Review of Brian McLaren's Everything Must Change (part 2)

Read time: 14 minutes

Everything Must Change (see the synopsis in the first part of this review) will be read by many as a challenge to the modern church to exchange an ineffectual and theologically suspect notion of what it means to be Christian for an ‘emerging’ understanding that offers a credible hope of global transformation. That is certainly part of McLaren’s intention. But the main aim of the book, it seems to me, is to challenge an unbelieving world to defect from the dominant system, to disbelieve in the destructive framing story, and to trust instead in the new framing story of Jesus. It is, as McLaren puts it, a ‘religious book, but in a worldly and unconventional and ultimately positive way’ (3); it aspires to change public opinion (269).

In that regard Everything Must Change is quite exceptional in daring to call our modern consumerist, inequitable and bellicose society to abandon its covert shaping narrative and believe in the radical alternative of Jesus’ message about the kingdom of God. Whether or not the book and any movement that it may generate should prove successful in the long run, it seems to me that McLaren has again done what he does best: he has gone striding off, with a genial but purposeful glint in his eye, in roughly the right direction – give or take 180° or so – while everyone else stands around dithering or squabbling or engineering their online fiefdoms. He is searching passionately for the biggest and most audacious practical outcome of the emerging church’s conviction that Jesus’ good news must have public and political relevance. What do we have to do, what do we have to believe, what has to happen, what has to change for Jesus to be the answer not just to the problem of personal sin but to the massive interlocking crises that threaten to terminate the well-being and prosperity of modern society?

It is an extravagant ambition and it requires extravagant means. McLaren knows that if he is going to recommend the story of Jesus to the world as a viable alternative both to the dominant framing narrative of economic and military imperialism and to the tired counternarratives of Christendom, he must radically change the rhetoric of belief. So like much of his writing, the book is a polemical, polarizing, sometimes impertinent, often iconoclastic exercise in metaphor-forming, language-shifting, and concept-stretching. We are not on solid ground here and we are likely to have some difficulty standing upright.

And if Jesus is going to change the world, what sort of community will his followers have to be? Not an institutional church fussing over its organization and doctrine, but something much more radical, rampant, risk-taking - a ‘divine peace insurgency’, ‘God’s unterror movement’, a ‘global economy of love’, ‘God’s sacred ecosystem’. For some these metaphors will wonderfully capture the subversive and redemptive potential of a community of grace; to others they will sound contrived and precious. But I think we have to find ways to reimagine and redescribe the being of the church in the world. The creative process will be chaotic and disorienting; but I think it is well worth running after the genial and purposeful McLaren to get a better sense of how things appear through his eyes.

Still, it has to be said that an extravagant ambition creates extravagant problems. I share much of Andrew Jones’ anguished ambivalence about this book but I am inclined to attribute the problems fundamentally to the fact that McLaren is trying very hard to reimagine the kingdom of God for people who live outside the boundaries of any form of serious Christian commitment. So to my mind the question that arises is this: To what extent has a biblical theology been adapted or filtered or truncated for the sake of - or as a consequence of - the book’s distinctive rhetorical purpose? Or to put it more bluntly: Can we really make the Jesus of the Gospels come up with an answer to the world’s biggest problems? These are by no means easy questions to answer, particularly when McLaren is doing his best to reconceptualize a populist theology that is already in a state of extreme flux. So I put forward this critique with some hesitation, aware that it would be very easy, given a slight shift of perspective, to evaluate the book both more positively and more negatively.

As yes, more negatively….

The ever vigilant Tim Challies has argued that Everything Must Change is evidence that the emerging church is ‘moving farther and farther away from the doctrine of the Bible’. Challies is not an especially careful reviewer and he could really pay more attention to what McLaren is actually saying. What he hears as mockery of traditional doctrines is more often than not mockery of the distortions that occur when scripture is forced into the restrictive grid of traditional doctrine. For example, McLaren’s rewriting of the Magnificat in the thought-forms of a conventional theology is provocative and satirical (102-103) and invites misunderstanding; but he is surely right to highlight the fact that Mary’s song makes little sense within the narrow purview of much modern evangelical piety.

Challies also complains that in McLaren’s theology ‘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.’ As evidence of this he points to McLaren’s list 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’. But what McLaren actually says is that the story of the kingdom of God ‘has echoed through history in the dreams of our best and brightest’ - followed by the offending list of names (275). His point, seemingly, is that throughout the ages believers and non-believers alike have dreamed of, imagined, a better world than the one that is currently being mangled by the suicide machine. Insofar as the kingdom of God stands in opposition to greed, injustice and violence, it constitutes a hope that is not confined to the community of those who claim to be Christians.

