Monday, March 27, 2006

The Secret Message of Jesus

Hey all, here's my review of Brian McLaren’s latest book, The Secret Message of Jesus, that I promised:

This book should finally lay to rest any complaints that Brian is too often vague and evasive in stating what exactly he does believe about the gospel. In this book he is crystal clear. Bottom line: it’s about the kingdom of God.

Of course, that’s not to say that Brian purports to answer every question or spell out a detailed systematic theology. Instead, rather true to form, he paints us a picture with broad strokes, giving us a new way to look at what Jesus and his gospel were all about. And he does it with a remarkable clarity and simplicity.

Indeed, the most surprising thing about this book is that it seems to have been written as much for non-Christian seekers as for fellow Christians. This is a book you could give to your “spiritual but not religious” friends who might be interested in learning more about Jesus. In fact, when I saw the cover art along with the title touting a secret message of Jesus I couldn’t help but wonder if Brian and/or the publishers were hoping to tap into all the buzz about the DaVinci Code. People these days seem to be really fascinated with “lost gospels” and suppressed (“secret”?) truths within Christianity; so one can imagine a seeker picking up Brian’s book in hopes of finding more in this vein. (Not that I think this is a bad thing. One of my good friends came to Christ in part because his interest in apocryphal gospels led him to bring his questions to my youth group.)

However, I have to admit that when I first heard the title I did raise an eyebrow. I was worried that talking about Jesus’ “secret” message might imply some kind of Gnostic insight that only truly enlightened (emergent?) Christians really understand. However, I was relieved to discover that Brian’s use of the word was instead intended to raise questions about the lack of clarity we often find in Christ’s teachings. After all, Jesus’ own disciples complain about him using parables all the time rather than just speaking clearly, and Jesus admits that he’s being deliberately obscure (Matthew 13:10-15). So Brian raises the question:

“What if Jesus had actually concealed his deepest message, not trying to make it overt and obvious but intentionally hiding it as a treasure one must seek in order to find? If that’s the case, why would Jesus ever do such a thing?” (p. 4)

Once Brian raised this issue I realized that I too had often been puzzled by this in the Bible. If knowledge of the truth is so very important, then why couldn’t Jesus have just spoken more clearly and told us everything we needed to know. Why did he speak in parables rather than in doctrinal statements? Why does the Bible contain letters and poems and stories rather than systematic theology?

What Brian suggests is that perhaps Jesus’ purpose was not to simply impart knowledge. Instead maybe Christ’s goal was to effect spiritual transformation in the lives of his hearers; and maybe this goal is best achieved by means of parables and other similar forms of communicating. In his chapter on “The Medium of the Message” Brian states:

“If the goal is an interactive relationship (which is at the heart of terms like kingdom of God and eternal life), a parable succeeds where easy answers and obvious explanations couldn’t. With a clear and easy explanation, hearers can listen and achieve understanding and then go on their way, independent of the teacher. But when the parable confounds them, they must come back to interact; they continue to depend on the teacher himself, not just their independent understanding of his words… So parables have this capacity that goes beyond informing their hearers; parables also have the power to help form them into interactive, interdependent, humble, inquisitive, and persistent people.” (p. 46)

But what is Jesus’ secret message then? According to Brian, it comes down to the idea of the kingdom of God as present, political, social, and personal reality. In other words, he focuses on the fact that Jesus didn’t seem to talk about heaven as some place we go to after we die, but rather as a reality that we can begin to live in here and now (“the kingdom of God is among you!”). And perhaps by living in this reality (according to its ways and values) we can begin to transform the world in such a way as to bring a little bit more of heaven to earth. Brian puts it this 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?” (p. 4)

He spends the rest of the book describing this revolution and this new world. The book itself is divided into three main sections. The first, “Excavation: Digging Beneath the Surface to Uncover Jesus’s Message”, dives into the historical and especially the first century Jewish context of Jesus’ message. Of course, to me it seems obvious that if we are to really understand what Jesus is all about we must first understand him through the eyes and ears of his original audience. What astounds me is that there are still some Christians who see this approach as a threat to an “evangelical” understanding of scripture. But if we truly respect the Bible and desire to know what it’s really saying, then wouldn’t we want to look at it first through the lens of its historical and cultural context rather than through the lenses of our systematic theologies? After all, most of our current theologies, whether evangelical or liberal, were developed centuries later in response to very different questions than those that concerned Jesus and his followers.

As Brian uncovers this historical context of the message he shows how it has revolutionary political and social implications, both for Jesus’ time and for ours. Not revolutionary in the sense that Jesus was trying to violently overthrow Rome and set up a new Jewish kingdom in its place, but revolutionary in that Jesus was calling people to live according to the values and practices of a new social order, and swear allegiance to a different Lord than Caesar. This is the thrust of the book’s second section, “Engagement: Grappling with the Meaning of Jesus’s Message”, as Brian more fully explains the implications of Christ’s message of a kingdom of sacrificial love, subtle subversion and radical inclusion.

