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“Everything Must Change” by Brian McLaren

Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Emasculated Theology…

Review of Everything Must Change by Brian McLarenThose of us who have been keeping a wary eye on the Emerging Church know that to understand the movement we must understand Brian McLaren. Though it is not quite fair to label him the movement’s leader, he certainly functions as its elder statesman and his writing seems to serve as a guide or compass for the movement. Where he leads, others follow. It is with interest, then, that I turned to his latest book Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope. It is a book that promises to electrify the Emerging Church and, if history is a reliable guide, to further polarize it from those who hold to more traditional Protestant beliefs. My plan in this review is simple: I’m going to give an outline of what the book teaches and then interact with it just a little bit.

This book is shaped by two preoccupying questions: what are the biggest problems in the world and what does Jesus have to say about these global problems? Said in a way consistent with the book’s subtitle, What are the global crises and how can Jesus provide a revolution of hope? These are good questions, no doubt. They are valid questions and probably questions to which Christians should devote more attention. In this book McLaren address them head-on. Allow me to present a brief outline of just how he goes about this.

To set the context he begins with a short biography of himself and the movement he has been part of. “As a follower of God in the way of Jesus, I’ve been involved in a profoundly interesting and enjoyable conversation for the last ten years or so. It’s a conversation about what it means to be ‘a new kind of Christian’–not an angry and reactionary fundamentalist, not a stuffy traditionalist, not a blase nominalist, not a wishy-washy liberal, not a New Agey religious hipster, not a crusading religious imperialist, and not an overly enthused Bible-waving fanatic–but something fresh and authentic and challenging and adventurous.” This conversation has been necessary because “the versions of Christianity we inherited are largely flattened, watered down, tamed … offering us a ticket to heaven after death, but not challenging us to address the issues that threaten life on earth. Together we’ve begun to seek a fresh understanding of what Christianity is for, what a church can be and do, and most exciting, we’re finding out that a lot of what we need most is already hidden in a trunk in the attic. Which is good news.”

Is it possible that at the heart of the life and message of Jesus was an attempt to expose, challenge, confront, transform, and replace the unhealthy framing stories of his day? And could there be a resonance between the unhealthy framing stories of his day and their counterparts in our day? According to McLaren, we live in a societal system consisting of three subsystems: the prosperity, equity and security systems. These are all guided by a framing narrative. The world was made in such a way that these should function in perfect harmony as they are guided by God’s framing story, but unfortunately they have become misaligned so they no longer function as they should. When the framing narrative is destructive, this system can go suicidal, ultimately self-destructing. This is society as we know it now–a society that is completely suicidal. And this is the problem Jesus came to address. Having thought long and hard about the world’s problems, McLaren says this: “Our plethora of critical global problems can be traced to four deep dysfunctions, the fourth of which is the lynchpin or leverage point through which we can reverse the first three.” These three crises are linked in a very tightly integrated system that functions as this “suicide machine.” The dysfunctions are:

  1. Prosperity Crisis – This is environmental breakdown caused by an unsustainable global economy that does not respect environmental limits even as it succeeds in creating great wealth for about one third of the world’s population.
  2. Equity Crisis – This is the growing gap between the ultra-rich and the very poor, the majority of whom are growing in resentment and envy as they consider the privilege of the rich. The rich, in turn, become fearful and angry as they seek to protect their wealth.
  3. Security Crisis – This is the danger of war arising from resentment between the groups at opposite ends of the economic spectrum.
  4. Spirituality Crisis – This is the failure of the world’s religions (especially Christianity and Islam, the world’s two largest) to provide a framing story that is capable of healing or at least reducing the previous three crises.

A framing story is “a story that gives people direction, values, vision, and inspiration by providing a framework for their lives.” It tells people who they are, where they have come from, what they should do, and so on. It frames their lives. The search for a better framing story, he suggests, will allow Christians to discover a fresh vision of Jesus and his message. “Is it possible that at the heart of the life and message of Jesus was an attempt to expose, challenge, confront, transform, and replace the unhealthy framing stories of his day? And could there be a resonance between the unhealthy framing stories of his day and their counterparts in our day?”

