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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Book Review: Brian McLaren's The Secret Message of Jesus

This is another old review that saw publication in a previous blogging incarnation. There is one more, on Mr. McLaren's Everything Must Change, that I will republish soon.
When I initially said that I was going to read and review this book, I said that I would read it twice. I am backing down from that. I am backing down from it because this book has done the one thing that, whether I agree or disagree with it, I really hate for a book to do:

It bored me. I'm sorry, genties and ladlemen. It did. The first fifty pages were engaging enough, even though I disagreed with things here and there. But after that? All the zip went out of it. Even the parts that I disagreed with didn't get my circulation going. I refuse to make myself sit through it a second time.

But shoot--that doesn't mean that there aren't things to say about it, does it? As a matter of fact, there is too much--waaaaay too much to say about it, and I really did have hopes of keeping this review shorter than the last one, cut-and-dried, short-and-sweet. Ain't gonna happen.

Another thing I said before I began to read this book: I said that I was going to try to approach it as though working from a tabula rasa, as though I had never read anything from or about Mr. McLaren and his views. I said that before (if memory serves) reading A Generous Orthodoxy, and since reading that book, I have found it impossible to follow my originally-planned approach to this one. This is largely because I don't see anywhere in this book wherein Mr. McLaren has repudiated his postmodern approach to Scripture, which again, judging from the foreword to A Generous Orthodoxy and much other commentary within that book, is critical of certain, objective, and universal knowledge. This seems to be true in spite of his flirtation with the correspondence theory of truth
A lot of people say, "It doesn't matter what you believe, as long as you're sincere." They're partly right: sincerity is a precious thing, and arguments about who has the correct beliefs have too often led to arrogance, ugly arguments, and even violence. But believing untrue things, however sincerely, can have its own unintended consequences.

For example, try believing that God will be pleased if you fly an airplane into a tall building, that you can get away with embezzling funds, that you have a personal
exemption from sexual propriety, or that your race or religion makes you superior to members of other races or religions. You will become someone nobody respects,
including (eventually) you.

But seeking to believe what is true--seeking to see things as closely as possible to the way they really are, seeking to be faithful to what is and was and will be--puts you increasingly in touch with reality and helps you become a wise and good person. It can also make life a lot more meaningful, and enjoyable. For example, if you have a huge inheritance in the bank and don't believe it, or if somebody really loves you and you don't believe it, you're missing out on a lot, right? Having truer beliefs--beliefs more aligned with reality--makes all the difference.
as all this says nothing that would indicate that Mr. McLaren believes that you can have certain, objective, and universal knowledge of that truth (that is, knowledge that is not particular to you, knowledge of a reality that is the same from person to person, regardless of their background, biases, etc.).This is important to me; it has become clear that nothing Mr. McLaren says can be properly appreciated without taking his understanding of knowledge into account. As a result, it is tempting--extremely tempting--to examine each and every assertion in The Secret Message of Jesus and ask whether, under premises previously acknowledged in Mr. McLaren's work, they make any sense.

Not to be far too obvious about it, but to begin with, if Jesus had a secret message, would it be possible under those premises to know it for certain? To know it apart from your own biases and shortcomings, that is, objectively? To know it in such a way that another person could know it that way, that is, that knowledge of it could be universal? Could two different people, each with their own biases and shortcomings, know the same secret message of Jesus? The answer seems obvious and--not unexpectedly--undermines the whole book before it even gets started.

This weakness seems to be characteristic of many writers these days. Their objective often seems to be to point out that you are limited and fallible and therefore should be humble enough to admit that you might be wrong, but in establishing their premises, they also undermine them, arriving immediately at a state of "knowledge" wherein you cannot really know anything but cannot know that you do not know it. Since no man, in practice, can live or reason like this on a consistent basis, everyone who tries it winds up inconsistent, often revealing obvious biases in what they choose to attack as unknowable or what they choose to affirm as part of their worldview. In practical terms, then, what happens is that if a writer finds that objectively knowing something weakens his case, he will, in that context, attack its knowability, but if objectively knowing something helps his case, he simply writes as though everyone can see that it is true, effectively ignoring previous utterances about certainty, objectivity, and universality whenever it suits his purpose. In my opinion, this sort of thing is quite characteristic of both A Generous Orthodoxy and The Secret Message of Jesus.

