Review: The Secret Message of Jesus

by Len Hjalmarson

Review: The Secret Message of Jesus
Author: Brian McLaren
Publisher: W Publishing Group (Thomas Nelson)
237 pp

I received an offer of a copy of the book from a marketing firm associated with the publisher. With McLaren as the author, it was tough to refuse..

I had already heard a bit about the book, so I expected this to be NT Wright "light." It wasn't completely clear to me who were the intended audience, but it seemed it would not be those already in the emergent conversation. On his website McLaren notes that the book is aimed at "spiritual" but not necessarily religious seekers, members of nonChristian religions and leaders.

I believe this book contains the longest section of recommendations/testimonials I have ever seen. The authors include: Don Miller, Jim Wallis, Frederick Buechner, Phyllis Tickle, Anne Rice, Walter Brueggemann, Jason Clark, John Ortberg, Tony Campolo, Mark Mossa, SJ, Andrew Perriman and more. Everyone seems impressed, and one hopes they have good reason.

Somewhere someone attempted to place this book in the larger corpus of McLaren's work (was it bloggedyblog?)..

Where last year's A Generous Orthodoxy read as more of an overall doctrinal or post-doctrinal work, his new book posits the single idea that Jesus, in sharing His message with parables and questions to graciously protect those who would not want to listen (Matthew 13), was able to "hide" pieces and parts of the Gospel across the centuries from anyone unwilling to live for Christ in the Kingdom.

The Secret Message is divided into three sections, progressively building toward the conclusion. Part 1 is "Excavation: Digging Beneath the Surface to Uncover Jesus' Message." I like the metaphor of archeology. Over the years I have often felt that I am sifting through the rubble of centuries of accretion of doctrine and practice. I know that feeling is common. Digging is hard work.. often messy, unpredictable, and hot. But for those who persist, and McLaren invites us on the dig with him.. it can wonderful results. Getting beyond the rubble to the foundations.. not philosophically speaking.. but to the bones and essentials.. will be worth the effort.

Part 1 opens with McLaren's own story. At one time, he confesses, he believed that "Jesus message was personal.. it had nothing to do with politics." More recently McLaren has been convinced that His message is profoundly political. Even the term good news was used in the first century to describe the political announcements of the Emperor.. often described as "benefactor and savior" (10).

McLaren takes an approach not unlike that of Yancey in The Jesus I Never Knew. McLaren is doing the work prior to the on site dig: looking at the culture, the economic, social and political structure of the Jesus day. Setting the stage, he then considers Jesus' arrival on the scene, attempting to convey to modern - and sometimes numb -- readers the revolutionary nature of Jesus' ministry. Jesus brought "a shocking, disturbing, unexpected, inflammatory message," and his words and deeds were "primal, disruptive, inspiring, terrifying, shocking, hopeful." Jesus is "a revolutionary who seeks to overthrow the status quo in nearly every conceivable way." (33)

But if Jesus was a revolutionary, he wasn't the kind expected. Neither the Jews nor we moderns envision this kind of revolution. Jesus wasn't leading protests or attempting to overthrow the established order.. at least, not by power or advocacy or establishing a new political party. Jesus' revolution was a spiritual one, one that begins with inner change, like a stone thrown into a still pond, where the ripples spring eternally outward… the "butterfly effect?"

So, why "secret?" McLaren believes that in using questions and parables Jesus was hiding part of his message from those unwilling to listen with whole hearts. He didn't want to offer them the option of intellectual assent. Consider.. in the Gospels Jesus is asked 183 questions directly or indirectly. Of these, he directly answers three!

Consider Nicodemus, who observes Jesus life and hears His words and knows that he is in the presence of a deep Mystery. At some level he intuits that he is witnessing the passing of one world, and the birth of another. He is caught in the collision of two worlds. Not willing to risk his reputation, he comes to Jesus at night, desperate for clarity, hungry for answers. But Jesus, looking deeper than the outer journey, knows that the answers Nicodemus seeks lie are already written deep in his own being. Offering mere facts.. offering propositions won't help Nicodemus in the journey he needs to make. So he does what all great teachers do, He uses metaphor. In the face of Nicodemus desperation for certainty, Jesus becomes a poet; He talks about the wind.

