Everything Must Change

by Len Hjalmarson

Review: Everything Must Change
Author: Brian McLaren
Publisher: Thomas Nelson, 2007
327 pp

As with The Secret Message of Jesus, I received an offer of a copy of the book from a marketing firm associated with the publisher.

McLaren’s latest contribution is around 300 pages. I’ve completed 200 since Monday. As with most of his books, there is a lot on offer here. Brian seems to feel this is his most important work to date, and in many ways this is an expansion of The Secret Message of Jesus, working out the implications on a global scale. This may also become the most controversial of his books, since he takes on some issues that define the very fabric of American life.

The strength of the book is the wide net he casts, yet he maintains an inexorable pace toward the center, like a drum beat with an army on the march. In many areas there is room for debate. And perhaps that is McLaren at his best anyway, prodding us into conversation, some of it uncomfortable.

Reading McLaren is sometimes an eerie, deja vue kind of experience. I feel like he is a half step ahead of me: thinking my thoughts and then inviting me a little further along. Sometimes he articulates the stuff that has been swirling in the back of my brain, connecting the dots that I didn’t yet connect, or adding another piece to the puzzle.

Brian’s quest is to discover the major social issues of our time. Because God loves the world and is intimately involved in it, the good news of the kingdom must somehow address these critical issues. Brian concludes there are three or four systems that are each relate to a crisis in our time: the prosperity crisis, the equity crisis, and the security crisis. The spirituality crisis cuts across all three, and each of these systems/crises is embedded in the “earth’s ecosystem.”

As we begin to think about change, Brian argues we must address the “framing stories” that make sense of our relationship to each of these crises. He argues that the stories we are telling are turning the cogs on the “machine” — the interlocking of these three systems/crises — and creating a suicide machine bent on the destruction of the earth. The crises revolve around..

1. Prosperity: fulfills our desire for happiness; feeds us with what we need and want.
2. Security: fulfills our desire for protection; feeds us with safety.
3. Equity: fulfills our desire for order; feeds us with safety.

The prosperity crisis is that our desires are insatiable and growth occurs at the expense of security and equity; our security system isn’t protecting us and we aren’t finding reconciliation; our equity system isn’t just because we don’t care for the common good but only ourselves.

system Brian uses a diagram to illustrate that this machine is set within the earth’s ecosystem (three cogs in a closed circle).

There are three kinds of narratives at work in our world:

1. Victim and revenge narratives that can escalate into warrior and revolution narratives or domination or imperial narratives.

2. Withdrawal or isolation narratives that are shaped by fear.

3. Theocapitalist narratives which turn markets into the “invisible hand” of Providence: blessing means obedience, poverty means alienation from God.

Brian argues that we need to reframe the stories if we have any hope in change for our world; the story that he thinks can reframe the whole is the kingdom story of Jesus. (read more…)

At the heart of the book is this question: If kingdom is the solution, what was the problem? In chapter ten Brian lays it out, comparing the “conventional” and the “emerging” view. Four questions (thanks to Scot McKnight for the summary):

1. What is the story we find ourselves in?

Conventional: creation as perfect, fall, determination by God to destroy creation and humans unless they are exempted.

Emerging: creation as good, humans rebel and fill earth — individually and as groups — with evil and injustice, God wants to save humanity but humans are “like sheep without a shepherd” and left to themselves they will “spiral downward in sickness and evil” (80).

2. What questions did Jesus come to answer?

Conventional: How can individuals be saved from eternal punishment?” and “How can God help individuals to be happy until then?”

Emerging: What must be done about the mess we’re in? “Mess” means general human condition and Roman conditions from which Israel wants liberation.

3. How did Jesus respond to the crisis?

Conventional: If you want to be among those who escape eternal punishment, you must repent from your individual sins and believe that my Father punished me on the cross so he won’t have to punish you in hell. This is the good news. (Basic quotation from p. 81)

Emerging: I have been sent with good news — God loves humanity, “even in its lostness and sin.” God invites us to turn and follow a new way. “Trust me and become my disciple, and you will be transformed, and you will participate in the transformation of the world, which is possible, beginning right now” (81).

4. Why is Jesus important?

Conventional: Jesus solves the problem of original sin (so they won’t go to hell). “In a sense, Jesus saves these people from God … from the righteous wrath of God which sinful humans deserve…” (81). It’s a gift; personal relationship with God; happier life on earth and more rewards in heaven.