The thrust of this book is that Jesus did, in fact, have a secret message, secret because Jesus deliberately couched it in parable and metaphor so that understanding it would require enough of a personal investment on the part of the seeker that the message would not then be casually tossed aside the way so many things that are achieved without a little "sweat equity" are. As Mr. McLaren says:
Why did Jesus speak in parables? Why was he subtle, indirect, and secretive?

Because his message wasn't merely aimed at conveying information. It sought to precipitate something more important: the spiritual transformation of the hearers. The form of a parable helps to shape a heart that is willing to enter an ongoing, interactive, persistent relationship of trust in the teacher. It beckons the hearer to explore new territory. It helps form a heart that is humble enough to admit it doesn't already understand and is thirsty enough to ask questions.
The question immediately arises, though: if being subtle, indirect, and secretive are keys to spiritual transformation, wouldn't explaining this--or Jesus' "secret" message--actually be counterproductive? But we'll table that for now.

What exactly is this secret message? As seems (to judge from the two of his books that I've read) not uncommon with Mr. McLaren, it is a little bit hard to find one clear, explicit statement. In fact, given that Mr. McLaren tells you right up front, in his introduction, that he doesn't know what the secret message is himself
No, I can't tell you that I have it all figured out, but I can tell you I am confident that I'm on to something. After many years of searching, struggling, questioning, doubting, wondering, walking away frustrated, returning, rereading, and starting all over again, I've seen a few things that are making the pieces come together for me and many others. If I'm not at that point in the movie where the rush of insight happens, I'm right on the verge of it. Maybe as I write the pages you're about to read, more will come clear and I'll cross the threshold to a new degree of understanding.
it's not at all surprising to find that it's hard to find a clear, explicit statement of what the secret message is.

I can't help but pause for a moment to note that that quote, more than anything else I've read from his pen, has convinced me that Mr. McLaren has nerves of steel. My word, but it takes nerve to write a book whose thesis appears to be, "We've gotten it wrong for centuries, but I think I'm on the verge of putting us on the right track. Please bear with me." Nerves of steel, as I said, would be required to sell it for twenty bucks a copy--but that's what Mr. McLaren has done. Nothing immoral about it, I suppose, but definitely nervy.

But I digress. I think that if one strings together a quote from this page and that page (The following quotes are not contiguous, that is, you have to turn from page to page to get the whole idea), you might get a pretty good idea of what Mr. McLaren thinks the secret message is:
What is that alternative? It is to see, seek, receive, and enter a new political and social and spiritual reality he calls the kingdom (or empire) of God, or the kingdom (or empire) of heaven. the kingdom of God, the ultimate authority is not Caesar but rather the Creator. And you find your identity--your citizenship--not in Rome but rather in a spiritual realm, in the presence of God (which is what heaven means...)

I believe that Jesus' message of the kingdom of God becomes especially clear in this fourth context, one which actually includes and combines the other three. A new
day is coming--a new earth, a new world order, a new reality, a new realm--in short, a new kingdom. In that new reality, the poor and rejected will be embraced and valued and brought back into the community. In that new era, what will count is what is in the heart--not merely what is projected, pretended, or professed. In that new realm, evil in all its forms will be exposed, named, and dealt with. In that new kingdom, justice, integrity, and peace will overcome.