As long as evangelism presents a gospel centered on the need for personal salvation, individuals will acquire a faith that focuses on maximum benefits with minimal obligations, and we will change the costly work of Christ’s atonement into the pragmatic transaction of a salvific contract. (quoting David Watson and Douglas Meekes) Jesus, says McLaren, stepped into this dysfunctional system and proposed an alternative in both word and deed. Jesus’ solution was to confront society’s suicide machine, to redraw and reshape the framing narratives by proposing a radical alternative. He says Jesus’ message, His good news, is this: “The time has come! Rethink everything! A radically new kind of empire is available–the empire of God has arrived! Believe this good news, and defect from all human imperial narratives, counternarratives, dual narratives, and withdrawal narratives. Open your minds and hearts like children to see things freshly in this new way, follow me and my words, and enter this new way of living.” Jesus took that message to the cross, an instrument of torture and cruelty that He used “to expose the cruelty and injustice of those in power and instill hope and confidence in the oppressed.”

In the gospels, says McLaren, we see that Jesus confronts the prosperity crisis by telling us that we are all fellow creatures in one grand global ecosystem and by calling us to seek the common good rather than our own selfish interests. He confronts the equity crisis by telling us we are all neighbors in a global community and by calling on us to seek justice for all. He confronts the security crisis by calling us to reconciliation rather than competition and domination. He calls us to respond to our enemies through love and service, not as victors who eliminate others. Jesus does all this through parables, miracles, ethical teachings (“which should not be seen as laws through which one earns hell or heaven, but rather as practices through which people can seek and participate in God’s kingdom.”) and ultimately through his death and resurrection. In this great act Jesus showed that God’s grace will ultimately triumph over human wickedness. And all of this calls us to respond by disbelieving the framing stories we’ve been taught and embracing instead Jesus and His radical new story.

This is only a brief (and no doubt inadequate) summary of what the book contains. It is a long book (362 pages) so I simply cannot adequately address all of it. I have attempted to quote McLaren in such a way that certain concerns with his theology (or lack thereof) are clear. I will continue here by providing some of the questions or overwhelming problems I noted as I read the book.

McLaren is aware that his understanding of Jesus necessarily conflicts with the more traditional Protestant understanding. Yet this traditional Protestant view of Jesus, of His work and His mission must be flawed, McLaren says, because it poses no real challenge to the framing story of Jesus’ day (or of our day) but instead feeds the suicide machine. It is unable to respond to the two great questions he posed at the outset. “Jesus in the conventional view has little or nothing to say regarding the world’s global crises.” In fact, the traditional view has actually placed Jesus within the framework of this machine so that He aids and abets it instead of providing an alternative. “More and more of us agree that for all its value, it does not adequately situate Jesus in his original context, but rather frames him in the context of religious debates within Western Christianity, especially debates in the sixteenth century.” He goes so far as to say that those who hold to this traditional view must regard much of the Bible as useless filler that we deliberately choose to disregard.

McLaren’s utter disdain for Protestant theology is evident throughout, but perhaps nowhere so clearly as in his rendition of Mary’s Magnificat, rewritten in such a way, he says, that it can now be consistent with traditional theology.

My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my personal Savior, for he has been mindful of the correct saving faith of his servant. My spirit will go to heaven when my body dies for the Mighty One has provided forgiveness, assurance, and eternal security for me–holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who have correct saving faith and orthodox articulations of belief, from generation to generation. He will overcome the damning effects of original sin with his mighty arm; he will damn to hell those who believe they can be saved through their own efforts or through any religion other than the new one He is about to form. He will condemn followers of other religions to hell but bring to heaven those with correct belief. He has filled correct believers with spiritual blessings but will send those who are not elect to hell forever. He has helped those with correct doctrinal understanding, remembering to be merciful to those who believe in the correct theories of atonement, just as our preferred theologians through history have articulated.

But the Bible, he says, teaches none of this. Rather, “Mary celebrates that God is going to upset the dominance hierarchies typical of empire so that the nation of Israel can experience the fulfillment of its original promise.” Time would fail me to even begin to address all of the doctrines he mocks and belittles even in this one paragraph. Suffice it to say that no doctrine is safe, with those closest to the heart of the gospel the ones that disgust McLaren the most. Just this one paragraph ought to shock and disgust any Christian.

