Brian McLaren’s The Secret Message of Jesus is a secret I personally wish McLaren would have kept to himself.
First let me begin by saying that McLaren says some good things, some things we need to hear. Also, many of his opponents I have read who have had personal interaction with McLaren have stated that McLaren is a really nice, friendly, loving, kind, and humble man. I am not writing this to attack Brian McLaren the person. I am writing this out of zeal for the gospel and love for the sheep. This blog I view as part of my pastoral responsibility to feed and shepherd the sheep as an undershepherd. To the little flock God has entrusted me with I must point out danger. I must point out wolves. I must point out false teaching.
Let’s begin with the title, The Secret Message of Jesus. For McLaren the hiddenness of the gospel is not what evangelicals typically think of, the foolishness of the cross. It is not the word of the cross which is the power of God saving those who place their faith in Jesus who has become to us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). It is not that we are blinded by sin and Satan from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:3-6). No, for McLaren it is largely a political and social message where sin takes on a predominantly horizontal aspect.
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 is the case, why would Jesus ever do such a thing? How would we find his message if he had indeed hidden it?
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.
McLaren attaches an appendix explaining why we didn’t get this message sooner, there he says:
Traditional readings, which assume Jesus has come primarily to solve the timeless problem of original sin so we can go ‘up’ to a timeless heaven ‘by and by’ after we die, do indeed account for some of Jesus’ words and actions, but not with the intensity and resonance of this reading.
Notice how this traditional reading only accounts for “some” of Jesus’ words, thus it is not the primary purpose for which He came. McLaren however intends to show us the deepest message. A message he admits we did not get for a long time, until recently. Oh, we got some of it in the past, but not the deepest message you see?
Thus people who are not identified as Christian can get this message.
Wouldn’t it be interesting if the people who started discovering and believing the hidden message of Jesus were people who aren’t even identified as Christians, and wouldn’t it be tragic if people like myself, identified as Christians, were unwilling to consider the possibility that they have more to learn (and unlearn) about the message of Jesus?
Thus Gandhi can understand this secret, fuller message that many Christians, “…Gandhi – not an identified Christian, but on who seemed to understand the secret way of Jesus better than many Christians – as he led nonviolent resistance against imperialism and religious hatred.”
Thus this message comes as “good news – not just for Christians but for Jews, Buddhist, Muslims, Hindus, New Agers, agnostics, and atheists”. Now, no doubt, the gospel comes as good news to all people. But it does not come to them as a Hindu or as a Muslim. As a Hindu or as a Muslim it is bad news before it is good news. Now perhaps McLaren is just choosing his words poorly here; I will give him the benefit of the doubt, still the language raises concerns. Especially as it is used below
Wouldn’t it be fascinating if thousands of Muslims, alienated with where fundamentalists and extremists have taken their religion, began to “take their places at the feast,” discovering the secret message of Jesus in ways that many Christians have not? Could it be that Jesus, always recognized as one of the greatest prophets of Islam, could in some way be rediscovered to save Islam from its dangerous dark side? Similarly, wouldn’t there be a certain ironic justice if Jesus’ own kinsmen, the Jewish people, led the way in understanding and practicing the core teaching of one of their own prophets who has too often been hijacked by other interests or ideologies? Or if Buddhists, Hindus, and even former atheists and agnostics came “from east and west and north and south” and began to enjoy the feast of the kingdom in ways that those bearing the name Christian have not?
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So what would Jesus say His message is?
Let’s suppose a TV news reporter walked up to Jesus and said, “Jesus, we have thirty seconds before the commercial break. Can you tell us in a sentence or two what your message is about?” What would he say?
“Everyone needs to rethink their lives as individuals, and we need to rethink our direction as a culture and imagine an unimagined future for our world,” he might say. “Because the kingdom of God is here. You can count on this.”
This reflects my biggest concern with McLaren, it is often not explicitly what he says that is the issue, but what he leaves unsaid, that which remains secret in this secret message. You will search in vain for any developed concept of sin on a vertical level before a holy God. Justification, redemption, ransom, atonement, regeneration are absent here in this message that deals with Jesus’ primary and deepest message. Jesus’ message is not so much about these things, but how to be “masters of living life”, how to make a new world.
When Christianity sees itself more as a belief system or set of rituals for the select few and less a way of daily life available to all, it loses the “magic” of the kingdom.
The other world, the new world, is not free of tears; but in new world, comfort comes from God, and tears are dried. This new world is not free of conflict, but here conflict leads to reconciliation rather than revenge. The new world is not free of need, but generosity flows wherever need arises. In short, this new world is the world promised by the prophets. Jesus’ secret message tells us, then, that this new world is so possible it is at hand, within reach – and as a result, now is the time to rethink everything and begin to learn to live in the ways of the kingdom of God.
McLaren finds Jesus’ primary message in his life, not his death. I don’t discredit the life of Jesus. It does show us how we should live (Christus Exemplar). But it does this mainly because as our substitute he is living the life we were meant to, fulfilling all righteousness as our substitute. We are meant to as John Piper says, read the gospels backwards. The cross is the climax. The three instances where McLaren deals with the meaning of the cross are limited to an overthrow of oppressive and corrupt world systems.