...Jesus says again and again, this kingdom advances with neither violence nor bloodshed, with neither hatred nor revenge. It is not just another one of the kingdoms of this world. No, this kingdom advances slowly, quietly, under the sruface--like yeast in dough, like a seed in soil. It advances with faith: when people believe it is true, it becomes true. And it advances with reconciling, forgiving love: when people love strangers and enemies, the kingdom gains ground.
Putting it together, then, with an impression gleaned here, an ambiguous comment there, etc., I don't think I am too far off when I say that Mr. McLaren conceives Jesus' secret message to be:
I (that is, Jesus) am making it possible through my work on the cross for the whole world to be reconciled to God; you can be part of this reconciliation, and if you will all turn away from your self-centered, selfish point of view and love, and demonstrate that love in the sacrificial way that I do, this message of reconciliation will eventually spread throughout the whole world and it will all be reconciled to God and it will be just the way He always dreamed it would be.
And the fact of the matter is that as far it goes, as far as what it says (again, recognizing that I am attempting to paraphrase and summarize Mr. McLaren's ideas) directly, this is not bad. In some respects, it strikes me as a bit similar to amillenialism, the idea that there will be no thousand-year reign of Christ, but rather, a thousand-year period during which
the church--paraphrasing crudely here--christianizes the whole world, and then Jesus will come back. And truthfully, if this is all there was to the book, if all that Mr. McLaren was doing therein was exploring some eschatological ideas, I don't know that I would have very much problem with it.

Prophecy, genties and ladlemen, can be very confusing. I don't pretend to be an expert and I tend automatically to question the judgment of anyone who thinks he is. While there are some prophecies that are very clear and direct (God said Tyre would be scraped flat and used as a place for fishermen to dry out their nets, and lo and behold--that is just what happened), there are others that--as yet--are not quite so clear. It has often seemed to me that many prophecies are only clearly understood after--perhaps in the midst of--their fulfillment. Some of the prophecies in the book of Daniel are like that. Other prophecies appear to be capable of multiple fulfillments. The upshot is that I don't particularly blame a person for having a different view of end-times prophecy than I do (I tend pre-mil, post-trib--though I wouldn't describe myself as a dispensationalist) and Mr. McLaren holding a point of view not terribly dissimilar from amillennialism would, for me, be a big "So, what?"

No, the problems I have with Mr. McLaren's book have little to do with his eschatological views. The problems tend to be with things he implies, things--sometimes critical things--he leaves unsaid or unaddressed, and with his presuppositions, assumptions, and methodology.

First Problem:

I almost hesitate to bring this up, but after a while, it gets so noticeable as to be almost impossible not to talk about it. I am referring to what--at least so it seems to me--a strong tendency on the part of Mr. McLaren to talk, not only as if only he and his crowd "get it," but as if they are they the only ones who want to get it. To my mind, a sort of...well, more-spiritual-than-thou, more-open-minded-than-thou snootiness pervades the book:
Would we want to know what that message is?

How much? Would we be willing to look hard, think deeply, and search long in order to find it? Would we be willing to rethink our assumptions?
Now, genties and ladlemen, earlier in the introduction, Mr. McLaren has already indicated that he would be so willing:
The goal of my exploration is to understand
Jesus--and, in particular, his message...
and it is a little difficult not to think that should one not end up agreeing with Mr. McLaren, that it will be put down to one's closed-mindedness, one's unwillingness to look hard, think deeply, search long, and rethink assumptions.
For me, these aren't just theoretical questions.
Possibly for everyone else, they are just intellectual playthings? Not for the first time I find myself wondering if Mr. McLaren really thinks that these questions haven't been asked, time and again, by enormous numbers of people within the church throughout its history.

Quoting a blurb from Tony Campolo:
Brian McLaren has done it again.
That's understating the matter a little. I didn't even get through two whole pages of The Secret Message of Jesus before something made me sputter:
For many years, I have been seeking something. You might call it a spiritual quest or maybe a personal obsession. The goal of my exploration is to understand Jesus--and, in particular, his message...

Some people think that a spiritual quest of any kind is a colossal waste of time. For them, the only things that are real are those that can be proven and measured...

