Sunday, March 11, 2007

Review: The Secret Message of Jesus

The Secret Message of Jesus
Cross-posted at The Agora

In light of the recent “Quiet Revolution of Hope” conversations, I thought now might be a good time to look at McLaren’s latest book. I know (I’m thinking it too!): not another review? But nevertheless, I will plough on and hope that the following will turn out be of some use to you, and if not, you can always discard it.

Some preamble is probably necessary. Firstly, this is NOT a review of the “emerging church” movement/conversation. Nor is this a review of Brian McLaren’s other books; in any case, this is the first McLaren book I have read. Obvious points, I know, but in light of the occasional silly comments that come up whenever McLaren's name is mentioned, they do need to be made.

My exposure to Brian McLaren
My first exposure to McLaren was during my A-Level days, when I was googling around on Christians and postmodernity, and stumbled across an article by him at Next-Wave. I had never heard of either him or the emerging church then. I later read a review of “The Church on the Other Side” in Kairos Magazine by Ps. Sivin, but it didn’t register then that both Brian McLarens were one and the same! Since then, I have had the opportunity to read various articles by him, as well as his contribution to The Church in Emerging Culture. When I heard that he was coming out with a book about the kingdom of God, I thought this was the ideal book to pick up to see what the fuss was all about.

Because of all the (unfortunate) heat that McLaren has generated in recent years, I will be as careful and thorough in my reading of him as I can. As a fellow Christian and English major, I’m sure he will join with me in affirming authorial intention and genre. :)

Who is McLaren trying to reach? In his introduction, it’s very clear that he’s after those who are dissatisfied with a “formulaic religious approach” (eg. those preoccupied with programmes) or a “materialistic secular approach” (p. xiii) - those who feel that there is something more out there, ‘Christian’ or not. After all, why the surge of interest in the Da Vinci Code or the Gnostic Gospels? Could it be, McLaren challenges us, that the problem does not lie with the gospel accounts themselves but “with our success at domesticating them”? (p. xiii) In short, he wants to make plain again the truly radical, robust, visionary, transformative message contained in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It’s not that he has it “all figured out…but I can tell you I’m confident I’m onto something.” (p.xiv). That's why he's writing.

He then envisages 3 types of people who might be reading his work. The first is those who might not have heard of him before, but who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious, interested in Jesus but not Christianity”. Secondly, he imagines those who are already familiar with some of his work and want to continue along the journey they've started. Thirdly, he conceives that some of his critics might pick up the book. His words to them are particularly important. McLaren tells us that there would be some aspects of Jesus’ life and message he would not be emphasising, as he wanted to keep his work short so as not to scare people away. This does not mean he is minimising them (p.229) After all, he feels, there are plenty of other books out there on such issues already! Moreover, he is writing for a biblically and theologically illiterate audience, so precise theological formulations are not of utmost concern to him. Instead, what he hopes is that the book “might provoke thoughtful debate, pose fresh questions and shed a little new light, but more than that, stir our hearts, fire our emotions, and fuel our imaginations.” (p.229).

I spent a lot of time on clarifying McLaren’s aims and intended audience because I feel that once we get that right, the style and delivery of his book makes much more sense. And I am quite happy to say from the outset that I think he succeeds quite brilliantly. His conversational style and clear communicative abilities come to the fore here and I have no doubt this will compel his target audience to keep reading.

The meat of the book
In Part 1 of the book – Excavation – he helps us place Jesus in his original setting. For me this was the best part of the book. He painted vivid pictures and was able to transport me back to 1st century Israel, helping me imagine what it would have been like to be there and the full implications of what Jesus was saying. I appreciated the brief way he quickly tied the Old Testament story to the coming of Jesus (eg. pp. 19-22, 25-28) in a very accessible manner.

In Part 2 – Engagement – McLaren wants to look at the message itself, starting by examining the medium of the message. He explains Jesus’ use of parables, and their capability to invite people to "ask questions" and "depend on the teacher himself", as well as their transformative power. (pp. 45-46) For those who might question, as I initially did, whether he neglected to mention that Jesus’ parables were also meant to separate insiders from outsiders, don’t be too quick to write McLaren off! He does, after all mention on p.47 that parables exclude those who don’t want to be transformed and he deals with the question of inclusiveness on chapter 18 (he flags this up on p.48). This principle of suspending your judgement, I feel, holds true for the entire book, because I often found myself asking a particular question in response to a point McLaren makes only for him to deal with it a couple of pages or chapters later.

