Book #18 this year: The Secret Message of Jesus by Brian D. McLaren. I wasn't sure what to expect, after reading and mostly enjoying A New Kind of Christian. The title (and chapter titles) certainly plays on the DaVinci Code frenzy, implying something hidden that we've missed from Jesus. I read some unflattering reviews, but primarily, frankly, from critics I don't normally agree with anyway...
I really like the book. In fact, I like it so much, and like how it is written (an easy read, challenging, but simple language and easy to understand arguments) that I think I'm going to use it as a book study in my congregation this fall.
The book is about the kingdom of God, and what Jesus meant by talking about the kingdom of God. You might argue that this isn't a new concept, a critique which McLaren addresses, but his point is that we've missed the point(!) when we talk about the kingdom of God and what it means. McLaren offers several working definitions/re-imaginings of the concept of the kingdom of God, but the simple early definition he offers is: "an extraordinary life to the full centered in relationship with God." (pg. 37) His focus is very much on the "right-nowness" of the kingdom, and I'll agree with him that in much of the church this "right-nowness," the near and at-hand that Jesus always talked about, has been absent. He says "we are under a gentle, compassionate assault by a kingdom of peace and healing and forgiveness and life." (pg. 60)
In a particularly good chapter ("Secret Agents of the Secret Kingdom") McLaren writes "We may have tried to make people 'nice' - quite citizens of their earthly kingdoms and energetic consumers in their earthly economies - but we didn't fire them up and inspire them to invest and sacrifice their time, intelligence, money, and energy in the revolutionary cause of the kingdom of God." (pg. 84) He imagines what world might look like if we sought to become "secret agents" of the kingdom, living as active, leading participants of the kingdom no matter what place we are in right now. The images he uses here are fun and challenging but also convey a sense of possibility and "I can do this."
In a later chapter ("The Open Secret"), McLaren does interesting work with Paul's letters and relating them to the kingdom language Jesus uses, arguing against saying that Paul's letters are about "Paulianity" instead of "Christianity" as some would argue. I think I need to reread this section with a Bible in hand so I can better see the context of the passage he lifts out for examination.
As I was reading, I felt like several sections gave me completely new ways of looking at certain gospel passages. I kept thinking to myself - remember this! Write this down! Good sermon starter! But of course, flipping back through the pages and reading my margin-scribbles, it all seems a blur. One that I do remember is a source McLaren uses - a passage from philosopher Dallas Willard who does a great rereading of Matthew 5:29-30 (that part about plucking out your sinful eyes and such). Willard says that Jesus "reduces [the Pharisees'] principle . . . to the absurd, in hope that they will forsake their principle." (pg. 124) Huh.
McLaren also address "Borders of the Kingdom", forwarding a principle of "purposeful inclusion." Is it "whoever is not against us is for us"? Or, "whoever is not for us is against us"?
Overall, I found this very readable, but challenging, and as I mentioned above, I am using this book as a study book this fall. (There are some study guide helps included. Not extensive, but a starting point.) With this second read from McLaren, I'm more intrigued by him and where he's going.
I'll close with a great passage McLaren closed with - a poem written by Archbishop Oscar Romero called "A Future Not Our Own."
It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection . . .
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about:
We plant sees that will one day grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning step, a step along the way,
and opportunity for God's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results . . .
We are prophets of a future not our own.