Others think my search is a waste of time for a different reason. They think they've got Jesus and his message figured out, reduced to their own kind of mathematics...
One cannot help but note at this point that Mr. McLaren has said, in his introduction to the book, that he almost has Jesus' secret message figured out--is so close, in fact, that he thinks it possible that writing the book my give him the final burst of insight for which he is looking. Why, one wonders, would it be a problem for the "others" he mentions here to think that they've got Jesus and His message figured out, but it will not be a problem for Mr. McLaren and his acolytes to have it figured out? He is seeking to figure it out, is he not?
But many people seem to share my hunch that neither a formulaic religious approach nor a materialistic secular approach has it all nailed down.
And right there, I just 'bout came unglued, as we ignernt ol' rednecks sometimes say. The set-up, and that last line in particular, is simultaneously a logical error (the fallacy of the false alternative, that is, the choice is not just between "a formulaic religious approach" and "a materialistic secular approach") and insulting--that is, if you don't share Mr. McLaren's hunch, your religion is apparently purely a matter of formula. I'm sure he didn't mean it that way and I forgive him, but it is hard not to notice that in Mr. McLaren's world, those who disagree with him get pigeonholed in mighty unflattering terms mighty cotton-pickin' quick. Kind of odd behavior for someone who seems to strive very hard to avoid being pigeonholed himself.

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? What if his secret message had practical implications for such issues as how you live your daily life, how you earn and spend money, how you treat people of other races and religions, and how the nations of the world conduct their foreign policy? What if his message directly or indirectly addressed issues like advertising, environmentalism, terrorism, economics, sexuality, marriage, parenting, the quest for happiness and peace, and racial reconciliation?
I am really trying not to be over-sensitive here, but it is really hard to escape the idea that Mr. McLaren honestly thinks that possibly, just possibly, the idea that Jesus' teaching is supposed to touch all of life has escaped most Christians.

Second problem:

It seems to me that Mr. McLaren has a tendency to portray things in such a way that it seems, on the surface, as though the possibilities he presents are the only valid ones. In particular, he seems prone to the fallacy of the false alternative. This is probably not intentional, but it seems to be persistent. For example, from the introduction:
Think of all the people who in recent years have read (or seen) The Da Vinci Code--not just as a popular page-turner but as an experience in shared frustration with the status-quo, male-dominated, power-oriented, cover-up prone organized Christian religion? Why is the vision of Jesus hinted at in Dan Brown's book more interesting, more attractive, and more intriguing to these people than the standard version of Jesus they hear about from churches? Why would they be disappointed to find that Brown's version of Jesus has been largely discredited as fanciful and inaccurate, leaving only the church's conventional version? Is it possible that even though Brown's fictional version misleads in many ways, it at least serves to open up the possibility that the church's conventional versions of Jesus may not do him justice?
Now, look at that: as far as I can tell from Mr. McLaren's text, the only possible reason that people could have rushed to embrace the non-divine Jesus Dan Brown depicts is that they are dissatisfied with the awful way the Church presents Jesus. But is that necessarily the only reason? Is it possible that people sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way...
That people
...knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.
That people willingly
the truth about God for a lie...
and that they
...did not see fit to acknowledge God
and that they are, by nature and by
...haters of God...(?)
That, in short, people flocked to read The Da Vinci Code because they wanted another excuse not to believe in the only one who can help them? One can't help but wonder if that line of thinking even occurred to Mr. McLaren. It is certainly not evident in the text.

Another example:
Now, back to Nicodemus. He comes to Jesus at night and begins with a compliment: "It's obvious you're a great teacher. We're all very
impressed with your miracles, which make it clear that God is with you." Jesus doesn't respond with a polite "Thanks for the compliment." Instead, he cuts to the chase and says, "Unless you are born anew, you won't enter the kingdom of God" (see John 3:2-3).

