The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

The Secret Message of Jesus Review - Part II

Some Specifics

With the ease of publication today, more tenuous and tentative ideas are being espoused and published to a greater readership. In this light, McLaren’s book seems quite assorted and haphazard, a central thesis isn’t established until the final chapter. Accordingly, the quality of McLaren’s ideas seems diminished in some regard. The Secret Message of Jesus simply does not have the wonder and power that A New Kind of Christian did.

In contrast, a writer like CS Lewis (although, who really wants to be compared with him?) is very careful to make his points and support them and guide the reader through his thinking. McLaren on the other hand throws out various ideas for the reader to sample and consume at will. The level of care McLaren (or any author) has for his most tentative idea is the level of seriousness his readers can have in considering his most important point. The most tentative idea is the lowest common denominator.

On Politics

In chapter 2, “The Political Message of Jesus,” McLaren begins to lay out the first aspect of Jesus’ cultural context: that of power and government. At least, I guess that’s what he means. To be honest, I’m not sure. An ongoing frustration throughout the book is McLaren’s failure (or unwillingness) to define his terms. Maybe I’m too modern, but I can’t really evaluate or even comprehend McLaren’s meaning without knowing the meanings of the words he uses.

I think he chose the word political for shock and interest value, but it undermines his own argument because it is an emotionally charged word that certainly obscures the actual meaning of the word. Furthermore, the scope and definition of politics is not settled matter for philosophy; I think a better term would have been social: The Social Message of Jesus. This argument is supported by the first sentence of the next chapter. (19)

On Community

In Chapter 8, “The Scandal of the Message,” McLaren offers some compelling ideas about the weakness of the Kingdom of God up against powerful organizations of government and religion. He discusses how Rome is characterized as weak in the Gospels in contrast to Jesus, who seems so confident and assured in Pilate’s presence, so powerful in the Centurion’s need. McLaren thinks out loud using Paul’s paradox, “weak is the new strong.” He reflects on how Jesus’ message is communicated and advanced and proliferated through weak methods of love, compassion, peace, suffering, submission. I thought this is one of the better chapters thus far in the book mainly because of these thoughts.

But he begins the chapter by discussing demonic possession. Not quite where you’d expect him to begin; is this the Paul’s “foolishness” in action?

McLaren allows and even advocates that we “suspend” our disbelief about satanic and demonic possession of the people whom Jesus healed (62). No matter what we believe about them, he says, we’ll arrive at his conclusion. McLaren suggests that instead of thinking of personal demonic possession we think of it as “systemic, transpersonal evil,” that is, cultures or groups or communities of evil—“often expressed in terms ending in -isms, such as Nazism or terrorism or fundamentalism” (64). He uses the demon-possessed individuals whom Jesus healed as metaphors for this broader “group evil.” (64) This approach is completely unnecessary and certainly without support; some may argue that it undermines Jesus’ power, I don’t know. McLaren says the Gospels’ language about evil and demons gives us a way to talk about “motivations and drives” that take us to unwanted places (64).

McLaren seems to have developed this cultural “groupthink” idea to help him support his preexisting ideal of putting the Holy Spirit in a community-centric context. It helps reinforce one of Emergent’s tenets: community. He essentially makes the case for a community filled with the Holy Spirit. (This may be in addition to or instead of a personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit on each individual. McLaren doesn’t specify.)

This is a provocative, novel idea, but when we consider the context of this chapter’s topic “The Scandal of the Message,” there is an utter disconnect. Except to the extent that McLaren contrasts the groups of government and religious institutions with “Holy Spirit groups,” there is no logical reason for McLaren to touch upon this subject of “systemic transpersonal evil.” Nor does he offer any clear responsive solutions to that sort of evil, except to seemingly suggest forming new groups around the Holy Spirit. Yet, isn’t that the vision for the church already?

Still, the latter half of the chapter is provocative and good. He astutely writes that any organization can become its own power and kingdom. It pursues its own goal and will remove God when it becomes necessary for it’s own survival. This is very true and worth considering. He mentions Christian logicians who build up powerful arguments for Christian ideas. That’s fine, but the fact is he is building a power of his own by creating a cool set of ideas about a new kind of Christianity based on a whole different set of paradigms. He’s building a kingdom of his own with his good writing and generous orthodoxy and network of likeminded people (or if it’s unintentional, then it will inevitably become that, as all successful movements eventually do). It’s a never-ending cycle of kingdom building you can’t avoid.

