by Wade Hodges
May - June, 2006
Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth That Could Change Everything (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2006).
The timing couldn’t be better for this book’s release. Right now, lots of people are interested in Jesus—or at least many want to discover something new about Jesus that has been kept secret or hidden for centuries. Millions have read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and have been intrigued. With sales of more than forty million books worldwide, Brown’s is the best-selling novel ever. Millions more will watch the movie to be released May 19 and walk out of the theater fascinated by Brown’s revision of the Christian story.
In the introduction to his newest book, The Secret Message of Jesus, McLaren asks an important question about this phenomenon: “Why is the vision of Jesus hinted at in Dan Brown's book more interesting, more attractive, and more intriguing than the standard version they hear about from most churches?”
I propose that every preacher in America refrain from bashing The DaVinci Code, until they’ve first answered this question.
Perhaps the truth that McLaren claims will change everything gives us a clue to the answer. He continues, “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?”
Those of us who have worked through his previous books will come to this one knowing that we’ll need ears to hear another challenge to our assumptions. We pick up a McLaren book ready to be excited, tantalized, frustrated, and possibly confused — sometimes all within the same paragraph.
By now we’ve gotten used to his habit of asking questions that burst into other questions, rather than producing answers. He’s trained us to hold even our most cherished assumptions lightly when we enter his authorial presence. We've learned to chuckle (nervously) when he takes what we thought was a simple concept and shows us just how complex it really is. In this regard, The Secret Message of Jesus doesn’t disappoint.
The Secret Message of Jesus explores the nature, content, and practice of Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God. Whether it will stir the waters like his previous books (A Generous Orthodoxy and The Last Word and the Word After That) is yet unknown, but this book has the potential to make more of a lasting impact than anything else he’s written.
This book showcases McLaren doing what he does best: synthesizing and popularizing the work of theologians and scholars whose writing needs to be made more accessible to a broader audience. I don’t mean by this that McLaren is simply parroting what others are saying. He’s an imaginative thinker and I’m always struck by the implications he teases out of his writing. The man milks the “what if” sentence structure like no one else I read.
His critics might say that his writing betrays the fact that he didn’t go to seminary and receive a formal theological education. I actually think this is a plus for him. It’s reminiscent of C. S. Lewis, who like McLaren, wrote about heavy subjects with great insight, but not from the perspective of a classically trained theologian. I contend that it’s their lack of theological training that allows them to approach time-worn topics in fresh ways. I’m more than willing to let his oversimplifications ruffle the feathers of New Testament scholars in exchange for the way he gets us to engage significant issues from new angles.
In The Secret Message of Jesus, McLaren interacts substantially with the writings of Walter Wink, Dallas Willard, and N. T. Wright. If you’ve spent much time with the writings of these authors, then you’ve probably got a pretty good idea of what he’s up to in this book. In fact, several chapters could have easily been subtitled “McLaren summarizes Wright, or Wink or Willard.” With twenty-one chapters and three appendices, he doesn't leave many stones unturned.
In part one, McLaren plays the archeologist as he attempts to excavate Jesus’ kingdom message that he believes has long been buried.
He makes a case for why recovering the essence of Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom of God is essential for those who do and don’t follow Jesus. “In one of my previous books, I said that clarity is sometimes overrated and that intrigue is correspondingly undervalued. But here I want to say – clearly – that it is tragic for anyone, especially anyone affiliated with the religion named after Jesus, not to be clear about what Jesus’ message actually was.”
He notes how in Jesus’ ministry his message was “hidden” from the majority of those who listened to him. He asks, “What could possibly be the benefit of Jesus’ 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?”
In part two, McLaren attempts to answer these questions, hitting the high notes of Jesus’ ministry while grappling with the meaning of the hidden message. He gives a brief introduction to the parables, which he calls the medium of Jesus’ message. “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 is the only way it can be.”
He addresses Jesus’ miracles and how they are a demonstration of his kingdom message. “In fact, this is in large part what I believe the signs and wonders of Jesus are secretly telling us: that God, the good king, is present—working from the inside. The king is in the kingdom, and the kingdom is among us here and now — for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. The king is present in the mess and chaos of everyday life on earth ... bringing healing, sight, perception, liberation, wholeness, wholesomeness, movement, health, fullness, nourishment, sanity, and balance. The incursion of the kingdom of God has begun. We are under a gentle, compassionate assault by a kingdom of peace and healing and forgiveness and life.”