Does Jesus’ announcement about the coming of the kingdom of God encourage us to hope for global social, political and economic transformation?

But that ‘insofar as’ is critical, and I understand why Challies feels uncomfortable. The Magnificat is not a song about personal salvation, but neither is it a song of global social transformation: what it foresees is the coming deliverance of downtrodden Israel from the power of its mighty enemies. McLaren appears to understand this: ‘Mary celebrates that God is going to upset the dominance hierarchies typical of empire so that the nation of Israel can experience the fulfilment of its original promise’ (103). But it is not shown how we get from that particular political-religious liberation of the covenant people to the grandiose hope of global transformation that the book holds out.

The problem lies in the phrase ‘typical of empire’. The assumption behind this appears to be that the challenge to Roman imperialism entailed in the New Testament story about Jesus merely exemplifies a universal challenge to all forms of imperialism. For McLaren the Magnificat is illustrative of the fact that the Bible is the story of the ‘partnership between God and humanity to save and transform all of human society and avert global self-destruction’ (94). Really? In the future foreseen by the New Testament story neither Judaism nor Rome is to be saved from self-destruction. So why should we so confidently conclude that God now is in partnership with humanity to save the whole world from whatever global social and environmental catastrophe we are heading towards?

The coming of the kingdom of God in the New Testament is specifically the coming of YHWH to set his people free from the concrete, historical consequences of their sin and to install his own regent over them in place of a spectrum of oppressive political and spiritual forces. Once the reign of God over his people has been established, we can then ask about the implications of that state of affairs - that régime change - for the missional being of the church in the world. But it seems to me that in McLaren’s argument there is no real need for a historical people of God: Jesus’ message of the kingdom directly confronted imperial pretensions then and it directly confronts imperial pretensions now.

So what has happened to the church in McLaren’s reconstruction of the story of Jesus?

One of the things that especially bothers me about the way McLaren has presented his argument in this book is that it overlooks the prophetic function of the covenant community (see on this theme the ‘TREK conversation in Portland, Oregon, on the prophetic church’). The problem with reading the story of Jesus as essentially an archetypal challenge to empire as an unjust and self-serving system is that it rather makes the story of Israel superfluous to requirements. Ironically, we see the same sort of narrative compression at work here that we find in the modern evangelical reduction of scripture to a myth of personal salvation. McLaren does an excellent job of bringing into focus the historical and political aspects of the gospel narrative so that it becomes clear that followers of Jesus cannot neglect the systemic dimensions of human sin. But Jesus does not, in fact, challenge empire - his anger is directed against Jewish iniquity; he is barely interested in Rome. Rather he calls into existence a new community that, through its trust in the living God, will withstand first Jewish and then pagan opposition. He does not set out to reform empire. He reforms Israel so that it will fulfil its vocation to be a holy nation and a viable alternative to empire.

It seems to me that the central ‘missional’ argument of scripture is that a people is called out of the world to be an alternative humanity in the midst of the nations and cultures of the world - a redeemed, renewed, transformed microcosm within the macrocosm, a world-within-a-world, an ecosystem-within-an-ecosystem. The microcosm offers a place of refuge, so to speak, for those who wish to - or feel called to - escape from the corruption and futility of the macrocosm and be reconciled with the creator God. But it also stands as a prophetic witness to how God intended creation to be. The call to transformation in the Bible is aimed not at changing the world but at maintaining the distinctiveness or holiness of the microcosm for the sake of the integrity of its witness to the creative God.

There is something very appealing about McLaren’s vision of a community of followers who ‘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’. But I struggle to persuade myself that such a community, even if it came to pass, might really change the world. It just seems to go too much against the grain of the biblical narrative. The argument of Genesis 1-11 is that human society has chosen to go its own way in defiance of the creative God. So the invitation to Abraham in Genesis 12, essentially, is to be a people apart, whose responsibility is not to change a world that will always want to be its own divinity but to keep the law of God, whether written on tablets of stone or on tablets of human hearts.

