The fourth question that is “transforming the faith,” according to author and speaker Brian McLaren, is the question of who Jesus is. This may seem to be something of an odd question because Christianity itself is dependent on the Person of Jesus. If we don’t know who Jesus is then we probably don’t know what Christianity is either. In fact, this is precisely the point McLaren is trying to make in this section of his book. He writes, “just saying the name ‘Jesus’ doesn’t mean much until we make clear which Jesus we are talking about. We must face the fact that many different saviors can be smuggled in under the name ‘Jesus,’ just as many different deities can be disguised under the term ‘God’ and vastly different ways of living can be promoted under the name ‘Christianity'” (p. 119). He is, of course, absolutely right about this, but simply making the observation that many different interpretations exist of who Jesus is doesn’t automatically make your interpretation the right one. We must now take a closer look at what McLaren claims the “real” Jesus is like.
I found it interesting that McLaren chose this section to respond to two of his critics. I would venture to guess that he thought this was necessary due to the fact that most of what he writes in this section is, for the most part, orthodox Christianity. Since he doesn’t seem to have much to reinvent about Christianity when it comes to Jesus, he decided to let his critics create a controversy for him. The first critic that he quotes is none other than Seattle pastor and verbal machine-gunner Mark Driscoll. While McLaren doesn’t reference the fact that Driscoll is the one saying it or where he says it (as best I can tell it comes from an article in a 2007 issue of Relevant Magazine), he spends a considerable amount of space addressing Driscoll’s comment about Jesus, which is as follows:
In Revelation, Jesus is a prize-fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the 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.
It should be patently obvious after an initial reading of this quotation that Driscoll is taking just a little bit of dramatic license to make a serious point. Although McLaren responds to Driscoll throughout the remainder of the chapter as if this is the only thing that Driscoll believes about Jesus, I have read enough of Driscoll in other places to be confident that Driscoll is well aware of the kind, compassionate, and forgiving Jesus to which McLaren desires to point his readers. Driscoll is reacting to what he believes is a “sissified” caricature of Jesus, just as McLaren is reacting to Driscoll’s over-bearing “prize-fighter” caricature of Jesus.
The second critic that McLaren seeks to answer is John MacArthur. Although, again, McLaren does not address MacArthur by name, he does include a footnoted link to the radio show where MacArthur can be heard giving his views. (However, the link in the book is incomplete and does not work. The actual link and interview can be found by clicking here.) The words of MacArthur that particularly catch McLaren’s attention and are reprinted in his book are these:
The only reason Jesus came was to save people from hell…Jesus had no social agenda…[He didn’t come to eliminate poverty or slavery or]…fix something in somebody’s life for the little moment they live on this earth.
Unlike the first quotation from Driscoll, this one from MacArthur is not an isolated example and it is not meant to shock or be a response to a false caricature. John MacArthur has said similar things to this numerous times and in numerous ways, both in sermons and in books. In fact, I think this area is one of MacArthur’s blindspots as a teacher and pastor. I am fairly certain that MacArthur would not be happy in the least if his own congregation took his words to heart and stopped being salt and light to the Los Angeles community where his church is located. If, as MacArthur says, the ONLY reason that Jesus came to earth was to save people from hell, then those very same people—having been rescued from hell thanks to the atoning work of Christ in their behalf—have absolutely no responsibility in applying Christianity to the world around them, because, according to MacArthur, Jesus Himself had “no social agenda” or any desire to “fix something in somebody’s life.” Let me be clear that I am not saying that this is what John MacArthur teaches his congregation, but it is, in essence, what he is saying to them without directly teaching it. This is not to say that McLaren’s version of the “social gospel” is not as equally flawed in its approach, but it does point out the limitations in making overly dogmatic statements about why Jesus came and what His mission was.
Because this part of the book was somewhat manufactured and obligatory as McLaren sought to defend himself against his critics, I found it to be mostly futile and self-contradictory. While McLaren takes it upon himself to point out what he believes to be two mistaken beliefs about Jesus, his own beliefs (or at least how he chooses to reveal them) are just as incorrect and incomplete as the ones he seeks to refute. In his response to MacArthur, McLaren uses the gospel of John to show that Jesus was indeed concerned about far more than saving people from hell, but in the process, he reveals a few blindspots of his own.
