I’ve been asked frequently, “Bob, what do you think of Brian McLaren’s latest book, ‘The Secret of Jesus’?” Here’s my response/review.
As an English major, genre is rightly extremely important to author Brian McLaren. Before interpreting any book, a reader must understand the book’s nature, purpose, and audience. Such is certainly true with “The Secret Message of Jesus.”
Once a reader understands McLaren’s intended audience and purpose with that audience, McLaren’s consistent emphasis on the “newness” of his interpretation begins to make more sense. Here’s his message (stop now if you don’t like the end of the story being ruined by a reviewer): Jesus was a revolutionary who spoke not only about life in heaven later, but also about life on earth now, and not only about individual life now, but about corporate life, societal life, national, political life.
Here’s the thing. I kept reading and thinking, “Yeah, so, how is that novel?” In the Evangelical circles in which I travel, this is simply not the “neo” or hidden message that McLaren makes it out to be. Yes, in these circles Jesus offering eternal life in heaven is an oft repeated refrain. However, equally vital in these circles is the fact that Jesus has a message for us today—a message about how we live together individually and corporately.
So, the secret message of Jesus is not nearly so secret even in the conservative Evangelical circles that McLaren is prone to critique. In fact, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, in Mainline Protestant Churches, in the Catholic Church, in Charismatic Churches, in African American Churches, and even in Conservative Protestant Churches, Jesus is often preached as a Revolutionary whose message mandates societal change now. The Gospel, in these groups, has both individual-salvific and a socio-political ramifications.
Undoubtedly, McLaren disagrees with my assessment, especially of Evangelicals, as the message of this book and most of his recent works makes plain. Perhaps that’s one reason why some Evangelicals feel a tad confused and even unfairly judged by McLaren. He doesn’t like their myopic, judgmental, exclusivistic ways (as he perceives them). However, it does feel a bit attacking to be called such, especially if you have, in fact, been trying to humbly live the beautiful, magical God life in all its fullness just as much as McLaren has. . . . Perhaps they haven’t missed the point quite as much as McLaren suggests. Perhaps, instead, they have pursued the point in mysterious, subtle ways in their homes, churches, neighborhoods, and places of employments—in ways that gentler eyes might see if they had eyes to see. . . .
So, what gives? Why the build up about a new, secret understanding of Jesus? “It’s the audience!” McLaren wants to reach a secular, educated, somewhat liberal audience that has been turned off by their image of Jesus either as an other-worldly Savior or a this-world Pharisaical Judge. McLaren wants to entice these folks to reconsider the stereotype of Jesus that has offended them. I applaud his efforts. And, I encourage readers and reviewers to read McLaren’s message in this light. Otherwise, you will likely be scratching your head with me wondering why this message seems much less secretive than McLaren stresses.
As for the message itself, as always Brian McLaren uses his English major writing skills quite well. “The Secret Message of Jesus” is a page-turner. Even though his message will not be novel to many who will end up reading this book, the author does present it in a captivating way.
As example of his fluid writing style, consider chapter 7 (“The Demonstration of the Message”). I have never read a more engaging, thought-provoking, and enlightening discussion of “miracles” (signs to signify and wonders to make us wonder) and their relationship to the kingdom, then I read in this chapter.
Chapter 18 (“The Borders of the Kingdom”) is another penetrating, helpful, insightful, and practical chapter. I won’t spoil this one for you, but if you’ve ever wondered about the exclusive message of the kingdom (“Repent!”), the inclusive message of the kingdom (“All you who are thirsty and sick, come and drink and be healed”), and how this seeming paradox relates, then read this chapter.
What, then, is this radical “kingdom now” message of Jesus? It has current application individually and societally. Individually, according to McLaren, it focuses on an “interactive relationship with God” through Christ. This is why, in McLaren’s eyes, Jesus spoke in parables. He wanted to use cryptic images to spark our imaginations and prompt our curiosity so that we would humbly engage God, and be engaged by God, in dialogue about how to live the God life.
Corporately, the message is a scandalous call to changing planet Earth now. CEOs cut their mega-salaries and hike the salaries of entry level workers. Corporations care more about product safety than profit margins. Politicians wonder more about how their policies impact world peace than how their sound bites affect poll numbers. Soccer moms care less about their daughters’ playing time and more about being a playful secret agent of the kingdom.
Hmm. In a sense, isn’t this Charles M. Sheldon’s “In His Steps”? We individually ask, “What would Jesus do?” Our individual responses light a candle that causes an epidemic of “passing it on” to others, eventually resulting in world-wide change as the kingdom reign of Christ becomes a practical reality.
One area that many will likely struggle with, both conservative Evangelicals and liberal seekers, is McLaren’s attempted descriptions of heaven. Since the “kingdom of heaven” for McLaren is this-worldly, he must address the obvious question, “What then of the future heaven, of future life?” In chapter five, McLaren briefly discusses the phrase “eternal life” making it about entering now into the abundant kingdom life that Jesus inaugurated. In chapter twenty, he focuses on the eternal, after-life heaven. He tells us what it is not: harps, clouds, ethereal, disembodied. This is vital. But, he does not really tell us what it is. If this is intended to entice seekers, based upon a multitude of conversations with intellectual seekers, I doubt that it will allure them.
For those interested in a thoroughly biblical, captivating, and motivational view of the after life, I highly recommend Randy Alcorn’s opus, “Heaven” (a one-word title, but a 500-page masterpiece). “Heaven” makes heaven, well, very earthy. Alcorn’s descriptions so powerfully portray the next life that they change the way we live this life. In fact, his application is similar to McLaren’s: live now for the least of these.
Whereas “Heaven” is Alcorn’s epic about the next world, “The Secret Message” is McLaren’s classic about this world. He says it best in chapter 9 (“You Can’t Keep a Secret”). “Jesus was master of making the music of life—not just with wood and string, tuners and frets, but with skin and bone, smile and laughter, shout and whisper, time and space, food and drink. He invited the disciples to learn to make beautiful life-music in his secret revolutionary kingdom-of-God way. He helped each of them learn the disciplines and skill of living in the kingdom of God” (p. 77). Much like Dallas Willard, McLaren is reminding us that kingdom-living then and now involves interacting with and imitating the life of Jesus. (For in-depth, theological, and practical discussions of kingdom living now, read Willard: “The Spirit of the Disciplines,” “The Divine Conspiracy,” and “Renovation of the Heart.”) Though possibly not quite so secretive as suggested, the message is well worth knowing, living, and sharing.
Yes, know, live, and share the message of the kingdom of God. It is, as McLaren poetically recounts, the dream of God, the revolution of God, the mission of God, the party of God, the network of God, and the dance of God. Who in their right mind would choose to evade such an invitation?