Trolling by a notorious blog a couple of months ago, I saw an invitation to receive an advanced copy of Brian McLaren’s newest book to review on my blog. Well, I must have been late to the party, for I didn’t hear anything for a long time. But then I got an email from the publisher letting me know that, while the book was already out, they were still looking for people to be on their ‘street teams’. The word ‘free’ was involved, so naturally I wrote back. I confessed my interest in the book, pledged my intention to write about it, and offered my assurance that I considered myself quite ‘street’.
A couple of days ago, it happened. I received two copies of The Secret Message of Jesus, along with 2o sample chapters to leave with friends, coffee-shops, and churches. The only thing missing was a Street Team button. What to do? Leaving them at church seemed a little ‘den of robbers’ to me, and the wife offered a firm ‘no!’ when I asked about leaving them at my other church (the Laundromat). So I’ll consider them laying around the blog, I guess.
My plan was simple: share the other copy with the Kingdomyest SOB I know, and let the cynicism flow. I was going to dine on the irony of dissing a book about Jesus. Of being a subversively uncooperative member of a Street Team that was organized by an establishment entity who was trying to profit from the free gospel of Jesus himself. I was going to dismiss it as an obvious distillation of NT Wright and Dallas Willard, a simple retelling of the history of Second-Temple Judaism, and a latter-day ‘discovery’ of the Messianic Secret, which New Testament scholars have been writing about for years.
But guess what happened? The thing turned out to be really good. I’ve been unimpressed with his books before, but this one seemed more clear, less snarky, and more straighforwardly earnest. Oh, sure, the title is fairly unbearable, and the book jacket is embarrassing. But the book is just the right length, the writing is good, and the author stays right on point. So what can you say?
I’ll admit that my perspective was fueled by my recent experiences in blogdom, where people seem to be pretty adept at missing the point. So I opened McLaren with a bit of a chip on my shoulder: people seem rushed to talk about Jesus’ death– which should not be minimized. But what about Jesus’ life? A life that made sense far before his death. Jesus’ ministry and message was unique and distinct and — I’m almost able to say — stood on its own. So what was Jesus talking about? What was he doing? Why in the world were so many people gathered around him? So maybe a distillation of Wright, Willard, Second-Temple Judaism, and the Messianic Secret could be helpful, indeed. Maybe a book about Jesus that doesn’t end with his death is a good place to start.
McLaren moves into and through this idea of Jesus’ somewhat guarded identity and intentionally obscure message. He offers some helpful definition (and thought-provoking alternate metaphors) of Jesus’ idea of Kingdom, a useful comparison to Paul, a really insightful exploration of the themes and intent of Jewish apocalyptic literature (ie, John’s Revelation), and even some nice next steps for those of us who’d like to experiment with Jesus’ ideas. McLaren moves deftly around this conundrum: frequently, our questions about Jesus are the wrong questions, and this he points out with humility and useful encapsulations of scholarly insight. But what’s even better is his Appendix– Why didn’t we get it sooner?– which offers a quite subversive and compelling account of church history (can I use that cool phrase “worth the price of the book” if I got it for free?).
Oh, sure, it’s not perfect. He has an annoying habit of occasionally offering some striking comment as ‘fact’ or ‘historical interpretation’ without explanation or footnote. Furthermore, though he rightly identifies individualism as an enemy of understanding and following Jesus, he doesn’t say nearly enough about church or following Jesus in community. And there’s that title, and that cheeky dust jacket. Ugh.
But if McLaren leaves us with more questions than answers, he’s done right by us, and by Jesus.