The Common Good
June 2006

No Secrets

by Jim Forest | June 2006

I wonder if there are not many Sojourners readers who were dismayed with Brian McLaren’s essay in the March 2006 issue (“Found in Translation”)?

I wonder if there are not many Sojourners readers who were dismayed with Brian McLaren’s essay in the March 2006 issue (“Found in Translation”)? McLaren believes there is a “secret message” in the gospel. The idea of secret messages certainly has its appeal—witness the huge sales of the novel The Da Vinci Code. Decoding Jesus’ secret message has been the project of various gnostic movements from the early days of Christianity until now. One of the startling things about authentic Christianity is that there is no secret. Participate in the ordinary life of the church. Receive and try to live the gospel. There is no inside information that will be revealed to you as you enter into deeper circles of initiation and learn all the secret handshakes.

McLaren is put off by Jesus’ vocabulary and would like to revise the gospel text to make it fit his linguistic preferences. Scrap kingdom of God; instead let’s have dream of God, the revolution of God, the network of God, or the wish of God.

None of them rings any bells for me, but possibly revolution is the worst. Have we not had enough revolutions to be a bit cautious about their benefits? No one has yet been able to reliably count, even to the nearest million, how many perished in the Russian Revolution.

Jim Forest
Alkmaar, The Netherlands

Brian McLaren responds to Jim Forest’s letter:

Jim Forest: I wonder if there are not many readers of Sojourners who were dismayed with Brian McLaren’s essay in the March 2006 issue (“Found in Translation”)?

McLaren believes there is a “secret message” in the gospel. The idea of secret messages certainly has its appeal—witness the huge sales of the novel The Da Vinci Code. Decoding Jesus’ secret message has been the project of various gnostic movements from the early days of Christianity until now. One of the startling things about authentic Christianity is that there is no secret. Participate in the ordinary life of the church. Receive and try to live the gospel. There is no inside information that will be revealed to you as you enter into deeper circles of initiation and learn all the secret handshakes.

Brian McLaren: Jim, there’s a brief note about the term “secret” in the title of my book (The Secret Message of Jesus) on my Web site (www.brianmclaren.net). Please be assured (as the book’s introduction makes very clear) that I’m not interested in any kind of gnosticism! Sadly, the fact that most Christians would not identify “the kingdom of God” with “the gospel” suggests that to many Christians, Jesus’ message is still something of a secret. But the point of the title is that the gospel’s hiddenness (clothed in parables, signs, wonders, etc.) is an essential part of its nature. This theme is explored in a number of chapters in the book, and it is also explored beautifully in a soon-to-be-released book by a friend of mine, Pete Rollins, called How (Not) to Speak of God (Paraclete, 2006).

Also, I should add that Jesus does speak in Matthew 13 of a certain hiddenness to his message. But again, be assured, I agree—the last thing we need is any kind of neo-gnostic nonsense.

At heart, I’m an evangelist, and as you suggest above, part of my reason for using the word “secret” is to connect with readers of The Da Vinci Code and similar books. I’m hoping to interest them in the real message of Jesus—which is, I believe, far better than either Dan Brown’s readers or popular “Religious Right” piety may realize.

Forest: As Abraham Lincoln put it: “It isn’t the passages in the Bible that I don’t understand that bother me. It is the passages that I understand only too well.”

McLaren: Yes. This is exactly what I’m getting at in my book. The Jesus of The Da Vinci Code or the Gospel of Thomas is tame compared to the wild figure in the canonical gospels. The same could be said of the Jesus of popular civil religion.

Forest: McLaren is put off by Jesus’ vocabulary and would like to revise the gospel text to make it fit his linguistic preferences. Scrap kingdom of God; instead let’s have dream of God, the revolution of God, the network of God, or (here we get truly wishy-washy) the wish of God.

McLaren: This feels quite unfair. I nowhere say that I am put off by Jesus’ vocabulary—not even close! Instead, I wrote a whole book to explore the rich meaning contained in his vocabulary of the kingdom! I certainly don’t want to revise the gospel to fit my own personal preferences—my concern is that our conventional approaches to Jesus’ message have already done just that. Nor did I say to “scrap” the kingdom language. Rather, I think that the term “kingdom” had an intensity and political electricity in his setting that it doesn’t immediately have in our own. For missional purposes, I argue in the book, when we’re seeking to proclaim the kingdom to those who have not yet seen it (which is one of my primary motives as an evangelist), we need to find a variety of metaphors. John’s gospel seems to set the stage for this kind of translation, as he renders “kingdom” as life, eternal life, and life to the full. Paul, I believe, similarly develops a number of translations for the kingdom.

For whatever reasons—perhaps my lack of clarity, or perhaps the fact that this was a brief excerpt from the whole book—you seem to have misread me on some points, and then misrepresented me in your letter. Also adding to the misunderstanding might be the fact that I didn’t write the “so last-century” subheading; that was added by the magazine editors. Perhaps that put you off and made it hard to read the chapter fairly.

Forest: None of the three rings any bells for me, but possibly revolution is the worst. Have we not had enough revolutions to be a bit cautious about their benefits? No one has yet been able to reliably count, even to the nearest million, how many perished in the Russian Revolution.

McLaren: Yes, I believe I mentioned that very danger of violent associations in reference to the term “kingdom” itself—since plenty of people have been killed in the name of “kingdom” too. Your strong reaction to the chapter shows that the message of the kingdom is deeply important to you, and on that we definitely agree. Thankfully, I’m already receiving a flood of emails from people who are describing the book as liberating, moving, and even life-changing—from spiritual seekers and people who have previously been turned off by churches and Christians, to pastors and church leaders. If you ever do decide to read the whole book, I think you’ll find that our understandings of Jesus’ message have more in common than your first reaction to the chapter would suggest.

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