This is the scandal of the message of Jesus. The kingdom of God does fail. It is weak. It is crushed. When its message of love, peace, justice, and truth meets the principalities and powers of government and religion armed with spears and swords and crosses, they unleash their hate, force manipulation, and propaganda. Like those defenseless students standing before tanks and machine guns in Tiananmen Square, the resistance movement known as the kingdom of God is crushed….
What if the only way for the kingdom of God to come in its true form – a kingdom “not of this world” – is through weakness and vulnerability, sacrifice and love? What if it can conquer only by first being conquered? What if being conquered is absolutely necessary to expose the brutal violence and dark oppression of these principalities and powers, these human ideologies and counterkingdoms – so they, having been exposed, can be seen for what they are and freely rejected, making room for the new and better kingdom…
Looking back on Jesus and his message, Paul spoke of the Cross as the weakness and foolishness of God (I Corinthians 1:18-25). But that weakness and foolishness, he said, were more powerful that the wisdom and power of humanity with all its ideology, methodology, religiosity, ingenuity, and violence. When Paul looked at the Cross, he saw that ‘God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them’ (2 Corinthians 5:19 TNIV). Somehow, for him, the defeat of Christ on that Roman cross – the moment when God appears weak and foolish, outsmarted as it were by human evil – provided the means by which God exposed and judged the evil of the empire and religion, and in them the evil of every individual human being, so that humanity could be forgiven and reconciled to God. And the reconciling movement resonating out from Christ’s life, teaching, death, and resurrection is what we mean by the kingdom of God.
Don’t be fooled by the language of “forgiven” and “reconciliation”. Gone are any ideas of being forgiven because Jesus has borne your sins away. The emphasis is on exposing the evils of religion and empire so that we rethink religion and government. Forgiveness and reconciliation happen more on a horizontal level than a vertical one.
And what is the goal of this suffering sacrifice, this self-giving to the point of blood to achieve the pax Christi? It is a new and lasting reconciliation between humanity and God, and among all the at-odds individuals and groups that comprise humanity. In another letter, Paul said it like this: “Old distinctions like Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female no longer exist, for you are all one in Christ” (see Galatians 3:28). Today, he might speak of reconciliation of the war veteran with the pacifist protester. The tattooed and pierced granddaughter / with her prim and proper grandmother. The Orthodox with the Catholics, and Pentecostals with Baptists. Christians with Jews and Muslims and Hindus. Tutsi with Hutu and both with Twa. Right-wing Republicans with left-wing Democrats. Believers with doubters.
What is this set of reconciled relationships other than the kingdom of God.
The third instance repeats these themes:
The crucifixion of Christ can in this light be seen as a repudiation of the use of violent force.
Jesus, they felt, took the empire’s instrument of torture and transformed it into God’s symbol of the repudiation of violence – encoding a creed that love, not violence is the most powerful force in the universe.
Remember these are the only thee instances where the cross is expounded, and this is as much as he has to say concerning the meaning of it. Yes, the goal is said to be reconciliation with God, but notice how vague this is. Again, absent are any ideas of a substitute bearing away our sin to reconcile us to this God. Gone is any concept of the wrath of a Holy God being appeased. Foreign is any payment of redemption being made by the spilt blood of Christ. Hell and judgment have disappeared as well. Where does the major emphasis fall? On restored relationships with humanity.
So how do you get into this little kingdom? It requires “several interrelated moves”. The first is repentance revamped.
The first move is to hear from the heart and to think deeply about what you hear. …this profound rethinking is what the word repent means… It means that you begin looking at every facet of your life again in this new light… It doesn’t mean everything changes all at once, but it means that you open up to the possibility that everything may change over time. It involves a deep sense that you may be wrong, wrong about so much, along with the sincere desire to realign around what is good and true.
I think it will suffice to say I find this concept of repentance horribly watered down. What of faith? What does faith consist of?
Now believing in this sense is not primarily believing that. It is more a matter of believing in, which presupposes the most important things one might believe anyway. It’s not simply believing this of that about God; it’s believing in God, or perhaps simply believing God with the kind of interpersonal confidence one has when saying, “I believe in my spouse.” Equally, it’s not simply believing this or that about the good news of the kingdom; it’s believing in or having confidence in the good news of the kingdom.
While I believe that belief is in God and in the living Christ, it must be emphasized that it is belief in the God who raised Jesus from the dead, belief in the Jesus who atoned for our sins before a righteous God.
The next three moves (reception, going public, and practice) involve similar reinterpretations and a similar watering down of the original concepts. Nowhere in all of this is the new birth mentioned.
Rethinking, believing, receiving, going public, and practicing a new way of life – these seem to be the basic elements of what it means to get in on the secret and let it get in on you.
In the end The Secret Message of Jesus remains too secretive. In addition to the concerns above McLaren I would find fault with his understanding of eschatology, epistemology, and the sovereignty of God among other doctrines. It is my belief that McLaren is not presenting the pure gospel but a contaminated one. Here you will not find the pure water of eternal life, it has both been mixed with toxins and had its vital life giving principles removed.