The deepest prophetic task now may be to build communities that will survive whatever turmoil awaits us - or if I can put it in more lurid theological terms, the coming of the ‘wrath’ of God on our world. I don’t want to be misunderstood here. This does not mean that we do not work to transform society. If for no other reason we seek concretely to redeem the world in bits and pieces because that is what the prophetic statement of hope is made out of: the drama of love and justice in action. But we transform on the basis of having been transformed. It is only as God’s redeemed people that we experience repentance and grace, reconciliation with the Creator God. I would like to have heard in this book a much more forceful call to the whole church now, progressive and regressive, to live itself under the framing narrative of the kingdom of God, to be in itself a transformed society, equitable, peaceable, compassionate and environmentally friendly.

Oh no! Don’t tell me there’s no doctrine of atonement!

It is another of Challies’ gripes that McLaren appears to have no place for an atonement theology in his thinking, having apparently rejected the idea that Jesus’ message is ‘one of sinful men becoming reconciled to a holy God through an atoning sacrifice’. I disagree with this traditional encapsulation of the good news. It would be nearer the mark to say that Jesus’ message was that sinful Israel could be reconciled to a holy God through his death as an atoning sacrifice - and that everything else flows from that transformation (see ‘Does the new book really say that the NT has no application to us today?’). But there is certainly a problem.

McLaren writes that ‘Jesus challenged people in his day to stop believing the empire’s empty promises and stop fearing its threats through a brilliant strategy’ (271). That strategy was to suffer and be killed as a vulnerable lamb in order to expose and defeat the ‘wolfish powers’ of empire. The argument is clearly reminiscent of Paul’s argument in Colossians 2:15 that God ‘disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them’ in Christ or in the cross. I’m not sure it is so clear that Paul has the oppressive powers of empire in mind in Colossians 2 - he seems to be more concerned about religious or spiritual practices. But more importantly, McLaren has again skipped a crucial stage in the argument. Jesus’ death was not in the first place against empire but for the people of God, not an exposé of the sins of Rome but an expiation for the sins of Israel - and, like it or not, it is here that atonement theology must come into play. Jesus died to save at least a remnant of Israel from the wrath of God that would take the eventual form of the devastating war against Rome.

Do we really need to abandon all thought of a transcendent eschatology in order to take seriously the worldly implications of the kingdom of God?

Andrew Jones has raised questions about McLaren’s eschatology in this book. They are probably not quite the same questions I would raise, but there are problems certainly. It seems to me that McLaren has simply pushed the ‘realized eschatology’ too far when he says that the ‘new heaven and new earth’ of 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). What John describes at the end of the book of Revelation is a world in which there is no more wickedness, suffering and death (Rev. 20:14; 21:4, 8), populated by those whose names were written in the book of life (Rev. 20:15); and as a culmination to the complex ‘new creation’ motif that runs through scripture, I think we have to read this as a genuinely transcendent prospect.

I agree, broadly speaking, that we should reject an ‘eschatology of abandonment and despair’ that looks only for an escape to heaven and offers no inspiration for serious social engagement - though I would argue that this heaven-oriented eschatology nevertheless had a crucial place in the New Testament narrative. But it seems to me not only biblically necessary but also missionally appropriate to maintain and affirm a belief in the final and complete transformation of all things. It anchors our commitment to be new creation, authentic humanity, a sacred ecosystem in the most profound cosmic hope; it ensures that the creative God is finally sovereign. The last enemy of creation is not empire; it is always death, and not even the most optimistic advocate of an ‘unfolding, emergent, spiraling process’ can hope to defeat that enemy in this world.

The Bible is less ambitious than Everything Must Change

So I think that McLaren is right in wanting to reconceptualize the potential of the gospel for a post-Christendom era. He is right to resist the privatizing tendencies of much modern theology. He is right to draw attention to the social and political implications of the good news. He is right in wanting to translate the high-minded talk into concrete and effective action. He is right in wanting to believe that Jesus can make a difference not just in our hearts or in our domesticated churches but out there in a dangerous world, where greed and fear and ignorance and anger drive powerful narratives of self-destruction.

But I am not sure that he has reconstructed the emerging political message in a way that is consistent with the outlook of the New Testament. My argument would be that the good news of the kingdom of God in the New Testament aims neither at the salvation of as many individuals as possible from eternal punishment in hell nor at the salvation of humanity as a whole from the suicide machine that it has constructed for itself. Rather it aims to save and transform the people of God to function as a consistent alternative ecosystem, in which the justice and compassion and creativity of God are manifested.

This ecosystem in Christ always constitutes by its very existence a challenge to the corrupting systems and hierarchies of the world; it should always demonstrate that things can be different; and it should always maintain the hope that sin and death will not have the last word in the long and tortuous history of humankind. But should we expect it to catalyze a global transformation? I don’t think so.