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The Secret Message of Jesus Review - Part IV

Strong Points

It’s always easier, when inclined, to criticize, than it is to praise. No one is unbiased, so offering a balance of criticism and praise always makes one of these an effort. I haven’t had any trouble calling into question some of the ideas in The Secret Message of Jesus. But, there were also things I appreciated about McLaren’s book. So, here are some notes on things I liked about The Secret Message of Jesus.

I must echo sentiments I’ve already made: from a marketing standpoint, McLaren understands his intended audience, the spiritual but not religious. The title will at least give the book facetime with them. Moreover, it’s not simply a good title, it actually corresponds to some of McLaren’s central ideas in this book.

And, while I disagree with some of the conclusions, implications, and applications McLaren makes about the Jesus’ message, I appreciated his new, fresh method for understanding Jesus’ intentional interaction with individuals: to tell stories and develop conversations that require his hearers to humbly invest and engage with his ideas. My girlfriend tells me about her students who are able to decode words and read books and stories acceptably well, but they fail to grasp the meaning of any of what they’ve read. They are reading the words but missing the meaning. Jesus seeks to have us hear the words and grasp the meaning. He uses parables, stories, to require that of us. I think McLaren not only gave us a fresh way to understand Jesus’ modus operandi, but also gave us insight as to the reason for Jesus’ indirect way. For me, it spawned new ideas as to how I might do the same with his message. I thought McLaren’s insights here were profound and exciting.

McLaren’s brief summaries of the views of the various Jewish factions are helpful for individuals reading the Gospels. The descriptions of the Essenes, Herodians, Pharisee, and Zealots sound much like the competing factions within Christianity today. Although I won’t attempt a one-to-one correlation. Without these definitions, it’s easy to simply lump all the groups together without distinction. More definitions throughout the book would’ve made this book stronger.

Using these definitions, McLaren does a good job at showing how intriguing Jesus is by distinguishing him from these various religious philosophies. He helps us, as was his intent, to begin to appreciate how unique and revolutionary (a word used too loosely) Jesus was.

Later, McLaren did a good job contrasting the roles of Jewish prophets and priests. I especially liked how he illustrated the function of the prophets to bring life and heart to the regulations and habits that the priests implements. Both are necessary and this dialectic review brings new light to their roles and God’s intentions for me personally. I think this also provides a good, balanced view of the proper role of today’s Christian leaders: to both instruct the people toward holy living and to shake them out of habitual and heartless religion.

I also appreciated the way McLaren used this understanding to describe Jesus by comparing him with this understanding of Jewish prophets.

In chapter 5, McLaren tries to help us with a more in-depth definition of John the Apostle’s use of two terms: eternal life and born again. I appreciate his work here. I think he does a commendable job of clarifying and creating a better understanding of these terms. All would do well to allow these definitions to impact their theology in our pleasure-driven culture and our Christian pop-psych subculture.

Chapter 7, “The Demonstration of the Message,” opens with a good story of Jesus being interviewed by a chain-smoking reporter. The details of the story, Jesus’ subtle humor, and McLaren’s points are enjoyably interacted with. It helps prove his point regarding Jesus’ story-telling method for the Good News. (However, later in the latter half of chapter 9 and all of chapter 10, the stories seem disjointed and without much connection to the rest of the book. It doesn’t connect chapter 9 with chapter 11.)

In chapter 9, “You Can’t Keep a Secret,” McLaren makes some interesting observations about the Jewish faith of Jesus’ day. He notes that traditionally (and still today) Judaism was not a missionary religion; there was little emphasis on proselytizing (they’ve never come to my door). This, then, made Jesus’ global commissioning very unique and quite unheard of for traditional Jews (like, say, most of the apostles).

In “The Borders of the Kingdom,” he also offers some insightful advice toward a balanced approach to interacting with culture. He warns against falling toward either extreme, against dangers of hostile exclusion and dangers of naïve inclusion. Instead he advocates “purposeful inclusion.” I agree.

Moments of Light

For a single sentence, I hear the voice of the Brian McLaren who wrote A New Kind at the end of this chapter. He writes a sentence that expresses what I’ve already known but not put into words; it is this: “Is it possible that the message of Jesus was less like an advertising slogan—obvious and loud—and more like a poem whose meaning only comes subtly and quietly to those who read slowly, think long and deeply, and refuse to give up?” (34) To that I want to shout, “Yes!” because that is how I have experienced Jesus’ message of redemption: slowly and over time, like a poem. After this, I thought, I hope he has more sentences like this to come. But, they were few are far between.

There is one good paragraph (first full paragraph, page 7), which is succinct and strong and puts the beliefs about Christian ideas about the world in clear relation to thoughts about reality and philosophy. He manages to put many people’s thoughts (or at least mine) into words here. I would quote it but that may breach copyrights. Guess you’ll have to look it up the next time you’re at Barnes & Noble.

McLaren’s literary skill finally shows up again in chapter 21 when he talks about birds, connecting it with faith. However, he quickly reverts to quoting large passages from other writers like Fred Buechner. McLaren does this in three or four chapters in the book.


Overall, the early chapters of The Secret Message of Jesus are the best, especially the cultural analysis. The analysis he met my expectations, which I mentioned in Part I. Overtime however, the thoughts and concepts become more vague and the book loses momentum. I’ve evaluated in Part II some of the ideas as I understood them and the reasons for the book’s deceleration in Part III.

Other Voices

Of course, there are many who disagree with me, and you deserve the perspective of those who are more gung ho for McLaren and Emergent. Here are some other blogs and reviews of The Secret Message of Jesus.

Adam Ellis, Daddyos, Thinker Labs, MSahlin, Matt Martinson, Matthew James Wilson, J. Phil Wilson, Matt Richie, Homefront, Jordon Cooper, The Next-Wave, Relevant, Blog critics, Theocentric, Desert Pastor, Jesus, The Radical Pastor, Small Voices, Gotta Buzz, Ethics Daily, Emerging Pensees, Nathan Sean, Wade Hodges, The Parish, Jon Knapp, Postmodern Disciple, Thomas Stewart, OneFor Truth.

Part I
Part II
Part III