One of the key problems in McLaren’s hermeneutical (way of interpreting the Bible) method is exposed on page 128, where he writes that we must be careful to not “construct and solidify our understanding of God before seeking to understand Jesus, rather than letting Jesus serve as the Word-made-flesh revelation of God’s character.” While this statement may seem to be a diligent and proper way of interpreting the Bible, it can also be just as dangerous as completely ignoring the New Testament revelation of Jesus as God. We must always remember (as we discussed last week) that the Christian Bible is notonly the New Testament. The Bible shows us a God of wrath, as well as a God of love. It shows us a God of mercy, as well as a God of justice. The problems begin to show themselves when we look at these terms—love and wrath, mercy and justice—as antonyms, rather than descriptions of the One, True God. Can God be loving and full of wrath at the same time? Yes. Can He be both merciful and just? Of course. If He wasn’t, we would be still be dead in our sins and trespasses. While Jesus should certainly serve as the “Word-made-flesh revelation of God’s character,” He should not be used to radically alter the Old Testament picture of God, but to, instead, enhance and fine-tune it. The problem with McLaren’s (and Driscoll’s and MacArthur’s) view of Jesus is not that it is necessarily wrong, but that it is incomplete and out-of-focus.
As McLaren makes his way through the gospel of John, he makes many interesting observations along the way. I have long since come to understand John—similar to McLaren—as a story of re-creation. I think the retelling of the Genesis story in the prologue (1:1-5) is a dead giveaway to this. It is relatively easy to briefly skim over this gospel and find the compassionate, loving, and tender side of Jesus. But when we look closer at John’s gospel, we find some images of Jesus that don’t seem to fit McLaren’s simplistic portrait of Him. In Chapter 2, we are confronted by Jesus not only cleansing the temple by overturning the tables of the moneychangers, but also by the confrontational fact that Jesus “made a scourge of cords” to use to drive them out (2:15). In other words, Jesus didn’t just happen to enter the temple and find something to get upset about, He made the scourge before He entered with the pre-meditated intention of driving them out. This isn’t “meek and mild” Jesus; this is “indignant and wrathful” Jesus. Predictably, McLaren gives this event almost no notice in his exposition.
He also doesn’t deal with the hard issue of the famous passage about the woman caught in adultery (8:1-11). Although this passage is disputed by textual scholars and may or may not have been an original part of John’s gospel, McLaren treats it as original and so shall we. McLaren refers to this event as Jesus’ “subversion of a stoning,” but a close reading of this passage can hardly be called a subversion. In fact, Jesus didn’t override (subvert) the Old Testament law at all; He enforced it. Notice that when the woman is brought to Jesus as one who was “caught in the very act of adultery,” the scribes and Pharisees who bring her forth remind Jesus of the what the Law of Moses states to be her punishment.
In Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22, the Law clearly calls for the adulteress to be put to death. But it also clearly states that the adulterer should be put to death as well. In other words, both man and woman were guilty before the Law if they were “caught in the very act,” and the Law demanded that bothshould be put to death. Jesus never disputes this fact. Read that last sentence again. Jesus never argued that the woman should be set free. In fact, he agreed with the Law of Moses and with the interpretation of that Law by the scribes and Pharisees. He tells them to stone her. But He also adds that the one who is “without sin” in this matter should be the one to heave the first stone of judgment. Jesus knew that He was being tested. He also knew that for the judgment of the Law to be fulfilled, a man needed to be present as well.
Now, it is sometimes said that what Jesus meant here is that anyone, anywhere who has sin in their lives is never capable of rendering judgment on anyone else. This is preposterous. If this is the case, then no one could ever, anywhere, for any reason, be judged by anyone else as being guilty of a crime, because both individuals are sinful. If this is what Jesus meant, then He certainly did nullify the entire Law of Moses in one sentence. In fact, He entirely nullified any standard of law that exists here in earth, because laws must necessarily be enforced by sinful people because all are sinful. However, I think it is obvious that Jesus doesn’t mean “without sin” in the sense of being completely sinless in every way, but “without sin” in regard to this matter of the woman being caught in the act of adultery. Jesus knew that the scribes and Pharisees were looking for ways to discredit Him and He didn’t give them the satisfaction of falling for their trap by either letting her go without rendering judgment or by allowing her to be stoned without the man being present. This fascinating scene is a complex example where McLaren’s “Jesus of love,” Driscoll’s “Jesus of power,” and MacArthur’s “Jesus of saving from hell” are all present at one time in one Jesus, i.e., the biblical Jesus of both the Old and the New Testaments.
And this is really the take-home lesson of these two chapters of A New Kind of Christianity. It is most definitely a fact that Jesus is the crux and fulcrum of the entire Bible. It is also true that without a biblical view of Jesus, we will never rightly understand the real message of the Scriptures. I could not agree with McLaren more on this point. He states that the way many evangelicals have been taught to read the Bible has “become the precritical lens through which they see everything, causing them to see some things that aren’t there and rendering invisible many things that are” (p. 136). Again, agreed. But the problem with going around and pointing out everyone else’s “precritical lens” is that it leaves you blissfully unaware of your own. When you pride yourself as being free of the limiting views of Jesus held by the Mark Driscolls and John MacArthurs of the evangelical world, you will find it increasingly difficult to accept that you have your own limiting views that need to be dealt with. Paul’s warning is just as applicable to us as it was to the first century church in Corinth: “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).
To be continued…