Review: The Secret Message of Jesus

secretOkay, I’ve put this off long enough. Sometime around Christmas I was sent a pre-release copy of Brian McLaren’s new book (released this month), The Secret Message of Jesus, subtitled Uncovering the Truth That Could Change Everything. A pretty bold claim, and I’m sorry to say that this book just doesn’t live up to the heft of the title.

McLaren’s title mainly points to the fact that Jesus spoke in parables, but also refers to his big revelation that the Kingdom of God is not what we think it is. Perhaps it’s true, obviously for some more than others, but I’m not sure that McLaren makes things any clearer. In fact, by page 69 I felt that his logic had completely unraveled, and he starts making (in my humble opinion) some rather bizarre comments, like:

This is the scandal of the message of Jesus. The Kingdom of God does fail. It is weak. It is crushed.

Just before this passage, he talks about how Rome “crushes” Jesus and his movement. I’m sorry, but perhaps McLaren has a different version of the Bible than I do (and I thought I had most of them…). I’m hoping that what he meant to say was that it appeared to the world that Jesus had failed, when reality he couldn’t have been crushed, that Rome had no power over Jesus, that Jesus voluntarily died so that he could crush Death under his feet, etc., etc. But, that’s not what McLaren said.

I can’t go into all of the logical missteps that I found in the book, it would take far too long. But, here’s one of the main problems: there are more uses of “maybe,” “perhaps” and “what if” here than I’ve ever seen. Rather than build upon something solid, McLaren starts a thought with “what if …,” then builds an argument upon this suggestion. Then, to make matters worse, he adds more errors in logic, resulting in conclusions like the one quoted above. One more quick example is his understanding of the Beatitudes, as he concludes that we should become “poor in spirit” to get the Kingdom. I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant.

Another problem with the book is that McLaren is very selective about the Bible passages he quotes. For example, he wants very much to believe that the Kingdom of God means pacifism, but he never deals with things like Jesus physically chasing out the moneychanger with a whip (although, I have to give him credit, he does suggest that it’s okay to fight in the military). To accept his line of reasoning, you really have to believe that Jesus has a different perspective than the God of the Old Testament about physical violence: “… God does not want to continue to bless violence.” What??

I also think he builds “straw men” to argue against; that is, he tells us that people see things one way, then he proves that way is wrong. The problem is, he never supports his contention that the erroneous beliefs exist; perhaps they do, but I would have to accept that by faith.

Here’s a few other quick issues I have with the book:

  • He restates things Jesus said, to “clarify” them. However, I think he often changes the meaning, or at least “spins” it.
  • He calls the Sermon on the Mount Jesus’ “Kingdom Manifesto,” then proceeds as if this were fact, rather than just McLaren’s opinion. I didn’t think he adequately supported his thoughts on the Sermon on the Mount.
  • He contends that the “kingdom” language doesn’t translate very well, then goes on to suggest several totally deficient alternatives. The Dream of God? The party of God? I nearly stopped reading at that point.

Tossing out concepts and ideas and “what ifs” worked well for McLaren’s “New Kind of Christian” series, but they were novels – it just doesn’t work for a book like this. Now, not everything he says is bad, or wrong. Some of what he says is good. I could see some of this appearing as magizine articles or blog entries, but not as a serious theological book (well, “pop” theology, anyway). It’s obvious, and he even says, that he’s been reading NT Wright, Dallas Willard, and other good people. It’s just that the good stuff is lost, or confused, by the rest of the book.

I hate writing negative reviews, especially when I’ve really enjoyed much of McLaren’s other work. But, bottom line, I’d not recommend this book. Instead, read NT Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus or Willard’s Divine Conspiracy. You’ll get a much better idea of Jesus’ “secret message” from them.

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