The Secret Message of Jesus
By Chris Carpenter
CBN.com Program Director
CBN.com - DENVER, Colorado -- Listed as one of America’s 25 most influential evangelicals by Time Magazine, Brian D. McLaren is a pastor, author, and sometimes controversial innovator among Christian leaders, thinkers, and activists. He is perhaps best known for his key role in the Emergent Church movement.
In his latest book, “The Secret Message of Jesus” (W Publishing Group) , McLaren poses multiple questions at the outset that imply the Church may have distorted Jesus’ core message. In other words, what if Jesus was right but we have somehow misinterpreted what He said. McLaren contends that Christians need to take a good hard look for answers to these questions even if they alter our faith.
CBN.com Program Director Chris Carpenter recently sat down with McLaren to discuss whether Christianity should be about saving souls or saving the world, his contention that religion often serves as a tranquilizer, and the increasing presence of the Emergent Church.
Point blank, what do you think is the secret message of Jesus?
We tend to think that Jesus’ message was primarily a message about how to go to heaven after we die. But as I go back and really try to be true to the Gospels and true to the New Testament, it is really clear that that wasn’t the primary question Jesus was trying to answer. That’s an important question and a very important question in Protestant history because Protestants ended up with a different answer than Catholics to that question. But, for example, in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to pray, “May your Kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” He doesn’t teach us to pray, “May we go to Heaven, may we leave the earth.” So, I think this message is about how God’s will can be done on earth. I think in that way we see Jesus as launching a new movement in the history of the planet.
In your book, you describe the real message of Jesus as being final or even terrifying. Those are some interesting word choices for the subject matter at hand. Why do you use these types of words?
Well, I think if we take Jesus’ message seriously, it tells us that everything has to change – our way of doing politics, our way of doing economics, our way of interacting with the environment, our way of dealing with people of other religions, our way of dealing with friends and family members with whom we have conflict. From one dimension of life to, of course, the whole range of our human experience, Jesus is telling us that we have to rethink everything. In fact, that’s what repent means – it means rethink everything.
In doing research for this interview I discovered that you describe religion as a tranquilizer. What do you mean by that?
Here’s an example: hypothetically, if we have ninety percent of the people living in incredible poverty and ten percent of the people living in unimaginable wealth, religion could either motivate the ten percent to say, “Hey, we better change and start helping the ninety percent”, or it could make the ten percent happy and feel, “Oh, God chose us to be rich and we don’t have any responsibility,” and make the ninety percent say, “Well, we’re all going to heaven soon, so it will all be fine later on.” So, religion can make us become pacified and accommodate to the way things are instead of being willing to rethink and seek transformation.
So with that said, should Christianity be about saving souls or should it be about saving the world, the environment, and everything else around us?
To me, this is one of the great examples of how the message of the Kingdom shows us that we’re stuck in certain polarities. Because, in a way, you can’t save souls without saving the world. If the world is continually bringing people down, we have to improve the world. On the other hand, if you try to save the world without paying attention to individuals -- let’s say you wave the magic wand and the world was made perfect, but all the people were a mess. They would ruin the world again. So, to me, this is where the message of Jesus brings this incredible integrity – it integrates that. It forces us to say that I, as an individual have to change, but that doesn’t stop with me, at least, the transformation of society.
In your opinion, did the Kingdom of God fail when Christ was crucified?
No, and that’s a great question. How the crucifixion and resurrection relate to the message of the Kingdom are incredibly important. The way I see it is the Cross is absolutely essential to the message of the Kingdom. If I can do a little Biblical exposition, in John 18, at the trial of Jesus, Pilate says to Jesus, “Are you a king?” Jesus answers saying, “Are you saying this or did someone else tell you?” And then Pilate says, “It’s your Jewish friends who brought you in to me.” And Jesus said, “My Kingdom is not of this world”. He doesn’t say, “My kingdom is not in this world”. In fact, just one chapter earlier, He talks about how we should be in the world but not of it. “My kingdom is not of this world,” He says. “If it were, my disciples would find it.” And I think one of the many things the Cross demonstrates is that the Kingdom of God is different from every other Kingdom. It doesn’t triumph by killing other people and shedding their blood. It triumphs by the King shedding His blood.