In keeping with Emergent’s laudable vision for greater community, McLaren suggests another new idea in chapter 20, “The Harvest of the Kingdom.” Just as he envisioned evil spirits possessing ideologies and groups of individuals to juxtapose a more communal Holy Spirit idea, he states without much, if any, support that we will be judged not only as individuals but also as groups. This seems unfounded and without Biblical support; it’s speculative at best. If such is the case, and McLaren has some insight, he should make his point; if not, why bring it up? This hearkens back to what I said at the beginning of this section: with the ease of publishing today, more tentative ideas are being brought to the masses. Authors should recognize this massive influence and respect its accompanying responsibility. Here, McLaren seems to fail at that.

On Peace

In Chapter 17, “The Peaceable Kingdom,” McLaren fulfills an Emergent stereotype: promoting peace. This chapter comes wrought with what appears to be McLaren’s personal, politcal agenda. McLaren is certainly, and admirably so, a peace advocate. Perhaps it began with the hippies, but the “peace movement,” which advocates a complete cessation of violence and the search for new methods of resolution, is hot right now. However, I don’t think that view is feasible in any sense. McLaren envisions a future void of war. “Someday,” McLaren writes, “by the grace of God, perhaps war will go the way of slavery and colonialism” (160).

This reality seems impossible considering that only 250 or so of 5000 years of recorded history have been without war. Of course, “with God, all things are possible,” however I think this hope is unfounded in the reality of a fallen world. I think this hope denies basic truths about the human condition. It is an utopianism without grounding. Not until God comes in power can we expect such things; until then, it is noble to promote peace, but it is irresponsible to expect it.

Further what of passages like these, when Jesus says, “Do not suppose I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34); “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33); “From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other” (Luke 12:53); and “There will be wars and rumors of wars” (Matt 24:6; Mark 13:7). McLaren fails to account for passages like these.

On the End of the Age

In Chapter 19, “The Future of the Kingdom,” McLaren offers his vague view of the Revelation and Matthew 24. I am not knowledgeable about Eschatology (“end times theology”) and would like to see a summary and critique of McLaren’s view by someone who is.

As far as I can tell, McLaren takes a fully metaphorical view of Revelation with little or no one-to-one correlation with any historical event, past or future. He thinks of Revelation as a book that describes the ongoing (present) situation that the Kingdom of God faces according to McLaren. [1* note]

He believes Jesus’ “end times” talk in Matthew 24 was in code for his present-day political realities. He says this is how apocalyptic literature (like Revelation) and literature of the oppressed worked. However, we must first accept that Jesus was in fact using this type of figurative speech at all and that he intended to be subversive under the Roman Empire. I do not believe that Jesus much cared about who was/n’t is power in government. His concerns were wholly elsewhere. We must evaluate McLaren’s assumptions before we can even entertain his speculations. The assumptions seem weakly grounded and the speculations aren’t really verifiable. Altogether his argument falls apart. [2* note]

Among his endnotes, he mentions Craig Hill, Walter Brueggemann, Jay Gary (www.presence.tv), Andrew Perriman, and Scot McKnight. These guys may shed some light on McLaren’s end of the ages views.

Essentially, McLaren is laying some broad foundational arguments for his interpretive grid that will serve to support some specific conclusions, but he never actually draws those conclusions, including peace and utopia (11). I think (though he never says this) that McLaren believes , perhaps reluctantly, that we will bring the Kingdom fully by our good works here on Earth (but I am speculating and could very well be wrong). This view is not a new one, but rather an old debate that he seems to want to refashion and reintroduce. But it is simply clothed in new words, it’s not new or different, as far as I can tell. But, again, my perspective is very limited. That’s why I would like to see a more well-versed “end times” theologian interact with McLaren’s vague thoughts.

McLaren leaves one gaping hole, one big question unanswered. He writes, “The secret message of Jesus isn’t primarily about 'heaven after you die'" (183). I would agree with this on some level. However, the question McLaren’s theology is obligated to answer is, “What is heaven-after-you-die for?” “What importance is the life-after-death?” He never gives us any sort of hint as to his views on what Heaven’s purpose is in his Kingdom theology. It would be helpful for those steeped in the “escapist mentality” [3* note].

