Brian McLaren may be one of the most controversial figures in evangelical Christianity today. Though many pastors and thinkers have referred to his writing as “refreshing”, even “compelling”, his detractors have decried him on blogs and from the pulpit as “misguided” or worse, “heretical.” Known famously, or infamously, for his “generous orthodoxy”, McLaren’s views have found him favor with a group of like-minded Christians who loosely call themselves the “emerging church”, while setting him at odds with many self-described fundamentalists.
Of course, as writers like Mark Twain knew, controversy is good for book sales, and McLaren has done well enough in that area to make the transition from pastor to that of professional “thinker.” McLaren only just stepped down from a more than twenty year run as pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in the DC area to focus on his writing and speaking. The extra time he won gave him space to write what he considers to be the culmination of all his thinking and writing, his most recent book, The Secret Message of Jesus.
McLaren’s newest release is a concise and provocative look at Jesus’ teachings and, yes, their radical implications. In The Secret Message of Jesus McLaren maintains that the core gospel message is the kingdom of God and that the gospel message contains all the dimensions of Jesus’ mission: the social, the personal and the saving work of the cross. Of course, it wouldn’t be McLaren if he didn’t point out some of the supposed cultural and historical misreading and offer up a fresh way to look at Jesus’ message.
Recently, McLaren took time from a demanding schedule to discuss his motivations, his influences and the emerging church. As always, he was well-spoken and at least as generous as his orthodoxy.
RELEVANTmagazine.com: Why did you write The Secret Message of Jesus?
Brian McLaren: About 15 years ago I was having lunch with a very well-known Christian leader and author and he said to me, "You know Brian, most evangelicals don’t really know what the gospel is." And I remember thinking, "Well that’s a provocative statement," and I just sat staring into my hot and sour soup, trying to dodge his question. Then he continued, "For example, what do you think the gospel is?" And I gave him my best answer … I talked about justification by grace through faith and the atoning work of Christ on the cross … Then he said, "Well that’s exactly what most evangelicals think." I came back with, "Well, what do you say the gospel is?" and immediately he answered, "Shouldn’t we let Jesus define the gospel for us? For Jesus, the gospel is ‘the kingdom of God is at hand.’"
And I remember thinking that he’s probably a heretic. But it just stayed in my mind for all these years … that for Jesus the gospel is that the kingdom of God is at hand. And in the last few years it’s just become clearer and clearer to me that it’s something that we should be paying attention to. That was kind of the germ behind the book and, at heart, my deepest sense of calling is in evangelism.
I wanted to write a book about the central message of Jesus that would be accessible to spiritual but not really religious people, as well as to Christians and my general readership. So The Secret Message of Jesus is really about Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God and trying to unpack what that means? What did that mean when he originally said it, and what does it mean today?
RM: There seems to be a move, within a certain section of evangelicalism, to reclaim kingdom of God language and thinking.
BM: I think that all my life there’s been a move going on that I was more or less unaware of. For example, in the seventies there was something called the Lausanne Covenant which was a very important statement by evangelicals around the world that marked a resurgence of interest in the way the gospels addressed issues of social justice and issues of poverty and racism and the environment. That was a statement of a very few then, but I think that sense that the gospel is holistic, that it touches every area of our lives has been growing.
And I think that the kingdom of God thinking also brings together what you might call liberal Christians and conservative Christians. Liberal Christians have tended to emphasize the public and social dimensions of Jesus’ message and conservative Christians have tended to emphasize the private and individual dimensions. I think that Kingdom language brings both of those together nicely.
RM: And then you’ve got the more charismatic movements like the Vineyard movement who began to use that language in the 80s and early 90s.
BM: That’s right, John Wimber really had a lot to say about the kingdom. He was very influenced by a resurgence of interest in what the kingdom means. Of course, before the Vineyard, Kingdom language also brought together charismatic elements of the gospel. So, again, we see the gospel of the kingdom uniting all these seemingly separate elements of Jesus’ message and ministry.
RM: You use the term "missional" a lot …
BM: That’s been one of the terms that’s drawn people from the left and the right together … helping them say that God has a mission in this world and that being a Christian is joining God in God’s mission in the world.
RM: How much did guys like Dallas Willard, N.T. Wright, Todd Hunter have an influence on your thinking?
BM: Todd Hunter is a good friend, and my sense is that Todd and I have probably been on this journey together, and we’ve certainly enriched each other’s thinking on this. You know, Dallas Willard has had a huge influence … on … just about everybody. In many ways, The Divine Conspiracy is a book about the kingdom of God. Of course, though Willard deals with the social aspect a bit in his writing, he and Richard Foster are much more concerned with the personal aspect of the kingdom of God, and I’ve tried to combine both social and personal aspects equally.
Of course when you mention Dallas Willard and N.T. Wright, I think you’ve mentioned two of the most important thinkers that have stimulated my thinking on this. N.T. Wright’s books and lectures have helped me so much. They sent me back to the gospels and to Paul’s writings. In a way, when I’ve heard N.T. Wright speak or when I’ve read his books, it’s just been very, very radical. And even though people may argue about a detail here or there, I think that virtually everybody agrees that he is saying things that have to be reckoned with and that they push the message of the kingdom as the central message of Jesus.
RM: It seems that Wright comes at Jesus in such a fresh way. He’s affirming Jesus as undoubtedly historical, miraculous, risen again … but he’s still questioning some basic assumptions about the future and what Jesus actually meant at certain points … do you feel a kind of kinship with him?
BM: I feel like it’s a shared pursuit; it’s a hunch that some of our interpretive structures were based on false assumptions or they just had some problems. A friend of mine said that what you focus on determines what you miss. When you go looking in the Bible for one or two themes, you’re often going to miss other themes that are there.
I think a lot of us are rethinking some of the assumptions that we came to scripture with, but that doesn’t mean that we’re taking scripture less seriously. I think that there’s a sense of exhilaration when scripture begins to make more sense across the board. My feeling is that after writing this book, is that my respect and love for scripture has never been higher.
RM: I have to be honest, I’ve always had quite a bit of cynicism concerning the emerging church movement. It always kind of seemed to me like a bunch of guys who just liked Starbucks way too much and tried to tailor their churches to fit that … but when you start talking about the kingdom of heaven, I get a lot more interested … it doesn’t feel tied into a certain ideology or movement …
BM: There’s a longstanding tradition in the American Christian community to turn everything into a fad or turn everything into a technique or a method, and we’re really not interested in fads or techniques. A lot of criticism has come from people saying that we’re just trying to pander to the culture or watering things down. That’s not been our concern at all. I think we’re excited about taking the full-strength, full dose gospel.
There’s a great phrase for this in Spanish. Another important thinker who’s had an influence on me is a Latin-American theologian named Rene Padilla. Rene uses the term "mission intégrale". In English we’d say "integral mission", but the great thing in Latin America is the word, when you hear it, it brings to mind "pan intégrale" which means "whole-wheat bread." And I think that’s what we’re looking for: The real substance of the gospel.
It’s not just a message about what happens to our immaterial souls after we die, but it’s the message of God’s saving within creation; God’s will being done on earth. It’s working with God here and now. It means that the person who’s a taxi-driver, the person who’s a schoolteacher, or a politician or a lawyer or a nurse or an artist or an athlete, or whatever it is that someone does, their work can actually contribute to God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. To me, it just takes up all of our life and that’s what a kingdom is, it’s a comprehensive reality.