The Second Eclectic

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The Secret Message of Jesus Review - Part I

Jesus said: “The Kingdom of God has come near!” But what does that mean? His parables centered on what the Kingdom of God is like, so what is it?

In my life, this became a serious question about 2 years ago, prompted by a sermon I’d heard. What is the Kingdom of God? I began to read every instance of this phrase in the Gospels, but I only became more confused. McLaren endeavored to find a conclusion for us in The Secret Message of Jesus. Here’s what I found.

Expectations

Having only read McLaren’s influential A New Kind of Christian, I came to The Secret Message of Jesus with two sources of conflicting influence: that book and others' thoroughly evangelical opinions of his works. With that I jotted down a few expectation I brought to McLaren’s new book.

I haven’t read any of McLaren’s other books because of the 20-dollar price tag. I resent having to pay $20 for a relatively short book that is not a serious scholarly endeavor. Even A New Kind I managed to snag at book convention for free; I wouldn’t likely have read it otherwise. When compared to a more ambitious book like The Elegant Universe, McLaren’s books should be $13, not $20.

A New Kind of Christian was a popular seller for good reason. McLaren put into words, thoughts of dissatisfaction and unease about the current version of Christianity that many people had only vaguely thought or felt. With it, McLaren established a high expectation for himself. Because of it, I expected this book to have similar insight that resonated with felt needs—and to be clear and easily accessible for that reason. Likewise, compelling analysis of the subject at hand seemed a fair expectation, as McLaren did with ideas about the influence of our modern worldview upon us. I expected the book to follow a postmodern pattern of thought to some degree: to use postmodern methods to communicate postmodern ideas.

If you have these expectations like I did, I would not recommend this book. It does not resonate with any real felt needs. However, it does seek to consider an important topic, which I have thought some about: the “Kingdom of God.” There are few “Aha” moments, where insight and knowledge dawn upon the reader. However, it does kindle an interest in Jesus’ thoughts about the Kingdom, more because McLaren’s own definition is so absent while his emphasis on its importance is so present.

McLaren offers a few good insights about the culture of Jesus’ day in terms of the religious factions and their views. However, each view is, in the end, only given a few (2 or 3) paragraphs for a summary of what they thought (13); we never have a chance to understand the thinking; it feels more like a textbook history lesson. Moreover, we never really begin to grasp what McLaren believes Jesus’ own thinking is in contrast to the other religious big wigs; I never really tracked with the thought progression of the book so that could I anticipate the answers or implications (for reasons I will expound on later).

Intents and Purposes

McLaren is unequivocal: his intended audience is those who describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious” (ix). That said, he made the right choice when it came to the book’s title. The title sounds like something Elaine Pagels would write, something that would capture the attention of The Da Vinci Code circuit. Moreover, the title isn’t simply a good marketing scheme, it ties is with the very essence of the book. The title only makes sense when you consider McLaren’s argument about Jesus’ method for conveying his message. In this case, “secret” does not mean “new” but “hidden” or “subtle,” and McLaren makes a sensible case for Jesus method as one of engagement, intrigue, and provocation.

One theme McLaren carries on from A New Kind is his intent to understand cultural context. In the case of this book, he breaks it into 3 sections. First, he examines the culture of Jesus’ day, its religious overtones, and competing kingdoms of power. Then, he seeks to tease out the meaning Jesus’ message had in that cultural context. Finally, he attempts to translate the meaning into our current culture today. So, basically: immerse, extract, translate.

With A New Kind in mind, this approach is a far cry from McLaren’s postmodern embrace. This is a very formal-like argumentative style. In a footnote from chapter 5, McLaren offers insight about his own vision for The Secret Message of Jesus. He recommends reading A Generous Orthodoxy or Finding Faith for a “more personal or confessional” style or writing (236). Yet, McLaren’s seems to try to retain this type of feel. This synthesis proves to do more harm than good for McLaren’s argument. More later, but suffice it to say, instead of presenting his definitions and assumptions early on like most arguments that use this approach, McLaren opts to try to make this book a journey to a conclusion, and it ultimately undermines his thesis.