Born anew or born again, like eternal life, is another frequently misunderstood phrase, one that many people make equivalent to saying a prayer at the end of a booklet or tract, or having an emotional experience at the end of a church service. It often signifies a status achieved through some belief or experience, so that it becomes an adjective: "I'm a born-again Christian." But it's clear that Jesus isn't just talking about a religious experience or status Nicodemus needs to acquire like some sort of certification. No, Jesus is saying, "Nicodemus, you're a Pharisee. You're a respected teacher yourself. But if you are coming to me hoping to experience the extraordinary life to the full I've been teaching about, you are going to have to go back to the very beginning. You're going to have to become like a baby all over again, to unlearn everything you are already so sure of, so you can be retaught."
Mr McLaren talks about this passage a little more, but this is the portion that I am interested in. I am interested in it for two reasons: first, because in this passage, despite his earlier flirtation with the correspondence theory of truth, Mr. McLaren has jumped back on his you-shouldn't-be-sure horse with a vengeance. And second, because what Mr. McLaren represents Jesus as having said here isn't quite what he is recorded as having said.

Jesus didn't say that Nicodemus had to become like a baby again. He didn't say that Nicodemus had to unlearn what he knew. He said--to my mind, very clearly, despite Mr. McLaren's characterization of Jesus' words as unclear--that Nicodemus needed a new kind of life in addition to, not instead of, the one he already possessed--though having the new kind of life, as is seen later, changes what one does with the old kind. Here is the passage, in the English Standard Version:
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man
came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him."

Jesus answered him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God."

Nicodemus said to him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?"

Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
And next Jesus explains what He means:
That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."
This is not terribly ambiguous or unclear. Nicodemus had already been born once--he had been born of the flesh. But he did not yet have spiritual life. To have spiritual life, Nicodemus needed to be born spiritually just as he had been born of the flesh. And just like no one really understands how the wind works, but everyone hears it and understands that it is there, so no one on earth really, fully, understands just how God works the New Birth, but its presence can be detected. There is no "unlearning" process here, either explicitly or implicitly. Sad to say, that appears to be pure eisegesis on Mr. McLaren's part. Instead of "unlearning," what we have is the gift of a new kind of life, a life that Nicodemus did not previously have nor understand how to get, something that he was powerless to achieve on his own--which would, of course, leave the whole thing in the hands of God. To my mind, Mr. McLaren has presented a partial and misleading picture of Nicodemus' story to buttress his particular view of what it means to be "born again."

As an aside (though we will return to this subject shortly), I can't help but wonder if Mr. McLaren's repeated sarcastic references (in this book and in A Generous
) to the "machine-operator God" of Calvinism don't explain Mr. McLaren's view of this passage. Is it possible that he so dislikes the idea of a God who says, emphasis mine
"Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose...'
that he will not see how this passage leaves all the initiative up to God and not to Nicodemus? One would be hard-pressed to blame someone for thinking so.

Another somewhat misleading--again, probably not intentionally so--use of a Scriptural portrayal, this one describing Jesus:
He is a king who acts like a servant by washing his disciples' feet, who rides a humble donkey rather than a warrior's stallion, who rules not from a throne but from a cross, who brings peace not by shedding the blood of others but by bleeding and suffering himself...
All of which is true enough as far as it goes, but it doesn't go nearly far enough. It leaves out another picture of Jesus:
Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges
and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.
Third problem:

There's an awful lot that Mr. McLaren doesn't say in this book. That is not too much of a surprise; he didn't say it in A Generous Orthodoxy, either.

