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Refreshing, Provocative, and Inspiring,
This review is from: The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything (Hardcover)
The provocative title alone is enough to grab one's attention. In fact, I have been reading scathing reviews/criticism of the title for weeks on other sites written by people who haven't even read the book. I guess I'm a little different. I felt that I should probably actually read the book before I presumed to comment on it (crazy, I know). Now, having read the the book ), I'll share my thoughts on what I have (actually) read.
I'll begin my admitting my bias. I have been looking forward to this book. McLaren's work has been a blessing to me and has reinvigorated my faith. That being said, introduction is vintage McLaren. On every page I was struck with the sense of "I'm not alone," and "I'm not crazy". He beautifully articulates thoughts and feelings that I've been having for years. Has Christianity in it's most popular forms somehow missed or lost the major thrust of Jesus' message and elevated other things, which though important, were never meant to have the prominence they now enjoy?
Chapter 1 is titled "Troubling Questions About Jesus". It begins with almost 2 full pages of questions about Jesus and his message that will indeed trouble you if you will actually consider them. They are not however the kind of questions that critics would accuse him of asking. From the title, many are assuming that McLaren is promoting a Gnostic view of Jesus. This is most assuredly not the case. The divinity of Jesus is quite firmly upheld and affirmed. What is questioned is our perceptions and understandings. McLaren asks "What if Jesus of Nazareth was right--more right in different ways than we ever realized? What if Jesus had a message that could truly save the world, but we're prone to miss the point of it?" This chapter is a very useful exercise in thought for those who are willing to go through it.
Chapter 2 is on "The Political Message of Jesus". In in, McLaren outlines the 4 major "political parties" of Jesus' day (Pharisees, Saducees, Zealots, Essenes), and then compares and contrasts Jesus' message/methods with theirs. It is quite an informative exercise with far reaching implications that branch into our own day and culture.
Chapter 3 explores "The Jewish Message of Jesus". This chapter brings to mind the work of N.T. Wright (particularly "The New Testament and the People of God"), though it is done in a more accessible way than Wright's scholarly work. McLaren has certainly done his homework. This background is absolutely key to understanding Jesus and his message in context. I am genuinely excited about the release of this book so that this type of contextualization will be available in such a readable form.
Chapter 4 examines "The Revolutionary Message of Jesus." It begins with a summary of the story of scripture very similar to the one presented in "The Story We Find Ourselves In". Some may consider this to be rehashing old material, but I find it to be quite necessary for the argument McLaren is building and appreciate it's inclusion here. This chapter also includes a nod to eschatology that is strikingly different from the "Escapist" eschatologies that are currently enjoying popularity. Without giving away too much, the "revolution" that the title refers to is eschatological in nature and the implication is that Jesus and his followers were/are revolutionaries moving toward that end.
Chapter 6 is titled "The Hidden Message of Jesus", and begins by examining the fact that Jesus messages weren't overtly religious. His teaching honestly can't be extolled for it's clarity. Jesus was often quite vague. McLaren raises the question, "What could possibly be the benefit of Jesus's hiddenness, intrigue, lack of clarity, metaphor, and answering questions with questions? Why risk being misunderstood--or not understood at all? If the message is so important, why hide it in evocative rather than technical language?" Why indeed?
McLaren will surprise his critics in a few instances, (though I'm sure they will dismiss it because they presume to know what he "really means"). For example, on page 6 he states, "A lot of people say, 'It doesn't matter what you believe, as long as you are sincere.' I'd like to challenge that belief. Believing untrue things puts you at odds with reality, and can prove downright destructive." That's not quite the relativist statement you would expect from reading his critics. He also notes the contemporary fascination with the "Gnostic Gospels" and "The Davinci Code". He wonders how we could have reached a point where the Jesus presented in those so called accounts could seem more interesting to some people than the Jesus presented in the canonical gospels. He suggests that a benefit from all this hype is that, while those accounts themselves are misleading, they could force us to consider "the possibility that the church's conventional versions of Jesus may not do him justice."
To be totally honest with you, I keep thinking "This is the book I wish I had written." Let's get in to section 2:
Part 2 is called "Engagement: Grappling With The Meaning of Jesus's Message"
Chapter 6 explores "The Medium of the Message". In this chapter, McLaren examines Jesus use of "parable". What could possibly be the benefit of trying to advance this radical message in short, seemingly irreligious stories? He also takes a closer look at the string of parables found in Matthew 13. I really appreciated Brian's insight in this chapter. I think his background in Literature really pays off here.
Chapter 7 is titled "The Demonstration of the Message". Here McLaren tackles the subject of Miracles. Why did Jesus perform them? Did it have anything to do with his message? McLaren also looks at worldviews here. Did God just set the world in motion, to run on its own...and are miracles when he reaches in from a distance and "fiddles with the gears"? Is there another way to look at miracles other than when a generally uninvolved God decides to intervene?
