After many books and much puzzling, I think I may have finally figured out why Brian McLaren’s books are somewhat difficult for me to read. It is because he writes like I talk: with asides, caveats, nearly non-sequitors, rabbit trails, parentheticals, ongoing prolegommena, framing comments, process, and running commentary. Oh, and long lists with lots of commas.
So getting started with his latest book, I would read a bit of the extended verbiage and nearly blurt out, “just say it, Brian!”. And then I tried reading a little quicker, and started to hear his voice, and just let it ride. Which is fortunate, because once you get through the long introducton, it’s an amazing book.
In it, BMac points out the truth that most everyone knows, but that few have the courage to name: that our American pursuit of prosperity and security comes at the expense of ourselves and others– our consumption of resources and constant efforts at self-protection are not sustainable. It is, to put a finer point on it, simply selfish. In fact, BMac borrows the term ‘suicide machine’ to describe our current system, which seems overstated at first, but he makes a strong case (which I expect will be even stronger and more fully-orbed when he brings some DeepShift to town). His book is a sustained effort to erode our confidence in this dominant system of thought.
The sections that really sing are the ones where he describes the Roman Empire in a slightly detached way, but one that lets the reader see that he is also quietly describing the American Empire, simultaneously. The savvy reader will substitute ‘America’ for ‘Rome’, and feel the implication, and the way history might well be repeating itself. In so doing, he is offering a whole new way to read the Bible, and to understand God and Jesus– a way that is through a world lens, rather than an American one. As the book continues, many such little explosions of thought await, pulling the reader ever forward.
The journey through the book is not without snags, however. His suggestions of alternate metaphors for Jesus’ term ‘Kingdom of God’ feel awkward and hokey, and the chapter that inserts them seems ill-considered. Too, the cover is meant to be removed immediately, and the title still makes me cringe. And the footnotes are a mess. For me, the measure of a good book is that it will have me thumbing to the back to look for more insight and detail in the footnotes. Likewise, the measure of a frustrating book is one where the footnotes are incomplete: there is at least one place where the text is repeated verbatim in the footnotes, another place where the footnote contains no attribution of the quote, and many places where the questions raised by the text are not helped by the footnotes. (On the other hand, there is an extended footnote from NT Wright that is worth the price of admission, all by itself.)
As BMac makes his way through discussion of apparently disparate topics like the military, the environment, religion, capitalism, and theology, we see the common thread that holds them all together: selfishness. The lie we Westerners tell ourselves is that we are generous, good people, concerned about conservation and sharing with the rest of the world. But the numbers and our hearts do not lie: we esteem our comforts and our security and our prosperity much, much higher than those of anyone else. Indeed, we will wrest our (so-called) blessings on the backs of those who lie just out of our sight (even if it means that we must impair our own vision to do so). We trade our comfort and security for someone else’s poverty and fear. To borrow a line from Ryan Sharp, “we tear the shirts right off their backs; and we donate cash for all they lack; fancy ourselves philanthropists; save justice for another day.”
So what are we to do? His prescription seems modest at first, though he sagely points out that it may be ‘simple’, but it is far from ‘easy’: we must stop believing the dominant story. That believing after Jesus means seeing the bankruptcy, deception, and ultimate impotency of the dominant system. It means recognizing the ‘curriculum’ that is all around us: advertising, games, movies, speeches, business, sports, and even religion. All of it captive to something much larger than ourselves, but which system is being undone by those who see something else– something that is both bigger and smaller than the dominant system– and who follow this different way.