Friday, November 12, 2010

Reflective Review: Brian McLaren's "Secret Message of Jesus," Part 1

This will be a 4 part series (including a final posting for a hub) in which we examine this tantalizingly-titled work (abbreviation: SMJ) by the acknowledged leading thinker in the emergent church. Conveniently, the book is arranged in three parts, allowing us one per posting, though the parts get progressively longer as we proceed, meaning the postings will as well.

The subtitle is, “Uncovering the Truth That Could Change Everything” and while I assume the publisher, not McLaren, chose this for marketing purposes, Part 1 at least doesn’t deliver for the informed reader. There is also very little that could be regarded as problematic as Part 1 mostly sets themes for later rather than making arguments.

McLaren asks why so many people would have been disappointed to find out that the version of Jesus found in The DaVinci Code was inaccurate, and his answer is that the “church’s conventional wisdom of Jesus may not do him justice”[xiv] . I can buy that. The groups he names (“religious institutions, charismatic televangelists,” etc) do frequently project a false image.

On the other hand, as I have said, McLaren is frequently someone with the right problem and the wrong solution. He proposes in SMJ to revisit the stories of Jesus “in their native wildness and original vigor” which is certainly an admirable goal, comparable to the ministry goal here to read the NT in light of its original contexts. But does McLaren succeed in this venture?

In Part 1, the results are mixed. McLaren offers some valid readings, but also a few of the standard erroneous readings of the Sermon on the Mount: Eg, extending “turn the other cheek” beyond personal relations and into national affairs [11]. McLaren himself admits to having recognized this distinction himself, but declares – without any argument – that the teaching “has everything to do with public matters in general and politics in particular”. But that is simply gratuitous. The social distinction made between public and private behavior in this setting means that to perform this extension requires much more than a say-so and a preference.

He also misses out on the significance of such acts as carrying a soldier’s pack an extra mile [17]: Far from being “passive submission,” it is a sort of passive-aggressiveness that would be understood as placing the solider in your debt, and which would be resisted by an honorable soldier. It is indeed an undermining of the status quo, but it is not submissive in the way McLaren thinks it is.

McLaren also repeats his error of placing the Zealots in the first century [13], though it would make little difference to the substance of his arguments.

Additionally, when reciting the credentials of a prophet [21], he wrongly declares that their “only credential” was “a kind of self-authenticating passion and unavoidable moral substance.” Not quite: Those are contents, not credentials, and the only “credential” listed for a prophet is telling the truth – and being tested for it (per Deuteronomy).

On the other hand, McLaren does rightly see the Kingdom of God as an ideological rather than a political kingdom, and correctly perceives that “image language” (Gen. 1:26, etc) refers to “humans having the responsibility to be agents of God’s kingship in their care for the earth.” [27]

An interesting point on page 7: McLaren hearkens back to his comment in a prior book that “clarity is sometimes overrated,” but counters that now with the statement than “it is tragic for anyone, especially anyone affiliated with the religion named after Jesus, not to be clear about what Jesus’ message actually was.” The disturbing implication is that McLaren is once again without any epistemic consistency; he wants clarity only when it serves his purposes.

Part 1 closes with McLaren asking the reader why Jesus spoke elliptically [38f]. The actual reason was to protect his teachings from being revealed to “outgroup” persons; additionally, such was a frequent method of ancient teaching, which forced a student to “reason out” conclusions, training their mind rather than simply regurgitating facts. Will McLaren’s own answer be the same? Past experience with his works leads me to some doubt, but we shall see when we pick up with Part 2.

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