Here are some of my own responses to Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change.
Before anything else this must be said: what Brian is doing in this book is examining a question evangelicalism simply hasn’t considered for nearly a century. Here’s the question: What is the gospel? More particularly for this book: What is the gospel Jesus preached? Now I have worked on this issue myself, in both Embracing Grace and now in A Community called Atonement, and what I’m finding is that this book of Brian’s challenges us to rethink this question seriously. I hope more will do that because of this book. Let me put it another way: If Jesus’ gospel is the “kingdom,” what was the problem?
1. This is Brian’s most important book — ever since he wrote A New Kind of Christian we have been waiting for him to “come clean” with a theology of his own vision of Christianity. We got some of it in Generous Orthodoxy and then The Secret Message of Jesus made us wonder where he might be going. This book defines Brian’s journey.
2. This book needs to be seen as a definitive book for emergent and from now on no one can speak responsibly about emergent without knowing this book. As you know, I am keen on using “emerging” for the larger movement and “emergent” for the think tank facilitated by Emergent Village. This book, so it seems to me, while not speaking for anyone but Brian, will be definitive for the emergent dimension of the emerging movement.
3. The salient and most important feature of this book is a potent and searching summons for each of us to examine the “framing stories” we live by. Whether you like this book or not, this feature of the book is for me the highlight and needs to be absorbed. We all live by framing stories — which framing story do we live by? One might even say that Brian’s theology is a theology of framing-stories. His framing story in this book is Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God.
4. The fundamental crises of our time — equity, prosperity, security, and spirituality — are accurate. Some might say these differently; some might prefer other terms; no one I suppose would contest that these are crises of our global situation. Anything that addresses these concerns is worth serious attention.
5. And asking what Jesus would say to these issues is the right question — and again, even if we differ with Brian, this is the way to address the issue. We find such and such as a problem today — how does Jesus’ vision of the kingdom address such a problem?
I have the following questions for this book, and I have been in communication with Brian over this week about this review:
First, I keep coming back to this — and it is leading to my next biblical series on this blog (after Colossians Remixed) — what does Brian mean by “kingdom of God”? I have occasionally said on this blog and in public that in Secret Message Brian defines “kingdom of God” as an interactive relationship with God and with others, and I have said that such a view was not enough. Clearly he uses those words at times to define kingdom, but a more careful reading — which I spent some time this week doing — leads me to what I think is a more nuanced view (on my part) of Brian’s understanding of kingdom: it is an undefinable tensive symbol, or an undefinable word-game that is used by Jesus to suggest a variety of redemptive truths and I think Brian does not ordinarily define “kingdom of God” because he wants to use it in the same evocative way Jesus did.
In this new book he gets closer to a definition by reframing it in more social/society/community terms and he continues to use the expression in an expansive and intentionally intriguing way than a formulaic way. I can live with this, but I’d like to see a section devoted to the Gospels’ evidence where all of this is wrestled with.
Second, I keep asking myself what role the church plays in this revolution of hope. Is the church the kingdom? is the church swallowed up by the kingdom? is the church left behind by the kingdom? is the work of God the kingdom on earth and the church only a small part of that kingdom? I don’t expect anyone to put all of their theology on display all the time — so I can live with his current emphasis on kingdom. But the kingdom/church issue keeps coming back to me.
Third, I have drunk deeply since the 70s from Ron Sider. Sider’s proposals, if you know them, are more concrete — I’d like to see some concrete proposals for how we are to live out this revolution of hope. The big ideas he presents, of course, are primary … and we can work out some implications for ourselves.
Fourth, while I’m no economist, most of what I hear (and not just in this book) about Jesus’ economical vision is either utopian or insufficiently real. Let us assume that we are to work to help the poor, even hoping we can end poverty. The question I think we need to ask, and one that I don’t think Brian asks sufficiently, is what is the best way to resolve the poverty question? A theory of how economies work is inherent to all of this and it deserves very careful sorting out. On this blog, as many of you know, Michael Kruse has offered comments that are stimulating in this regard — again whether we agree with him or not. Now, a further point and this has little to do with Brian or Ron Sider or Michael Kruse. I think many of us have some pretty good ideas about the substance of Jesus’ concerns with the poor. Few of us, I am suggesting, have thought about such substance in terms of a theory of economics in our world. These global crisis issues are big and thinking through them theoretically is vital for each of us.
Fifth, I agree that we are to begin with Jesus. But where’s Paul? Where’s Peter and Hebrews? etc. And this question keeps coming to me as I work on the social vision of Jesus myself: Did Paul understand Jesus’ message of the kingdom the way Brian understands it? Are we in danger of not only beginning with Jesus but of fashioning a Jesus who was not the one Paul and Peter and Hebrews and John believed in? Is what Paul says in Romans compatible with the peaceful kingdom Brian sees in Jesus? Of course, Brian can’t be expected to get into each author … so we can wait to see what he has to say about Paul in print.
Now here’s my final point: Brian is facing big, big issues. This book is a proposal for Christians to take up the challenge of Jesus and turn toward those issues. There are no books quite like this and for that reason alone it deserves to be read by all of us.