This is the third of three old reviews of some of Brian McLaren's books that I did some time back. It is also the last, so you needn't worry about that.
I have several more old posts--some more book reviews and so forth--that I will be trying to republish soon. Mostly, I just have to go over them and make sure that I haven't inadvertently left my real name in any of the text.
You may be saying to yourself, "But, MOTW, surely republishing these old things is a dead giveaway as to who you are, at least to some people?" It is, I suppose, but I doubt that it will cause problems. My only purpose in having an incognito is to avoid having a casual google search of my real name come up with material that might make some companies hesitant to hire me, and that seems to have been achieved well enough with the steps I've taken. Anyone who sees these old posts and makes the connection to my real name will have to go to the trouble of writing and posting something about it, something I think extremely unlikely.
With this review, I will have read and reviewed three of Brian D. McLaren's books. I think I can say with some confidence that one problem has been common to reviewing all of them: each volume has presented such an enormous volume of "What the ????(?)" moments that indulging the extreme temptation to explore each of them would result in a review very nearly book-length in itself.
There are elegant and eloquent non-sequiturs; casual redefinitions of established terms; shockingly unbelievable oversimplifications; jaw-dropping mischaracterizations; one-sided presentations; stunning misapprehensions; and there is extraordinarily subjective exegesis--or, perhaps, blatant eisegesis. I tried, briefly, to note the more egregious "What the ????(?)" moments as I read, so that I could explore them all in detail later, but I gave up within a few pages. It is impossible to respond to it all. I will confine myself to presenting a few examples, mostly in a separate section at the tail end of the review, and mostly drawn from the notes I took early on in the book. There are many, many others that could have been presented.
Considering the strength of some of the statements in this review, I ought to make it clear that I have nothing against Mr. McLaren personally. I have never met the man. I have never communicated with him, and it most likely the case that he is completely unaware of my existence. He has never harmed nor attacked me personally and I bear him no ill will.
You should also know that although I will leave no doubt that I find much of Mr. McLaren's thinking less than stellar and many of his conclusions erroneous, I by no means think of him as a moron, nor do I disagree with every word he writes.
Lastly, I would also recommend the reader peruse Tim Challies' review of this book. Also, some might find Chris Rosebrough's review interesting.
And with those disclaimers in mind, let us proceed....
Readers of Mr. McLaren's last book, The Secret Message of Jesus, will no doubt remember that despite the book's title, Mr. McLaren said he did not actually know what the secret message was. I noted at the time that writing a whole book about a message you didn't purport to know seemed a spectacularly brassy move, requiring nerves of steel, and I was looking forward to an announcement of some kind in this book as to the status of the investigation. While there is no direct "eureka" statement as to its discoverance in this book, Mr. McLaren makes enough references to "the message of Jesus" that combined with his statement that this book is a continuation of The Secret Message of Jesus and that the two books may be taken as something of a unit, we are fairly justified, I think, in concluding that the message isn't secret anymore. Summarizing as best I can, the secret message appears to be that if we disbelieve the dominant framing story of our suicide machine and believe instead Jesus' new framing story of a new kingdom of love centered in the heart of God, we can participate with God by living
...a life dedicated to replacing the suicide machine with a sacred ecosystem, a beautiful community, an insurgency of healing and peace, a creative global family, an unterror movement of faith, hope, and lovein order to save the planet and all its creatures to become the planet and system God dreams of.
You can be forgiven for thinking that that is so much impenetrable obfuscation. One of the aggravating things about Mr. McLaren's work is that by the time he has finished introducing inadequately explored new terms and casually redefining old ones, it all begins to take on the appearance of a foray into a solipsist worldview pervaded and enabled by a consistent use of jargon. Despite the jargon, though, it is not impossible to understand what Mr. McLaren means. It can be understood by anyone willing to give the matter a little thought. My chief concern is that too many people will not give this work serious thought, and that Mr. McLaren's ideas, like brightly-colored, chocolate-covered candies, will slide down their throats and into their thinking, and thence right into their teaching, without ever having been thoroughly checked for their
It's not, in my opinion, possible to understand what Mr. McLaren is saying Jesus' message is until you understand something of how Mr. McLaren sees the world and the mess that it's in.