He describes how the cross is the ultimate confrontation with evil in a paradoxical sort of way that is befitting of Jesus’ kingdom message. “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 and sacrifice and love? What if it can only conquer 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 ideologies 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?”
In the third and final section, McLaren invites us to imagine how Jesus' secret message could change everything if actually taken seriously.
He starts appropriately with the Sermon on the Mount. After summarizing the revolutionary teachings of Jesus’ sermon, he asks, “What would happen in our world if increasing numbers of us were to practice living this way? What would happen in our individual lives if we didn’t just hear Jesus’ words, if we didn’t simply say, “Lord, Lord!” but rather heard his words and acted on them? And what future might we predict for ourselves, our nation, and our planet if we reject Jesus’ ethical manifesto in practice (even if we pay lip service to it in theory)?”
In one of the best chapters, McLaren acknowledges that “kingdom language” has its limitations in our culture because of the historical and political baggage that comes with it. He goes on to suggest six metaphors for the “Kingdom of God” that might help us better translate it for our context. Each of his metaphors — The Dream, The Revolution, The Mission, The Party, The Network, and The Dance of God — stokes the imagination. My favorite is the “The Dream.” If I had to lose one, it would be “The Mission.” It’s a great concept, but seems less fresh that the others.
He also explains why not everyone can be included in the Kingdom. That’s right: McLaren’s take on the kingdom is in at least one sense “exclusive.” He says “To be truly inclusive, the kingdom must exclude exclusive people; to be truly reconciling, the kingdom must not reconcile with those who refuse reconciliation; to achieve its purpose of gathering people, it must not gather those who scatter. The kingdom of God has a purpose, and that purpose is not everyone's cup of tea.”
He asks us to consider what difference it would make if we could catch but a glimpse of the kingdom. “So often we do not see it. But then, suddenly we do. We look with our hearts, not just our eyes, and there it is, as if it had been there all along, among us, within us, near, here: the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and his Christ, his Messiah, his liberating king. The world has not yet become the kingdom, and yet we see that it has ... If enough of us see it — and seeing it, rethink our lives, and rethinking our lives, believe that the impossible is possible — everything could change.”
In the second appendix he answers the question to which the entire book points: “Why didn't we get it sooner?” Why is it only now that contemporary writers have discovered Jesus’ secret message? Some will argue that this is the greatest weakness of the book — that McLaren has relied too heavily on contemporary readings of the gospels — and maybe he has. But he offers some good reasons why contemporary scholars have insights into Jesus’ kingdom message that others in the past have not possessed.
So, is it worth reading? If you’re a Brian McLaren fan, you’ll love it. If you’re a fan of the other authors mentioned in this review, then you’re probably not going to read anything new. If you haven’t read much of Wright, Willard, Wink, or Yoder then this book might encourage you to check them out.
What I like best about The Secret Message of Jesus is that it’s the kind of book you can hand to a friend who's curious about the teachings of Jesus. McLaren hopes that it will be “helpful to people who consider themselves spiritual but not religious, or interested in Jesus but not Christianity.” I think it will be.
Whether you’re a Christian who’s grown bored or disturbed with the Jesus you learned about in Sunday School or a seeker who is exploring the teachings of all the great spiritual leaders, I think you’ll find in The Secret Message of Jesus a compelling vision of Jesus and his kingdom teachings that have been buried for far too long.
As you read, you may find yourself — like I did — agreeing with McLaren. If enough people discover this secret message of Jesus and start taking it seriously, it really could change everything.
You might also enjoy reading these other New Wineskins offerings featuring Brian McLaren:
An Open Letter to Worship Songwriters
An Interview With Brian McLaren
Wade is a graduate of Abilene Christian University where he received degrees in communication and Christian Ministry. He has been married to Heather since October of 1996. They have two young sons, Caleb and Elijah.
While Wade will preach on just about anything, he especially loves to speak on the topics of faith development, male spirituality, and missional theology. He also likes to tell a story or two when he gets the chance.
His favorite part of sermon preparation is going to the movies.
He served as the Preaching Minister for the Sterling Drive Church of Christ in Bellingham, Washington for six years. He has been the Teaching Minister at the Garnett Church of Christ in Tulsa, Oklahoma since March of 2003. Wade is also Director of the International Soul-Winning Workshop (ISWW) in Tulsa, Oklahoma. A key emphasis of the ISWW this year was unity between Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, and keynote speakers, including Bob Russell and Max Lucado, from the two groups shared the stage during the evening sessions.
You can read his blog at [www.wadehodges.com].