Book Review on Brian McLaren’s “The Secret Message of Jesus”

This is a guest post, reprinted with permission, Review and rant by Jarrod McKenna.

What’s emerging out of the “emerging church movement”?

Ever wonder what will emerge out of the ‘emerging church movement’?  Watching from the very different context of Australia it’s interesting to observe some of the heat Brian McLaren’s new book “The Secret Message of Jesus” is receiving on the very different (and sometimes bizarre and disturbing) landscape of American Christianity.  While the title sounds like might be flaky text you’d find in a New Age book store along side crystals and tacky objects exploiting aspects of indigenous cultures, it is in fact one of the best pop communications of some of the most exciting biblical scholarship around.

Like many of us, Brian with the title of the book has sought a ‘Mars hill moment’ with all the interest around The Da Vinci Code. Brian also asks us to look at the plank in our own eye and consider if the interest in Dan Brown’s book is “an experience in shared frustration with the status-quo, male dominated, power-orientated, cover-up-prone organised Christian religion” and a public expression of a longing for a vision of  “Jesus that does him justice.”

Let me indulge in a personal story (mid-book review) for just a moment. I work as a nonviolence educator in prisons, schools and the community as well as being a trainer for activists.  Earlier this year I was a guest speaker with Australian Peace and anti-nuclear legend Jo Vallentine,  (Jo is a joint Nobel Peace Prize nominee so needless to say I was the ‘littler note’ speaker but excited by the opportunity none the less) at an event put on by Greenpeace and the Wilderness Society. After our address and workshop, a well-respected activist approached me to ask:

“Jarrod you said, ‘If your wanting a Jesus radical enough to transform the world, you wont find it in the pages of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Gandhi suggests to us that we will, like him, find this Jesus in the pages of Matthew’s gospel.’  So why was this Jesus not found in my experience of church?”

If your reaction to this earnest question is along the lines of –“cause Gandhi’s wrong,” or “you can’t expect the church to be like Jesus” or “Jesus isn’t about transforming the world anyway”– then Brian McLaren’s book will be an interesting look at a differing perspective. Grounded in the Scriptures, sound scholarship and grassroots experience. If you are often in the situation of being asked (or asking) such questions you will find a fellow traveller seeking to follow Christ with a deeper integrity in the “Secret Message of Jesus.” Addressing our changing culture, the on going war(s) and ecological disaster we are living through.

In my thoroughly biased opinion, Brian is a popularist par excellence. By that I don’t mean that McLaren tickles the ears of his listeners with things they want to hear. In fact Brian (Like all who start to live Christianity not divorced from Christ’s invitation to let our love for God be manifest in our actions towards our neighbour and even enemy) is unpopular in many circles.  All you have to do is enter his name in a search engine to find that this is a man who is starting to experience the ‘blessings of being insulted, persecuted and having all kinds of false things said about him’ because of his commitment to a gospel that can transform the world.

By popularist I mean McLaren seems to have a gift for bringing the prophetic insights of biblical scholars whose exciting work too often sits on the academic margins of the church into the consciousness of the mainstream. (It’s here where I reveal my bias.) In “The secret Message of Jesus” Brian is drawing on theologians and scholars that have shaped my ministry and the Peace Tree church community I’m a part of.  John H. Yoder, Walter Wink, Tom Wright, Walter Brueggemann, Stanley Hauerwas and one of my mentors and professors Lee Camp, amongst others are all present in this all-star line up. Brian has a gift for digesting and making accessible these thinkers in a way that makes this book so easy to put in the hands of a diverse spectrum of people.

More than just a primer for some ground braking scholarship “The Secret Message of Jesus” is a primer for the very message of Jesus, and discipleship.  It provides an understanding of the ‘kingdom of God’ so authentic to Jesus and the historical context he was incarnate to, that reading it you can feel “with God all things are possible” including a transformed world. This world transformed Brian wonderfully calls “God’s dream for creation” and “the ecology of God.”

It’s interesting to note after Brian McLaren was arrested for protesting on behalf of the poor some in the ‘emerging church’ are questioning are they part of the same movement. One of the houses in the church community I’m a part of is named after a man I often quote and run workshops on, Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.. MLK’s faithfulness to the way of Christ meant that he was arrested more than 30 times while many ‘moderate’ church leaders labelled him “unchristian” for his Christ-like actions that challenged the injustice of segregation, racism, war and poverty. Like MLK, what most impresses me about McLaren is that he dares to believe the Gospel addresses the most pressing issues our world is facing. Not only does he believe this but he is willing to trust God enough to take risks, costly risks, which will make him unpopular with those who have a vested interest in the unredeemed Powers, both inside and outside the church.

A conversation I was having with a friend, many consider a leader in the emerging church movement in Australia, has me wondering maybe we should all question are we part of the same movement as Brian McLaren. Dave Andrews made the interesting comment that some of the things emerging out of the “emerging church” are not new but rather the rebirthing of a faithful impulse seen throughout the centuries. “The Secret Message of Jesus” places itself in the counter flow of God’s kingdom, (or as McLaren so helpfully paraphrases “God’s revolution”) amidst the mainstream safeness of Christianities that look like, bless and baptise the unredeemed kingdoms of this world.

Brian McLaren’s new book suggests that the Secret Message of Jesus is the message of the ‘kingdom of God’. If this is anything to go on, what could be emerging out of the emerging church movement is an “emerging kingdom movement.”  This might be less sexy than post-modern repackaging of doing church differently now with candles and digital projectors or providing privatised spiritualities to accompany the destruction of creation.  But unlike these options what the “Secret Message of Jesus” points to is good news. Dr. M.L. King often preached what we need is to “recapture the spirit of the early church.”  Brian McLaren in his newest book has joined this faithful impulse and recaptures this spirit of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, the Benedictine’s, the Waldensians, the Franciscans, the Anabaptists, the early Quakers, the early Pentecostals and the Catholic Worker Movement to name just a few.

This book is for all who want to follow Jesus in the invitation to join him in what one of my biggest influences, John H. Yoder called “The Original Revolution,” the good news of God’s kingdom at hand.

Guest Author Bio – Jarrod McKenna


Jarrod McKenna’s passion for sharing Christ’s nonviolence in schools, prisons, churches, the community and activist circles has had him dubbed a “peace evangelist” and awarded the Donald Groom Peace Fellowship for his work with young people for ecological and social justice. He is the founder and creative director of  “EPYC” [Empowering Peacemakers in Your Community]. He’s also a founding member of The Peace Tree Christian Commune in one of his cities lowest socio-economic areas. There his sisters and brothers remind him that while he might rant about ‘creation spirituality’ he’s yet to grow anything in the garden.

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