Jesus' idea of church is not about giving people answers but, in fact, leading them into liminal space, where they will long and yearn for God, for wisdom and for their own souls. This has always been the only answer.

God knows we have enough "answer-men" out there. God knows we should know by now that we don't need more or better information.. we need transformed lives. We don't need more explications of mystery.. we need the ability to honor the mysteries we are given. We need personal encounter with the living .. and totally Other.. Lord of history. We need authentic expressions of faithfulness found in incarnated gospel communities.

But there is a secondary agenda in the "secret" message, and it is a congruency and a conflict that lies at the heart of the kingdom itself. It also shares a particular postmodern sensitivity to oppressive and totalizing narratives. I'll let McLaren describe it in his own words: For Paul, "the defeat of Christ on that Roman cross - the moment when God appears weak and foolish, outsmarted as it were by human evil - provided the means by which God exposed and judged the evil of empire and religion, and in them, the evil of every [one] so that humanity could be forgiven and reconciled to God." (71) McLaren continues,

"This understanding.. makes sense of a number of odd details of the Gospel story, such as why the resurrection of Jesus wouldn't be miraculously broadcaxt to millions as irrefutable evidence of Jesus legitimacy. Can you see it? As soon as the evidence becomes irrefutable, it takes on a kind of domineering power - the kind of force so effectively yielded by principalities and powers. Instead, in keeping with the kingdom of God's secret, paradoxical, and apparently weak power, the first in on the secret are a few women.." (71)

Part 2 is "Engagement: Grappling With the Meaning of Jesus' Message." Let's face it, the stories are familiar. So familiar that we may not be able to engage them on their own terms. Rather than allowing the stories to interpret us, it is we who interpret them. We hold the power. Have we colonized the text? Does our imperialism go so far?

It is really difficult to step outside our own interpretive frameworks and to hear the message afresh. I'm not convinced it is possible to continue with life as normal and truly discover the Jesus we never knew. This is the heart of the meaning of Liminality.. business "not" as usual. Most of us walk into a sanctuary Sunday by Sunday, hear the message, sing the songs, pray and then leave. We drift along on autopilot. Those around us confirm what we already know. One of the gifts brought by postmodernity, transition and insecurity is a questioning which reaches to the bedrock: what is the Gospel? What does it mean to be saved? Who is this man Jesus?

In section 2 McLaren defines the secret message as a scandal - if they only knew what Jesus was saying, what Paul was writing… Some did know, and some "got it." But along the way we've lost the jarring impact of the message, it's subversive and counter-cultural quality.

One of the empirical (partaking of the hegemony of Empire) understandings relates to what is possible, and what is not. Radiation therapy is possible; healing prayer is not. Apartheid is possible; integration is not. McLaren offers the example of racism and real change in South Africa; most would have not believed it possible. And if "the impossible" happens. .then the kingdom of God has come near. A sanctified imagination, grounded in the offense of the Cross and the reality of the resurrection, can grasp God's dream: His kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Now what about third world debt? Do we really want liberation, or do we like things as they are? Do we really want to pray, "THY will be done" or do we prefer to be in control? The kingdom of God comes through weakness and vulnerability, through sacrificial love (69).

In Chapter 10 McLaren states, "It was the most religious who seemed to get the secret message of Jesus the least, and the least religious who got it the most." That gives me pause. Is it still the carpenters and bus-drivers, the tax collectors and bikers who will enter the kingdom first? I hope this over-educated, too comfortable writer doesn't miss it.

McLaren is right.. the story is best told from the perspective of the ordinary, work-a-day Joe. The professionals often have too much invested in the status quo, and are too often blinded by their narrow frameworks. Yet, we all have the opportunity to be "secret agents of the kingdom." Chapter ten closes with the story of Carter, a Washington taxi-driver and a secret agent of God's kingdom. Chapter 13, "Getting It, Getting In" is the gospel in a nutshell, a few stories to illustrate what it means to believe and receive the good news.

