Brian McLaren’s new book, The Secret Message of Jesus, seems somehow to have escaped the sort of reviews that his other more recent books have — Generous Orthodoxy and The Last Word and the Word After That. I’d like to record a few observations over the next few days about this newest book from McLaren. What do you think of his use of the word ‘secret’?
We’ll look at each section (there are three of them). McLaren’s ideas have been hugely controversial for some and incredibly helpful to others, and because of the sort of comments he has generated, I may have to exercise some editing and deleting if comments get too far off the topic of my posts or if they comments get too personal. I just breezed through some reviews at amazon.com and I’m embarrassed at how some professed followers of Jesus talk about other people. I’ll leave it at that.
Brian says he’s been on a quest for years to understand Jesus’ message, and this book is a record of how he sees what Jesus was all about. And he thinks there is a secret about Jesus that many simply don’t get. “What if,” he asks, “Jesus of Nazareth was right — more right, and right in different ways, than we have ever realized?” (3). “What if the religion generally associated with Jesus neither expects nor trains its adherents to actually live in the way of Jesus?” (3).
This is, so it seems to me, the leitmotif of the whole book, but asked in a question (which he essentially answers in a positive way): “What if Jesus’ secret message reveals a secret plan? What if he didn’t come to start a new religion — but rather came to start a political, social, religious, artistic, economic, intellectual, and spiritual revolution that would give birth to a new world?” (4).
McLaren thinks Jesus’ political message has been neglected, and he suggests that if Jesus were to appear today news about him would appear in the world news section of the newspaper and not in the religious section. Situated among the parties of Judaism at the time of Jesus (and he gets the general picture right), Jesus’ summons of people to enter into the kingdom had to be understood with some kind of political force. McLaren ups the ante: “this man is not just another revolutionary, he is calling for a revolutionary new sort of revolution” (16).
In chp. 3 McLaren focuses on the Jewishness of Jesus and he is stoked by the prophets: his concern with the poor, the inward sincerity of the heart, of a coming judgment on injustice, and that a new world order was possible and coming. Here we confront the scandal of Jesus: he thought the kingdom of God was at hand. (Incidentally, this is a constant theme in Jesus scholarship: the distinctive note for Jesus about kingdom was that it was in some sense already here.)
Chp. 4 traces how this theme, the onset of the kingdom, brings to a climax the story of Israel. After tracing a few themes, and done well, McLaren draws this conclusion about Jesus: “These are the primal, disruptive, inspiring, terrifying, shocking, hopeful words and ways of a revolutionary who seeks to overthrow the status quo in nearly every conceivable way” (31).
McLaren asks at the end of chp. 4 why he hadn’t seen this before, and he suggests this: “Is it possible that Jesus was intentionally keeping his message of the kingdom a secret so that it wasn’t obvious, wasn’t easy to grasp, wasn’t like a simple mathematical formula that can quickly be learned and repeated? 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 define kingdom, which morphs here into eternal life (in John’s Gospel), McLaren (in chp. 5) offers this: “an extraordinary life to the full centered in a relationship with God” (37). He sees this definition as an aspect. And to enter into this life one must be born again, which gets close to the word repent for McLaren.
Here is his secret emphasized, and it serves as well for a dimension of how Brian himself works: “In conversation after conversation, then, Jesus resists being clear or direct. There’s hardly ever a question that he simply answers; instead, his answer comes in the form of a question, or it turns into a story, or it is full of metaphors that invite more questions. What’s going on?” (39).