As best I can summarize, Mr. McLaren sees the world's biggest problems as arising from a currently disfunctional overall system for which he uses the term "suicide machine," borrowed from Dr. Leonard Sweet. This overall system may be subdivided into three subsystems, the prosperity system, the security system, and the equity system, each of which is likewise currently disfunctional. The disfunctions are caused by excessive confidence (and for those wondering how Mr. McLaren's bete noire, modernism, figures into this whole thing, it appears that the ability to be excessively confident, in turn, arises from the birth of foundationalism and Modernism in Rene Descartes' A Discourse on Method) in the wrong framing story. A framing story is
...a story that gives people direction, values, vision, and inspiration by providing a framework for their lives. It tells them who they are, where they come from, where they are, what's going on, where things are going, and what they should do.And the only remedy to the whole situation is to believe in the new framing story brought by Jesus. That framing story is the same as His secret message, cited above as
...if we disbelieve the dominant framing story of our suicide machine and believe instead Jesus' new framing story of a new kingdom of love centered in the heart of God, we can participate with God by livingI've tried to be as accurate as I can in a short space and I hope I haven't misrepresented the thrust of the book. You can compare my summary to a summary given by Mr. McLaren near the end of the book:...a life dedicated to replacing the suicide machine with a sacred ecosystem, a beautiful community, an insurgency of healing and peace, a creative global family, an unterror movement of faith, hope, and lovein order to save the planet and all its creatures to become the planet and system God dreams of.
So far in these pages, I have asked you to disbelieve a number of things: That our current societal machinery is working fine. That we can seek prosperity without regard to ecological limits. That we can achieve true security through military dominance, and peace through violence. That we have already achieved equity, or that equity is an unachievable pipe-dream. That our religious systems are standing up to the societal machine and providing it with a transforming framing story. That our current understandings of Jesus are sufficient and accurate:Now, if you translate back into English from Mr. McLaren's Jargon-ese, there are elements of this where I actually kind of agree. I, too, think there is a disfunctional social system that results in much human degradation, depravity, suffering, and injustice. The Bible--most especially in the books authored by John--calls it "the world." And I would agree that the remedy is to be found in believing Jesus.
And I have asked you instead to believe a number of other things:1. We live in a societal system or machine. It consists of three subsystems (prosperity, security, and equity), situated in a finiteOur great choice is whether or not we will dare to believe against the suicide machine, and believe Jesus, toward a different world. Believing is the most radical thing we can do. No wonder Jesus, when performing his healings and exorcisms, would often say, "Your faith has saved you."
environment, guided by a framing story.
2. The system goes suicidal when driven by a destructive framing story. Destructive framing stories employ narratives of domination, revolution, and withdrawal, all of which are ultimately self-destructive.
3. Jesus saw these dynamics at work in his day and proposed in word and deed a new alternative--neither conforming to the suicidal framing story, nor reacting in a violent counternarrative or defeatest
4. Jesus' creative and transforming framing story invited people to change the world by disbelieving old framing stories and believing a new one: a story about a loving God who, like a benevolent king, calls all
people to live life in a new way, the way of love.
I cannot agree, on the other hand, that a bad "framing story" drives this disfunctional social system--I say it is driven by a fallen and totally depraved human nature and a very real Devil--and I would also insist that a person cannot understand Jesus' message apart from regeneration, the new birth, which immediately and necessarily manifests in faith which justifies and produces good works and also in subsequent progressive sanctification and an overall lifestyle of increasingly faithful obedience to Jesus' commands. Put another way, I think it is rubbish for anyone to talk of believing Jesus' message, or "framing story," if you want to put it that way, without being a Christian--or a follower of "the Way," which, as Mr. McLaren reminds us, is how the early Church put it. This is important, for over the course of the three books I've read, this one included, Mr. McLaren repeatedly drops hints that he thinks it is entirely possible for non-Christians to embrace the way of Jesus.