Emerging: Jesus came “to save the earth and all it contains from its ongoing destruction because of human evil. Through his life and teaching, through his suffering, death, and resurrection, he inserted into human history a seed of grace, truth, and hope that can never be defeated. This seed will, against all opposition and odds, prevail over the evil and injustice of humanity and lead to the world’s ongoing transformation into the world God dreams of” (81-2). This is all a “free gift they receive as an expression of God’s grace and love.”

Brian reviews these positions, then concludes that the conventional view poses little or no significant challenge to the dominant framing story that directs our destructive societal machinery. In other words, we have made religion an opiate for the masses. The Empire sets the agenda. The conventional views leads to these problems:

  • 1. It is mostly a legal solution to a capital infraction against God.
  • 2. Little hope for history (or the future).
  • 3. It is dualistic: spirit vs. body.
  • 4. God offers his blessings only to the elect “and little or nothing (except condemnation) to everyone else” (84).
  • 5. God must destroy the world in order to save us from sin.
  • 6. The world will get worse and worse until the end.

Brian then resituates Jesus into the Roman story where the cross was the sign of domination and Jesus used it as the ironical response of power. He then (in chp 11) situates Jesus in Jewish framing stories: Zealots (violence), Pharisees (purity, obedience), Herodians and Sadducees (compromise with Rome), Essenes (withdrawal).

I was struck by the parallels to Brueggemann’s framework in this section, particularly his work in The Prophetic Imagination where he describes our modern “religion of immanence.” Brueggemann argues that the social purpose of a really transcendent God is “to have a court of appeal against the highest courts and orders of society around us…”

Can we get Jesus out of the box we have built that we use to justify our lifestyles, oppression of the earth, our pursuit of wealth apart from justice, peace by the use of force, etc ? McLaren postulates Jesus response to our caricature: “Don’t let your lives be framed by the narratives and counternarratives of the Roman empire ... but situate yourselves in another story ... the good news that God is king and we can live in relation to God and God’s love rather than Caesar and Caesar’s power” (93).

Like most of us, Brian grew up with the conventional view of the gospel, but worried about the pieces that never quite seemed to fit in the box. He shares a great analogy used by Steve Chalke: we have a jigsaw puzzle, but the lid is wrong. We try to use the lid as a guide to build the puzzle, and it’s impossible. We keep searching for other colors and shapes that aren’t there. We do the best we can with an impossible task. Eventually, some give up and throw out the whole thing. Others decide that the lid determines “orthodoxy” and zealously defend the lid. Others realize that loyalty to the picture on the lid rather than the pieces is nonsensical and eventually decide that the problem isn’t with the pieces, but with the picture on the box. At that point we begin to examine the framing story… (91)

Next I’ll consider chapter 23 and Brian’s look at “theocapitalism.” Meanwhile, you can listen/watch a video interview series with Brian at ALLELON or visit his new website DEEP SHIFT.

Part II: The Military Industrial Complex

Or.. the business of waging war. I had intended to leap ahead to chapter 23 in McLaren’s “Everything Must Change,” but I decided not to bypass chapter 20, 21. In these chapters Brian exposes the raw numbers that inhabit the practices of the American military-industrial complex.

1. Since 1940, the US alone has spent $5.48 trillion developing nuclear weapons. The “strategic sufficiency” — a metaphor framed by Henry Kissinger — continues in an arms race. We can now destroy earth ten times over.

2. The US spends $100 million per day “to keep its weapons poised and ready for use in a preemptive strike” (166).

3. 20% of the American fiscal budget is for military use.

4. Half of the US national debt is military-related ($2.9 of $5.6 trillion).

5. In 2003 the US military budget exceeded the next fifteen nations combined.

6. US spends 2 billion dollars per day on military.

Weapons are also a business; violence therefore becomes a industry. It was Robert McNamara who came up with the brilliant idea that the cost of producing arms could be subsidized by over producing for sale to other nations. (It took Jimmy Carter in 1976 to realize, “We can’t be both the world’s leading champion of peace and the world’s leading supplier of arms.”) Most of the buying countries of the surplus are non- democratic. “The purpose of the US security system is to maintain the inequity of US prosperity” (168).