Jesus will use a cross to expose the cruelty and injustice of those in power and instill hope and confidence in the oppressed. After reframing Jesus and His message, McLaren reintroduces Him through a new lens. Needless to say, this Jesus is radically different from the one Protestants have known and honored and radically different from the Jesus of the Bible. McLaren continues to systematically dismantle doctrine after doctrine. “With no apologies to Martin Luther, John Calvin, or modern evangelicalism, Jesus (in Luke 16:9) does not prescribe hell to those who refuse to accept the message of justification by grace through faith, or to those who are predestined for perdition, or to those who don’t express faith in a favored atonement theory by accepting Jesus as their ‘personal savior.’ Rather, hell–literally or figurative–is for the rich and comfortable who proceed on their way without concern for their poor neighbor day after day.” Jesus “calls them to grow their good deeds portfolios for the common good, especially the good of the poor and marginalized.”

McLaren seems particular incensed with the biblical concepts of heaven, hell and atonement. Rather than being eternal realities, heaven and hell become states we create on this earth as we pursue or deny the kingdom of God. Because Jesus’ message is not one of sinful men becoming reconciled to a holy God through an atoning sacrifice, those of any creed can seek and participate in the kingdom. People of other creeds may well be participating in it more fully and more purely than ones who claim to be Christians. Men and women of all creeds can be followers of Jesus living out the kingdom of God even if they have never heard His name. We see this in McLaren’s lists of people in whom we have apparently seen Jesus’ story echoed: Saint Francis, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Oscar Romero, Mahatma Gandhi, Saint Claire, Jane Goodall, and so on. Never mind that many of these people had no understanding of the gospel–they are the best and brightest in history because they sought to create “a generous, generative, and human alternative society” in place of the suicide machine around them.

The core message of Jesus focused on personal, social, and global transformation in this life. As with McLaren’s previous books, no doctrine is safe. And, in fact, almost every critical doctrine is emasculated, destroyed or redrawn. Nothing is sacred. Yet the problems go even deeper than theology because this book deals also with other subjects such as economics. With McLaren’s willingness to play fast and loose with Scripture, interpreting it as he seems fit with utter disregard for the stream of historic orthodox theology and the context of Scripture, how am I to trust his presentation of economics? If he is willing to adapt Scripture to fit his agenda and to do so at the expense of its most clear and obvious meaning, what confidence can I have that he has not done the same in other areas? What credibility remains? The same can be said of his view of politics, socio-economics and every other field he touches on. He has an agenda and it seems that he will not allow even the truth to derail him as he seeks to fulfill it.

The Emerging Church excels at asking good and difficult questions but has been widely critiqued because the answers are too often wildly inconsistent with Scripture. Everything Must Change is no exception. With this book McLaren further draws a line in the sand. He declares, increasingly unequivocally, that this Emerging Church bears little resemblance to the church as we know it from the Bible. The doctrine of the Emerging Church is moving farther and farther away from the doctrine of the Bible, at least as it has been understood from the Scriptures since the days of the early church. It will stop at nothing and will call into question and trample under foot even the most fundamental doctrines. McLaren will bring thousands of sincere people with him in his quest to see how Jesus addresses the world’s most serious problems. I hope these people count the cost. I hope they know what they must reject in order to be a new kind of Christian; they must reject the very heart of the gospel. After reading this book it is my hope and prayer that this marks the time when the Emerging Church realizes that if it is to maintain anything even remotely resembling biblical orthodoxy, it must stop now and it must abandon Brian McLaren. They must say “enough is enough” and turn back.

It seems increasingly clear that the new kind of Christian McLaren seeks is no kind of Christian at all. The church on the other side of his reinvention is a church devoid of the glorious gospel of Christ’s atoning death. It is a church utterly stripped of its power because it is a church stripped of the gospel message. McLaren’s new gospel is a social gospel, a liberal gospel and, in fact, no gospel at all. This Emerging Church has managed to do something remarkable–it has emerged into something the church has already seen, has already wrestled with, and has already defeated. The Emerging Church has gone suicidal.

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