He then has a chapter on signs and wonders as pointers to Jesus as God (p.58ff). In the following chapters he talks about being agents for the kingdom of God, despite its weakness, and some might feel that he is veering close to the social gospel in the language he employs.. Again, reserve your judgement! Chapter 12-13 will assuage your fears. (The own goal story was brilliant!) On occasion, I did wish he phrased things slightly differently, but I did understand that on one level, it was good to be jarred out of my complacency by the freshness of his expression. In between, there was a short but much appreciated chapter on correcting the misconception that Jesus and Paul had two different messages.

Part 3 – Imagination – wasn’t quite as strong as the rest of the book, I felt, as he explored the more practical ways of what it means to be part of the “kingdom of God”. There is some good discussion here, such as chapter 18, which I alluded to earlier, on the "borders of the kingdom" and a level-headed chapter on the last things.

I do have some criticisms, and I state them now while bearing in mind his earlier caveats about not being able to say or emphasise everything, and also in remembering who he’s writing for. My criticisms are all inter-related in some way. The first is very minor and is probably covered by his disclaimers. I thought that he could have devoted a teensy more space to the fact that one aspect of Jesus’ message is cautionary, i.e. Jesus does come to warn people of future judgement, for example, in Luke 13:1-5 and Matthew 25:31-32. So in a sense, the gospel is concerned with the afterlife, with what happens after you die. Now you can see that I’m wearing my conservative evangelical spectacles here, and I must be fair to McLaren: on p.163 he gives us an example of Jesus warning people of the possibility of missing the kingdom, and on p.173 he alludes to Jesus’ prophetic office in frequently giving warnings, not so much to tell the future but to “change the future”. Moreover, implicitly, one of his target audiences are those who have grown up with a truncated “go to heaven after you die” gospel, who would already be familiar with this notion. So I fully accept I’m nit-picking here. I guess I’m just concerned that, having grown up hearing Christian talks which were more concerned about “finding my significance” and God being my buddy rather than God as majestic King and with the beauty of his holiness (eg. Isaiah 6, Revelation 4), I wanted an (over-?) correction. I just thought it would be great, with his talents, if he could make a parable such as the Parable of the Vineyard (Mark 12) come to life in making this point.

Secondly, and this is related to the above point, I don’t think he elaborated enough on why we might not want to be in the kingdom. The picture he paints is so attractive that we might ask, why is it that not everybody is rushing to this kingdom? (Our sin, in case you were wondering). Again, to be fair to McLaren, I believe he will say he covered it more than adequately in chapters 12-13, where he talks about the great reconciling work of God and the need for repentance ("thinking about your thinking" is one way he phrased it). But while he covers the horizontal relationships well (our relationships with one another), I don’t think he adequately explained why we need to be reconciled with God in the first place (the vertical relationship, which makes the new horizontal relationships possible). Here a similar work that I thought did this better comes to mind. Most of you are probably not familiar with Charlie Peacock’s New Way to Be Human, but he covers much of the same ground as McLaren in a similarly attractive writing style (Peacock is a musician) and he has a chapter called “East of Eden” that, I think, explains sin as a general barrier to the kingdom of God better. (Yes, yes, I can see you all rolling your eyes at how fussy BK is! :=p )

Finally, in his Appendix 1, he asks the question “Why didn’t we get it sooner?” I believe this appendix is a good indication of why McLaren sometimes vexes some evangelicals so. Here, he muses on why we might have lost our true vision of the radicalism of Jesus’ message – such as overly esoteric debates on theological issues, the influence of Greek philosophy etc. Without doubt some of his judgments are right, but is he broad-brushing a little too much? I think some evangelicals might feel unfairly judged, having been in churches where the concerns are not just other-worldly but this-worldly, and they might feel as if McLaren ignores large swathes of church history where Christianity has often been a driving force for social change. I can see one or two thinking: "It would be nice if he said something good about us for a change!" Of course, it’s unlikely McLaren had such people in mind, but it does make those as I’ve described above feel naturally defensive.

On the whole, I enjoyed the book, and I think he has done well in providing a primer on the kingdom of God and sparking off fresh thoughts. I think I am comfortable with lending this to most of my friends.

The unimportant stuff post-review
Looking for a similar book? I enthusiastically recommend New Way to Be Human, mentioned in the review. It doesn't suffer from the weaknesses of McLaren's book.

Keen to find out more about the kingdom of God in the whole Bible after reading McLaren? God's Big Picture by Vaughan Roberts will set you on your way.

Think my review is ridiculously long? Here are some alternatives: Craig Carter and Alwyn Lau

My edition is published by W Publishing group and the page nos. correspond to them.


UPDATE (10/10/07): I have to confess that with hindsight, I think my review was overly apologetic and I think my nitpicking is warranted, although I still think overall it's not a bad book. As I've noticed that this post gets hit upon from time to time, I want to point people to Greg Gilbert's superb treatment of the way Brian McLaren understands the gospel.
† Expand post

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