It probably goes without saying that I disagree at several points with Mr. McLaren as to what Jesus' message is. These differences, it seems to me, arise largely from differing views as to how to interpret the Biblical text. Mr. McLaren seems very willing to indulge highly speculative interpretations , frequently assuming the presence of symbolism or allegory where, in my opinion, there is no warrant in the text for such assumptions. He interprets Genesis and creation this way, and continues that method all the way through to the end, concluding that Biblical passages like (emphasis mine)
2Pe 3:10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. 2Pe 3:11 Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 2Pe 3:12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! 2Pe 3:13 But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.which prophecy the eventual replacement of this present globe are not to be taken at face value.
It seems impossible to separate Mr. McLaren's eschatology from his understanding of salvation, which he apparently sees more as corporate--that is, for humanity as a whole--than individual, and also involving the planet itself, together with its fauna and flora. Perhaps this passage sums up his understanding of the Gospel as well as any:
Jesus came to become the Savior of the world, meaning he came to save the earth and all it contains from its ongoing destruction because of human evil. Through his life and teaching, through his suffering, death, and resurrection, he inserted into human history a seed of grace, truth, and hope that can never be defeated. This seed will, against all opposition and odds, prevail over the evil and injustice of humanity and lead to the world's ongoing transformation into the world God dreams of. All who find in Jesus God's hope and truth discover the privilege of participating in his ongoing work of personal and global transformation and liberation from evil and injustice. As part of his transforming community, they experience liberation from the fear of death and condemnation. This is not something they earn or achieve, but rather a free gift they recieve as an expression of God's grace and love.If one sees salvation as necessarily involving the planet and all that it contains, then it inevitably follows that any prophecy involving the destruction of this world must be symbolic, or at least conditional. And in pursuing a such a view of salvation, it also seems inevitable that one must at least downplay, if not outright deride, the idea of individuals being saved from a very real eternity of damnation in Hell. And also, in pursuing such a view of salvation, it seems inevitable that one would treat poor stewardship of the earth as necessarily threatening nothing less than the loss of salvation--the sort of corporate salvation Mr. McLaren envisions, anyway.
This book continues to pursue the idea that excessive confidence, or the idea that you can really know anything, produces much suffering and is to be avoided. In one chapter, Mr. McLaren ultimately ascribes the horrors of World War II to excessive confidence.
In the aftermath of World War II, many European intellectuals (eventually joind by Americans and many others) were forced to ask this question: how could this have happened? This referred to two world wars, and especially to the Holocaust. After 1945, intellectuals around the world begain asking how Germany in particular--the epicenter of the Enlightenment with its rationality and its scientific mind-set--could sink into the barbarism of Nazism and all it entailed. They were simultaneously assessing even greater atrocities in the former Soviet Union under Stalin (1922-1953).The whole chapter runs along these lines. I looked carefully, and while it is true that at one point in the quoted material Mr. McLaren gives examples of the things that the Nazis had overconfidence in, it nevertheless seems clear that he sees the overconfidence itself as the ultimate cause of World War II and its attendant atrocities.
...these European intellectuals instead identified a disease shared by the Christian religion and European civilization at large: they diagnosed the sickness that had befallen Western civilization in general and "Christian" Germany in particular to be excessive confidence.
In other words, just as cancer is an excessive growth of cells--both cells and growth normally being good things--the intellectuals realized that Nazism was an excessive growth of confidence--confidence in their national ethos, in their rational and interpretive powers, in their scientific prowess, and so on. When this confidence grew out of proportion, it became malignant...
...what was the source of this cancer of excessive confidence? The answer came in two parts.
First, many thinkers traced excessive confidence back to an intellectual methodology designed by Rene Descartes, explained in his great work A Discourse on Method. Descartes' method, known to us today as foundationalism, sought to establish universally accessible first principles--incapable of being doubted or debated because of their pristine and universal logical clarity. Building on that foundation using reason alone (with no appeal to religion), practitioners of foundationalism erected an intellectual framework that promised absolute, objective, universally accessible certainty from the ground up. That kind of certainty produced amazing positive results, but as critics of foundationalism began to realize in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, it also produced a dangerous, malignant confidence that is willing to exploit or even kill millions of people--not to mention nonhuman living things--to achieve its ends.
