Friends 2007: Introducing Brian – the writer III [10]

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I noticed there are people like me who like to read and those who REALLY read (with more of a researcher and reviewer bug!). My friend Alwyn is one of those people. I thought I’d post up his thoughts on Brian McLaren’s latest book taken from his post Sharing the Secret .. Enjoy.

“The radical revolutionary empire of God is here, advancing by reconciliation and peace, expanding by faith, hope and love – beginning with the poorest, the weakest, the meekest, and the least. It’s time to change your thinking. Everything is about to change. It’s time for a new way of life. Believe me. Follow me. Believe this good news so you can learn to live by it and be part of the revolution.” (The Secret Message of Jesus, p.32-33)

I liked almost everything about The Secret Message of Jesus. I liked the casual, creative and/yet humble tone. I liked the borrowing from N.T. Wright’s work on the historical Jesus, reemphasizing the Jewishness and political-ness of Jesus (and how “to be unpolitical was to be irrelevant” in 1st cent. Judaism). I liked the firm location of Jesus within the Jewish story of the covenanting, rescuing, authentic people-producing Creator. I loved the targums scattered all over the book, like the opening one above from the lips of Jesus Himself. And of course I welcome the challenge for the church to be all it was meant to be.

Not too heavy on theology, sprinkled with contemporary examples and stories and filled with questions, I get the impression McLaren wrote SMOJ so cell-groups could study it all year round, chapter by short chapter.

Which is fine because the books addresses such ‘Gospel 101’ yet indispensable questions like: Why did Jesus speak most often in vague and easily misunderstood parables? What was the purpose of his miracles? How did the kingdom he wanted to inaugurated compare/contrast with existing kingdoms? How can we get a grip on the Sermon on the Mount, that radical “kingdom manifesto” as McLaren calls it? What did Jesus mean by asking people to repent and be born again?

“Once you can trust God to ‘make a save’, it’s a lot easier to admit your own misdirection.” (p.108, the summation of an interesting story involving a hockey-player unknowingly attempting an own goal!)

McLaren shows us a Jesus whose intention was not to steam-roll over His opponents’ arguments, creating a beyond-doubt intellectual edifice for His new kingdom. Violence of any kind wasn’t the way.

Subtlety, an embodied narrative, powerful symbols, daring vulnerability and radical selflessness (don’t even think this word fits) was used to inspire rethinking (McLaren’s substitute word for ‘repenting’) and subvert entrenched prejudices and oppressive values (which are usually extolled as the way things ‘should be’).

“Human kingdoms advance by force and violence with falling bombs and flying bullets, but God’s kingdom advances by stories, fictions, tales that are easily ignored and easily misunderstood. Perhaps that’s the only way it can be.” (p.49)

There are also some very moving examples (from Tony Campolo hosting birthday parties for prostitutes, from a cab driver organising redeveloping projects in Africa, etc.) of how one can be effective agents of the kingdom wherever and whenever opportunities arise.

I think we need more books like SMOJ and writers like McLaren, giving just the right amount of Biblical grounding and depth (unlike many non-evangelicals or ‘Christian/inspirational’ writers), isn’t overly contemplative (like Philip Yancey or Dallas Willard perhaps?), nor too glitzy and high-techy (like how Leonard Sweet can get at times) nor half-demand a theological education of its readers (like over 80% of evangelical writers out there with a Ph.D).

Not that one is expected to agree with McLaren entirely on everything he writes. Even an enthusiastic recommender of the book like meself can find one or two pages to side-note with a question mark, such as McLaren’s (drawing on Dallas Williard’s) take on the ‘tear out your sinful eye’ section in Matthew 5:29-30, which I felt was dealt with better by writers with a more coherent structure of Matthew 5-7 (e.g. Gushee & Stassen, 2003).

McLaren also doesn’t miss the opportunity to discuss issues like the Just War and Pacifist perspectives on war (I’m no pacifist but McLaren has definitely got me pondering), new models/language for the kingdom of God (Dream, Network, Dance, Party – lovely stuff), the mainly preterist interpretation of the book of Revelations (heads up, fans of N.T. Wright, Greg Boyd, etc.) and life (or longing for glorious life) after death, where he draws heavily from C.S. Lewis’ ‘weight of glory’ theme.

Read SMOJ (more than once!) if you’re looking to jump-start waning interest in Jesus and his agenda, if you suspect you need to focus a little less on the abstract dogmatic stuff and work on making a kingdomly impact on your everyday world, if you’d like some sparkling new vocabulary to reach your listeners (all numbed with Christian jargon).

Most importantly, don’t keep the secret to yourself.

Alex Tang one of our conversation partners for the “Discipleship” topic also chipped in his own thoughts on the book here.

Another angle on the book here written by Craig Carter who did his Ph.D. at the University of Toronto School of Theology under John Webster (I thought it was cool that there are PhDs who are reading Brian’s books which aren’t dense academic dissertations!).

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