So, if this is all scriptural, why then are so many people in the church missing the point?
I think the reasons for that are very, very complex. I think they go back to a terrible anti-Semitic term early in Christian history. I think they relate to Christianity dis-embedding from its Jewish roots and defining itself in relation to Greek philosophy that it didn’t do to the Jewish Old Testament narrative. And I also think it’s because we’re all sinners and we like to find ways to domesticate the message and the call to repentance is never an easy call.
Very interesting. I want to talk about the Emergent Church a little bit. Obviously, you are right at the point of the sword on this topic. There are many people out there who have absolutely no idea what the Emergent Church is, so as someone at the forefront of all this, let me ask you, what is it?
Let me give you two different angles. The first would be to say that for the last ten years or so there have been a lot of Christian leaders in the United States, but also around the world who are realizing that there’s a big cultural shift going on. People use words like post-modern. I think a better word is post-colonial. It also could add the shift from an industrial to an information age or a shift from a print to a digital culture. All of these different shifts are happening about the same time. One way to describe the Emergent conversation – it is Christian leaders trying to take seriously these shifts and see what they have to say about life administering, evangelism, and all the rest. Another way to say it though is very relevant to what we’ve been discussing, because it involves theological rethinking. That’s very much an evangelical and protestant study – let’s go back to the Bible and let’s try to understand the message of Jesus. And let’s try to take very seriously what that would mean. Let’s not be bound to the way things have been, but make sure that we are trying to be faithful to Jesus’ teaching of the New Testament.
In your opinion, why is the Emergent Church so important today when the traditional church is so firmly rooted and entrenched?
Well, first of all, I’m very happy for the strength of the traditional church. But, the younger you go in demographics, the higher you go in education, and the farther you go from a conservative, Republican political status, we find the Christian faith is less and less credible. And whereas some people in some parts of the country can think their churches are stronger than ever, nationwide we are actually losing ground.
Well, a lot of that has to do with marketing. I think it’s all in the way churches are marketing themselves. I mean its sad commentary, but it’s true.
I think you’re right. A lot of people don’t know that the Southern Baptists have lost two million members and that is the largest Protestant denomination in the country. In many of our denominations, Assemblies of God included, if you take away immigrant and minority growth, the actual core of white membership is declining and aging very rapidly. So, evangelicals have thought they were immune to the problems that the mainline churches have for forty years, but I think people are starting to realize that American Christianity in both its liberal and conservative forms face similar problems.
With that said, do you think that the Gospel, as we know it, needs to be reinterpreted for this era we’re in right now?
I wouldn’t say that the Gospel needs to be reinterpreted for this era, but I would say that we always have to be open to the possibility that our current and recent articulations of the Gospel are not either true to scripture or have been distorted to some degree. For example, for hundreds and hundreds of years in Christian history, Christians were into relics. They wanted to visit the finger of St. Stephen or a lock of hair of so and so. Well, later on we kind of realized that was kind of silly and that we don’t need to do that anymore.
As an author, what do you want people to take with them? What do you want people to get out of the Secret Message of Jesus after they read it?
Let me give you the top two things in reverse order. Number two, is when I hear people say, “I’m a Christian and I’ve really been struggling in my faith and I’ve been really thinking that maybe I was just going to have to drop out.” And then they say, “I read your book and it’s given me hope that I really can be a Christian.” That means an awful lot to me. So, that’s the second most important thing. And the most important thing, at heart I’m an evangelist, so when I find people are reading the book and they’re saying, “This man Jesus is intriguing, I want to know more about him.” And they’re drawn to investigate and they eventually have confidence in Jesus and want to follow him, that’s the most important thing.
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