Second, certain philosophers surmised that this intellectual method of foundationalism alone wasn't the only source of modern Western overconfidence. They began to speak of metanarratives--framing stories that weave together memories of grievances that need to be avenged, stories of dangers that need to be avoided, or stories of superiority that explain why one group should be advantaged to dominate over others.
Driven by these fearful, vengeful, or dominating framing stories, and bolstered by a feeling of bottom-up, invulnerable certainty, nations or civilizations could easily become vicious, genocidal, and perhaps even suicidal--capable of bringing down the whole planet.
...Thinking along these lines, I became convinced that, yes, many of our world's worst atrocities were indeed the result of overconfidence. And yes, overconfidence was indeed resourced by foundationalism. And yes, deeper still, destructive framing stories fueled the hatred and fear and greed that perpetuated so much human suffering--whether in Africa, Latin America, or my own nation.
This fascinates me. One of the most consistent features of Emergent Church thinking--and of Mr. McLaren's writing--is this ascription of all sorts of evil to overconfidence, to arrogance, to thinking that you can know anything with certainty. In this case, I can't help but wonder if there is anything that Mr. McLaren might think it impossible to be overconfident of. Can one be overconfident of the goodness of God? Of His mercy? Of His power? If not, how does one draw a distinction between those things wherein one cannot be overconfident and those things wherein one can? As far as I can tell, Mr. McLaren never grapples with this sort of thing.
All I see--all I ever see in Emergent writing, really--is a double standard: those things that Emergents believe, they have a proper confidence in; those things which they don't believe, others have overconfidence in. What is the difference between proper confidence and overconfidence? As far as I can tell throughout the writing of Mr. McLaren and other Emergents, it all depends on whose ox is gored.
I also couldn't help but wonder how Mr. McLaren explains atrocities that occurred before Descartes. No doubt he would blame them in part on destructive framing stories, but one wonders how much power they could possibly have without the power of foundationalist thinking. If the atrocities prior to foundationalist thinking were just as bad, then it must be the case that foundationalist thinking and overconfidence don't have quite the effect that Mr. McLaren thinks they do.
Personally, I think that a fallen, totally depraved human nature and a very real Devil account quite nicely for people--in World War II and at other times--putting their faith in the wrong things and committing atrocities.
But maybe that's just me.
I said at the outset that there were things in the book with which I did not disagree. In addition to agreeing that there is a disfunctional global social system, I found that I had profound agreement with a part of the book wherein Mr. McLaren deals with the nature of materialism, and at least partial agreement with his notation that that materialism has adverse effects on the way our economy works. He writes:
Ironically, a materialistic culture doesn't suffer from an overemphasis on material things, but rather on a strange process of their disappearance. For the man who owns twenty Rolls-Royces, it's not simply the cars, the physical objects themselves, that he gets pleasure from, but the number of cars. For the anxious middle-class fellow living next to the infamous Joneses, it's not that he gets pleasure from his green, weed-free lawn; it's that his lawn is as good as his neighbors', or maybe even better than theirs. For the teenager who downloads a song every day on the Internet, it's not the song itself that counts--he hardly has time to listen to the songs, much less enjoy them; it's that he's keeping up with the latest, so he can have 'bragging rights" to his friends when the subject of music comes up. The middle-aged woman who spends aI have often had thoughts along these lines. For people whose trust is in material things--or really, anything but God--nothing is ever really enough, and even the most glittery objects soon fade, and the most exciting experiences pall. Nothing ever really satisfies, and soon one doesn't even really see what he has anymore. He just walks on by it without enjoying it, the same way most of us hardly ever even notice the artwork that adorns our walls after a while. But if your trust is in God and your fulfillment is in Him, it seems to me that not only will you have a heightened appreciation for your "stuff," you will find that you not only can get by with less "stuff," you will actually find yourself jettisoning things, or never picking up things, that will only clutter up your life and make you eventually regret your actions.
fortune on cosmetics seldom appreciates the quality of the products themselves; for the most part, she isn't after good skin-care anway. She's after youth, beauty, fashion. The CEO making a six- or seven-figure salary can't enjoy his current salary or his huge investment portfolio: he's too busy working to double his salary and triple his investment portfolio. It's not about enjoyment for him; it's about growth.
