even if I may disagree with McLaren on specific points–and there haven’t been many of those yet–that is an approach that I very much appreciate.
Probably what I enjoyed most in this chapter, however, was his summary of a parable first told by Athanasius of Alexandria, a 4th Century Church Father who strongly defended the full divinity of Jesus in a book On the Incarnation of the Word. I assume this parable comes from that work, but McLaren does not cite the source (it might be Section 9.3-10.1 here, but if so McLaren has pretty freely expanded upon it; if anyone knows the actual source, please let me know in the comments). McLaren adapts and expands the parable as follows:
Once upon a time there was a good and kind king who had a great kingdom with many cities. In one distant city, some people took advantage of the freedom the king gave them and started doing evil. They profited by their evil and began to fear that the king would interfere and throw them in jail. Eventually these rebels seethed with hatred for the king. They convinced the city that everyone would be better off without the king, and the city declared their independence from the kingdom.
But soon, with everyone doing whatever they wanted, disorder reigned in the city. There was violence, hatred, lying, oppression, murder, rape, slavery, and fear. The king thought: What should I do? If I take my army and conquer the city by force, the people will fight against me, and I’ll have to kill so many of them, and the rest will only submit through fear and intimidation, which will make them hate me and all I stand for even more. How does that help them–to be either dead or imprisoned or secretly seething with rage? But if I leave them alone, they’ll destroy each other, and it breaks my heart to think of the pain they’re causing and experiencing.1
So the king did something very surprising. He took off his robes and dressed in the rags of a homeless wanderer. Incognito, he entered the city and began living in a vacant lot near a garbage dump. He took up a trade–fixing broken pottery and furniture. Whenever people came to him, his kindness and goodness and fairness and respect were so striking that they would linger just to be in his presence. They would tell him their fears and questions, and ask his advice. He told them that the rebels had fooled them, and that the true king had a better way to live, which he exemplified and taught. One by one, then two by two, and then by the hundreds, people began to have confidence in him and live in his way.
Their influence spread to others, and the movement grew and grew until the whole city regretted its rebellion and wanted to return to the kingdom again. But, ashamed of their horrible mistake, they were afraid to approach the king, believing he would certainly destroy them for their rebellion. But the king-in-disguise told them the good news: he was himself the king, and he loved them. He held nothing against them, and he welcomed them back into his kingdom, having accomplished by a gentle, subtle presence what never could have been accomplished through brute force. (pgs 64-65)
I love this parable for a variety of reasons. I think it captures a major purpose of the incarnation very well indeed, and fits John’s portrayal of Jesus especially well. It indicates why God cannot be constantly intervening to prevent evil, and reflects well on God’s compassion and generosity. It stresses human freedom and gets at the true depth of the self-sacrifice of God.
Still, I can’t help thinking the ending is a bit rushed. No matter how wise and likable the king-in-disguise was, I doubt he would ever win the allegiance of the whole city, and the moment he did announce his true identity, I suspect that most of his supporters would quickly turn against him. Few would believe him at all, while most would dismiss him as deluded or even dangerous. The powers that be might have him shut away or even killed if he seemed a real threat to their position.
So, maybe not such a bad analogy after all…
1 I’m pretty sure this explanation at least is McLaren’s. Such deliberation doesn’t sound to me like the sort of thing Athanasius would attribute to God, but I could be mistaken.