Mr. McLaren mentions more than once that Jesus' work, or suffering, upon the cross makes it possible for us to be reconciled to God, but he never--that I noticed, except for a brief vignette from years ago, wherein someone suggests to him that he might be wrong about what the gospel is--talks about Him being punished for our sin. Instead, the emphasis seems to be on how the cross exposed sin so that it might be seen for what it is and "dealt with." Which brings up the next point:

Mr. McLaren never really comes to grips with how that sin is "dealt with." While he does spend some time acknowledging that part of the purpose of the parables was to
exclude those who didn't want to understand, he never really talks about how that exclusion is ultimately resolved. Aside from something of a suggestion that judgment may not be all fire-and-brimstone:
...Jesus spoke of coming judgment on injustice and hypocrisy. For the ancient prophets, judgment didn't mean that people would be thrown into hell. Rather, it meant that their evil would be exposed and named, and they would suffer consequences of their evil in history, in this life.
from which one might reasonably get the idea that God's judgment might be closely akin to public humiliation, the subject isn't really addressed.

Mr. McLaren (again, for he did the same thing in A Generous Orthodoxy) doesn't clearly explain what he means by "inclusive" and "exclusive," and leaves the strong
impression that people who don't believe in Jesus will wind up in the Kingdom.
What if the message of Jesus was good news--not just for Christians but also for Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, New Agers, agnostics, and atheists?
Does this mean that a Muslim, remaining Muslim--which entails a direct denial of the divinity of Christ and salvation by grace through faith--will be in the kingdom of God? Or does Mr. McLaren mean that the Muslim will eventually come 'round to faith in Christ? Or does this mean only that the Muslim will experience some of God's blessing in the way that God sends His rain upon both the just and the unjust? If Mr. McLaren ever addresses this clearly and directly, I missed it. This following material seems to be as close to addressing the subject as Mr. McLaren ever gets. And I'm sorry, but I have found it too hard to resist inserting some commentary of my own.
What was true for Jesus' contemporaries--that they could miss the kingdom while those from "east and west and north and south" would come in and enjoy the feast--could certainly be true for adherents to the Christian religion today. Wouldn't it be fascinating if thousands of Muslims, alienated with where fundamentalists and extremists have taken their religion...
"Fundamentalists and extremists"? Those "fundamentalists and extremists" are doing exactly what Muhammad did, exactly what the Q'uran tells them to do. When Muhammad himself was given to things like having his critics beheaded and conquering and killing or subjecting to dhimmi-tude non-Muslims, how is it that Mr. McLaren can label any Muslim following Muhammad's example an extremist?
...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?
Two things to note: first, one does not take a place at the feast under discussion without believing in Jesus as Lord and Savior, in which case one is no longer a follower of Islam, no longer a Muslim; and second, Islam, as exemplified in the life of its founder, has nothing but dark side. There is no rescuing it; there is only abandoning it.
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
One cannot miss the significance of the word "former." It is attached to "atheist" and "agnostic," it apparently being too much for Mr. McLaren to contemplate a person who didn't even believe in God at all to sit down at a feast He puts on, but is not attached to "Buddhist" or "Hindu." One can't help but wonder if Mr. McLaren means that there will be former Buddhists and Hindus at the feast, and if this was merely a slip of the keyboard, in which case I would say a hearty "Amen! There certainly will be former Buddhists and Hindus and Wiccans and Neo-Pagans and thises and thatses at the feast! Amen!" But if it was intentional, does Mr. McLaren really mean to say that at this feast there will be people who don't believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior? Buddhism and Christianity are not really compatible belief-systems, you know. A Buddhist believes that through right living, he can escape the wheel of karma, endless reincarnation, and become one with an impersonal ultimate; a Christian believes that by trusting in Jesus, the trust itself being a gift of God, he will not bear the punishment he so richly deserves, that Jesus has borne it for him, and that he will then spend eternity--starting right then!--serving and glorifying his God and Savior (often, maybe even mostly, by acts of service and kindness to others), who is personal, that is, is a person. A common belief that right actions are important does not, by itself, make the two views compatible and does not mean that non-believers will be at the feast. But, like I say, Mr. McLaren never really resolves this question and just leaves you wondering.

I must return, at this point, to the story of Nicodemus:
Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?"