Growth is an abstraction. And this is the irony of the prosperity system in the suicide machine. It is, in a sense, utterly Platonic. The material thing doesn't count in itself: what counts is the abstraction, the immaterial idea behind it--numbers, status, coolness, youth, beauty, fashion, growth. The things themselves--cars, cosmetics, companies, songs--are just means to the end, which is an abstraction that is by
nature unattainable. After all, when have you reached the end of growth, or youth, or fashion, or status, or power?
Years ago, without quite realizing just how big the impact of what I was saying would have on him, I said something that--as far as I can tell--has had lasting consequences on my oldest son. He had some money to spend--from a birthday or something--and I had taken him to Toys-R-Us. We looked at a lot of things, and eventually he picked up one item--I can't even remember what it was--and asked, "Is it okay if I get this?" I told him that he could buy anything he wanted, but whatever it was, I wanted it to be something that he would use and enjoy for a long time, and not something that he would play with for three days and then get bored with and forget about, and regret spending his money on.
Ever since--and that has been over a decade, I'm sure--he's been very cautious about spending his money so as to accomplish something worthwhile, or to at least achieve some lasting pleasure or goal, instead of just satisfying momentary whims. He hardly ever buys anything. He's been working for more several years, and for a young man with a part-time job, he makes pretty good money and has very few expenses. But what does he have to "show for it?" In material terms, he's got a used car, a motorcycle, an I-pod, a cell phone, and a digital camera, a fair amount of books, and a laptop computer--and he uses every darn one of them. Everything else has gone into saving or college or giving.
And, on a purely personal level, I have often noted that if I were to suddenly somehow earn, inherit, or win a million bucks, I would hardly know what to do with it all. The rock-bottom truth is that I would almost certainly be "done" after making some house and car repairs and buying a handful of informational material, and it would be an open question as to what to do with the rest of it. There's certainly no point in going out and filling the house with trinkets that I don't have time to use.
And, to speak to Mr. McLaren's point in this section, I have to acknowledge that what seems to be our culture's consistent habit of buying in an attempt to satisfy needs and desires that really can't be satisfied by material goods--needs and desires like beauty, security, status--often drives a perfectly legitimate capitalist system into a state of misapplied overdrive. I don't think there is anything wrong with capitalism, per se, but with trying to satisfy, with material goods, needs and desires that can only be satisfied by God.
Capitalism. That brings up something else. One of the most maddening aspects of Mr. McLaren's writing is his persistent habit of writing as though authoritative, or at least knowledgeable, about subjects that he seems to grasp only in the most hack-handed manner. I am not trying to be mean in writing this; those words were what came to my mind as I sought to briefly describe the feeling imparted when he discusses, say, capitalism.
Capitalism. It comes up not infrequently throughout the book, and seldom in a positive light. This annoyed me, as a strong concern for the "poor" (in quotes because I suspect that Mr. McLaren and I might have definitions of poor and poverty that are less than closely related) is woven throughout the book's contents, and the bald fact of the matter is that the only economic "system" (in quotes because capitalism is not so much a system as it is simply what happens when people have liberty and property rights)--the only one!--that has historically proven able to create wealth enough to lift masses of people out of poverty is capitalism. One would think a person concerned with the poor would have greater respect for and interest in what has been, so far, the only remedy employable on a large scale.
Nowhere was my annoyance more pronounced than in reading this passage:
My friend Rene Padilla offers an interesting analysis of the two systems from a Latin American perspective. Communism, he says, specialized in distribution but failed at production. As a result, it ended up doing a great job of distributing poverty evenly. Capitalism, he says, was excellent at production but weak at distribution. As a result, it ended up rewarding the wealthy with obscene amounts of wealth while the poor suffered on in horrible degradation and indignity. Latin America is still waiting for a viable alternative; as is the whole planet.I was astonished at this point, for if part of Mr. McLaren's purpose is not to invalidate this supposed viewpoint of supposed "theocapitalists," I am much mistaken--and yet, it seemed to me that a quote from one of the poverty relief workers he lauds earlier in the book supports it! It is as though Mr. McLaren has forgotten his friend saying (emphasis mine)
The twenty-first century began in the aftermath of the defeat of Marxism. The story of the coming century will likely be the story of whether a sustainable form of capitalism can be saved from theocapitalism, or whether unrestrained theocapitalism will result in such gross inequity between rich and poor that violence and counter-violence will being civilization to a standstill, or perhaps worse.