The third and final section, “Imagination: Exploring How Jesus’ Secret Message Could Change Everything”, discusses the practical and personal implications by examining how this new understanding of Jesus transforms our understanding of social relationships, spiritual practices, as well as the dynamics of just war versus active peacemaking. But Brian wades into even more controversial subjects when he suggests that this new understanding of the gospel requires us to also rethink our traditional understandings of Heaven, Hell and the End Times as well as who is really “in” and “out” of the kingdom and what that means. Without getting too mired down by trying to explain what Brian says about all these topics, I will say that the picture he paints is a far more satisfying and biblically consistent view than many of the ones that I’ve encountered in my theological journey thus far.

Of course, it shouldn’t be assumed that much of what Brian writes is entirely his own creation. This entire book is really a popularization of the work of many respected biblical scholars and historians such as N.T. Wright, Walter Wink, Dallas Willard and C.S. Lewis among others. He is standing on the shoulders of others, but he putting their work in terms that are more accessible to the average lay person, and indeed, even to non-Christians.

And it’s a message that needs to be heard. I had already started piecing this “secret message” together myself through reading some of the same scholars that have influenced this book, but once again Brian succeeds in putting what I was already thinking into words far clearer and more compelling than anything I could have come up with myself. And this understanding of Jesus’ message certainly will change everything for those who embrace it. Many of the perplexing absurdities and dilemmas of evangelical theology simply disappear when seen through this lens; while at the same time one is still challenged by Jesus’ message to reorient one’s whole life according to this new kingdom lifestyle. At least, I know I was.

You should all go buy the book and read it as soon as possible. This is a message that needs to be heard. Not Brian’s message, but Jesus’ message - Jesus true message, stripped of centuries of theological accumulations. This is more than just a new view of the gospel (i.e. new “theology”, new abstract ideas). It’s an invitation to a new kind of life. Jesus secret message is an invitation to live in the Way of the Kingdom. This is the message that we have been committed to teaching and following at our new church plant, Via Christus (the Way of Christ), and it’s a message that I hope all Christians would soon discover, because it’s what we, and the whole world, need to see lived out.

So buy the book, read it, then come join us at up/rooted over the summer months as we discuss it. You can order The Secret Message of Jesus here.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

up/rooted.west update

Hey all,

We had a great time this past Monday night at up/rooted.west, which met at our newest location, the back room of Caribou Coffee in Glen Ellyn. For those of you who couldn't be there I wanted to pass along this update, so that you can share in the experience despite your absence.

The focus of our discussion was on how to practically live out principles of social justice in everyday life, and especially in our [mostly] suburban contexts. We began by brainstorming all the different kinds of issues that relate to "social justice", such as poverty, racism, fair trade, child labor, corporate exploitation, gender issues, care for Creation, etc. We talked about why these issues are of central important to Christians, and even to the message of the gospel itself. Some wondered whether our main purpose in focusing on these issues was so that we could win credibility to then share the gospel, though most agreed after some discussion that the message of the gospel was itself inseparable from compassion and justice for the poor and oppressed (cf. Luke 4:18-19).

We talked about the need to be aware of macro-issues like fair trade and socially conscious consumption, while at the same time being willing to get our hands dirty in actually serving the needs of real people. We especially affirmed the importance of being with the poor in whatever ways possible, so that our calling to service and compassion will be able to just spring naturally out of our relationships with other people.

We wrapped up our time talking about the vital importance of community in helping live according to our principles, and wondered how to go about creating these kind of intentional communities. We all agreed that living out social justice will only be successful if it's done out of a sense of joy and genuine love and not merely out of a feeling of guilt or obligation.

We also brainstormed a list of helpful DVD and book resources dealing with these issues. Here are a few:

The Constant Gardener
Hotel Rwanda
The Corporation
Wal-Mart: The High Cost of the Low Price
Born into Brothels

The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs
The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne
The Upside-Down Kingdom by Donald Kraybill
Mustard Seed vs. McWorld by Tom Sine

If any of you have other recommendations please feel free to add them in the comments.

Our next up/rooted.west gathering will be Monday, April 10th. We decided to finish up our past few months of social justice related discussions by watching and discussing the documentary, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price. We will be meeting at Kristine Socall's home at 26w325 Torrey Pines Ct, Winfield at 6:30pm and starting the movie promptly at 7pm with discussion to follow. Come on out and bring some food or drink to share!

Hope to see you there!

Mike Clawson
up/rooted.west co-coordinator