A couple of weeks ago I posted a query, "What do you think of Brian McLaren?" and the resulting interaction in my comments section was quite animated and, in a couple of instances, indicative of the polarized opinions toward this controversial author. I'm just an obscure American missionary with a very small readership, but I sincerely asked the question because I had never read any of McLaren's writings. I wanted input because it was my intention to read McLaren for myself and draw my own conclusions; so, a couple of days ago I ordered three books, (1) A Generous Orthodoxy; (2) The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth That Could Change Everything; and (3) A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey.
Over the weekend, I decided to begin reading the second and third books simultaneously, reserving A Generous Orthodoxy for later, and I would have to say—with a healthy balance of optimism and skepticism—that it's been a wonderful journey so far. The Secret Message of Jesus has really grabbed my interest thus far (I'm about one-third of the way through the book) primarily because of my recent preaching assignments: Isaiah 58, "God's True Fast," and Isaiah 63-64, "Life in the Gaps." The preaching team at our church is composed of eight men who rotate from week to week, so I ended up with these two assignments relatively close together.
Providentially, God's powerful message through the prophet, Isaiah, contains a significant portion of what McLaren believes to be "the secret message of Jesus," particularly the passage in Isaiah 58:6–7 where God reminds Israel of his "hot button" priorities versus their outwardly religious rituals like fasting:
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Since Amazon does not offer a sneak preview of The Secret Message of Jesus, I am providing a lengthy excerpt from chapter one, so that you can consider McLaren's opening questions in light of what you know of the Old Testament prophets and the teachings of Jesus. If God is the same yesterday, today, and forever—and I believe he is—then how can our hearts not resonate with these probing questions?
What if Jesus of Nazareth was right—more right, and right in different ways, than we have ever realized? What if Jesus had a message that could truly change the world, but we're prone to miss the point of it?
What if we have developed a religion that makes reverent and honoring statements about Jesus but doesn't teach what Jesus taught in the manner he taught it? What if the religion generally associated with Jesus neither expects nor trains its adherents to actually live in the way of Jesus?
What if the core message of Jesus has been unintentionally misunderstood or intentionally distorted? What if many have sincerely valued some aspects of Jesus' message while missing or even suppressing other, more important dimensions? What if many have carried on a religion that faithfully celebrates Jesus in ritual and art, teaches about Jesus in sermons and books, sings about Jesus in songs and hymns, and theorizes about Jesus in seminaries and classrooms…but somewhere along the way missed rich and radical treasures hidden in the essential message of Jesus?
What if too many of today's religious leaders—among whom I must be counted—are among the last to get the message of Jesus and the first to reduce, oppose, distort, or suppress it, just as they did in Jesus' day?
What if Jesus had actually concealed his deepest message, not trying to make it overt and obvious but intentionally hiding it as a treasure one must seek in order to find? If that's the case, why would Jesus ever do such a thing? How would we find his message if he had indeed hidden it?
What if Jesus' secret message reveals a secret plan? What if he didn't come to start a new religion—but rather came to start a political, social, religious, artistic, economic, intellectual, and spiritual revolution that would give birth to a new world?
What if his secret message had practical implications for such issues as how you live your daily life, how you earn and spend money, how you treat people of other races and religions, and how the nations of the world conduct their foreign policy? What if his message directly or indirectly addressed issues like advertising, environmentalism, terrorism, economics, sexuality, marriage, parenting, the quest for happiness and peace, and racial reconciliation?
Would we want to know what that message is? How much? Would we be willing to look hard, think deeply, and search long in order to find it? Would we be willing to rethink our assumptions?
It seems to me that McLaren is asking some good questions. At th
is point, it doesn't look like he's throwing out the true gospel for a social gospel as some have charged, perhaps prematurely and falsely. And it makes sense why contemporary Pharisees might want to shut him up, because he calls for "rethinking our assumptions" versus resting upon our neatly packaged systematic theologies or successful church growth strategies or misguided "soul-winning" efforts that often ignore the whole person and simply go for the bullseye of "getting 'em saved!"
Yes, I do expect to find areas of disagreement with McLaren, but then I don't agree with every statement made by Albert Mohler, the darling theologian of the Southern Baptist Convention, or other highly-respected evangelicals like John MacArthur or R. C. Sproul or C. J. Mahaney. But whether McLaren's "off the grid" or worse—a heretic, some would insist—well, I don't see any evidence of such drastic accusations…not yet…and I hope I never do.