Marxist revolutionaries have tended to see the oppressed poor as morally good and the rich as morally unsalvageable. Where their revolutions put the proletariat into power, the revolutionaries generally prove themselves as corruptible as the elites they replaced.
Theocapitalists have done the opposite: they have tended to see the rich as morally good and the poor as morally culpable for their own poverty; the hard work and cleverness of the former have made them rich, and the laziness, irresponsibility, and looseness of the latter have made them poor.
...you know what would really help? They could teach them job skills, even just the necessity of getting up and showing up somewhere in the morning, of keeping your word, of working hard, of being honest. Then they could work through their denominations and other networks to start businesses so the people could get jobs. These are the kinds of things pastors could do.Not that improving personal behavior is all that there is to avoiding poverty and doing well with capitalism--far from it. But it's not like this subject has not been addressed--astonishingly, by a Latin American economist who put his work to the test in Latin America, where his ideas succeeded well enough that the Communist Sendero Luminoso faded out of existence partly due to sheer lack of interest. Hernando de Soto's book--The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else directly and brilliantly addresses some of the issues Mr. McLaren raises. It was very popular and widely read when it came out, and in my estimation, it is one of the most important treatises on capitalism written in the last hundred years. I can find no indication that Mr. McLaren has even heard of it, let alone read it, and the skewed view of capitalism vis-a-vis poverty that results is, as I said, annoying.
I would also say that Mr. McLaren's understanding of how foreign aid works is a little skewed. He seems very willing to accept figures and methods that to me, seem highly questionable. For example, he writes:
Then I read that according to the United Nations, $80 billion could provide all the poor people in the world with clean water, basic health care, basic education, and basic nutrition.I couldn't help but wonder why on earth he would accept numbers from the United Nations, which in aggregate is little more than a group of third-world dictators and thugs organized for the purpose of propping themselves up, demonizing Israel, and financing the whole arrangement by the siphoning off of wealth from the West, as authoritative. Didn't he learn anything from the oil-for-food scandal?
The $80 billion figure seems questionable, too--so questionable that I had to wonder about his judgment in accepting it. How much do we spend, in this country alone, on providing clean water, basic health care, basic education, and basic nutrition, every year? What do you think? More than 80 billion? Why, then, would anyone accept the idea that this sum could actually accomplish providing those things worldwide? I couldn't help but wonder if Mr. McLaren had ever explored the negative effects that bad charity can have--explored them, at least, enough to have a thorough appreciation of why so much governmental giving has had only the effect of worsening and exacerbating poverty instead of alleviating it. His friend Claude makes at least oblique reference to this when Mr. McLaren quotes him as saying, emphasis mine:
When I got older, I realized that my entire life had been lived against the backdrop of genocide and violence, poverty and corruption. Over a million people died in my country in a series of genocides starting in 1959, and nearly a million in Rwanda, and in spite of huge amounts of foreign aid, our people remain poor, and many of them, hungry. This is the experience we have all shared.(Those interested in this subject will find Marvin Olasky's The Tragedy of American Compassion worthwhile reading.)
Not infrequently, I had occasion to wonder about the way Mr. McLaren approached a given passage of scripture. For example, when speaking of part of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, Mr. McLaren says
In light of Hebrew grammatical construction, it is highly possible that when Jesus says...The rest of the sentence is not important, at least not right now. What one cannot fail to note, of course, is that Mr. McLaren, not finding what he would like to see in the Greek in which the Sermon on the Mount was written, feels free to speculate on what Jesus might have said in Hebrew. To my mind, that is just a little too close to making it up as you go.