If we invested 10% of the military budget in foreign aid and development, we alone could cover the basic needs of the world’s poor. The US is dead last among the most developed nations in foreign aid as a percentage of gross domestic product (165). McLaren argues that the US is not in a war on terror but in a war of terror. In the 20th Century … 43 million military personnel were killed in war; 62 million civilians.

McLaren closes this chapter with a clear contrast: “There are two roads, both claiming to lead to shalom: both can’t be right.” (175)

Related websites: Project Ploughshares is outstanding. Also visit Sojourners

Part III: Theocapitalism

Beginning in chapter 23 of Everything Must Change, McLaren takes on the economic system that dominates the western world: producer capitalism. He isn’t interested in capitalism in its abstract or theoretical form, but the particular form that has been shaped by.. and in turn shapes.. our particular story and context.

McLaren maintains that capitalism in the west is a religious system in its own right. That’s a bold statement. He borrows from the thought of Catholic theologian Tom Beaudoin and economist Herman Daly. Consumer media capitalism does for us what any religion does for its adherents:

1) it provides identity, helping us find or create our true selves

2) it provides a community of kindred spirits who share the faith

3) it develops trust by making and keeping advertising promises

4) it helps us experience ecstasy

5) it communicates transcendence through images and symbols

6) it promises conversion through a new life if we use xxx product or join the brand family

7) it promises fulfilment and “rest” for the restless heart

In a parody, McLaren summarizes the four spiritual laws of theocapitalism:

1. The law of progress through rapid growth — the one god of progress.
2. The law of serenity through possession and consumption — happiness through owning.
3. The law of salvation through competition alone — saved through competition.
4. The law of freedom to prosper through unaccountable corporations — etc.

He writes that “the gods of progress — with names like Higher Consumption, More Growth and Rising Productivity — inspire a hymn, called not “Holy, holy, holy,” but “Faster, Faster, Faster”.. (193) He cites the documentary The Corporation which describes the worst of corporate culture in its destructive and oppressive ethos as “psychopathic.” In chapter 25 McLaren describes a gospel response, with four laws to oppose those above. This chapter contains an interesting meditation on “the good life,” noting that measures of happiness in the west are in decline in comparison to many poorer nations. “According to a globqal survey, three of the four happiest people groups in the world are not rich consumers.” (211)

“Ironically, a materialistic culture doesn’t suffer from an over emphasis on material things, but rather on a strange process of their disappearance. For the man who owns twenty Ross-Royces, it’s not simply the cars, the physical objects themselves, that he gets pleasure from, but the number of cars.” McLaren is right that in this sense growth is an abstraction and is symbolic. (211)

He quotes Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper that happiness is indeed to be had from things, but only things that are contemplated, or appreciated. The pursuit of more things — to the point of “gaining the world” — actually distracts from this ability to appreciate what one has, and therefore guarantees unhappiness.

McLaren also references Rene Padilla. “Communism, he says, specialized in distribution but failed in production… Capitalism was excellent at production but weak at distribution.” As a result, it rewards the wealthy while the poor suffer. (220). From an ethical point of view, Marxists have tended to see the oppressed poor as morally good and the rich as morally degraded. Theocapitalists have done the opposite: they have tended to see the rich as morally god and the poor as morally culpable. As a result, they have tended to trust the rich and sought to increase their freedom, working against regulation and oversight. They believe in “trickle-down” theory, that the best hope of the poor is better profit margins. McLaren is right, however, that “trickle down” is not working, and the gap between rich and poor is increasing. In chapter 27 he shares some of the numbers.

The richest 1 percent of the world own nearly 40 percent of total wealth, and the riches 5 percent own 70 percent. Since 1950 global economic output has increased by 600 percent, but 80 percent of this increase was shared by 20 percent of the people. The USA is in the bottom 25 percent of all nations in terms of wealth distribution. In 1998 the richest 1 percent of US households held 47 percent of all household financial assets.

In chapter 28 McLaren makes an attempt to contextualize these figures and move beyond “shame and blame.” It is not the wealth of the rich that causes the poverty of the poor. It is systematized injustice that is at issue. He spends most of this chapter showing how Jesus continually subverted the system and refused to bow to its demands. In many parables, Jesus does the “wrong” thing. One of the best examples is Luke 14, where he invites the wrong people to the party.

Next: Conclusion..

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• © 2005-2008 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated in January, 2008