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how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Review of Brian McLaren's Everything Must Change (part 1)

It’s three months now since Brian McLaren’s latest book Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope was released, and in the frenzied, web-driven world of emerging theology, three months is a long time. For all I know it’s not even his latest book any more. It has been widely reviewed, blogged on, commented on, pod- and videocasted about, facebooked, eulogized, trashed on the web. But I found it a highly stimulating read for all sorts of reasons and I think it’s well worth reviewing even at this late stage in the cycle of fashionability. The review comes in two parts: first, in this post a synopsis of McLaren’s argument in the book; and secondly, at some time in the near future, a critical evaluation in which I want to consider in particular how the category of ‘kingdom of God’ fits into a vision of social transformation, which seems to me to be the central theological question posed by the book.

Everything Must Change is nothing if not an ambitious book. It is conceived as a response to two ‘preoccupying questions’: first, ‘what are the biggest problems in the world?’; and secondly, ‘what does Jesus have to say about these global problems?’ (11-13). The questions are posed within the context of a personal narrative of dissatisfaction regarding traditional forms of evangelical Christianity and a search for an alternative expression of faith in Jesus that has the potential to make a ‘positive difference in the world’ (3). Beyond McLaren’s personal narrative is the growing recognition among ‘reflective Christian leaders’ that millions of young adults have dropped out of their churches in recent decades having judged Christianity to be a ‘failed religion’ because ‘it has specialized in dealing with “spiritual needs” to the exclusion of physical and social needs’ (33).

The mess we find ourselves in

McLaren answers the first question by describing the failure of the three major subsystems that together comprise our ‘societal machine’: the prosperity system, the security system, and the equity system. He argues that when these subsystems get out of control, the machinery becomes destructive rather than life-giving: it becomes a ‘suicide machine’. This is what is currently happening to the world. The machinery of human society has grown so large that the ecosystem within which it operates can no longer either meet its demand for resources or absorb its waste products. It is like a goldfish that has outgrown its bowl:

We have realized that our societal goldfish can get too big or too dirty for the goldfish bowl in which we live. We can arrogantly deny our limits as creatures and (in our eyes) become like gods – independent, beyond constraint, with nothing to fear, clueless about our stupidity until we have been banished forever from our fertile, well-balanced garden into a bleak world of thorns and sweat and gloom. (63)

The reason why the machinery has gone haywire is that ‘our world’s dominant framing story is failing’ (68). It does not inspire us to respect environmental limits in our headlong pursuit of economic growth; it privileges the wealthy over the poor, giving rise not only to great suffering but also to resentment and the likelihood of violence; and it promotes conflict between communities rather than peace. The framing story can take different forms. There are, for example, various ‘violent narratives’: victim and revenge narratives, warrior and revolution narratives, domination or imperial narratives. There are withdrawal or isolation narratives that work not with an ‘offense-revenge cycle’ but with a ‘fear-protection cycle’. And there are ‘theocapitalist narratives’, which ‘mythologize markets and their products with a divine power to bring happiness’ (71-72).

If the global crises that modern society faces are the product of a ‘dysfunctional framing story’, we cannot expect to solve these massive problems without overturning that story and installing an alternative narrative in its place. This is where the message of Jesus becomes relevant:

I am convinced that Jesus confronted the framing story that drove the society of his day and offered a radical alternative, seeking to turn their trajectory from a downward arc of self-destruction to an ascending spiral of transformation and hope. (72)

Which Jesus?

But at this point we must ask: Which Jesus? The modern evangelical Jesus who is interested only in the spiritual life and eternal destiny of the individual believer? McLaren argues that the ‘conventional view’, which restricts Jesus’ purpose to saving souls so that they might go to heaven when they die rather than experience eternal punishment in hell, must be replaced by an ‘emerging view’, according to which Jesus came to ‘save the earth and all it contains from its ongoing destruction because of human evil’ (79).

The conventional view is powerless to challenge the dominant framing story and indeed in many ways, with its narrow preoccupation with the soul and its orientation towards the afterlife, unwittingly supports it. The emerging view corrects this deficiency by relocating Jesus at the heart of the political-religious dilemma faced by first century Israel under Roman oppression. The ruling imperial narrative ‘promised peace, security, and equity through domination’ (83-84). The Jews had their own divergent and mutually incompatible counternarratives: the Zealot hope that God would support insurgency; the Pharisees’ belief that rigorous observance of the Law would persuade God to send a liberator; the pragmatism of the Jewish elites who saw accommodation with Roman power as the safest option; or the radical separatism of the Essenes in preparation for the final cataclysm.