Another astonishing passage is this, where Mr. McLaren is discussing Jesus' encounter with Zaccheus:
Jesus...pronounces that this man has received salvation (from, we could say, greed, from a dark outlook, from the hell of being under God's condemnation, from self-centeredness, from spiritual bankruptcy, and from a loss of identity as a Jew through participation in the empire of Rome rather than the kingdom of God). Jesus then explains that his very purpose in coming is to save people in exactly this way.Now, it goes without saying that all of the things that Mr. McLaren suggests Zaccheus is being saved from are bad and worth being saved from. But here is the actual text from Luke as it is rendered in the ESV:
And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost."The ensuing material does not, apparently, concern Zaccheus. Rather, Jesus told the ensuing
parable specifically to disabuse people of the notion that the Kingdom was about to appear:
As they heard these things, he proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.Where, exactly, in the text, does it say that Jesus claims that His purpose in coming is to save people (let alone just Zaccheus) from, specifically,
...greed, from a dark outlook, from the hell of being under God's condemnation, from self-centeredness, from spiritual bankruptcy, and from a loss of identity as a Jew through participation in the empire of Rome rather than the kingdom of God(?)Some will say, no doubt, that I have misread Mr. McLaren, that by "in exactly this way," he is referring to the way Jesus saves Zaccheus, rather than what Jesus saves Zaccheus from. But that seems to present just as much difficulty, for Mr. McLaren writes
...Jesus obviously has a plan: his connection with Zaccheus will make space for Zaccheus to repent, to defect from the system of progress through rapid growth, and instead to care for the common good...Again, no doubt giving Zaccheus space for repentance is a good thing, but where is it in the text? Where is "defect(ion) from the system of progress through rapid growth" in the text?
This wouldn't bother me so much--other writers on scripture are sometimes highly speculative, after all--were it not that the ultimate purpose of all this speculation is to establish that Jesus' purpose, in large part, is to rescue us from "theocapitalism."
Capitalists are right, or at least partly so: many rich people are good people--hardworking, clever, dedicated, disciplined, and exactly the kinds of people who should prosper. But unless they use their prosperity for the common good, they find themselves working for a theocapitalist prosperity system rather than the love economy of God.After reading page after page of this sort of stuff, one can be forgiven for thinking that capitalism--"theocapitalism" in Mr. McLaren's formulation--occupies a position in his thinking only slightly less loathsome than that of the Devil himself. Or perhaps "modernism.' And assuming he believes in a real Devil. Which seems a bit of a stretch, given that Hell is scarcely given any consideration in the book.
There are other elements that struck me. One is that Mr. McLaren continues his long-established habit of quite outrageously characterizing almost the whole of evangelical Christianity as a one-note Johnny, concerned only with the salvation of individuals and escape from Hell. To be sure, that is obviously a very strong theme within evangelical thinking, but telling stories such as this one:
...Claude began to speak...may seem funny, but they are also very misleading. I've been in evangelical churches for about
"Friends, most of you know me. You know that I am the son of a preacher, and as a result, I grew up going to church all the time, maybe five times a week. What may surprise you, though, is to learn that in all of my childhood, in all the church sevices I attended, I only heard one sermon." At this, eyes got larger and people seemed curious, maybe confused. One sermon in all those years?
He continued, "That sermon went like this: 'You are a sinner and you are going to hell. You need to repent and believe in Jesus. Jesus might come back today, and if he does and you are not ready, you will burn forever in hell.'"
At that, almost everyone began to laugh. They weren't laughing at the idea of going to hell or the idea of believing in Jesus; they were laughing in recognition that this was the only sermon they had ever heard too. Sunday after Sunday, year after year, different words, different Bible verses, but the same point.
seventeen years now, and I would say flatly that I've never been in a church that had only that one sermon. I've heard sermons on every aspect of living the Christian life imaginable, including good stewardship, good work habits, destructive personal habits, proper giving, how to deal with the poor, etc., etc., etc. Now, either my experience is abnormal, or Mr. McLaren's is, or he is grossly misrepresenting the true state of affairs, or I am. Take your pick.