By arguing for a high degree of continuity between our current world status and the future Kingdom’s arrival—brought “more fully” by our good works [4* note], and concluding in a utopian state of peace—McLaren seems to think he is able to make a stronger argument for his environmental concerns and good-works aspirations.

While I see some continuity between the Earth and the “New Earth” of Revelation 21-22, I do not think McLaren’s view is necessary to further validate and promote his personal values.

Notes:

1* McLaren contrasts his view with one that takes Revelation completely literally where, for example, the moon actually becomes blood. No one, not even fundamentalists, take this literally. It is irresponsible to imply that anyone does.

2* McLaren makes mention of Nero’s genocide of Christians in 67-70 and argues that Jesus was speaking of that event in Matthew 24. I think this is a view held by certain end-times positions.

McLaren implies as much in chapter 19, that Jesus may have been talking about the political revolution that occured in AD 67-70 (179-180). But later, in chapter 20, he states it as a settled fact (186). This is grossly glossed over. His argument was weak and speculative, and he does not really make his case. It was a passing comment. Of 12 pages on eschatology, he spent 3 paragraphs making this argument (179-180) and then states it as proven in the following chapter (186).

3* - McLaren rightly opposes what I call the “escapist view” of life and the end times, of salvation and the heaven. That is, Christians think of death as an escape hatch to the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of God as this other-worldly refuge from this terrible, bad, sinful world. Many (if not most) Christians hold an escapist view, wherein they will escape Earth, pain, and suffering. This leads to a complete disconnect from the culture and individuals and a sort of accompanying carelessness for God’s creation and good works. While Paul surely says, “To live is Christ, to die is gain,” there is no place for a lack of compassion and care for the Earth as its stewards and for individuals as our neighbors. To treat the earth with such hostility or simply carelessness is to shirk our responsibility and fail in God’s call for us. Most Christians don’t recognize this and thus fail at it.

The argument for ecological sensitivity can be made from the simple truth that God gave us dominion over the Earth, not as its lords but as its tenants, as servants and protectors. This is a truth founded in the creation (myth) of Genesis. As for “good works,” passages like Ephesians 2:8-10 and Philippians 2:12-13 and James 2 provide adequate support for such things. If followers of Jesus are unwilling to do good works in faithful obedience to Scripture, no man-made, logical argument will provide the motivation.

4* - McLaren writes that “the Pharisees believed that there would someday be a resurrection in which the righteous would rise from their graves to enjoy the world-made-new under God’s Messiah. Unfortunately, this world-made-new was being kept at bay by the sinfulness of their contemporaries.” (187). This description seems to perfectly describe McLaren’s own perspective as I understand it, and it certainly seems to be the same view N.T. Wright—whom McLaren later references—has from what I read here.

For example, in “The Future of the Kingdom,” McLaren discusses the “end times” that will bring the whole Kingdom. He has utopian dreams where “war will go the way of slavery and colonialism” (160). He says this cessation would hasten the arrival of the Kingdom. Is it a here-and-now Kingdom? That’s likely his view, but he never says.
In view of our responsibility to work for the Kingdom’s coming, he later writes:

“If we trust Jesus, if we follow his way…we will make decisions and choose directions of one sort…It is not an overstatement to say of us and our generation what we could have said of Jesus’ own contemporaries: depending on how we respond to his secret message of the Kingdom of God we will create two very different worlds, two very different futures—one hellish, the other heavenly.” (181)

And what exactly will take us in one direction or the other? What will precipitate the coming of the Kingdom? Well, “if we trust Jesus, if we follow his way,” then it will certainly hasten the Kingdom’s arrival. And what will prevent it? Of course, the individuals who don’t trust and obey Jesus: the sinners. “this world-made-new [is] being kept at bay by the sinfulness of [our] contemporaries”(187). But McLaren turns it around and says the sinners are the Fundamentalists, the Pharisees of our day, and not the “sinners” who are the poor and weak. Yet, he holds the same view as the Pharisees of Jesus’ day: sinners (that is, the Fundamentalists and the proud) are preventing the Kingdom of God from coming.


Next Up: Evaluating McLaren’s Approach to Communicating Jesus' Message.