When Jesus began his preaching, his message was this: “The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:15). And in the last few years, at least three groups within the Church have really taken on board this idea. I'm part of two of those groups (conservative evangelicals and charismatics), and I've got friends and colleagues who are very sympathetic to the other one (Brian McLaren and the Emergent Village). I've heard both very good and very bad things about McLaren, so I thought it worth getting to grips with him and his message. Following the recommendation of a friend who likes McLaren, I've read his book “The Secret Message of Jesus” as a way in (Thomas Nelson, 2006). What follows is therefore part book review, and part essay on the significance of the phrase “Kingdom of God”.
McLaren is quite open about the fact he is reacting against those who proclaim Jesus as their personal Saviour, but where Jesus doesn't make a difference to their lives – those who see Jesus as their Saviour, but not their Lord, and also against those who use the Bible as a way to condemn others' morals and so on. Of course, the danger with reactionary theologies is that they over-react and ditch the baby with the bathwater. And such seems to be the case here.
He sees the central teaching of Jesus as the proclamation of the Kingdom of God, and the central feature of the kingdom of God being our horizontal relationships with each other as part of God's new community. And his vision of this new community (largely around the Sermon on the Mount) is at times well-explained and moving, but fundamentally lacking. For example, here he summarises the purpose of Communion:
a kind of regular recommitment where people say, by gathering around a table and sharing in bread and wine, that they are continuing Jesus' tradition of gathering in an inclusive community. (p.166)
My alarm bells started ringing in the introduction. McLaren writes: “For example, you may wish that I had said more on particular dimensions of Jesus' message or life which are of special importance to you.” (p.xvii) Then there's an endnote, which when I chased it up told me that Jesus' death was considered as one of the “dimensions that might be of special importance to some readers”!
That's not to say that McLaren ignores Jesus' death. He does however take a thoroughly Girardian take on it, though not as well worked through as Girard himself. (Girard argues that Jesus in his death takes the violence of the mob on himself and so exposes the roots of human violence and scapegoating, in doing so opening the way for a new kind of society. I think he's right, but his approach can only be one facet of the truth.) McLaren, however, is more scathing about particularly Penal Substitution.
When we think of the language of Jesus' secret message, we realise quickly that for many people these days, to mix a political term like kingdom with a religious term like God sounds... scary, even terrorizing. We can't help but think of the dangerous religious-political cocktails of crusade and jihad, colonialism and terrorism, inquisition and fatwa – manifested in oxymoronic terms like holy war and redemptive violence. (p.149)
What's “redemptive violence” doing in that paragraph? Isn't it a kind of “guilt by association? And what would someone who wrote that think of Hell?
But all of that is side issue. For me, the central weakness of McLaren's work is that he misses the main point of the Kingdom of God. The main point of the Kingdom of God is God's King. “Christ” is a royal title – it's used of God's anointed kings in the Old Testament (e.g. 1 Sam 24:6). The proclamation of the Kingdom of God is picked up by the apostles precisely because it is the proclamation of Jesus as Lord and Christ. McLaren is at his absolute weakest in chapter 9, when he discusses how the apostles carried on Jesus' teaching. He picks up on the few references to the “kingdom of God” without looking at what the apostles actually preached, which was much closer to the fact that Jesus Christ is Lord, which McLaren seems to totally ignore.
McLaren's kingdom, good though some of the descriptions are, and helpful though his exhortations to follow the ways of the kingdom are, is ultimately a kingdom without a king. This is particularly striking in chapter 16, where he argues that Jesus wouldn't have used Kingdom language at all today, and discusses what else he'd have called it. His suggestions (the dream of God, the revolution of God, the mission of God, the party of God, the network of God, the dance of God) are all notable because they aren't anywhere as hierarchical as the kingdom language that Jesus used. It is the Kingdom precisely because Jesus is the King.
For McLaren, Jesus seems reduced to being the potentially divine revealer of a better way who then disappears from the picture as all are welcomed into the inclusivistic dance - rather than the enthroned King of the Universe, who we are invited to know for ourselves. And of course that knowledge should be one that makes us into a new community and that follows him as Lord, but that is what the Church has always preached, and there's no reason to ditch it.