Jesus, however, had a quite different solution to the problem – the kingdom of God as an alternative to empire: ‘“Don’t let your lives be framed by the narratives and counternarratives of the Roman empire… but situate yourselves in another story… the good news that God is king, and we can live in relation to God and God’s love rather than Caesar and Caesar’s power”’ (90). McLaren then puts forward an alternative hypothesis to the conventional reading of the Bible and of the Gospels in particular: ‘that the Bible instead is the story of the partnership between God and humanity to save and transform all of human society and avert global self-destruction’ (94). This hypothesis is defended, first, by consideration of twelve features of Jesus’ ministry that count as little more than ‘junk DNA’ in the traditional reading but which lend support to the view that Jesus was proclaiming a political-religious alternative to the destructive narrative of empire (94-100). Secondly, McLaren examines four pivotal episodes in the Gospels: the songs of Mary and Zechariah in Luke; the confrontation in the synagogue in Nazareth; Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ at Caesarea Philippi; and Jesus’ defence before Pilate (101-115).

The metaphor of the kingdom of God on Jesus’ lips signifies an inversion of the kingdom of Caesar; but the metaphor is problematic today, and McLaren suggests a number of alternative metaphors that Jesus might use to ‘help us envision a new framing story for our world, and so transform our suicide machine into a creative and humane society’ (128). Jesus might speak, for example, of a ‘divine peace insurgency’ that resists the tyranny of the suicide machine through mercy, wisdom, hope, generosity, etc. Or of ‘God’s unterror movement’ – people who ‘fly airplanes of generosity into towers of need and plant improvised encouragement devices by roadsides and in neighborhoods everywhere, seeking God’s kingdom and God’s equity’. Or of a ‘new global economy of love’ that ‘measures success in terms of gross national affection and global community’. Or of ‘God’s sacred ecosystem’, in which ‘Instead of pursuing our own selfish dreams… we seek for God’s dream of creation to come true’ (128-132).

McLaren then takes his reintroduction of Jesus a couple of steps further by considering, first, how the sermon on the mount can be read as ‘a radical inversion of the imperial narrative’ (134-139); and secondly, how New Testament language about a future ‘coming’ of Jesus might be understood not as a statement of eventual divine domination but as ‘a poetic description of the way the gentle First Coming Jesus powerfully overcomes through his nonviolent “weakness”…, a prince of peace whose word of reconciliation is truly mightier than Caesar’s sword’ (143-145).

How Jesus answers the world’s problems

The next three sections of the book explore in some detail how the three primary subsystems of human society might be rebuilt within the new framing story that Jesus called ‘the good news of the kingdom of God’. The security system first. Whereas religion has so often been associated with violence, according to McLaren’s ‘radical reassessment’, Jesus calls his followers to participate in a ‘peace insurgency’ – ‘to see through every regime that promises peace through violence, peace through domination, peace through genocide, peace through exclusion and intimidation’ (159). Reference is made to Grant LeMarquand’s intriguing, though not entirely convincing, exegesis of the stories of the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28 and of the feeding of the four thousand in 15:32-39. McLaren believes that in these events Jesus ‘deconstructs the violent conquest narrative and suggests that the kingdom of God takes a radically different approach to “the other”’ (155).

So McLaren imagines a transformed world, rescued from its compulsive militarism by Jesus’ teaching which ‘challenges us to reject the deceptive, addictive emotions that forcefully drive us to war, and calls us to find new meaning in love, neighborliness, reconciliation, and the work of building vibrant, reconciled communities’ (182).

Secondly, the prosperity system. McLaren accepts the thesis of the Catholic theologian Tom Beaudoin that modern ‘consumer media capitalism’ performs the manifold functions of a religion, providing identity for its adherents, generating community, communicating transcendence, and so on. Hence the term ‘theocapitalism’, with its four spiritual laws of ‘progress through rapid growth’, ‘serenity through possession and consumption’, ‘salvation through competition alone’, and the ‘freedom to prosper through unaccountable corporations’ (190-196). Naturally enough, these laws are driving the world towards an apocalypse of ‘economic collapse from resources depletion, poisoning from waste buildup, or disruption due to environmental instability’ – and the conflict between communities and nations that will inevitably accompany this economic disintegration.

How does Jesus offer hope? He inspires his followers to ‘build a new kind of prosperity system that we have called God’s love economy, a new way of living as part of God’s sacred ecosystem’, driven by a radically different set of laws: ‘good deeds for the common good’, ‘satisfaction through gratitude and sharing’, ‘salvation through seeking justice’, and ‘freedom to prosper by building better communities’ (206-223).