Chapter 8 deals with "The Scandal of the Message". What were/are the powers and principalities that Jesus was trying to overturn. How does his message combat them. Demons, possession and the like also get some discussion in this compelling chapter. McLaren actually tries to find some common ground for people who believe in literal demons and those who don't. It is a very interesting and compelling take on the subject.
In Chapter 9, McLaren explains that "You Can't Keep a Secret". Here, he tackles "The Great Commission". He even integrates the differently worded versions of it from the different gospel writers into a single paraphrased account. What exactly was the mission that Jesus laid out for his followers. Over the years, have we begun to miss the point of it?
I loved chapter 10. It's called "Secret Agents of the Kingdom". McLaren says, "Too often, when the story of the movement of Jesus is told, most of the focus is on the religious professionals. But what if their role is at best minor? What if the real difference is made in the world not by us preachers, but by those who endure our preaching, those who quietly live out the secret message of the kingdom of God in their daily, workaday likes in the laboratory, classroom, office, cockpit, parliament, kitchen, market, factory, and neighborhood?" This chapter is positively inspirational. I admit I wiped a couple of tears.
Chapter 11 is called "The Open Secret". In this brief chapter, McLaren deconstructs the argument of Christianity v/s Paulianity that is being promoted by some these days. He points out many of the places where Paul overtly speaks of "the Kingdom" (Jesus central message), and then discusses why Paul doesn't just repeat the ideas that Jesus taught and uses different terminology. He also talks a good bit about "inclusion" here.
In Chapter 12, McLaren talks about "Hiding the Message in New Places". He explores how Paul found new ways to communicate the message of Jesus, like subverting Caesar's political propaganda and putting Jesus in Caesar's place. Again, the I am reminded of the work of N.T. Wright, though, as before, it is presented here in a much more accessible form. Brian also points out that while Paul doesn't use parables, he does use stories, including his own to spread the message.
Chapter 13 was a surprise to me. He titles it "getting it, Getting in". Here, McLaren delivers a beautifully fresh take on "the Plan of Salvation", (yes, that plan of salvation). I really can't describe to you how I felt when I read this chapter. "Hope" I guess gets closest to what I felt.
Section 3 is titled "Imagination: Exploring how Jesus's secret message could change everything".
Chapter 14: "Kingdom Manifesto"--In this chapter, McLaren walks us through "The Sermon on The Mount". If one buys into Jesus' "Secret Message", what does that mean for the way they live their life? McLaren sees this passage as being key to answering that question. He explains:
"I should acknowledge that many people assume the sermon intends to answer one question--namely, 'How does an individual go to heaven after death?' This was my assumption as well for many years, but as I have reflection the life and message of Jesus, I have become convinced that Jesus is exploring a very different set of questions--namely, 'What kind of life does God want people to live? What does life in the kingdom of God look like? What is a truly good (or righteous) life? How does this message differ from conventional messages?' Rather than directing our attention to life after death in heaven, away from this life and beyond history, these questions return our focus to the here and now--and in so doing, they provide an essential window into Jesus' secret message."
Chapter 15: "Kingdom Ethics"--Here, McLaren continues his exploration of the "Sermon on the Mount", looking specifically at "spiritual practices" and character. This is a really challenging chapter. I don't mean that its tough to read or that its tough to understand. It's quite simple in those areas actually. I mean it will challenge you at a deeply personal level. He asks deeply penetrating questions dealing with the way we tend to center our lives around the "unholy trinity of money, sex and power", and then points to 3 ways that Jesus message combats this tendency"
Chapter 16: "The Language of the Kingdom"--This is a great chapter. McLaren points out that the wording of the message of Jesus was not crafted in a vacuum. Jesus message was constructed in language that was relative to the time and culture in which he originally delivered it. (Note: The language of the message is relative, not the message itself). Jesus used the term "Kingdom of God" because that phrase evoked certain images in the minds and hearts of his listeners...images that are almost certainly NOT evoked in the minds and hearts of 21 Century Americans (or anyone else in the world for that matter). Here McLaren explores 6 metaphors that he sees as "have(ing) a lot of promise" for helping us to hear the message as the first listeners would have. In my opinion, what he comes up with here is brilliant.
Chapter 17: "The Peaceable Kingdom"--In this chapter, McLaren explores the theme of peace or Shalom in Jesus' message. He explores pacifism and "just war theory", giving plenty of room for different convictions, but asking challenging questions, none the less. This one will make you think.