To sum up, I would say that Mr. McLaren comes tantalizingly close to understanding the problem of the disfunctional world system, but seems almost determined to understand the whole thing through the focusing lens of the Democratic Party platform. In my opinion, his interpretation of scripture is driven by his concerns with--sorry--wacko environmentalism and redistributionist economics. He gives short shrift to any concern about keeping individuals out of Hell (if he believes in it at all, which certainly seems highly questionable) and continues to drop hints of both universalism and Open Theism. My opinion is that in the process, he either
willfully or ignorantly misrepresents whole segments of Christianity and a great deal of social and economic theory and fact. The list price is 21.99. If that seems fair to you, go get it.
Here are some miscellaneous "What the ????(?)" moments. This is not exhaustive; there are such moments in all throughout the book, but I quickly got tired of trying to keep track of them all.
As a follower of God in the way of Jesus...I'll quote a little bit more from that passage in just a sec, but that little bit right there arrested my attention. Although Mr. McLaren mentions later in the book that the word christianity does not actually appear in the Bible and that the earliest disciples referred to it by "the Way," I couldn't help but think, "Doesn't this imply that one could be another kind of "follower of God"
than in the way of Jesus?" I quoted that snippet to a few co-workers, and asked them if they thought it implied anything, and that is also what they came up with. From hints to statements bordering on just outright saying so, Mr. Mclaren certainly gives the impression that he thinks a person can follow God and participate in His plan for the planet--which, judging from many of Mr. McLaren's statements, amounts to salvation in his view--without necessarily believing in Jesus.
As a follower of God in the way of Jesus, I've been involved in a profoundly interesting and enjoyable conversation for the last ten years or so. It's a conversation about what it means to be "a new kind of Christian"--not an angry and reactionary fundamentalist, not a stuffy traditionalist, not a blase nominalist, not a wishy-wasy liberal, not a New Agey religious hipster, not a crusading religious imperialist, and not an overly enthused Bible-waving fanatic--but something fresh and authentic and challenging and adventurous.I can't help but note that Mr. McLaren has pretty much written off all the "old kinds" of Christian as not "fresh, authentic, challenging, and adventurous." It seems to me that he executes this sort of off-handed slap with considerable regularity, so much so that hardly any segment of Christianity other than Emergent escapes his insults--and yet, he complains of how he is spoken of by the very people he has so viciously criticized.
...when I was a pastor, people often asked my opinion on hot-button issues like evolution, abortion, and homosexuality. The problem was that after discussing those issues in all of their importance and intensity, I couldn't help asking other questions: Why do we need to have singular and firm opinions on the protection of the unborn, but not about how to help poor people and how to avoid killing people labeled enemies who are already born?I can't help but wonder if it hasn't occurred to him that such words sound like an attempt to distract attention from the fact that he's not really answering the questions put to him. And that the answers one gives to evolution, abortion, and homosexuality have huge implications and effects for and on both the way one interprets scripture and the answers to some of his counter-questions. For example, the debate over abortion concerns, in large part, just what it means to be a person. How can you talk coherently about what to do about how to help people, or how to avoid killing people, if you haven't yet figured out what it means to be "people?"
Or why are we so concerned about the legitimacy of homosexual marriage but not about the legitimacy of fossil fuels or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (and in particular, our weapons as opposed to theirs)? Or why are so many religious people arguing about the origin of species but so few concerned about the extinction of species?
I must also note that in typically indirect and off-handed fashion, Mr. McLaren does, in fact, answer the question about evolution later in the book, as he talks about millions of years of evolution without any doubt whatsoever that it is fact and not theory.
...something our best theologians have been saying for quite a while...I'd kind of like to know who the "best theologians" are, but Mr. McLaren doesn't say, not even in the endnotes. One can't help but wonder if the "best theologians" don't turn out to be the ones who agree with Mr. McLaren.
We can rediscover what it can mean to call Jesus Savior and Lord when we raise the question of what exactly he intended to save us from. (His angry Father? The logical consequences of our actions? Our tendency to act in ways that produce undesirable logical consequences? Global self-destruction?)One can't help but wonder if any of the choices provided amounts to "sin" in different words. I can't help but think of verses like Matthew 1:21, emphasis mine:
She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."