Thirdly, the equity system. Jesus constantly confronts and subverts the unjust equity system of his day by urging reconciliation outside the legal system, by telling stories about forgiveness and mercy and generosity, by commending the steward who cuts the debts owed by tenant farmers to avaricious landlords, by warning that people cannot serve both God and mammon, by denouncing the hypocrisy of the ruling classes, by inviting the excluded into the kingdom of God, and by rejecting the ‘chauvinism and eroticism that typically team up to reduce women to inferior status’ (238-242). We must realize that Jesus has as much to say about collective and systemic sin as he does about personal sin and must respond accordingly – by seeking to help the poor ourselves through generosity, by calling the rich to generosity, and by working to remove injustice from the system (242-246).

If extreme poverty is to be overcome, action will be required in seven areas: trade reform, increase in aid, debt relief, recognition of the natural limits of consumption, the establishment of an international minimum, and perhaps a maximum, wage, the development of credible justice systems, and the strengthening of communities. McLaren suggests that the catalyst for the sort of transformation required may be found in the ‘power of organizing religion’:

If there is a force in the world powerful and good enough to overcome the grinding, destructive momentum of the suicide machine, it is to found, not in organized religion seeking institutional self-preservation, but in religion organizing for the common good. (265)

A revolution of hope

This brings us to the final section of the book and some pretty big questions: ‘Can the suicide machine really be stopped? Can the earth really be liberated from the destructive framing story that drives it? Is Jesus’ healing and transforming story really powerfully enough to save the world?’ (269). We don’t know. McLaren suggests, however, that the message of Jesus presents the possibility of fundamentally changing public opinion through belief in a new framing story:

This is “salvation by grace through faith” in a planetary sense: if we believe that God graciously offers us a new way, a new truth, and a new life, we can be liberated from the vicious, addictive cycles of our suicidal framing stories. (270)

Through his death Jesus exposed the ‘vicious wolfishness’, the ugliness, the implausibility, of the ruling imperial power: ‘After all, they could no longer claim to be agents of peace and promise after torturing and killing a good and peaceful man so violently and shamefully.’ And his ‘quiet but real resurrection’ demonstrated to his followers that a revolution was in progress at the margins: ‘His resurrection told them that Caesar’s muscle couldn’t conquer God’s vulnerability, that Caesar’s spears couldn’t conquer God’s heart, and that Caesar’s whips and nails and crosses couldn’t overcome God’s way of love and reconciliation’ (272).

So the simple solution of Jesus to the world’s problems is to stop believing in the suicide machine and its framing stories and to believe instead the good news of the kingdom of God. But drawing on the ‘systems theory’ of Clare Graves, McLaren suggests that the kingdom of God should be understood as a ‘higher-order system that continually invites humanity to move upward in the “unfolding, emergent… spiraling process”’ (276). It is also an ‘agonizing’ process because Jesus’ followers are called to give up the life they could have lived and to live instead a ‘life dedicated to replacing the suicide machine with a sacred ecosystem, a beautiful community, an insurgency of healing and peace, a creative global family, and unterror movement of faith, hope, and love’ (277).

If the followers of Jesus are to offer a viable alternative to the suicide machine, they will have to do two things. First, they will have to recognize that the dominant societal system has a ‘covert curriculum’ that must be unlearned. In order to illustrate the power of this covert curriculum McLaren argues that both abortion and global warming are the product of the same presumption, namely that ‘we can engage in pleasurable or profitable behaviours with undesired consequences and either avoid the consequences or clean them up later’ (288).

Secondly, they will have to develop their own ‘creative counter-curriculum to teach people the art of living in this new way’ (284). So McLaren imagines a community of people who refuse to be ‘malformed by this powerful educational process’; who would persistently tell an alternative framing story; who would ‘develop practices of spiritual formation so they and their children for generations to come would be able to learn, live, and grow as part of the solution, not part of the problem; as agents of healing, not as carriers of the disease; as revolutionaries seeking to dismantle and subvert the suicidal system, not as functionaries and drones seeking to serve and preserve it’; who ‘through word and deed, song and ritual, holiday and daily practice, …would seek to be the revolution they wished to see in the world’; who would understand their ‘sacred and unique role as bearers of the revolutionary good news, the message of the hope: another world is possible, available now for all who believe’ (292).

In the final chapter McLaren repeats his conviction that the framing story of the kingdom of God has the potential to reshape the world and then briefly sets out his eschatology. He believes that the vision of the ‘new heaven and new earth’ in Revelation 21 defines ‘not a different space-time universe, but a new way of living that is possible within this universe, a new societal system that is coming as surely as God is just and faithful’ (296). He is quite clear about what this means: the world that is dominated by the suicide machine will eventually give way to a ‘new generation of humanity’.

The message of the apocalypse is that the empire of Caesar, including the religious apparatus that sustains his system, will not last for ever, but that the empire or kingdom of this world (earth’s integrated political and economic and social systems, its principalities and powers, its societal machinery) will ultimately be transformed so it becomes “the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever”. (297)