Jesus, The Gospel, and The Church
I’m going to lump these three together because they were actually fairly short reads and didn’t throw a whole lot of new ideas out there that hadn’t been introduced in the first three questions. I think the rest of the book is much shorter sections. Something I didn’t really expect is how much McLaren builds from one chapter to the next. On the one hand that means that if you reject some of his earlier stuff – particularly the first three of a Jewish rather than Greco-Roman reading of the Bible, a library rather than legal reading of the Bible, and a re-picturing God through a nonviolent revolutionary Jesus rather than the other way around – then you’ll likely continue to reject his later stuff. On the other hand, it really a powerful, logical and internally-coherent systematic theology. I’ve also written on my definition on What is the Gospel? before so I don’t really need to respond to his section on that once again here and I’ve written a fair bit about the Church.
Question 4: Who is Jesus and Why is He Important?
I don’t think McLaren really said that much new here. He primarily talked about how we all have different ideas of who we want Jesus to be and we really pay attention to those. Maybe our Jesus is the innocent little baby Jesus of Christmas, or maybe he’s the angry table-flipping Jesus. Maybe he’s the Republican Jesus, or maybe he’s the Democrat Jesus. Maybe he’s the pro-slavery Jesus or the anti-Semitic Jesus or the anti-Muslim Jesus or the prosperity Gospel Jesus or the anti-science Jesus. And so on and so on and so on. There have been a lot of versions of Jesus throughout history – I even am just finishing up a course called Jesus Through the Centuries which is basically the different interpretations of Jesus through church history.
The rest of the section is spent refuting two versions of Jesus, starting with the prize-fighter Jesus most famously represented by Mark Driscoll’s claim that emergings want:
to recast Jesus as a limp-wrist hippie in a dress with a lot of product in His hair, who drank decaf and made pithy Zen statements about life while shopping for the perfect pair of shoes. In Revelation, Jesus is a prize-fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and a commitment to make someone bleed. That is the guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.
This is such a ridiculous statement on so many levels. The most important for me being that we did beat him up. We beat him up so badly we killed him. And he didn’t do anything about it. Is Driscoll actually completely forgetting how central Christians have always seen the death of Jesus, especially conservative Christians with penal substitution atonement theology such as Driscoll himself. The couple other problems are about the reading of Revelation. For one, the blood mentioned on Jesus is his own, established earlier in the book, not the bad guys who he has slaughtered. For a second, the sword is coming out of Jesus’ mouth, not his hand, so it makes it hard to imagine it as a literal sword being used to destroy people and you realize it makes a lot more sense to mean his words/teachings. Third, do we really believe that Jesus changed his mind on the whole nonviolence thing? That he just did that once, decided it didn’t work, so next time he’s going to kill people instead?
The next chapter leads into the Gospel section where McLaren quotes another of his critics who said that Jesus came to save people from Hell and that’s it. Any time we add anything else to it, that’s not the real Jesus. That’s even more ridiculous and I don’t think I even need to say anything more than “read the Gospels”.
Question 5: What is the Gospel?
As was evident from the previous section, McLaren goes on to refute the common statement that the Gospel is about avoiding eternal conscious torment. One distinction that often comes up in my classes is that of the Gospel of Paul vs the Gospel of Jesus. The Gospel of Paul, so the theory goes, is the predominant Protestant doctrine: justification by grace through faith. The Good News is that we don’t have to go to Hell if we believe the right things. Although McLaren does point out ironically that even Paul doesn’t once use the word Hell. The Jesus Gospel was the coming of the Kingdom of God.
The major value of this section was McLaren interpreting Paul through Jesus instead of the other way around. He starts out with how he himself was first challenged with this question. When asked, he responded as a good Protestant, basically tracing the “Roman Road” of the 6-line Grec0-Roman narrative which if you try hard enough you can force into the book of Romans. The guy he was talking to asked him whether that was really what Jesus defined as the Gospel, and challenged him to interpret Paul through Jesus (considering we say he’s God and all) and not the other way around which primarily means ignoring what Jesus taught and did other than of course dying as our substitutionary atonement. And if you read the books that we conveniently call the Gospels, you’ll see that the Gospel there is the coming of the Kingdom of God which means stuff like loving your enemy, healing the sick, and taking care of the poor and the widow. McLaren spends a while working through Paul from this framework and it really does help make some sense of his writings that from the Greco-Roman framework don’t always seem to fit together. This frustrates me even in my classes because most people sort of ignore those proclamations of the Kingdom of God, good Protestants that we are, and when we’re forced to deal with them we say that they are talking about a still-future Heaven.
Question 6: What is the Church?
In light of this reframing of Jesus and the Gospel to more concrete and less about escaping torment, it isn’t surprising what role is given for the church. The church in McLaren’s mind is primarily about helping people become more Christ-like, not about having an exclusive religious club of those who don’t get stuck in eternal conscious torment for believing the wrong things. I agree completely: the church is supposed to be the bride of Christ acting like and carrying out the will of Christ, which includes all that stuff in the Gospel about loving your enemies, healing the sick, taking care of the poor, the sick, the widow, welcoming the outcast etc.