Part 3 is titled "Imagination: Exploring How Jesus' Secret Message Could Change Everything." Part 3 opens in chapter 14, "Kingdom Manifesto." McLaren asks a set of questions, and the central one is this: "what is a truly good life?" McLaren offers the beatitudes and the sermon on the mount. Pretty classic stuff.. but in essence, still pretty revolutionary. McLaren continues to contextualize and does a good job of moving beyond conventional morality, proceeding nicely to chapter 15, "kingdom ethics" and the need for disciplined practices. Sounding like a good Anabaptist, McLaren writes that,

"The Kingdom of God.. is a revolutionary, counter-cultural movement-proclaiming a ceaseless rebellion against the tyrannical trinity of money, sex, and power. Its citizens resist the occupation of this invisible Caesar through three categories of spiritual practice. First.. generosity.. second.. prayer… finally.. fasting." (134) McLaren next addresses anxiety, which of course drives so many of the fleshly practices and compulsions we experience.

In chapter 16 McLaren approaches "the language of the kingdom." McLaren is looking for contemporary language to translate the kingdom language. He proposes six metaphors: 1) the dream of God; 2) the revolution of God; 3) the mission of God; 4) the party of God; 5) the network of God; 6) the dance of God.

Chapter 17, "the peaceable kingdom," is a mini-manifesto on non-resistance. And if McLaren has been articulating a center (centered vs bounded-set ecclesiology), then chapter 18 takes a crack at articulating "the borders of the kingdom." Offering a series of stories, McLaren describes two possible approaches, then offers a third way: "not exclusiveness and rejection on the one hand, and not foolish, self-sabotaging inclusion on the other hand, but rather purposeful inclusion… the kingdom of God seeks to include all who want to participate in and contribute to its purpose, but it cannot include those who oppose its purpose." (167)

Chapters 19 and 20 discuss the future of the kingdom and the harvest of the kingdom, respectively. Chapter 20 and 21 are two of McLaren's more poetic pieces, and he relies much on CS Lewis (The Problem of Pain, The Weight of Glory, Mere Christianity). "The ultimate hope beyond death is the hope of resurrection, which is the hope of consummation, the hope of sharing in 'the renewal of all things.'" (193)

Chapter 21, "Seeing the Kingdom," closes the book. "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom" (Mark 4:11). McLaren describes how he once could not distinguish the cries of common birds, so all the notes mixed together. But once he learned the cry of the blackbird, bluebird, or bobolink, he could identify the notes. Perhaps the secret message of Jesus is like that. Until then we have an unnamed longing. McLaren quotes Lewis again:

We do not want merely to see beauty.. we want something else.. to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to become part of it. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so.. (198)

Glimpses of the kingdom come to us unexpectedly.. and we are incurably wounded with the desire to see and know more. These moments of seeing and knowing can't be conjured or created, they can only be received (201).

There are two appendices:

1.Why we didn't get it sooner?
2. Plotting Goodness

McLaren lists seven reasons to answer the first question. The most important have to do with our loss of connection with our Jewish roots, and with the fourth century Christendom compact, described in detail by Stuart Murray and other writers.

"Plotting goodness" is a challenge to continue to explore the secret message, and in community with others. It is also a practical challenge to live it out, with some suggestions as to how to begin.


While this is not a scholarly work, it is a great introduction to a Kingdom theology. And while not scholarly, it is based on sound scholarship, and there are enough footnotes and quotations to allow motivated readers to delve deeper into McLaren's sources. Perhaps McLaren has done the best work possible here, moving us beyond the dualism inherent in western Christendom. In the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupery:

"If you want to build a ship,
don't drum up the men to gather wood,
divide the work, and give orders.
Instead, teach them to yearn
for the vast and endless sea."

Note: A chapter was omitted from the final publication in concern for finished length. That chapter is on "The Prayer of the Kingdom." Get it HERE.

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• © 2005-2006 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated in June, 2006