Jesus answered him, "Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man
be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God."
I quoted more of this passage because there are elements in it that give some of Mr. McLaren's ideas more trouble. Note the contrast between perish and eternal life. Mr. McLaren is fond of noting that there is more to eternal life than going to Heaven when you die (and I would certainly agree with that much), but he makes it out as though "eternal life" is...well, let's quote the man:
..."an extraordinary life to the full centered in a relationship with God."
which strikes me as one of those things that's true as far as it goes, but it doesn't go nearly far enough. Often, what you don't say is every bit as important as what you do say. One could easily--far too easily!--get the impression from Mr. McLaren's definition that not having "eternal life" would mean merely missing out on "an extraordinary life to the full." But that is not the case. Jesus contrasted--again, very clearly--"perish" and "eternal life." If one does not have "eternal life," one "perishes." That is a little more severe than Mr. McLaren seems to like to make it out to be. Note also that Jesus--inclusive as always--said very clearly that whoever does not believe is condemned. That is pretty strong stuff. It doesn't seem to leave a whole lot of room for the sort of "inclusiveness" that Mr. McLaren keeps hinting at. And given that it doesn't leave a whole lot of room for it, I can't help but think we have a responsibility to warn people--even if some don't see that as inclusive behavior.

Fourth problem:

Mr. McLaren still, it seems to me, resolves the problem of how he knows something when he rejects--one cannot be reminded of this too much--certain, objective, and
universal knowledge by allowing his feelings to be the final arbiter of truth. Emphasis mine:
p. 5 But through these years, an uncomfortable feeling has showed me that the portrait of Jesus I found in the New Testament didn't fit with the image of Christianity projected by religious institutions, charismatic televangelists, religious spokespeople in the media--and sometimes, my own preaching.
Not his reasoning, not his exegesis. An uncomfortable feeling.

Fifth problem, and the last I'll be discussing in this review, though there are others:

Mr. McLaren's loathing of the "machine-operator god"--I still don't think it's too much to say that he is openly embracing Open Theism--coupled with the idea that the Kingdom of God spreads from person to person, bit by bit, as we are faithful to serve and to share it, pretty much inevitably leads to the idea that part of Jesus' secret message is that this whole enterprise can fail, that God's purposes can fail to be realized.
...I often struggle with how to paraphrase the clause "your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

..."the will of God" can evoke the idea of a despot, a tyrant, a puppeteer, a deterministic machine operator imposing his will, turning a prayer for liberation into a plea for an end to free will. (Of course, if God were such a controlling God, it's hard to imagine how such a prayer would ever become necessary in the first place!) Since the language of "will" can take us down a trail of control, domination, and coercion, and since I don't believe those ideas are in Jesus' mind at all, I have looked for other words.

The Greek word that lies beneath our English word will can also be translated wish. But to say, "May your wish come true" sounds rather fairy tale-ish and
creates other problems. But I have found the idea of "the dream of God for creation" does the job quite nicely. "Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" could thus be rendered, "May all your dreams for your creation come true." This language suggests a more personal, less mechanistic relationship between God
and our world.
It also suggests that God might not be in control, that things just might not turn out the way He wants. Again, to my mind, this sort of view of God flies in the face of Biblical material that says very clearly that God will accomplish all His purposes.

I do not understand all there is to know and understand about the relationship between man's free choices (not man's free will. The will is not free. It is a very common mistake to confuse free choice and free will.) and God's sovereign will. I would love to, but I don't think that I ever will. To understand it all would require that I become God, I think.

The upshot of the book: The Secret Message of Jesus amounts to this: We can be on the team that is trying to save the world, and we should be trying to grow the team and we should do that at least as much through deeds and example as through words. But it may be possible that the world won't end up getting saved if we don't do our part. And more people than you think may wind up being on the team. In addition to this--and this is one part of the book that I did like--there are some very practical suggestions about how to do good to your neighbors, and a great deal of what I would regard as speculation.

If that's worth twenty simoleons to you, go get it.

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