How Much Do You Have to Hate Someone Not to Proselytize?

Francis Schaeffer on the Origins of Relativism in the Church

One of My Favorite Songs

An Inspiring Song


Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Weird Thing About Kata

It wasn't that many years ago that you could very easily find people in the martial arts world completely dismissing the practice of kata. A lot of people thought it was stupid.

I never thought kata was stupid, not even when I had no real clue what I was doing with it. You see, I took it for granted that the people who created and preserved the kata weren't idiots. I had enough common sense, just barely, to realize that there had to be a purpose to those things we called "chambers." Had to be. Only an idiot would take such a position without a darn good reason, so I figured there had to be a reason. I just didn't know what it was.

The other day, over at Okinawan Fighting Art: Isshin Ryu, Mr. James published, making reference in the process to something that Shotokan's Rob Redmond wrote, Elmar Schmeisser's rules for interpreting kata. There are, of course, other sets of rules for interpreting kata. There are the rules that Toguchi Seikichi said that Miyagi Chojun gave him (read this), which the authors of The Way of Kata expound in even more detail. Then there is the approach that Javier Martinez takes in Okinawan Karate, The Secret Art of Tuite. (This seems to be out of print. Amusingly, someone has priced the only used copy that Amazon lists at almost a thousand simoleons. It was an interesting book, but I guarantee you, it ain't worth that much. You could buy the whole set of Taika Seiyu Oyata's tapes for half that, and you could buy everything that Yang Jwing-Ming has written about chin na for less than a couple hundred, I'm sure.

On the other hand, I do own a copy that's in pretty good shape. I'll let it go for a comparative pittance--say, five hundred bucks. Anybody up for that?) Bruce Clayton seems to take another approach in Shotokan's Secret. The RyuTe Renmei, under Taika Seiyu Oyata's guidance and leadership, uses yet another approach. It will surprise no one that I am most impressed with RyuTe's approach. It consistently produces an effect known in the blogosphere as either headdesk or facepalm, that is, when you, if you come to RyuTe from a different system, as I did, and you see some of the RyuTe applications for all those movements you've wondered about for years, they are so intuitively obvious that you immediately want to slap yourself silly for not having seen it before.

But you know what's weird? It seems to me that all of the interpretive approaches I mentioned above (and I'm sure that I've left some out) yield at least some usable techniques. This is in spite of the fact that sometimes those methods seem dramatically different from one another. One method I've read insists that the movements of the kata be followed in order; that method produces at least some usable techniques. Another method considers the movements as though they are linked in modules. Here is what you do if the opponent grabs your wrist. Then, if he does this, you do that. And if that, then this. That method also produces at least some usable techniques. They all produce at least some usable techniques.

It seems to me that no matter what approach you take to interpreting the kata, if you do the creators and preservers of the kata this one favor, that of assuming that they weren't complete fools and really look hard for useful techniques, the kata will do you the favor of yielding up at least some of its secrets to you.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Widdle Bit Atfay, Are We?

If so, read this. Heck, read it even if you ain't carryin' an extra ounce. Here's a short snip:
Latest figures confirm the ridiculous: three out of four of you will be ‘overweight or obese’ by 2020. To gauge perspective: there are now more ‘fat’ people than ‘white’ people in America. Perhaps our bigots of the future will swing their hatred away from ‘race’ to the slim and healthy.

The shrinking minority are, indeed, the shrinking minority.

Stupid? Welcome to a population who know less about what they put into their mouths than they do about, well, take your pick…celebrities or cars or American Idol or iPhones? Animals have the intelligence to know what to eat and to never get fat (except the ones fed by humans). Yet that simple challenge, gaining nourishment without destroying the body, is beyond your capabilities?
OK, I know what you're thinkin': "How heavy are you, Mr. Wiseacre?" About fifteen pounds too heavy, and gradually shrinkin'. Excellent pulse rate and blood pressure. The "gradually shrinkin'" part is due almost solely to gradually just paying more attention to what I cook at home.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Mercy in the Melee: Another Answer to "What is Karate?"

My blogospheric friend, Dr. Pat Parker--cardiac rehab guy, martial artist, notorious Presbyterian, and jalapeno-grower extraordinaire--occasionally posts video clips and or commentary answering the question, "What is karate?" They are always informative and interesting and have inspired me to take a stab at answering the question in my own way.

What is karate? The simplest answer is that, as far as my reading is concerned (I don't pretend to be an expert, or to have actually been to Okinawa, or to speak the language, etc., etc., etc.), it is the unarmed portion of the warrior-class martial arts of the Ryukyu archipelago, though it is not really easy to totally separate it from the weapons arts of that area, and in my not-so-expert opinion, they really should be considered together.

On a technical level, karate is a multifaceted art, comprised of a blend of indigenous Okinawan technique influenced by the continuous importation and reimportation of Chinese martial arts. Okinawan ti and tegumi seem to have influenced it, and it soaked up what the famous Chinese families of Kuninda brought to Okinawa, and what visiting Chinese emissaries and merchants brought--Monk Fist and Tiger Fist and White Crane, and probably others. As far as I can tell--and God knows this isn't authoritative, it is just my opinion--some of its footwork and certain other elements may have been influenced by the sword handling of the Japanese.

It makes brilliant use of the mechanics of human perception, that is--by the closest analogy I can make--like stage magic, it takes advantage of the way people naturally perceive and react to movement, so that often, the person on the receiving end of a technique never really sees it coming. Nerve techniques are everywhere, in the strikes, locks, and throws. All of this was "cooked," if you will, into a state of extreme efficiency by the pressures of dealing with the Okinawan political situation in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

Obviously, this body of knowledge is better preserved in some modern karate organizations than others. Some, including some of the largest and most famous, seemed, until recently, to have been completely unaware that their formal exercises, or kata, contained much in the way of joint locks, for example, let alone nerve techniques. It will come as no surprise to regular readers that I am convinced that this body of knowledge is best preserved in RyuTe.

But that is not all there is to karate. Karate, certainly as it has been taught to me in RyuTe, and generally throughout Okinawa, to judge from what I have heard and read, is also characterized by a profound respect for the value of human life--not only the defender's life, not only the lives of those being defended, but also the attacker's life. It is true that karate has its share of potentially lethal and disabling techniques, but killing and crippling opponents is not its goal. Its goal is to protect life. Ultimately, it is an expression of mercy--mercy shown to your own family, in the act of going home alive and unharmed, that you may continue to contribut to their well-being and development; mercy toward the defenseless, whom you may end up protecting, that they may do likewise; and mercy to attackers, that they might live to see the error of their ways and to embrace a new way of living.

The goal in karate is to protect human life wherever possible. It is mercy in conflict, mercy in the arena, mercy in the melee.

That's what karate is.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Book Review: Brian McLaren's Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope

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 love
in 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
actual content.

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 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 love
in order to save the planet and all its creatures to become the planet and system God dreams of.
I'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:
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:

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 finite
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
withdrawal narrative.
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.
Our 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."
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.

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).

...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.
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.

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 a
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?
I 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.

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.

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.
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) 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...

"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.
may seem funny, but they are also very misleading. I've been in evangelical churches for about
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?

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 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?"

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."

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.