The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything by Brain McLaren, (Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group, 2006), $19.00.
Why is the vision of Jesus hinted at in Dan Brown’s book more interesting, more attractive, and more intriguing to these people than the standard version of Jesus they hear about from churches? Why would they be disappointed to find that Brown’s version of Jesus has been largely discredited as fanciful and inaccurate, leaving only the church’s conventional version? Is it possible that even though Brown’s fictional version misleads in many ways, it at least serves to open up the possibility that the church’s conventional versions of Jesus may not do him justice?
These are some of the questions Brain McLaren asks in the introduction to his latest book, The Secret Message of Jesus. McLaren also points out all of the interest in the Gnostic Gospels in the last few years. And he asks the same questions: why are people fascinated by the Jesus they see there and not the Jesus the church puts forth? Then he asks these questions, which are the thesis of the book:
What if the problem isn’t with our accepted stories of Jesus (the stories given us by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in contrast to these alternate accounts) but rather with our success at domesticating them and with our failure to see them in their native wildness and original vigor? What if, properly understood, the canonical (or accepted) Gospel of Matthew is far more radical and robust than the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, or the canonical Gospel of John is far more visionary and transformative than the apocryphal Gospel of Peter–if only we “had ears to hear,” as Jesus says?
McLaren’s point is that the Jesus we see at church; the Jesus televangelists proclaim, the Jesus presented to our culture in a variety of ways is not the Jesus of the Bible. This book is a search through the gospels for the Jesus they present.
McLaren begins by examining the history into which Jesus was born. He looks at the Jewish state under Roman occupation, and how the Jews had been under occupation since their return from exile under Darius. Throughout that time the apocalyptic literature began to form. Instead of the view that God would break into history and free Isreal from foreign occupation so they could be the people of God in the land of God, Jewish writers began to see God ending history and beginning a new era called the Kingdom of God, in which God’s Messiah would rule. The Jews could see no way for God’s kingdom to be realized in the world as it was. McLaren points out that one of the scandels of Jesus’ message was that Jesus said the Kingdom of God was at hand. The kingdom was here. It could be grasped; it could be attained. For the Jews of that time they could not imagine why Jesus would be saying this. Everyone knew the Kingdom of God could not come while the Romans ruled.
Jesus’ proclamation that the Kingdom of God is here–that it is growing among us like yeast working its way through dough–corrects one of the biggest heresies of Protestantism, particularly Protestant Evangelicalism. This heresy is that the gospel is personal and private. That this relationship is just between me and Jesus and nothing else matters. McLaren points out that yes, Jesus’ message is personal, but it is far from private. Jesus’ gospel is personal and public. Jesus told his followers how to treat their enemies, how to live under occupation, how to treat the poor and destitute, and how they should regard Caesar. His message was political, economical, and circled around the social justice of the prophets.
I think the most needed message the American Evangelicalism needs to hear today is the differences McLaren draws between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world:
Jesus says again and again, this kingdom advances with neither violence nor bloodshed, with neither hatred nor revenge. It is not just another one of the kingdoms of this world. No, this kingdom advances slowly, quietly, under the surface–like yeast in dough, like seed in soil. It advances with faith: when people believe it is true, it becomes true. And it advances with reconciling, forgiving love: when people love strangers and enemies, the kingdom gains ground.
The place where the heresy of personal and private does the most damage is where we separate how we treat others privately or corporately. For Christians this is not an option. We are commanded to love our enemies all the time, including enemies of our nations. Christians should be the last people to jump on the war bandwagon, and if it is necessary to go to war, it should be with great reservation and praying for forgiveness. War may be a necessary evil at times, but it is still evil and sin. And Christian leaders should not be watering down the real nature of war when their nation goes to war. The Kingdom of God does not advance through violence, whether it be by violence on the frontline, or violence behind the pulpit, trying to scare people out of hell and manipulate them into heaven. Our actions should be characterized by the same love, compassion, and mercy that we see in life of Jesus.
McLaren points out that one of the great paradoxes of the Gospels is that evil wins. Christ is betrayed, denied, whipped, and then crucified. He dies, and for a time evil wins. Why? What kind of kingdom comes in suffering and death? McLaren asks:
What if the only way for the kingdom of God to come in its true form–as a kingdom “not of this world–is through weakness and vulnerability, sacrifice and love? What if it can conquer only by first being conquered? What if being conquered is absolutely necessary to expose the brutal violence and dark oppression of these principalities and powers, these human ideaologies and counterkingdoms–so they, having been exposed, can be seen for what they are and freely rejected, making room for the new and better kingdom? What if the kingdom of God must in these ways fail in order to succeed?
The only way for Jesus to reveal the corrupt systems of this world–corruption in politics, religion, and other areas of life was to be conquered by those “powers and principalities.” In the defeat of the cross they are revealed for what they really are instead of what they masquerade as. In the victory of the resurrection, Jesus shows that His kingdom of forgiving enemies, turning the other cheek, and reconciliation can change this world in ways we never imagined–if we are brave enough and have enough faith to believe that God’s Kingdom does not grow and work by the standards of this world.
Throughout the book McLaren says that we have been asking the wrong question: “How do I get to the heaven?” Instead the questions we should be asking is “How do I live righteously in this life? How do I join in building the kingdom of God here and now? How do I be Christ at work, in my neighborhood, with my family?” Going to heaven is never the focus of the Gospels: the focus is the Kingdom of God is at hand: it’s here! The question is what are we going to do about it?
The Secret Message of Jesus is secret only because we refuse to see it. We have set up an idol in Jesus’ place in our image that tells us the things we want: power, war, revenge, and a million other sins are okay. But the Jesus we encounter in the Gospels is very different from the Jesus presented in many churches and by many organizations today. He is not a middle-class suburbanite. He is not a war-monger (after all he was the one who rebuked John and James for wanting to call fire down on a Samaritan village that did not welcome them). He is neither Rebuplican or Democrat or Libertarian, for that matter. He is the Son of God who demands us to radically realign our lives to his kingdom ethics that make no sense in this world: love your enemies, turn the other cheek, forgive and be reconciled, and take care of those who cannot take care of themselves: the poor, the refugees, the homeless, the prostitutes, the drug addicts: sinners. May be if this was the Jesus we met in church, people wouldn’t be so enamored with the Jesus of The Da Vinci Code. They might even think about coming to church to learn about Jesus instead of the Gnostic Gospels. May be it’s time for us to start proclaiming the “secret” message of Jesus.