Chapter 18: "The Borders of the Kingdom"--Here, McLaren explores the ideas of inclusion and exclusion. He advances the idea that it's inclusiveness is one of the main things that makes Jesus' message so revolutionary. Even so, Brian makes a point to also maintain that some exclusiveness is, in fact necessary (much to the surprise of his critics, I'm sure). He says:
"If the kingdom of God were a symphony, it would welcome anyone who had a desire to learn to play music--from tuba player to piccolo players, from violinists to percussionists. It would accept beginners and master musicians, probably by pairing up the novices with mentors who could help them to learn. But it could not welcome people who hated music or who wanted to shout and scream and disrupt rehearsals and concerts; that would ruin the music for everyone and destroy the symphony. True, it would try to influence music haters to become music lovers, but it couldn't accept them into the symphony until they wanted to be there because of a love of music."
Chapter 19: "The Future of The Kingdom"--In this chapter, McLaren explores what I have referred to elsewhere as a "restorationist eschatology". If that last sentence didn't make any sense to you, he's basically discussing what's commonly referred to as "end times" in many Christian circles. This however is not the philosophy of the "Left Behind" books. This is a Biblically based Eschatology of hope. It's a view in which God doesn't just give up on his dream for the world in Genesis 3, but rather sees God as working toward the "restoration" or "renewal" of "all things". In this view the project is actually going somewhere (other than oblivion). It also explores the idea that our afterlife consists not of disembodied bliss in a nonmaterial heaven, but rather a resurrected, embodied existence in a Re-newed Creation. If you've never explored these ideas before, I beg you to read this. It will give you hope like you've never known.
Chapter 20: "The Harvest of the Kingdom"--"But what about 'heaven'?" one might ask after reading the previous chapter. Here, McLaren explores that very Biblical idea as well and how it fits into the picture.
Chapter 21: "Seeing the Kingdom"--In this final chapter, McLaren explores what N.T. Wright refers to as the "already and not yet" aspect of the kingdom. In scripture, the Kingdom is referred to as both a present and future reality. Most of us don't have that hard of a time thinking of it as a future reality (though we aren't quite sure how it will get there). On the other hand, when we look around at the world we live in, we see so many things that are out of harmony with God's will and Jesus' message. McLaren maintains that there are many places where the kingdom is breaking through, if you know how to look for it, and explores how we can do exactly that. This chapter included a quote from Frederick Buechner that actually brought tears to my eyes.
The book ends with 3 short appendicies. Normally I wouldn't review appendicies, but these are quite good and worth mentioning.
Appendix 1: "The Prayer of the Kingdom"
Here McLaren explores "the Lord's Prayer". He mentioned it earlier in the book, but here he gives it a more thorough treatment by breaking it down and discussing what each part of it might mean (particularly given it's historical context). This is generally an excellent treatment, and quite valuable in the discussion.
Appendix 2: "Why Didn't We Get It Sooner?"
Here, McLaren anticipates a criticism and answers it. He notes that most of the scholars and theologians he has referenced are contemporary. He then recognizes that some might wonder if what he's proposing is actually in the text or if its being read into the text. If this has always "been there", then why is it noticably absent from much of the scholarship of church history. If this is true, then why does it seem so new to most of us. McLaren offers 8 factors that help to answer exactly these questions. One may anticipate a "cop-out" here, but that certainly isn't what he delivers. McLaren's 8 factors are quite thought provoking indeed, and not easily dismissed. I think it was very wise for him to address these issues here.
Appendix 3: "Plotting Goodness"
This is McLaren's "Now what?" chapter. If you buy this stuff, what can you do with it? He simply offers some suggestions for how you might proceed. These few pages are very practical and I hope that many take him up on them.
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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Aug 5, 2007 8:59:25 PM PDT
M. Mueller says:
Posted on Jan 22, 2009 12:48:03 PM PST
I bought the book based on this review...can't wait to read it and see for myself. Thanks for the wonderful overview!
In reply to an earlier post on May 14, 2009 7:33:46 AM PDT
Free Thinker says:
The review was excellent, eno/ugh info. to give a feel for the book without unnecessary padding. Good job!
Posted on Mar 20, 2010 11:38:53 PM PDT
One Person's Opinion says:
Wonderful review. Thanks.
Posted on May 29, 2010 11:46:01 PM PDT
Deborah Jones says:
Thank you for taking the time to write such an insightfull review. I am buying this book because of it.
Posted on Feb 3, 2013 6:01:56 PM PST
MERCY & ME says:
TO Adam Ellis: I have been looking for Kingdom living Believers for a long time. Not the Once Saved, go off and lead your life and Produce Fruit People, but People who get up and walk in the Kingdom on a daily basis BECAUSE THAT IS WHAT JESUS PREACHED. Yes, Salvation was also a part of the message and as "It is all about me" people, that is what we love, but there is morek...a whole KINGDOM more. I want the Kingdom. I hope this book gives voice to the answers I try to create, then relate. It is an ongoing hope and if I find it, I will come back and say so...that is God willing. Thank you for your Excellent Review. It was NOT too long. It was mind expanding and I am grateful for the info.
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